I am going to begin this episode by stating baldly a particularly radical claim of which I have become convinced; we are in the midst of an epochal shift in global Christianity, the likes of which probably rival the Arian controversy of the third century. The crises of the third century gave us the Nicene Creed, the very definition of Christian orthodoxy over and against all other perspectives. How can today’s controversies rival that? As I hope to demonstrate in three separate but interconnected episodes, there are multiple dynamics at work and these dynamics force us into what I firmly believe is a Providential interaction with and reliance upon other orthodox (traditional) Christians.
The Threat of Parochialism
A recent plunge into pastoral care books of a clinical nature proved to me that not merely the demographic but the intellectual epicenter of the Church is shifting toward the global south; Western intellectuals are increasingly unaware of the Enlightenment’s (now Postmodernity’s) failings and dogmatic about its claims. In Western Europe and North America—what was until quite recently referred to generically as “Christendom”—realignments of loyalties both within and across communions are ongoing. Scholars that would have pilloried one another as heretics in previous generations can now be found sharing lecterns, tacitly if not fully acknowledging the legitimacy of their rivals’ theological perspectives. At one such event I attended, that bulldog of Southern Baptist doctrine Al Mohler quipped, “I may believe my Roman Catholic brother is wrong to pray to saints, but in the heat of a cultural firefight, I am more likely to ask him to put a good word in for me than argue with him.” Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. The question is, will Arius or Athanasius triumph in this round of Church history?
As we emerge from the season of Christmas where we sang the familiar carols that not only praise but teach us about Jesus—“veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity!”—it is good to reflect that Arius not only waged his war against the incarnate Son of God at the Council of Nicaea amongst the “professional theologians,” but on the streets of the Roman Empire, using his musical gifts to write songs that train the singer toward his own idiosyncratic and unfaithful interpretations of Scripture. Knowing the power of music to catechize when sermons are long forgotten, revisionists of all stripes have worked hard to replace hymnals that praised the God of Christian orthodoxy in orthodox ways using orthodox language with ones that subtly (or not so subtly) push their own peculiar and thoroughly non-biblical agendas.
How many hymnals have come out in your lifetime? Why was a new one needed? Was it the pressing demand for more organ music or new liturgies? Most congregations I have served are resistant to change, not demanding of it. More importantly, most congregations are unaware of the long-term dangers posed by such hymnals, and will cheerfully sing songs espousing theologies they would run their pastor out of town for preaching; at least two congregations in the NALC with whom I interviewed last year used the ELW hymnal, which is thoroughly revisionist in its liturgies, hymnody and pseudo-translation of the Psalms.
An Arian Nation?
Arius believed Jesus was a particularly worthy human being who had divinity bestowed upon him at his baptism. He flatly denied the text most of us heard read in church on Christmas, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If being a Christian means accepting the clear meaning of Scripture according to plain reason, Arius was not a Christian. I might have a beer with the guy, but I wouldn’t commune him, ordain him, or plan an ecumenical worship service with him; we don’t worship the same God and I believe his witness to be a false one, spiritually harmful to himself and the world.
This month we celebrate the week of prayer for Christian unity, and as we do, it behooves us to ask a question; is a person a Christian because they claim to be or is more required? How much agreement is needed for us to work together? Mormons claim to be Christians, but they are theologically Arians; in their belief system, Jesus was born from a perfectly normal (one is tempted to say Greek or Roman) physical union between God the Father and Mary (virgin no more). His obedience earned him godhood of his own, something we can aspire to through our obedience. Jesus is not “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and so our salvation ends up being something we must earn. All heresy ends in some form of works righteousness.
I would cheerfully serve alongside Mormons at the local food pantry, but I would not worship with them, despite the fact that they believe themselves to be Christians; there is not enough common ground between us for us to praise God together. In fact, I would seek to winsomely evangelize them, teaching them the true gospel, of which I am not the inventor, but a mere grateful recipient.
Evangelical and Catholic Opportunity
As we approach the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have reached the crucial juncture of this installment: the opportunity for witness. Many wearing collars and filling the pews of American churches are functionally or explicitly Arian. Any variant of “Jesus is mainly a great example for us” is the false theology of Arius. Surely Jesus was an example for us, but since He was without sin, He is an example we cannot hope to emulate. Jesus’ fundamental significance to us is that He is “the incarnate deity,” the spotless Lamb of God, both our High Priest and the Sacrifice rendered, and we need to hear this reality preached to us again and again merely to resist the maelstrom of our culture that seeks to blow us this way and that.
The unity we are fundamentally to pray for as we enter the week from January 18th, the Confession of St. Peter to January 25th, the Conversion of St. Paul, is the unity spoken of in Ephesians, “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God [so that we might] become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13) The witness we must give is evangelical. The faith we must witness to avoids parochialism by being Nicaean or catholic—“the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)
Of course, Ephesians begins speaking of the hope of such witness by saying, “It was He [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith.” There is a practical side to the question, “with whom shall I partner in ministry?” This series will explore the answer to that question more thoroughly in future installments.