Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Presenting Issue in its Time

Thanks to John Eby for this item from Paul Zahl (see photo). Again, I find evangelical Episcopalians to be in a situation somewhat parallel to Reformers in the ABC.

We all have to think about church-dividing issues, or rather the substance of those theological convictions that must be insisted on even at the cost of unity.
What are the “here I stand’ issues today? What are the distinctions that confessing evangelicals are bound to make, even if they override the eirenicism that is also always proper to Christian people? When and where do we say to our sisters and brothers in the communities and denominations we serve: Thus far and no further?

For me as an Episcopalian, the question is actual. I can’t slide under it or get around it. Among the Episcopalians of ECUSA, a body that has always been per mixtum, the question has been forced upon us. One used to say, just focus on the Gospel of grace and justification, focus on the Lordship of Christ, and all the church-political issues will find their proper solutions. Don’t go to war over human sexuality or Prayer Book reform or ecclesiology. The Spirit will lead us into the truth regarding penultimates if we stay secure in the Ultimate, the One thing Needful (Luke 10:42). Or as we often hear: stop squabbling and focus on mission.

I used to think that was true. I now think it is a half-truth.

What impresses one in Church history is the way that presenting issues of the Christian movement are often Gospel issues in hindsight. For example,the Arian controversy looks abstract if you just read the texts. But it proved to be a Church-defining moment for us. The Donatist schism could appear secondary if viewed solely from the vantage point of its original protagonists. It was a fight over valid and invalid Orders. But it proved to be a Church-defining moment.
Or take the presenting issue of the English Reformation. Why, as Bishop Ryle asked so forcefully, were our reformers burned? The answer is not: on account of justification or for the sake of the freedom of the Word. Rather, our reformers were burned because they rejected transubstantiation. They were burned for rejecting the mass. We could almost say, in contemporary terms, that they were martyred for the sake of Prayer Book reform.

And now, in the mainstream denominations like my own, what is the presenting issue? It is human sexuality, and, in particular, the practice of homosexuality. This, I used to believe, was a secondary issue. It would all be sorted out in the Church if we were just faithful to the call of the trumpet on the sustained note of sola gratia. But I have changed my mind. More is involved than the issue as such. What is involved is the authority of the Bible to deconstruct a raging self-will incited by the Zeitgeist. What is involved is a form of self-assertion that refuses instruction. The agenda on the left is this: Behold, ye shall be as gods.

For Reformation Christians, the assumption behind the plea that homosexual practice should be accepted by the Church is the anthropology of the contention that “because this is the way I am — i.e., because I had no choice in my orientation — the Church has no right to make a judgment.” This passionately contended option is Arminian from stem to stem. The assumption is that God cannot and must not accuse our human nature when itis bound, but only when it is free. Yet Reformation Christians believe that no human being is free ab initio. We are only free after we have been freed! No one has chosen to be a sinner in his or her own nature. Yet we are. None of us chooses to be compulsive or passive-aggressive or addicted or free-floatingly enraged. Yet we are. The Law accuses us in our inherited human nature as well as in the sinful acts expressed by that nature. Lex semper accusat.

Confessing mainliners like myself can no longer deny that what we wished to regard as a secondary matter involves the primary matter of self-arrogation. “Behold, ye shall be one god’ (Genesis 3:5; Romans 1:25). I wonder what the next church-dividing issue will be. It is bound to come, maybe, by the year 2525.

–The Very Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl, Modern Reformation March/April 2001, p.56


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