Friday, May 3, 2019

A Post-Christendom, Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union - Post 4/4

Last year I published (through MediaCom) a short commentary on the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. This is the fourth of four posts, each of which consist of the commentary on a selected Paragraph from the Basis. The first post - which includes a bit more detail about the purpose and structure of the book - can be found here and the second post is here and the third here

If this whets your appetite, you can order the book through MediaCom or CTM Resourcing. There's also a short article about the book in the NSW/ACT Synod magazine, Insights.



Commentary
This is the second of the two paragraphs which, in my view, have been assigned an especially unhelpful heading in the officially published editions of the Basis. ‘Scholarly Interpreters’ has led to a serious neglect of the full range of issues the paragraph raises. It completely bypasses all “those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word”. It obscures the other witnesses specifically mentioned in this paragraph: evangelists, prophets and martyrs. The actual theme that runs through this paragraph is that of the various ministries which help the Church to “confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds”. I think a more appropriate heading would be ‘Contemporary Witnesses’.

At the same time, to note the wider themes of the paragraph is not to gloss over the significance of what is said about the ministry of scholarship. Research by Andrew Dutney into the background to this paragraph has highlighted that the commitment to scholarship was included to ensure that in learning from Scripture, we did not limit ourselves to the example and insights of earlier readers, specifically those of the Reformers who were mentioned in the previous Paragraph.[i]

It emerged out of a recognition that between the Reformation and the twentieth century, there had been some immensely significant developments in the scholarly engagement with Scripture. Many of these developments made serious claims upon the church’s attention. Hence the second sentence of this paragraph and its reference to the “inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry” of “recent centuries” and the note of gratitude that “God’s ways with humanity…are open to an informed faith”.

Note the location of scholarship. It is not the academy per se, but the church. What is imagined here is a ministry within the church by those who seek to use their scholarship to help the church better hear “God’s living Word”. The scholarship implied here is not that which begins with the scepticism towards faith and religion characteristic of the secular academy. Rather it is scholarship which begins with the expectations formed by Christian convictions, specifically the Christological convictions that lie behind the phrase ‘God’s living Word’. Take those convictions away, and the meaning and significance of this paragraph is fundamentally distorted.

The purpose of having an informed faith is not to convince ourselves that we’re smart. Nor is it to claim that the intellectual challenges to Christian faith can be easily overcome. At least one of the purposes of being informed about our faith is that we “sharpen our understanding of the will and purpose of God”. But this is not achieved merely by scholarship. This paragraph suggests that such a sharpening of our understanding occurs “within a world-wide fellowship of Churches” and “by contact with contemporary thought”. The paragraph also suggests the relationship with contemporary societies will “help [the Church] understand its own nature and mission”. These are striking and important claims, but they are not novel.

Christian thinkers have long recognised that there is insight and wisdom beyond the church which have claims upon the church. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, that whatever from the philosophers “which happen[s] to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them”.[ii] More charitably, John Calvin (1509-1564) declared that if God “has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic mathematics and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance.”[iii] And John Wesley (1703-1791) produced, and continually revised, a Compendium of Natural Philosophy to help the Methodist community be intellectually aware.

In this process of ‘sharpening its understanding of the will and purpose of God’, the Uniting Church relates itself to scholarship, the world-wide fellowship of Churches, contemporary thought and contemporary societies. Perhaps the acute challenge of this network of relationships is one which echoes what was observed in the commentary on Paragraph 5. Today when we talk about the ‘worldwide fellowship of Churches’ we are acknowledging communities in Asia, the Pacific and Africa which inhabit social, cultural, and intellectual worlds significantly different from those of the West. The insights which they learn from their contemporary societies and their traditions of thought will add to – and often be in tensions with – those which the Western Churches received from the “literary, historical and scientific enquiry of recent centuries” in the West.

It is also from those contexts that we might be challenged to overcome our neglect of evangelists, prophets and martyrs. It is an understatement to say that the Uniting Church has been nervous about evangelism. Perhaps we need to let go of our anxieties generated by the bad press which many styles of evangelism have understandably generated. To embrace the task of evangelism is not to commit to supposedly smart techniques with their frequent hints of manipulation. It might well start, instead, with learning from the basic confidence in the gospel which characterises so many of the Churches beyond those in the West.

Perhaps we have not been entirely deaf to the witness of prophets, especially those who have properly confronted us with our easy capitulation to materialism, our preoccupation with property, our tolerance of patriarchy, and our complicity in the colonialism which has wreaked havoc on Australia’s First Peoples. Prophets discern when the church neglects or distorts the core claims of the faith, and when it lives in outright denial of those claims. By their very nature, prophets are irritating, idiosyncratic and frequently disruptive of the church’s complacency. They and their message must, however, be heard.

To be called to acknowledge the witness of martyrs often generates similar anxieties as those associated with evangelism. In today’s world martyrdom easily conjures up the fanaticism of a suicide bomber. It is also true that only a small minority of Christians have been called to martyrdom. But those of us living in Australia must pause and reflect on the fact that in many part of the world today, notably the Middle East, some Christians are being martyred not because they are fanatics, but simply because they are Christian. With their example before us, we can only pray that we be ready “when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.” 





[i] See Dutney, Where Did the Joy Come From? 25-27.
[ii] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 64
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol 1, trans. Ford Lewis Battles and ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 275.

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