Archive for March, 2011

25
Mar
11

Salvationists should read this

Australian Adam Couchman has just posted a review of one of Samuel Logan Brengle’s classic books, Helps to Holiness.   I think there is a real need for online reviews of old classics, so I’m glad to see Adam taking a look at this one by Brengle.

It’s a great review, acknowledging Brengle’s significant contribution, but also noting some of the shortfalls of his holiness theology – notably his approach to sin as a substance, his underestimation of the gracious and active pursuit of humanity by God, and the elevated role that experience plays in his theological method.

In spite of these shortcomings, Adam’s conclusion is that

Christians should read this book. Salvationists should read this book. But we should read it how Brengle intended it to be read; as a pastoral and devotional aid. Whilst Brengle had some training in academic theology he didn’t write academic theology. He wrote practical theology. It’s not perfect, but it is helpful.

This kind of critical appreciation for Brengle is sorely needed.  I find people either dismiss him, or put him on a pedastal.   I hope others will follow Adam’s lead on this.

Go here to read the review.

17
Mar
11

Notes on Spirit and Institution in the Church


How are we to describe the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions? Is it Spirit against institution?  Spirit in tension with institution?  Spirit enlivening institution?  Spirit in institution?  Some combination of these?  I’m wrestling through this question right now in my dissertation, and was blessed to have an opportunity to lecture on the topic last week at Wycliffe.  The following thoughts are taken from my my lecture notes.

The church is necessarily institutional.  An institution is simply a stable set of social relations practiced among an identifiable group of people.  In order for the church to persist in time and “take up space” in history, it must be institutional.  We must beware the cultural baggage we bring to the term “institution.”  We live in a time of extreme skepticism regarding social institutions.  We as Christians have been formed in a society which encourages us to believe the myth that we should, as autonomous individuals, resist all institutional authority.  This is, of course, impossible and impracticable.

We must avoid the errors of triumphalism and spiritualism.  A triumphalist church presumes upon the Spirit’s presence and blessing, identifying the church with the Spirit.  A spiritualist church denigrates the institutional reality of the church in favour of a disembodied “spiritual” church.

The Spirit and ecclesial institutions must be distinguished but not opposed, just as nature and grace must be distinguished but not opposed. As nature is the milieu of God’s gracious action, so also human institutions are the milieu for God’s pneumatic / charismatic action.

We cannot identify the Spirit with ecclesial institutions. The Spirit stands over and against ecclesial institutions, as Christ stands over and against the church as its Lord and judge.

We cannot oppose the Spirit to ecclesial institutions. There is no “non-institutional” place where the Spirit is “really” at work in people’s lives.  Ecclesial institutions are not the enemy of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit condescends to work in human institutions, as “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).

The church can never presume upon the Spirit, but must always humbly call upon the Spirit, trusting in the promises of Christ (John 14:15ff) and the Father (Acts 1:4). The institutions in themselves are not endued with power; yet we know that Christ has promised the Spirit to the church, and we know that the church cannot avoid an institutional existence.

While ultimately the Spirit is not dependent upon institution, in the concrete life of the church in history, the two are inextricably interrelated (because the church is institutional in all aspects of its life).

As with human agents, the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions is not a zero-sum competitive game; the Spirit is the creator and animator of the Church’s institutions in such a way that they remain truly human institutions, while their institutional character is taken up and elevated into something more than a human institution – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God.

In this way, all ecclesial institutions are charismatic. Just as humans were created in such a way that we cannot reach our divinely-ordered telos without divine grace, so the church as a visible, institutional reality is created in such a way that it cannot be what it has been created to be without concrete bestowal of grace.

Nevertheless, the gifts of the Spirit, which preserve, uphold, and elevate the Church’s institutional life are no guarantee of her faithfulness; the Spirit is not merely a stamp of approval, or a “divine positive energy”, but a divine Person, who carries out judgment  and brings conviction of sin (John 16:8-11), as well as giving life.

Because ecclesial institutions are truly human, they are caught up in the web of sin. Therefore the institutional character of the church can also be turned into something which it is not intended to be; it can become corrupted (and it often is).

In other words, the Spirit’s presence will include acts of both mercy and judgment, wrought in the historical life of the Church.  We can trust that the Spirit will be among us, but that should encourage a sure trust and confidence in God, and a humble watchfulness on our own part (rather than presumption on our part).

All the more reason to embrace the reformation call for a church which is reformed and always reforming. A constant repentance – an institutional turning away from sin and toward God – should mark the church’s corporate life.


04
Mar
11

Doctrine in The Salvation Army Tradition

From 2007 to 2010, the Commission on Faith and Witness (Canadian Council of Churches) engaged its members in a dialogue regarding the role of doctrine in the life of the church.   The fruits of this dialogue are reported in the current issue of Ecumenism, published by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.  Each commission member was asked to articulate their tradition’s answer to the following questions:

  1. What is dogma or doctrine in your tradition?
  2. What are considered to be doctrinal statements?
  3. Who can make doctrinal statements?
  4. What is the relation between doctrine and revelation?
  5. How does your tradition view the first seven ecumenical councils?
  6. How does your tradition understand the reliability of Scripture?
  7. What are those shared convictions without which the Church’s mission would be seriously impaired, or even become.

While ecumenical dialogues often aim at producing some sort of consensus statement, members reported that during this particular dialogue, it became clear at the outset that no consensus would be achieved.  The membership of the commission is very broad, including Catholics, Orthodox, historic Protestants, radical reformation, and evangelical traditions.  Some of these traditions are committed to holding fast to formal statements of  belief (creeds and confessions), while others have historically been opposed to creeds of any kind.

In an introductory article, Gilles Mongeau, Paul Ladouceur, and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast note the general commonalities that they identified in the process:

Every member Church holds to the necessity of some doctrine, explicit or implicit, as a reference point.   In all cases, one or more documents exist which lay out this doctrine, though the authority and form of these documents varies greatly. In all cases, Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience interact in some way in the emergence of doctrine.  Similarly, the role of some form of reception by the community of the faithful is a strong component of all of the traditions represented.  Finally, the presenters of the papers agree that the fullness of truth resides in God alone, and that the truth of doctrines is eschatological, that is, oriented to a future complete fulfillment or plenitude.
“Introduction to the Working Papers on Doctrine,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 5-6.

While I wasn’t part of the actual discussion, I was able to participate by revising and expanding the Salvation Army contribution to this publication, originally written by Kester Trim, and entitled “Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition.”   It is interesting to consider doctrine in the SA’s life via a comparison with the role it plays in the life of other traditions.   Some of our observations that are relevant to the above:

The Salvation Army is not known for placing a particular emphasis on doctrine.  This is not because doctrine is unimportant for Salvationists, but because The Salvation Army has customarily emphasized evangelism and service, rather than theological scholarship.  Nevertheless, The Salvation Army’s official doctrines are viewed as essential to its corporate life and witness.
“Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 36.

The Army is an interesting ecumenical partner in this dialogue, as it is on many issues, because it treats doctrine as essential, but tries to avoid doctrinal controversy.  It wants its doctrine to be clear, but Salvationists haven’t wanted to spend much time developing their doctrinal tradition.  It envisioned its brief 11 articles as a minimalist list of essentials, which would allow the SA to be “an evangelisitic force free from the entanglements of doctrinal controversy” (Ibid., 37).

Of course, it is not easy to remain aloof from doctrinal controversy!  First of all, the Army’s doctrines are clearly Wesleyan, and therefore anti-Calvinist:

In these brief 11 articles of faith, one can see the seminal Wesleyan themes of total depravity (Article 5), universal atonement (Article 6), justification by faith (Article 8), assurance through the witness of the Spirit (Article 8), and a strong emphasis on sanctification (Articles 9 and 10) (Ibid., 37).

Secondly, from the perspective of “implicit doctrine,” the obvious point of controversy would be the sacraments.  Even here, a large part of Booth’s motivation was to avoid controversy.

The Army’s non-observant stance on the sacraments had its historical precedent in the tradition of the Society of Friends, but was also justified in part by the above-mentioned desire to avoid theological controversy (since the sacraments have often been a matter of theological dispute in Christian history).  It was not Booth’s intent to disrespect the practice of other traditions, nor to make it a matter of dispute. Moreover, Salvationists have never been prohibited from from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in other traditions where they are welcome, and are free to be baptized if they feel it to be of importance (Ibid., 37-38).

Avoiding controversy is a noble aim, but very difficult to achieve in practice.  I would suggest that recent sacramental statements of the Army have lost this early irenic tone and approach, and have become much more controversial than Booth would have liked.  Also, I think one needs to be careful that a desire to be non-controversial does not become a justification for avoiding deep theological discussion, and meaningful engagement with ecumenical partners.




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