A New Reformation
by The Rev. Dr. Rob Smith, Oblate OSB
Special to Virtueonline
We who have prayed for a new Reformation in the Anglican Communion should remember that reformations are a messy, untidy business, and reformers themselves are an odd and uncomfortable lot. Their eyes see into the middle distance and be they bold, bright-eyed, or brittle, their range of vision, though not limited to the near horizon, is not yet adapted to the rolling ages glimpsed by God's prophets who see with kingdom eyes.
Reformers, reform now, seeking redress, justice, mishpat, that Old Testament sense of fair play, that includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, and keeping promises. Prophets with kingdom eyes seek a kingdom yet to come and when they have the courage they walk their walk on that sea of many peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.
It is the long view of history past and confidence in grace not only present, but future, that keeps me from leaping upon the separatist bandwagon. I know some of our "reformers" personally and I know enough about them to be seriously concerned over the testimony that they bear.
I am in fact not at all impressed, but rather quite the opposite. There are some general characteristics that some of them seem to share: often a problem with authority that finds a convenient justification in the misuse of authority within The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Often they are marked by a feeble ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) informed more by Western entrepreneurial attitudes and congregationalist polity (the local parish in splendid isolation is the basis for understanding the Church), than by either Holy Scripture or tradition. They share a fight or flight mentality that smacks of spiritual and emotional immaturity. On the other hand affluent western Anglicanism is badly infected by a neo-gnosticism that is most dangerous.
This neo-gnosticism believes that any way will do, that there is neither evil nor judgment, that salvation is not necessary, and it treats God as though He were a projection of the human mind. One qualification regarding evil must be made clear. For them evil resides in those who would thwart their egocentric ambitions. TEC is rapidly becoming an apostate church, but the answer is to be found not in flight or fight, nor is it to be found in taking refuge in knee-jerk orthodoxy.
One has to remember that those on both sides of the conflict are most often products of some of our vapid American theological institutions. "Let God be true, and every man a liar!" The time has come, not for taking refuge in evangelical platitudes, but for a genuine reformation of Anglican doctrine that is capable of leading us into the future, not merely seeking redress for the ills of the present time.
By the way, seeking redress is a necessary and honourable thing and worthy of our attention and energy. History teaches me that the sycophants of neo-gnosticism are only a vapor, a foul but transitory emission, a footnote in Church history illustrating the willfulness of a self-proclaimed prophetic movement of the spirit. Their claim that through them God is doing a new thing is so preposterous that it is absolutely breathtaking.
Now is the time, not for the tickling of ears, but for a fresh restatement of old majestic themes, ancient doctrines made vibrant in new hearts and lives and given voice in the strong poetry of the emerging post-modern age.
Truth is ever ancient, ever new. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. The God-man once dead is fully alive and our humanity is caught up into heaven with Him. He is both transcendent and gloriously immanent through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Now is the time to do business with the One God whom we worship in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance.
It is only we who are the orthodox confessing Church, who are anointed by the same Spirit. We are the ones who have the mind of Christ. Certain fundamentals need to be restated: First and foremost the doctrine of salvation including a new look at the sovereign majesty of our Holy God, and an understanding of the nature and reality of humankind. Who is God? Who is man? What is sin? What is the meaning of redemption?
None of these things can be taken for granted. Alexander Pope in poetic rhyme gave voice to the strong bias of the old Enlightenment. "Presume not God to scan, the proper study of mankind is man." Neo-gnosticism twists this to the snapping point, "Presume not God to scan, the proper study of God is man." The fatal misunderstanding of neo-gnosticism is that humankind is the measure of all things both human and divine. The result is not only theological egocentricity, but an egocentricity of praxis that holds firmly, not to "We do what is right," but "What we do is right because we choose to do it."
This leads to an intolerable arrogance. Both the heresy of doctrine and the heresy of praxis that are the subjects of concern in John's first epistle are now defiantly embraced. Jesus is no longer God in the flesh, and the love of one's brothers takes a distant second place to the exercise of power.
Two things should be noticed. First, neo-gnosticism is leaving the landscape littered with wounded individuals, parishes, and dioceses. Do not underestimate either the pain and desolation, or the terrible sense of rejection and alienation among the faithful people of God. Second, this beginning of a new Reformation is not only reactionary, but to some extent is already theological.
Nevertheless the initial characteristics of this reformation are of necessity backward looking. We are after all founded upon the prophets and apostles, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone. We believe what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. We see also a reaffirmation of the authority and primacy of Holy Scripture. This is as it should be. But what is needed far exceeds these backward looking affirmations.
God grant us grace out of this present maelstrom, the wit, the heart, and the single-minded dedication to so grasp these fundamentals that we can restate the vitality of our faith for several generations yet to come. If we only live in a moribund theological past without re-incorporating our historic faith in our hearts in the midst of the turmoil, we may be able to address the need for justice, mishpat, today, but we will not be able to provide a viable theological affirmation for the future.
Our God in not just a God of the past, nor just a God for the present, but a God who must be meaningfully communicated to our children and our children's children. The mark of true Reformation is not just that it faithfully recaptures the past, but that it leads into an understanding of God's self-revelation that will stand firm for the ages yet to come.
---The Rev. Dr. Rob Smith is the Rector of the Church of the Apostles in Coppell, Texas. He is the author of Leading Christians to Christ: Evangelizing the Church. He and his wife Diana share in short term missions in Uganda.
www.churchoftheapostles.net http://www.churchoftheapostles.net/ St. George and the Dragon* http://anglicanissues.blogspot.com/ Morning By Morning * http://domanselm.blogspot.com/
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