Thursday, January 30, 2014

Things that are Killing Anglicanism: Theological Liberalism

Liberalism is the number one thing that is killing Anglicanism in North America, in my view. Defining liberalism is a difficult task, especially considering that it is a political philosophy but which has entered into other spheres. I will use the following definition, "a movement in modern Protestantism that emphasizes freedom from tradition and authority, the adjustment of religious beliefs to scientific conceptions, and the development of spiritual capacities." Whilst the purpose of my brief post here is not to expound what I perceive liberalism to be, I think it useful to provide this framework to show how I understand the term. I will focus, as will be found evident in my assertions below, on the notion of "freedom from tradition and authority", particularly tradition, which I would characterize as a discomfort with the tradition of the Church. It must be stated plainly beforehand that the Anglican tradition does not have an issue with tradition in the sense that some Enlightenment-influenced Protestants do. Tradition is an authority in the Church but it is not infallible nor on the same level as Holy Scripture.

Another issue is one that is often found amongst those who have left the national Church for some other body. The usual thinking among that crowd is that the national Church is exclusively liberal. However, for a person coming from my point of view there is as much liberalism in a body such as the Anglican Church in North America, whilst it must be acknowledged that this body has done a better job of maintaining Christian teaching on holy matrimony, it has not maintained the whole corpus of Christian doctrine and tradition.

I have chosen a few representative issues to paint a picture of the liberalism that exists in all Anglican churches. You will notice a similarity between three of the four things which I have chosen to discuss, that being that they are a rejection of the natural order. The natural order is the underlying organization of things by God's Almighty design. This has to do with our sexual desires and the organization of our families and Church.

Let's begin by looking, briefly, at some of the issues.

1. Homosexuality

This is obviously the most common thing that comes to mind when someone utters the word "liberal"; it is the cause of the most recent schisms in the Anglican world and likely not going anywhere, considering our culture's rapid acceptance of this lifestyle. The decision by some Christians to accept same-sex relations as normal and "holy" is one of the more serious abandonments of Christian doctrine in this century (and the past). The issues here are manifold. First, this is not simply a rejection of Scriptural truth (need I mention "the seven verses"?) but also a rejection of the natural order of things. In regards to the first point, that of rejecting Scripture, this is not simply a rejection of Scripture's teaching on homosexual activity, but a certain way of reading Scripture, which leads to the rejection of other aspects of the natural order for the same reasons. The typical way of thinking associated with this approach is to regard Scripture as a culturally-sensitive document, i.e. to the first century, and only certain portions of the same are relevant for us today. Obviously, we need not dwell too long on the errors of that sort of thinking. We must remember that the Scriptures are infallible and our only rule of faith.

Homosexuality is a form of idolization of the same-sex and cuts to the core of the natural order, which is based on sexual complementarity (for the means of reproduction). It goes without saying that sexuality is primarily biological in nature, meaning it has an explicit purpose of producing offspring. No one doubts that when the male and female engage in sexual activity the possibility of new life is there. This is not possible in homosexual activity, for obvious reasons. This divorces sexuality from its natural purpose (without going into the birth control issue). These are some of the reasons why homosexuality is condemned in Scripture.

Now, how does embracing homosexuality clash with Scripture? Besides blatantly contradicting it, the more serious issue is the hermeneutic necessary to arrive at this conclusion. If only certain bits of Scripture are true and relevant, who decides which portions are and which portions are not? As we shall see, this is equally an issue with the ordination of women, when we decide that one portion of Scripture is no longer relevant, the whole of Scripture becomes irrelevant.

2. Ordination of women

The previous issue was one that affects most notably the Protestant Episcopal Church, whilst this issue is common throughout both the PEC and ACNA. This issue is considered liberal because it disregards two thousand years of unanimous, Christian teaching. Proponents of this view struggle in the same sense as before in deciding that certain portions of Scripture are not relevant anymore to the life of the Church. The issue of the ordination of women is hard to maintain when considering the Apostle Paul's writings concerning the qualifications of bishops and deacons. A bishop and deacon must be the husband of one wife. I've yet to understand how a woman can fulfill this requirement. This is not the whole of the argument against women's ordination but only one example of the issues with this sort of liberalism.

Some of the folks in ACNA will likely bring up that "most of the ACNA bishops are against the ordination of women" or something similar to that, even though the Archbishop is notably a proponent of it. This brings up the issue of "dual integrities" which is essentially a form of "Christian" relativism. Whilst the ordination of women is not a Gospel issue, meaning that ordaining women or having a female minister does not jeopardize the salvation of any souls, it does open the door for false teaching. The reason for this is the struggle to justify the departure from what part of Scripture says.

An issue which must be mentioned (and could be its own subheading) is the questioning of biblical scholarship, which in itself is a good thing, however, there is a tendency to question the authorship of Scripture (where it claims an author). In my mind, there is a difference between hypothesizing about who was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews or even of the Gospels, which do not have explicit authors, in the text itself (tradition associates the Gospels with their namesakes' and Hebrews to the Apostle Paul), and questioning the authorship of Paul's epistles wherein he claims explicit authorship. This is the sort of rhetoric that must be embraced in order to get around the Bible's addressing of the question of who can be ordained.

3. Divorce and remarriage

Divorce and remarriage have always been condemned by Christianity, even our own Anglican Church, wherein divorce and remarriage were prohibited. Some have noted the "Matthean" and "Pauline" exceptions, which are not going to be discussed here, but besides these disagreements, divorce and remarriage have been condemned. In the 1604 Canons of the Church of England, we see that remarriage of persons was not allowed:
Canon CVINo Sentence shall be given either for Separation a thoro & mensa, or for annulling of pretended Matrimony, but in open Court, and in the Seat of Justice, and that with the Knowledge and Consent either of the Archbishop within his Province, or of the Bishop within his Diocese, or of the Dean of the Arches, the Judge of the Audience of Canterbury, or of the Vicars General, or other principal Officials, or sede vacante, of the Guardians of the Spiritualities, or other Ordinaries to whom of Right it appertaineth, in their several Jurisdictions and Courts, and concerning them only, that are then dwelling under their Jurisdictions.
I only post this to show the general attitudes that were upheld in the Church of England in times past. A full treatment of divorce and remarriage is not possible at this point but the crux of the issue is the abandonment of biblical standards by both "conservative orthodox" Episcopalians and "conservative orthodox" Anglicans.

Moreover, even if we are to permit some level of disagreement over the exact nature of the biblical exceptions to divorce, we must return to the biblical requirements for Christian ministers. As mentioned above, one of those requirements is that they be the "husband of one wife". The issue of divorced clergy is beyond the issue of divorced Christians. How can we expect our Church to uphold the biblical definition of marriage when a good number of our clergy are divorced and remarried?

The issue of liberalism, infidelity to God's Word and natural order is destroying Anglicanism because it questions our fidelity to the truthfulness of the Scriptures (in addition to what our own tradition teaches about the Bible's truthfulness).


Gerry T. Neal said...

Excellent post. When I saw the title I had assumed that you would be talking about something else. I have always understood the expression "theological liberalism" to mean the kind of theology that says "Jesus is divine in the sense that there is a spark of divinity in all of us" and "Jesus rose from the dead in the sense that he was still living to his followers in their hearts" and is basically rationalistic unbelief masquerading as theology that sees Jesus' whole purpose as being the proclamation of the message "be nice to each other". We have plenty of that in the Anglican Church, unfortunately. What you have discussed, homosexuality, the ordination of women, and divorce/remarriage is what I would ordinarily think of as social or moral liberalism. They are perhaps bigger problems because there are many who would reject the kind of theological liberalism I described above as obvious unbelief and heresy who nevertheless accept the liberal position on homosexuality, the ordination of women, and divorce/remarriage. I like how you point out that the root issue in both cases is a rejection of Scriptural authority. This, of course, is the root cause of the other kind of liberalism as well. You write "We must remember that the Scriptures are infallible and our only rule of faith". Very true. The problem is that many in the church have not only forgotten this but reject it and speak vehemently against it.

Dale Matson said...

To me, the issue of abortion is another dividing line. While Katherine Raggsdale sings it's praises, our Bishop (Menees) gave the invocation at the walk for life in San Francisco. TEC is a proud contributor to Planned Parenthood and the ACNA is openly against it in its doctrine.

The Hackney Hub said...


You have a point in relation to the subject of what you've called "theological liberalism". I suppose the lines are a bit fuzzy when discussing the nature of liberalism and whatnot. I tend to regard what you've called "theological liberalism" as downright heresy, which is another issue in itself.

The Hackney Hub said...

I'm not really interested in ACNA's attempts to "one-up" PECUSA.

Dale Matson said...

Sorry you feel that we believe this is a political issue and not a moral one.

The Hackney Hub said...

I don't engage with "ACNA is better than TEC because of X" comments. To me, they are both bad in different ways. It's also quite untrue that "TEC supports abortion"; my diocese supports Anglicans for Life. TEC is not a monolithic organization theologically or by its governance. It is a voluntary association of independent dioceses, you can't say much more than some of the dioceses in the Missionary Society are supportive of morally dubious things.