Wednesday, June 28, 2006

An Unworkable Theology

If you're interested in a loving critique of the mainline church today, there's no better article to read than the one by Rev. Philip Turner, entitled, "An Unworkable Theology," found at the site of First Things magazine.

Turner, a long time member of the Episcopal Church, observes that there's a huge gap between the stated beliefs of a denomination and its "working theology"--that is, the everyday beliefs of the church as revealed in the resolutions it passes at official gatherings or what you hear preached weekly.

What does Turner hear in Episcopal pulpits? An extended quote from his article:

"The Episcopal sermon, at its most fulsome, begins with a statement to the effect that the incarnation is to be understood as merely a manifestation of divine love. From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn. The first is that God is love pure and simple. Thus, one is to see in Christ’s death no judgment upon the human condition. Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are. The life and death of Jesus reveal the fact that God accepts and affirms us.

From this revelation, we can draw a further conclusion: God wants us to love one another, and such love requires of us both acceptance and affirmation of the other. From this point we can derive yet another: Accepting love requires a form of justice that is inclusive of all people, particularly those who in some way have been marginalized by oppressive social practice. The mission of the Church is, therefore, to see that those who have been rejected are included—for justice as inclusion defines public policy. The result is a practical equivalence between the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and a particular form of social justice."

Considering my own denomination, when you look on the official website of the United Church of Christ and its "testimonies, not tests of faith," you'll see included the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Heidelberg Confession.

But when you read the resolutions passed at General Synods and listen to what is preached in most UCC pulpits, what you hear is a very different message. Turner argues that the central problem of the mainline church isn't its morality or its ethics, but rather its theology. It is embracing a theology of "divine acceptance" that is antithetical to the church's historic theology of "divine redemption."

Consequently, Turner writes: "This unofficial doctrine of radical inclusion, which is now the working theology of the Episcopal Church, plays out in two directions. In respect to God, it produces a quasi-deist theology that posits a benevolent God who favors love and justice as inclusion but acts neither to save us from our sins nor to raise us to new life after the pattern of Christ. In respect to human beings, it produces an ethic of tolerant affirmation that carries with it no call to conversion and radical holiness...We must say this clearly: The Episcopal Church’s current working theology depends upon the obliteration of God’s difficult, redemptive love in the name of a new revelation. The message, even when it comes from the mouths of its more sophisticated exponents, amounts to inclusion without qualification."

This article resonates with me because this is the "gospel" I often hear within the United Church of Christ (and elsewhere)--a message of inclusion, with no mention of redemption. In my ten years in the UCC, I can't recall one preacher who called on his/her audience to repent of their sin and turn to Christ and his cross for salvation.

When it comes to redemption, evangelicals, conservatives, orthodox, and traditional believers are prone to believe a gospel that says, "Jesus will pay for your sins if you believe." But Romans 3:21-26 affirms that the gospel is this: "Jesus has paid for your sin. Will you believe?"

God in Christ has already forgiven your sin. But experiencing this grace comes through faith--trusting in the sacrificial death of Jesus--because you're convinced that you need Jesus' righteousness credited to your sinful account (John 1:10-13). Will you entrust your life to this Good News?

That's a workable theology.

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