Sorry, CS Lewis buffs, not THAT Lewis, though I may quote him towards the end. My friend Lewis is on a journey. Now depending on your perspective it’s a journey into a deeper, richer, more mature Christian faith that has traction in a post-Enlightenment, secular age, or it is a journey down a wide road that will lead to destruction in which the gospel will be jettisoned and Lewis will not realise until it is too late. Lewis is happy for this letter to be public and has the right of reply on my blog at a date he so chooses.
So here goes:
Thanks for being so open and willing for this conversation to go public, although since you posted on Facebook about it, it’s a rather moot point! However this letter gives me the chance to leave Facebook for whimsy, chit-chat and pictures of cats doing things that make them appear almost human.
Lewis, you are nothing, if not the devil’s advocate, I’ll give you that! You must be grinning from ear to ear when you see the number of comments ratchet up! Yet again your posts have caused a flurry of activity, like small grenades lobbed over the fence. This time for your affirmation of Marcus Borg’s latest book “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time”(or a blog post championing the book, at least). I sense that, just as you have done numerous times before, you are not looking for your evangelical friends to affirm what you are saying, but you are testing both the depth of their friendship, as well as testing your suspicion – fair or otherwise – that evangelicals would rather break a friendship than back down on a theological argument. I hope that this letter does not come across stridently, but in the tone of love, friendship and yes, concern.
And I am concerned Lewis. Not simply, or finally, about what you may be heading towards believing but about where such beliefs will lead you. Each time we have these conversations it seems that you are quoting, approvingly, one more author or church figure whose views no longer represent the credal statements of the church down the centuries, and certainly veer from what the Bible claims on many matters. So my concern is based on the trend in your reading towards texts and authors who are far from any version of orthodox that I would recognise.
The primary concern I have with the material you read rests on the question of authority. I know, I know, there are many issues that present themselves as subsets of that: sexual ethics matters, universalism versus particularity, the Trinity, the doctrines of salvation, sin, eschatology etc. But by and large these can all be subsumed under the question of “Where does authority lie?” I spoke recently to an evangelical Anglican rector (trained in the Perth diocese as it happens in the liberal tradition), who noted that the current sexuality debate in the church is not about sex at all, it is about authority. And he is right. Unless we have any common understanding about where authority lies – in my case, the Scriptures, – then there is nothing we can appeal to hammer out our differences. Authority is the watershed issue. It has been since the day Satan challenged God’s authority in the Garden (whether you take that episode literally or not).
It is notable with the likes of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong that the authority of Scripture is not the basis of their appeal – and they are completely happy with that. They base their call for Christianity to change, to move with the times, to release itself from its Procrustean bed, by appealing to how much our post-Enlightenment modern culture and its commitment to the scientific method, has changed the world. Their concern is that, if Christianity does not change also, it will die a slow, painful death. Lewis, I would humbly ask you, on what basis do they make this authoritative appeal? Is it an authority that you, yourself are comfortable with? is the authority of a community, an individual, a way of thinking? If your evangelical friends are going to understand why you keep pushing these articles and essays in an approving manner, it is not fair for you to scuttle back under the safety of “I’m not saying I agree with them, but I’m keeping an open mind.” If I were to write books about Manchester United (I’m an Arsenal fan, so highly unlikely), maintain a Man Utd fan webpage, talk about them down at the pub all of the time, and spend money going to Old Trafford to see them play, I can hardly say “I don’t support them, but I’m keeping an open mind. The sheer weight of articles you send our way from that particular theological stable has us worried.
Another of my concerns is that if you go down this path, you will be sorely disappointed by the results. Over the past decade many post-evangelicals, especially in the nascent Emergent movement, have aligned themselves with such thinkers and writers as Borg, Spong and our very own Brian McClaren (who didn’t start out where he has arrived, take note Lewis), because they too have the same concern for the future of Christianity. And it is a valid concern. I wouldn’t be planting churches if I was not concerned. But let me appeal to scientific methodology myself, or at least good ol’ statistics. In the greatest irony, any cold-eyed analysis of Christianity across the world – especially the developing world which is enthral to modern western culture – demonstrates that virtually the only version of Christianity that is growing is traditional, non-sceptical, biblicist Christianity. For all of Spong’s and Borg’s concern for the future of the faith, the future has no concern for them. In fact, the churches of the future have outright rejected the liberal version of Christianity. Many are sending their best people to the West to try and stem its tide. Liberal church men/women have nothing to show for one hundred years of effort at home – unless shrinking, ageing congregations are included in the mix – and therefore no hope of their version taking hold elsewhere. You can’t fight a battle on foreign soil if you’ve lost your home turf already.
Another concern I have for you Lewis is that such men and such theologies will not ultimately satisfy you. Why? Because it has nothing different or valuable to offer you that you cannot get from the world already. Spong and Borg treat the faith in much the same way we treat the iPad you may be reading this on, when in reality it is more akin to a family treasure that we are being entrusted with. The iPad has been designed and configured on the basis of what people demand, what people feel will add to their lives, and what they will pay good money to obtain. The family treasure? Well it’s hard to put a price on it, and it’s probably not worth that much to anyone outside of the family who has no concern for its sentimental value and therefore gives it no intrinsic value. However what is the prospect of the iPad being handed on to the next generation? Or the next generation? We are onto the fourth generation of iPad already, and that’s in less than a decade! This is not to say that a new iPad is not alluring, it is! Witness the scenes outside an Apple store when the next generation is released. But it is not the iPad itself that holds the allure, but rather its newness. Humans are besotted by the new – the novel – and Apple knows it. But in six months it will be just an iPad, no longer a new iPad. Borg and his ilk are beguiled by the the new, whatever it is, always restless and moving onto the next new thing, because they can see nothing of value in what has been handed down.
By contrast the Christian faith was, from day dot, handed down,in order that it continue to be handed down. It is “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) Jesus himself tells his disciples in the upper room that the Holy Spirit’s role will guide them into all truth, setting them apart for the foundational apostolic witness to Jesus. Paul says what he received from the Lord he now delivers to the Corinthians (1Cor 11:23), and what he received (from the apostles?) he now delivers to the Corinthians (1Cor15:1-11). He urges Timothy to entrust to others what Paul himself has been given (2Tim2:1-20), whilst both Peter’s and John’s letters are replete with this “handed on-ness” (e.g. 1Peter1:10-12, 2Peter1:16-21, 1John1:1-4, 5:6-12). As it happens my preaching program for the first half of 2014 is a series entitled “Rise of The Guardians” based upon 1,2 Peter, 1-3 John and Jude, all texts that anticipated, fought against, and provided future guards against, exactly what Borg and Spong are doing.
I do recognise, however, Lewis that what you are searching for is not something “new” in and of itself, but something vibrant and exciting. And I cannot blame you for that. Too often evangelicalism has descended to either a stale doctrinal check list, or to a hyped up excitement that apes the vacuous excitement the culture offers in the mass media. I know that you are trying to avoid those twin errors so let me give you something to cling to here. The orthodox faith IS something new that will excite you, and IS something handed down that will satisfy you. Remember we are promised “new creation” here and now, and in the now yet, so God is no conservative stick-in-the-mud. But the Scripture that springs to mind most readily when describing something that, while handed down and embedded, is still, nevertheless new, is Lamentations 3:22-23. Let me remind you of what they say:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
There, in the midst of trouble and affliction, the writer affirms that the steadfast love – the received and handed down covenantally faithful love of the eternal God, which never ceases – is demonstrably new every morning in the guise of God’s mercies to us. How can that be? How can something handed down from generation to generation be so darn new? I suspect it is because we will experience eternity – life in the age to come – as new all of the time. It will fill us with the wonder of the new, the excitement of the new and the anticipation of the new. And the God of the Bible – as opposed to the idolatrous parody of that God offered by Spong and Borg is rooted in this age and will therefore grow old and unsatisfying. Why am I convinced that only the eternal God of the received faith will satisfy? Precisely because of the slavish and idolatrous devotion to the “new” in our culture. Like all idolatry, such misguided devotion is a shadow of the reality – a desire for “newness” that we mistakenly attach to created things rather than to the Creator. We hope and pray that these created things will never lose the wonder, excitement and anticipation that only the eternally “new” can offer, and we are first surprised, then bored, then, finally, cynical about them when they fail to keep their promise. No wonder we are dissatisfied and restless all of the time! Lewis, what the likes of Borg and Spong offer you is the idol of “the novel”, which you are mistakenly grasping at as something new. Only when you are recaptured by the wonder of the truly new – the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, – will the constant churn of “the novel” lose its lustre for you, and be revealed as the fake, paste gemstone it is, rather than the pearl of great price, which above all else you should treasure.
Lewis, in closing, let me affirm my love for you as a brother and my desire to pull you away from the precipice, and the rocks below it, and turn you around to face the astonishing vista of God’s purposes, worked out in his mind in eternity past, and heading towards a future in which everything will wax newer and newer forever. And make sure next time you are in Perth that we have another outrageously expensive coffee together.
Your friend and brother