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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Are all theologies heresies?

I've been reading a book that keeps my interest primarily by continually ticking me off: Adventures in Missing the Point: How the culture-controlled church neutered the Gospel by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo. The book is a collection of essays, and Campolo's on theology got me thinking:
Far from any individuals theology being The Right One, in one sense all theologies are heresies. For theologies, like heresies, are major or minor distortions of the truth.

We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 1 Corinthians 13:9-10.
He goes on:

Let's get one thing straight: the One Thing. The one certainty against which all our theologies are guesswork. "This one thing I know," the apostle Paul wrote: Jesus, and how his crucifixion delivered us from sin, and how his resurrection assures us of eternal life.

I believe these are unquestionable absolutes for all Christians -- and perhaps the only absolutes. In the end, God's truth is not a theology, but a person. Our faith is not about Jesus Christ, not based on Jesus Christ-- it is Jesus Christ.

But that's where the certainties end. Christians explain their personal encounters with Jesus differently. We have different ways of explaining how our personal relationship with God defines how we function in daily life.
I think Campolo is largely off his nut here, as he often is. I certainly agree with his statement that our faith is Jesus Christ. But then mustn't we say that right theology is any statement that accurately describes Christ?

So what happens to confessions of faith? I believe that Christ is really, truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine of communion. This is an absolute statement I am making about Jesus. Call it partial heresy, and haven't you made it useless?

Contrast Campolo's statements with the Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse in his Union and Confession: Christ and his Church, another series of essays:

Among the lies which destroy the church there is one we have not yet mentioned. Alongside the pious and dogmatic lies, there stands in especially dangerous form of lie which can be called the institutional lie. By this we mean a lie which works itself out in the institutions of the church, in her government and her organization. It is so dangerous because it legalizes the other lies in the church and makes them impossible to remove. Such a lie exists, for instance, where the governance of the church grants to those who confess and those who deny the Trinity and the two natures in Christ the same rights in the church; where the preaching of the Gospel according to the understanding of the Reformation enjoys the same right as the proclamation of a dogma-less Enlightenment religion, so long as the latter appeals only to the Bible [...]

Such canon law [...] makes it completely impossible to differentiate between truth and error, between true and false doctrine. A church so composed can no longer see that the Gospel is plainly and purely preached and heresy opposed. It must protect open heretics when the "orthodox" side denies that they possess an equal legitimacy in the church. The congregations of such a church, the youth who are educated in it, the people to whom it attempts to preach the truth of the Gospel, must come to the conviction that it simply does not matter much what one believes or does not believe. Since what is to be believed or not believed in the sermon is left up to the individual, his inclinations and aversions, his world-view and soon also his faithlessness will become the norm for proclamation in the church. In place of the objective message of that which God has done in Christ, subject religious feelings and convictions soon form the essential content of the sermon. Thus the church sinks to the level of an institution for the satisfaction of the manifold religious needs of men and ceases to be the church of Christ, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
The problem here with Campolo's perspective is one we see across the American evangelical spectrum: A failure to see the church as the true body of Christ, as Sasse says "the pillar and foundation of the truth."

Sasse's view demands lines be drawn. But without lines, can we ever know where we are standing?

St. Paul writes that he becomes "all things to all men, so that he might save some." Though Paul may change his approach and delivery of the Gospel, he is still preaching one true Gospel. We cannot separate the Gospel from what we confess as Word rightly preached and sacrament rightly administered, because it is through these means that Gospel is imparted to us.

This leaves us with a lot of questions about how to deal with semper reformanda. But we must always be certain that what we confess is true, and most certainly true.