Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Back to Nicaea?” first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Touchstone.
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Back to Nicaea?
Harry Chronis on Turning the Presbyterian Church, USA, Toward Home
“Amendment A,” the most recent attempt to approve the ordination of practicing homosexual persons in the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), went down to defeat last summer. At their meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, in June 2001, our highest governing body, the General Assembly, had called the church, first, to strike the requirement of officers “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage . . . or chastity in singleness”; second, to grant absolute discretion to ordaining bodies to ordain whomever they deem fit (including, presumably, some who practice homosexual lifestyles); and third, to silence the “definitive guidance” of previous General Assemblies that unrepentant homosexual practice, being contrary to God’s will for humankind, precludes ordination to office in the church.
But the proposal failed to gain what it needed to become the new law of the church: the concurrence of a simple majority of the denomination’s 173 regional governing bodies, our presbyteries. Indeed, the final tally showed that close to 70 percent voted against it, roughly reflecting the views of Presbyterians on this issue.
I count this a victory for “mere Christianity,” albeit a puny one. It is puny in part because what happens in our denomination—down to about 2.5 million members now, and losing them at a rate of about 30,000 per year—has diminishing significance to world Christianity. It is also puny because roughly a third of us think that God might really be able to bless some homosexual relationships—and worse, we have explicit encouragement to think so from more than half of our seminary faculty.
And it is puny because we have learned, in the twenty-plus years we have been fighting, that winning one of these political battles resolves nothing. The culture war rages on; to the extent that there is no end of it in sight in the society, there is no end of it in sight in the church.
In the Wilderness
Picture us seated on opposite sides of a church bus. After wandering for decades in a vast wilderness, we have finally returned to the road we left long ago. Now we must choose which way to go, and that is what we are fighting about. Some of us prefer to turn back into the wilderness and keep on exploring. Many on my side, however, have seen plenty to scare us and would like to turn back the way we first came. We prefer to go back toward Nicaea, and we want to go back now.
We believe that our confusion about human sexuality is only a presenting symptom of a deeper theological illness we Presbyterians have contracted in the wilderness. I reckon it to be an Arian illness, for which only a Nicene cure will do. And the denomination will have to go to Nicaea to get it.
In my own presbytery, Arius himself, for whom finally it was just not credible that God could empty the fullness of his divine majesty into the merely human Jesus, would be right at home. At one of our recent meetings—and this is by no means as bad as it can get—we were treated to hearing: (1) one of our ordained ministers reporting cheerfully about teaching Marcus Borg’s slant on the Bible in her part-time position on the staff of a Unitarian(!) church; (2) several new members of the presbytery sharing at some length what God was doing in their lives and ministries without once mentioning the name of Jesus Christ; and (3) our worship leader eschewing in our closing doxology the use of the triune Name revealed by Christ and substituting the economic job-description, “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.”
Nor is mine the only presbytery tilting away from Nicaea and toward the confusion that ensues once God is unyoked from Christ. More than a few—many of them the same presbyteries that voted for Amendment A—traffic regularly now in theological syncretism. A number of friends around the denomination describe coming home from meetings as amazed as I at the endless novelty, the obsession to explore and mine feminist imaginings and even other religious traditions for their liturgical “riches,” the preoccupation with any “spirituality” that knows nothing of the Holy Spirit, and especially the assumption on principle that theology can and should only be done now without any vestige of patriarchy (hence the sanction against the triune Name) and—most incredibly—without Christology.
But lest anyone think that I am merely extrapolating local heresies onto the denomination as a whole, let him consider the really disturbing product of that same 2001 General Assembly: a Christological affirmation that was deeply flawed. The final wording of the affirmation, and much of the testimony in the debate, made clear that our highest governing body was unable to declare unambiguously that Christ is exclusively the Lord and Savior of the world. Lord and Savior “for us” was as far as the affirmation could go, leaving us to wonder whether God might not have any number of salvific means apart from Christ.
One of our ministers who had a front-row seat for those proceedings protested this dangerous “separation of theology and Christology.” It leaves us, wrote Catherine Purves in The Presbyterian Outlook, with “a God who is so dimly apprehended that we can have no certain knowledge of God or his ways,” and it does so by “rendering the Lord Jesus ultimately incapable of providing us with knowledge of God or the assurance of salvation.” What does this represent, finally, I ask, but a kind of straining away from the homoousios of Nicene orthodoxy, and toward the ancient error of Arius that balks at Christ’s full divinity?
If we Presbyterians mean not to be doomed to repeat this ancient history, we will need to study its lessons very carefully. Chief among them is the insight that Athanasius’s surprising victory over Arius was a triumph as much hermeneutical as it was theological. As every declaration of heresy also stamps a way of reading the Bible as a dead end for a faithful church, so the judgment against the Arian heresy also proscribed some characteristically Arian ways of handling the Scriptures.
Arius, trained in Lucian’s humanism, with its preoccupation with what the historical and grammatical particularities of the text have to say, may have found it hard to hear another (i.e., truly divine) voice in the Scriptures. His theological presuppositions about God’s absolute transcendence may have made it hard for him to listen to the passages that spoke of Jesus as God and inclined him to interpret them metaphorically.
In either case, what was missing in Arius’s position was some sense that it is no less than the incomprehensible God who is speaking across the entire canon, and that the one he reveals himself to be there is none other than Christ. What was present—careful, atomizing attention to a few subordinationist-sounding passages—the Church rightly rejected in favor of Athanasius’s more robustly theological presentation of the whole of the scriptural witness, rich with testimony to our Lord’s full divinity and all the cosmological and soteriological implications thereof.
I draw a simple lesson from this history. It should be no surprise to find neo-Arian doctrine emerging now, given how much our theological environment is dominated by a hermeneutical method largely deaf to God’s voice speaking in and across the canon. I refer to the state of the historical-critical interpretation of the Scriptures, as it is practiced in the academy today, and to whose hegemony the church’s scholars (at least in the old-line churches) accede.
Authoritative interpretation has passed increasingly to such scholars, many of whom are not and may never have been believers (at least not in the Nicene sense), into whose hands alone, nevertheless, we are supposed now to entrust ancient writ if any meaning is to be wrung from it. In their hands, the Bible becomes increasingly unrecognizable as the same Bible that Nicene Christians have known and loved historically, and still know and love in the broad mainstream of world Christianity.
It is no longer, for example, a mysteriously univocal witness (the “one voice” being the vox Christi), but rather now, as Robert L. Wilken points out, “a collection of disparate, and sometimes contradictory, ancient documents that have been arbitrarily brought together between the covers of a single book.” Neither is it any longer, therefore, the Bible for which, as our Westminster Confession declares, “the infallible rule of interpretation . . . is the Scripture itself,” there being now, apparently, no such thing as the sensum plenior. Nor is it any longer the Bible that can speak eternal truths across generations and cultures, since every passage is locked—in some instances, it is alleged, irretrievably—in the peculiar history and culture of its author and first hearers.
In short, although it is very much the word of man, in the hands of these exegetes the Bible has ceased in any meaningful sense to be the Word of God. In a bibliological analogue to Arius’s heresy, the Bible’s full humanity is now universally pressed at the cost of denying its full divinity.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the controversy I cited at the outset about homosexuality. There, revisionist hermeneuts typically pursue a strategy of which Arius would be proud: divide and conquer.
The condemnatory passages are first quarantined from one another—as if each inhabited a culture-bound world of its own—which mutes their obvious harmony. They are separated from the rest of Scripture—as if the rest of the biblical witness was not exhausted, without remainder, in either affirming or assuming the conjugal heterosexual norm. Then they are divorced from Christ—as if our Lord did not himself teach the conjugal heterosexual norm, did not himself proscribe homosexual practice when he condemned not only fornication and adultery but also the licentiousness that elsewhere names homosexual relations (see Mark 7:21–22; cf. 2 Peter 2:7), and is not himself speaking in the condemnation of homosexual practice throughout the Scriptures.
Finally, they are separated from us by a temporal and cultural divide so deep and wide as to render them incapable of saying anything meaningful about so-called faithful and consensual homosexual unions today. And this goes on until, by a kind of hermeneutical alchemy, a Bible that knows only consistent prohibition and condemnation is transmuted into one that yields their contradictories, permission, and blessing.
Simple and faithful lovers of the Bible—among whom I now number myself, despite having cut my teeth on the historical-critical method—do not know whether to laugh or cry at such hubris. One can only wonder at the blind cocksureness of it and try to imagine the cause. Conceivably, it is mostly a matter of the revisionists being unable to see the forest for the trees. They have been interpreting the texts in splendid isolation from the rest of the canon (not to mention from the Creed) for too long to see their connection with each other.
Because they have spent so much time and effort digging behind and beneath the text, to see what it reveals about the human forces at work—cultural and historical, psychological and political, rhetorical and philological, the list is unending—perhaps it rarely occurs to them that the text has something to reveal about the divine mind and will. From there, to doubt that God reveals his mind unambiguously about anything (human sexuality included), or that he can do so through a biblical witness they find so opaquely human, requires no great leap.
Alternatively (but less charitably), these hermeneuts may simply prefer it to be the case—as Arius did, I suggest—that God has not revealed his mind unambiguously about anything. Perhaps they find an assumption of the text’s utterly opaque humanity more congenial.
Either way, this inability or unwillingness (or both) to hear the clear harmony and consistency in the text should be owned for the danger that it is. It is an assault on the reliability of the Scriptures to mean what they say, to speak across the canon with a mysterious unity and deep coherence. Consequently, it is finally a practical denial of the divinity of the Scriptures, of their capacity to reveal God’s mind and to speak God’s Word.
Under this assault, the truly terrifying prospect is that we are left in the dark about far more central things than human sexuality: like whether no one really does come to the Father but by Christ . . . or whether God really was in Christ reconciling the world to himself . . . and whether all that is so because in Christ all the fullness of God really was pleased to dwell. Just so does the assault on the Scriptures, the denial of their capacity fully to reveal God and reliably to speak his Word, land you straightaway in doubt about what they proclaim of Christ.
You begin to wonder if everything really hinges as much on this Jesus as the Scriptures assert, if all the superlatives that belong to God really do belong no less to him. Before long, you—like Arius—are imagining that, if there is a God worthy of that transcendent name, he can only be a God beyond revelation, beyond even Christ, and certainly beyond the Bible (especially given the patriarchal and homophobic culture to which it is bound). And you end up precisely where Athanasius feared you would: alone (for there is, finally, no “Emmanuel”), dead in your sins (for there is, finally, no suffering God to save), and with no story to tell to the nations (for whoever sent his son into the world to save it was not, finally, God).
From this deep, hermeneutical abscess comes the infection that now threatens the PCUSA (not to mention the whole old-line) more mortally than she may think and that renders so perilous our decision in the wilderness. Nothing short of a powerful and fresh apprehension of God in Christ—on the order of that confessed at Nicaea—will help. But that will not come apart from a hermeneutical turn toward home, a turn in which we repent of a historical-critical assault on the Scriptures that has left us deaf to the one voice that speaks there, so that we may listen with new humility and attentiveness to the unity and harmony of the whole canonical witness.
Can we actually get the PCUSA bus turned toward home and this Nicene cure we so desperately need? I cannot predict. Obviously, it will involve carrying the fight to and into our seminaries, from which a too-steady stream of ordination candidates who think nothing of the fact that they are as comfortable among the Unitarians as among the Presbyterians still flows. Some neo-Arian faculty are already holding forth there with impunity; given the absence in our seminaries of real accountability to the church, and the substantial protections of academic freedom and tenure, rooting them out would be unbelievably messy.
Also, not many in the church or our seminaries—not many yet, at least—believe that what is at stake is whether the denomination remains Christian in the Nicene sense. (One understands the relative lack of alarm: As must have been true with Arius himself, a lot of what heretics teach and write is not patent heresy.) And if these were not difficulties enough, there is the culture’s continuing slide into the moral abyss—a slide from the likes of which, as Robert Bork reminds us, most cultures do not recover—and the gradual erosion of our Nicene majority that it portends.
Still, one hopes. If it is the Lord of the Church himself who asks Quo vadis? of me and my fellow Presbyterians, the choice before us is fraught with promise as much as peril. And, if it proves impossible to get the bus oriented aright, we have the option of heading back to Nicaea on foot.
Harry Chronis is the pastor of White Rock Presbyterian Church in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He credits his father George H. Chronis and his sister Lisa E. Chronis for their very helpful suggestions. The quote from Robert Wilken is taken from his review of Andre LaCocque and Paul Ricoeur’s Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies in the May 1999 issue of First Things.
“Back to Nicaea?” first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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