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From the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue of Touchstone


United in Reverence by Christopher Jackson

United in Reverence

Christopher Jackson on Christian Orthodoxy & the Self-Revelation of God

Christians should hesitate to lay down Trinitarian dogma. So says Hilary of Poitiers as he begins a lengthy discourse on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This seeming inconsistency stems from a dual understanding of orthodoxy that conservative Christians must regain: orthodoxy as a boundary to separate correct from false teaching, and orthodoxy as the incomprehensible self-revelation of God.

American conservative Christians, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, enthusiastically proclaim right teaching and set it apart from wrong. Well-trained and battle-hardened by defending against liberalism such necessary doctrines as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the authority of the Scriptures, they expertly bulwark the faith. Contemporary challenges like the sexual revolution and postmodernism spur conservatives to contend for objective truth and morals.

Moreover, iron sharpens iron, and conservatives hone one another as they defend the particularities of their traditions and oppugn the distinctions of others'. For example, through their encounter with Roman Catholicism, Protestants have formulated defenses for Sola Scriptura and polemics against papal doctrine. Likewise, Roman Catholics champion papal doctrine while disputing Sola Scriptura. In such ways, conservatives skillfully and enthusiastically fortify themselves against false belief. Thank God.

Hilary on Orthodoxy

But in all this wall-building to separate correct from incorrect teaching, many conservatives have embraced one sense of orthodoxy while shunning the other, which is also vital. Too many of them lack the view of orthodoxy expounded by Hilary of Poitiers in De Trinitate:

And you . . . in devout willingness to learn must break down the barriers of prejudice and half-knowledge. . . . First he must take his stand upon the sure ground [substantia = homoousios] of God, as holy Jeremiah says, that since he is to hear about that nature [substantia] he may expand his thoughts till they are worthy of the theme, not fixing some arbitrary standard for himself, but judging as of infinity. And again, though he be aware that he is a partaker of the Divine nature, as the holy apostle Peter says in his second Epistle, yet he must not measure the Divine nature by the limitations of his own, but gauge God's assertions concerning Himself by the scale of His own glorious self-revelation. . . . Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself. (Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, NPNF, 2nd series, 9:45)

According to this sense, the faithful student of the Scriptures ceaselessly pursues the knowledge of God, but he is hindered by his finite human nature. That which is finite cannot comprehend that which is infinite, and even God's self-revelation, his Word, does not allow comprehension but demands rather that we "bow with humble reverence." The only one who can fully know God is God himself. This sense of orthodoxy, propounded by Hilary, might be pictured as a compellingly beautiful mountain, something that does not allow comprehension but rather commands awe.

Hilary indeed sets perimeters around correct belief. Yet he indicates that this "boundary" sense of orthodoxy is secondary and necessary only in response to errorists:

The errors of heretics and blasphemers force us to deal with unlawful matters, to scale perilous heights, to speak unutterable words, to trespass on forbidden ground. Faith ought in silence to fulfill the commandments, worshipping the Father, reverencing with Him the Son, and abounding in the Holy Ghost, but we must strain the poor resources of our language to express thoughts too great for words. The error of others compels us to err in daring to embody in human terms truths which ought to be hidden in the silent veneration of the heart. (De Trinitate, 52)

The pluralism of the American scene demands that conservative Christians do much wall-building. Errorists abound and, therefore, so must boundaries. And yet, in all this passionate partitioning, I fear that many conservatives have forgotten the understanding of orthodoxy that Hilary contends is primary: the incomprehensible self-revelation of God.

Preoccupation with Particularities

This neglect has a number of detrimental effects. First, failing to adopt the primary sense of orthodoxy results in a preoccupation with confessional boundaries to the neglect of the great, shared theological and moral inheritance. As one who cherishes his own tradition's distinctiveness, I cringe at others' advice to "major in majors, not in minors" in promoting doctrine and morality, not least because one man's minor might be another man's major.

Yet there is some truth to that overused maxim. Among my fellow Lutherans, preoccupation with confessional particularities has disastrously led to sectarianism. Authors like Robert Benne and Michael Root have demonstrated how the misappropriation of such characteristic Lutheran teachings as the distinction between Law and Gospel, the doctrine of justification, Sola Scriptura, and freedom in adiaphora (things neither commanded nor forbidden in the Scriptures) has resulted in gender-neutral language for the Trinity and approval of homosexual conduct in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The liberal tendencies of that church body might have led it into such deviances anyway, but captivation with Lutheran uniqueness has also caused problems within the stalwartly conservative Lutheran Church‚ÄďMissouri Synod (LCMS). For example, LCMS proponents of contemporary Christian music (CCM) in worship have cited teachings like Sola Scriptura and freedom in adiaphora to support their goals, and the adoption of CCM has resulted in the marginalization of Trinitarian and Christological theology in congregational song. In the 81 most frequently used CCM songs in the LCMS, none of the following words is used even once: "Trinity," "Triune," "begotten," "incarnate," "Mary," "virgin," and "ascend." Not even the word "Christ" is used often, only fifteen times, while "I" is used 248 times.

The distinctive teachings of Lutheranism are not problematic in themselves; I affirm them wholeheartedly when understood correctly. But preoccupation with the distinctions between our confessions does tend to disconnect believers from the great corpus of Christian dogmatic and moral knowledge, leading to doctrinal anemia at best and downright apostasy at worst.

Hampered Friendships

Second, forsaking the primary sense of orthodoxy hampers friendship between Christians of differing confessions. C. S. Lewis describes philos, the love between friends, as a love that gazes at a common interest. By no means should confessional differences be underplayed. But mutual adoration of the Triune God and a common desire for obedience to him should bind the hearts of all his people. Too often, encounters between conservative Christians are marked by antagonism. Instead of gazing together toward the Lord, they glare and even shout at each other over their fences.

Here I confess my own guilt, having too frequently moved conversations with fellow Christians toward areas of disagreement in the desire merely to undercut others or boost myself. By so doing, I have distracted fellow Christians and myself from adoring the Triune God, harming my soul and theirs. But these sorts of follies, which deflate friendship and faith, are not confined to me or my theological tradition.

Should conservatives never discuss their differences? Let it not be so! Done in the right spirit, such discussions are mutually edifying and sometimes downright fun. But polemics should mark their conversations less than shared support, prayer, and adoration of the Triune God.

Fettering of Christian Witness

Individually, enfeebled friendship and preoccupation with particularities are each regrettable conditions. Together, they yield yet another lamentable consequence, the fettering of Christians' moral and kerygmatic testimony. Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, has called the Church to a "compelling, cogent, and convincing" public witness. Conservatives' failure to gaze together at God's self-revelation in the union of friendship has diminished their public credibility and therefore their testimony's cogency. When unbelievers see Christians unable to speak together in friendship, they listen reluctantly, if at all.

The passion for confessional particularity results in a weakened public witness, one that is less compelling than it could be. Kerygmatic proclamation fails to be sufficiently convincing if it consists solely in walking the unbeliever around the fence that separates correct from incorrect doctrine. No matter how fancy the iron or impressive the stone, walls and fences will never compare with the majestic mountain that is the gospel itself. That mountain is a form so mighty and incomprehensible that it confounds one's mind even in outline: the eternal Triune God's overflow of love in Creation; his wrath against sin; the election of Abraham; the preservation of Israel; the Incarnation, ministry, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ; the sending of the Paraclete; and the Lord's final, eschatological reign.

Yet this powerful profession is spoken humbly and therefore invitingly by those enamored with the self-revelation of God. It is the pilgrim's call for companionship, saying, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths" (Is. 2:3). Without the primary sense of orthodoxy, witnessing can sound condescending and prideful.

Beacons of Mutual Adoration

Yet our inadequacies will not mute God's gospel. "It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it." (Is. 2:2).

Ultimately, the borders erected by conservatives result from sin. Fortification is not sinful, nor are the walls we build necessarily wrong. However, they inevitably result from the Fall, that disordering event that cut off all mankind from the source of unity, the One-in-Three and Three-in-One, and that therefore set us on a course of division, discord, and disharmony.

Yet on a mountain in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God with men defeated sin. He has returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit, the bond of love and peace, throughout the world wherever the gospel is proclaimed. And, here and there, he even unites us conservatives in common divine adoration and public witness. Touchstone and the Manhattan Declaration stand as beacons of conservative friendship and cooperation born out of mutual adoration of the Trinity.

In this age these are beacons, but from the perspective of eternity, they are mere glimpses of what is to come. The day is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. No matter what their jurisdiction or confession may be now, all Christians in that day will joyfully gaze at the awesome beauty of the Triune God, with no barriers between them. Until then, conservatives would do well to heed the advice of St. Hilary: "Assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words." •

Christopher Jackson is Associate Pastor at Saint Johnís Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in Lexington, Kentucky. He and his wife Mary have three children.

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“United in Reverence” first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 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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