Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Sacrament of Evangelism?

The title of this book caught my attention when I was searching for something else on Amazon (this is not a review as such; I'm using the book as a springboard for the following reflections). When I was at seminary my New Testament Greek lecturer ('professor' in American terminology), Dr Greg Lockwood (a true scholar and gentleman), would pepper our study of the Greek NT text with anecdotes and excursions into dogmatics which served to highlight some point the Biblical text was making. One anecdote went back to the time when he was a missionary in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s; apparently the neighbouring Roman Catholic missionaries always made a point of explaining to the Lutherans that 'we did not bring Christ to these people, he was already here'. Now, that probably makes perfect sense in the context of a Roman Catholic understanding of theological anthropology (of which more in a minute), but a Lutheran could only offer a qualified assent to the proposition, if indeed he could assent at all. Unfortunately, that is the thesis of this book: evangelism does not bring Christ to unbelievers, for he is already a mysterious, sacramental kind of way.

To be sure, God does not forsake pagans or non-Christians. In His general providence and kindness He 'makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust' and it is 'in Him that we live and move and have our being', such that only God's upholding of the world ensures our continued existence. Further, God earnestly desires the salvation of all people, and directs and blesses the preaching of the Gospel to that end. In fact, as far as I know, there are no more 'heathens' in Papua New Guinea today, they are all confessedly Christian, but that's thanks to the generations of missionaries who took Christ to the PNG people. Come to think of it, I think there are more heathens (or pagans or unbelievers or whatever you wish to call them) in Australia these days than there ever were in PNG. History, even very recent history, teaches us that the course of the Gospel through the world mysteriously ebbs and flows among various peoples, surging in glorious fullness in one place while receding with a 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' in another, leaving men stranded and exposed in their spiritual helplessness.

Anyway, back to the problem with saying that Christ is with non-Christians in an unqualified way. Lutheran doctrine, following the clear teaching of scripture, asserts that all human beings born since the fall of Adam are 'without fear of God, without trust in God and are 'concupiscent'', a technical theological term which is boldly defined by the confession as meaning humans are 'full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother's wombs'. This state, commonly called original sin, according to the confessions truly 'damns and brings eternal death'(Augsburg Confession, Art II, both Latin and German texts; the locus classicus for this teaching is Paul's argument in the first chapters of Romans).

It is because of their unforgiven sin - both actual sins and original sin - and most particularly because of their idolatry, that pagans/heathen/non-Christians are not in fellowship with God. They are not in some 'neutral' spiritual state either, rather they are in active rebellion against their Creator and desperately need to hear the good news of the redemption He has won and offers to them through and in Christ. But without missionaries or preachers, they do not have Christ, even if in some mysterious way he is there (given that according to classic theology wherever the Father is there the Son is also). Non-Christians may even express an intense desire for redemption from their current state of bondage to sin and evil (in my experience Hindus and Muslims often have a much greater desire for redemption than the average post-Christian Westerner), but they are themselves powerless to initiate or accomplish their redemption. Only Christ has done that by offering up his own body and his precious blood as an atonement for sin and only the Spirit working through the Word can bring the benefits of that atonement to them.

So, do you see what I mean about a Lutheran being only able to offer a qualified assent, if indeed any at all, to the proposition that Christ is already with pagans, heathens and unbelievers? But members of church bodies which operate with a less rigorous theological anthropology that leaves the door open for genuine human seeking after and co-operation with God apart from His revelation in Christ can be much more positive about the extent to which Christ may be present in the lives of pagans and unbelievers. They may even teach, as does Rome (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1260 &, that by following the tenets of their religion and abiding by their conscience the heathen may be saved (I'm sorry Roman friends, but what is that but rank Pelagianism?).

Which brings me to what intrigues me about this book. Evangelicals (non-Reformed ones anyway), Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are disparate groups, but they have at least one thing in common, namely a weak theological anthropology that tends towards semi-Pelagianism or the full blown variety thereof, i.e. the belief that fallen human beings have some innate spiritual capacity, a 'spark of indwelling divinity' as I once heard an Orthodox priest put it, that means they can genuinely contribute something to their salvation (synergism) even from the outset. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have also, at least for the last couple of generations, been cautiously open to Eastern religious experience as possibly providing an authentic knowledge of God. But until recently Evangelicals would have shied away from such openness. Now I wonder if this book signals a movement for change? Even if that's not where the authors think they're going, it's quite possibly where they'll end up if the history of their own more liberal Protestant brothers is anything to go by (it's no accident that historically missiology was the field upon which the 20th C. conflict between Protestant 'Fundamentalists' and 'Liberals' was fought most viciously - see J. Gresham Machen's life story for e.g.).

Then there's also the curious notion that evangelism is a sacrament. That needs unpacking. For Lutherans evangelism is a form of the ministry of the Word, of which sacraments are visible forms (cautiously following Augustine's suggestion that sacraments combine the Word with a visible element). Applying the term 'sacrament' to evangelism seems problematic then - what is the visible element? But then speaking of sacraments as a general category at all is more Roman Catholic than Lutheran or indeed Evangelical. Lutherans rightly prefer to speak simply of 'Holy Baptism' and 'the Lord's supper', although I suppose there is no in principle objection to the more general term as a form of shorthand, as in 'Word and sacrament ministry'. But I'm suspicious of the sort of imprecise language the authors of this book already engage in with their title; it is often the mark of lazy thinking which returns to haunt in unexpected ways (this raises the question of why the important subject of evangelism is so often the victim of lazy thinking?). How easily the bland statement that 'the world is a sacrament' can lead back to paganism, and indeed if anything can be a sacrament, or if everything already is a sacrament in the sense of a bearer of the presence of God (which forms the basis of the authors' argument), does that not make Baptism and the Supper superfluous?

I fear the authors have forgotten - or never learned - that without explicit knowledge of Christ the true nature of God is hidden from fallen man, and the encounter with Him in nature or conscience is much more likely to inspire terror and craven idolatry than the Biblical faith and worship that the knowledge of Christ and His benefits brings. That's why I contend that it is at best problematic, but at worst actually dangerous to evangelism, to suggest that Christ is already present with unbelievers.

Click on the post title to see the book's Amazon page. The co-authors, Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie, are respectively a professor of practical theology and an editor at 'Christianity Today' magazine. We at the old manse think they could have benefited from the input of a systematic theologian along the way.


The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

Acts 17:30  

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.

1 Timothy 1:13  

I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.

Hebrews 5:2  

[Christ] can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.

So "don't worry" about God being absurd: He isn't. But don't "be happy" either: preach Christ and proclaim His Gospel, teaching His commandments and distributing His Sacraments: because is even those who did not have mercy on their neighbour by not giving them food or water or clothing or money will be sentenced to the left side at the Last Judgment, then what will happen to those who kept the Gospel from people? Because the Gospel is by far more precious than either water or food or clothes or money. It is the living water and contains all the riches of the Kingdom. If even John the Baptist, the greatest of all Old Testament Saints, is lesser than the least of those in the Kingdom of Heaven, then what low state will those poor ignorant non-Christians have, even if saved by God's overwhelming grace and mercy?

Acroamaticus said...

Exhibit No. 1, my Lord: Lucian!

Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark,

Whilst I do think that in practice, Roman Catholicism and other traditions can convey a Pelagian-like emphasis when talking about right belief and sin, I am not so sure the missionary view that Christ is with the non-Christians is Pelagian at all. It strikes me rather as very much based on the opposite view, namely that Christ's redemptive merits are truly universal and that to say Christ is with them is to acknowledge fully the role of grace rather than any good work including knowledge of Him.
And this makes theological sense to me, because notwithstanding sayings about belief in Christ, if salvation depends on one good work, informed assent, then that is to circumscribe and limit what is surely the reach of a universal redemption and to reveal Christianity as an unsuccessful and monumentally inefficient mechanism for salvation, since the vast majority of humans who have ever lived and will live have not been or will be Christians. None of this idea in any way supports the idea that evil will be rewarded or malice condoned or selfishness validated, but it embraces much more the cosmic dimensions of Calvary than to propose the opposite. In fact saying the opposite has led many Catholics and no doubt many non-Catholics into the inextricable and frankly vicious tangle that follows propositions like that outside the Church there is no salvation.
This is how it appears to me at any rate.

Acroamaticus said...


Hi - good to hear from you again.

What I'm getting at is that the missionaries' view and Pelagianism both share an underestimation of the effects of original sin.

I share the view that Christ's merits are universal - intended for all; I believe, however, that the benefits of Christ's active and passive obedience (theological speak for his righteous life and sacrificial death) are inextricably linked to one's belief in Christ. Thus evangelism involves presenting and persuading re Christ. The goal of evangelism is faith and incorporation into the church (Christ's body) via the sacrament of baptism, which involves a change in 'lordship' over one's life (exorcism, renunciation, threefold immersion/sprinkling in the Triune name). That reflects the utter seriousness with which the church takes the effects of original sin in terms of bondage to the evil one.

In regard to believers outside the church, Lutheranism can cope with that somewhat better than Catholicism (either trad or modernist) because we acknowledge the church to have a hidden as well as a revealed aspect.

Btw, one of the reasons I think this sense of the seriousness of sin has been lost today is because we read the NT in isolation from the OT, and have done for generations. The church (i.e. believers) is the NT Temple - the dwelling place of God on earth. Consider the ramifications of that in light of everything that is said about the Temple in the OT.

joel in ga said...

Living for a few years in Muslim Turkey, I always found it fascinating how God had not left Himself without witness among the people. While sympathetic to your misgivings about the Roman Catholic assertion, I'm not so sure it is easy for anybody anywhere to escape from Christ, since He is 'the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into world.'

Acroamaticus said...

An interesting point, Joel.
I'd like to hear more.
What is the source of the Turks' knowledge of Christ?

It may interest you to know that Australia & Turkey have a close relationship based on events at Gallipoli in World War One and Turkish migration to Australia from the 1970s onwards.

Anonymous said...

I believe, however, that the benefits of Christ's active and passive obedience (theological speak for his righteous life and sacrificial death) are inextricably linked to one's belief in Christ.

Amen to that, Pastor.

Makes me think of the Jesuit Karl Rahner's "anonymous Christian" paradigm which I never really understood until I was a member of the RC.

One of the most frustrating views I heard was from Catholics who were very close to universalism, i.e., since Christ died for all there is no need to explicitly accept Him as Lord and Savior.

And yes, I found the understanding of sin to be far weaker in the Catholic church which is not surprising because she has never totally eradicated her pelagianism.

"Informed assent" is a typically Catholic way of speaking and differs from the Lutheran emphasis that the relationship with Christ is one of trust in Him and His Word, which never returns empty.


Schütz said...

First let me say that I am in some sympathy with you on this one, due to the careless way in which some have expressed the teachings of the Church.

First there are only seven "sacraments". No more, no less. What these seven are are not determined by some predefined definition of what a "sacrament" is. We do not go "sacrament spotting" with our "Guide to Spotting Sacraments" and binoculars. We do not make up a working definition of "a sacrament" and then see how many things we can (or can't, as in the Lutheran case) apply that definition to. "Evangelism" is not a sacrament, although it indeed includes the use of the sacraments.

Also, the missionaries expressed themselves carelessly. Indeed the Spirit of God was present among the New Guineans before the missionaries came (for the Spirit of God is everywhere), and to that degree, Christ was present also. But knowledge of Christ was not. Not even implicitly. The Church has never taught so. Dominus Iesus (2000) – which is very relevant to this discussion, declared: "Therefore, the theory which would attribute, after the incarnation as well, a salvific activity to the Logos as such in his divinity, exercised “in addition to” or “beyond” the humanity of Christ, is not compatible with the Catholic faith." (para. 10)

Schütz said...

Second (the comment was too long - I had to split it), you say in a comment above: "What I'm getting at is that the missionaries' view and Pelagianism both share an underestimation of the effects of original sin."

1) Is the teaching of the Catholic Church "pelagian"?

No. But it might be open to the charge of "semi-pelagian" in this case. Lumen Gentium 16 makes it clear that even if those ignorant of the Gospel through no fault of their own "may be saved" by trying to do what God reveals to them in a hidden and unknown way, yet this is not possible without "the help of his grace". It seems like a matter of grace and works. But grace is primary.

2) Does the Catholic Church "underestimate" the effect of Original Sin?

No, the Lutheran theologians (and other Reformed theologians) over-estimate it. For in Lutheran theology the effect of original sin has been declared absolute, making impossible for anyone to have any true salvific knowledge of God whatsoever except through the explicit revelation in Christ.

Pius XII taught (in Humani Generis) that "The human mind…is hampered in the attaining of such truths [about God], not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin." The Catechism (paraphrasing Trent) said that Original Sin comprises "a deprivation of original holiness and justice", yet "human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence" (CCC 405).

Any way, we may argue about who is right or wrong on this matter, the point being that will some Catholics may indeed "underestimate" the effect of original sin – according to the Church's actual doctrine of original sin, it is not "underestimating original sin" to say that even those altogether ignorant of Christ still have some access to true, naturally revealed, knowledge of God and his will – even though what truth they know is often, and usually, mixed with vain reasonings and falsehoods (cf. Lumen Gentium 16: "But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator").

Schütz said...

All of which brings me to a practical proof of this matter. We know that it is always easier to gain a convert to the faith if they already share the Judaeo-Christian worldview and narrative. This even applies to Western atheists, who, though not believing, have often the same questions arising from the same worldview that we do. However, when we meet someone who comes from a completely different culture, we seek to find in them some parallel to our worldview on which to hang our narrative. For instance, New Guinea native religion understood what sacrifice meant (as many religions do). To proclaim Christ as The Sacrifice was making use of an idea that was already present in their spiritual kitbag. The idea of sacrifice, and the necessity of sacrifice, was a starting point for the preaching of the Gospel. It was a "seed of the word". Who put that idea there, I wonder? It was an idea that had many false aspects, and many false impulses, but there was also an element of truth to their desire to offer sacrifices.

In this sense, God was "already there", preparing the ground for the missionaries. Their attitude (although not their actual phrasing of the facts) was correct: don't go barging in on people's lives proclaiming the Gospel as if God hasn't already been present in their lives preparing them to hear it.

I have more concern these days for those who have no element of the religious worldview at all – among whom may well be the very youths we saw on our TV's and internet bulletins rioting in England. Taking Christ to them will be more difficult than taking Christ to the PNGians.

Acroamaticus said...

Very illuminating comments from your perspective David. I realised I was pushing the envelope by describing Catholicism as Pelagian; I meant in practice if not in doctrine. In doctrine I think Catholicism is a compromise between Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism. Only this can explain, for example, the contradictory statements on salvation by grace and human preparation and assent in the CCC (don't have a copy with me, going by memory).