Thursday, December 21, 2006

Confusion at the Evangelical Centre

Bishop of Durham Tom Wright has employed his considerable intellect and skill as a rhetorician in a passionate (almost vitiriolic?) critique of the covenant mentioned in a previous post (see here). Wright's comments can be found HERE.

He makes some valid points in many respects, comments which must sting coming from a self-confessed evangelical. He may well be right about the political inadequacy and bad-timing of the covenant, I'm not sure. He also exposes the fact that the model of ecclesiology assumed in the covenant is not exactly in line with traditional Anglican thought as he sees it. IMHO these valid points he makes probably demonstrate the ultimate untenability of evangelicals remaining within the CofE as it currently stands, rather than strengthening the case for Wright's methodology for achieving reform.

More worryingly, the Bishop seems to 'buy' the popular representation of the type of evangelicals he is criticising. At the same time he seems to sincerely believe that the majority of the bishops in this country are orthodox and that things are in a generally decent condition in the CofE. From my limited experience, I certainly do not recognise the CofE Wright seems to be living in.

This more positive picture relies partly on a dogged belief that whilst the paper definitions of the denomination remain orthodox all is relatively well. This, I would contend, is position hard to maintain in the face of long-term ignorance of and deviation from these paper definitions.

Thus, one of the major differences between Tom Wright's approach and those of his opponents seems to be Wright's faith in the structures to produce reform and renewal. Of course this is no surprise since he is a Bishop and who'd want to be a Bishop unless you believed that inhabiting the structures of the CofE would effect change? I do wonder however if Wright could ever conceive of a situation where revolt against and within the structures of the CofE would be valid, when it would be right to seek alternative oversight, when it would be ok to disobey central authorities for the sake of the gospel.


Dave Williams said...

Tom Wright seems to be trying to play the John Stott role here. Unfortunately whether or not Stott was right in 66, that approach is long out of date.

He also seems to be buying into the Liberal revisionist approach to Church History which turns the CofE into some tolerant inclusive group. No, historically in the Cof E Truth was worth dying for -just ask Cramner and co.

At the same time he is bizarrely inflexible about church government -as seems to be the bizarre thing with those attacking Evangelicals within the CofE -you can innovate as much as you like on essential doctrine but touch the church government and you are condemned as the most evil of heretics! He ignores the very different approaches to structure within Anglicanism such as Sydney and ECUSA

Pete said...

I think you are probably right in the sense that Wright's approach is based on the sort of line taken by Stott and co. in 66-67. And he does give a high place to respecting ecclesiastical structures within the CofE.

However, I don't think he can be accused of being anti-truth in the way you describe. Read his article carefully and you'll find Wright is arguing for reforming the CofE along biblical lines, but he has a very different approach to the shape that reform would need to take and how it would take place (especially with regard to ecclesiology). Wright would not recognise the statement 'you can innovate as much as you like on essential doctrine' as being something he agreed with by any means. So, even though there are areas where I disagree with his theology, and even more areas where I disagree with his applications and ecclesiastical practice, Wright has spoken out strongly against liberalism on various occasions and if more bishop's believed what he does we'd have fewer problems.

Where I think he lacks clarity is on just when (if ever) it becomes appropriate to ignore the structures and break the rules if those structures and rules are opposing the gospel. Here his commitment to the structure of the church of england leads to what in practice looks like being tolerant of errant theology. He is not alone in this by any means. Many of our brothers and sisters in the anglican church take a similar approach to the reform of the denomination.

Similarly, I don't think he is ignoring the ecclesiology of e.g. Sydney Diocese - it is infact that exact ecclesiology (as manifested in the covenant) he is challenging at various points in his article.

I obviously disagree with Wright in these (and other) issues. But we must be gracious to those we disagree with, and try to understand their position adequately. This is especially true when we regard them as a brother in Christ (which Wright certainly is as far as I can tell).

Daniel Newman said...

Thanks for this gracious response to Wright's article.

It is very sad to read something by someone who claims to be an evangelical to express opposition in such a cutting and scathing way to those who ultimately are concerned to teach the Bible and preach the gospel.

As you say, the idea that the C of E on paper is orthodox is prominent in this article, but I just don't think that proves anything. If no one believes what the paper definitions say then it doesn't matter whether the paper definitions are orthodox or not - the denomination/church has strayed from the truth. That's one of the reasons why I think it's untenable to be an evangelical in the Anglican Church.

On a slight aside, I'm not that familiar with what Tom Wright has written (I've read a few articles) but when he talks about justification by faith, he seems to define faith as the "common confession that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead". This doesn't strike me as being the what faith has generally been understood to mean, nor the way Paul understands it (e.g. Romans 4). By his definition, Romanists, too, are justified because they confess Jesus as Lord and that God raised him from the dead, regardless of their semi-Pelagian view of salvation. This worries me.

Pete said...

thanks Daniel

No doubt by now you guess I share your feelings re. the CofE in lots of ways. Not that I claim to have perfect answers to the relevant problems associated with staying in or leaving. And I respect the gospel motivation of those who are staying in it to win it, even if I differ on other points. I might add that the church I currently attend is within the CofE structures, though I am training for ministry in a congregation that was planted on the outside of them, and which is now having to face up to questions regarding catholicity, church government, etc. My own experiences at the hands of the anti-gospel powers at work in the CofE no doubt colour my comments, though I would argue validly so.

As for Tom Wright, maybe, maybe, one day I will blog some more, though it is a somewhat vexed debate. I still suspect I don't actually fully understand him, so anything I say below must be read in this light. the best thing to do is to read him on his own terms not my (or others) comments on him.

I'm uncomfortable with several of his statements about justification by faith, though the more I read the more i think this stems from the way he applies his understanding of the doctrine, which tends to be in a fairly ecumenical way. As regards the specific issue of faith u mention, I would argue that this is an incorrect application of a correct understanding (namely, that on is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith, but by believing in christ). Wright doesn't seem to acknowldge the difference between ignorance of a doctrine and denial/perversion of it. someone coul be essentially unaware of justification by faith in one sense (though understanding elements of it/related concepts such as maybe forgivness, or escape from wrath through the cross etc.) and be a true believer. However, getting it badly wrong like the judaisers in Galatians seems to put someone firmly in the category of 'heretical unbeliever'. of course, Wrights starts off from the belief that justification is not a polemic against a form of pelagianism, though he perhaps overlooks the issue of semi-pelagianism (in both Paul's opponents and in Roman views on justification).

I think he helpfully connects justification to themes such as covenant and union with Christ and eschatology, but I am troubled when he suggests it's to do with ecclesiology and not so much soteriology (a conclusion i'm not sure is actually necessitated by his own definition of justification). Here I think he might be guilty of the kind of false antitheses he writes so ably against in others. I'm also less ready to lose language of imputation than Wright is, though I think in essence he probably believes the substantial part of what imputation is about (Christ fulfilling the covenant for us, which we benefit from by union with him - imputation simply seems to be a 'book-keeping' way of talking about this reality).

More basically, i'm yet to be presuaded about the npp understanding of 'works of the law'. Romans 4 still seems to be persuasive as regards the more traditional understanding of works v grace. I am yet to read wright's Romans commentary.

More positively, his writing is strong on biblical theology and covenant, and the lordship of Christ and on being positive about the role of the law.

Daniel Newman said...

Thanks for your reply, Pete. If I may ask, in which congregration are you training for ministry and what is the background there?

Pete said...

Thanks for asking.
The church is Christ Church Central in Sheffield - there's a link to it on my main blog page. It is a plant from Christ Church Fulwood from during Hugh Palmer's time there. I probably ought not to say too much about it online, however, in the preparatory stages much energy was put into trying to find a way for the church to be planted within the CofE structures. This did not end up happening and as such the church is an independent church of sorts, though various things have been put in place regarding accountability and some degree of networking with other churches across the world. As I say, best not to talk here about the circumstances surrounding the church having to be planted inependent - in one sense it doesn't mater now - though in the evolution of my own thinking the experience caused me to question the idea that as a minister you are free to 'get on with gospel ministry' in the CofE. It is immensely difficult for a denomination to house both gospel enterprise and a varied range of theologies and churchmanships - eventually there are conflicts.