Monday, November 17, 2008

CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH IN THE ANGLICAN CONTEXT

A Sermon Preached at Nashotah House on the Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude
29 October 2008

Let me begin by thanking the faculty and trustees of Nashotah Theological Seminary for bestowing on me the honor of the Doctor of Divinity. It may be surprising to some of you to know that I interviewed for a job here thirty years ago this month. It was the road not taken, actually the road not offered, and I went on to Trinity School for Ministry, and that has made all the difference. Well, maybe not all that much difference, as I find that these roads – the evangelical and the catholic roads – have been converging in the darkening woods of North American Anglicanism over the past decade. It is my hope that together we can emerge out of this forest into a clearing of light, the light of the gospel illuminated by Scripture and the holy tradition of the Church.

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude. These were the last-named of Jesus’ Twelve apostles, save “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” (Luke 6:15-16). Judas Iscariot of course gained a notoriety of sorts. The same cannot be said of Simon and Jude. Simon was called “the Zealot” and that’s about all we know about him. Jude is sometimes referred to as “the obscure” and the patron of lost causes because he himself is lost from the annals of history. However, as the “brother of James” he is associated with Jude, the brother of Jesus, and although they are probably different historical individuals, their honor has been conflated along with their name. One of the Judes wrote a one-chapter letter in the New Testament, and it is to that letter that I now turn.

The Letter of Jude is found in the collection of miscellaneous letters called the Catholic Epistles. These letters have generally received less attention than the Gospels or Pauline Epistles, but I think they are tracts for our times. Let me try this theory out. Each of the great theological crises in church history has focused on a particular section of the New Testament canon. The Trinitarian and Christological crisis of the first five centuries was focused on the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, in spelling out how God could exist as three Persons and Jesus Christ as Very God and Very Man. The Reformation focused on the question of the reception of salvation by grace and faith alone, and the Reformers’ key texts were the major Pauline Epistles. The current crisis, in the Anglican Communion at least, is about ecclesiology, and the Catholic Epistles (along with the Pastoral Epistles of Paul) are the locus of authoritative teaching in this area. That this is so should not be surprising, as these letters reflect a transitional period to the age in which the authority of the apostles was being passed on to others and the order of the church and its leadership had become a matter of intense debate and conflict. This is what we find in Jude’s letter:

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you. Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For admission has been secretly gained by some men who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1-4)

Allow me to make four quick comments on these first verses. First, salvation requires vigilance, even militancy. Jude states that he wishes to speak to them about salvation, but in their context he can do so only by a call to defend the faith. In our day, few who have followed the conflicts in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion can fail to miss the phrase “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” A year ago I set up a website called “Stephen’s Witness” and gathered my writings over the past twenty years. They are not light reading, I must confess. I have considered editing them into a book titled “Contending for Anglicanism.” But who would read such a book? I suspect a book of polemics would be about as hot as a copy of “Fordyce’s Sermons” was in Jane Austen’s day. At least Jude was brief in this polemical epistle. Nevertheless, it is a necessary part of preaching the gospel of salvation that we defend it as well.

Secondly, contending for the faith is a task for the whole people of God. Jude is not addressing bishops or clergy but all “who are called… and kept for Jesus Christ.” To be sure, bishops in our tradition are particularly charged to guard the faith, which makes the situation in the Episcopal Church sadly ironic, since, as Philip Turner has pointed out more than once, most Episcopal bishops have put on the mantle of prophetic pioneers rather than the shield of faith. Many clergy have decided that it is not their duty to inform or equip the laity for the struggles in the church, either out of a desire to protect their tender consciences or for fear of losing them. This, I believe, is most unfortunate. Let’s be honest: being contentious is never popular, especially in protracted conflicts. Witness the loss of public ardor for the war on terrorism since September 11, 2001. Willingness to contend is nevertheless, if we take Jude seriously, a general obligation of discipleship. To shield lay people from this obligation is to deny them a part of their calling.

Thirdly, the danger to the church comes from real flesh and blood individuals. Jude mentions “some persons” (they could be men or women) who are troubling the church, and he refers repeatedly to “these persons” throughout the epistle. This is not a war of false teachings, but a war with false teachers. He goes on to specify that they are dangerous precisely because they are in the church but not in the faith. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Too often in the past years, many in the Episcopal Church have been willing to extend the right hand of fellowship to those whom they know to be undermining the Gospel and the church. The apostles had a much less tolerant attitude toward heretics, as epitomized in Polycarp’s story of St. John fleeing the bathhouse “because the heretic Cerinthus is within.” I don’t think John stopped to pass the Peace as he went out! There are indeed bonds of affection which we as Anglicans should have for those in our tradition; because these bonds are precious, we should be careful not stretch them like bungee cords over the chasm between us.

Fourth and finally, note that doctrine and morals cannot really be separated. The danger Jude confronts is not, strictly speaking, doctrinal but moral, what he calls “perverting the gospel into licentiousness.” The heretics were no doubt teaching something about how freedom in Christ and the Spirit liberates believers from moral rules; hence these teachings would become grounds for justifying sinful behavior. In the trial of Bishop Walter Righter in 1996, his defenders claimed that morality was an “indifferent” matter, whereas I argued that moral behavior is part of the apostolic rule, and hence one cannot put moral teaching, especially in matters of sexual purity, in a second rank. Therefore those who practice immorality are in mortal danger, those who justify immorality even more so (Matthew 5:18).

In the body of the epistle (verses 5-19), Jude moves to an act of remembrance of scriptural teaching about heresy. He does this by means of free prophetic exegesis of Scriptural types, in which each example refers back to “these men” who are corrupting the church.

His first two examples are painted on a two-storied cosmic canvas: the rebellion of the people of Israel in the wilderness and the revolt of the angels in heaven. For Jude the watchword in these examples is: “those who stand, beware lest you fall” (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). The people saved through the Red Sea had seen and tasted that the Lord is good, yet before long many were worshipping the golden calf. In the angelic realm, Jude looks to the story, alluded to in Genesis 6:1-4 and expanded in the Book of Enoch, of the “sons of God” or “watchers,” the guardian angels who “fell” for the “daughters of men” and were imprisoned until the Last Judgment. Jude reflects a common theme in the apostolic writings that the primal sins are idolatry and sexual immorality (note the exhortation to flee idolatry and fornication – not, I might add to free them or feel them – see 1 Corinthians 10:14; 6:18). These sins are joined at the hip – or joined at the loins – as misdirected desire leads to misdirected worship. In the case at hand, Jude sees the unnatural sin of Sodom as typifying his opponents’ “dreamings that defile the flesh, reject authority and revile the glorious ones” (verse 8). For Jude, these persons are not merely differing on a secondary matter but rebelling against nature and the heavenly host who oversee it.

Jude follows the examples from Scripture with what we might call an argument from the hierarchy of reason. He cites a legend of the archangel Michael arguing with Satan over the body of Moses, in which Michael submits his great power to the final judgement of God. When it comes to matters of Christian doctrine and morals, Jude says, the authority of God trumps any reason of man. Too often man’s reason turns out to be rationalization of wrong desire, which is rebellion against God’s sovereign wisdom. “These men,” he says, “revile what they do not understand, and they are destroyed by those things that they know by instinct as irrational animals do” (verse 10). The end state of such rationalization, Jude says, is destruction, although like Michael we are to leave that final judgement to God.

Jude’s next set of bad examples has to do with the danger of so-called “prophetic” individualism to true Christian community. He cites Cain, who wandered before God, Balaam the loner prophet for hire, and Korah who tried to splinter the unity of the people under Moses and Aaron. Likewise Jude claims that his opponents are “blemishes on your agape meals” (verse 12). In Jude’s view, false prophecy is heresy and heresy is schism. False teaching causes a break in communion, whether that leads to a formal division or not. This is also the view of the Protestant Reformers but directly contrary to various statements recently by some Anglican leaders that “schism is worse than heresy.”

Jude’s final example comes from the mysterious patriarch Enoch, who “walked with God and was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). The legend of Enoch was extremely popular in late Judaism and early Christianity, and the Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) carried considerable prophetic authority. Enoch himself was thought to be a figure of such godliness that he was raptured into heaven, studied the book of providence, and came back to warn of coming judgment in the days before Noah. Jude seems to accept this version of the Enoch legend and links it to the false teachers of his day. This extra-biblical reference demonstrates that early Christians expected to find inspired guidance from prophecy outside what came to be the canon of Scripture. Having said this, we should note that the supreme authority, as Jude concludes his catena of witnesses, comes from the predictions of Jesus and the apostles themselves who stated: “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions” (verses 17-18).

It is worth remembering in our time that the idea that there will be false teachers in the church is found throughout the New Testament (cf. Matthew 24:4ff.; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; 2 John 7-11; Revelation 2-3). It is not an occasional or accidental feature of church life but a constant, which explains why contending for the faith is a regular and expected duty. We may find this truth unpleasant to accept, but we do so at our own risk - and the church’s. The presence of heresy is an ongoing eschatological sign. All Christians and particularly Christian leaders live constantly before the judgment seat of Christ and in the light of his coming. It is therefore of utmost importance to keep one’s conscience clear. In certain circumstances, conscientiousness may lead two individuals to differ as to how to respond to heresy, but if so, they should be careful to maintain the spirit of unity in the bond of peace with each other.

As the epistle draws to a close, Jude turns to pastoral guidance for the congregation in the midst of serious conflict over the faith delivered to the saints.

But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh. (verses 20-23)

The good pastor or good parishioner is called on to “discern the spirits” within the church. Again as Philip Turner has pointed out, a “conciliar economy” of mutual submission within the communion of the church requires spiritual virtues: faith, prayer and patience, “waiting for the mercy” of Christ. Not all those who may appear to be under the sway of false teaching are themselves false or fallen. Some are genuinely perplexed; they should be encouraged and exhorted to think again, to repent. Some are lured by temptation to practice what others preach; they should be pulled out of the fire of temptation. In these cases, the pastor or friend must be prepared to stand the heat of the fire itself by patient listening but should also be clear that sin is unacceptable before the holy God. It is this God alone who can keep all of us from falling and present us without blemish. But finally, some are truly false prophets and teachers and must be avoided like the “garment spotted by the flesh.”

Jude concludes with a typical doxology but one particularly focussed on the problem at hand.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (verses 24-25)

The God whom he praises is the powerful God who saves us through his Son, the holy God who purifies us by his Spirit, and the almighty Father whose authority is established before all time and to the end. It is this God who has loved his Church from all eternity so that the gates of hell cannot withstand it. It is this Christ who has kept his Bride pure and spotless so as to present her before his Father. It is this Spirit who unites the saints of God in heaven and on earth in one Body.

Today few would deny that the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion worldwide have been undergoing a profound crisis of identity, faith and mission, so much so that many of the eschatological warnings in the New Testament, Jude included, seem to apply. There are some here today who have felt conscience-bound to depart from the Episcopal Church – or have been given an assist by the powers-that-be to that end. Others have felt conscience-bound to stay in. Does Jude have anything to say specifically to our situation?

I think the answer is No and Yes. Jude does not give us specific guidance on whether or stay or go. Were the saints Jude was addressing a majority or a minority? Were the false teachers bishops or prophets with some kind of official stamp of approval? We do not know. So the answer is No, we do not know exactly what he might say to our specific situation. Was he calling the saints to come out, or the heretics to go out (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:17; 1 John 2:19)?

But at the same time, I think Yes, we can find concrete guidance for our day. Jude clearly warns that the church and by extension the wider communion will be torn at its deepest level by conflict over the truth of the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” He also makes clear that believers, all believers, must be prepared to contend for the true faith, which includes calling a spade a spade, indeed calling particular persons heretics. In looking back at the decline of the Episcopal Church, I wonder if we cannot identify one key moment to be the recommendation of the Bayne Commission in 1967, which was investigating Bishop James Pike, that “heresy” is an unhelpful category in church affairs.

Secondly, I think Jude would argue that in contending for the faith we must use all the tools: Scripture, tradition, from the Book of Enoch to the Church fathers to the Reformers and on, and godly reason based on nature. At the same time, Jude’s reference to the fallen angels reminds us that we are engaged in spiritual warfare and that we cannot expect to remain faithful or to conquer without the godly virtues of prayer, patience and humility, waiting on the sovereign judgment of God.

Thirdly, we should note that Jude speaks as a pastor and to pastors, who are to discern the situation of their people. Some folks need to be challenged to grow up and take their full responsibility as disciples (I think this applies to a lot of Episcopalians who just want the present unpleasantness to go away). Others, particularly those trapped in the bondages of sin, need to be loved and cared for so that they may change their minds. Others need to be identified as heretics with whom one should have nothing to do (2 Timothy 3:5; Titus 3:10). As for this last group, the question is: how does one do this when they are in control of the official structures of the church?

Let me conclude with one final observation, with special reference to you who are graduating today. We do not know the fate of Saints Simon and Jude. There is good though brief evidence that “the Lord’s brothers” – and this would include Jude the Lord’s brother - were traveling evangelists (1 Corinthians 9:5). Tradition has it that Simon and Jude were missionaries to Persia where they were martyred, reminding us of those today whose blood cries out around the world. Those who are commissioned today will certainly have to contend for the faith in our churches and in our culture. My point is this: whatever trouble we may find ourselves in in our particular church, the mission of Christ to take the Gospel to the end of the earth cannot be neglected. Indeed it may well be, in the providence of God, that help may be coming for our church and our communion from those very missionaries and martyrs like James Hannington and the Ugandan converts who paid the ultimate price for their faith [remembered in the American cycle of saints on October 29]. Let us not therefore cease to remember our brothers and sisters around the world and the Anglican Communion, and to do good for them.

May God have mercy on our church and our communion! May he light the path ahead through his Word and Spirit and the witness of saints and martyrs and equip present-day witnesses like those going out today. May he bring us to that upland where with all the saints in light we may offer praise and glory through Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.


Note: RICHARD HOOKER ON THE EPISTLE OF JUDE

It may come as a surprise to some that the “judicious Mr. Hooker” wrote two sermons on the Epistle of Jude (see
http://books.google.com/books?id=O84CAAAAQAAJ&vid=OCLC02547900&jtp=462#PPA473,M1 pages 462-509)

However, given my suggestion that ecclesiology is the presenting issue of our day, it is not surprising that the Reformation theologian who most addressed in his day would have turned to the Epistle of Jude.

In an essay on “Broken Communion” ten years ago (http://www.stephenswitness.com/1999/03/broken-communion.html), I gave a brief exposition of Hooker’s argument as it applies to our situation today.

Richard Hooker’s Sermon on Jude

The following is taken from sections 11 and 15 of Hooker’s Sermon on Jude (on Jude 17-21)

11. . . . WE, whose eyes are too dim to behold the inward man, must leave the secret judgment of every servant to his own Lord, accounting and using all men as brethren both near and dear unto us, supposing Christ to love them tenderly, so [long] as they keep the profession of the gospel and join in the outward communion of the saints. Whereof the one doth warrantize unto us their faith, the other their love, till they fall away and forsake either the one or the other or both. And then it is no injury to term them as they are. When they separate themselves, they are autokatakritoi, not judged by us, but by their own doings.

Men do separate themselves either by heresy, schism, or apostasy. If they loose the bond of faith, which then they are justly supposed to do when they frowardly oppugn any principal point of Christian doctrine, this is to separate themselves by heresy. If they break the bond of unity, whereby the body of the Church is coupled and knit in one, as they do which wilfully forsake all external communion with saints in holy exercises purely and orderly established in the Church, this is to separate themselves by schism. If they willingly cast off and utterly forsake both profession of Christ and communion with Christians, taking their leave of all religion, this is to separate themselves by plain apostasy. . . .

15. Here I must advertize all men that have the testimony of God’s holy fear within their breasts, to consider how unkindly and injuriously our own countrymen and brethren have dealt with us by the space of four and twenty years, as if we were the men of whom St Jude here speaketh, never ceasing to charge us, some with schism, some with heresy, some with plain and manifest apostasy, as if we had clean separated ourselves from Christ, utterly forsaken God, quite abjured heaven, and trampled all truth and all religion under our feet.

Against the third sort [apostasy], God himself shall plead our cause in that day, when they shall answer us for these words, not we them.

To others, by whom we are accused for schism and heresy, we have often made our reasonable and in the sight of God, I trust, allowable answers. For in the way which they call heresy, "we worship the God of our fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and the Prophets" (Acts 24:14).

That which they call schism, we know to be our reasonable service unto God and obedience to his voice which crieth shrill in our ears, "Go out of Babylon, my people, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues" (Revelation 18:4).

Comment:
Hooker begins with a standard Anglican refusal to look into the soul of those who "keep the profession of the gospel and join in the outward communion of the saints" (cf. Article XXVI). For Hooker, outward profession would include specific articulations of biblical Christianity, such as those summarized in the Creeds and the Articles. Those who abandon either doctrinal conformity or participation in the life of the church — or both — can be labeled heretics, schismatics, or apostates.

Hooker later distinguishes the three ways that people can "separate themselves" from the faith once delivered to the saints: heresy, schism, and apostasy. Heresy is the denial of "any principal point of Christian doctrine." For Hooker and the Reformation Anglicans, "doctrine" would certainly include the moral "Commandments" (note how he cites "believing all things written in the Law and the Prophets" as a defense of Anglican orthodoxy).

Schism applies to those who break "external communion," while apostasy applies to those who are both heretical and schismatic. The Roman Catholics had accused the Church of England of being apostate. Hooker’s response turns the tables. Anglicans, he says, are not schismatic; indeed they are obedient to God because they have departed from Rome. In other words, there come times in the history of God’s people when those who leave are faithful and those who remain are schismatic. Needless to say, all schismatics say this, but Hooker argues that part of one’s "reasonable service" to God is discerning when it is necessary to come out.

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