Alister McGrath

This tag is associated with 13 posts

Book Review: “Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis, and the Meaning of Life” by Alister McGrath

Alister E. McGrath, in Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis, and the Meaning of Life, constructs a pithy look at the titular question through the lenses of two of the most famous (or infamous, depending your leanings) thinkers of the last century.

This short volume features four chapters about, respectively, why meaning matters, reasoned belief, whether there is a God, and what human nature is. C.S. Lewis and Richard Dawkins almost could not be more far afield in their answers to these questions, but McGrath does a good job integrating thoughts of each of them into the text so that readers can understand some of the answers they gave.

What may surprise readers at times is how Dawkins’s views effectively take to extremes some of Lewis’s cautions. For example, Dawkins is highly critical of myth and the notion of letting it control our lives. But Lewis isn’t an ignorant fool simply because he was a Christian. Lewis himself offers cautions regarding the way that myths can lead to stigmatization and false beliefs (13). On another extreme, Dawkins purports to believe that science is proof and effectively nothing else is. But Lewis notes that the very concept of proof is illusive even on some physical questions. Do we need to discount the possibility of any true beliefs simply because we cannot prove them?

What is perhaps most interesting is the very brief synthesis of thought McGrath offers near the end, where he notes that while these thinkers disagree sharply on the meaning of various questions, they agree that there are problems in the way of pursuing human goals and that there are limitations on human nature. For Dawkins, the primary thing in the way, so to speak, is our own genetic and evolutionary past, to which we may be dancing whether we want to or not. For Lewis, the captivity of sin has engulfed us and prevented us from pursuing goals.

Ultimately, McGrath leaves the questions open ended at the close of the book. What he accomplishes in Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis, and the eaning of Life is to get readers to consider these deep questions and perhaps how they may relate to each other. He also opens up avenues for further exploration.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Sunday Quote!- Sola Scriptura and Reading the Bible

ioer-mcgrathEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Sola Scriptura and Reading the Bible

Alister McGrath has done much work in the area of Reformation theology. Here, he has some extremely important words about how sola scriptura does not, in and of itself, yield a way to read Scripture:

The Reformation principle of sola scriptura is rendered either meaningless or unusable without a reliable hermeneutical program… The hermeneutical presuppositions of theologians inevitably exercise considerable influence over their theological conclusions. (148, cited below)

Too often, people assume that if we just look at the text, we’ll know what it says. If we just read the words, that’s the meaning. But everyone presupposes a hermeneutical system, and the danger is that if we are not aware of this, we may be using an unreliable one, and our presuppositions will influence us to read the text as meaning something it does not, in fact mean. McGrath shares this and many other insights in this important work.

What do you think of this? How important is it to be aware of the way we’re reading the Bible?

Links

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Microview: “Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation” by Alister McGrath- I reviewed this highly interesting book by Alister McGrath. Be sure to read this as well!

Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)

Source

Alister E. McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

SDG.

Sunday Quote!- The Heartbeat and Delight of Christianity

h-mcgrathEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

The Heartbeat and Delight of Christianity

I re-read Alister McGrath’s Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth recently and found it to be just as thought-provoking and engaging as when I read it the first time. One beautiful line was about the core of Christianity:

If there is a heartbeat of the Christian faith, it lies in the sheer intellectual delight and excitement caused by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is the one whom the church finds to be intellectually luminous, spiritually persuasive, and infinitely satisfying, both communally and individually. (17, cited below)

I found this passage quite powerful. Jesus is the heartbeat of Christianity, and our delight. Without Christ, there is no faith. Without our Lord, there is no salvation. But McGrath goes beyond that: Jesus of Nazareth is an intellectually compelling person, which drives us to seek out formulations to explain who He is; Christ is satisfaction and communal unity.

Have you thought about Jesus in these ways? How has Jesus spurred your intellect? In what ways have you recently delighted in the person of Jesus Christ?

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)

Book Review: “Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth” by Alister McGrath– Check out my review of McGrath’s book.

Source

Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

SDG.

Sunday Quote!- Heresy as the Historical Loser?

h-mcgrath Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Heresy as the Historical Loser?

Alister McGrath’s book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth was a great read when I read it around two years ago, so I decided to reread it and get my notes in computer form. Almost immediately I began to discover reasons I enjoyed it so much. For example, McGrath notes that heresy has garnered much excitement and interest of late. Many see ancient heresies as something worth reconsidering, perhaps in light of losing by chance. He writes:

In this view, the distinction between heresy and orthodoxy is arbitrary, a matter of historical accident. Orthodoxy designates ideas that won, heresy those that lost. (3, cited below)

The rest of the book is dedicated to the history of heresy and how it interacted with orthodoxy. What do you think, though, of this notion that the distinction between heresy and orthodoxy is arbitrary? Could it be that orthodoxy is merely a historical accident? McGrath, of course, argues that it is not.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)

Book Review: “Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth” by Alister McGrath– Check out my review of McGrath’s book.

Source

Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

SDG.

Sunday Quote!- Beauty of Creation?

tos-mcgrathEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

The Beauty of Creation?

I’ve finished rereading The Open Secret by Alister McGrath. It presents a powerful picture of natural theology as touching every aspect of life.

One of the branches of evidence for the argument from design is the notion that the world in which we live is beautiful. However, many have rightly noted that there seems to be a disconnect between this picture of the world as beautiful and loving and the reality that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Yet Christian natural theology has a more complete view of the world:

…[N]ature as presently observed, cannot be assumed to be nature, as orginally created… The creation stands in need of renewal from a God who will create all things anew… There is a profoundly eschatological dimension to an authentically Christian natural theology… The fading beauty and goodness of the world are to be interpreted in light of the hope of their restoration and renewal. (208; 206, cited below)

Christianity does acknowledge the notion that creation is “groaning” and that nature may show much disorder and vileness alongside beauty and transcendence. The former attributes are results of the fall, but as McGrath noted, Christian natural theology is eschatological: it looks ahead to a future where all things will be renewed and consummated God’s divine plan.

It seems to me this vision of the future is something which gives natural theology within Christianity a broader explanatory scope which may not be matched by other systems. By orienting this world as it is in between a broader historical scheme of creation, fall, redemption, consummation, this vision of natural theology allows for and even expects many of the observed phenomena.

What do you think? What is your view of how the beauty of creation may be balanced with some of its ugliness?

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)

“A New Vision for Natural Theology” A Book Review of “The Open Secret” by Alister McGrath– I review the book discussed in this post. It presents a vision for natural theology and apologetics.

Sunday Quote!- The War Between Science and Religion

ia-adEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

The War Between Science and Religion

I recently finished reading Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition. I have a review of the book coming in some time, but for now I’ll say it was an uneven experience. Lots of high points; many low points. One high point was Alister McGrath’s discussion of science and religion and the alleged war between the two:

This conflict is often expressed more generally in terms of the phrase ‘science and religion’, which unhelpfully reifies both notions, attributing concrete identity to abstractions. Science and religion are not well-delimited entities, whose essence can be defined; they are shaped by the interaction of social, cultural and intellectual factors, so that both notions are shaped by factors that vary from one cultural location to another… the historical evidence suggests that it was actually [two 19th century works not by Darwin] which crystallized a growing public perception of tension and hostility between science and religion. (144, 145)

I think this quote is particularly thought-provoking due to its two pronged approach to the “science vs. religion” mentality. First, I think McGrath is certainly correct to note that the reification of the terms is unhelpful, to say the least. People often say things like “science says ___” or “religion says ___.” Such statements turn either science or religion into separately existing, distinct entities which somehow make proclamations. In other words, they remove either concept from the people putting for the concepts under the umbrella terms “science” or “religion.” I find this unhelpful, and as McGrath later notes, only use the terms out of convention.

Second, exploring the historical origins of an idea like the “war” thesis between science and religion often has astonishing results. One finds, often, that one’s assumptions are challenged and even overthrown by the evidence.

What do you think? What other concepts might we unintentionally reify through our use of terms? How might we seek to avoid doing this?

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Source

Alister McGrath, “The Natural Sciences and Apologetics” in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition edited by Andrew Davison (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).

Back-Alley Abortions, Apologetics, Male Hierarchy, and more! – Really Recommended Posts 10/18/13

snowl-owl-post-arpingstoneI have given you, dear reader, this edition of “Really Recommended Posts” which is simply bulging at the seams with great content. Herein, you shall discover the myth of the back alley abortion, an analysis of male rule, sociology and religion’s impact on society, Augustine and the creation/evolution debate, and more! Check ’em out. Let me know what you think!

Is Male Rule a Biblical Ideal?– Here, Mimi Haddad confronts some of the common arguments for male rule in the church and home. These arguments include the fact that Jesus was male, that the 12 disciples were male, etc.

Sociologist Rodney Stark discusses whether religion is good for society– A highly interesting post in which a sociologist takes on claims that religion could be bad for society. Looking into the actual statistics and facts of the matter makes an extraordinary difference to one’s perception.

Pro-Choice “Facts”: Illegal Abortion Deaths– One of the very common arguments for abortion is that we need to keep such things safe. After all, if women will get abortions anyway, we should try to keep them safe. This article examines the myth of the back-alley abortion and exposes it for what it is: a fraud.

The dangers of apologetics– My wife linked me to this article which I think makes some extremely valuable points regarding the nature and practice of apologetics. I particularly liked that the author did not throw apologetics out the window but rather offered pieces of advice for apologists and what to avoid as an apologist. What are your thoughts?

Augustine’s Origin of Species– Within the creation/evolution debate, many continue to allege that one cannot consistently be a Christian and hold to certain views of the age of the universe or the origin of species. Here, Alister McGrath analyzes these claims alongside the wonderful Christian theologian, Augustine.

Signs that the New Atheist Movement May be Collapsing– A post which examines the intellectual collapse of the New Atheism. I think the most fascinating point is the third, that New Atheists are suppressing intellectual dialogue.

John Loftus Exits in Infamy– Speaking of the New Atheists, David Marshall analyzes his own recent dialogue with John Loftus, a[n] [in]famous atheist. The way the dialogue proceeded is highly telling.

Really Recommended Posts 10/11/13- Worldview, Wilberforce, and World [Religions]! Plus some more!

postDear readers, this week I stumbled across a collection of posts I had prepared some months ago for your reading, but had forgotten to actually share! I have now rectified that error by placing the following posts before you for your reading pleasure. Check ’em out, and as always, leave a comment to let me know what you thought!

Dallas Willard – The Nature and Necessity of Worldviews (Video)– An hour-long presentation by the late Dallas Willard on worldviews. He provides some good insights into what makes up a worldview and the applications thereof.

William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and Their Legacy in Public Education– A wonderful but brief historical post reflecting on the impact of Wilberforce and the More sisters upon education today. Christian lives lived.

C.S. Lewis: A Life, by Alister McGrath – Book Review– I haven’t hard the opportunity to read this biography by Alister McGrath, but this review at least quenched some of my thirst by providing a great overview and discussion of the work.

Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity– What are young atheists saying? Whatever it is they are telling us about religion is quite instructive, because it allows Christians to shore up their defenses and counter the distortions atheists have about Christianity. Most importantly, it seems that Christians are viewed as insincere and unconcerned with the way their beliefs should inform their lives. Read this post and get some valuable takeaways.

Allah is not Jehovah– I found this post to be remarkably insightful. There are some who have been trying to synthesize Christianity and Islam. The fact is that these two faiths are mutually contradictory on a number of points. This post by the “Valley Girl Apologist” outlines 21 major differences between Islam and Christianity.

The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our lives, our thoughts, our theology- Reformation Review

The Reformation has had a lasting impact upon our lives. You may not realize it, but from the economy to politics, from theology to family life, the debates of the Reformation resonate through to today. Here, we will investigate in very broad strokes the influence the Reformation continues to have on our daily lives.

Family

The Reformation period led to a development of thought about the family. Praise of the family over and against celibacy was ubiquitous throughout the Reformation thinkers (Diamard MacCulloch, The Reformation, 647ff). Erasmus was one of those spearheading this critique. Along with this notion of the importance of the family, the notion that marriage was sacred was reaffirmed. Although not a sacrament according to Protestant thought, marriage was still a sacred institution created by God (Ibid, 648).

The Reformation’s thought on marriage was largely patriarchal. Men were the heads of the family both spiritually and in society. This was less a development of the Reformation as it was a continuation of the view of marriage in contemporary cultural thought. Interestingly, Protestantism led to a relaxation of two aspects of marriage. First, the clergy was allowed to marry; second, divorce was legally established in many Reformation contexts (MacCulloch, 660). By allowing for divorce, the Reformers undercut the notion of marriage as a sacrament (as above), but they also helped draw a distinction between the moral law of the Bible and the law of the land. Whether this was for better or worse, one may debate.

Economy

Capitalism had already begun before the European Reformations, having its renewal start in Italian city states in the 12th Century (for a detailed and extremely interesting discussion of this, see Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason71ff). The Reformation, however, provided a place for capitalism to flourish. John Calvin’s thought touched upon nearly every contemporary problem, and one of these was usury (money lending at interest). Focusing upon the cultural context of the prohibition of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, Calvin argued that his contemporary cultural context provided a way for usury to work without being necessarily wrong. Lending money in such a fashion was essential for the later development of capitalism (Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 259-260).

The Reformation also paved the way for a “Protestant Work Ethic.” Martin Luther’s notion of the “priesthood of all believers” demolished the hard distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” realm which dominated the thought of the church at the time. By breaking down this barrier, hard labor was elevated. It was no longer seen as an inferior life to that of monastic withdrawal; rather, any type of work could be pleasing to God (McGrath, 256-258). In contemporary churches, one can often hear about how the engineer, the retail worker, the auto worker, and the like should all utilize their skills to the glory of God. Such thinking came directly from the Reformation.

Theology

Clearly, the most pervasive influence of the Reformation has been upon theology. I have already written on a number of these aspects. The Reformation thought necessarily reflected upon the church. How do we define the church, and who belongs in the church? These questions drove the Reformers to a number of views on the role of the church universal. I discuss these at length in my post on the Church Universal. Central to the Reformation was the notion of sola scriptura. However, it quickly became apparent that without any specific way to interpret Scripture, radical individualism would follow. I’ve written on the Reformers views on these topics and the continuing debate today in my post on Sola Scriptura. To try to list all the areas of theology that the Reformation touched upon would be impossible for a post of this size, so suffice to say I will be discussing these more in the future.

Other Aspects

Diarmard MacCulloch, in his magisterial study of the Reformation, aptly named The Reformation, notes a number of other aspects of contemporary society that remain influenced by the Reformation. Briefly, these include aspects of life like dying (ha!), discipline, manners, love and sex, and religious diversity. In short, no aspect of society remains untouched by the Reformation.

Counter Reformation

It would be remiss of me to write this without noting that one of the huge continuing influences of the Reformation was the Roman Catholic counter-reformation. The Reformation did not go by unnoticed by Roman Catholics, by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, the Catholic Church reacted against the Reformation and, in part, did so by incorporating many aspects of the Reformation.

Interestingly, some of the debates that played out within Protestantism were mirrored within the Roman Catholic Church. For example, a debate similar to the Calvinist-Arminian arguments became pervasive in Banezian and Molinist schools of thought. It is intriguing to note, however, that the Catholics largely allowed these debates to remain internal without dividing. The Catholic Church, it seems favored doctrinal humility over unity on a number of levels (for a discussion of doctrinal humility/unity, check out my post on the Church).

That is not to say, however, that the Roman Catholics were eager to affirm every aspect of the Reformer’s theology. Part of the counter-reformation included the Inquisition and the formation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus to counter what he saw not as doctrinal aberration but lives that were not conformed to the moral standards of the church (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations333ff).

Finally, it could easily be argued that the modern innovation of Vatican II has its roots within the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The changes brought about by Vatican II reflect a development of thought that has occurred since the Reformation on many of the issues brought up by the Reformers.

Conclusion

The Reformation’s influence on today’s society is pervasive. Our thinking on family, economy, working, theology, sex and sexuality, and more are all reflections of the influence of Reformation thought. In many ways, these aspects of our lives are just further reforms on the thoughts of the Reformers. The aspects in which we have changed dramatically since the Reformation, it could be argued, are areas in which the Reformation laid the groundwork for exploration. Our thoughts are Reformation thoughts. Our debates are Reformation debates. Our God is the Reformation’s God.

Regardless of your own feelings on the Reformation, these comments are undeniable. The way you think is largely formed by the debates that happened during the Reformation. Your freedom of expression was opened by Reformation developments on the value of every human being. Investigating the Reformation is a worthy endeavor because it opens up new avenues for exploration of our own era.

Links

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

The Church Universal: Reformation Review–  What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.

Sources

Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005).

Thanks

Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Church Universal: Reformation Review

Perhaps the most crucial debate of the Reformation Era was over the nature of the universal church. During the Reformation, the church had split into numerous separate bodies. But were each of these bodies truly “the church”? Was salvation only found through membership in the Catholic Church? Finally, how did one determine what church bodies were part of “the church” if there were some new criterion for establishing what counted as “the church”? Having found their origins prior to the Reformation and a spectrum of answers during the Reformation, these questions continue to be debated into our own time.

The Church Universal

The key to understanding the emerging doctrine of the church within the Reformation is to note a distinction in meanings for “apostolic continuity.” On the one hand, one could note a literal apostolic continuity in which the authority of the Apostles themselves was passed from one person to another. On the other hand, some argued that the authority of the church was found in continuity with apostolic doctrine, not with a literal continuity of passed-on authority (McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction 141ff, cited fully below).

The Protestants began to view church authority as a consequence of right doctrine. This view allowed them to divorce themselves from the Roman Catholic church (and thus potentially lose the literal passing down of authority from one to another from the apostles) while still maintaining that their own churches remained part of the church universal.

Yet this was not the only question facing those trying to distinguish which churches were “true” as opposed to “false” churches. Surely there ought to be some signs of a “true church” to distinguish it from those that had fallen away. Martin Bucer and Martin Luther offered ways forward on this: the marks of the church. Luther insisted that what made a true church was “right administration of the sacraments and true preaching of the Gospel” while Bucer held that there was a third mark: discipline (Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation, 181, cited below).

The Background to the Reformation Debate

Alister McGrath notes how important it is to note the origins of the reformation debate regarding the church here. Specifically, the debate can be traced back to the Donatist controversy in the earlier church (third century). Essentially, this controversy centered around the very nature of the true church. The Christian church had been persecuted, and many had renounced their faith in order to avoid persecution. The question was asked: should these persons be allowed back into the true church? Could they still administer the sacraments and interact with the true body of Christ?

The Donatists said that those who had lapsed had become apostate and could not be allowed back into the church. However this belief was eventually considered to be incorrect and detrimental to the unity of the Church. Augustine argued against the Donatists and pointed out how the church is a “mixed body” of sinners and saints (McGrath, 144ff).

The concept of a sinner-saint was utilized by Martin Luther and other Reformers to note that the church was a body in which the Holy Spirit was actively working sanctification. That is, God was working to make the Church holy, but that did not mean that each individual in the church was absolutely devoid of sin.

How did all of this fit into the Reformation discussions on the true church? Simply put, the Donatists were radically schismatic. They sought to divorce themselves from “sinners” within the church. The Donatists were condemned for their schismatism, and so the Reformers had  to deal with the fact that they themselves had either been forcibly removed from or split from the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the importance of apostolic authority through theological unity became central in understanding the continuity of the Church.

The Modern Debates

The notion that right doctrine delineates the true church as opposed to literal apostolic continuity has a number of interesting outcomes which are very relevant for today’s church bodies.

First, it introduces a great difficulty for many church bodies in determining with whom one can fellowship. If the authority of the church universal is based upon true teachings rather than a passing down of authority from one person to another, then where is the line for how much teaching must be correct in order to remain as the true church?

Different church bodies offer different answers. Some church bodies err on the side of openness and humility and allow many into their fold who hold radically differing views. People in these organizations may hold to different views on things like the ordination of women, the age of the earth, and the like. Other church bodies err on the side of unity in doctrine and restrict membership to those that affirm sound doctrine as taught by their own body. For these church groups, a certain creed or body of work is referenced as the authoritative teaching of the church. If one differs from these teachings, then one is not part of their church body. (For more on the notion of using creeds or bodies of teachings as authoritative interpretations, see my post on “Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era.”)

To be frank, some Christians fail to recognize the diversity of these answers and simply assume that anyone who has a differing organizational structure is “liberal” or “conservative”–using the words in a derogatory manner. Such an attitude does not contribute to discussions on church organization. By failing to recognize the commendable attitude of humility in the churches that emphasize the unity of faith as opposed to the unity of individual doctrines, some unfairly label other church bodies as unbiblical or apostate. Similarly, by failing to recognize the commendable need for unity of belief in church bodies that emphasize right belief, some unfairly label these church bodies as schismatic or unchristian.

It also seems to me that both of these groups should learn from each other. Too many church groups vary too far one way or the other on these issues. Church bodies that emphasize humility in doctrine can often undermine their own church’s teachings. Similarly, church bodies that emphasize unity in doctrine can undermine their capacity for outreach and cooperation with other church bodies.

The Roman Catholic Church, following Vatican II, officially viewed non-Catholic churches as separated brethren–other bodies of true believers who were practicing independently. Such an affirmation ultimately undermines part of the debate that has raged since the Reformation: are Protestants saved, according to Roman Catholic teaching? This debate was hot during the Reformation and beyond, as the Roman Catholic church continued to deny salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Now, however, it is acknowledged that salvation can be found within Protestant circles as well.

Finally, the options Luther and Bucer offered to describe the “marks of the church” continue to be extremely important. Bucer’s emphasis on independent church discipline has–insofar as I can tell–largely fallen by the wayside, though it remains a point of interest in Anabaptist and other traditions. Although I would be hesitant to make a structured church discipline one of the marks of the true church, it would appear to be greatly important to have a system for disciplining those within the church who do not adhere to basic moral and/or doctrinal norms. However, this must be consistent with the notion that all believers are sinners being formed into saints through the process of sanctification. The modern church in the West perhaps does not have enough emphasis on the importance of church discipline, but caution should be taken so that a reform in this area does not lead the church back to a Donatist-like position.

Conclusion

So what makes a church a true church? The Reformers do still speak to us on this issue. Continuity with apostolic teaching is that which designates a true church. It is not easy to know where to draw the line between unity and humility, but over-emphasizing either leads to great difficulties for a church body. Of utmost importance, however, is the acknowledgement that though not all church bodies agree on every topic (there’s an understatement!), these church bodies are part of the saving body of Christ and therefore part of the salvific work of the Holy Spirit. Remembering this simple fact might help to spur on a bit of humility and unity among the Church Universal.

Links

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

Sources

Alister E. McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Image: credit to Beatrice- http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Pietro_e_Ponte_SAngelo_(notte).jpg

Thanks

Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!

SDG.

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