Doctrinal Statement

of Affinity (formerly the British Evangelical Council)

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Comments and Critique

This is the Doctrinal Statement of a doctrinally based organisation. As such it provides part of the Constitution of the organisation concerned, and is written in the usual form for such constitutional doctrinal bases. My motives in criticising it are not to suggest a radical lack of sympathy for the Council’s aims; on the contrary, I have great sympathy for any organisation which exist with the aim of promoting the Gospel and defending theological truth. It is precisely because I share similar aims that I edit this website. My main motive is to promote debate concerning the limits of Christian truth and unity, and to provoke thought on the subject, even a response from those with something to say on the matter.

Of course, it would be valid to ask whether doctrine is a correct basis for Christian unity, to which the usual response is that everything we believe is, at one level or another, doctrine, and without doctrine we have no message. If Christianity’s main asset to offer to the world is a message, there must be some agreement on what that message is before it can be offered to the world with any coherence. This is true up to a point, but it can also be seen that whatever any group of Christians may lay down as their definition of that message does not prevent others defining and declaring it differently. The question then is; what is the world to see? For either we remain aloof from each other resulting in the world seeing different groups with different messages, and probably ignoring us all, or we agree to engage each other in an ongoing debate, which may become permanently unresolved in the worst case (at least, so far as the present world is concerned) but may also allow the world to see the relative merits of the arguments and, perhaps more importantly, from the common ground that does exist, that what is going on is an honest search for precision within a broader consensus which deserves to be taken seriously.

Within such a process, it is to be expected that party positions will form, and that bodies will arise to promote or maintain those positions, and that such bodies will form constitutions shaped around their position and designed to ensure its preservation. The question which then arises is; Can such bodies be sufficiently flexible to make progress as debates proceed, or are they fixed by their constitutions into immovable positions, thus preventing real progress being made?

1. The order in which items appear in a list can reveal the priorities of the lister. In this case, we have the (some may think it odd) spectacle of seeing the nature and rôle of Scripture defined before God is described. Does this suggest that, for the authors, their position on Scripture is more important than their faith in God? I sincerely hope not, but I would prefer to see this clause at number four, rather than first. Perhaps I am being unfair; it is common to see Scriptures referred to first, and it could be argued that, since our doctrinal understanding of God depends on Revelation, it is first necessary to establish the authority and source of that Revelation, but I am only half convinced. For God is the ultimate authority and source behind the Scriptures, as is made clear, and since they derive their authority from him I would prefer to see him come first. It may come down to which is more important: ontology (the ultimate reality, which we see only “through a mirror, in riddles” – I Cor 13.12) or epistemology (our understanding, through which all faith and knowledge is necessarily filtered). As an Evangelical, I prefer an order centred around the objective reality of God, rather than the subjective process, centred on our viewpoint, by which Revelation reaches us and is perceived.

The inerrancy of Scripture is a shiboleth in some Evangelical circles, but the word is not without problems. Firstly, it is obvious to anyone involved in textual criticism that many errors have crept in during transmission, hence the qualification “as originally given” which is also fairly standard. However, secondly, but more importantly, the Scriptures never claim inerrancy for themselves. They claim only to be spoken (literally “breathed out” II Tim 3.16) by God and useful for a number of purposes related to Christian growth and living. We can infer that God does not lie, and therefore we would not expect to be misled by the writings he has inspired, when we interpret them sensibly and prayerfully, trusting in the guidance of his Spirit, but that is different from claiming an absolute principle of inerrancy which goes beyond what is written (c.f. I Cor 4.6).

This is important because there is danger in pushing the infallibility of Scripture too far. It can lead to over confidence in what is, too often, our own interpretation. The Scriptures are part of the riddled mirror (I Cor 13.12) through which we see our partial view of God, and should not be mistaken for the perfection which is to come when we see him “face to face”. Another danger is of unwittingly limiting the modes of expression God may employ to speak to us. Consider the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10.30-35). Are we to assume, if the Scriptures are absolutely true, that Jesus was talking about a real incident in which a particular man was robbed and beaten, and subsequently rescued by a passing Samaritan? Presumably, travellers were sometimes attacked on the road described, and sometimes were found at the roadside by others and given assistance. It is not beyond belief that such rescuers might sometimes be Samaritans or other foreigners, as they might also have been priests or Levites less callous than the ones Jesus had in his story. But are we required to believe Jesus was referring to a specific incident rather than simply illustrating what might typically be expected? No, because Jesus’ opening two words (“Some man” – anthropos tis) point to the fictional nature of the story. The victim was not just “a man” but “some man”, and the Samaritan likewise was “some Samaritan” (v 33). Our Lord’s deliberate vagueness points to the characters’ exemplary rather than personal nature. Hence, inerrancy should not be pushed to insist that everything in the Scriptures should be taken literally. More subtle means of expression are present, and we must be alert to them.

An astute reader might object that the recorded fact in the Gospel According to St Luke was not the robbery but Jesus’ telling of the story. That might seem like a fair point until we remember the issue at stake, which is God’s truthfulness. Not only was God the Holy Spirit, through the Evangelist, recording the telling, but God the Son was the one recorded as telling it. Therefore, the parable of the good Samaritan must be as much the word of God as any other part of Scripture, and subject to the same principles regarding truth and interpretation.

We also must beware imposing our opinions on the text: whether Mark 2.26 refers to Abiathar is a matter for textual critics. We must evaluate their opinions and proceed from there. We must not prejudge the matter on the basis that if it does refer to the wrong High Priest (see I Sam 21, 22.9-20) there would then be a factual error in the text. We must base our faith on Scripture, not the other way round.

This leads to the question of what is meant by “as originally given”. There is no problem with this concept if we think all the Biblical authors simply sat down, wrote what they were told, and stopped writing when they reached the end, producing a complete original from which all subsequent copies are derived. However, that is a particular faith-position to adopt, and there is no evidence, Biblical or otherwise, to support it. On the contrary, the synoptic Gospels in particular show signs of research, compilation, editing; the usual processes that go towards the writing of books. At what stage does a compilation become an original? What about the Psalms? Again, we can see how material has been reworked. At what point do we have an original which can be held as the definitive version? Is it the first draft, the first edition sent to a copyist, or some prior form intended by the Holy Spirit of which all earthly texts are but a shadow? Are we really to believe St Paul never changed his mind about what he was dictating, or that Isaiah’s three distinct styles and historical contexts must nonetheless be the work of one man, because otherwise, how could we tell which one was the original? Again, we are in real danger of imposing our will on Scripture rather than letting it inform us.

In practice, what we are seeking is not a mythical original, but a form of the text which would have been recognised by the authors as what they intended and trusted the Holy Spirit intended through them, which would presumably be not so much an original as a final version by the original author.

Verbal Inspiration can mean two things. One is that the authors simply wrote the words they were given, which I have already discounted. The other is that, by whatever process, we can accept the words we have (allowing for textual transmission errors) as the authoritative intention of God. This is an important point, because it means nothing in Scripture can be ignored, and God can speak as much through the ambiguities and the obscure as through the direct and plain, though all must be thought through carefully. There are no merely coincidental wordings and Biblical study becomes a challenge which will forever reveal new possibilities. Without that kind of Verbal Inspiration it would become impossible to maintain the authority of Scripture or of Bible study as a serious occupation.

The supremacy of Scriptural authority over our lives can be inferred from II Timothy 3.16f. However, I am unsure about the further definition of that authority as the “only rule”. What is meant by rule here? Is it a technical term, like canon? Does it imply Christians are to follow a rule, and is that a law or a particular way of life, as in a monastic rule? Is it consistent to have a supreme authority which is then redefined as the only one? How, exactly, can the Scriptures be interpreted and applied in isolation from external rules, even if those rules are unspoken and consist of little more than our own conceits? It is a noble position to seek to be influenced by nothing more than God’s expressed will, but very hard to achieve in practice. The danger, once more is of mistaking our own follies for God’s commands.

All that said, it is true that the Scriptural claim to be spoken by God is a claim to his authority behind it, and given the intangible nature of our present partial experience, it is the only tangible means we have of accessing God’s will in matters of faith and practice. I therefore would not argue with the general intention of this first article, but rather with the excessive tightness of the terms in which it is expressed.

2. If the foregoing is too tight, this is too loose, for it emphasises only one aspect of two which define the Trinity. The unity of the triune Godhead is well expressed here, but the distinction between the persons is missing. It would be quite possible to give assent to this formula whilst believing Father, Son and Holy Spirit were simply different names for the same person. I sincerely hope that is not what the authors mean.

3. Likewise, while this affirms the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, it does not specifically link him to the Son. According to this, he could be a second god unconnected to the Godhead, though receiving some sort of approval in his conception by the Holy Ghost. Worse, the change of terminology from Spirit in 2 above to Ghost here leaves open a possibility of claiming a distinction between the two. In that case there would be no connection between Christ and the Godhead at all!

As for the identity of the body in which he rose, the empty tomb and the angels’s declaration (Matt 28.6, Mk 16.6, Lk 24.6) point to continuity with his mortal body, as does his invitation to Thomas (Jn 20.27). On the other hand, St Paul’s identification of our resurrection with Christ’s (I Cor 15.12-13,20,23) and his detailed account of how spiritual bodies replace natural ones (I Cor 15.35-53), together with the apparent difficulty some of his disciples had in recognising him (Matt 28.17, Lk 24.16 [especially if Mk 16.12 is authentic], Jn 21.4) suggest otherwise. It seems odd to hold Scripture as the Supreme Authority (1 above) and then deny beliefs derived from the Scriptural witness.

With the foregoing reservations, this article gives a good account of the two natures and ministry of our Lord.

4. This is good so far as an account of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) goes, but something curious is smuggled in at the soteriological level. Are the authors trying to insist that repentance is prior to faith and, if so, what do they mean? Do they mean conviction of sin, which might well motivate the desire to receive forgiveness, or do they mean amendment of life? If the latter, how can they hold such a belief simultaneously with “Man’s utter ruin through the fall and his salvation solely by grace...” (5 below)? For the doctrine of Total Depravity (“utter ruin”) rules out any true repentance before faith. There can be no saving repentance because it is impossible to repent until one has been saved, and no amount of repentance can be sufficient to save us. Only by grace can we be saved, as they rightly state below (5). What, then, do they mean by “saving repentance”? Is justification by works being smuggled back into Evangelical faith?

5. Unlike 4 above, this is the correct position (Rom 6.23, Gal 2.21, 3).

6. This is fairly conventional, and conforms with Scripture (c.f. Matt 8.8, 10.15, 11.22,24, 12.36,41,42, 19.29, 25.46, Lk 10.14, 11.31f, 18.30, Jn 3.16,36, 4.14, 5.21, 6.27,40,47, Acts 13.46, Rom 2.3, 6.22f, I Cor 15.12-56, 6.8, II Thess 1.5-10, I Tim 1.16, Heb 6.2, 9.27, Jas 2.12f, II Pet 2.9, 3.7, I Jn 4.17, Jd 6).

7. There is a glaring ambiguity here. Does “God’s Holy Word” refer to the Scriptures, spoken by God (II Tim 3.16), or to our Lord, identified by St John as the eternal logos (Jn 1.1)? This is not a practical distinction, for in the context one might expect the teaching of Christ to co-incide with that of Scripture, but it has implications regarding how we are to understand the incarnation. It is Christ who was God incarnate, not the Scriptures, and it would be idolatry to suggest otherwise.

However, that is not the main burden of this last article and it makes, as already noted, no practical difference to this. The real problem here is relating the two truths expressed: firstly, “The spiritual unity of all who truly believe” and secondly, “their duty to maintain in themselves and in the Church a standard...” A traditional approach to maintaining standards of faith and conduct is to apply discipline but, in practice, the only sanction usually available is ex-communication. In the case of an individual this produces little difficulty, because a maverick individual will either be brought into line or can be regarded as apostate. This may be hard on the person concerned if the discipline is unjustified in some way, perhaps because the offence caused by the behaviour or belief concerned is cultural rather than truly spiritual, or because the actions are not the result of a loss of loyalty to Christ, but have some lesser cause, but it would not injure the public witness of the Church because the perception would be of the body maintaining its own integrity. Furthermore, there are examples of and exhortations to such discipline in the New Testament (e.g. I Cor 5 and possibly Gal 1.8f).

However, when it is not one or a few people who are expelled, but a sizeable proportion of the believers, perhaps a quarter or half of the whole, we have a different situation altogether. It is now perceived as a split in the body, as Christians condemning Christians, and it becomes much more important to be able to show why the excluded (or, in the worst case, simply the other) group are not Christians at all. Without such proof we are open to the charge of dividing what our Lord intended to be one and implying that his own prayer has been frustrated, which cannot be so (c.f. Jn 14.13f, 15.16, 16.23f, 17.21).

This drives the ecumenical imperative, for while it is possible to hide behind words such as “spiritual” or “truly” it is not possible to escape from the consequence. The unity may be spiritual in nature, but its purpose, according to Christ’s prayer, is to persuade the world of the truth. To act as such a witness the spiritual unity must be externally visible. Visible unity would not necessarily be spiritual, but true spiritual unity needs to be expressed visibly if it is to acomplish its purpose.

If visible unity is itself a doctrinal issue, separation cannot be acceptable as a way to maintain doctrinal purity unless the error be so severe as to be incompatible with Christian faith at all. It may be that in the past those who disagreed, even on what might now be thought minor matters, were thought to have put themselves beyond the reach of Salvation, and thus able to be justifiably excluded. However, we now find many, in all the disparate bodies which make up the Christian Church, who are truly committed to our Lord, and it is obvious that many of the judgements of the past have been too harsh. Whilst it is a duty to maintain a standard of doctrine “in conformity with the teaching of God’s Holy Word” human beings are capable of almost infinite interpretation, and therefore it is difficult for one person to judge another’s understanding in this area.

This raises challenges both for discipline in the Church and for Doctrinal Bases, for in drawing such bases it implies a need to ensure that sincere believers could not be excluded from fellowship. The question of what one must believe to be a Christian will always be a problem when Christianity is more readily defined by in whom one believes.

Conclusion

This Doctrinal Basis shows signs of compilation from multiple sources, with discrepancies of terminology which weaken its coherence, particularly with regard to the terms Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost. Generally, Christians use these terms interchangeably, but a Doctrinal Basis is not a general usage. If it is intended to be definitive it needs internal consistency to preserve the logical flow of its definitions. Without that there is too much opportunity for eccentric interpretation. The doctrine of the Trinity is poorly expressed, as is the relationship between Salvation and works.

Perhaps more serious, however, is the implication I have drawn out of the final article concerning the basis of Christian fellowship. Is doctrine the correct basis for defining an organisation’s ethos and membership qualifications or should there be a search for something else? Of course, this question can only be considered in the context of the purpose for which the organisation exists, and where that is to represent a confessional position that position needs to be defined.

Whatever the answer to this last point, I would respectfully suggest that Affinity consider tidying up the wording.

Ken Petrie

1st Draft
3rd January 2005
Your comments welcome


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