Monday, February 14, 2011

The Apostles and then...

Brad Jersak, in his book Her Gates Shall Never be Shut has brings forward an interesting critique of 'Infernalism' as he names the belief, very common in the Christian circles in which I have been raised and still move, that all the unregenerate are destined for Hell, a burning and eternal hell. One of the aspects of that critique is a reference to that toweringly influential church thinker, St. Augustine. He says that very likely our belief in that Hell stems from a pastoral motivation on the part of the saint, who desired that no wrong liver should see any 'out,' so to speak, except through the grace of Jesus and the obedience to his church. Or something along those lines. (I may check out the actual quote later to be more precise.)

Whether you agree with Brad on this point or not, what he says about Augustine brings up a very interesting aspect to church doctrine that I've not till now properly examined. Are there doctrines that are merely put in place to avoid any further debate in that quarter? Doctrines that smack more or less of, "Don't raise that issue again! It's too dangerous to think about." --and from a pastoral point of view-- "Think of all the people who might fall into confusion if you ask a question like that!"

Well again and again, I have just such a question in mind. What about the canon of New Testament? To 'solve' this question from, I hope, a pastoral point of view, doctrines like Inerrancy have sprung up, trying to head off any inquiry before it actually happens. But I do inquire. From what does the authority of the New Testament come? Roman Catholics have a simple answer that makes sense from Jesus own commissioning of the apostles. It stems from the authority of the church that decreed that such a canon should be. It was the church's idea and why not? Certainly at no time did Jesus predict the existence of a book that would come after him. But it's a possible and legitimate invention of the young church to meet a need they had. Makes sense. Might I add that the needs that produced such an invention have not gone away. 2000 plus years after the events in the New Testament, we need a written memory of our origins even more than the church which preserved it for us.

Protestants on the other hand have to defend sola scriptura to the high heavens, because they fear that without it, they can't have the Reformation. If they admit that the church's authority created the New Testament, they fear that they have to accept everything else in the Roman Church. (Why they don't may be the subject of another post.) And so they make some passages truly walk on all fours, especially the the "All scripture is inspired" passage and other ones -- check out this-- in their attempt to make the New Testament teach us of its own necessary existence. I find it very interesting that as you read some of the articles defending this stance that they seem to indicate that Jesus' words to the apostles -- the whole church at that time-- should be only for them --"the Spirit will guide you into all truth"-- whereas specific instructions by apostles to specific churches would be universally applicable to all believers. Does anyone see any irony there? I also find that some of the arguments lame because they seem to assume a backdrop of "God will never speak to us again."

But Jesus promised the Spirit. He never promised the New Testament. That alone should give us pause. Furthermore if you defend the New Testament's existence based on the tradition of the 'scriptures' of 2 Tim 3:16, that is, the Old Testament, watch out. Among the affirmations of the Old Testament, and Jesus does affirm it, Jesus also warns, "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life... but you are unwilling to come to me and have life." Kind of calls into question that old gospel song "Beautiful Words, Wonderful Words, Wonderful Words of Life..." don't you think?

Pondering the above by a circuitous route brings me around to what I think is an even deeper question which both the Protestants and Catholics must give account. Where are the real successors to the Apostles? To answer Catholics present the Church, by which ultimately is meant the hierarchy all the way up to the Pope. But I still say, what about any part of Jesus ministry or teaching foreshadows that? Protestants present the New Testament. It's rather like Sikhism. A succession of ten gurus and the last one gives them a book as their guru. Taking that view in the church makes it feel rather like all the good stuff has already happened. I just don't think that's a good basis on which to proceed. So no, I can't accept that either.

I wonder however whether God himself in all of his church, the whole body, of whatever stripe, isn't simply enough. What if the body of Christ is the intended successor to the apostles? I know we need the New Testament. But it's not Jesus, and it's not the Holy Spirit. It's a historical source which gives us a truthful story of Jesus and the working papers of the young church. And yes it's inspired by the Holy Spirit. But not in some exclusive way. The revelation and inspiration weren't supposed to stop and you can't really make anything in the New Testament say so. More important than the words of the New Testament is the example of Jesus and the Apostles. Instead of revering their words, we need to do as they did. Dangerous as it may seem, we are the successors to the apostles, and with fear and trembling we have to listen to God and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit now so the story can continue.

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