Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around. ~ G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
When considering major decisions for the Church, Christians can’t merely look to the opinions of those who live in only one geographic area. Neither should a body of Christians only consider what those who are presently alive have to say on any major issue. The Church is a communion of saints (holy people set apart by faith) throughout space and time. The Church consists of Christians around the globe and throughout history. The importance of tradition, as Chesterton noted, is that it enables us to listen to the voice of those who though dead still speak.
Progressives in the United Methodist Church are advocating that we change the definition of marriage and loosen the standards for sexual ethics. One major rationale given is that morality is “contextual.” This is what proponents of the so-called One Church Plan have insisted. Apparently the UM judicial council concurs. At least they say there is nothing in our doctrinal standards that would require uniformity of moral standards when it comes to marriage and sexual morality. Make note, however, that the One Church Plan doesn’t assume that there would be wide distance in terms of contextual standards for morality.
The assumption is not that moral standards may vary between continents or countries, or other large geographical areas. The assumption is that moral standards regarding marriage and sexual ethics may vary within local communities from local church to local church. The assumption is that different UM churches within the very same community, perhaps just on opposite sides of the street, can operate with contradictory definitions of marriage and different teaching regarding sexual morality, one of the most controversial issues of our time religiously and politically, and still somehow maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I wouldn’t bank on it!
The assumption that morality can easily be considered separately from theological doctrines is seriously flawed. One of the most essential distinguishing features of the Judeo-Christian worldview from a pagan worldview is the connection between religion and morality in the former. Nevertheless, proponents of the ironically named One Church Plan insist that separation should be made, at least with regards to sex and marriage. There also seems to be the assumption that modern times necessitate doctrinal and moral relativism because of competing interpretations of the content, nature and authority of Scripture. The idea seems to be that at our current place in history we now know that doctrinal and moral relativism is an obvious necessity, something of which our ancestors were unaware. Sometimes progressives simply refer to the current year to seal the deal. “Hey it’s 2018! Get with it! And leave that outdated morality in the past where it belongs!”
That being said, I’m not really sure that proponents of the One Church Plan are as committed to their own idea of contextuality as they say. I think they really believe in the universal rightness of their vision of human sexuality for all people every where. They are just willing to make exceptions for traditionalists as a stepping stone. That’s what Bishop Palmer said at the Uniting Methodist conference in Dallas a few months ago as he compared the views of traditionalists regarding marriage to apologists for slavery in the past. Nevertheless, for now they are using their idea of contextuality to make space for different, and competing and contradictory, standards of marriage and sexual ethics within the same denomination to gain ground.
But there is really nothing new under the sun! I think we should and we can consult our ancestors to get their opinion on the underlying premises of the One Church Plan.
I’m in a DMin focus group at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio called “Living the Historic Faith: Christian Wisdom for Today’s Church.” We seek to study Scripture and mine the great tradition of the faith to apply ancient wisdom in the modern Church. This semester we read and discussed Saint Augustine’s book called Teaching Christianity. Augustine’s basic method of teaching the faith was to help church leaders in understanding the Scriptures correctly and to communicate their meaning clearly and effectively. For Augustine to teach Christianity is to teach the Bible. I know there are those who say the Church had faith before it had a Bible. But they are usually only thinking of the New Testament canon. From the beginning the church had Scripture as a standard of the faith proclaimed, the Old Testament (see Acts 17:11). Augustine well knew that there is an inseparable interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments. He said, “The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.”
Although Augustine’s method of finding symbolic meaning in seemingly mundane passages of Scripture is odd for most of us, he did not take liberties at the expense of the literal and plain meaning of Scripture. He didn’t just interpret the Old Testament figuratively. He also gave very practical instruction in terms of understanding the plain meaning of Scripture. For one thing he recommended that people begin by reading through the entirety of the Bible to get as familiar with its contents as possible. He also assumed that Scripture as a whole was clear (perspicuous) enough that one could understand God’s general will revealed therein. He believed there was enough clarity to prevent an honest person with the help of the Holy Spirit and the Church from being led astray by misinterpreting obscure and difficult passages in a heterodox way. He believed the clear passages of Scripture revealed the rule of faith by which all else was to be interpreted. For Augustine the intent of Scripture is to lead people to the love of God and neighbor, which also serves as a primary guide for interpreting Scripture. But to be sure, for Augustine the meaning of love should be derived from the plethora of plain passages from Scripture.
Augustine did warn about the danger of interpreting things literally that should be interpreted figuratively in accordance with the rule faith; but he also warned about the danger of interpreting things figuratively as a cloak for rebellion and self-will. In one such warning I believe Saint Augustine, though dead, yet speaks directly to the folly inherent in the One Church Plan.
The human race, however, is inclined to judge sins, not according to the gravity of the evil desire involved, but rather with the importance attached to their own customs. So people frequently reckon that only those acts are to be blamed which in their own part of the world and in their own time have been customarily treated as vicious and condemned, and only those acts to be approved of and praised which are acceptable to those among whom they live. Thus it can happen that if scripture either commands something that does not accord with the customs of the hearers, or censures something which does not fit in with them, they assume they are dealing with a figurative mode of speech—if that is, their minds are bound by the authority of God’s word. Scripture, though, commands nothing but charity, or love, and censures nothing but cupidity, or greed, and that is the way it gives shape and form to human morals.
Again, if people’s minds are already in thrall to some erroneous opinion, whatever scripture may assert that differs from it will be reckoned by them to be said in a figurative way. The only thing, though, it ever asserts is catholic faith, with reference to things in the past and in the future and in the present. It tells the story of things past, foretells things future, points out things present; but all of these things are of value for nourishing and fortifying charity or love, and overcoming and extinguishing cupidity or greed. ~ Teaching Christianity, Book III:10.15
It seems pretty clear to me that Saint Augustine would be against the “One Church” Plan and the moral relativism—however selective it may be—on which it is based. Wooden literalism can certainly be harmful, but so can unwarranted figurative interpretation. As Augustine suggests, those whose minds are still bound by the authority of Scripture, will sometimes appeal to alternative interpretations to justify what Scripture actually calls sin. It’s important to note that Augustine defines charity or love as “the urge of the spirit to find joy in God for his own sake, and in oneself and one’s neighbor for God’s sake.” He defined cupidity or greed as “any impulse of the spirit to find joy in oneself and one’s neighbor, and in any kind of bodily thing at all, not for God’s sake.” In other words, Biblical love is to do all to please God; cupidity is to live to please self. One of these motivations can help us interpret Scripture faithfully, the other will lead us to distort Scripture in a self-serving and culturally accommodating way.
Augustine’s warning here resonates with John Wesley’s warning about speculative latitudinarianism (i.e. doctrinal indifference).
This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit. ~ Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” 3.1
For Wesley morality was not an indifferent matter. Earlier in the same sermon he speaks of the moral law as one the essentials of the faith. Neither did Augustine see morality as an indifferent matter subject to revision according to place and time. Augustine would certainly agree that we have to adjust language from place to place and from time to time in order to communicate the truth of the gospel more effectively. But he would certainly not go along with the idea that we also have to change the truth to which language and symbols refer from place to place and from time to time as well.
Will we be swayed by the prevailing winds of the customs and sinful sensibilities of the modern western world, “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around” in a particular time and place? Or will we listen faithfully to Scripture with the help of tradition, the voice of the saints from the past? Augustine and Wesley have spoken. Are we listening? Will the United Methodist General Conference heed their warnings? Let’s pray it does!