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ORTHODOXY: The Real Watershed - by Peter C. Moore

ORTHODOXY: The Real Watershed

By Peter C. Moore

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, gives us a hauntingly mystical view of Christ. In The Code, Jesus is married to Mary Magdalene and has children with her. Along the way, he also spawns a cult of secret goddess worshippers. According to the novel, in the modern age, the rigidly orthodox Catholic order of Opus Dei fanatically suppresses a group of cultists who keep alive Jesus’ ancient and “true” vision of Christianity. If you suspect that this plot line is too absurd to gain attention, consider that the novel has spent 52 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and is currently at the top.

One of Brown’s astonishing claims (presented as fast-paced truth) is that Jesus was never considered divine until, at the Emperor Constantine’s insistence, the Council of Nicea voted him so in 325 A.D. Brown doesn’t explain why Christians of that day never noticed this sudden change in their doctrine of Christ.

Why should we be surprised by the public’s fascination with unorthodox theses on the nature of Jesus Christ? Colorful advocates have promoted these sorts of claims for centuries. In the 19th century, cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Science sprang into existence asserting that Jesus was less than the unique Son of God. The idea they exploit is, of course, far older. In the 4th century, Arius, a presbyter in the Church of Alexandria, nearly caused a major schism by claiming that Christ was less than the Father. Fifteen emperors, five popes, scores of patriarchs, hundreds of bishops, innumerable priests, and even fervent street mobs took sides for or against Arius. Thirteen church councils hashed through the problem until it was eventually settled with the Nicene Creed.

The heresy of subjectivism

Today there is a new spin on these old heresies, arising from our culture’s fascination with religious pluralism. Along with a widespread loss of belief in absolutes, we see a loss of faith in objective truth. People now hesitate to say that any religious convictions represent literal facts. They prefer to think that all beliefs are subjective. This allows them the benefit of holding on to beliefs that offend no one. Thus, these people can appear religious but tolerant.

One of the most vigorous proponents of this new heresy is the controversial Canadian bishop Michael Ingham. He precipitated an international Anglican crisis by promoting the ordination of active homosexuals and performing same-sex blessings. Consequently, one third of the laity of his diocese (10 parishes) have left him and sought protection from the wider Communion.

Theological warfare

A few years ago, Bishop Ingham sponsored a debate on the topic, “Is Jesus Christ the only way to God?” The debaters were American Bible scholar Marcus Borg and British theologian Tom Wright, presently the Bishop of Durham. Four hundred people packed the auditorium, and 300 more were turned away; so clearly the subject was important to Anglicans in the Vancouver area.

During the debate, Borg claimed that it was acceptable for Christians to reject the traditional belief that Jesus Christ is the only way. He warned against Christians making “triumphalist and provincial claims” that Jesus is the only way. Wright, on the other hand, quoted John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one can come to God except through me.” He defended the “scandal of particularity” that asserts the politically incorrect view that Jesus is “the climax of God’s story in the cosmos.” The two scholars frequently appear on the same platform. I heard them debate at Chautauqua a couple of years later.

Tom Harpur, a popular Canadian author, columnist, and TV commentator who renounced Anglican orders some years ago, sees John 14:6 as a pretext for “coercion and then violence against those who [don’t] happen to agree.” Harpur claims that John 14:6 should not be considered historical because, in his words “the Gospel of John is not historical.” However, Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:32 say virtually the same thing as John 14:6.

And so the battle is joined. Curiously, virtually all parties to the debate would doubtless claim that they are orthodox Christians. All most likely confess the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed and insist that the differences between conservatives and liberals are merely differences in the interpretation of Scripture rather than a rejection of the authority of Scripture. Similarly, when it comes to the current divisive issue of homosexuality, the same argument is offered: we all accept the authority of Scripture, say those in favor of the revisionist agenda, we just differ on its interpretation.

I’m frankly troubled by this claim. While the issue of Christology and homosexuality seem miles apart, I see them as two sides of the same coin.

Double-think

Let’s look again at the issue with which I began. Both liberal and conservative Anglicans claim to be “orthodox” Christians. Why then do they come to very different conclusions about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ? How can a large number of priests and bishops say that they affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ, but refuse to say that he is the unique Son of God and the only Savior of the world?

Ask your rector whether she or he believes that Jesus is the “only way.” You may be surprised at the answer you get. The argument you get may sound like this: Jesus may have been the Son of God. But we cannot proclaim him to the world as anything more than “my God” or “our God.” Is this muddled-headed thinking or something worse? I am reminded of George Orwell’s “double-think.” According to his major work, Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949), double-think is the modern faculty of simultaneously harboring two conflicting beliefs!

Laity, I find, are sometimes quicker than clergy to see the incongruity of affirming one thing in a creed, and then proclaiming another from the pulpit. This was proven in a study of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. by two American sociologists. They asked why a very large number in the age group 35–55 had left the denomination. The reason was not what conventional wisdom would suggest: changes in worship, controversial social stances, poor preaching, or inadequate adult education. No, most people in this age group who left the Presbyterian Church did so for only one reason: they no longer believed that Jesus Christ was the only Savior of the world.

Liturgical dissonance

I suspect that the figures for lay flight would be much the same for the Episcopal Church. While the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only Savior is the Church’s historic position and the only logical conclusion to be drawn from our hymns, creeds and liturgies – to say nothing of the Scriptures – many church members reject it. A friend of mine wagers, for example, that 90% of those Episcopalians who support the consecration of an openly gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex relationships would deny that Jesus Christ is the only way.

Which raises the question, “What does orthodoxy mean?” Is one orthodox if one denies such a central claim of the Faith as the position of Jesus Christ? Can one say the creed, recite the prayers, sing the hymns, and claim to be orthodox, and still be unwilling to say that Jesus is the only way?

Two ways can’t both be right

During my 25 years of ministry to students, I was frequently challenged to answer the charge: “How can you say that Jesus Christ is the only Savior?” Here’s what I said:

I reminded them of Jesus’ parable about two men who went into the temple to pray. One thanked God that he was “not as other men.” He reminded God that he tithed, fasted and prayed, and was completely different from that other man “over there” who was a sinner. Most of us would conclude that the first man was sincerely religious and moral. The other man, however, knelt, beat his breast, and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” “Which one left the temple in a right relationship with God?” asked Jesus. Even his detractors had to say, “The one who asked for mercy.”

Jesus is talking about two fundamentally different approaches to God. The first approach relies on good works, honest intentions, and moral rectitude. The second approach is to cast oneself on the mercy of God. The first ultimately has no place for Jesus Christ, except as a moral teacher. The second will know Jesus at a glance, because Jesus embodies the divine mercy that is needed.

So then, I respond to my challengers by saying that Jesus is the only Savior because he alone embodies the mercy of God. No other religious teacher or prophet ever came close to offering God’s unconditional love to sinners, as Jesus did. So, if it’s mercy we know we need, Jesus is the only way. And who doesn’t need mercy?

What of the people, then, who have never heard of Jesus? Isn’t it logical to assume that, whenever they do hear of him, on this side of death or on the far side, they will recognize him as “the God they never knew?”

Orthodoxy is simply the framework in which the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is preserved. That uniqueness is not something we can disperse into the mists of subjectivism. It’s essential to our experience of unconditional mercy. Without it, we are all lost. With it, we are gloriously found.

END

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