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Three Streams: Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic

Three Streams: Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic

The Ven. Dr. Christopher A. Brown
Special to Virtueonline
November 4, 2014

The Three Legged Stool

Episcopalians commonly speak of a "Three-Legged Stool" of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. The "Three-Legged Stool" is not an official formula of Anglican identity, in contrast to the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion (page 867, Book of Common Prayer), and there is a persistent temptation to place Scripture, Reason and Tradition on the same level, perhaps as an attempt to avoid Biblical fundamentalism. Anglicanism, however, has always affirmed the "Primacy of Scripture." Tradition and reason are simply means by which the Church interprets Scripture, and applies it in a pastoral context; they are not independent sources of revelation.

Scripture, Reason and Tradition are not of equal significance, and to the extent that the Three-Legged Stool concept implies that they are, it is misleading. Nevertheless, the Three-Legged Stool retains a certain utility, especially in so far as it can be correlated with the three famous emphases within Anglicanism: "Low Church," "High Church" and the "Broad Church." "Low Church" designates a Protestant emphasis, which traditionally places value on Scripture. "High Church" Anglicans gravitate toward tradition. The "Broad Church" involves a non-doctrinaire commitment to reasonableness. These three emphases form a dynamic tension in which they complement one another within the so-called "comprehensiveness" of Anglicanism.

Three Streams of Renewal

In recent years a similar -- and perhaps more vital -- three-fold notion of Anglican comprehensiveness has emerged. Anglicans committed to a spiritual and theological revival of the Church speak of "Three Streams": Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic. Often these three approaches to Christian life seem to be mutually exclusive. As Professor Les Fairfield has said, "Fellowship amongst [these] three historic strands of Anglicanism has often been difficult." However, there are many, and I am among them, who believe that the historical Church in its fullness is fundamentally Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic at the same time. While there may be tensions among these three streams, they balance each other and together contribute to the fullness of the Body of Christ.

There is nothing intrinsically "Anglican" about these three streams. They flow (as it were) through the entire Universal Church. Anglicanism, however, while committed firmly to the essentials of the Creed, classically avoids overly rigid doctrinal formulas. As a result, Anglicans are uniquely positioned to assimilate these three streams and hold them in a creative tension.

The Church is Catholic

The Greek word, katholicos (καθολικός), means "general" or "universal." Ignatius of Antioch was the first to use the word to speak of the universal Church, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans in 107 A.D., "Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

From this point on, the term "catholic" has been a marker of authenticity that distinguishes the universal apostolic church from all narrow sects and heretical offshoots. To be catholic, a local church must be accountable to the universal body of Christ. This universality expresses itself not just in the extension of space, but also across time. Catholicity entails our fellowship with the church in Nigeria, and South America, and Eastern Europe, but also extends to our unity with the church of the Apostles, of the Church Fathers, of medieval monks and sixteenth century reformers.

In its commitment to universality -- extended in time and space -- the Catholic stream stresses three key dimensions in the life of the Church, 1) orders of ministry, 2) church tradition, and 3) the sacraments.

Beginning with Ignatius of Antioch, the role of the bishop (assisted by priests and deacons) has been fundamental to the catholicity of the Church. For Ignatius, the bishop stood in the place of the apostles -- even of Christ. The Greek word, apostello means "to send," and an apostle is "one who is sent." Jesus said, "whoever receives the one I send receives me" (John 13:20). Following the New Testament, the earliest Christian documents present the role of the bishop as an extension of this "sending" of the Apostles. "We should regard the bishop as the lord himself," says Ignatius, and "...obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ." While this may grate on our sensibilities in an egalitarian and anti-hierarchical age, the emphasis is not on the individual, or some sort of cult of personality, but on the office the bishop in representing Jesus Christ.

The Catholic stream roots itself in the tradition of the Church. The Apostle Paul urges the church in Thessalonica to act in "accord with the tradition that you received from us," and to "hold to the traditions that you were taught by us." (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 2:15) Tradition here is the character and content of teaching. Hence for a Christian today, tradition finds expression in the creeds and liturgies that we recite, and in patterns of worship, teaching and devotion that we have received. Adherence to tradition does not preclude new insights, or creative responses to the challenges of the present, but it also keeps us grounded in an accountability to the historic Christian experience.

Finally the Catholic Stream places a great emphasis on the sacraments as the means of participation in Christ. Sacramental acts always function within the framework of the whole body of Christ; they always have a fundamentally corporate or communal dimension, and an objectivity which militates against eccentric and individualistic excesses.

The Church is Evangelical

The Apostle Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." (Romans 1:16) An evangelical is someone who is not "ashamed of the Gospel." In Greek, the term "gospel" or evangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) means "good news" in the sense of the prophetic announcement of Isaiah 52:7,

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

Evangelicals stress the urgency of message of Salvation. They focus on the essentials of the Christian faith: the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross for the atonement of sin, the bodily resurrection, ascension and anticipated return of Christ, and the need for personal conversion and continuing sanctification.

While some Episcopalians today have negative stereotypes about Evangelicals rooted in the culture wars of the present, many leading evangelical Christians have been Anglicans: John Wesley, George Whitfield, Charles Simeon, William Wilberforce, John Stott, J.I. Packer and Alister McGrath. Moreover, one can have an evangelical commitment to proclaiming the Gospel, without being identified specifically as an Evangelical Christian. In this sense, wherever an individual's denominational loyalties or preferences of worship style may lie, every Christian with an urgent commitment to the Gospel is an Evangelical.

The Church is Charismatic

The Charismatic stream focuses on the charismata or "gifts" of the Holy Spirit. In his letter to the volatile congregation in Corinth, Paul says that "there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit," and that "to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:4, 7). He elaborates on a list of particular gifts, many of which have a decidedly supernatural character. These include healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues and the gift of discernment of spirits. The story of the early church in the Book of Acts indicates that these gifts were dramatically present in the early Christian community, confirming the words of Paul, "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works" (2 Corinthians 12:12).

The supernaturalism associated with the Gifts of the Spirit calls attention to a Living God who is active and present in the midst of his people. Yet an over-emphasis on the dramatic character of the "charismata" can obscure the normative character of the work of the Spirit in Christian life. Faith itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit -- "No one can say Jesus is Lord, except through the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:3) It is through Spirit that we are all adopted as Children of God and share in the "sonship" of Jesus Christ - "because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4:6).

Moreover, once the Holy Spirit has accomplished our incorporation into Christ, the Spirit continues to endow us with gifts -- all of us -- to enable us to serve and build up the whole Body of Christ. "Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift....And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:7-13).

These passages point to the fact that the charismatic dimension of Christian life is normative for every Christian; it is not just a peripheral form of devotion for those who attracted to that sort of thing.

Three Streams In Balance

Each of these three streams complement and balance each other. By itself the Catholic dimension can lead to a dry formalism, in which the outward forms of the liturgy and sacraments can obscure a warm personal faith. By itself, the Evangelical emphasis on personal conversion may give rise to excessive individualism. The dramatic charismatic expressions of the Spirit may lead excessive emotionalism, and a hankering after signs and wonders that preclude the faithful act of "walking by faith and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Each of these three streams draws upon a different but crucial facet of the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Each can lead to an extreme -- and there are many examples in Christian history. Yet each offers a corrective for the others and together they draw us closer to the breadth and fullness that is in Christ, that we "may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:18-19).

The Very Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown is a theologian and rector of Trinity Church, Potsdam and a regular contributor to the Albany Episcopalian. This article was first published in the Albany Episcopalian and is reproduced with permission of the author.

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