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What Exactly is the Gospel (Part II) - by Fleming Rutledge

What exactly is the gospel (Part II)

By Fleming Rutledge

Part Two

Part one of this address had to do with the subject of good and evil, righteousness and sinfulness, godliness and ungodlinessand how the line between them runs through each person. The classic theological term for this is simul peccator et iustus (sinner and saint simultaneously).

The second subject is the doctrine of the Word of God in our present situation.

I don’t need to tell you that the Episcopal Church is in turmoil. I want to look briefly at the mainline churches in general. That’s the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ. These American denominations in direct descent from the Reformation are being challenged as never before in our history. Weekly if not daily, it seems, a new article declares that the mainlines are “losing ground” or are “in decline,” if not “collapsing” or “imploding” or “in free fall.” At the same time, the denominations themselves are splitting along lines described as “liberals” vs. “conservatives,” “revisionists” vs. “traditionalists.” Perceptive observers of the American scene emphasize the chasm between the intellectual and media elite, on the one hand, and the huge, politically influential “Christian Right” on the other. The mainlines are barely holding their traditional center. Although many individual congregations are actually thriving, the overall statistics and projections for the traditional Protestant churches are dire.

With all due respect to those who might think me presumptuous, I think I know what the problem is, and I don’t think it’s the homosexuality issue. Speaking as one who has traveled extensively through the mainline churches and listened to hundreds of sermons over a number of years, I believe that the essential problem can be precisely identified in just a few words, and they are the words of our Lord himself as he spoke to a group of Sadducees: Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? Jesus’ point against the Sadducees is that the power of God is able to create an entirely new reality that transcends all human categories.

The link between the twothe Scriptures and the power of Godis the key. The power of God is manifest through his Word. This is the power that called the creation into being, it is the force that created the Church in the first place, it is the engine that drove the Reformationyet this power today is increasingly less heard from mainline pulpits, either as thunder or as still small voice, for we have largely ceased to believe that God speaks. All the symptoms arise from that cause. That is the underlying ailment that is producing the morbid effects.

Flannery O’Connor, patron saint of those who care about language and Christian doctrine, wrote to a friend:

One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into...therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so and that religion is our own sweet invention.

We have gradually come to believe that God has no power and has not revealed himself to us. That, I think, is exactly what has happened. The current emphasis on “spirituality” puts the focus on us and our religious activities, rather than on God. It is anthropological rather than theological. Underlying all of this is the question of power, of dunamis. The idea that the Word of God is powerful in and of itself has been fading in the mainlines for a long time. I am reminded of a characteristic locution in the African-American churches. A church member will say, “Who is going to bring the message today?” or, “Thank you, Reverend, for bringing the message.” We don’t say that in the mainlines. We say, “Who’s preaching today?” or “Thank you for the sermon.” The idea of a message coming with its own power seems to lie outside our set of convictions; yet the entire biblical story is founded on that reality, and without it, the essential meaning of biblical revelation is lost. Take for example the characteristic self-introduction of Elijah the prophet:

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” And the word of the Lord came to him. (I Kings 17:1-2)

This resounding declaration sets forth some fundamental presuppositions of biblical faith:

Our God is a living God. Those chosen to be his servants stand before him to receive their commissions. His word comes to us from outside ourselves with power to execute what it demands.

It is quite possible to be flexible on the issue of homosexuality without relinquishing these foundational beliefs. What worries me is that Episcopalians are going to take this or that position on that particular issue without addressing the more basic problem: How do we go about reclaiming the Church’s confidence in the living God who speaks and acts? How are we clergy to make this God known to our people if we are not convicted ourselves? How are we to shake off our timidity before the culture and its apparent imperatives? If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare herself for the battle? (I Corinthians 14:8) The vitality of the churches will come in the present as it came in the past, through the power of the Word itselfthe reinvigorating, recreating and revolutionary dunamis of the Holy Spirit, enlivening and interpreting the message.

In Romans 10:14-17 Paul speaks of the preaching of the gospel:

But how are they to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher [better translated as “one heralding” or “one announcing”the root is kerygma]? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of the ones who announce [the root is evangel] good things!”...So then faith comes from the message, and the message is through the word of Christ. (NEB)

Paul is saying that the power in Christian proclamation is God’s message itself. The emphasis is not on the human hearing, but on God’s revelatory and performative word. The action is God’s, not ours. This is the message, the evangel, understood as victorious power, the power that removes human “spiritual” capacity to the margins altogether, so that God says (in Isaiah),

“I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”

As if to underline his meaning, Paul quotes from this paradoxical Isaianic passage in order to show that the Word of God is able to penetrate even the will that is set against God. The emphasis is on the message as invading, victorious power. As Paul reminded the Thessalonians, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5). The difference between ordinary messages and the Christian gospel is that the gospel is unconditional. It does not stand back and wait to see how the human being will respond. It is an announcement that creates its own conditions. The kerygma makes something happen. It does not ask for something to happen, it does not suggest that something happen, it does not question whether something might happen if the congregation cooperates. Rather, in the very words themselves, it is already happening.

In this second portion of my address I am therefore arguing two things:

First, we need a renewed confidence in the Scriptures and the power of God. Another way of saying this is that we need to recover the theology of the Word of God. This means that the training of clergy in seminaries for preaching and the training of congregations in parishes for participating needs to be overhauled. There was a time when great preachers were not uncommon in the Anglican Communion. Indeed, a candidate for greatest preacher ever in the English language is John Donne, 17th century dean of St. Paul’s in London. This supremacy is no longer the case. The Episcopal seminaries barely teach preaching at all, and the lay people do not raise a single protest. The doctrine of the Word of God is barely taught, partly because it is associated with the Reformation, and the Episcopal Church does not want to be Protestant any longer. This move has been accepted with astonishing passivity by the congregations, which I must admit I find difficult to understand. When we lose our confidence in the power of the Word of God to bring a new reality into being, we have fallen back on our sinful selves and our flawed and distorted “spirituality.” And so I am arguing also that,

Second: We need a stronger theological basis for inclusivity than we have at present. The underlying reason that ECUSA is in danger of splitting is not that people disagree about homosexuality. The reason is that a strong minority (yes, granted, a minority, but with strength disproportionate to its numbers) of Episcopalians are beginning to recognizehowever inchoate their understanding may bethat the theological foundation of the new teaching about sexuality is insufficient, and that the Scriptures are not being interpreted with the sort of reverent searching that believers would like to see from their leaders.

Many of our distressed church members are beginning to fall back on the labels “liberal” and “conservative.” This is unfortunate. Perhaps it is too late to reclaim the word “liberal,” but its connotations surely belong to the spirit of the Christian gospel: generous, open-handed, free, spacious, abundant, bountiful. How can “conservative” compete with that? It sounds narrow, pinched, fearful, retrogradeand for that very reason many Christians who stand on the Scriptures and the Creeds refuse the term. Theological liberalism in the mainlines today, however, is open to serious criticism because of its sentimental insufficiency. To give just one of many possible examples, the slogan of the Episcopal Church during the nineties was, “No outcasts.” This sounded wonderful; who could object to it? Surely this is in the spirit of Jesus who made a special point of befriending outcasts. But because the slogan lacked theological grounding and was never connected to the full biblical storywhich does after all have something to say about the universal reign of sin and judgment for all partiesit was by default associated with the specific administration of one Presiding Bishop. The “conservatives” in the denomination soon began to feel, with some justification, that they were the new outcasts. The slogan, in other words, lost its connection to the story of God and became an identifying tag for a particular kind of human project with all the prejudices that necessarily accrue to such ventures. The foundation for inclusivity was not strong enough or broad enough to include those who were, rightly or wrongly, labeled as evangelicals, conservatives or (worst) fundamentalists.

By the same token, of course, the litmus tests administered by the conservatives for full status within their assemblies have left various people feeling marginalized as well. No matter how “Christ-centered” and “Bible-believing” (to use some of the code words) those persons might be, there was no room for them if they did not toe the line on such matters as abortion, stem-cell research and homosexuality. Many sincere evangelically-minded clergy have known the pain of being declared “not sound.” Speaking generally of church life today, neither on the right nor on the left have we seen a truly radical understanding of what the gospel declares to be true about our status before God and one another. The doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone is given much lip service, but the reality on the ground seems to be justification by right doctrine, whether it be a narrowly conceived biblicism on the right or a set of politically correct dogmas on the left. These polarizations have become so predominant in mainline church life that it is difficult to point to exceptions. Many congregations claim to be largely free of conflict, but that is usually for one or two reasons: 1) those who disagree have gone elsewhere; or 2) the difficult issueshomosexuality in particularare being studiously ignored.

Our urgent need, I would therefore argue, is a serious and intentional theological examination of the question, “On what basis can we be truly liberal?” I was much struck by the recent testimony of Andrew Young, whose liberal political credentials are beyond question. In a wide-ranging interview he spoke of his concerns for the world we are bequeathing to his grandchildren, “the confusion we’re creating in the global order.” He is described as the most popular Democrat in the state of Georgia, black or white, but even so, he is intensely disliked by Georgia Republicans, and remains the butt of hateful racist jokes. Yet he said this about his days in Congress: “Almost everything I tried to do in Congress I was able to do because I worked both sides of the aisle. Conservatives were always in the prayer groups, and I attended. Every Wednesday morning, we had Bible study. Almost everybody there was an extreme conservative. But they saw me as sincere, and I could also share their religious convictionbut give it a little different twist.”

We should not romanticize or idealize African-American Christians, but as the spirit of the black church has led the way for us before, it might do so again. Andrew Young’s model is one that the liberal mainlines might ponder. In the black church there is a tradition of forgiveness and tolerance, a faith in the power of redemption for every person, which perseveres in spite of endless slights and hurts. At the same time there is among many African-American Christians a mighty faith in the living God whose Word is like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29), a faith that makes our weakened liberal anthropology seem like a very thin brew. In this combination of a high value placed on inclusion and an unquenchable zeal for the Word, might we not see a hint of a new type of genuine liberalism? The model is based in a sincere love of Scripture and a trust in its power to create a new reality, the power of the God who “makes a way out of no way” in a formulation made famous by the Rev. Mr. Young and his colleagues. This is the God who “raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).

The lay Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow has been dead for some years now. He was a polarizing figure in some ways, and the body of work that he left us suffers from sloppy editing and unchecked polemical ire, but there can be no question that he knew both the Scriptures and the power of God. That is what continues to make him unusual as a figure who is cherished by the liberal wing in the church. His vision of what a Christian should look like was (and is) enthusiastically embraced by the left, but his theological stance was actually more encompassing than many realize.

Stringfellow’s theological project was able to accommodate the likelihood that God was working not only through the politically correct Left but also through the supposedly fundamentalist and discredited Right. This was even more true of another radical figure who is still with us, Will Campbell. It was Campbell who, from his post on the frontier of the darkest hours of the civil rights movement, kept his ties to the Ku Klux Klan in spite of everything.

Like many other theologians who have drawn deeply from the well of the Reformation, Stringfellow and Campbell both refuse to declare anyone innocent, either on the Right or on the Left. By the standards of the Epistle to the Romans, beloved of them both, these two theologians were and are as thoroughly Pauline as anyone in the Church today in their conviction that the power of God’s Word will overturn all our conventional assumptions and cause something completely new to come into beingsomething that will bring surprise and shock to absolutely everyone across the spectrum, as in Matthew 25 where both “sheep” and “goats” are confronted with a message that they clearly did not expect. Again a key text here is Romans 11:32: For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.

Therefore the difference that really counts between liberals and conservatives in the Church is not specific issues such as homosexuality or even peace and justice, because individual Christians may disagree in good faith about exactly how peace and justice are to be achieved. Nor, I think, is it even the problem of fundamentalism/fanaticism. My sense is that the question that really counts is whether or not there is a living God. I do not say “loving” God, because the mainlines are not failing to preach a loving God. The issue that divides us is not the centrality of agape in the proclamation of the gospel; it would be difficult to disagree about that. The question, rather, is whether God and his Word are “living and active.”

To repeat, Flannery O’Connor’s assessment is correct. We have “come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so and that religion is our own sweet invention.” If she is right about this failure of the churches, the question now arises, what then is the antidote for this condition we find ourselves in? The antidote will begin with a recognition that we are suffering from a famine of the Word of God (Amos 8:11). When there is a famine of this sort, we are thrown back on ourselves and our own spirituality, which cannot be trusted because like everything else concerning the human condition, is infected by sin.

The Word of God, however, speaks into existence that which does not exist (Romans 417). This is the creation ex nihilo. Where there is no faith in the power of God, the power of God creates faith. Where there is no vision of the God who speaks, the Word speaks a vision (write the vision! said the Lord to the prophet Habakkuk [2:2]) Where there is acrimony and dissension, exposure to the living Word means a new vision where even our most important religious distinctions are abolishedcircumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, as Paul says three different times, (I Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6, 6:15). Therefore the human activity of reading and expounding the power-filled Word of God is the antidote.

My experience is that when Christians of varying perspectives are willing to study Scripture together in a seriously committed way, remarkable things happen. This is difficult to accomplish in the present atmosphere of the mainlines. The decision-making bodies in the churches have an exaggerated sense of their own importance and very little understanding of the way that the kerygma creates new realities wherever it is heardand particularly when it is at work in groups of people who would not otherwise be capable of coming together around a genuinely theological message.

As Douglas Harink puts it in his important new book, “The Scriptures have the power not only to direct and guide the community but also to constitute the world for it.” This is where we have been lacking confidence. We have lost hold of the conviction that the message is not only powerful in itself but also is able to bring into being a new reality that is part of God’s eternal order, already planted in the world.

The Christian community has no independent existence. It must be perpetually renewed and refashioned by the power of God. “Constant recourse to the Bible” is indeed the “characteristic and significant practice” of the Church when it is receiving its life theologically and not anthropologically (quoting Stringfellow). Anthropology as an academic discipline is a noble field of study, but it does not get us very far along in the Christian life because it is solipsistic; it goes round and round on itself.

Thus, when visiting museums of anthropology, one reads label after label saying, “The Inuit believe that...”, “the Old Norse religion was...”, “this amulet was thought to...”. There is no sense whatsoever than any of this is founded in any sort of reality beyond anthropological practice. The museum-goer is implicitly invited to respect all these different beliefs while at the same time subtly distancing herself from them. In contrast, the Scripture states with a shocking lack of tact, “I am the Lord, there is no other.”

When the community receives this Word in faith, the transforming power of God shapes our consequent actions theologically, according to the theos who speaks. For this reason the Church’s true witness can never be simply imitations of trends in the culture and indistinguishable from them. The radical message of the justification of the ungodly cuts across race, class, ethnicity, political views and degrees of moral worthiness as such things are ordinarily measured. It reaches far beyond the currently fashionable mantra of “inclusion.” The insufficiency of this buzz-word becomes apparent when it proves too small to “include” those who are out of fashion with the current keepers of the ideological gates.

These convictions underlie my proposal for a new type of liberalism even more “inclusive” than the old type. It will arise out of the story of God’s movement to us in Jesus Christ, not our movement toward him; it will be celebrated in the praise of God without reference to our own deeds except in thanksgiving because we have been given the power of the Spirit to participate in God’s work.

A new alliance of academy and pulpit will be required for the task of reviving the voice of the mainline churches without flagging in our longstanding commitments to social action. We need to find more and better ways to bring the very best biblical and theological scholarship to bear not only on creating new members of the academic guilds but also on the formation of men and women who will go out to be ministers of the Word. The artificial split between biblical studies and theology in the academy needs now more than ever to be bridged, as does the division between the Testaments.

Anyone, these days, who holds strongly to a biblical view and argues for it with energy and passion is in danger of being called a fanatic. This is doubly true in circles where theology and Christology have been weakened by the inroads of enormously popular and influential books questioning the New Testament canon and the creedal affirmations about Jesus. Only a strong offensive from clergy and lay leaders can offset this trend. This is possible, but only if this offensive is undertaken in a spirit suited to the times, with a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity, nuance and irony. When this happens, the culture pays attention.

Congregations and clergy alike need equipping for the battle against the new gnosticism and the new skepticism about Jesus Christ. We need leadership for making the turn away from anthropology to theology. The antidote to mainline malaise in the present moment is a revivifying dose of Scripture and the power of God.

Let all the earth fear the Lord, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth. Psalm 33:8-9

Praise the Lord! 

ADDENDUM

William Stringfellow tells a story both amusing and alarming:

I recall, a few years ago, serving on a commission of the Episcopal Church charged with articulating the scope of the total ministry of the Church in modern society. The commission [included] a few laity and the rest [were] professional theologians, ecclesiastical authorities and clergy...Toward the end of [the first} meeting, some of those present proposed that it might be an edifying discipline for the group, in its future sessions, to undertake some concentrated study of the Bible. It was suggested that constant recourse to the Bible is as characteristic and significant a practice in the Christian life as the regular...celebration of the Eucharist, which was a daily observance of this commission. Perhaps, it was suggested, Bible study would enlighten the deliberations of the commission...

The proposal was rejected on the grounds, as one Bishop put it, that “most of us have been to seminary and know what the Bible says; the problem now is to apply it to today’s world.” The bishop’s view was seconded (with undue enthusiasm, I thought at the time) by the Dean of one of the Episcopal seminaries as well as by the clergy from national headquarters who had, they explained, a program to design and administer.

The point in mentioning the incident...is that the notion implied in the decision not to engage in Bible study is that the Gospel, in its Biblical embodiment, is...a static body of knowledge which, once systematically organized, taught, and learned, [is thereafter used] ceremonially, sentimentally nostalgically.

I quote this passage at some length because it so precisely identifies the various components of the problem: the busy commission with its agenda, the learned scholars who disdain the layman, the bureaucrats who are wedded to their programs (today we are more likely to hear of “process”), the bishops who have no sense of themselves as theologians, the seminary dean who is accustomed to thinking of the Bible merely as one of several academic subjects taught by specialists in his institution. Stringfellow’s diagnosis is right on target: the life-giving power of the Word of God is unknown to the group’s leaders.

Fleming Rutledge was in parish ministry for 22 years. She was one of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, and served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City. She now has a nationwide preaching vocation She is widely recognized in all the mainline denominations for her preaching and teaching.

Her three sermon collections, The Bible and The New York Times, Help My Unbelief, and The Undoing of Death have met with wide acclaim across denominational lines. Her most recent book, The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings, appears this summer and The Seven Last Words is due for Lent 2005.

A native of Franklin, Virginia, Mrs. Rutledge has been married for forty-three years to Reginald E. (Dick) Rutledge. They have two daughters and two grandchildren.

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