Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

The Antinomian Episcopal Church
Pontifications ^ | 8/28/2005 | Al Kimel

Posted on 08/29/2005 12:33:44 PM PDT by sionnsar

It seems somehow appropriate that my last article for Pontifications before my move to New Jersey be a response to John Wilkins. He has recently shared with us some reflections on the theme of “Authority.” The article also has some critical things to share about my own writings, which is fine. John is always civil, and I well understand the way blogging works. We bloggers rely on other bloggers to provide the grist for our mills.

But before getting into the substance of his piece, let me first share some personal things about myself, since John has himself shared so intimately. I am a single malt man and Oban is my absolute favorite. On occasion I also like an ultra dry Bombay Sapphire martini, with a twist. I cut a mean jitterbug and am a romantic at heart. But I never, ever speak publicly about the lusts of my heart. :-)

Now to John’s article. I think that John has written almost the perfect piece in defense of revisionist Episcopalianism. He does not present us with a sustained argument but rather a medley of thoughts on the goodness of life and the difficulties each of us must live through. Life is so complex and often so very hard. We love, we hate, we suffer, we die—and always there is the power of sin shaping and malforming our lives. In the end all we can do is live and die the mystery. John is correct. Paradox, change, and ambiguity are ineradicable aspects of our mortal lives.

Thus law cannot be God’s exhaustive word to us—at least not if God is the God revealed in the gospel, not if God is the one who has raised Jesus from the dead. Yet law nevertheless remains God’s word to us, coming to us with an authority absolute and divine, a word that demands our obedience and evokes our disobedience. And it is this solemn, directing, and judging word that has no place in the revisionist universe of ambiguity and paradox. But the law cannot be eliminated by waving our scholarly wands. God continues to speak his moral word to us in the depths of the human soul. It is a word embedded in the structures of existence. It is a word that we cannot not know.

John says that he has sometimes been called an antinomian. He denies the charge. Antinomianism is too hard, perhaps impossible, to live, he says. We are “bounded by language and culture.” This of course is true, but it begs the question. The question is not whether we can ever escape the codes and customs of the societies in which we live. The question is whether God determinately wills our good and reveals to us how we might pursue this good and avoid destruction and evil.

In his essay “Gnosticism, Antinomianism and Reformation Theology” (Pro Ecclesia [Winter 1993]), Lutheran theologian David Yeago asserts that much Protestant theology of the past century has been essentially antinomian. It has posited an irresolvable conflict between law and gospel. Law is understood as oppressive precisely “because it is law, that is, because it is an ordered demand, a requirement, a command. The law oppresses because of the kind of word it is, not because of the situation in which we encounter it.” The gospel, on the other hand, is gospel because it liberates us from the law; it is good news “because it is not-law, because it terminates the law.”

If it is true that the law oppresses simply because of its formal character as ordered demand, then the converse would seem also to hold: anything with the formal character of ordered demand oppresses. That is to say, anything which proposes some particular ordering of our existence or calls for a determinate response from us will be perceived as being, simply as such, the oppressive law from which the gospel delivers us. And since the gospel’s liberating character is defined in terms of its antithesis to the law, it will not be our sinful abuse of the law and hostility to the commandment, and God’s wrath against us on that account, from which the gospel liberates us. Rather, the gospel will liberate us from the situation of having to hear commandment at all, from having to reckon with any word whatsoever which has the formal character of ordered demand. (p. 41)

For Episcopalians the law/gospel dialectic, so characteristic of Lutheran theology, is verbally alien. Yet the theoretical antinomianism that Yeago describes is very much a part of the contemporary Episcopal understanding of the gospel. It was mediated to Episcopalians through the influential writings of Paul Tillich and popularized in the books of Robert Farrar Capon. Grace triumphs not just by destroying sin and death. Grace triumphs by eliminating the divine law altogether. Yeago writes: “The practical antinomianism now regnant in many churches is simply a long-standing theoretical antinomianism achieving the courage of its convictions.”

I suggest that when revisionists enthusiastically celebrate the ambiguity and paradox of human existence, what they are really doing is celebrating freedom from the law. Each person is a law unto himself, for indeed there is no law. There is only freedom—freedom from demand, freedom from form, tradition, and institution, freedom from morality, freedom from judgment and wrath. In this antinomian universe, the Church is incapable of authoritatively speaking a word that commands, for such a word is understood as intrinsically oppressive and contradictory to the very gospel the Church is authorized to speak. Hence the Church is consigned to the role as listener. Consider this key paragraph from John’s article:

Granted, for some, life is so challenging that following directions is the best thing they can get from the church. And if my parishioners want that, I have plenty of advice. Sometimes they won’t get what they want to hear. But most of the time I can just listen, and people figure out their lives on their own. I think of the Episcopal church as a “listening” church, and for the last 25 years, it’s been listening to Gay people. There are plenty of places in scripture where this is exactly the kind of spiritual practice individuals are supposed to have. People are made in the image of God, and by listening to them, we have a clearer understanding of what and who God looks like. What Al misses is not that we have a “cavalier attitude” but that we have decided to focus on practice first. And when the tradition is wrong, we change our minds. What are you supposed to do?

I agree that the advice most priests offer is not helpful at all. I’m sure that most of my former parishioners would agree. But there is a vast difference between offering advice and speaking the moral law in the name of the God of Sinai. In the antinomian Episcopal Church, YHWH has been silenced. The Church can only listen nonjudgmentally, allowing each individual to define his or her life as he wills. Having identified the moral law as that from which Jesus delivers us, the Church finds itself incapable of saying anything except “God loves you. God forgives you. God accepts you as you are. Follow your bliss.”

(Curiously, though, the liberal Protestant Churches still feel themselves authorized to speak prophetically to institutional structures. Is this because the institutions to which such prophetic words are addressed are faceless and impersonal, whereas parish members are personal indeed and would undoubtedly object to churchly interference in their lives?)

What is the role of the pastor in the antinomian Church? He is preminently a counselor—and specifically a counselor trained in the listening skills of Carl Rogers. The moral discourse and praxis of the Church is replaced by the antinomian discourse and praxis of the therapeutic world. Instead of being urged to make regular confessions and embrace a life of ascesis and prayer, the clergy are required to attend Clinical Pastoral Education classes and to be formed as nonjudgmental listeners. Please do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting that such skills do not have a role in pastoral ministry. But counseling thus construed must always be subordinated to the Church’s primary ministry to speak God’s divine Word into a confused and confusing world.

Is John Wilkins an antinomian, as some have charged but which John denies? Perhaps not theoretically but certainly he comes very close, especially at the practical level.

John’s article is ostensibly about authority, but what is most conspicuous about his piece is the absence of any theological reflection on authority. This is not surprising, because John is far more comfortable with the discourse of sociology, anthropology, and comparative religion than with the moral and theological discourse specific to the Church. I do not criticize. We all have our special interests. But there is an especial danger here for John. The soft sciences can give one a false sense of superiority, as if one is able to stand over against and above the Christian tradition and objectively critique it from a higher, truer perspective. John, I think, is sometimes guilty of this. He apparently does not realize that the disciplines upon which he relies were themselves ideologically constructed to “liberate” the world from the Church he loves. John is fond of urging us to read his favorite scholars, so I’m sure he will not mind if I commend to him the following scholars: Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory. But of course everyone can cite scholars. Our arguments are not established by our footnotes.

Revisionists tell us that ours is an ambiguous and paradoxical universe. In this universe uncertainty and tolerance are primary virtues. We do not expect to actually discover truth; what is important is the search for it. Yet over against this exaltation of uncertainty, I would propose the virtue of certitude. The Christian way is grounded in confidence that God has definitively revealed his life and will and that the Church is divinely guided and authorized to interpret this revelation to the world. Only certainty generates saints, martyrs, and missionaries. Uncertainty generates pew-sitters and parish priests. As Dom Gregory Dix

explains: “Where the ‘private judgement’ consitutes the final authority on facts which are irretrievably beyond its own verification, there can be no certainty; and where there is no certainty, there is no faith, and therefore no salvation.”

John asserts that the Episcopal Church has a special vocation in the world:

I’m content that that the Episcopal Church might be the ONLY self-consciously Christian denomination that can be liberated to proclaim the liberal gospel that was spawned by the biblical humanism of the evangelical movement. The magnanimous gospel. The generous gospel. The gospel based on thankfulness and joy. This will become more formally part of our identity.

As the conservatives form their own congregations, the Episcopal church will become a haven for people who have been abused by fundamentalism and Roman Catholicism and its image of a cruel and punishing God, but don’t want to give up the Gospel and Christian spirituality. It will be a small church, but a powerful witness. “Salt” as it were.

This is a very important and revealing passage. Please re-read it. According to John, the Episcopal Church has been entrusted with a message—the liberal gospel!—a message that can only be dated to the last hundred years or so. Here is the gospel of antinomianism. Here is a gospel that supports and undergirds the ideologies of relativism, pluralism, and multiculturalism that now dominate our culture. It is a pleasant gospel, a supportive gospel, an affirming gospel. But it bears little resemblence to the gospel, the apostolic gospel that created the Church and has sustained generations of believers for two thousand years. But that’s okay. There will always be consumers for the antinomian religion that ECUSA promotes. The Episcopal Church has found its niche as a boutique church.

John’s article, as I said at the beginning of this piece, is an almost perfect defense of revisionist Episcopalianism. Every Episcopalian should be encouraged to read it. Here is the future of the Episcopal Church. And here is the reason why I have become Catholic.

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant

1 posted on 08/29/2005 12:33:44 PM PDT by sionnsar
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: sionnsar
Roman Catholicism and its image of a cruel and punishing God

Gee whiz, I feel like I'm missing out on the full truth of the Catholic Church. Everybody keeps telling me God is our Creator and Savior. No cruelty. Dang! Maybe you have to be liberal to catch the subtle message that God is cruel.

2 posted on 08/30/2005 8:42:16 AM PDT by siunevada
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: siunevada
I had to revisit this to see who the author of that was. A while ago one of the Orthodox folk sent me a link to some writing whose logic I couldn't follow, but one of the essences of it was that Western Christians hated God, as I recall, because He is cruel and punishing.
3 posted on 08/30/2005 10:02:53 AM PDT by sionnsar (†† || (To Libs:) You are failing to celebrate MY diversity! || Iran Azadi)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson