Pete Enns on "the deep problem Evangelicalism has with evolution"

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As to authority, you suggest that a formal church hierarchy might have the ability to decide better than individual denominations as to proper interpretation… at least it seems an implied suggestion. But we know that in real history, this has proven problematic, which is why the reformation happened in the first place. The authority was not denied because protestants were anti-authoritarian, but because the authorities were clearly wrong, corrupt, and false leaders. So we know that not all roman catholics believed what the church taught, and many did not even know what they were supposed to teach. There may be one formal organization, but still many many streams of thought. At the time of the reformation, some of those streams of thought became new denominations.

This does not mean interpretive anarchy in the protestant side, since protestants too believe that individual interpretations are not valid unless validated by a group of believers, presumably a group of elders or teachers or leaders. So now I am a Calvinist, perhaps a former Calvinist, attending an anabaptist church. This demonstrates that while there may be many denominations, there is still something larger and greater that results in a unity, although a unity that is often fraught with difficulties. But who said life was easy?

The alternative, in spite of the difficulties, is that scripture is the authority, and Christ is the head of the church. The statement is simpler than its consequence, but nevertheless, it needs to be the starting point. Neither church, nor science, nor business, nor human desire, can take priority over the revelation of Christ in scripture, and this gives scripture an authority that nothing else can have.

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Speaking for my own small [Mennonite] church, none of us at our church --including our pastoral leadership – ever presumes that we Mennonites and we alone are some exclusive body of believers that has got it all right while everybody else in all other protestant denominations are all “outside the fold”. We think of ourselves as part of a larger church (and we would certainly be thinking beyond just the protestant category as we say that --many old wounds have healed over time.) So we simply extend Paul’s metaphor about the different parts of the body of Christ as not just referring to individuals but even to groups or denominations. Sure, it is messy, and on any particular issue we obviously can’t all be right [on that specific issue] if we have contradictory conclusions, but that shouldn’t necessarily splinter us any more than I should disown some family member at the first sign of disagreement, whether over something trivial or even important.

By the way … in my post above I should even be careful when I say I’m “speaking for my church”, though I do think I know my own small family of believers here to be able to recognize a widespread, if not unanimous like-mindedness on this. But I will quickly add that I do not speak for all Mennonites. There may be a fair number that do feel that they, and they alone possess the truth.

But what I find fascinating, @Eddie, is our need to have or seek for “that voice” that speaks for all of us. Catholics have it in the Pope, Mormons have it in “the Prophet”, etc. And I think we in our badly splintered protestant groups sometimes must look with envy over at the Catholics who more-or-less unify themselves underneath that living authority. But why not “voices” rather than voice? Indeed what business do we have seeking for just one voice that should speak for all of us if that voice cannot be Christ himself? Christ is not divided. And yet if we see Christ in the face of every poor person and outsider, then why not also hear Christ in a myriad of different voices? I know --not the stuff of grand, doctrinal, high-churchy creeds. And we want those creeds nailed down with complete self-coherence (according to our own best wisdoms). But maybe that is part of the point that Christ’s incarnation brings to the world. If Christ himself [notice that the subject here is a person, not a proposition, though, no doubt, there are propositions that must follow] is the Truth, then maybe we seek that truth in how we love God and each other (especially the unloved) more than in eloquent and coherently elaborated creeds.

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Eddie, this is getting a bit off the topic of evolution, but maybe evolution, or the interpretation of Genesis is included. Today, it is my impression that many denominations often do not make pronouncements on something like evolution, allowing for a divergence of opinions on the interpretation of Genesis 1, although at the same time maintaining the authority of Genesis. The reason for this is that they do not want another split on the basis of this question.

For some, fragmenting into many denominations is a big problem. But in reality, it is the attempt of the church to speak for all, that often leads to the denominational splits. Too many man-made restrictive rules, whether about dress, music, preachers, worship practices, politics, or whatever. So you have a roman church which supposedly speaks for all, and yet more than half of its members do not attend mass nor follow the birth control prescriptions of the church. It appears not to be fragmented, but still is.

The more christians focus on scripture rather than on “church edicts”, the more likely they are to find common ground with many christians from many denominations. Yes, there are varieties of interpretations, and yes human sinful desires and preferences will color the interpretations. But to some extent this is inevitable, and happens in all circumstances. Going back to scripture, to discovering God working in scripture, and to discover Jesus revealed in scripture, will help to put these differences into perspective, and give them the proportionate value that they deserve.

So, as a Calvinist who is now attending an anabaptist church, I say that I am deeply ashamed that Calvinists and anabaptists could not find a better way to get along than they did during the early days of the reformation. For Calvinists to proclaim Christ, and then to persecute the anabaptists was certainly not the way of Christ. And likely some anabaptists also had hard hearts, caused by the normal back and forth of defending positions where pride and defensiveness begins to creep in.

Over time, the priorities of Christ become more evident, and take precedence in relations between christians, so that denominational lines become dotted lines rather than double solid lines. When Calvinists do not condemn anabaptists for preferring adult baptism, and when anabaptists do not condemn or ignore the infant baptism of true believers, then they will have begun to obey the command to love one another, in the context of the ambiguity of scripture on the topic.

God allows denominations in order to further his purpose… probably to provide many places and contexts for worship and celebration, and perhaps also to prevent the church from falling into the trap of politicization and worldliness. (although it still happens even today, we know politicization and worldliness increases more as the church becomes authoritarian and singular).

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I love that, John!

My only push back (not on the great sentence above but on a couple other parts) would be that to focus on Scriptures has sometimes led to more creedal-focus than Christ-focus. I think Scriptures are essential too, but only because they are our ticket to knowing Christ who is our ticket into the loving presence of God.

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Creeds are important, but ought to be directed toward the minimum if possible. Many denominations can accept the apostle’s creed, for example, while the three confessions of many reformed churches become more and more grounds for contention. Confessions are okay when they recognize the supremacy of scripture, but are often not derived solely from scripture, but are designed to counter certain movements, or to deal with certain heresies. However, the context of the heresies changes over time, and sometimes the strength of the heresies is even caused by the contention itself.

Good creeds and confessions should be Christ focused and God centered, but we should try not to create a contention where Christ did not. And I have found that sometimes creedal statements almost seem to make Christ himself heretical, and so more generosity is required in allowing contradictory seeming statements, which nevertheless are intended to honor God.

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Eddie, I don’t disagree with you. Discipline is important. But ironically, past differences have often existed for sacramental interpretations, rather than for reasons of obedience to basic commands of God. In the new testament, it was sexual sins and lying that received the greatest condemnation, while in church history it was interpretation of sacraments (penance, indulgences, infant baptism vs adult baptism, that were the turning points).

I have often said to others that it is not good doctrine on paper but good doctrine lived, not just listening to the word but doing it, which Jesus desires.

I agree that when you have a United Church moderator disavowing the divinity of Christ, there is a problem. And when you have anglican priests or mennonite pastors marrying homosex couples, you also have a serious problem. And when you have roman priests enabling repeated sins of theft, adultery, piracy, and drunkenness, then the official position of a church becomes less significant.

True, complete, sincere and uncontaminated unity would be ideal, and it is what we will see in heaven. But we are not saved as a collective, or as a denomination, but as individuals before God. Our membership in a church or adherence to church doctrine will not save us, but only Christ saves us, through our faith and trust in Him, and by the power of his sacrifice and love for us. The activities of a church and our participation in it is a sign of our love for God, and our willingness to serve and be obedient to God. It cannot replace what God does for us, and the numerous denominations are a clear indication, that denominational correctness will not save us.

I would concur Merv, since we have been attending a mennonite church which has become a “community church”. Even as a non-member I have been asked to preach several times, and a sizeable number of the members are not adamant pacifists, even though that is the tradition of this body of believers. Some members are more enviros while others are less so, and there are various other differences. Some are strict literalists, while others are more ambiguous. To make pronouncements on these things causes divisions, unnecessary divisions. And this church accepts infant baptism of true believers, even though they do not practice infant baptism. The charity of acceptance is very great. Growing together, being patient, seeking God and seeking insight over time are highly valued.

The danger of such charity is that sometimes some basic concepts and practices may be tolerated, which need correction. But nevertheless, the tendency to nitpick and emphasize differences at the cost of unity of faith and purpose is also a very great danger in many other church settings, and is not alleviated by church pronouncements that are ill-conceived, or corrupt, or self-serving, or non-scriptural.

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Well, and I would agree with you on all of this also, Eddie. I do think God does give us choices, but yet we understand that we often only make the right choice by God’s grace. So this makes statements about freedom and autonomy rather complicated and two-tiered. Bottom line though, that the more we criticize scripture, the more likely it is that we will not live by it. And scripture is the revelation of God, meaning it reveals God to us, it reveals Jesus to us. It’s reliability determines the reliability of the revelation, and the reliability of our understanding of God, and our relationship to God.

As to who decides, whether as individuals, or in community, or in hierarchy, we know from experience that all three of these can make mistakes. All three ought to make the right choices: hierarchy because of influence on individuals, community because of “peer pressure”, and individuals because of influence on community. Ultimately however, it is the individual decision to accede to the hierarchy when it is right, and to refrain from the community when it is wrong, which determines the nature of his relationship with God. He cannot blame others for his own decisions ultimately.

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Why not the members in the pews, too? I have occasionally participated in such groups. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have the same appeal as groups that study “practical” issues like how to parent, how to get out of debt, etc.

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Eddie, I think that would be wonderful, but find that most denominations are closed enough that they really don’t want the members to know what anyone thinks outside of their group. At least that is my experience.

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I hope what you suggest takes root. I would be there, and perhaps will be moved to move forward with it. So often our local bible studies are limited to the latest pop theology, some of which is not bad, but none of which will be read 20 years from now.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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