Guarding the GospelPosted on February 10, 2013
Filed under Sydney Diocese
Moore College Principal-elect Dr Mark Thompson –
“On one occasion I heard [Archbishop Marcus Loane] remark with concern that a new generation of clergy had no idea at what great cost the diocese of Sydney had been won for the evangelical cause or how easily it could all be lost. … He had seen dioceses which once stood as clear witnesses to the truth and power of the biblical gospel stumble into luke-warm Anglican liberalism in an astonishingly short period of time…”Read it all here:
I did not know Archbishop Marcus Loane well. I did know, of course, that he was one of the truly great Archbishops of Sydney (there have been a few — Frederic Barker comes to mind, though he was never actually styled ‘Archbishop’, as do Howard Mowll, Donald Robinson and Peter Jensen). Nevertheless, he had retired the year before I entered Moore College as a student and, though over the next twenty years or so I heard loads of Marcus Loane stories (and even more impersonations of his unique voice and speaking style), I had very few opportunities to meet with him. When those opportunities came, though, they always left a deep impression.
On one occasion I heard him remark with concern that a new generation of clergy had no idea at what great cost the diocese of Sydney had been won for the evangelical cause or how easily it could all be lost. He was also the source of the remark that our personal goal should be to leave the diocese more clearly evangelical than we found it. Archbishop Loane understood that evangelical Anglicanism would always be called upon, by those outside as well as those inside the fold, to be more generous and inclusive. He understood that there would always be those who wanted to claim the label ‘evangelical’ while actively working to undermine one or more of the basic convictions of historic ‘evangelicalism’. He had seen dioceses which once stood as clear witnesses to the truth and power of the biblical gospel stumble into luke-warm Anglican liberalism in an astonishingly short period of time, seduced by the call for a more generous orthodoxy, a broader representation on their teaching platforms, a positive and more welcoming engagement with contemporary culture. As a younger man he had been one of those who gathered around Archbishop Mowll as he sought to rescue the diocese (and its theological college) from the ravages of liberal theology. He knew this was not theory, not just a narrative constructed in service of some political point scoring. He was deeply grieved by the successes of the evil one, short-lived though they might be. He appreciated the human cost.
The twentieth century was witness to a number of ‘critical moments of conscience’, when betrayal of the churches and the historic gospel was confronted with a steely determination not to tread that path into oblivion. We could point to the great SCM/CICCU split of 1911, the loss of Princeton Theological Seminary to liberalism after the death of B. B. Warfield (and the subsequent formation of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929), the Barmen Declaration in the face of the German Christian movement’s capitulation to the National Socialist agenda in 1934, the broadening of Fuller Theological Seminary in the early 1960s, the astonishing recovery of Southern Baptist Seminary in the 1990s — and these are the most obvious examples. All of these testify that those who speak of the constant danger of declension from biblical faith are not simply scaremongering, but can point to real, concrete examples of the dissolution of evangelical witness and the wonderful mercy of God in using weak and fragile instruments just like us to stem the tide, and in some cases at least, reverse it.
How did it happen? How did institutions established to promote and defend the gospel begin to
drift from it? And how did that drift solidify into outright opposition? It is undeniable that it happened again and again. This is certainly not mythology or interpretive embellishment. Look at Protestant Germany today and think of Luther, Melanchthon and the rest. Look at contemporary Geneva and think of Calvin, Beza and Turretin. Look at the Anglican Communion and remember the sacrifices of Cranmer and his colleagues, as well as Whitfield, Newton and Wilberforce, and the Ugandan martyrs.
One important thing to realise is that it almost always happens incrementally. Of course there is a final decision, a final official break with the heritage in which those making the move have up till now stood and flourished. But that final decision is most often built upon a myriad of earlier decisions which at the time did not seem a cause for action. But action delayed, most often in the interests of the charitable recognition of alternative views, proves before long to be action avoided and the next step along the road becomes more achievable.
It is also worth noting that it almost always involves recasting the great heroes of the tradition, those who have fought the battles and bear the scars, as part of a narrow-minded and controlling establishment. A defensive mindset is decried, despite a regular call in the New Testament to guard, defend, stand firm in and even contend for, what has been delivered to us (1 Cor. 16:13; Eph. 6:13; Phil. 1:7; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14; 1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3). Sometimes this is psychologised and the call is not to be so fearful or uptight but to relax in the sovereign goodness of God. God is less concerned for theological precision than we often are — a suggestion that is at best only half-true. A concern for truth ought not to be pitted against genuine biblical piety (humility, prayerful dependence upon the Spirit and love), for ‘this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word’ (Is. 66:2).
The challenge almost always comes in reasonable dress. Rather than directly assaulting the convictions of a particular group, more often than not the call is for more nuance, room for disagreement, a re-description in terms of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ perspectives. I remember asking one of the leading evangelical scholars of the day to speak to a group of postgrad students at Oxford on Challenges to Evangelical Theology Today. I can remember his words almost verbatim: ‘The devil is not stupid. He doesn’t front up and say, “Here’s the truth”, while pointing 180° in the opposite direction and saying, “But this is what you should believe”. No, he is more subtle than that. He can, after all, disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Instead he says, “Of course that’s true, but you have to understand it in its wider context …” and gradually what is central is pushed to the periphery and before you know it what you’re believing bares little resemblance to the historic evangelical gospel of grace.” The sad thing is, the next day I attended a lecture in the university where almost exactly those words were used: ‘Of course penal substitution is an important part of an evangelical understanding of the atonement, but you need to understand it in its wider context …’
It almost always sounds more Christian. The phrase ‘generous orthodoxy’ is a case in point. Who doesn’t think that would be a good thing? We are all fallible, after all. None of us has all the truth or has matured beyond the need for correction. The people who differ from us are just as much men and women for whom Christ died as we are. We ought always to treat people with courtesy and generosity. But does that mean all perspectives are to be respected? Are we really called on to be generous with orthodoxy? Of course there is room for disagreement on those points at which Scripture is silent (e.g. when to baptise or how, especially in the case of second generation Christians), or where it explicitly recognises freedom (e.g. whether to eat meat offered to idols or not). Of course we should be willing to be shown from the Scriptures that we have misread them or misapplied them. Yet it is very hard to imagine the apostle Paul, or the Lord Jesus himself for that matter, insisting on a more inclusive version of truth.
Not every challenge to evangelical faith will follow the same trajectory or bear the same characteristics. It can come from the most unexpected of quarters and in the most unpredictable of guises. Yet one thing is certain, those challenges will come. The pressure will not let up until that day when every knee bows. You do not have to have a political agenda to recognise this is in fact what has played itself out throughout the last two thousand years. And this is what explains the regular call for vigilance among Christian leaders in the New Testament. It is a vigilance Marcus Loane understood to be part of our responsibility as heirs of such a magnificent evangelical heritage here in Sydney. Some may seek to caricature this determination to guard the gospel in a variety of ways.
They may seek to dismiss or reinterpret the lessons of our history. But I am certain the beloved of Christ down through the ages would echo Paul’s words to Timothy:
O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’, for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. (1 Tim. 6:20–21)
(Photo: Ramon Williams.)