Tuesday, January 20, 2004
It seems to me that the popularity of dispensationalism in many quarters of the church can be largely attributed to the fact that people realize that the gospel commonly preached in evangelicalism is an utterly unconvincing dénouement to the story of the Old Testament. People believe that the gospel taught by the New Testament is to be understood to be invisible, internal, eternal, private, individual, spiritual and subjective. Many of these descriptions are valid. However, they are seen to be opposed to the message of the Old Testament, which concerns a visible, external, temporal, public, corporate, physical and objective community. How the Church can function as the fulfilment of Israel’s hope is beyond the understanding of many people. The merely functional ecclesiology of much of evangelicalism seems to be so utterly removed from the sort of community seen in the Old Testament as to make it impossible to bridge the gap. The expectations of Israel seem to be utterly sidestepped by the ‘gospel’ as many understand it. There are so many loose threads left in the narrative that people begin to become embarrassed by it. This embarrassment is the seedbed of dispensationalism. If the Old Testament narrative is to find resolution it must be somewhere other than the Church. I believe that this perceived incongruity of the two testaments results from a misreading of Romans and Galatians in particular. In many circles the gospel has been equated with a particular narrow understanding of justification by faith. This doctrine of justification by faith has to do with how the individual gets saved, and only applies to the church as a second step once it has passed through the bottleneck of the individual heart. The doctrine of justification outlined above is not bad because it is wrong; it is bad because it seriously reduces the biblical message. It tells half of the truth and pretends that it is the whole truth. Our whole understanding of salvation has been infected with individualism. Many believe that any community created by the gospel must grow out of individual human hearts. When we talk about such things as regeneration we mean an individual heart change, rather than a cosmic renewal that we become part of in the Church. Of course, this cosmic regeneration we participate in within the Church certainly changes us personally. Individual consciousness and identity is formed within the life of community. We are who we are because of our relationships. I am a Christian because I have been baptized into the Church. I am called to be faithful in my new identity by responding to the wrestling of the Spirit who indwells this community. Were it not for my ‘givenness’ and my ‘givingness’, I would have no personal identity. By starting with the autonomous self-defining individual whose true identity is untouched by such things as baptism, how can we claim to be Christian in our approach? Much of evangelicalism has assumed a particular philosophy that privileges the ‘internal’, the ‘private’ and the ‘individual’. In such a framework that which is ‘external’, ‘public’ and ‘corporate’ is distrusted as lacking in ontological weight. ‘External’ things such as personal relationships are grafted onto man’s more essential private, internal and individual being. If such a being is to be saved then something must happen to them inside; some metamorphosis must take place in their essential being. If such a being is to know that he is saved he must dredge the murky depths of his subconscious to find out. Salvation, if it is to be real, must exist in the internal realm; the external realm is little more than dancing shadows. Being made part of the Eucharistic community by baptism may be a ‘manifestation’ of (individual) salvation, but it should never be confused with salvation itself. This sort of approach, of course, leads to silly questions like: Will I lose my salvation if I am sinful and don’t attend church? If my external relationships are really only grafted onto the ‘real me’ then such questions are natural. All of this is radically different from the outlook of the Old Testament. Whilst we should expect the New Covenant to be very different from the Old Covenant, I do not believe that it should represent an utter disjuncture, but a full but surprising resolution. I am convinced that the time had come to send some well-worn theological terms to the dry-cleaners. These terms include, among others: ‘regeneration’, ‘justification’, ‘election’, ‘church’, ‘salvation’, ‘faith’, ‘grace’ and ‘law’. These terms, so sullied by individualistic philosophies, are the bedraggled garments that clothe the glorious gospel in many evangelical churches today. I long to see the day when the gospel is once more seen in all its finery, when terms like the ones above are delivered from their exile in a Cartesian Babylon. Individualism has emasculated the gospel. The gospel is the proclamation of the new world order introduced by the triumphal victory of Christ over the Satan. The gospel is a public fact. The gospel tells us that we all have to pledge allegiance to and entrust ourselves to the new Lord of the world, Jesus the Messiah. The gospel is far, far bigger than the individual human heart. The gospel creates new communities, moulded by such practices as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We deny the gospel by dividing with people who proclaim the Lordship of Christ, rather than by seeking to be drawn closer together. Fundamentalism, which is continually talking about defending the true gospel, is more practiced at denying it by continually dividing than almost any other part of the Church. As the gospel proclaims a new world order established by Jesus the Messiah, the Church can never merely be an implication of the gospel — it is the gospel. The Church is the salvation that the world has been waiting for. Individualism enables us to preach a gospel that is accommodated to the prejudices of our cultures. The rulers of this world are not challenged by a Church that teaches a voluntaristic membership. This is a club, not a Church. If the Church is truly a new society then infant baptism is necessary. Any consistent denial of the practice will leave the State free to rule the public sphere. ‘Jesus is Lord of all and Caesar isn’t’ is proclaimed when we surrender our children to God in baptism. I believe that the best way to recapture the message of the gospel is to retell the biblical story again, beginning from Act 1, Scene 1, rather than from the final act. If we are to grasp the sword of the gospel by the hilt, we must begin with the Old Testament. The mistreatment that the Old Testament has received in the hands of individualistic evangelicals has to be exposed for what it is. A Church that is unable to seriously engage with the Old Testament should not be trusted with the New Testament. Personally I would prefer not to keep going on about such issues. However I remain unconvinced that that the errors of evangelicalism on this issue are slight. I believe that they are errors of huge proportions. Only if we presume the priority of the individual will we be able to excuse the serious nature of these problems.