The crisis of this moment has several parts, and like Episcopalians, particularly the ones in Mississippi, they’re all related.The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus.That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being.That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.
Certainly the Bishop is not wrong to highlight the problem of individualism in American religion after the Second Great Awakening. That it’s the great problem of Western Christianity is a much more difficult claim to prove. The Bishop, however, was unwilling to use the more responsible and moderate language of “problem.” She made it a “heresy” and for a striking and bizarre thing for one connected to the worldwide Anglican communion to say especially in light of what Anglicans confess in Article 11 of the (39) Anglican Articles:
XI. Of the Justification of Man.
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
Lest anyone cavil to say that the Articles speak in the first plural I hasten to point the gentle reader to the Anglican homily on justification to which the article above refers. There it is clear that the “we” of the article refers to the company of those persons who have personally placed their trust in Christ and in his finished work imputed to them.
The contrast between the careful teaching of the Anglican Articles on righteousness with God and more broadly on salvation from judgement by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and the careless teaching of the ECUSA’s current and misguided presiding Bishop illustrates the differences between confessional Protestantism and non-confessional American religion (whether conservative or liberal). It is evident that the Bishop is of the liberal variety. She is part of the movement in the ECUSA to push the ordination of homosexuals and thence perhaps to push the ECUSA out of the worldwide Anglican communion. Her movement has already helped to drive 100,000 Anglicans (of various sorts) to form a new Anglican communion. In most enterprises, anyone who pushed 100,000 people out would be considered a failure, but not so the American religious left. This is partly because they are social and religious elites who take comfort in not being dirtied by hol polloi but also because they are possessed by an over-realized eschatology. The Kingdom of God is or is soon to be wholly realized in the earth. They believe that, with the right social and religious policies, they can achieve it. They really believe it. As Machen said in 1923, Christianity and Liberalism are two different religions.
Right-wing non-confessional religion (American fundamentalism) is equally elite, in its own populist way, and equally possessed by an over-realized eschatology. Where the left-wingers thing in corporate terms the right-wingers think in individualist terms but the lefties and the righties are two sides of the same eschatological coin. This is why they tussle as they do in Washington, because they are siblings. They both want control of the temporal social and religious levers of power in order to achieve their social utopian goals. In the same way Jerry Falwell could see the Kingdom of God nigh unto earth during the Reagan administration so the lefties can almost hear the angels singing now during the Obama administration: Cap and Trade, healthcare, higher CAFE standards. It’s oh so tantalizingly close.
Heresy? Generally the noun heresy and the adjective heretical are reserved for those teachings that contradict the holy catholic faith as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon. It’s not self-evident how failing to keep the new law of the environmentalist left constitutes denial of the doctrines of the holy Trinity, the two-natures of Christ, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and or the doctrine of his bodily return.
Judged by the standards of the catholic creeds or even the Anglican Articles, it is the presiding bishop who is the heretic. The notion that the Kingdom of God is of this world or that it shall ever be wholly immanent in this world, that’s heresy. The Kingdom of God is essentially eschatological. It is embodied not in the most right reverend or in any other entity but in Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate. He brought the Kingdom of God with him when he entered into human history and we do come into contact with the Kingdom in him. He did establish an institutional representation of the Kingdom: the visible, institutional church to which he gave the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16 and Matthew 18). It struck me during recent discussions on the Kingdom of God that the only institution to which the Heidelberg Catechism refers (Q. 123) when it addresses the question of what it means to pray “Thy Kingdom come” is the church, which I take as a reference to the visible, institutional church. The church is not the kingdom per se but the church is the institutional manifestation of the kingdom in this earth.
The point really is that Christianity is a semi-eschatological religion, at least as we know it in this earth. It puts Christians into contact with the powers of the age to come. It makes those who are united to Christ sola gratia, sola fide citizens of the heavenly city (Phil 3:20). We have no abiding city on this earth (Heb 13:14). The non-confessionalists, whether righties or lefties deserve each other. Let them scrap to building a city shining on a hill.
The heresy here is not individualism, as the bishop defines it, but an over-realized eschatology, a confusion of this city for the that eternal city. It constitutes an implicit denial of the last article of the creed, that we confess the bodily return of Jesus and then the eschatological state. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.