Some Catholics and Protestants respond to my vision of ecumenism with labels like “modernism” or “liberalism.” In this installment in my series: “The Church, the churches and the Kingdom of God” I will respond to these misunderstandings and accusations in a way that I hope will help you understand my heart.
Modernism doesn’t mean being “modern.” And liberalism doesn’t mean having a liberal spirit of love and mercy toward all people. In our binary categories, especially in a time of immense social upheaval, these two words create false stereotypes that must be addressed if we are to listen well to one another. Love demands nothing less. (I will use the word Modernism but you could substitute the word liberalism in most instances if you like.)
Modernism refers to complex developments in the Church, both Catholic and Protestant. These developments can be traced in the Protestant churches to the the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries. (Catholics development this direction were about a century later.) These developments are both theological and practical, or pastoral. Some of these developments are not entirely orthodox. But quite a few are, at least when carefully considered. The problem is that a false conservatism took a certain era of church history (often using the Reformation era as the end of all true reform) and then argued that this was the “high point” in Church history. Once you embrace this ideal any drift away from this (so-called) high point is seen as liberal, the fruit of rotten modernism. But hold on, it really isn’t that simple.
Unorthodox forms of modernism did downplay serious Christian doctrine and the supernatural. These forms pitted inner pious experience against dogmatic theological consensus. One example was the battle over the Bible. While some conservatives argued about the precise nature of biblical inspiration, and then insisted that all must agree with this definition, most readily agreed that the Bible remains the uniquely inspired Word of God; i.e., a “God-breathed” rule of faith and life (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Deeply flawed modernism treated the Bible as simply another religious book with inconsistent teaching, even containing profound falsehoods. Confessing Catholics and Protestants have always received it as the written Word of God, a truly unique and authoritative scripture for faith and practice.
But Modernism, and thus some forms of liberalism, are not all of the same kind. Much of what these movements gave us, through an emphasis on inner religious experience, is actually an essential part of the life of faith and growing Christian spirituality. Authentic, life-giving, Christianity cannot be measured by strict adherence to doctrine and church disciplines. Further, dogmatic and doctrinal formulations are always an inadequate attempt to capture ultimate reality, a reality that is beyond our intellect. Thus ultimate reality is not in my faith, or my creed, but in God himself. But the true and living God is always elusive and ineffable when it comes to human intellectual categories. This is not really that modern since it has been a part of the Christian faith and tradition from ancient times to the present. Further, divine revelation is not given to satisfy our intellectual interests or to give us full minds which lead to proud hearts. Revelation is given for both our ultimate salvation and to improve the quality of our human life in the here and now. And revelation did not come to us ready-made, in final (simple and logical) form. Divine revelation was unfolding through what we call redemptive history. It came though stories and accounts of God’s work on behalf of sinners like us. The center of this narrative is Jesus of Nazareth.
Finally, though the Bible is the Word of God it comes to us in human words. This means that we must be read it, study it and interpret it accordingly. It was written in the context of the word meanings and for an ancient audience. It was also written to stand up to the best modern methods of reading a text and hearing it speak afresh.
The fear of Modernism has driven many efforts to purge the Church of so-called false teachers. (I do not deny that there are false teachers, just that the word is too broadly and easily used for our opponents.) I know this to be true because I have been called a false teacher by a few conservative Protestants. Search for my name on the Internet and you can see how my work is misrepresented by some. Personally, I am no longer surprised that this happens since anti-modernism is alive and well in rigidly conservative contexts.
Am I a Modernist? If the word means I deny the authority and centrality of the historical and risen Jesus and the God-given revelation of the Bible then my answer is an unequivocal no. But if the word Modernism refers to engaging with modern developments in biblical scholarship, both ancient and modern, then I am a kind of a Modernist. And if the word liberal means to deny the faith I am most assuredly not a liberal. But if liberal means to possess a liberal mind and spirit, namely one that embraces people and differences with a desire to learn and grow, I plead guilty. Words matter, thus we should be careful how we use them as labels to reject what we do not understand or care to study carefully. You might be sinning against God’s love in the process of using a label. So far as I can tell, this mattered profoundly to the Jesus we encounter in the four Gospels.
ACT3 This Week
- The first gathering of The Initiative is now history. I will soon give you a full report of the week, including photos, videos and written materials. As we go forward more of those men and women who were part of this first gathering will write these weekly messages. The goal is to grow a movement, not to feature my voice. Pray for this to happen in the months ahead.
- I still need your financial support until June 30, 2019. As I approach my retirement, which will be on this date, The Initiative will need your support but the dynamics of our budgetary needs will change. I will keep you posted on these developments week-by-week. You can donate to ACT3 at: https://act3network.webconnex.com/donate
- This Thursday, July 5, I will meet with a group of interested young students and ministers in graduate degree programs at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Pray for this time to be fruitful.
- On Saturday, July 7, and Sunday, July 8, I preach at my home congregation, Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream, Illinois. Please pray, and if you are interested, you may visit LCM on Saturday (July 8) at 5 p.m. or on Sunday (July 9) at 10 a.m.
John H. Armstrong