Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Biblical Backing for the C&MA View of Hell, Part 1

This is part three of a series investigating the statement of faith of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada (my home denomination) specifically as it regards its fifth article regarding hell. This will be the context for my own response to Rob Bell's Love Wins. The book is still out on whether I will prefer his interpretation to the C&MA's or vice versa, but I do want to explore their compatibility. If you are just joining me, please observe the instructions to the reader in part one, and catch up with my exploratory ramblings in part two.

In this post I am going to analyze the biblical passages referenced explicitly by the statement of faith in order to assess not only the accuracy of my prior interpretation of it, but also to get a sense of its biblical credibility. I do not pretend that the biblical passages footnoted by the statement are meant to provide comprehensive proof, but they seem the best place to start. If I am unsatisfied with the biblical support I may have to delve deeper. We'll see.

So, without further adieu, here again is the fifth article of the statement, followed by some inquiry into the texts which it cites:
Humankind, originally created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), fell through disobedience, incurring thereby both physical and spiritual death. All people are born with a sinful nature, are separated from the life of God, and can be saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:8; 1 John 2:2). The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment, but that of the believer is everlasting joy and bliss (Matthew 25:41-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).
In the last post my preliminary exploration of the plausible interpretations convinced me that the most probable intent of this article was to say that the God-enacted destiny of impenitent fallen humanity involves a state of being with infinite duration wherein persons have the ability to be conscious of pain. But let's look up those passages, shall we?

  • Genesis 1:27
So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
When utilizing this verse to describe humanity, why does the fifth article insert the word "originally"? Because this part of the statement is about our broken condition. I doubt the statement wants to say that humanity no longer bears the image of God or is no longer God's good creation. I think it means that humanity no longer images God as it once did or ought to do. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. What the statement indicates is that this fall from grace occurred "through disobedience", which has incurred a seismic disruption in the proper Creator/creature relationship.

We might fill this out by saying that the mutual fellowship between humans (and between humans and creation) has hopelessly spiraled into discord. Everything needs restoring and reordering. And the Son of God is the one who brings the image of God in its fullness by his incarnation, death and resurrection in human flesh as the prophesied Son of Man who fulfilled the hopes of Israel. There is yet life for humanity (and creation), and it is according to the work of Jesus Christ. This is how I describe what the statement of faith is tersely indicating.

  • Romans 8:8
Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
  • 1 John 2:2
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Two short verses are footnoted to support the line: "All people are born with a sinful nature, are separated from the life of God, and can be saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ." This should tell us that the footnotes are not meant as full depictions of the statement's intent or comprehensive detailing of its biblical support. We proceed toward tentative conclusions.

These verses continue the theme of humanity's problem and its salvation. The problem is that it has fallen victim to a disobedient sinful orientation. The 'nature' language of the statement is a bit more static than I'd prefer, but I see no problem reading into it the dynamism in the NIV of Romans 8:8 - emphasizing the verbs "controlled" and "please" in order to talk about the problem in terms of the aforementioned "disobedience". The problem is that our human disposition is out of communion with its Maker and "separated from the life of God." Of course, the NASB says "those who are in the flesh cannot please God." So it isn't like we can get out of this on our own, whether we think of it in static or dynamic terms. No one is born immune to this problem or able to overcome it, as the statement makes clear.

Coming to the second part of the statement we see that humanity's salvation is provided by "the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ." The fulcrum of our shift from a hopelessly sinful situation is the saving freedom of a reoriented relationship to God provided by Jesus' "atoning work." Once separated, God and humanity are joined in this One. The problem of our sin is dealt with in what He does for us. But how exactly do we describe the atonement? The Bible gives us plenty of metaphors, many of them drawn from God's covenant with the Jews, in order to understand what Jesus accomplishes. And, as mentioned in the last post, the C&MA statement of faith doesn't go out of its way to spell out one atonement theory as more explicitly important than the others. That, I think it is a strength of the statement of faith.

Of course, the 1 John 2:2 reference to sacrifice does bring the typically evangelical emphasis on the penal-substitution theory front and center, and I'm comfortable with that. But the dogmatic focus is on Jesus is Saviour, not on the "mechanism" of salvation (to borrow Rob Bell's word).

In this regard it is worth noting here that the C&MA statement itself spends far more time on sanctification than justification. Without decreasing the importance of the latter, it does seem to want to describe the former - the new life Jesus brings - at greater length. Instead of speculating as to how exactly God does all this to us, it focuses more explicitly on what God intends to do with us now. And if we come back to Romans 8 for a moment, we see that the verses surrounding it support this sanctification-heavy emphasis. The emphasis there is on the fact that the Spirit of the risen Christ "lives in you" and can be "lived according to" despite the ongoing pull of sin. The life of God is breaking into the world even now. What an honour to be a part of it.

Getting back to 1 John 2:2, however, we note another really interesting bit, which is that right there in our statement of faith we have a verse which says that Jesus' salvation is "not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." This is really important to the C&MA. It is a missions movement which believes that Jesus is for everyone. Its founders were, I believe, post-millenialists. This meant that they looked forward to an earthly reign of Jesus Christ wherein the kingdom of heaven came on earth in full. This view of the "end times" isn't written into the statement of faith - nor should it be - but we still do well to pause and reflect on the traces of the C&MA's "motive for missions".

As the eleventh and final article of the statement indicates, the C&MA has historically put a good deal of motivational weight on the "blessed hope" of Jesus' completed great commission. One finds in the old sermons and hymns of A.B. Simpson (pictured here) and others a good deal of mention of the perils of hell, but the statement of faith rightly references more assertively Matthew 24:14, which says "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." This ends up being a pretty important counter-balance to the insistence on hell-fire as a motive for missions. The Missionary Alliance has been mostly about seeking the just and loving reign of Jesus in the world.

Interestingly, at Bell's webcast-interview promoting his book, it was the Dean of the Alliance Theological Seminary at Nyack who asked Bell from the audience about the "motivation of Christian mission" inherent in his view of hell. Bell seemed to satisfy him with his answer that awareness of the hellish reality of sin is an important part of what the gospel brings to light but it is the "great story" of what God wants for the world in Jesus Christ that is the primary impulse for the Great Commission.

Another thought in relation to all this: The way 1 John 2:2 is used here suggests that the C&MA believes that the scope of the atonement is unlimited. This is potentially more problematic for so-called "five-point Calvinists" in the C&MA (if there are any) than for full-fledged Arminians like Rob Bell (if there are any). Wherever a doctrine of limited atonement (the "L" in the famous TULIP anagram which says that Jesus atoned only for the sins of the "elect") is held, it may be in contradiction with the view of atonement implied by article five of the C&MA's statement of faith, at least if its footnoted verses are taken as indicative of its central impulses.

That said, even though I strongly lean toward a view of unlimited atonement, I would be willing to entertain a certain freedom of interpretation on this point since the statement itself doesn't spell it out explicitly, and since I think a statement of faith should leave some room for those views with which it can work. I say this as someone with deep reservations about limited atonement. Very deep. Which I hope tells you that I want a statement of faith that is generous to those of Bell's persuasion as much as to those of Piper's. I think we are better off having these people in the same congregation discussing their differences on these matters than having them dismiss each other from across an evangelical divide with the twitter-fingers of a million popes. I highly value each word of the name Christian and Missionary Alliance.

And with that, I'll take an intermission. This is already long, so I'll post it and pick up the second half of the biblical analysis in a couple days. Let me know if you've got bones to pick with what I've done thus far. I can't pretend that I've done a comprehensive exegesis here, but I do feel like I'm making some headway. Please comment if you can help me out or if you are tracking with me at all.


jonkramer said...

As usual, I've been following along - but I haven't taken the time to think too deeply on this with you over the past week.
I've found your thought process quite helpful though, and I think it's going to be beneficial for a lot of us as we try to reconcile our own journeys with the CMA statement of faith.

I also think your whole approach is commendable - in starting with a key document (as opposed to a new book), and working from there.

"I think we are better off having these people in the same congregation discussing their differences on these matters than having them dismiss each other from across an evangelical divide with the twitter-fingers of a million popes."
Wouldn't it be nice if "doing theology" as a denomination was the norm? If there was an eagerness and openness to working through this kind of stuff - spurred on by leaders and our "official" theologians?
Maybe we should start up a forum or something... I kid.

Jon Coutts said...

ha! you kid successfully. thanks Jon.

Sean Davidson said...

‎"I want a statement of faith that is generous to those of Bell's persuasion as much as to those of Piper's. I think we are better off having these people in the same congregation discussing their differences ... than having them dismiss each other from across an evangelical divide with the twitter-fingers of a million popes."

Nice Jon.

I hope and pray that these guys (along with others in their wake) become more responsive than reactive. The shaping factors for a debate like this are many, but one of the most important ones has been overlooked. This isn't simply about the doctrine of hell. It's about an ecclesial identity crisis. Of course there are many differences between Piper and Bell but interestingly, they are are both reactionary. They are reacting against each other to be sure, but the real struggle is with the wider culture. They're trying to figure out how to fashion themselves as evangelical Christians in relation to the overwhelming number of "cultured despisers" in a thoroughly post-Christian culture. Generally, Piper is led to resist where Bell is led to accommodate. But both are reactionary through and through. I wonder how they would relate to each other (and to others) if they understood themselves--existentially, at the level of deep structure or "gestalt"--as responsible first and foremost to the living God of Scripture, to His gospel, and to the church He is building. Difference of interpretation is inevitable, and it can lead to serious disagreement, but it's tragic that these guys (and we with them) are unable to land on the positive rallying point. Isn't the rallying point the main thing? Isn't that what Jesus and Paul stress at all points in their teaching/preaching?

Jon Coutts said...

Reactionism, yeah. I need to repent of that constantly, even when it is laced with better motives and a calmer approach I still have it sneaking up on me as well. Thanks for that reminder that it is indeed all over the place.

The rallying point is the main thing, yeah. The mission, even. Although I guess part of the "rallying" and the "mission" is getting the "point" right. Theological debate is important in that regard. But yeah, we make IT the point on its own and all sorts of rubbish happens.

Best to do theology from communion rather than to it, I think.

Thanks, Sean.

Sean Davidson said...

I really appreciate how you guard against reactionism. You are a really good example for us all.

I get what you are saying about the importance of theological debate, and I agree with you.

I wonder what it would be like to carry on theological debate as if we were really in the position of responding to the Lord's revelation of Himself as dumbfounding witnesses rather than of reacting to each other's doctrinal emphases in the manner of judges and prosecutors.

I know I'm preaching to the choir. :-)

More: I wonder what would happen if we cared a little less about defying or appeasing the "cultured despisers" and more about the building up of the body. At the very least, the tone would be different, no? And the care with which we emphasize certain doctrines or explore new ideas or concepts. etc.

Jon Coutts said...

Oh yeah, two fantastic points. You're singing to the preacher now!