Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The C&MA Statement on Hell

Surely the world doesn't need one more blog about Rob Bell's Love Wins but, given the controversy it instigated within evangelicalism, once I've read it I'm probably going to want to say something about it. We can always theologize about headlines, but it isn't every day that theology itself makes headlines!

However, for reasons mentioned in the last post, I want to have some contextualized purpose to my reflections. No sense one more person deciding (on what authority?) on the internet whether Bell is or is not a heretic, evangelical, or what have you. What I want to ask is whether someone convinced by his book could sign my denomination's statement of faith. I have not read the book yet, but this and the next post are my re-familiarization with that statement. Although Bell reputedly touches on a variety of issues, I am going to focus primarily on the doctrine of hell (with sideways glances at other things as they come up).

Before I get fully into it, however, let me set out some guiding rationale, declare my (rather ad hoc methodology), and give some guidance on how I'd like this to be read.

1. Rationale and Approach:

In the preamble to its local church constitution of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada, the spirit of the guiding document is tied back to its founder, A.B. Simpson, whose charge to the General Council of 1912 is considered "as relevant today as when he gave it in his address." In the few short lines which are quoted, Simpson says the following about his wishes for the movement that would build upon his work:
"God grant that this work may never lose its old simplicity, self-sacrifice and separation, not only from the secular but from the religious world in its spirit and practice. But at the same time, we must keep abreast of the progress of our age and be men and women of today in our message and ministry to our generation."
Much could be said about this quote alone. (Surely "progress" is not assumed in every age? How does one decide when to be separate and when to adapt? What is the "religious world" that he has in mind? And so on.) But the point is that Simpson thought the movement should stay simple, unbound, and self-giving in its spirit and practice, but not that it should at any point lose touch with or be uninvolved in the society in which it moves and ministers and speaks. Thus, I would suggest, it must always be about the work of both theological communication and re-appraisal -- not so as to stifle but to free and to assist the church in its service to the others in the love and grace of Christ. Theology serves the mission, and it does so not oblivious to but right in the thick of each generation.

It is with this spirit in mind that I take to heart the questions Rob Bell has raised (but not invented) and I inquire not simply into the general appropriateness of his answers but into their appropriateness and/or usefulness within my particular stream of the wider evangelical 'tradition'. If this is to be fair I must both scrutinize Bell's answers as well as the answers that have tended to be the denominational default. Having not read his book, I am yet unsure how much I'll agree with Bell, but I can state up front that I begin with the agreement that his questions are not irrelevant, unimportant, or finally settled. In fact I find them to be intriguing and even in the best sense nagging questions in their own right. I think this is so not simply for curiosity's sake but for the sake of understanding the gospel and the biblical witness as a whole.

In coming to our statement of faith with this sort of open-ended questioning I am contradicting neither the original spirit of our denomination nor the letter of its policy. Indeed, written right into the local church constitution of Canada's C&MA manual, which includes the statement of faith, it says: "This constitution may be amended at any regular business session of the General Assembly of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, written notice having been given prior to the General Assembly."

Thus isn't just lip-service either. I was present at the C&MA General Assembly of 2004 when this document was amended to remove the insistence on believer's baptism from the statement of faith. Interestingly, this was not a turn to the practice of infant baptism, since the constitution elsewhere asserted that it was C&MA policy to practice believer's baptism; rather, the amendment was passed because the denomination did not wish to have the exclusion of infant baptism written into its statement of faith, thus implying that it regarded such a thing totally unorthodox and ecclesiastically unacceptable. It was an ecumenical and practical move for which I heartily voted. Statements of faith should not be too long, if they are to exist at all.

I take this as precedent, then, for the kind of analysis I want to explore. Although my exploration will be not exhaustive, it seems to me that there are four provisional conclusions one could reach. The Statement of faith could either be:
(1) Left as is, thus excluding certain views.
(2) Expanded to include an alternate view.
(3) Amended so as to allow more variance.
(4) Left as is, with ample room for local interpretation.
I operate under the assumption that if our statement of faith means anything then we actually want it to say what is of necessity in order to be a member of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada, and nothing more.

Basically, I'm trying to figure out whether a person with Rob Bell's view of hell (presuming it can even be known and articulated) could with good conscience sign the statement of faith. Put the other way around, I am asking whether such a person could be refused membership or credentialing in the C&MA on such a basis. As I write this I have neither read the book nor formed a solid opinion in any direction.

2) Methodology:

There isn't much to tell here. Essentially, in the next post I intend to take the immediately relevant portions of the statement of faith, look at the biblical passages they footnote, and get a good sense of the rationale and the credibility of the statement on its own terms. After this I may do some further exegetical and theological reflection in order to determine whether I've got a handle on what the statement is saying and how it might possibly be interpreted. By then I should have finished Bell's book and will likely have some things to say about it by comparison. In particular I will look at its view of hell (and its potential population) and try to determine how well this fits with my denomination's stance, if at all. Depending on how things go, I imagine I will either have a critique to levy against Bell's book or an amendment to consider proposing to the family of churches to whom I belong.

3) To the reader:

I will say here what I say on my page devoted to the issue of gender roles in the C&MA: I will gladly accept critique or input from an outside perspective, and indeed truly hope that this blog can help its interested readers to think through the issues involved, but I do not wish to drag my denomination's issues in the public simply to make a spectacle of them. Please don't take it like that and, if you have your doubts about us, assume the best until you know otherwise.

Furthermore, my goal in this is not to set myself apart from or above the particular church context which is my home. Anyone who reads out of or into this a spirit of division should please note that my desire is to contribute to my denomination's ongoing work of theology and biblical interpretation and application, not to detract from it. I believe we are enabled by our common convictions in the grace, love, and truth of Jesus Christ to discuss and re-evaluate the things that we believe. We do so not in a spirit of confusion or fear but in truth spoken in love - operating under the trust that ours is a living Lord.

Also, anyone in my denomination who is looking to eavesdrop on my thought process so they can fade away quietly having labelled me according to some preconceived notion of orthodoxy should please communicate any reservations to me personally. I would like to work in the denomination upon completion of my PhD and this is a place for me to publicly work through some things which I think important. It does not mean that my mind is made up or that I would not welcome conversation. If you are hear to blacklist me, please tell me so and be ready to back up your claims.

At this point I will declare my prior leanings openly: I found Bell's promotional questions to be over-the-top provocative but still important and even good. Turned out I was hearing them a little different than others, and so I have been in the odd position of defending the questions in principle for a couple weeks even before having read Bell's answers for myself. I have been able to piece together a sense of the book from the many excerpts I have read, and gather that I will have some reservations of my own. However, I also grade enough papers to be able to tell when someone is being misused or even misrepresented in quotation, and so I remain skeptical that Bell has been given a fair reading. As mentioned before, I also don't think that the hastily applied 'universalist' label necessarily made Bell a heretic. But my book comes in the mail today.

4) The statement:

For now, I leave you with this. Though other parts of the C&MA's eleven-point statement of faith will be relevant, the primary point in question is #5:
Humankind, originally created in the image and likeness of God, 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 (Rom. 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 (Matt. 25:41-46; 2 Thess. 1:7-10).


P. Smitty said...

Well I'm anxiously looking forward to part two. I have also been processing this 'conversation' about Hell and pondering how does a good C&MA pastor respond to these questions. Thanks for taking up this challenge Jon.


Jon Coutts said...

Thanks Chris. But don't get your hopes up. As I scoured the biblical texts today for a while I came to the conclusion that my treatment of this complex issue will be sorely disappointing. I don't know how I'm going to tackle it without confining myself to the passages footnoted in the statement of faith. But this seems to succumb to the idea that these were meant as prooftexts that either seal or discredit the case based on their warrant. I doubt they were meant that way. But I have to start somewhere. So I guess I'll start there and see what happens. I have no idea how this will end.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Jon. Thanks for this.

Of special note to me: I didn't know that the C&MA specified that human physical death is the result of sin (and that it makes the issue a matter of orthodoxy).

What then of groups like early Homo sapiens, neanderthals and such? Does the C&MA just view them as nonhuman?


Kampen said...

This has nothing to do with this here post but I recently read Jacques Derrida's essay "On Forgiveness" and find it very compelling. If you haven't read it, I would highly recommend it (considering your studies on forgiveness and all).

Jon Coutts said...

Kampen: I noticed you were looking for that essay (and that someone got it to you). I've got that essay on file and intend to give it a good read. It is one of the ones I look forward to most, once I get around to my comparative analyses on the concept of forgiveness itself. That should be sometime soon. At that point I just might want to drop you a line for your thoughts. Or if you've got a bunch brewing already I'd be glad to hear them. Seems fascinating, from what I've gathered.

Dennis: I'm not exactly sure when the C&MA statement of faith originated but it was likely several decades ago, so I can almost guarantee there wouldn't have been much thought put into the questions you are asking. The debate would simply have been less pressing or credible (in the pews and pulpits) at the time. Young earth creationism would have been taken for granted (and still would be, by many). So, this would be another area where the statement would be on the table for discussion.

But let me get you straight: You are saying that if the human race was created via an evolutionary process that would have involved generation upon generation of physical deaths, then there would have been a kind of death before sin (differentiated from the death that was a result of sin). And thus, to hold to the statement that death (full stop) entered creation at sin, is to determine that those prior stages of homo sapien life (who were dying) were yet to be human?

Bear with me, because I haven't put a lot of thought into this yet. Would it, in your view, be problematic if it were deemed that the first humans signified in Genesis were thought to be an evolved species that at some point were actually declared by God and consituted 'human' (in the Spirit-breathed, image of God sense)?

Tim said...

Hi Jon,

I'm really glad that someone like yourself is seriously taking up these issues, not only in evangelicalism but for the Alliance. Just a question here prefaced by a comment...

One thing I noticed in the last quote of the statement on hell was the claim that humans have a sinful "nature." What struck me (after I've been reading Thomas Aquinas on evil) is the assumption that sin/evil etc. has a nature, which in a longstanding tradition is to say it has "being" or "esse". This could be deeply problematic given much (though admittedly not all) view evil as necessarily a privation, not as something with being. Does the affirmation that sin has a nature affect the outcome regarding the doctrine of hell? Would the Catholic view of evil/sin having no being have something to contribute here? Just wondering if you also see a connection here.

Tim Harvie

Sean Davidson said...

Liking your method -- a lot. Looking forward to the next steps.

Jon Coutts said...

Tim: I flagged that too. I think it will have a bearing on how one interprets the rest. I definitely want to go with a privation account of sin, in which case I was thinking I'd interpret "nature" in an "orientation" sense. However, the trajectory of this interpretation may indeed lead to more breathing room on the hell portion than other interpretations of "nature" might allow. Therein lies the rub. This could get really complex because each point in the statement touches on other points and so it isn't just about interpreting one line. I'd love to hear what you think ...

Anonymous said...

But let me get you straight: You are saying that if the human race was created via an evolutionary process that would have involved generation upon generation of physical deaths, then there would have been a kind of death before sin (differentiated from the death that was a result of sin). And thus, to hold to the statement that death (full stop) entered creation at sin, is to determine that those prior stages of homo sapien life (who were dying) were yet to be human?

That seems to be how it reads, yes. The issue is that there has been death is our lineage since he beginning, and individuals anatomically indistinguishable from us are in the fossil record going back over 100,000 years (more like 180,000 - 200,000 years) - long before signs of culture, agriculture, art, show up (around 40,000 years ago, give or take).

Would it, in your view, be problematic if it were deemed that the first humans signified in Genesis were thought to be an evolved species that at some point were actually declared by God and consituted 'human' (in the Spirit-breathed, image of God sense)?

I'm ok with this coming about as a process - I don't see the need for a sudden, fiat demarcation of the Imago Dei (though many do). There comes a point where we bear the image, and the main point in Genesis is that we do, not how it arrived in scientific terms.

I guess if the prevailing view in the C&MA at the time the statement of faith was written was that of sudden fiat creation of humans without ancestry it makes some sense to view physical death as a result of the curse - though I think that stance is one that Genesis itself isn't definitive on even on its own terms.

Sorry for the sidetrack - I'll let you get back to the non-controversial material now. :)