Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Schism and Hermeneutic

Note: Throughout, I assume that the reader is conversant with the Bible and has read through it, hopefully many times.  If any reader would care to have citations for any referenced passage, please ask in the comments.  This is a conscious decision to improve the flow of the writing, which is intended to be persuasive, not technical.

When do you leave a church? 

This is an extremely difficult question, as anyone who has done it can attest.  Is it when they kick you out?  When you are convinced that the damage is irreversible?  When you think you spot a trend?  When you get mad?

Raising the issue to the next level, when does a church leave a denomination?

I realize that this is a non-issue for many evangelical churches, which are commonly unaffiliated with any other part of the body of Christ.  I also maintain that denominations are the best answer to the problem of sin in the church, as we are to strive for unity and connection with our brothers and sisters where it is possible to do so in good conscience.  This is not an argument for denominations per se, though it is about church affiliation, so on we go.

Recently, a church in my denomination (OPC) chose to reject overtures of reconciliation from the presbytery (the regional church) and abandon our denomination, only to promptly affiliate with another (ERPC).  The details of the affair are not known to me, nor are they directly relevant to the larger discussion, so we will leave them here. 

Our denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, would be described by most Christians as conservative.  We have a very high view of Scripture, we hold to the Westminster standards, discipline is conducted according to the constitution of the church contained in the standards and the book of church order.  Individual churches are under the care of a session of elders, the regional churches meet quarterly, and the denomination meets annually.  Appeals of judicial matters may be made up the chain if a party is dissatisfied, and as a general rule things are done decently and in good order.

But that's not good enough for some. 

After some reading on the ERPC website, it seemed to me like there was little to differentiate them from the OPC; they claim the Westminster standards, maintain Biblical inerrancy, and (notionally) have a presbyterian form of government (they have six churches, FWIW).  A few points stick out, though, and I must assume these are the levers that pried churches out of the OPC and into the ERPC:

1) Reduced regional authority - this suggests to me that these churches were born out of judicial proceedings they did not like, but that is beside the point.  It's not the main issue of this discussion.

2) "Strict" adherence to the Westminster standards - this is their jab at what they see as wobbliness on the standards in the OPC.  I counter that the standards are secondary, and what they see as wobbly is a balancing act by the OPC of maintaining Scriptural primacy over the subordinate standards, which are nevertheless strongly asserted as a correct and well-formulated system of theology.  Parsing them like they are inspired is a hermeneutical error.  This gets at the main point, keep reading.

3) Six-day literal creation - The best for last, right?  Their website spends as many words on this as on justification by faith alone.  Here we go.

A cursory reading of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2 leaves some questions open.  What's the deal with the second account?  Is it a zoom-in on a day?  If so, what day?  How come the voice of the narrative changed?  Why is a parallel literary structure apparent in the first account, but not so in the second?

These questions are about how to interpret Scripture.  They are hermeneutical.  They aim at eliciting from the passage (or similar passages) some clues as to how we should take all of it in, how it should fit with our understanding of the rest of revelation, and so on.  Clearly, differences on hermeneutics produce differences in doctrine and practice.  Major interpretive differences about baptism produce different churches, differences on justification produce different churches, and now, it seems, a difference on Genesis 1 & 2 produces a different church.

But what, exactly, is the difference?

The OPC has made clear that the hermeneutical difficulties inherent in early Genesis mean that some variety of views is acceptable within our church.  Many in the OPC are six-literal-day folks, but the denomination has stated that the framework hermeneutic (which is literary) adequately deals with the text while admitting the general revelation that creation bears of an old Earth, and even day-agers are welcome.  Why?  Is it because our standards are lax?  Quite the opposite, in fact: the church cannot speak where God has not spoken. 

If a passage is obscure, and remains so under diligent, careful, investigation, we lack the authority to mandate a meaning.  The church exercises respect for Scripture when she will not talk over it.  The secret things belong to the Lord, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children, that we may do the words of God.  The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man. 

So can you build a denomination on this hermeneutic divide?  Probably.  Should you?  I rather think not. 

The topic at issue is not soteric - nobody argues (I hope) that you HAVE to have the right view on Genesis 1 to get into heaven.  It is not even a practical issue - what does it change in your worship or piety whether rock strata developed over millenia or were laid down in an instant by the hand of God?  The arguers on this topic will declare that it is an inerrancy of Scripture issue - but not all Scripture is literal history.  God did not actually use Moab as a chamber pot, nor cast a single shoe over Edom.  Prophecy is filled with accounts of visions that are presented as a matter-of-fact.  Let's not even get started on the Revelation to John.

I'm afraid that I am left with no other conclusion than that this argument is over the inerrancy of somebody's opinion.  About hermeneutical inerrancy.  Interpretive inerrancy.

Folks, God's word stands, no matter what we think of it.  The Word of God in the Old and New Testament, as recorded in the original languages, is without error.  We have no such guarantees of (or, I hope, trust in) our own wisdom in parsing that word.

Furthermore, arguing so bitterly about words (specifically "day") seems to be forbidden by Paul.  Violating clear teaching of Scripture for the sake of a view on an obscure part plainly breaks the widely accepted hermeneutical rule of work-from-easier-to-harder. 

It saddens me to see interpretation abused to the detriment of my church.  But so it goes, and so it will go, while Christ tarries.  In the meantime, let's work and pray for truth, unity, and love to prevail in the Body of Christ while we sit under the word of God together.

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