2005-07-12

All good Evangelical Anglicans end up becoming Presbyterians

Women Bishops are now on the agenda... again. As someone who ditched the Thirty-Nine Articles and embraced the Westminster Confession I can't help but feel a slight bit of concern for my Evangelical bretheren in the old church.

All this may sound strange considering my pedigree - member of St Paul's Carlingford 1988-2000, MTS 1994-95, circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews and so on. But moving to Newcastle was good for my soul because there was no way in the world that I would go to a Newcastle Anglican church. So I went to Charlestown Presbyterian - and learned anew the greatness of Reformed theology outside the influence of Sydney Anglicanism.

I honestly think now that Sydney Anglicanism (or, more correctly, the Evangelical faith as expressed generally in the culture of the Sydney Anglican diocese) is not as Reformed as I thought it was. With John Woodhouse at Moore College disagreeing with historical Reformed thinking in regards to the sacraments, something must be up.

It was about a year ago that I discovered that Covenant Theology and Biblical Theology were two different things - albeit related. My problem started at SMBC, where our Old Testament lecturer Stephen Renn taught us a unit entitled "Biblical Theology" which had running through it a continual reference to Covenant theology. I still have Renn's "A Covenantal Framework of Scripture" (parts I & II) within reach and I will read it again one day. I'm sure that Stephen Renn explained things properly at the time - I just probably didn't listen as well as I should.

Covenant Theology gives a wonderful theological explanation to the sacraments - Baptism and the Lord's Supper - that seem to be lacking amongst Sydney Anglicans. As a typical Sydney Anglican, my understanding of the Lord's supper was influenced by the weekly celebration of Pizza and Pepsi at Wednesday Night Church at St Paul's. "Dinner before church" essentially became the Lord's supper - but it was never really explained and so people treated it just like any normal meal and, if they were late to church, they didn't participate in it.

Baptism was the "Sacrament that dare not speak its name". In all my years at St Paul's there was no deep theological explanation of what it meant. Considering the presence of many visiting Baptists or ex-Baptists in the congregation, there was also no attempt to explain why children were baptised. It was simply a matter of "Some people baptise kids, others baptise adults - that's all fine". One meeting at Wednesday night church I found a believer who admitted he was not baptised - but he was a regular member of the church. His attitude was that he didn't care much.

Of course, we aren't saved by being baptised or having the Lord's supper. But I think that these things are results of our faith, and those who ignore them are disobeying Christ's commands.

Covenant Theology explains both Baptism and the Lord's supper. The idea is that, just like the Old Testament people of God, the New Testament community is made up of true believers and unbelievers. Moreover, the community has an outward "sign" that they are members of the community. In the Old Testament, members of the Covenant community were circumcised on the eighth day. In the New Testament, the members of the Covenant community are Baptised. It is a once-off physical event which signifies a deeper spiritual link with God through Christ. So we therefore have a link between Circumcision and Baptism - the former is replaced by the latter (Colossians 2:11-12).

But the Old Testament people of God had an annual meal of rememberence to commemorate their rescue from Egypt during the exodus. This was the Passover meal. Of course this was replaced by the Lord's Supper for the New Covenant people of God.

I am rambling a bit. This is not a post for me to explain in detail why pedobaptism is Biblical!

There is one more thing that Sydney Anglicans have overlooked - the mechanics of Predestination and Election (the two are different, but closely related). This is another reason why I question their Reformed nature. It's not that Predestination is not believed - it is certainly believed by most Sydney Anglicans. The problem is that there is a culture of "don't ask, don't tell" - whereby discussions about the issue are implicitly banned because of the trouble it brings to Christian fellowship (a ban that is not enforced from the top, I might add, but is part of the general church culture).

You see a few years ago I discovered the principle of "Monergistic Regeneration". It wasn't that I disbelieved it beforehand, it's just that I had never understood what it meant. Essentially it is the idea that sin is so powerful that human beings cannot, by their very nature, respond to the Gospel. In order to do so, they have to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before they repent and have faith. It is this fact that makes Gospel preaching and Scriptural expositions so spiritually powerful, for they are used by the Spirit to change people's lives. When we look at the mechanics of salvation close up, we see that Monergistic Regeneration is the way in which the elect come to faith. When we draw back and look at the whole, then we recognise it as Election and Predestination. Without an understanding of Monergistic Regeneration, Predestination remains a philosophical concept more to do with the nature of God and his relation to time, as well as human freedom. When we understand Monergistic Regeneration, Predestination is given a soteriological side that makes it so much more attractive (because it deals more specifically with Grace) and allows us to understand the philosophical side more easily.

I'm sure that my own Sydney Anglican experiences are coloured by the specific church and culture that I was immersed in, and that there are other similar, but different, cultures within the diocese (eg St. N.T. Wright's at Broadway). Moreover, although I am slightly critical here of Sydney Anglicans, I will always be grateful to God for the great truths that he revealed to me while being a Sydney Anglican. Yes it has its problems, but overall, I honestly believe that the good outweighs the bad - many times over.

Except maybe for MTS - but that's the subject of a future posting.

From the Theosalient Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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4 comments:

apodeictic said...

So what does that make me - a BCP-loving choral-evensong-singing episcopal ... presbyterian?

I used to attend an (evangelical) Anglican church in the diocese of Sydney. One day I might go back there if I ever return to that part of the world.

"Sydney Anglicans" are known for their "evangelicalism". I praise God for the fact that they embrace and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are also known for their "Biblical theology". For this too I praise God.

I would say my Biblical knowledge is fairly average for someone of my age from a Sydney Anglican church. Yet among Christians in the part of the world in which I am presently residing (no longer the Anglican Diocese of Sydney) I have earned the nickname of the "Bible Encylcopaedia". So Sydney Anglicans are doing some things right.

I think that if you took a cross-section of average church-goers across denominations and across the world, Sydney Anglicans would rate fairly highly in Biblical knowledge. Now in saying that I don't doubt that many Christians of other times and places could put us all to shame. But my point is that by today's standards the average Sydney Anglican would rate highly for Biblical knowledge.

But their strength is also their weakness. Sydney Anglicans know their Bibles fairly well but know very little about theology.

I think that if you were to undertake a similar exercise in theological knowledge Sydney Anglicans would fare considerably worse. In all the years I attended Sydney Anglican churches I got very little theological explanation or support. Very few people (no-one I knew!) had any desire to think "outside" of the Sydney-Anglican-Biblical-Theology box. No-one wanted to (or was in a position to) discuss what I thought were important theological issues. Whenever I had a theological query I was simply "encouraged" to go away and "read a book". Well that I did time and again. So compared with my fellow Sydney Anglicans I would say that my theological knowledge is above average. But with God's help I would still like to learn some more.

Many of the issues facing the church cannot be (adequately) answered within a simple "Biblical Theology" framework. Don't get me wrong. The church is all the poorer for having theologians who don't know the Bible and the plot-line of redemptive history. But the church is also all the poorer for having people (pastors?) who know their Bibles fairly well but then can't think theologically. I have often heard the criticism that a Sydney Anglican expository sermon is little more than a re-hash of what one could read in a Bible commentary. I think that may be expressing it a little harshly but there is at least a grain of salt there.

Your point about the confusion surrounding the sacraments is telling. My experience was similar and I have tried talking to pastors but to no avail. I've also been on their case about the theology of what we do (or don't do any more!) in church: Liturgy, creeds, corporate prayer, music etc etc. I must have been a real nuisance and I suspect some people might have been relieved when the Lord called me elsewhere.

How many lay Sydney Anglicans (OK I accept that "lay" is not a word belonging to the Sydney-Anglican vocabulary!) could say what "the Bible teaches" about the Lord's Supper or infant baptism? How many could tell you why it is acceptable (or why the Baptists down the road think it unacceptable) to baptise babies? These are all questions on which most Sydney Anglicans wouldn't have a clue and despite their above average Bible-knowledge wouldn't know how to even begin thinking through the problems.

Sydney Anglicans are throwing away their Reformed heritage and opting for no-name generic evangelicalism. I think that's a great shame. There are already plenty of bland purpose-driven® churches out there. If I wanted one of those I would have been there long ago. But it's also a shame because I think that historic Reformed theology is basically right and purpose-driven® non-theology basically wrong.

I might end up attending a Presbyterian church at some stage. But attending a presbyterian church doesn't make one a presbyterian just as much as attending an Anglican church doesn't make one an Anglican. (Sydney's Anglican churches are full of non-Anglicans!)

In short I don't think I will become a presbyterian. There are too many things I like about being Anglican. And as an Anglican I can already claim the things that you only discovered after you jumped ship.

The WCF is -- in a very real sense -- an Anglican confession. It was written by Anglicans after all and I think it should along with the 39 Articles and a couple of catechisms be requred reading for all confirmees (or adult baptismal candidates). But that's wishful thinking in this day and age when most Sydney Anglicans have never seen a prayer book in their life or could even tell you what a catechism is.

I can already study Reformed (and other) theology. You don't need to become a presbyterian to do that.

So because I don't plan on becoming a presbyterian any time soon does that make me a bad evangelical Anglican?

My the Lord prevent [i.e. 'go before' for all the non-Anglicans out there] you in all your doings with his most gracious favour, and further you with his continual help; that in all your prayer and works begun, continued and ended in him, you may glorify his Holy Name, and finally by his mercy obtain everlasting life.

One Salient Oversight said...

Thanks very much for your comments. I concur with your analysis that Sydney Anglicans are becoming more "Generic Evangelicals" and are in danger of losing their Reformed roots.

I'm only half-joking about the Presbyterians - at the moment it is a reasonably good evangelical denomination in Australia but I feel no compulsion at all to parade around, waving Presbyterian flags and saying "we're the best". So the title of this post is a little tongue in cheek.

Vaughan Smith said...

Thanks for this post, it's a bit old, but pretty much sums up where I am at the moment as well. I am attending SMBC next year :)

Rev. J said...

Reformed theology, as a system, is frankly too novel for an Anglican to be dogmatic about. Too, the NT does not in the least argue for a full correspondence view of baptism as new circumcision. In fact the covental sign is explicitly Eucharist just as circumcision was in the OT. In the NT, baptism is about cleansing, new birth, and union with Christ. And the early Fathers tow the same line. Moreover, it's clear that Augustinian predestination was a late arrival and was, in any case, obviously softer than Calvin's. Finally, the Early Church universally condemned dogma around non-essentials, which clearly negates your critcisms for Anglicans, as it should for Presbyterians if they would be catholic.