Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
August 14th, 2017 by Joel Watts

Generous Orthodoxy? A Reply To Bishop Carter

The resident bishop of Florida, who is also a moderator for The United Methodist Church’s Commission on the Way Forward, has declared his latest piece non-political and completely free of spin. I am not moved to this conclusion myself. I will explain why later. In this essay, I want to address several points in which Bishop Carter gravely errs. In such a time as this, when truth is decided by the largest social media following, the Church – the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church – must temper herself; her leaders must practice caution. I do not see temper or caution in Bishop Carter’s piece.

When Carter says, “I have an increasing clarity about a Christian faith that is generously orthodox,” I have to wonder what other Christian faith he is talking about.  Legalism has permeated all parts of the theological spectrum– where purity of thought and action is sought, where new rules are daily discovered, new boundaries are marked, and where the lawyers seek to put on the shoulders of the people more than they can carry. There has always been, however, a strong current of generous orthodoxy in the Church, even if we have not named it such until recently.

It is only around the person of Jesus — because Christ is the center of our faith — that we usually strike a hardline. Even then, there is some ambiguity as seen between the East and the West. The Ecumenical Creeds — the conciliar creeds — insist on affirming in almost minute detail Who Jesus is and Jesus’s relation to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. Some lines are devoted to the Father and on the Spirit, as well as some pointed lines about the Church and the Resurrection. From the Creeds we know that we must assent to the idea that Jesus died for our sins but as to the atonement theory? As to a listing of sins? The Great Tradition seems to have always maintained and appreciated very generous understandings.

Because of Church Universal’s generous orthodoxy, she has on many occasions attempted to reconcile with those who oppose her magisterial teachings. In the fourth century, Lucifer of Cagliari rightly opposed Arius, but refused a generosity within orthodoxy. He — a firmly rooted Nicene Christian — was exiled along with followers.

In the fifth century, as the Church struggled with the Donatist controversy, it was the usually hard-nosed St. Augustine who brought life to the parable of the wheat and the tares, insisting not on a legalistic pure body of believers with litmus tests of mind and body, but on the idea that only the Church Triumphant is the pure one. He demanded a very generous approach to all but the most basic doctrines — the divinity of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. The northern African bishop devised what it mean to be charitable as an orthodox Christian — even while maintain strong boundaries.

When Carter quotes Hans Frei he seems to miss what Frei was referring to. Frei doubts that such a “generous orthodoxy” can occur between postliberalism and evangelicalism (both defined by their 20th century American-centric statuses), and perhaps this is why he does not spell it out.

Frei posits the two poles between The Christian Century and Christianity Today. Think about that analogy. Both are deeply political, offering theology of the American version of their Christianity. This doesn’t speak to a much broader, catholic understanding of the Christian tradition. Rather, he is speaking against their certainty. This is an odd statement for Frei to make given his very certain statements about who Christ is and the physical resurrection of Jesus — as well as his blasting of the good Dr. Henry’s attempt at suggesting narrative theology is “theory neutral and trans-cultural”  — as if Christian theology is something located only in a particular time and place rather than being an eternal truth.

Frei seems to uphold the eternal truth of essential Christian doctrine, without the certainty of secondary items. As Alistair McGrath points out, the generous orthodoxy of Hans Frei sounds like the via media of the Anglican Tradition — and of orthodox Wesleyans. Like Wesley, he is arguing against the biblical literalism of the conservatives and the biblical hedonism of the liberals.

What Carter does, however, is destroy his argument by quoting liberals with no sense of orthodoxy. Rather than using Frei and Rutledge, he quotes an often wayward-Mennonite (not exactly a sect known for their adherence to the Great Tradition) and from there, destroys the notion of orthodoxy as a test for all things. Indeed, the podcast is focused on following conscience. Rather than a generous orthodoxy, Carter wants an open field of strategic partnerships, not around Christ and Who He Is, but around some nebulous “generous orthodoxy” as he attempts to define it. Oddly enough, rather than talking about the orthodoxy Frei and Rutledge speak about, Carter turns to someone speaking about sexual ethics under the guise of orthodoxy.

If his essay was not about spin, I would suggest that we would have had an example of orthodoxy, generosity, and an admission that the thrust of his writing here is in fact a way to push a change in sexual ethics. It would have been a pleasant surprise had he admitted that up front.

He notes his faith is “generously orthodox.” He has yet to give real examples of that. For instance, would he allow for pastors who are ashamed to have representations of the Christian faith in their sanctuaries? Or pastors who are surprised to see Jesus there? Or who openly admit that they tolerate some things and dispense – perhaps with a  bucket — what they just do not like? Where are the boundaries of generosity?

Where, pray tell, is there life in this? Throughout the Christian ages, those who deny the teachings of the Church have stood squarely outside the Church and have repeatedly found calls to repentance placed on them. Bishops, who are supposed to be shepherds and guard the doctrine of the Church, would remove pastors like this and possibly, as Jesus threatened in Revelation, disband the congregation altogether. He stresses this undefined “generosity” over orthodoxy, which has been fairly well defined across the ages.

Speaking of Bishops, is it also generous to have Bishops speak in quasi-Manichean terms about divine sparks, obliterating the Gospel along the way? I am unsure as the Scriptural license of the allowance of the Great Tradition — a rather generous pool of thought and action – to suggest that all of God’s creation has a “divine spark.” Would this then not assign to God the creation of evil? We democratized our connection to God in such a way as to make it — and Jesus — meaningless. I contend that it is exactly because of flirtation with a less-than-orthodox belief, with our doctrines unguarded by Bishops, that we have lost authority in our culture.

And what a time to have lost that authority.

There are two more statements to consider. First, Carter states,

Generosity persuades me to believe that the church (the United Methodist Church, the ecumenical church, your church and my church, the church that will be recreated by the generations coming along) has a better and more faithful future….When we are generous, we are not closed off from each other. This is for our good. When we are orthodox, we are not separated from the God who speaks, is incarnate and breathes in Scripture and in our own lives. This is our salvation.

I am unsure as to where he received any of this, given that “Generosity” has yet to be defined, and the Church is never “Recreated.” At what point do these two things because separate? Orthodoxy has boundaries, else it would not be orthodoxy. Generosity has a grounding, which is orthodoxy — as you must have something in order to be generous with it.

Again, how does he define “generous?” Would Carter be generous to the fourth century heretic, Arius, who would have made Christ another creature, perverting salvation? Or Pelagius who suggested that we have absolute free will — and thus have no need for Jesus, instilling in us legalism and fear? Would Carter open up the door to the Marcionites who would have dispensed with our Jewish connection, leaving Scripture open to canon-within-a-canon approaches? The Donatists? The Docestists? The Muslims? These heretics each have their own brand of heresy that perverts the Gospel in some way. Where does Carter seeing “generosity” ending? Was the Church wrong to map out doctrinal boundaries that preserved, rightly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

There are times when generosity becomes incompatible with Christian teaching.

Jesus is our salvation, Bishop Carter — the Jesus proclaimed by the Church Universal in the Creeds, the same one Hans Frei believed in and would not recant, offering no generosity there. There are right ways and wrong ways. There is a need to listen and a need to hear. This is what orthodoxy is about and it has always been generous.

Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing. – Hans Frei

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

5 Responses to “Generous Orthodoxy? A Reply To Bishop Carter”
  1. Rev. Wade Harman says

    Joel, great analysis. Here are some other points in error I noticed in the quote from Carter, “Generosity persuades me to believe that the church (the United Methodist Church, the ecumenical church, your church and my church, the church that will be recreated by the generations coming along) has a better and more faithful future….”
    1) Whose church is it? He says “My church”, etc. I thought the church belongs to Jesus’ The church is NOT my church. As Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build MY church…”
    2) Not only does he say that the church is being recreated, but who is recreating it? He says “by the generations coming along” Not by Jesus.

    And here, “When we are generous, we are not closed off from each other”
    3) I was not aware that the ties that keep us together are of our own making.

    It appears that “generosity” has displaced orthodoxy in this idea of a new church. I have suspicions about the use of “orthodoxy” in this manner but I will refrain since they are just suspicions.

  2. Very well said. A gracious and most kind way of saying that Bishop Carter’s thoughts are erroneous and as we say in the south, it is a few bricks short of a losd.

  3. As a retired 80 year old geezer, an Elder in the UMC, I could identify with Bishop Carter, speaking to a general audience of laity and clergy. Bro. Watts comes across as a pendantic professor criticizing as if Bishop Carter was making a seminary lecture. Bro. Watts impressed me as one who has a brilliant knowledge of the history of Christian theology. But, it is off base, because Bishop Carter was not speaking in an academic lecture. As well quoted, orthodoxy without generosity is….

    • yes, because how dare we demand our bishops who are charged — and have sworn to — uphold the doctrine, to guard the faith — actually do so? Whether it is a lecture or a blog post, or not, the truth should be told. The message doesn’t change, only the delivery. If that is the case, then Carter’s message is one of “generosity” rather than orthodoxy.

      You can allow bishops to be lukewarm or other, but if they are going to be the shepherds of the Church then I will demand of them what they promised.

    • As laity, I am intrigued by this statement: “I could identify with Bishop Carter, speaking to a general audience of laity and clergy.” From my perspective the biggest problem besetting the American United Methodist Church is that it has lost the ability to instill a robust theology of who God is and who we are in its laity. Several years ago I became so lost, confused and broken that I was forced to distance myself from all things church. That is when I stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it. By the time I was done, all the random bits and pieces of Christianity I had been accumulating over a lifetime finally had a place in a much larger and absolutely stunning picture. I was stunned at the robust teaching rank an file Germans of the 1600’s were exposed to. Truth is, we lost a generous orthodoxy a long time ago–it is an orthodoxy that is about the unfathomable generosity of God towards his continually wayward people.

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