Interview on the More to the Story podcast

It was a pleasure to be interviewed by Dr Andy Miller III for his podcast, More to the Story. Andy has recently taken up a position at Wesley Biblical Seminary as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology. He’s also working on a PhD in historical theology at the University of Manchester through Nazarene Theological College, where I am his co-supervisor.

This interview gave me a chance to revisit my doctoral research on The Salvation Army, and through that discussion we also touched on some bigger issues of Christian unity, denominational distinctives, and church renewal.

If you appreciate the interview take a look at some of Andy’s other recent podcasts.

“ekklesiophobia,” and Balthasar on the church’s particularity

Over at Reclaiming the Mission, David Fitch is blogging about “ekklesiophobia,” (he calls is “ekklesaphobia” but I prefer ekklesiophobia”) an issue he sees among people who are involved in the North American missional movement (a movement in which Fitch is involved).  The ekklesiophobia he’s describing is an unhealthy fear of any practices that are traditionally associated with being “church.”

He began his first post in the series in this way:

It happens on facebook when I give the slightest indication the church is God’s instrument in the world. It happens frequently when I am speaking and assert that God has empowered the church to extend Christ’s presence in the world. It happens when I coach church planters that are missionally oriented and ask them when they gather for worship. It happens when I engage my missional friends on one of the variants of the formula “missiology precedes ecclesiology.” It happens each time I meet someone who has been abused by the traditional church. Each time there is a out-sized reaction against organizing people into practices traditionally associated with being the church (this is especially true of the public worship gathering, or the ordination of clergy).

Read the rest here, and part two here.  More to come.

I’m glad to see someone flagging this as an issue.  The missional movement is making great contributions to the contemporary church in North America, and has started some important conversations which are spilling over its borders and engaging those who minister in more traditional denominational churches and structures.   But I’ve detected something like an ekklesiophobia in my own interactions with some of the misisonal literature (though I admit I’m not totally up to speed on it).   I sometimes worry that the church’s community life, manifested in things like weekly corporate worship, sacraments, and church fellowship, are treated as if they are barriers to mission (at worst), or (at best) simply a pragmatic means to the end of being the church “in the world” – something to be tolerated as a rejeuvenating exercise when such rejeuvenation is needed, but not a discipline to be attended to as part of the church’s essential vocation.

Of course, these critiques are based on the fact that corporate worship and fellowship can become barriers to mission, if the church becomes a kind of social club which is completely turned in upon itself and closed off from the world.   However, if this problem is met by an approach that avoids such “churchly” activity, it will create other problems – namely a vaccuum of Christian formation.   It is the church’s internal life that provides the basis for such formation, and therefore the church’s internal life is essential to the church’s being and well being.

All of this makes me think of the following quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

 The Church must be open to the world, yes: but it must be the Church that is open to the world.  The body of Christ must be this absolutely unique and pure organism if it is to become all things to all men.  That is why the Church has an interior realm, a hortus conclusus, fons signatus (a walled garden, a sealed spring), so that there is something that can open and pour itself out (from Truth is Symphonic, 100).

The church’s mission in the world cannot be played off against its internal life of regular worship, sacraments, catechesis, fellowship, and so on.  Being the church requires those practices.  The church needs to be in the world,  but as Balthasar says, it is the church that must be in the world.   Therefore, the church’s particularity, its apostolic strangeness, embodied in ecclesial practices, is an essential aspect of its mission.

Great Series on The Salvation Army and the Sacraments

Adam Couchman has posted a great five part series on The Salvation Army and the Sacraments.

Part One reviews the historical context for the decision to discontinue the use of the baptism and the Lord’s Supper

Part Two discusses the actual decision itself

Part Three summarizes the various explanation given by Salvationists for their non-observance – helpfully categorized into eight types of arguments

Part Four discusses the rites that The Salvation Army does use, and notes that they are actually sacramental – which demonstrates a contradiction in the Army’s position

Part Five concludes with some notes of caution for Salvationists, and with a suggestion for a more gospel-oriented stance, which allows for the use of the traditional rites without requiring them.

While some people are tired of this discussion, I think it continues to be an important one.  I don’t expect to see any official change in The Salvation Army’s position in the near future, but there are still some serious issues that need to be worked out in the Army’s position.   If Salvationists are to continue to embrace their own symbols and rituals as sacred means of grace (i.e., soldier enrollment, the mercy seat), they cannot reasonably make the traditional rites a taboo for their own members.  If all of life is potentially sacramental, how can the two specific rites used by almost all Christians be banned?

Adam has done some great thinking on this topic, and I hope his ideas are widely read and well received.  I think his proposal is actually more faithful to the Booths’ original intent than the current “ban” on baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  I remember reading with great interest about how Captain Abby Thompson, pioneering officer in my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, used to take her entire group of soldiers to the local Anglican Cathedral for communion (much to the chagrin of the parishioners, who chased the curate out of town because of his support for the Salvationists).   Yet if a local corps officer did this today, they would spark great controversy, and might even be rebuked by their leaders!

Doctrine in The Salvation Army Tradition

From 2007 to 2010, the Commission on Faith and Witness (Canadian Council of Churches) engaged its members in a dialogue regarding the role of doctrine in the life of the church.   The fruits of this dialogue are reported in the current issue of Ecumenism, published by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.  Each commission member was asked to articulate their tradition’s answer to the following questions:

  1. What is dogma or doctrine in your tradition?
  2. What are considered to be doctrinal statements?
  3. Who can make doctrinal statements?
  4. What is the relation between doctrine and revelation?
  5. How does your tradition view the first seven ecumenical councils?
  6. How does your tradition understand the reliability of Scripture?
  7. What are those shared convictions without which the Church’s mission would be seriously impaired, or even become.

While ecumenical dialogues often aim at producing some sort of consensus statement, members reported that during this particular dialogue, it became clear at the outset that no consensus would be achieved.  The membership of the commission is very broad, including Catholics, Orthodox, historic Protestants, radical reformation, and evangelical traditions.  Some of these traditions are committed to holding fast to formal statements of  belief (creeds and confessions), while others have historically been opposed to creeds of any kind.

In an introductory article, Gilles Mongeau, Paul Ladouceur, and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast note the general commonalities that they identified in the process:

Every member Church holds to the necessity of some doctrine, explicit or implicit, as a reference point.   In all cases, one or more documents exist which lay out this doctrine, though the authority and form of these documents varies greatly. In all cases, Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience interact in some way in the emergence of doctrine.  Similarly, the role of some form of reception by the community of the faithful is a strong component of all of the traditions represented.  Finally, the presenters of the papers agree that the fullness of truth resides in God alone, and that the truth of doctrines is eschatological, that is, oriented to a future complete fulfillment or plenitude.
“Introduction to the Working Papers on Doctrine,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 5-6.

While I wasn’t part of the actual discussion, I was able to participate by revising and expanding the Salvation Army contribution to this publication, originally written by Kester Trim, and entitled “Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition.”   It is interesting to consider doctrine in the SA’s life via a comparison with the role it plays in the life of other traditions.   Some of our observations that are relevant to the above:

The Salvation Army is not known for placing a particular emphasis on doctrine.  This is not because doctrine is unimportant for Salvationists, but because The Salvation Army has customarily emphasized evangelism and service, rather than theological scholarship.  Nevertheless, The Salvation Army’s official doctrines are viewed as essential to its corporate life and witness.
“Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 36.

The Army is an interesting ecumenical partner in this dialogue, as it is on many issues, because it treats doctrine as essential, but tries to avoid doctrinal controversy.  It wants its doctrine to be clear, but Salvationists haven’t wanted to spend much time developing their doctrinal tradition.  It envisioned its brief 11 articles as a minimalist list of essentials, which would allow the SA to be “an evangelisitic force free from the entanglements of doctrinal controversy” (Ibid., 37).

Of course, it is not easy to remain aloof from doctrinal controversy!  First of all, the Army’s doctrines are clearly Wesleyan, and therefore anti-Calvinist:

In these brief 11 articles of faith, one can see the seminal Wesleyan themes of total depravity (Article 5), universal atonement (Article 6), justification by faith (Article 8), assurance through the witness of the Spirit (Article 8), and a strong emphasis on sanctification (Articles 9 and 10) (Ibid., 37).

Secondly, from the perspective of “implicit doctrine,” the obvious point of controversy would be the sacraments.  Even here, a large part of Booth’s motivation was to avoid controversy.

The Army’s non-observant stance on the sacraments had its historical precedent in the tradition of the Society of Friends, but was also justified in part by the above-mentioned desire to avoid theological controversy (since the sacraments have often been a matter of theological dispute in Christian history).  It was not Booth’s intent to disrespect the practice of other traditions, nor to make it a matter of dispute. Moreover, Salvationists have never been prohibited from from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in other traditions where they are welcome, and are free to be baptized if they feel it to be of importance (Ibid., 37-38).

Avoiding controversy is a noble aim, but very difficult to achieve in practice.  I would suggest that recent sacramental statements of the Army have lost this early irenic tone and approach, and have become much more controversial than Booth would have liked.  Also, I think one needs to be careful that a desire to be non-controversial does not become a justification for avoiding deep theological discussion, and meaningful engagement with ecumenical partners.

“Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” as Quaker Polemic

Though I’m sure I’ve heard it before, this hymn was brought to my attention when I watched the movie Atonement.   There is an amazing 5 minute scene (all shot in one take on one camera) in which lead character Robbie is wandering on a beach in Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated to England.  The beach is in complete chaos, with thousands of soldiers hanging around, seemingly without any organization – fighting, drinking, trashing vehicles, and waiting helplessly.  In the midst of the chaos, however, a choir of soldiers stands in a bandstand, singing this hymn of clamness, stillness, and rest.

The hymn is taken from a longer poem called “The Brewing of Soma,” written in 1872 by Quaker poet John Greeleaf Whittier.  In context, it is actually a strong Quaker critique of more traditional forms of Christian spirituality.  Whittier begins by depicting a scene from Vedic religion, in which priests concoct a drink, called “Soma,” which is then used in an attempt to come into contact with the divine.  In those times, “All men to Soma prayed,” Whittier writes, but his eye is on more recent Christian worship practices, which he believes are no better.  “And still with wondering eyes we trace / The simple prayers to Soma’s grace, / That Vedic verse embalms.”

Clearly Whittier has the Christian sacraments, hymns, and liturgical prayer in mind.  As the poem continues he writes,

As in that child-world’s early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

All religious ceremony is, in his mind, a vain Babel-like attempt to reach the heavens by human effort.

The final six verses of Whittier’s poem are the ones we have come to know as “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”  The seventh to the last verse is the climax of his critique:

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

It’s amazing that we have taken this polemic against historic forms of Christian worship and turned it into a standard hymn, particularly popular in Anglican circles!   When you keep Whittier’s Quaker faith and the rest of the poem in mind, you can still catch the traces of polemic in the verses we know and sing:

  • The “simple trust” in unmediated grace (v. 2)
  • the idea of rising up “without a word” (v. 2)
  • the “Sabbath rest” depicted as the “silence of eternity” (v. 3)
  • the “noiseless” blessing of God falling on the worshippers (v. 4)
  • the “still dews of quietness” which cause “all our strivings” to cease (v. 5)
  • and finally, the dumbing of the senses in the presence of the “still small voice” (v. 6)

Reading it from this perspective, these verses clearly reflect Quaker theology and practice in a very distinctive way.

Should non-Quakers still sing this song, since we don’t ascribe to their beliefs about worship?   I would say so.  Though it is good to recognize the Quaker aspects of the hymn, poetry does not have one fixed meaning.  Even anglo-catholics might be able to interpret this hymn in  a way that fits with their approach to worship, particularly since most of the imagery in the hymn is thoroughly biblical.   All Christians can affirm the restfulness of being in God’s presence, the place that quietness ought to occupy in worship, and the way that God’s blessing comes to us in spite of our strivings – without taking these convictions in the direction of Quaker theology.

And to be honest, most people are probably so enraptured by the amazing tune, Repton, that they wouldn’t notice the distinctive Quaker aspects of the hymn!

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

Ongoing Discussion of SA and Sacraments

Way back in June I started a discussion of The Salvation Army’s new Handbook of Doctrine, focusing on the section that deals with the Sacraments.   I indicated then that I was working on an article for the Rubicon on this topic.  The article turned into two short articles, and they’ve been posted in recent weeks, here and here.

The two posts point out two changes made in the new HOD: 1) a shift of emphasis, from divine agency to human agency, and 2) the addition of a claim to a divine calling to non-observance.   Point #1 is not terribly concerning, although I prefer the more theocentric teaching found in the 1999 handbook, Salvation Story.   Point #2 is a much more serious problem, because it touches on foundational issues of authority in doctrinal teaching.

I hope Salvationists will consider carefully whether or not they are willing to support the claim that God himself  has called them to not observe sacraments.   I am not willing to go along with this claim, because there is no way to establish it on the basis of scripture or Christian tradition.   I could have written a lot more in my post on this issue, but I’ve tried to get to the heart of the matter and to state it succinctly.  I’d welcome your comments and feedback.

Three Quotes from William Booth on the Sacraments

People who have done research on The Salvation Army and the sacraments will probably be familiar with these quotes, but I find that a lot of people are surprised by some of the things that William Booth said about the Army’s non-observance of the sacraments.  So I’m just putting these three quotes out there, as a follow up to my last post.

First, from Booth’s official announcement that the SA would stop observing the sacraments (“The General’s New Year Address to Officers,” The War Cry, Janary 17, 1883):

Now if the sacraments are not conditions of salvation, and if the introduction of them would create division of opinion and heart burning, and if we are not professing to be a church, not aiming at being one, but simply a force for aggressive salvation purposes, is it not wise for us to postpone any settlement of the question, to leave it over for some future day, when we shall have more light?”

Moreover we do not prohibit our own people… from taking the sacraments. We say, ‘If this is a matter of your conscience, by all means break bread. The churches and chapels around you will welcome you for this.

Second, from a book Booth wrote in 1885 called Doctrines and Disciplines of The Salvation Army, Section 26, question 6 (I’m taking the quote from Roger Green, The Life and Ministry of William Booth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 148):

Q: What is the teaching of Army on the subject of the Lord’s Supper? A: When such an ordinance is helpful to the faith of our Soldiers, we recommend its adoption.

Finally, a quote from an interview Booth gave in 1895 (again from Green, 148):

…I should like to emphasize the fact that this with us is not a settled question.  We never disclaim against the Sacraments; we never even state our own position.  We are anxious not to destroy the confidence of Christian people in institutions which are helpful to them.

Obviously, I’m putting these up to flag the provisionality of Booth’s position (and the total lack of mention of a divine calling NOT to observe the sacraments), and also his desire to avoid any theological controversy relating to the sacraments.  He may have been naive to think that not having sacraments would steer him clear of controversy!, but also note that he viewed this position as conditional in part on the Army’s claim that it was not a church. Most Salvationists today claim that the Army IS a church.

A Comparison of Salvation Story and the 2010 Handbook of Doctrine

I’m working on a post for the Rubicon on the section of the new Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine which deals with the sacraments.

In the preface to the new Handbook, General Shaw Clifton writes:

This 2010 Handbook of Doctrine retains the wording of the 1998 edition except for minor clarifications and stylistic changes. The principal aim has been to maximise user-friendliness, for example by reallocating the Bible references and inserting them into the main narrative at the relevant places; renumbering the chapters to match the numbers of the Doctrines; merging the main Handbook with the 1999 Study Guide into a single volume, removing outdated material from the latter and condensing some parts of it; revising certain Appendices and introducing three new study aids by way of Appendices 5, 6 and 9.

I guess the part on the sacraments falls under the category of “revising certain Appendices,” because there is clearly more going on here than “minor clarifications and stylistic changes.”

I’ve made a chart which puts the two texts side-by-side, so you can clearly see the changes that have been made to Salvation Story’s treatment of the sacraments (Salvation Story was the 1998 version of the Handbook).

I’ve got a pretty good idea how I’m going to structure the post – around two major points. But I’m interested in getting feedback from others.  Feel free to comment here, or email me (james [dot] pedlar [at] gmail [dot] com).

Here’s the chart in pdf: Comparison of Salvation Story and Handbook of Doctrine on Sacraments

If you want more context, you can find a pdf of Salvation Story here, and the Handbook of Doctrine can be downloaded here.