A RESPONSE TO GEOFF THOMPSON FROM JOHN GUNSON (author of God, Ethics and the Secular Society: does the church have a future? reviewed in Crosslight.)
Rev Dr Geoff Thompson’s Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology provoked by the Basis of Union, received some attention in Journey On Line in July 2016.
[Both books available from Morning Star Publishing] [Thank you to Rex Hunt for helping us to observe this debate].
Rev John Gunson –
The Uniting Church is this year celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our formation, our coming together.
One of the things worth focusing on must surely be the Basis of Union – the expression of the faith of the church upon which three separate denominations came together.
Geoff Thompson has done us a service here in his recently published book about the Basis entitled “Disturbing Much Disturbing Many – Theology provoked by the Basis of Union”. I would like to continue the conversation, both because it is important to the future of the Uniting Church, and because Geoff’s analysis expresses only one point of view in our churches and because it is factually wrong about aspects of the Basis, while other aspects of his theses need challenging.
The title of Geoff’s book is apt. I was certainly greatly disturbed by what Geoff has written. The framers of the Basis expected their work to “disturb much and disturb many”, probably because they knew it was much out of kilter with how many of those in the three churches would have expressed their faith, but there is very little evidence that such an expected theological disturbance took place, or lasted for long.
As one who was involved (not on the Joint Commission itself, but in other ways preparatory to union), I have a different understanding of much that Geoff asserts about the Basis and its function and significance.
Geoff believes that the Basis of Union was intended as the forever definitive theological basis of the Uniting Church. Some of those on the Joint Commission may well have believed that, or at least hoped that would be true.
What in fact determined the theological position expressed in the Basis of Union was the pragmatic need to find a basis upon which three very different denominations with widely diverging theological positions could come together in union. In other words it had to avoid looking like a normative/typical statement of any one of the three negotiating churches. e.g. “That’s Presbyterian. We can’t agree to that. That is a takeover.” So let’s agree on one of the historic creeds that we give lip service to as part of the church’s history – a kind of neutral ground. Nicea is more or less recognized across the major expressions of the church as the first definition of faith to come out of an ecumenical council and its attempt to unify the many different theological positions of the time.
Let’s conveniently forget that this supposed “divine revelation” was implemented under Roman Imperial threat for the convenience of the Roman state and empire, and its consequent continuing orthodoxy for the next 1300 years also imposed by the State which everywhere controlled the church.
Geoff refers to God’s “inscrutable ways” to explain the otherwise nonsensical and inexplicable. The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is here seen operating totally out of character with what he reveals in Jesus, and in terms of a revelation that he obviously denied to his “only-begotten” “incarnate” “Son”. Geoff quotes some lonely scholarship that suggests that even if Jesus didn’t claim Messiahship he acted Messianically. But he makes no case that Jewish messiahship is seen by Judaism as implying anything vaguely approximating the incarnate son of God dying for our personal salvation.
Since the Reformation, with the church increasingly freed from the control of the State, and with the benefit of the European Enlightenment(s) and Biblical and theological scholarship freed from “church” control and censorship, many branches of the church were moving on from Nicea.
Our union 40 years ago happened at a time when neo-orthodoxy /Barthian theology was resurgent (that doesn’t mean it was right). Had we come together in the 19thcentury we would have had an entirely different Basis of Union, and Geoff would have been arguing my case – that the Basis of Union was certainly not “for all time”, but simply the best and most pragmatic way to get agreement/union between the churches at the time, and thus subject to review and change.
The second factor at work 40 years ago was the ecumenical spirit of that time.
Dominant in the life of our three churches, it brought home to us powerfully the scandal of denominationalism and disunity. I, along with many others, was heavily involved in ecumenical activities and the work and scholarship of the World Council of Churches and the Australian Council of Churches.
Congregationalists (my background) historically did not look on themselves as a denomination but as a reforming movement in the life of the church, and we urgently desired and worked for both the continuing reformation of the churches and the unity of the church. That was a much higher priority than a particular choice of a confession of faith we could all agree about at the time.
We believed that the Basis was a necessary pragmatic concession, in order to achieve union – which we could each interpret in our own way, in spite of its Greek philosophical thought forms, themselves incomprehensible to most.
The majority of Congregationalists would probably not have entered into the Uniting Church if they had not believed that the Basis of UNION was a starting point on which we could come together, not a permanent “once and for all” expression of the faith of the Uniting church. Such a confession would have been called “The theological basis of the UC’, not the basis of UNION.
To make absolutely sure this was the case, Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission insisted on the inclusion of Paragraph 11.
To those not privy to the background I have described above, Geoff’s interpretation of Para. 11 may seem reasonable. But, in fact he explains away its essential meaning and purpose, and in fact is quite wrong.
I knew personally the Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission.
Geoff mentions both Henry Wells and Maynard Davies and refers to some of their correspondence. Maynard was a member of my congregation and I knew his thinking intimately over nearly a decade of close association.
Maynard believed that modern scholarship was giving us new knowledge and understanding of our sources and our faith, and that he expected the Uniting Church to take it seriously and not reject it because it did not happen to reflect literalist interpretations of Bible or creeds or Barthian or any other interpretation of the faith of the church.
For Maynard (along with most Congregationalists) the church was always a church under reformation, and not to be imprisoned by a 1000 year old statement of faith, nor a 1000 year old interpretation of it. He didn’t believe, as Geoff does, that God wants to be understood in a way that makes no sense to most people today – thatwhile scholarship and knowledge has moved on, yet God and his works are best understood expressed in the limited knowledge and ancient Greek thought forms forced on the church by a Roman Emperor.
Maynard Davies would have approached each meeting of the Joint Commission with the words of Pastor John Robinson ringing in his ears, as Robinson farewelled the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower, fleeing persecution from “orthodoxy” in England for a new life in America in 1620.
Robinson urged them : “I charge you before God … to follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive truth from my ministry, for I am persuaded that the Lord has yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word. ….. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw … and the Calvinists … stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.”
A third and powerful factor also determining the Basis of Union was the vision expressed in the deliberate wording of our name – the Uniting Church in Australia, not the “United” church. In coming together we all believed that this was only the first step in a larger on-going process of union, beginning with the Anglicans with whom preliminary discussions were already underway, and ultimately, some dared to hope, even with Baptists and Roman Catholics. (See paras 1&2 of the Basis.)
To even start conversations with Anglicans and Roman Catholics we knew we had to have a theological/creedal basis with which they would readily agree. Nicea made obvious sense. Further, in support of this goal, great consideration was given on the Joint Commission as to the possibility of including Bishops in the polity of the new church.
Again, all of this was about achieving a starting point, and assumed an ongoing reformation and reformulation of the faith, not a capitulation to the churches with whom we hoped for union, but from which we had since the Reformation distinguished ourselves.
Ecumenism, unity, and the scandal of denominationalism was the driving motivation, formulation of the faith secondary and pragmatic.
Ecumenism and ongoing church union is no longer a central priority of the Uniting Church. The priorities of 40 years ago need no longer delay our urgent attention to a ”fresh confession of the faith” and the ongoing reformation of the church.
These then are the major misunderstandings and misrepresentations in Geoff’s position, but other aspects of his book are perhaps even more disturbing.
While Geoff rightly refers to and recognises the diversity within the unity of the
Uniting Church, he believes that any departure from what he sees as orthodoxy, orthodoxy based on a once for all revelation by God, is somehow a capitulation to what he calls a modern “relativist” culture which characterises the intellectual world of today.
He declares his belief that “the Creed’s homoousiospoints us to the real intellectual, ethical, cultural and spiritual radicalness of the Christian faith. It is a reminder that Christianity has reasons for arguing that the love of enemy, generosity to the poor, a relationship with God based on mercy and grace, the universal scope of God’s love, the summons to resist all dehumanizing and unjust ideologies, the realities of freedom and hope ….have a ground in the one who is the Creator and Lord.” And “that God is not especially impressed by religion or spirituality, that true lordship is servanthood, that forgiveness is unconditional ,”
Geoff contrasts this orthodoxy which he believes points to the radicalness of Christian faith with a number of contemporary scholars whom he believes are captured by the relativist spirit of our age, and whose intent, he declares is either “to dismiss the church and its faith”, or some like Crossan (widely regarded as probably the leading New Testament and Historical Jesus scholar today because of his meticulous and objective research) whom he claims has a deliberate intent to “modernise or re-invent the faith.”
This is so far from an accurate and honest assessment of Crossan that one is tempted to wonder whether Geoff has actually read his research.
But the more important point here is that many, if not most, “progressive” Christians give assent to precisely that “radicalness of the Christian faith” that Geoff refers to above, except that they trace its genesis, not to “the one who is creator and lord”, but to the historical Jesus himself.
If the result of the best contemporary scholarship that Geoff finds so threatening is a radical Christianity that is agreed by both ‘orthodox’ and ‘progressives’, then to make such a fuss about the importance of orthodoxy is to suggest that our particular theology is more important than the life lived.
The Church in Australia moves inexorably through decline to imminent death. Geoff sees no need to work at reforming the church to reverse this decline because it is the world that is the problem, not the church and its practices and its theology. As a teacher of theology training our future ministers for the front line, I believe Geoff has an obligation to present impartially all the best scholarship, not just that with which he agrees, and certainly not to denigrate that with which he disagrees and is in fact outside his particular discipline.
Does the Uniting Church have a strategy and program to ensure that both/all versions of “radical Christianity” receive equal exposure and are in active dialogue both in our churches, and in particular in our theological colleges?
Both interpretations of faith involve Jesus at the centre. Let’s start from there, or just accept that so long as we live what the Christ- life means, whether we find Nicea central to that is a matter of personal choice.
At least the secular world, that has turned away from a Nicean statement of Christianity, needs a chance to hear and respond to a more contemporary version , based on a more historically accurate version of the man from Nazareth.
That is why Para 11 is in the Basis of Union, and why Congregationalists came into the Uniting Church.
A note on John Gunson:
The author is a retired minister of the Congregational Churches in Australia (now Uniting Church). He is a graduate in Arts and Theology from Melbourne, and later completed post-graduate studies in Theology and Christian Education in the USA. He has served parish churches in Australia and the USA, and been Director of Christian Education for the Congregational Churches in Australia.
Retiring early he sought to test his growing questions about theology and the church by undertaking secular employment, where his final lob was as Manager Human Resource Development with a major state road planning and construction authority.
He has been actively involved in the community on issues of social justice and in particular the conservation of the natural environment.
A note on Geoff Thompson:
BAgrSc Hons (Melb), BD Hons (MCD), PhD (Cambridge). Co-ordinator of Studies: Systematic Theology at Pilgrim Theological College within the University of Divinity. Previously Director of Studies: Systematic Theology at Trinity College Queensland (2001-2013) of which he was also Principal from 2010-2013. Geoff’s research has focused on Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, the functions of doctrine in the church, the relationship between practical and systematic theology, the theology of the Uniting Church (especially the Basis of Union). Current and future research is focused on the relationship between Christology and Discipleship and the theological significance of secular or non-Christian appropriations of, or responses to, the Christian narrative.