Bearing Faithful Witness... critique based on the final release of Bearing Faithful Witness.
Bearing Faithful Witness "...goes all the way" [Bill Phipps, The Record, Kitchener, November 21, 1998]. The study document is, as it were, a cartographer, mapping the journey before us. I appreciate it as a document which shares the authors' vision of the church as an integrated systematic statement of faith. I respect the effort required to produce such a document within the diversity of the United Church of Canada.
Bearing Faithful Witness goes much further than a study document on anti-Semitism and racism [appendix a] (the imperative to receive all persons with dignity and respect, a repudiation of coercive proselytism, the misuse of scriptures...). While the issue of anti-Semitism is the stated purpose of the document, one is left with the impression that this was secondary to the objective of radically reinterpreting the Christian faith.
A major deficiency of the study document is the lack of any reference to United Church doctrine and polity at the present time. As a study document, it invites lay members of the church to be involved at a critical level in an extensive reinterpretation of the Christian faith (something which most are not accustomed to doing) without offering the lay membership a reference point from which to proceed or evaluate.
The study guide both offers and questions "...the crux of Paul's understanding of the gospel, namely, that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.' It is God, Paul says in Romans, who takes the initiative in justifying humans through the mercy offered in Jesus, and revealed to faith. Whenever we measure ourselves by the standards of divinely instituted law - whether Mosaic law or natural law - we fall short and are guilty of transgression. Therefore all must be saved, Jew and gentile alike, by an undeserved gift: 'they are now justified by (God's) grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.'"
The orthodox approach to authority has been the witness of scripture, history, and the Holy Spirit.
Bearing Faithful Witness ignores these criteria for authority, and a priori (with the assistance of some critical schools of thought) substitutes different criteria without supporting evidence as to why its interpretation is more accurate.
With respect to scripture, the study document takes a selective approach, citing problematic scriptures which fail the criteria and require complex rationalization before use (much as the medieval church presupposed geocentric theories of the universe which required complex orbits to make things fit the interpretation). The possibility that scripture was intended to be simply read is deflected by a selected list of academic thought which dictates otherwise.
With reference to history, we are regressing to the point of almost taking scripture out of the hands of the lay person, regressing to almost dictating that only church academics are competent to interpret.
With respect to history the study document separates itself from the historical interpretation of Christian faith, following the comment that "on the very central issue of the relationship of Jesus and Judaism, all but the most recent New Testament scholarship is out of date" [part two: c]. Consider the following references:
• Acts ...The founding of the church on the day of Pentecost is portrayed as a renewed offer to the Jews to accept Jesus (2:1-13). In the beginning, thousands of Jews join the Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem (2:41). They do not "convert" to a new religion; they join a renewal movement within Judaism.
• ...Paul was never "converted" from Judaism to Christianity; he was called to be the apostle to the gentiles (Gal. 1:11- 17).
Both of these are instances of persons who were baptized into the Christian faith, but the document rejects the historical interpretation that most Jews considered baptism only as applicable to gentiles, and interprets these passages differently.
With respect to the Holy Sprit, the study document uses the word "spirit" only seven times in a way which might reference the Holy Spirit, and in each instance the reference is a problem (while citing problematic scriptures four times, and in a box questioning recent liberal thought three times). The word "spiritual" occurs five times; "spirituality" is used once to indicate something people might possess. Although in three instances of the word "spiritual" the reader might infer the witness of the Holy Spirit, there is no explicit recognition of such witness in the study document itself.
The study guide prayers do not share this silence with respect to the Holy Spirit.
Most depreciated by the study document, however, is the person of Jesus Christ himself. His person is divested of much of our historical understanding. While he remains God for the Christian, he has no claim on persons of other faiths, and is no longer "the only Mediator" between God and man, being reduced to "a mediator" with the Torah as covenant relationship also being mediator.
Bearing Faithful Witness misrepresents present doctrine/polity of both the United Church of Canada and the World Council of Churches to be consistent with that which the study document argues:
• The United Church does not seek to convert Jews... it is recognized that conversion from Judaism to Christianity is not needful for salvation [appendix c].
• In recent years the churches associated with the World Council of Churches have moved away from mission and conversion in interfaith relations, seeking dialogue between equal partners [appendix c].
• ...the statement by the Executive Committee of the WCC entitled "Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue." Here evangelism and conversion are clearly abandoned in favour of dialogue and mutual witness [appendix c].
creating the impression that the United Church of Canada has accepted that Jesus Christ is not "the only Mediator between God and man", and that the World Council of Churches has disavowed evangelism and conversion, where the statement is addressing "coercive proselytism", not evangelism.
Bearing Faithful Witness states "...nor are amendments to the Basis of Union being put forward" [introduction].
A study document might for the purposes of debate say almost anything (other than misrepresent), but it is not sufficient that approved statements of the United Church of Canada be only "in essential agreement" with the doctrine and polity of The Basis of Union. The expression "in essential agreement" is used only with reference to ministry personnel within The Manual, and nowhere does The Manual permit its courts to deviate from doctrine or polity without a remit pursuant to The Basis of Union 8.6.2(1) and The Manual 505(a). The bylaws, policy, official statements, and other motions passed by General Council must be both consistent with and permitted by the doctrine and polity of The Basis of Union.
Bearing Faithful Witness separates itself from the historical understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and thereby differs from the spirit expressed in article 2.0 of The Basis of Union, particularly "We further maintain our allegiance to the evangelical doctrines of the Reformation, as set forth in common in the doctrinal standards adopted by the Presbyterian Church in Canada, by the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, and by the Methodist Church".
The recommendations in Bearing Faithful Witness proposed for consideration and adoption as a statement to be issued by the 38th General Council of the United Church of Canada represent a departure from The Basis of Union article 2.7 "we believe in and confess the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man...", requiring a remit of Presbyteries and Pastoral Charges.