22 June 2005

more newbigin

In The Household of God, within the context of his discussion of baptism and the church as the body of Christ, Newbigin gently chides those who want to reduce the nature of the church to one of "doctrinal correctness" (51). While he insists that "true doctrine will always be vital to the Church's life," there is, nonetheless, a danger of "overintellectualizing" the content of the faith, so that the church "is defined in terms of agreement about doctrine, and this doctrinal agreement must be agreement on paper," taken in isolation from "the character of the fellowship in which the doctrine is taught" (51).

Although "hearing and believing the Gospel" are absolutely necessary for receiving Christ, Newbigin notes that hearing and believing do not occur "apart from the context of a continuing fellowship through which the Gospel comes to us" (52). While the unity of believers "necessarily...involves a certain amount of intellectual agreement about truths which can be expressed in propositional form," that unity is essentially "a work of the Holy Spirit binding us to one another in the love wherewith Christ loved us."

The essential condition of that unity, humanly speaking, is a "faith which consists in casting oneself wholly upon that love, and opening heart and mind and soul to its influence" (52). In context, doctrinal disagreements will remain painful and believers will continue to seek to "convince one another of the truth as they see it, and to learn from one another," but such tensions are borne in love and "made bearable by the assurance that one day we shall know as we have been known" (52). Defining the unity of the church in Christ in essentially doctrinal terms, abstracted from this wider context, has the effect of breaking "the Christian fellowship into rival parties, each based upon some one-sided doctrinal formulation, and eventually into completely separated bodies" (53).

Newbigin goes on to speak of the pressing biblical ideal of the church as a visible unity and the necessity "to seek penitently and realistically for the source of the tendency to endless fissiparation" which has, all to often, characterized especially Protestantism (53). He asks rhetorically how it is that we can be "content to see the Church of Jesus Christ split up into hundreds of separate sects, feel no sense of same about such a situation, and sometime even glory in it and claim the support of the New Testament for it" (53).

Newbigin concludes this portion of his remarks with the following:

...there is a real people of God present in the world, a real spiritual society, a place where the light of God really shines and the life of God really pulses, and that it makes the most awful and ultimate difference conceivable whether you are inside or outside of that place. (55)

While this doesn't answer all the questions of how we, today, in world of fragmented and sometimes divisive church-life can best practice the unity of believers in Christ and move foward in the work of the church, Newbigin's remarks do provide some challenging reminders of the Gospel imperative to remain at peace with all men, as far as it is up to us and especially, I would think, with those who are of the household of faith.