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So Joe posted a link to the new Manhattan Declaration which came out late last week, and in the comments it came out that I agree with the morals of the document but think this documents and others like it obscure the Gospel. Collin, my co-blogger here at Evangel, didn’t see what I meant (prolly because I didn’t explain a lick of it), so I’m going to give an apologia for myself here and hope that it makes something like good sense.

The first thing is this: it’s pretty hard to deny the precepts of the “in the image of God” apologetic for the sanctity of life, and the Genesis/Ephesians apologetic for the presuppositional category of marriage standing prior to any legal sanction of the thing. I have myself made both arguments to others in the past as these are broadly-Christian ideas; they are certainly consequences of a “Nicene” christianity (Big “N”, small “c” intended).

But, as a second point, I wonder if the argument for religious liberty here is entirely satisfactory. I think I agree with the conclusion and would in some way renovate the path to get there — because as a Christian, I think all other paths to God lead to God-in-his-wrath and not to God-in-His-eternal-love. The idea that man has an obligation of conscience to follow God as he sees fit comes apart quickly when we understand that man’s conscience (broken as every man’s conscience is) is actually part of the problem with this world. Moreover, everyone who rejects the Son rejects the Father who sent Him. I’m not sure we do anyone any favors by telling them, “well — if that’s what floats your boat ...”; I’m pretty sure that is the antithesis of the Gospel.

That said, the question of whether the state ought to dictate the religious practices of it citizenry has an interesting political history in the west, and I’m not sure it’s entirely “Christian”. It was certainly worked out by all manner of confessional types, but it’s a fairly pragmatic effort on the part of Europeans to live together without killing each other over deep and irreconcilable theological differences. It’s really a recognition that at some point the political realm shouldn’t enforce any theological restrictions on people. And to that end, given that I am a baptist and that our place in that history is sort of the red-headed step-child of all camps, I say, “as long as you aren’t killing me, I’ll let you have your own reasons for that.”

Now, with that in view — which I think is a reasonable objection to a document which wants to be seen as, above all things, “reasonable” — why would I object to the whole thing as “obscuring the Gospel”?

Here’s where I think it goes off the rails, which is right at the beginning:

We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person. We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Let me say it on the front-side: this is a moment when the use of the word “Evangelical” comes to the only viable use it has — to distinguish one segment of historical theological reasoning from the other two main streams of theological reasoning in the post-Nicene world. So Kudos for that.

But the reason that distinction exists — and let’s be honest: the reason the EO/RC divide exists — is in complete denial of the italicized text. Of course it also puts (as others have described it) my rabid anti-catholicism on high alert because it simply smacks of Lumen Gentium language which gets excessively-generous to non-Nicene traditions such as those of Jewish faith and also of Muslim faith.

See: as an actual Evangelical, I think that “We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us” to proclaim and thereafter live by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God does this, and requires it of us believers, because we are in His image and frankly His creatures over whom He has a place above all kings, above all other reasonable allegiances, above even our own claim to our own lives.

When we substitute the phrase “with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image” for the phrase “to proclaim and thereafter live by the Gospel of Jesus Christ” we have done two things:

[1] we have obscured the necessary and central fact of the Gospel by overlooking the irreconcilable differences between “Evangelicals”, “Roman Catholics”, and “Orthodox” by calling all of these groups “believers” in a rather indiscriminate way. I’ve said it elsewhere, so it should be no surprise when I say it here that I am sure there are Catholics who are saved, and likewise for the occasional Eastern Orthodox you may run into who exercises an Evangelical (large “E” intended) understanding of Jesus and the consequences of Him; but to throw out the wide blanket and just call all of these groups “Christian” in an overly-broad sociological sense, and to call all of them “believers” in the sense required to make the rest of the reasoning in this document is much. It makes the distinction between “belief” and “unbelief” such a fuzzy line that I doubt anyone signing this document actually means what they have said here.

By obscuring that line, the Gospel is obscured — because the actual consequences of the Gospel are obscured.

[2] We have substituted the reasoning of the Gospel with the reasoning of statism. The reasoning of the Gospel is this: because Christ died for sins in accordance with Scripture, and was buried and raised on the third day in accordance with Scripture, men are called to repentance which is not just a confession of past wrong but a second birth — a new life in which we are dead to the moral law and its condemnation and raised to new life in the kind of love Christ has and showed us by dying on the cross.

The reasoning of statism is that the state defines what sort of people we will be — that if the state defines marriage, or if the state defines human rights, or if the state defines the religious liberty of the citizens, then they have it.

When you look at these two things side by side in this short form, it is clear how the latter interposes itself against the Gospel and in place of the Gospel.

“Wait a second, Frank,” comes the right-minded objector who already signed this statement, “this statement doesn’t say that at all. It’s sort of circumspect to cite Scripture and verse to underscore the source of its reasoning — and it’s reasoning really goes, ‘if God defines X like this, we should define X like this,’ which I doubt you would deny. They aren’t making any demands of the state at all — certainly not the kind you are listing here.”

My answer to that is to read the preamble of this document a little more closely. The historical metanarative of document is that because Christians fought hard to change the Government and the law, our society changed — that society is changed by altering its laws. Yet it seems to me that as often — for example, in prohibition — misguided pietism makes the problems worse because it is misguided pietism and not the Gospel.

You know: when Paul looked at a church like the folks in Corinth, his urgent advice to them was to remember what was of first importance — that is, the Gospel. If they would remember the Gospel and live like it is true, they would resolve their relational and religious problems. He told the Romans that the love consequence of the Gospel exceeds the demands of the law, and puts their critics to shame. And when he was faced with Festus, rather than lecture him about the gross immorality of the Roman Empire, he preached the Gospel to him in hopes he would be converted.

This document does none of that. It assumes a big tent for the definition of what it means to be a “believer”, assumes that law is greater than grace in reforming the hearts of men, and provides moral reasoning that those who are unbelievers have no reason to accept — because they are unbelievers. And in making these three items “especially troubling” in the “whole scope of Christian moral concern”, it overlooks that the key solution to these moral concerns is the renovation of the human heart by supernatural means established by the death and resurrection of Christ.

The three key issues in this document are important social issues today. My contention is that the Gospel is the solution to these three issues, and I respectfully decline to sign in.



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