Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Solus Christus – Christ Alone: An Anabaptist Perspective.

My assignment this afternoon is to reflect as follows (quoting from the email Peter Bush sent me):
[The panel is] a mixture of academics and ministry practitioners who will each be given 15-20 minutes for their presentations. … The invitation is to reflect on what “Christ Alone” means in our present context – what are the challenges and strengths of this concept? How is it incorporated (or not) into the church’s life and the lives of Christians now? How might it be understood now in ways that the Reformers would find troubling? Are there contemporary metaphors that help us understand the watchword’s meaning now?

So the following questions: What does “Christ Alone” mean today? What are the challenges and strengths of the concept? How is it part of the church’s life today? What would the Reformers think of the way that we use this concept? Is there a better way to think of it today?

I think about this from the perspective of someone within the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite family. I come from the Brethren in Christ Church, which is a part of the Mennonite World Conference, and now hold membership in Mennonite Church Canada/MC Manitoba in Steinbach. My theological training was at the Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, and my missiological training at Asbury Seminary’s School of World Mission, a Methodist school in Kentucky. So I am a Wesleyan-Anabaptist, and I speak from within that somewhat unique and unstable synthesis (which also, as it happens, describes the BICC).

A Contemporary Metaphor
I leave most of the questions above to the others here today. Here are some brief answers, before I move on to my particular interest this afternoon.

·         What does “Christ Alone” mean today?
It has become something of a bromide in Christian thinking. I graduated from Messiah College, whose motto is “Christ pre-eminent”. Providence, where I teach, says that we are Christ-centred. My home church says that our mission is to follow Christ faithfully. We all say this, but I doubt that many of us have thought it through all that much.
·         What are the challenges and strengths of the concept?
A basic challenge is precisely the self-evident clarity of the concept: of course we live for Christ alone! This is so obvious that it loses meaning. A basis strength is this same clarity. Christ really is the centre of Christian faith. Christ is the One who sets Christian faith apart from all other paths to God. 
·         How is it part of the church’s life today?
I think that it functions primarily as a way to allow us to cut free from traditions and denominational identity. If we are all “of Christ”, we don’t have to listen to our own founders and past, our own history. We are free to forge our own path today, which is not necessarily a good thing.
·         What would the Reformers think of the way that we use this concept?
They would be bemused—a bit puzzled and perhaps dismayed. In the Mennonite church, for example, we have made the pursuit of peace (to which I am wholeheartedly committed) more important than a relationship with God or complete faithfulness to Scripture—and we have done so in the name of Christ. Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons would be puzzled and dismayed. 

·         Is there a better way to think of it today?
This is the question I want to pursue. 

Missiological thinking (along with various other disciplines) has picked up on the mathematical concept of “centred-set vs. bounded set”. In missiology Paul Hiebert is the one who brought the concept into our thinking as a way of answering the question: When should we baptize a new convert? [1] Hiebert asks the question this way: If a Christian evangelist travelling through North India comes to a village where the gospel has never been heard before, and preaches the gospel, and if a villager who has never heard the gospel before responds and seeks to follow Jesus, how much must that villager learn and accept before we can say he has been converted? 

Although the concept, “Christ Alone”, is a genuinely centred-set concept, bounded set thinking continued to predominate in the Reformation. That is, we have a catechism—a list of questions and answers that one must master in order to be confirmed, which functions as a boundary of belief separating Christians from non-Christians. In the Mennonite Church we have a catechism of commitment, in which belief is present, but a willingness to do is more important. Again, it forms a boundary of action separating Christians from non-Christians. 

Hiebert recommends that we use a centred-set approach instead. Christians are defined by their orientation to a common centre—Christ alone—rather than by an external boundary. In the Reformation the five “alones” remembered over this five year-period can be seen as a centre, replacing the boundary of the existing Roman Catholic Church. I suggest that this metaphor of a centred-set church may help us today to move ahead. 

Some Possible Implications
In the cultural and religious wars of the contemporary scene, particular beliefs have functioned as boundary markers to determine who is accepted as genuinely Christian. One camp has boundary markers such as commitments to the inerrancy of Scripture, to the traditional family, and to a number of other fundamental beliefs. If one does not give assent to these boundary markers, those in the camp label one as outside the true faith. Another camp has a different set of boundary markers—a commitment to social justice and a consecration of positions held by the Liberal Party of Canada. Again, if one does not give assent to the boundary markers, one is labelled as outside the true faith, committed to an individualistic Christianity that is somehow less than fully Christian. There are other camps inside and outside the church, Christian and non-Christian in character. 

This past weekend I listed to Michael Enright describe Christians of a particular sort as hypocrites and hardly worth any respect—primarily on the basis of his own boundary markers for what makes one a good citizen of Canada or of the world. It is not only Christians who set out boundary markers to exclude those with whom they disagree. 

The Reformers would not much care about Michael Enright and CBC, for of course they lived in a context still controlled by the church. Christendom is now dead, and a new reformation impulse within the church needs also a new metaphor. I suggest that the centred-set, drawn from mathematics and mediated to missiology through Paul Hiebert, gives us such a metaphor. 

The centred set consists of those elements with a common centre, as opposed to the bounded sets of those elements within a specific boundary. The centred set can embrace a greater diversity than can a bounded set—if the centre is sufficiently strong. In my own formulation of this idea I have suggested holding Christ, Scripture, and the Lord’s Table as the centre,[2] but I think that we can also state it through the common centre of the statements in this series of celebrations of the Reformation: sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria. By grace, through faith, with Scripture as our only written authority, centred on Christ, and all for God’s glory. The Reformers themselves did not move fully to this centred set model, but they began the process; we can complete it.

Sola gratia. Sola fide. Sola Scriptura. Solus Christus. Soli Deo Gloria.

[1] See Paul G. Hiebert, “The Category Christian in the Mission Task”. Originally published in International Review of Missions 72 (1983): 421-427, this essay appears in fuller form in Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994, pp. 107 to 136).
[2] See “A Missiological Exploration of Church Membership”, paper presented to the Brethren in Christ Study Conference, “Who’s In? Who’s Out?: Rethinking Church Membership in the 21st Century”, held October 9-10, 2014, which appeared in Brethren in Christ History and Life, August 2015 (38:2), pp. 285–301.

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