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Benedict XVI — a reading between the lines

[ by Charles Cameron -- Benedict XVI, Lutherans, ecumenism, C Peter Wagner's "new paradigm" of Christianity ]
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Photo: Pope Benedict XVI and Nikolaus Schneider (R), Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) attend the Ecumenical Service of the World in the church of the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, September 23, 2011.  Credit: Reuters / Norbert Neetz / Pool

Earlier today, Pope Benedict visited the cloister in Erfurt which once housed Martin Luther, for an ecumenical meeting with leaders of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), a mainline Protestant coalition of Lutheran, Unified and Calvinist churches.

In the course of his presentation, the Pope made clear his admiration for Luther himself:

As the Bishop of Rome, it is deeply moving for me to be meeting representatives of Council of the EKD here in the ancient Augustinian convent in Erfurt. This is where Luther studied theology. This is where he was ordained a priest in 1507. Against his father’s wishes, he did not continue the study of Law, but instead he studied theology and set off on the path towards priesthood in the Order of Saint Augustine. On this path, he was not simply concerned with this or that. What constantly exercised him was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. “How do I receive the grace of God?”: this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For him theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians?

That’s a striking utterance from the holder of the office that Martin Luther so often assailed, writing (for instance):

St. Paul calls Antichrist the man of sin and the son of perdition, because through his precepts and laws he will turn all the world from God and prevent God and the world from coming together; he shall be a master of sin and all iniquity, and yet will retain the name and appearance of Christ and call himself Sanctissimus and Vicarius Dei and Caput Ecclesiae ["most holy one; vicar of God; head of the Church"], and persecute all who will not obey him. It is easy to recognize that the pope more than fits this description.

Things have clearly changed since that time, and the US branch of Lutheran World Ministries has proposed to its member churches:

That they officially declare that the Lutheran commitment to the Confessions does not involve the assertion that the pope or the papacy in our day is the anti-Christ.

It is not, therefore, the Evangelical Churches (ie mainstream Protestants like the Lutheran and Reformed churches) that Benedict is thinking of when he raised an issue that obviously disturbs him, saying:

The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.

The matter seems urgent to Benedict, precisely because, as he had just said:

It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. The great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground and that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our undying foundation.

Catholics and Lutherans may still have their differences – but on “the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds” they have much in common – and it is of this common ground that Benedict says, “The risk of losing this, sadly, is not unreal” immediately before speaking of the new “form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability”.

The Pope continues:

This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

The Pope is a diplomat, and he is expressing his concern as diplomats do, in a carefully worded, highly generalized and eminently tactful way. But can we read between the lines? What does the Pope mean by “this new form of Christianity”?

The “world” of Christianity is changing very rapidly, both demographically and doctrinally, and that’s putting things mildly. I hope to address some of these changes in a series of future posts on ZP — but for now, let me just say we should watch Pope Benedict’s future utterances closely for further signs of exactly what worries and what encourages him.

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I cannot image, for instance, that Benedict would be altogether comfortable with what C Peter Wagner of the new Apostolic Reformation refers to in his forward to Bishop Bill Hamon‘s book Apostles, Prophets and the Coming Moves of God: End Times Plan for His Church on Planet Earth as

my “paradigm shift” from traditional Christianity to an openness to the person and to the full ministry of the Holy Spirit.

This “full ministry of the Holy Spirit” includes, as the title of Harmon’s book suggests, the idea that Apostles and Prophets will arise in our times, which are the End Times.

In his book Apostles Today: Biblical Government for Biblical Power, Wagner states:

We are now living in the midst of one of the most epochal changes in the structure of the Church that has ever been recorded. I like to call it the “Second Apostolic Age.”

Wagner goes on to say, “The Second Apostolic Age is a phenomenon of the twenty-first century” and then identifies four “notable movements of the Spirit of God” that “have been building the foundation of the Second Apostolic Age for several decades.” These are (pp. 8-9):

  • The African Independent Churches
  • The Chinese House Churches
  • The Latin American Grassroots Churches
  • The U.S. Independent Charismatic Movement.

Is any of this beginning to sound like the “new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism” that Benedict mentioned – a “form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content”?

Let’s turn back to Bishop Bill Harmon for a moment. Hamon himself appears to be clear that he is both an apostle and prophet. In the body of the book which I linked to above – and not on the dust jacket, where over-the-top praise from an author’s friend is commonly found — he quotes one of his supporters, Dr Henry Ramaya of Grace Assembly, Fasan, Malaysia, who writes:

The global recognition and acceptance of bishop Bill Harmon as Father of the Apostolic-Prophetic movement speaks for itself.

and refers to Harmon as “the Apostle Prophet Statesman”.

Dr. Ramaya’s description of the apostolic and prophetic functions, also quoted by Harmon in his book, puts both the missionary and apocalyptic elements of this movement together in a nutshell:

The apostle is God’s vehicle of invasion like light invading darkness, and the prophet is God’s ultimate weapon of warfare. This end-time Apostolic-Prophetic Movement will climax into the apocalypse with a spontaneous outburst of joy because the missionary mandate will be fulfilled.

And one last quote, if I may.

According to notes published on the Elijah List, a listserve that supports the New Apostolic Reformation agenda, Bill Harmon told an “International Gathering of Apostles and Prophets” back in 1999:

We are seeing prophets and apostles coming forth for a strategic reason. … We are about to move from the dispensation of grace to the dispensation of dominion. We are about to see Jesus, not as the suffering lamb that was slain, but the roaring Lion who is King!

If we’d be well-advised to follow Pope Benedict’s further utterances, we should also take note of sources like the Elijah list, and critical considerations of the movement, like those posted on such Evangelical sites as Herescope.

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Please note that I am not saying that Benedict’s remarks were directed specifically at the New Apostolic Reformation — they were diplomatic and highly generalized for good reason — merely that the NAR is a prominent, if not the preeminent, manifestation of the kind of shift that Benedict is talking about. The second section of this analysis, in other words, is simply one person’s attempt to “read between the lines”…

And did I really just promise to write a series of posts on demographic and doctrinal shifts within Christianity?

Also in the pipeline, a series on the psychological impact of ritual and ceremonial, whether of state, military or religious origin, and a series on the “other wing” of AQ’s jihad, the Ghazwa-e-Hind hadith, Pakistan’s ISI and related matters.

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13 Responses to “Benedict XVI — a reading between the lines”

  1. Mr. X Says:

    I’m thinking here of the very large reception by Southern Baptists and other Protestants that greeted Hilarion as an envoy of Partriarch Kirill last year at Southwestern Theological Seminary in Dallas. It seems mainline Protestants either have a choice of dissolving into broad evangelicalism or becoming more (c)atholic or even returning to Orthodoxy, something parts of the Church of England in particular has flirted with at times. The alternative seems to be dissolution.

  2. Mr. X Says:

    http://www.mospat.ru/en/2011/02/13/news36219/
    text of his remarks

    http://orthocath.wordpress.com/2011/02/26/metropolitan-hilarion-alfeyev-lecture-in-dallas/
    more here

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    I tend to think that the "first mover" phase of evangelization may look very anarchic, but as any such community matures, it will need "institutional depth, … rationality … dogmatic content, and … stability."  At that stage, there are very few places to go to get what you need.  Benedict’s successor, hopefully from one of these "new" places, will have to be prepared and equipped to respond to these needs, charitably and diplomatically.  

  4. seydlitz89 Says:

    Charles-
    Nice post, very much to ponder . . . 

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Seydlitz:
    .
    There are some commonalities between so-called "fundamentalist" strains (meaning here the "contemporary militant and political religious movements which have organized in reaction to the prevailing patterns of modernization in their respective societies" that are the topic of Martin Marty and Scott Appleby‘s 5-volume Fundamentalism Project) across religions — the FP itself includes case studies from within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Confucianism — as there are between their various contemplative traditions (Hassidic, Benedictine, Sufi, Advaita, Zen, Taoist etc), and even a two-dimensional map of the territory would accordingly need to include one axis that extended from the most literal to the most mystical and another axis for the religions and their various sects themselves…
    .
    Finding the attitudes towards war and peace or militancy and pacifism within different areas of that grid would be an instructive and necessarily subtle exercise.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Lex:
    .
    I was indeed hoping that you would comment — my thanks for a most diplomatic response. 

  7. Lexington Green Says:

    The Holy Spirit is at work, all the time, in ways beyond our comprehension.  We need to respond to that with charity and humility and hope.  Great things can happen, and will happen.  

  8. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Lex,
    .
    I wish there were a "like" button.
    .
    I sent Charles via email this quote attributed to Clement: "We can form some notion of what he  is not by method of negation, a process of dialectical regress analogous to that used when we think of a geometric point. To conceive of a point we must take away all magnitude, all physical qualities, all dimensions of height, breadth, and length, until nothing is left but position. Abstract positions and only the idea of unity remains. We must follow this road to the knowledge of God, stripping off all corporeal, and indeed incorporeal, notions at the last casting ourselves into the greatness of Christ for the first ascent to the Unconditional. Lest we think of God as the first in a series of numbers, we must affirm (as Philo had done) that God is "beyond the One and beyond the Monad."
    .
    The Alpha & Omega have other analogous dialectic brothers—the Lion and the Lamb from Revelation 5, for instance.
    .
    Great things continue to happen, we’ve much to be thankful for—including this forum and the generous and thoughtful commenters.

  9. Lexington Green Says:

    "…stripping off all corporeal, and indeed incorporeal, notions…"  Yes, but Jesus Christ, the incarnate word of God, has given us a corporeal starting point, a reaching into history of God’s love in tangible form, to lift us up and fortify us and get us started on the road toward this humanly unknowable being in whom "we live and move and have our being."  

  10. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Lex,
    .
    Concur, but I loved Clement’s insight—completely unexpected.
    .
    Recently I heard a message based on Revelation 5—this quote only reinforced the potential.

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Scott:
    .
    I’m very glad to read you here, too…
    .
    Henry Chadwick would have been one of the Canons of Christ Church, my college at Oxford, and a Regius professor of Theology while I was there — and was likely one of the elders who questioned me about Bach at my viva voce for entrance to the college — he was keenly interested in music, and the college chapel at Christ Church is also the Oxford cathedral, with a noted choir.
    .
    Clement of Alexandria‘s position described here is that of apophatic theology, whose converse, cataphatic theology, makes the point Lex also makes — and which Chadwick makes in the sentences immediately preceding the ones you quote:

    Words cannot express and the mind cannot grasp what God is. That is why revelation is through the Son, who is the Alpha and Omega and the limit of our knowledge: the supreme Father transcends the possibility of our understanding.

    and those immediately following:

    The via negativa brings Clement near to the point of an agnosticism that sees all utterance about God as symbol that may be subjectively useful to the user but may also have no objective correspondence with reality. This is not Clement’s intention. He does not forget to emphasize that ‘the greatness of Christ’ is that on which the believer trusts for the knowledge of God. He is in part motivated by an anxiety to vindicate revelation: God, he says, is so utterly transcendent that we can know nothing at all about him except by grace.

    The "negative" or "apophatic" approach is especially highly regarded in the Eastern Churches to which Mr X pointed us above.

  12. Michael Robinson Says:

    Clearly concerns such have spread in to the mainstream: this morning a NY Times opinion piece considers the significance of the ‘antichrist’ and the ‘end of times’ in US politics: 
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/26/opinion/why-the-antichrist-matters-in-politics.html?ref=opinion

  13. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    .
    Thanks for filling out the quote and the link to Chadwick’s wiki entry—quite a mind.
    .
    The book was very good and I think I ordered a used copy, but need to make sure.

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