Archive: Where Does an Alien Go to Register?

In whatever tribe the alien resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance, says the Lord God.  Ezekiel 47:33 

By David R. Hunsberger, Pastor, United Methodist Church, Wrightstown, New Jersey

Christians who are commonly called conservative and liberal continue to discuss their differences.  This is most wholesome.  This time, “Good News” kindly gives a hearing to one who lacks good standing in either group.  Here are the confessions of a theological half-breed, a “critical evangelical.”

This middle position consigns me to that no-man’s-land separating the embattled frontiers.  In this buffer zone I frequently get caught in the crossfire. Customs officials on either side remind me that my doctrinal passport is invalid. No matter how friendly the border guards, I still must ask, “where does an alien go to register?”

Two opposing voices bend the preacher’s ear, Christianity Today and The Christian Century. Both are welcome. Each offers commendable material, yet each can be rather disappointing.

To me, preaching the Gospel remains the pastor’s most important function. His life must illustrate the Good News that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. His job is to persuade others, by word and action.

This is why we have the Scripture.  We should not use it for our purpose, but let God use it through us for His purpose. Handling the Bible easily becomes manhandling it. The Spirit of God moved men to write what they could never have written on their own. He spoke through them to the needs of their day. Thus He has recorded the testimony of witnesses who were men like ourselves. But their faith was not something they latched on to.  Rather, it overcame them, almost in spite of themselves. They could only tell what they had seen and heard. In doing so, they were transcribing faith into life. No one else could produce what that company did who actually saw and heard the Man, Christ Jesus.

Their witness is the bundle of documents we call the New Testament, a witness that held up in their age and applies in any age, even ours. To a lesser degree of importance, this witness applied in proclaiming the Old Testament message. We must search and understand the Scripture the better to preach and demonstrate the Gospel. That others may also be overcome by the same conviction of faith is the preacher’s job. On this basis also, I call myself evangelical.

What makes me suspect is my use of Biblical criticism. That it undermines the authority of Holy Scripture has not been the case with me. It has helped me better to appreciate the written Word by looking, as the hymn says, beyond the sacred page to Christ, the Living Word. For me, responsible Biblical criticism drives home more forcefully the Good News we preach.

My adherence to this school of thought does not make it right.  Equally vain would be any notion that a middle position alone exercises true faith, good sense, and a generous attitude. Conservative friends in the church help by reminding me that belief in the infallibility of the Bible does not require a hot-headed narrowmindedness.  Let me only suggest that Biblical criticism did not rise from the bottomless pit, and that one may use it and still be an evangelical Christian. I find it painful being greeted as a fellow member of the colony of heaven – provided I hold a certain view of Biblical inspiration.

Space forbids outlining my own case, much less explaining it. Instead, let me offer “Good News” readers a few proposals which may strengthen our bond of faith in Christ, despite our differences.  Even if the attempt fails, it is worth trying.

For one thing, let’s give the other fellow credit for a pure motive, rather than dismissing him as blind and stubborn. Remember the Old Testament Rechabites?  Jeremiah commended their devotion even though he obviously disagreed with their reactionary practices. He paid a public compliment to their faithfulness shining like an evening star in the dusk of the Hebrew monarchy.

Again, leave every subject open. Nothing is so dull as a closed topic. Don’t hesitate to examine any belief afresh. Truth always thrives under honest investigation.  Even a hostile challenge is no worse than refusing to take a long, hard look at one’s own beliefs. This is how the death-of-God fad did me a lot of good. It demanded from me solid evidence that God really lives in daily life. Or, could He just as well be six feet under for all the difference He really makes to me?

Even a Pharisee can help us here. That sect had little time for our Lord, yet not all of its members were His enemies. When Nicodemus protested judging a man before hearing him, he was only raising a point of order. But his point is always in order. Why classify everyone we meet? As if every liberal were a disciple of Thomas Altizer! As if every conservative were a follower of Carl McIntire!

I would also suggest that a man’s faith may exceed the terms he uses to confess it. Look at the many attempts to explain the atonement of Christ. Each theory holds certain strong points while also laboring under serious defects:  Each explanation holds real value; none is perfect. The whole subject is just too big for any single explanation to do it justice.  But that your understanding of it differs from mine does not mean that one of us necessarily lacks true confidence in the merit of Christ’s finished work.

Many oppose Biblical criticism as something negative. We easily pin that term on anything that cuts across our thinking. Any new idea is bound to deny something.  Our Lord drew that charge when He threw out excessively rigid Sabbatarian rules, even though they were commonly accepted.  Paul was considered destructive when he rejected the need for circumcision.

The question then becomes:  What is it that is being denied?  Suppose two thinkers affirm differing views of the Bible’s inspiration.  Each accuses the other of negativism and insists that his opponent is not defining inspiration at all.

To me, Biblical criticism is a discerning search along every path of evidence. The scholars I know are confident that all knowledge only reinforces the truth, and that faith in Christ can stand any amount of scrutiny.  These men respect the Scripture.

Consider some names from the days when higher criticism was a hotter issue. It would be unfair to assert that George Adam Smith was not evangelical, that Arthur S. Peake (a Methodist layman, incidentally) toned down the Gospel, or that Charles A Briggs’ belief in the nature of Christ was defective.

Of course there were casualties.  Some scholars failed to negotiate critical curves and plunged headlong into some skeptical ditch.  But does no other group have to live down the follies of its false friends? Paul suffered frequent embarrassment from those in whose carelessness his teaching of Christian freedom went to seed. Luther found a Peasants’ Revolt on his hands. Wesley could not ignore those fanatics who rode Christian perfection into the ground. Yet, would you call the apostle deceived, the reformer a radical, or the even tempered evangelist a crackpot?

I would not recommend striving to defend or prove faith.  Remember how Gideon said Baal could plead his own case? If that argument worked for the fictitious Canaanite fertility deity, surely the living God can take care of Himself! Any defender is bigger and stronger than the object he fights to protect.

Before we attack heresy, let’s be sure what it is. The saintly Augustine, that champion of orthodoxy, said it was difficult, if not impossible to define heresy.  He went on to say that it consisted not so much in a man’s opinion but in his attitude in holding it.

Think of the Nestorian controversy which rocked the fifth century Church. Nestorius held views on the person of Christ which were unsatisfactory, as they still are. His main antagonist was Cyril of Alexandria. A sincere, though mistaken heresy clashed with a savage orthodoxy. The words of the church historian H. H. Milman come to mind. In his History of Latin Christianity, he said, if given the choice he would rather face the Redeemer loaded down with the errors of Nestorius than with the barbarities of Cyril. So would I.

Why not scrap our passion to tabulate a theological box score?  Suppose I pitch my middle position views to a liberal or a conservative batter and succeed in striking him out. If I fail to encourage his faith or improve my attitude toward him, what have I gained?

A final plea from an alien among conservative Christians:  Remember the Good Shepherd’s words, “I have other sheep who are not of this fold.”


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