Straight-jackets and conservative biblical doctrine

From time to time I look at the way that I seem to live in a theological world which is quite different from that inhabited by many conservative Christians. Many of the assumptions held to be normal among Christian traditionalists simply do not form any part of my theological thinking. I found myself recently glancing at one of the classic statements of conservative Protestantism. – The Westminster Confession. Although the document dates from the early 17th century, it still contains ideas that are familiar to many Protestant Christians who live today. It sets out some classic Protestant assumptions about salvation and Scripture and the way the latter is to be interpreted. We find the expression ‘that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary to salvation’. These are not fully revealed in ‘nature and the works of creation’. The document then continues by stating that God ‘continues to declare his will unto his church… to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary, those former ways of revealing God’s will and to his people being now ceased.’ My familiarity with the historical background of this document is fairly weak but in what I have quoted we can see the inexorable logic of a Protestant way of thinking. I realise after having read it how little I can identify with its assumptions and the thrust of its thinking.

First, we may note that inherent in this document is the assumption the idea that the church writing this document has an unquestionable authority to declare the contents of the will of God. This relates to the salvation of all. If this claim is true, then we see how a single church tradition lays claim to a monopoly of knowledge of God’s will and truth. This church and its leaders can thus decide who is and who is not in his favour. Whatever my readers may think of this document -the Westminster confession, I personally find this statement to be a massive conceit. It is an attempt to accomplish a universal take-over of Christian truth. A second aspect of the extract which I find questionable is the idea that God is in any way limited by what is just found in holy Scripture. As I have said in many places in this blog, limiting God to mere words seems to imply a severe limitation on what we can experience of him in other ways. Are we really limited to experiencing God only in the language and thought forms of cultures long ago? Is there no room for other kinds of non-verbal experience? This would seem to impoverish a wider Christian culture drastically.

A third objection to the ideas of the Westminster Confession that I have is that there is an assumption that God can no longer reveal his will to people because the writing of Scripture has ceased. I find this claim, no doubt shared by many Christians, to be breathtakingly restrictive. What is there in the Bible that gives us the right to suggest that God cannot continue to reveal his will? There seems to be a fear that God might reveal something new which would disturb a cosy status-quo. It certainly gives rise to a notion that theology and doctrine are somehow fixed for all time. The immediate feeling that comes to me when writing these words is a strong feeling of suffocation. If this idea was really true, I for one would never have been able to practice as a clergyman. I need to have the understanding that the Christian theology and revelation are involved in a process of constant newness. The words of John’s gospel about the Spirit leading us into all truth, still ring true for me. This possibility of renewal and refreshment allows the faith to be always exciting and creative. Anything else has the attraction of a dungeon where there is no air and certainly no light.

In a conversation with Chris a few days ago, he asked me whether I thought that the classic evangelical conversion experience has a necessary link to the traditional evangelical beliefs. I answered that I thought that what is described as the evangelical conversion experience is a valid life changing moment for an individual. Typically a conversion experience will involve an internal crisis which might involve pre-existent guilt, stress or loss of meaning. This crisis is then in one of a variety of ways resolved and the individual is allowed to find a new perspective and beginning. There will be in Christian language a discovery of a new ‘saving’ reality, identified as the risen Christ. Words like joy, freedom and newness will describe what a convert has now found. However, when the conversion takes place in a conservative Christian setting, the liberation and experiences of the actual conversion are swiftly wedded to a dogmatic framework of belief. This dogma will include all the classic beliefs of conservative Christianity. These would involve adhering to a belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of God as well as the classic evangelical statements about the death of Christ. In answer to Chris’s question, the answer had to be that there is no intrinsic connection between the two. However conservative Christian thinking will in practice expect every convert to submit to their classic but authoritarian orthodox beliefs. The same thing is true when other classic experiential occasions come to Christians. I am thinking in particular of an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Many other cultures describe spiritual events comparable to the classic charismatic experience. The differences will be in the way that such experiences are interpreted. There is, I would maintain, no necessary fit between such an experience and the traditional Pentecostal way of interpreting it. Christian conservatives wish to colonise both these experiences of profound spiritual and emotional depth.

Christian conversion and the gift of the Holy Spirit are expressions two describe to distinctive spiritual experiences within and beyond the Christian tradition. The problem I have is that conservative Protestant theology will always seek to interpret such experiences as being their unique and exclusive possession. Thus they can be only articulated within the straight-jacket of that tradition. In this way, they are continuing the pattern of the Westminster confession. The colonisation and exclusive ownership of such distinctive Christian experiences is a way of controlling them. Ministers and pastors who think in this way are also in the same business of control, claiming authority over the text of Scripture and parishioners alike. I will always find such a power grab by clergy and others something to be resisted. I for one would not be a Christian at all if I genuinely believed, for example, that God had ceased revealing his will to the world. The liberal way of openness to new revelation and fresh insight into Scripture is something I passionately hold on to. Perhaps we need to face up to the fact that there is a considerable gulf to be found between those who think as I do and those who want to control, tie-up and restrict the will and action of God in a straitjacket. I for one wish to release newness into the Church and allow the exploration of religious experience free from a dogmatic interpretation which may have the effect of squashing and killing it.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “Straight-jackets and conservative biblical doctrine

  1. Great blog,Stephen. My experience was the Holy Spirit came to me when I was young and within the church straight jacket. It wasn’t strong enough to direct me through the early part of my life really but when I wasn’t in the restraints of the church I had another revealing of the Holy Spirit that was freeing and revealing of God’s direction and Life has been far more exciting since then!

  2. Thank you Margaret. I suspect that there are many in your situation. The trouble is that the experience of the Spirit outside the comforting presence of other Christians who are urging on you conservative ideas is fairly lonely. When you are young this is a big problem. As you get older you find strategies for finding a number of places to feel ‘at home’. There should be far more centres for people who have out-of-the-box experiences to gather and mutually encourage each other.

  3. Gracious, Stephen. Hitting out at the Westminster Confession! I thought it was pretty mainstream, with no capital letter. I’ll have to think about it.

  4. I enjoyed this post. Personally, I like to think that thoughts that come to me from time to time, especially when I am trying to pray in the mornings (with limited success as my mind has a way of wandering off) are a conversation with God.
    I also take your wider point about adopting the belief system of the group through which one comes into the faith. I had this experience myself, and took years to develop my own understanding. I still thank God for the grounding I was given – those people were doing their best. I doubt that there was any aim to control, but then I may be naïve on this point.

  5. Stephen, I appreciate you giving space to discuss these important matters – I’m not sure there are many bloggers who do.

    I share your concerns about authoritarian churches who claim a monopoly on truth and force their members to conform. I am also uncomfortable with crisis-based evangelism, which seems incredibly manipulative.

    And I am very suspicious of “experiences” – as you rightly say, these happen in many contexts outside of Christianity. In general, I don’t regard them as being “spiritual”, in other words supernatural in origin, so I think it is unhelpful to place any emphasis on them. A Christian has a spiritual experience in church, a muslim has a spiritual experience in a mosque, a football fan has a spiritual experience at Wembley stadium (their temple!). I don’t see how we can draw any conclusions from these. And yes, football fans do have spiritual experiences at matches. I’m sure they are all simply our minds playing tricks on us.

    Your comments on conversion are well-founded. After I became a Christian in my youth (without an “experience” so to speak), I was expected to unquestioningly follow a set party line of dogma, which I soon realised was not universally accepted, and there were even other evangelicals who disagreed.

    But I’d like to know more about what you mean by “openness to new revelation”. The background to the Westminster Confession is the reformation, sparked by Luther’s protests about the sale of indulgences, an extra-Biblical practice. Hence the emphasis on the authority and finality of the Bible. If we leave that behind, we open the door to all manner of questionable things. Yes, we must always look for the correct interpretation of the Bible, and be willing to set aside the old if it is found to be wrong (like the church did with slavery) but throwing away the only absolute authority we have is a recipe for disaster.

  6. Peter: Openness to revelation might include the realisation that we do not have to keep slaves because they are in the Bible. That would be generally agreed across the board. Attitudes to women that are not biblical in a strict sense have also percolated right across the spectrum of opinion, though some Christians are still arguing for old fashioned patriarchy. New revelation might include the acceptance of fresh attitudes to the topic of sexuality. I know these are not matters of theology but even here the way theology is studied today by self-confessed is quite different from the 17th century. I am not writing off the Westminster Confession but querying two particular points it makes in defence of a particular version of Protestantism. As far as I am concerned God is not limited by what is written in Scripture nor is it true that the revelation of his will has ceased. These are the issues that I want to challenge. Of course we need to acknowledge the importance of the whole document in its historical context but that must not force us to accept every idea in it. I am sure God approves of our duty and our right to debate what his will actually involves in this age.

  7. I am sure God approves of our duty and our right to debate what his will actually involves in this age.

    I think that’s totally valid – in previous ages the supposed “will of God” has been used to justify some incredibly evil stuff. But I’d always want to maintain the centrality of the Bible.

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