Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rick Warren Seeks to Kill Protestantism

Per the WaPo: "Rick Warren, a megachurch pastor and philanthropist who is courted by political leaders worldwide, says he thinks Christianity needs a 'second Reformation' that would steer the church away from divisive politics and be 'about deeds, not creeds.'"

This may give pause to those of us who owe a debt to the first Reformation - 95 Theses, Augsburg Confession, that stuff. Because after all, the Church of Luther's era also wanted to put an end to divisive doctrinal debate, and made quite a big deal about the importance of doing good work -- orthopraxis, as theologians say, at the expense of orthodoxy. Luther's objection, remember, was never to indulgences per se -- it was to the way they obscured the doctrinal content of the Gospel.

Warren's main point, speaking to a group of WaPo writers, was twofold. First, that he has personally spent too much time fretting publicly about the right-wing litmus test issues, like abortion, and now wants to put those into perspective by talking about equally important things, like AIDS. And second, that years of obsessive attention to the litmus test at the expense of the big picture on the part of conservative religious voices has done much to diminish civility in American public discourse. As he says (now): “You have no right to demonize someone just because you disagree with them.”

All true, and he is welcome aboard. We in the mainline churches, although we have certainly spilled a lot of blood and ink over our own hot issues, have generally managed to keep civil about it -- at least unless the Institute for Religion and Democracy was paying us to be nasty. We are pleased by the growing determination of the evangelical right to recognize the existence of a bigger picture -- that, for example, Christians have a duty not only to support marriage, but also to care for the earth. Despite our differences of emphasis, this new direction may well prove helpful to both the mainline and the evangelicals, by allowing us to find common ground in the public sphere. Rick Warren has the potential to make an enormous difference here.

But we hope that he will not do it at the expense of doctrine. Because doctrine really does matter. When Warren tells the reporters "I don’t care why you do good as long as you do good," he sounds like just the sort of reasonable religious voice the secular world is yearning for. And so far as the public arena goes, he is right: Christians can happily work alongside Buddhists or Muslims in pursuit of peace, for example. But within the Christian community itself, our pattern of endless debate over the content of our faith and its ethical imperatives serves a vital purpose. It keeps us from doing the wrong thing in the mistaken belief that it is right -- selling indulgences, say, or buying masses for the dead. Our division over such questions reflect important differences of interpretation, which we gloss over at our peril. Still more important is our historic agreement on certain fundamental issues -- such as the divinity of Christ, debate over which occasioned several of those creeds Warren speaks of so breezily.

Charles Porterfield Krauth, in many ways the the founder of evangelical catholicism in America, put it simply and best when he said that "an age without creeds is an age of darkness." Let us do good together -- and let us do it as we walk in the light of a faith that is carefully articulated and faithfully proclaimed

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