Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Take it or leave it

Edwin Curley

What started me on this path was reading the prayer book my mother gave me when I was 16. At the back were printed the Articles of Religion members of my church, the Episcopal Church, were expected to accept. I had not read them carefully when I was preparing for confirmation. Then I was only 13, and there was much I did not understand. Our minister was a good man: highly intelligent, cultured, and humane. At 13, I was content to accept what he told me, simply on his authority.

Then, at 16, I read those Articles of Religion, carefully and critically for the first time. I was disturbed that my church accepted predestination. Before the foundation of the world, the Articles said, God had chosen some vessels for honor and others for dishonor. So far as I could see, there was as good scriptural foundation for this teaching as there was for any doctrine the church affirmed. One of the first principles of my church was that no one should be required to believe, as necessary for salvation, any doctrine which could not be proved from scripture.

There were also strong philosophical reasons for accepting predestination. If God is omniscient, if he knows everything, he must have foreknowledge of his creatures' fate. If he is omnipotent, can do anything, or anything that is logically possible to do, then nothing happens except by his will. So, if I wind up in Hell, he will have known that from eternity, and he will have willed it from eternity.

Predestination is not so widely accepted now as it was when my church was founded in the 16th century. I find many Christians who reject it. And I sympathize with them. Their hearts are in the right place, certainly. I cannot believe that a just and loving God would create beings he knew and had pre-determined would spend eternity in hell. But Christians can reject pre-destination only at the cost of ignoring the authority of their scriptures and the implications of their theology.

Well, so far my objections have been mainly theological; they are objections to teachings whose basis is primarily scriptural rather than philosophical. The main exception to that generalization is the doctrine of predestination, which has philosophical grounds as well as scriptural grounds. I know many Christians here tonight will not feel that their understanding of Christianity requires them to accept all these doctrines, either because they have a different interpretation of scripture, or because they do not regard the Christian scriptures as absolutely authoritative in determining their beliefs and conduct. I've said I think those Christians who adopt a freer attitude toward scripture and do not feel that their acceptance of Christianity commits them to predestination, or Hell, or original sin, or justification by faith, or exclusivism those Christians have their hearts in the right place, I say. But I also think their feet may be planted on the slippery slope to heresy, and that more conservative Christians, who would accord greater authority to scripture, have a clearer right to call themselves Christians. How much of traditional Christianity can you reject and still be a Christian?


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