November 18, 2017

The Cruciform Church (1) A Study in Non Sequiturs

By Tom M. Roberts

Cruciform: "Shaped or arranged in a cross."

Non sequitur: "The fallacy of irrelevant conclusion; an inference that does not follow from the premises."

Most of us are aware of the danger of drawing unwarranted conclusions from faulty premises. If Newton had inferred that the sky was falling because an apple dropped on his head, he would have been guilty of a non sequitur. If one defines a belief in Christ and the church based upon a "gospel" that excludes "doctrine," one's premise is likewise faulty.

In religion, irrelevant conclusions are extremely common and, accepted at face value, become guideposts that lead into a spiritual wasteland. It helps little that the non sequiturs are committed by scholars with college degrees; in fact, a facade of scholarship disarms the initiate. Clothe this scholarship in the mantle of one of "our" colleges and non sequiturs assume the weight of biblical inerrancy.

Few books known to me are as full of non sequiturs while masquerading under the guise of scholarship as The Cruciform Church, a publication from Abilene Christian University Press. Written as a trilogy, The Cruciform Church (C. Leonard Allen) complements two earlier works: Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (with Richard T. Hughes) and The Worldly Church (with Hughes and Michael Weed). Speaking from the lofty pinnacle of professorship at ACU, brother Allen strews one non sequitur after another throughout the entire book, with all the fervor of a man with a vision. Though a poor prophet, he is an excellent "blind guide" (Matt. 23:16), leading the unwitting into many ditches. His vision of the future misses the mark on numerous details. Though valid points are made, readers should exercise the caveat: "Let the reader beware." Allow me to provide some examples of Allen's faulty reasoning.

Non sequitur: The Past Controls the Future

In the preface, brother Allen commits the first error, asserting: "It is one of the great conceits of our time to imagine that we can sweep away the past and simply begin all over again at the beginning. We cannot." Stating here what is repeated many times later, brother Allen claims that we are shaped by our past traditions and are unable to begin with a clean slate as though we are "historyless." Thus, churches of Christ are unable to think, act or decide on direction without carrying our baggage from past generations into the future. We are captured inescapably by our traditions.

That this conclusion is unwarranted, one has but to note that Paul, the persecutor, blasphemer, and Jewish apologist said of the past: "But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ" (Phil. 3:7, 8). Further, it was Christ who warned of the danger of traditions since they "made void the commandment of God" (Matt. 15:6). Restorationism demands constant renewal to the New Testament ideal of revealed Christianity by the shedding of traditions. True repentance makes this possible, even as the church at Pergamos was challenged to put away the Nicolaitans. Contrary to Allen's assertion, we can be converted to Christ to the degree that we excise the past completely and begin a new in Christ.

Non sequitur: "Accepting a Past"

It is a non sequitur to deny that "one's own church or movement stands above mere human history" (p. 5), if by "one's own church" one intends "the Lord's church." The Lord's church is unique and divine in origin, guided by the Spirit through the Holy Scriptures. This is true of no denomination. While we may reflect cultural mores in some areas, it is distinctly possible for the Lord's church to stand above human history and remain true to its heavenly mission in spite of past or present human influences. As Paul said, "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed. . ." (Rom. 12:2), and this in the midst of the Hellenizing influence of the Greek culture. "Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate" (2 Cor. 6:14-18) is a divine imperative, permitting no fellow-ship with darkness of any kind.

Whether the author has a real grasp of the Lord's church is doubtful. When he includes "Churches of Christ" in the "larger story of Christianity" (p. 5), he calls for us to accept that our "past" includes "Churches of Christ" as a denomination among denominations. He decries judging "most all of Christian history" (particularly Protestantism) as only a "tragic story of decay and corruption" (p. 6). This is strengthened when he accuses N.B. Hardeman (among others) of unfairly dealing with Luther and Calvin and others of the "Christian past" (p. 8) and advises that "we take Christian traditions other than our own with great seriousness" (p. 11).

Non sequitur: We Must Rethink The Bible

Allen asserts that "Churches of Christ must rethink our traditional way of reading the Bible" as a "blueprint" or "a rigid `pattern,' as a collection of case law," (p. 20) because this leads to spiritual malnourishment. The "traditional approach," we are told, "elevated inorganic, impersonal, and mechanistic models of the Bible, the church, and the Christian life" (p. 31). Weighty charges, indeed. Assuming the extent of influence by John Locke and other Scottish Common Sense thinkers on Campbell, brother Allen concluded that it was impossible for Campbell to study the Bible independently, without being a "child of his times" (p. 25). It is surprising to learn (according to the author) that it was Francis Bacon and "Baconianism" that gave rise to the "stringent `pattern' orthodoxy" (p. 29) of Moses Lard. Did you realize it was human dogmatism and not true biblical exegesis that suggested "command, example and necessary inference" to understand the Bible?

According to this non sequitur, it is impossible to know truth without being influenced by the leading philosophy of the age. Can, then, inspiration be free of contamination? Is the Bible understandable apart from philosophy? One is led to wonder if Gamaliel unduly influenced Paul in writing Scripture or if the school of Hillel colored Jesus' thinking about divorce. Can any Bible doctrine be understood in its purity? If Locke, Newton, et al, influenced the thinking of the pioneers about their approach to doctrine (commands, examples, inferences; facts, commands, promises), how can we be sure that Mark was not influenced by the Gnostics when he wrote the gospel about Jesus? Or that Luke was not influenced by Plato, Aristotle or others unknown to us?

But wait, there is hope, brother Allen implies. There are mysteries at work in religion that cannot be fathomed by this "analytic-technical" mindset that insists on book, chapter and verse preaching. We are informed that "God works through and beyond our limited, time-bound ways of reading his Word to draw people of searching heart" (pp. 37, 38). I fear that his later inferences are worse than the first.

Does God work "beyond . . . reading his Word to draw people of searching heart"? If so, how? Is the message of the cross not sufficient to "draw" (John 12:32) men to God? Do we hear that part of the "mystery" of the gospel that we are unable to fathom is the work of the Holy Spirit, apart from the Scriptures, drawing men to God? Allen's earlier work already mentioned, The Worldly Church, lends credence to this view. Supplying what he believed to be some of the answers to the problems among today's churches, Allen said it must include "a new openness to the power of God's Spirit in our churches." But when we try to let the Spirit work, "our tradition may present obstacles" because our doctrine is "shaped more by modem rationalism than biblical revelation" (pp. 74, 75). He proclaimed the answer to include the "indwelling Spirit who enlightens our minds to the things of God . . . . who assures our spirits..." (p. 75). The early church had the "guidance of the Spirit at crucial points in the church's early history:.. . Pentecost ... death of Stephen . . . baptism of the first Gentile ... beginning of the first overseas mission.... Today we need this same openness to the Spirit as we face the continuing secularization of the church" (pp. 76, 77). This unfounded conclusion (claiming that miracles from the Holy Spirit in the past necessarily imply their continuance today) would lead him into Pentecostalism if consistently followed.

Non sequitur: Strangeness

Most of us are aware of the mysticism of the Orient. We have avoided the pitfalls of such error, however, because of the emphasis in the Scriptures on knowledge (John 6:44, 45). God addressed a revelation to man (universally, not just of the East) and required of him that he understand it (Eph. 3:4; 5:17; etc.), knowing that it will judge him in the last day (Jn. 12:48). The Gnostics claimed to have access to some "higher" knowledge (1 John 2:4) by which they could live sinful lives and still please God. This produced a "spiritual elitism" that refused to acknowledge or be restrained by the written word. Some refused to accept John's epistles (3 John 9).

Mysticism claims that there is more to a message than what is stated: objective truth is displaced by intuitive imagination, what is felt is more important than what is stated. This spiritual existentialism requires truth to be filtered through human permission for it to be truth. We must remember John 17:17: "Sanctify them in thy truth: thy word is truth." It does not need my permission to be so.

C. Leonard Allen has a lot in common with the Gnostics. His faulty premises are shaped, in part, by a mysticism that denigrates the perception and perceptibility of God's message: what is said is not what is meant. Common rules of communication, therefore, do not apply and "great mysteries" supersede "commands, examples and necessary inferences." This suggests that there is more to the Bible than meets the eye: western man cannot fathom the inscrutable oriental mind. Campbell's western rationalism (and thus, ours, as well) does not appreciate the metaphoric interpretation of Judaic thinking. If there is a mystery in all this, it must be that Allen makes such a charge in the light of Paul being a Roman, influenced by Greek (western) culture. Timothy himself was a Greek.

But Campbell, we are told, "drew upon a modem, western 'social compact' theory widely held in the political thought of his own day. He thereby lost the strangeness of this prominent biblical metaphor (of the kingdom, tr)" (p. 46). This failure to understand because of "strangeness" extends to the very knowledge of God. "But another kind of strangeness remains: the strange, and strangely wonderful, ways of a transcendent God. It is this strangeness that we must not  that we finally cannotdispel" (p. 48). "But there is another, very different model for understanding reality, one that confronts mystery and strangeness without driving it out. We can represent it simply by inverting our pyramid. Here the lines of understanding do not narrow and converge to a single, fixed point. Rather, they open out ever wider, reaching always beyond our grasp or control. The more we learn the more we see what there is to learn. The more we grasp the more we perceive what we do not yet grasp" (pp. 48, 49). "But the deeper we enter into the mystery the more it beckens [beckons, tr] and allures, dazzles and surprises. Before it we find ourselves alternately befuddled and enlightened, humbled and exhilarated. Just when we have established the boundaries of the possible, God unexpectedly enlarges them" (p. 52). Such nonsense denies an understanding of finished revelation (Jude 3; Eph. 3:4). And it is but a short jump from this untrue premise to the faulty conclusion held by many that truth is mysterious, unknowable. If one insists on the particulars of the Lord's church, the Lord's supper, music in worship, or the role of women in the church, we are reminded that we cannot know the truth because of a cultural mindset that prohibits modem man from a restoration of ancient Christianity. To insist on doctrinal purity is to destroy this "wonderful strangeness." Paul's answer to such error was to remind that we know the mystery in Christ (Eph. 3:4; Col. 2:2, 8) when we read the Scriptures.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 21, p. 11-12
November 3, 1994

Share