There Is Forgiveness for Even That Filth
A recent blogosphere controversy erupted in the far corners of "theology-that-seems-impractical" land. No that is not a euphemism for the SBC. After the recent murder of 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS, certain Reformed Baptist voices have written critically of calling Coptic Christians "christian". The post was little more than shameful pandering for blog hits wrapped in Calvinistic-butter and pseudo-theological arguments. One of my Lutheran friends, Jordan Cooper, has handled the incident in such a way as to make any further statements a waste of clean air. Yet, I am going to waste such air and attempt to expand beyond the shameful controversy.
First, any word from me comes with a substantial asterisk. I am a not formally educated in the theology of Eastern/Greek or Oriental Orthodoxy. I am familiar with the split over the theology of Nestorius and the separation of the Oriental Orthodox Church to which the Coptic Church belongs. I am also familiar with the more recent dialogue between Greek and Coptic theologians. I see peace on the horizon in my postmillennial future. I have stared at the iconography of both and prefer above all the works from Russia. But the Coptic Church's art is so unique it is hard to dismiss its beauty.
Along with this I have read a substantial amount of modern and Patristic literature. Across the years and across the traditions Orthodoxy has struck me as something beautiful and worth intensive study. I have enjoyed the Divine Liturgy in English, Greek, Coptic, and Russian. This is crucial. In the Orthodoxy traditions, theology and worship go hand and hand. Doctrine and works can never be separated. My love for these churches is genuine and I enter into the discussion with a mind set on their relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ. This personal study is the basis of my heart on this matter. Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy are essential. Theology and worship side by side. Western Christians have for awhile misunderstood this. The merit theology of the Roman Catholic Church did not help matters. Any attempt to associate the merit theology of Catholicism with the Greek or Coptic traditions is a western mistake. But it is a mistake often made when Westerners attempt to evaluate Orthodox theology on dogmatic theology alone. The systematic approach for reformational theology was a very good thing. But it has taken a poor turn in being too highly exalted. This mistake has become more regularly repeated in Protestantism since the enlightenment. In dealing with liberalism and propositional battle-lines, the tradition has slowly, if unconsciously, trended towards a neo-Gnosticism. Dogmatic/Systematic Theology and conservative theological propositions are the new "secret knowledge" that save individuals upon intellectual ascent. Thus, for the crude Western mind the Greek Orthodox and Coptic Church are "non-Christian" in their rejection of certain Protestant doctrines. These people claim the "Protestant tradition" but they seem rather oblivious to Luther and Calvin's admiration for fathers in church history that walked a fine line on justification by faith. They also seem to ignore Luther's interest in discussing with Greek Christians. No, these recent movements are utterly Roman in their attempt to excommunicate Christians who do not put their ducks in a row. A singular SBC blog site has attempted the equivalent of Vatican I.
To do this, the recent voices against Coptic Christians have walked entirely in this post-enlightenment, protestant, neo-Gnosticism line. They have boiled down the theological propositions that do not fit "the gospel" and thus deemed Christian brothers and sisters without grace. Pastor Cooper responded to some of these theological propositions and his challenges are good. I will not seek to re-hash his comments but say that any accusation against the Coptic church on the Natures of Christ is sorely misguided without extensive research into the recent discussions. This depth of research was not evident in the recent vomit-sphere. Similarly, viewing the Coptic Church through the lens of RCC merit theology is a grotesque mistake. These obvious inflections have already been addressed. My concerns are of a more hermeneutical sort.
In modern times Protestants bloggers/theologians in order to win a discussion will take an opposing view and run logically until they can connect it to a heresy. If it can be shown to "deny the gospel" then obviously the matter is settled (right?!?). The individual is guilty of perverting the gospel and per Paul are anathema (Gal 1:9). After this most recent incident involving the Coptic Church these verses were brought up. <sarcasm> obviously <end sarcasm but not really> the Coptic Church adds works to their view of justification thus they are guilty of the Galatian heresy and thus cut off from the grace of God.
However, it does not take a long reading of Galatians to realize that Paul was dealing with Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy issues in Galatia. When Paul condemns their "Justification by works" it should be read as "Justification for law abiding Jews." Yes, there is an element of works righteousness involved but the bigger concern of the Judaziers in Galatia were that non-Jews were being saved apart from being Jews. Their arguments boiled down to "you can only be saved if you become a Jew." Extrapolated this looks like "you can only be saved if you become/believe <insert some event/work>" ... does this sound familiar? It should be obvious, the Galatian heresy was not merely a justification issues. It was a salvation by race issue. We do not have these types of race issues with us today. Instead we must focus on the fact that this was an exclusion issue. It was this very covenantal-exclusion issue that Paul had in mind in Ephesians 3. And it was this same Jew-Gentile issue that Paul had in mind throughout Romans. More specifically though it was Paul's understanding in Romans 3 where "all" means "Jews and Gentiles" (Rom 3:9).
So who is guilty of the Galatian heresy? The group who thinks one must be faithful to God all their life as part of salvation (upon which I do disagree with the Coptic Church)? Or the group that excludes individuals from the people of God because their theology isn't perfectly correct? Well neither. But one is certainly closer. Let me be clear, there is a theological confusion that leads to eternal death. But it is not one that flings itself upon the mercy of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the Galatian heresy is the Christian version of the Judaic-Pharisee conflict with Jesus Christ. The Pharisees looked down on others for having pitiful theology (orthodoxy) and being sinful (orthopraxy) (Luke 18:9-14). They denied children access to God because children could not ascent to the Savior's knowledge (Luke 18:15-17). They also believed they had the complete repertoire, study history, for being a disciple (Luke 18:18-30). Perhaps more importantly, they were the ones who were the fastest and closest to Jesus (Luke 18:39). They wanted to hear from Him and learn from Him. So what did they do with such privilege? They turned around and told the person screaming "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me" to shut up (Luke 18:38). This is the worst type of theological filth. Let us remember what the gospel is,
"Which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain." 1 Corthians 15:1-10 (ESV)
The gospel is what Christ has done! This is not to exclude the discussion of sanctification. That is a discussion for another time. Instead, what must be focused on is the righteousness of Christ as the basis for salvation. A righteousness that is totally alien. Alien to our works. Alien even to our attempts to perfect theology. It reaches down to save sinners. It reaches down to save those who have doubts. It reaches down to those who believe in Christ but struggle with works righteousness. It even reaches down to those who trust in Christ while throwing everyone else under the bus. Yes. In the beaten and bloody body of Christ there is forgiveness for even that filth.