Bannerman Take One: Culture Wars and Ecclesiology
The Banner of Truth’s retyped and reissued edition of James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ is, like so many of their books, beautifully produced. It is also most timely. Reading this book and putting into practice its basic theology will set your church in good stead for handling the contemporary cultural storm. Other than the arrant nonsense about the Establishment Principle being biblical (I'm sure Nero would have loved the idea) it has to be my favourite book on ecclesiology. If evangelicals buy it and read it, I think it will strengthen us immensely for a time when knowing what the church is is going to be crucial if we are to remain faithful and distinctive. Here's why:
Evangelicalism as a movement is ill-equipped to handle the questions which current sexual identity movements are posing, and that for several reasons to which Bannerman provides biblical answers. And these questions, even more than, say, abortion, are going to be pressing issues for church members in every place of work they find themselves. Christians are going to need to know what they believe on these issues and why they believe the way they do. Yet evangelicalism is, as I say, ill equipped as a movement to do this.
First, evangelicalism’s transdenominational approach to theological testimony may well help foster broad alliances on ethical matters but there is always a danger that in doing so ethics becomes detached from an elaborate theological framework. This may well be an unintended consequence but it will prove unfortunate. How we understand sexuality and its implications is not an isolated theological matter but connects to our anthropology and thus to our doctrines of God and sin. Nor can ten or twelve point doctrinal statements provide such a framework. Only the more elaborate documents -- for example, the Westminster Confession, the 1689, the Savoy, the Three Forms -- do so.
Second, evangelical love of the Bible is a good thing but love of the Bible is not enough. On its own, it can lead to a piecemeal approach to ethical situations where the Bible is interrogated for its views on a matter upon which it does not opine directly but only be legitimate inference from its wider theological framework. This is where the first point becomes important: churches need to have elaborate doctrinal confessions so that specific issues can be dealt with in terms of a broader theological framework.
Third, without a developed confession of faith faithfully taught and articulated by the church, a piecemeal approach to ethics leaves significant opportunities for subjective and emotive responses to specific situations. If we are not constantly reminded of the bigger theological framework for making ethical decisions, we will be vulnerable to subjective, emotive, aesthetic responses driven by the immediate circumstances before us. Watch for the language of emotivisim and situational ethics in current evangelical discussions of sexuality. That language is significant for understanding a whole theological and church culture, not just attitudes to sexuality.
Fourth, influential strands of evangelicalism remain wedded to the idea that a few powerful personalities are signally important in keeping the movement strong and influential. But the Top Men fail too. My own experience of controversy indicates that, when it comes to the Toppers, those who really have nothing to lose, whose pension funds and bank accounts are already well-filled, are always paradoxically those who are willing to risk the least in times of conflict. We fool ourselves if we think that the great and the good will fight for us. As things hot up, watch for early retirements and sudden unavailability to speak to key issues among the evangelical elites.
So why is Bannerman important? Because for him, navigating the complexities of this life in a way that is biblically sound and glorifying to God is all tied up with a proper understanding of Christ’s body, the church. The church is not a response to God’s grace, the creation of man. The church is the creation of God, an act of God’s grace. As such, she has the promises of God to guarantee her survival and ultimate success – not necessarily the survival of my congregation or of yours, but the church as a whole. And the church has officers -- ordinary, godly men who can take care of business -- and should have a thoroughgoing confession of faith which can withstand the ephemeral ethical and intellectual shifts in the wider world. These simple things are what the Bible points to as the necessary tools for discipleship and for the ongoing health of the body. If it worked in the time of Nero, it can certainly work in our day.
I shall offer more posts on Bannerman in the coming days. But better to read him for yourselves. Cue Blue Mink soundtrack. Yes, I sure wish that I could be a Bannerman.
Postscript: Westminster Theological Seminary is hosting a discussion of Bannerman’s book next Wednesday night, when I shall be in conversation with former student Nathan Sasser and Jonathan Leeman. And you can buy the book there for half price.