Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Open to Question? Fulcrum discussion on the doctrine of the Trinity

On the Fulcrum 'Open Evangelical' website, the discussion thread on Defining Evangelicalism has now drifted into questions about the doctrine of the Trinity. Officially, it must be emphasised, Fulcrum is committed to Trinitarianism. The interesting issue, though, must be the extent to which, when you declare yourself 'open' to other insights, these can include insights counter to long-established traditional understandings even of God, and on what grounds you are going to 'hold the line'.

It is worth remembering that in the late nineteenth century, the great divide in the worldwide Student Volunteer Missionary Union (the precursor of the Student Christian Movement) was not over the doctrine of the atonement but over Unitarianism, which was then very popular. By 1913, the doctrinal basis of the then-SCM was phrased in such a way that, as one leading figure commented approvingly, "[It] does not contain a statement of the Godhead of Jesus as a doctrine ... it is not intended to contain it ... [but] it does contain that attitude towards Jesus Christ out of which the belief in His Godhead, as a doctrine, springs."

I am reminded of Oliver Hardy's famous refrain to Stanley Laurel, "Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." Read on here.


Paulg said...

I'm sure your description of the history of SCM etc is accurate. But to base a story intended to show open evangelicalism is a poor light on a forum discussion between (mainly) a self-described pluralist unitarian, someone who describes himself as "far from Evangelicalism" and Darren (self-described conservative evangelical) is bizarre. Fulcrum forums are open to anyone, and to take the posters en masse (or a small sub-section of them who've commented on a topic) as representing open evangelicalism is a bit lazy. Especially as the two posts in that immediate exchange which are by open evangelicals are clear, thoughtful, orthodox and biblical. As I'd expect.

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

I hadn't seen your post when I made my almost identical comment at Fulcrum. Clearly great minds think alike!

It would be interesting to review documents produced by Fulcrum members in order to consider whether their hermeneutic vitiates their claim to accepting biblical authority and trustworthiness.

(And that's before we start considering whether a particular approach to the atonement is defining of evangelicalism.)

OTOH it is a tad cheeky to impute the anti-Trinitarian posts of non-Fulcrum members to Fulcrum themselves.

Yours in Christ,

John Foxe.

Revd John P Richardson said...

In response to Paulg, above, I was trying to make it clear that I do not take the posters on the Fulcrum forum as "en masse ... representing open evangelicalism". As individuals, they clearly come from a wide range of views.

The interesting point of comparison, I felt, is with the struggle SVCM/SCM had in embracing its own 'openness' a hundred years ago on just this issue.

The dilemma is whether an avowedly orthodox group (as SVCM/SCM was and Fulcrum is) can hold an internal debate (as distinct from an external debate, with those on the outside of Christianity, such as Jehovah's Witnesses) on whether Trinitarianism is true. If it cannot, then that defines, at least in one direction a limit to its openness. That is fair enough, but it will have to be made clear: "This we do not question."

What happened in the 19th and early 20th century, however, was that an internal debate in fact developed, as evidenced by the constant rewriting of the SVCM/SCM doctrinal basis. In the present context, the poster named 'Pluralist' regards himself as properly belonging within the Christian fold (witness his/her contributions on Thinking Anglicans). This seems to be exactly the kind of thing that was happening in the 19th century, when in fact SVCM/SCM strenuously endeavoured to keep people with Unitarian views 'on board'.

What will be interesting (if the debate continues, though these things have a habit of dying down) will be whether it is seen as an 'internal' debate or an 'external' one. I simply point others to follow it - I've no intention of joining in myself.

Anonymous said...

Whether Open Evangelicals like 'Fulcrum' can maintain unity and orthodoxy in trinitarian dogma depends on how far they can continue to affirm the unity, full inspiration and perspicuity of Scripture. A number of the posters on 'Fulcrum' are not obviously evangelical at all, or even trinitarian Christians, so it would not be fair to judge the group as a whole by these. But if a movement within evangelicalism defines itself by repudiation of some elements of historic evangelicalism (e.g. a commitment to male ministry and penal substitutionary atonement) and has an altogether more fluid approach to biblical interpretation and a much more restricted sense of biblical inspiration and authority, it is hard to see how it will avoid morphing into a kind of liberal catholicism focused on 'spirituality', along with a hesitancy about biblical morality.
Actually, this is what I think has been happening in some of the traditionally evangelical theological colleges, of which some of the former staff (e.g. Paul Robertson in Bristol, David Runcorn of Trinity Bristol) now support SSUs and reject PSA as 'old hat' etc. (I'm sure there are tensions within more OE colleges between the desire to retain the evangelcial heritage and the pressures of feminism and 'inclusivism'.)Similarly, people who grew up in the evangelical world like Maggi Dawn and Dave Tomlinson have rejected that heritage as well.
I doubt they'd want to reject trinitarianism, but they must have some real struggles with the patriarchal language and the subordinationism of the equal Son.