Michael Hewat: There's heresy afoot in this Christianity debate

Amid the current debate about diversity of belief there have been Perspectives articles from an atheist (Ernie Barrington), an agnostic (Richard Randerson) and an unbeliever who is neither an atheist nor a humanist nor a rationalist (John Roughan).

There have been references to Christianity and to "traditional Christians", but - as is so often the case - the "traditional"(or better, the "orthodox") Christian voice has not been heard.

One might well object that an Anglican bishop should be able to be counted on to provide just such an orthodox Christian perspective but sadly this has not been the case. If Christians from other denominations find this galling, as many of the letters to the editor indicate, imagine how Anglicans find it.

Most Anglicans believe in a supreme being, the trinitarian God of the creeds and The 39 Articles of Religion, and long to hear their leadership publicly affirm it.

The position Bishop Randerson has adopted, if I understand him correctly, is a rather hopeful intermediate one between atheism and what he calls "traditional Christian belief in a supreme being".

However, his use of the word agnostic has proven unhelpful to him because, while technically correct in the sense he uses it, it has placed him closer in most people's eyes - mine included - to atheism than to Christian belief.

Regardless of how hard Bishop Randerson has tried to nuance his position as a believer in god (with a little "g"), he has left little doubt that he no longer believes in the one God of the creeds. What is unclear is how what he does believe in - "love" or "spirit" - constitutes any form of divinity at all.

Christianity is a revealed religion. Christians, like Jews, believe that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, and that he has revealed himself in his mighty acts in history. Unlike Jews, Christians believe that God's supreme revelation of himself was in his son, Jesus Christ, whose life, death, resurrection and ascension testify to God's great love for his whole creation, and his determination to deal with sin and evil and redeem creation according to his loving purposes.

The Bible records this as good news (the meaning of "gospel") and Christians are called to bear witness to it, in word and in deed, as they live lives transformed by the power of God's Holy Spirit.

That Christians have often failed miserably to do so does not alter the fact that what God has revealed of himself, and the way he has prescribed for humans to live, is wholly good.

The significance of Christianity being a revealed religion is that you must either accept its truths as revealed in history and recorded in the Bible, or reject them.

Christianity allows that everyone has the right to make that choice, albeit at their eternal peril.

The Christian is bound to respect the right of the atheist to reject God, and the agnostic to refuse to commit either way. Christians must also accept that people will choose to follow other gods.

Apropos the proposed national diversity statement, therefore; neither atheists nor agnostics, nor unbelievers, nor people of other faiths should have anything to fear from orthodox Christianity.

There is nothing in the New Testament which advocates the spread of the Gospel by force or oppression, or the suppression or persecution of other faiths. Those who have claimed or acted otherwise have erred badly.

Conversely, I do not see that Christians have anything to fear from the national diversity statement either, so long as it does all that Bishop Randerson claims it will do.

While Christianity allows individuals the right to freely accept or reject its teachings, it does not allow for those who profess Christian faith to pick and choose between the bits they like and the bits they don't.

Those who call themselves Christians but choose to reject essential tenets of the Christian faith have, from the beginning, been called heretics (from the Greek word meaning "able to choose").

A heretic is one who has chosen a different, and therefore wrong belief. So, to reject the doctrine of God's personhood, or that he is a supreme being, is heretical.

Orthodox Christianity is a coherent belief system. You simply cannot remove God the Father, replace him with an abstraction such as "love" or "spirit", and claim you have not lost anything.

Remove God from Christianity and all the central Christian doctrines fall over like dominoes. Not only is this true at a theological level, it is true of Christian praxis too.

How do you worship these substitutes for God? Why would you want to and what good would it do? What about prayer or Holy Communion? These no longer have any object or meaning.

No wonder those Christian churches which have abandoned orthodox faith are those which are in rapid decline while those which are not ashamed of the Gospel and believe in the love and power of God to save continue to experience dynamic growth.

All New Zealanders should welcome religious tolerance, but religious compromise is not something that should be required of anyone. All religions, atheism and agnosticism too, make their own exclusive truth claims.

There is no reason these should not be allowed to be respectfully expressed in public. I hope and pray that the national diversity statement will guarantee this.

* The Reverend Michael Hewat is vicar of the West Hamilton Anglican Parish.

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