Monday, November 30, 2009

Speak Prophetically Without Compromising Doctrine: William Wilberforce on the Manhattan Declaration

This afternoon I picked up John Piper's Counted Righteous in Christ in preparation to preach on justification. Piper opens the book by making the case that doctrine matters. In the course of that argument, published in 2002, he decries the public ecumenism that followed the events of September 11, 2001, citing a 200 year-old source, William Wilberforce's A Practical View of Christianity (p. 25). Wilberforce writes:
The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrine insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.
I think that's precisely what the Manhattan Declaration does—considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrine. And it will prove fruitless.

Some might say that these groups have much Christian doctrine in common, and it's true. But they're miles apart on justification, which is at the heart of the gospel. Piper continues to quote Wilberforce on precisely that point:
They consider not that Christianity is a scheme . . . for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.
Piper concludes:
Many public people say that changing society requires changing people, but few show the depth of understanding Wilberforce does concerning how that comes about. For him the right grasp of the central doctrine of justification and its relation to sanctification—an emerging Christlikeness in private and public—were essential for the reformation of the morals of England.

6 comments:

Chris said...

Excellent.

R Glenny said...

Ben,
Thanks for the link to Wilberforce. How appropriate.

d4v34x said...

Additionally, I think the last thing we want to do is further reduce/cement the impression of Christianity to/as just another political advocacy group.

Dan said...

But is not the development of the Evangelical arguments against abortion, homosexuality, and subversion of religious freedom built along the same lines as those of the Catholics and Orthodox? This does not appear to be similar to Falwell's call for the "Moral Majority" of a couple decades or so ago. The basis of the MD is common to all three faiths--that morality issues from the righteousness of God.

I'm not by this saying that Catholics and Orthodox sit right on their views of justification. But while the Council of Trent may show that they are "miles apart," the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification made by the Lutherans and Catholics in 1999 seems to indicate that the Roman Catholic Church has moved quite a bit from its former position. Of course even in this Joint Declaration, I find problems--but the "miles apart" have definitely been reduced since 1545.

Ben said...

Dan,

1. I have no problem with a theistic view that morality arises from God's righteousness. I have a problem with affirming as Christians people who deny the biblical doctrine of justification.

2. Joint declarations are notorious for adopting wording that can be construed in ways that create a facade of agreement while both sides mean something different in the thicket of the words.

Dan said...

Ben,
I agree about the ambiguity of the terms in the Joint Declaration. After more research I found that the RCC issued a clarification to make sure no one believed they were leaning toward a justification that implied faith alone. Their confusion of what faith-based justification is and what "merit" means in Paul's Romans denunciation of works-based justification seems to keep them aligned with Trent's anathema pronouncements.