15 Questions for Anglicans, Principal John Simons Pt I

In a continuing series, The Believer’s Dilemma has examined the problematic theologies of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, which were based on original sin.  What do modern Christians believe? This week we have part I of an interview with Principal John Simons of the Montreal Diocesan Theological College (Anglican) at McGill University.

 

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History: The Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 during the reign of Henry VIII. Influenced by the Protestant Reformation, the new English church simplified rituals and introduced the Book of Common Prayer (1549), which facilitated services in English instead of Latin. In response to the Reformation, the Church of England adopted the ‘39 Articles of Religion’ as its statement of faith in 1563. The ‘39 Articles’ restate some traditional Catholic teaching but is strongly influenced by both Lutheranism and Calvinism. 

 

When the Westminster Confession was written in 1649, the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism was at its peak. The extremely violent Thirty Years War (1618-48) had killed millions of Catholics and Protestants. The Bishop’s War in Scotland (1639-40) had overthrown the government to create a Calvinist State. The English Civil War (1642-49), which had thrust Oliver Cromwell and Puritans into political power, concluded with the execution of King Charles. The dominant religious force in Britain at the time was Calvinism. The Westminster Confession of faith was the statement of faith of those who felt the Church of England was not Reformed enough and was accepted by Presbyterians and, in modified form, by Baptists and Congregationalists.

 

Because of its history, Anglicanism is sometimes referred to as ‘Reformed Catholicism.’ During the violent centuries when Protestant Reformers accused the Pope of being the antichrist and Roman Catholics decreed that Protestants were ‘outside the Church’ and therefore ‘outside salvation’ Anglicans have represented the middle ground (via media) between Catholics and Protestants.  The Anglican Church of Canada is an independent, self-governing Church in communion with the other churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion (Church of England, Episcopalian).  

 

Position:  The range of ‘acceptable’ beliefs and practices within the Anglican Church is large, making it one of the more liberal denominations.

 

Current situation:  The Anglican Church of Canada struggles with aging congregations, declining attendance and churches that are closing.

 

Note: Italicised texts are taken from the 39 Articles of Religion (1563)

http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/39articles.html

 

The Westminster Confession (1646).

http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

 

1)   The Universe

 

Westminster Confession -  Of Creation

It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Does the universe exist for a purpose? 

 

John Simons:  We Anglicans do not have a formal statement about the existence of the universe. At the time of the Reformation, the Church of England adopted the 39 Articles of Religion as its Statement of Faith. It restates traditional Catholic teaching on God and Christ, and in its soteriology is strongly influenced by both Lutheranism and Calvinism. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Westminster Confession was considerably more Protestant and Calvinist than the 39 Articles of the Church of England?

 

John Simons:  The Westminster Confession was drafted three-quarter of a century after the 39 Articles in order to clarify, expand upon, and in some cases reject them.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  It was a turbulent time.  

 

(Note - When the Westminster Confession was written in 1649 the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism was at its peak. The extremely violent Thirty Years War (1618-48) had killed millions of Catholics and Protestants. The Bishop’s War in Scotland (1639-40) had overthrown the government to create a Calvinist State. The English Civil War (1642-49), which had thrust Oliver Cromwell and Puritans into political power, concluded with the execution of King Charles.)

 

John Simons:  The dominant religious force in Britain at the time was Calvinism. We need to remember that 25 years earlier, after the Council of Dort, the Church of England had become polarized between the Puritans who became radically Calvinist and those who turned away from Calvinism. The Westminster Confession of faith was never really adopted by the Church of England. It was the statement of faith of those who felt the Church of England was not Reformed enough and was accepted by Presbyterians and, in modified form, by Baptists and Congregationalists.  All of that to say that Anglicans do not have an official statement about why the universe exists.  However the (Nicene) Creed affirms that God created the heavens and the earth and all things visible and invisible.  That’s about as far as Anglicans go for any kind of authoritative statement.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Do you have any personal thoughts about why the universe was created?

 

John Simons:  I would agree with Thomas Aquinas that God created the universe so that it can participate in God’s goodness and enjoy existence. Many creatures don’t reflect on why they exist, but they live and move and enjoy the goodness of existence.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Do you see the creation of the universe as a process that involved thousands of years or millions?

 

John Simons:  Genesis is not a scientific text book. Once you accept that the Bible does not report the creation of the world in six literal 24-hour days, it is an open question how much time was involved. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Even the Bible literalist, William Dembski, finds the scientific evidence for a very long process much more persuasive than the ‘Biblical’ defence of Young Earth Creationists.

 

John Simons:  Science can help us interpret the Bible.  

 

2)  Natural Evil 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  If God is the source of all goodness, why is the natural world plagued with catastrophic events? 

 

John Simons:  Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and things we would call natural disasters occur because we live in a universe that is governed by natural law.  When tectonic plates shift under the sea, it will cause an earthquake and possibly a tsunami.  It is ‘evil’ only to the extent that homes and lives are lost.  The real question you’re asking is ‘why does God allow that to happen?’  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Yes. Does God allow natural evil to occur, or does God cause it to occur?

 

John Simons:  Science can explain the natural laws underlying earthquakes and tornadoes, even epidemics and famine.  But why do disasters strike specific people?  The Book of Job provides some insights into why the innocent suffer.  Job tells us that anything that can happen – whether good or bad – can happen to anybody.  Disasters happen because of natural processes. They do not strike specific people who were in some way ‘bad’ and deserved to be punished.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: There are Christians who see direct cause and effect between sin and natural catastrophe.

 

John Simons:  Then they have not studied the Book of Job. He was the most righteous man on earth yet Job suffered terribly. The suffering brought about by natural disaster should not be interpreted as divine punishment.  I would also say that the fact that innocent people suffer natural evil doesn’t mean we have to deny God’s omnipotence. I don’t subscribe to either of those theories.  To bring this to more contemporary times, the British theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne has examined these questions in many books including ‘Exploring Reality: the Intertwining of Science and Religion’ (2007).  One of the points Polkinghorne makes is that for God to make a world in which freedom is possible, freedom must apply at every level of the universe’s existence. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Does this mean that laws of nature give the universe freedom to act against the will of God?

 

John Simons:  The Book of Job describes how Satan visits God, who asks what he has been doing. Satan replies that he has been roaming back and forth on the earth.  God asks if Satan has encountered anyone as righteous as Job and Satan replies that Job is only faithful because God has blessed him exceedingly.  Satan claims that if Job is stripped of his possessions and health he will curse God to his face. Satan here is not a figure of malice or evil, but a representation of the kind of freedom of creation which can lead to events that are terrible.

 

3)  Human Beings  

 

Westminster Confession -   Of Creation

II. After God had made all other creatures, He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change. Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Do human beings exist for a purpose?

 

John Simons:  This is closely related to the first question about why the universe was created and I would again call upon Thomas Aquinas’ idea that God created the universe – and the creatures who inhabit it – so that we can participate in God’s goodness and enjoy existence.  For humans, as conscious beings, life is a source of enjoyment. I can enjoy the things of the earth and the beauty of the universe.  Being alive is a way of participating in God’s being and goodness.  I think human beings exist to have communion with God.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Westminster Catechism says that, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever’.

 

John Simons:  That’s still a good way to put it.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Book of Genesis describes the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Do you read it as a literal, historical event?

 

John Simons:  I read the story of Eden as a myth. By that, I don’t mean it is not true, only that it is not about a particular historical event. It conveys a truth that holds of all particular places and events, namely, that we human beings are created by God to have communion with him and one another in a natural environment that we are to enjoy and care for. The next bit of the story is that this truth is obscured by evil.

 

4)  The Existence of Evil

 

39 Articles of Religion -  IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin


Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, p¢vnæa sapk¢s, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Why did a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil?  

 

John Simons:  What do you mean by ‘evil’?

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Augustine attributed all evil in the universe to the ‘original sin’ of Adam and Eve.  

 

John Simons:  If the suffering of sentient beings is an evil, then evil was in the world before the appearance of human beings. But human beings are also capable of evil, and we are born into a world that is marred by past evil, and sadly, we perpetuate it. The doctrine of original sin is probably the most empirically sound of all traditional Christian doctrines.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  The Augustinian doctrine of original sin states that evil, death and suffering originated in the Garden of Eden with a literal Adam and Eve.

 

John Simons: I do not accept Augustinian version of original righteousness, nor do I accept his version of original guilt.  I prefer the German term ‘birth-sin’ which is used in the 39 Articles of Religion. Admittedly, Article IX refers to original sin a way that is very Augustinian.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Augustine’s nemesis was Pelagius and Article IX rebukes the vain heresy of Pelagians who believe that human nature is not fatally corrupted.  One thousand years after Augustine and Pelagius were dead, the conflict was still alive. 

 

John Simons: It is still alive today. However, it is a spiritual truth that we are born into a world that is askew. All religions agree on the universal presence of sin.  Philosophy is also conscious of the alienation of human beings from their true purpose and happiness.  We find this in Platonism and Gnosticism. Interestingly, we also find it among modern philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, who are not Christian.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   Do you agree with Augustine that all sin, suffering, evil and death originate with Adam and Eve?

 

John Simons: No. I think the myth of Adam and Eve is a way of saying that we human beings collectively are ultimately responsible for the social injustice that we suffer.  In addition to the kind of natural evil that causes suffering, there is also the kind of evil that human beings are capable of perpetrating.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   Does the universality of sin have to be attributed to an ‘origin’ at a particular time and place?

 

John Simons: If you deny original sin, then you have to account for injustice and alienation in another way, for example by saying that the world was created out of some kind of intractable principle of non-being.  There is a force in opposition to God that makes human existence in this world unhappy and unfulfilling. If you believe, as most Christians do, that the world is God’s Creation and is meant to be our home, then you have to account for human wickedness and evil in a different way. We are not made out of some matter that is opposed to God from the beginning. We are born into a world in which injustice already exists and we are liable for it even if, as individuals, we didn’t actually commit it.  I think that is what the doctrine of original sin is getting at.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   If sin is universal, why not just call it ‘universal sin’ or simply ‘sin’ as the Bible does?  What purpose is served by perpetuating the term ‘original sin’ which is so deeply imbued with Augustine’s ideas about inherited guilt and depravity?

 

John Simons: Augustine does not have a monopoly on the doctrine of Original Sin.  Eastern Orthodox Christians do not follow Augustine but they have a doctrine of original sin based on Romans chapter 5 where Paul talks about sin entering into the world through death.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Isn’t that exactly the opposite of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin?  For Augustine – and for Luther and Calvin – sin came first and was the cause of death. 

 

John Simons:  I think death was in the world before human beings appeared on the scene. But sin changes the experience of death. In my reading of Romans, death is almost a more fundamental problem than sin. Our mortality and sin reinforce one another.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: How does that work?

 

John Simons:  Death makes us fearful and egocentric.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma: The story of Eden speaks about an opposing force that challenges God’s truthfulness and authority.  Do you think this force of opposition is irresistible for the Fallen descendants of Adam and Eve?

 

John Simons:  I think Augustine’s view is that as a result of the Fall our nature is weak and we tend to choose what is evil rather than what is good. Even if the story of the Fall is not history, it seems to me Augustine was right about our tendencies.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Luther and Calvin conceived of the Fallen will as so totally depraved that it could only choose evil.   

 

John Simons:  Perhaps I am not as pessimistic about human nature. Still, we do seem to be in the thrall of forces that oppose God. God’s election of Israel had to do with establishing a toehold in the world, within human history, as a sign of God’s holiness.  This was a demonstration that the world belong to God. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’ (1 Corinthians 10:26)  It is easy to forget that.  The whole ministry of Jesus was based on the premise that the world is under the dominion of powers opposed to God. The ministry of Jesus was an announcement that the Kingdom of God had come and was amongst us. The kingdom of God was declared in the face of forces that opposed it.

 

5)  The Conflicted Human Nature

 

Westminster Confession -   Of the Fall

IV. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

VI. Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto,  does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner,  whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God,  and curse of the law,  and so made subject to death,  with all miseries spiritual, temporal,  and eternal

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Why does human nature appear to be a mixture of good and evil?  Is it because of freedom of will?  Birth sin?  Forces of opposition?  

 

John Simons:  The mixture of good and evil can be partly attributed to choices that were made before we were born and before we were conscious of our own independent existence.  A Freudian interpretation of a lot of the human conflict would suggest that our thoughts and values were shaped by our environment and our families.  Because these influences affected us before we were conscious of them, because we inherited values and ideas very early without being able to be critical of them, we find ourselves in highly conflictual situations.  I believe that psychoanalysis can be a helpful therapy that enables us to bringing to awareness forces that shape us.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: We are a mixture of good and evil because of forces we have little or no control over?

 

John Simons:  Yes. Another insight of psychoanalysis is that when people are traumatized they try to re-live the trauma in order to get over it, or to master it. And that means sometimes getting yourself into situations where you become the perpetrator.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: You’re referring to victims of violence and various kinds of abuse who go on to victimize others?

 

John Simons:  Yes. We are fragile creatures and not entirely responsible for the way we behave, at least while we are barely conscious of the forces at work around us and inside us. As we become conscious, we can also become responsible.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: To what extent are we capable of being responsible for our choices and actions?

 

John Simons:  It is definitely possible for people to become more responsible as they mature.  That requires an environment, and the Church’s message of forgiveness is important.  We don’t have to be ‘fixed’, but we need to come to the realization that we are loved despite our imperfections and in spite of parts of our character that even we ourselves don’t like very much.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: It is difficult for people to believe they are forgiven and that they are loved.   It is even harder for many people to forgive and love those who have hurt them badly.  They know that anger and resentment is a cancer that is destroying them and they desperately want to turn the page, but they can’t let go of the past. This is where some kind of divine assistance is called upon.

 

John Simons:  The Church should be able to help.  Unfortunately it fails very often.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: So many people in the Church are stuck with ideas of divine wrath and punishment.  They seem to believe the fundamental nature of God is anger rather than love.  This is all tied into an Augustinian notion of original sin.  One modern writer who has re-emphasised the love of God is Matthew Fox in his book ‘Original Blessing’.

 

John Simons:  The original blessing was being created by God. The problem is that we’re born into a world that is out of tune with God and we are shaped by that world.  The original blessing remains, and all of life is an attempt to recover it.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: When you say we need to come to the realization that we are loved, do you mean loved by other people or by God?    

John Simons:  I am referring to being loved by God. But most people can’t experience God’s love unless it is mediated by human love. That is what I meant earlier by requiring an environment. The Church can provide an environment of love and forgiveness.

 

6)  Primitive People

 

Believer’s Dilemma: What form of religion was known to ancient cavemen?

 

John Simons: How ancient?

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Distinctly human behaviour such as making tools, jewelry, statues and cave paintings is commonly dated back at least 10,000 years. These ‘cavemen’ also buried their dead. What does the Bible tells us about these ancient people and what they believed?

 

John Simons: The Bible only takes us back to the dawn of written history. If you look at texts available to us from the past, I think they shed light on what ancient human beings were thinking. They were conscious of deity or deities.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Do you see this as innate knowledge or some kind of specific revelation?

 

John Simons: I’m afraid I really don’t know much about prehistoric civilizations.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma: If humans were created by God for a purpose, we would expect something of that purpose would be revealed.

 

John Simons: The Book of Genesis describes a direct relationship between humans and God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: But you interpret the story of Eden as a myth?

 

John Simons: Yes. Those early stories in Genesis are not historical records. I don’t think anybody intended them to be read as mere ‘history’.  But they are stories that say something true about our human quest to understand God and our rebellion against God.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  If Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon tribes predate the Old Testament narrative by tens of thousands of years, what kind of relationship would those cavemen have had with God?

 

John Simons: I couldn’t speculate what ancient peoples believed before they recorded their thoughts in writing. 

 

7)  Laws and Commandments

 

39 Articles of Religion - VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.


Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: How did a God of perfect justice reveal Laws and Commandments to all the peoples of the earth?  

 

John Simons: There is quite a lot of evidence of ancient cultures developing law codes in the Middle East. In the cultures of Meso America and South America, there is evidence of very sophisticated, astronomical calculations.  Those people understood that the universe is governed by law-like behaviour. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma: In his letter to the Roman (1:20) Paul said, ‘Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen.’

 

John Simons:  I think that when human beings became aware of existing in a vast, complex universe, that’s probably the point at which they became aware of being created in the image of God.  It has to do with an awareness of a possibility of a relationship with God.  I have no idea how they would have conceived. I’m sure they didn’t conceive of God the way Plato or Calvin or Aquinas did.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Article VI of the 39 Articles says that Holy Scripture contains everything necessary to salvation. This implies that specific revelations of scripture were the recipe for salvation, while anything else was not.

 

John Simons: That is not what Article VI was intended to mean. That is pulling it out of its context and forcing it into a dialogue with world religions. In the original context, it means that everything you need to be saved can be found in scripture. You don’t need to listen to what the Bishop of Rome says you have to do in order to be saved.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  It was a Protestant declaration of Sola Scripture?

 

John Simons: It was a way of saying that the authority of the Church does not trump scripture. It does not say that scripture gives us truth about everything. The Reformers were quite clear about what’s necessary for salvation. It’s part of Christian tradition to believe that God acted graciously towards human beings by sending Jesus as Redeemer and Saviour.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Salvation by Christ alone.  Where does that leave people who don’t know Jesus?

 

John Simons:  There have been a number of different ways of negotiating that question. Perhaps the one that is most popular with Evangelical North Americans is the belief that these are all false traditions, and therefore they have to be rejected.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: This is the popular televangelist view that all non-Christian religions are based on false revelation or are positively demonic.

 

John Simons:  A variation on that is the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten who said ‘Other religions are sources of revelation but they don’t give us the Gospel of salvation.’  So, valid revelations from other religions, yes; salvation, no. Braaten bases that on the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel.  It is certainly possible for human beings to know that there is a divine law and that we are subject to it, but until we actually hear the Gospel we won’t realize that we’re saved from the curse of the law.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: So other religions offer no hope of salvation?  

 

John Simons:  Roman Catholics do not take an official position with respect to the possibility of salvation via other religions. The Vatican Council declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’ (1965) validates what other religions have to offer to human beings. It infers that salvation is only possible through belief in Christ but doesn’t deny that salvation might be possible through another vehicle of salvation. Karl Rahner, a Jesuit Roman Catholic theologian, describes this possibility as ‘Anonymous Christianity’.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: A couple of people in these interviews have commented on the ‘Anonymous Christian’.   It sounds like a theological attempt to prevent the God of Christianity from appearing exclusive and unjust.    

 

John Simons:  There are a number of liberal Protestant and Catholics theologians in North America who say, ‘Dialogue with other religions requires a non-judgmental attitude which allows the possibility of your own understanding being enriched by your dialogue partner’s understanding.’  George Linbeck says, ‘What we really have to do is to pay attention to the grammar of each religion.’  Each theology it has its own particular language as far as speaking about the transcendence of God. Christianity has its own language, its own grammar. It would be different than the way Buddhists or Hindus talk about salvation. We can’t make easy translations.  Some religions are interested in salvation or they see human destiny in very different terms from the way we as Christians tend to do. You have to pay attention to what people actually say about their beliefs.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: If we’re using different language, do we all mean the same thing when we speak about ‘salvation’?

 

John Simons:  At extreme end of the Liberal spectrum you have someone like John Hick who says that all religions are equal and they are all vehicles to salvation. 

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That is a very unpopular theology for people at the Conservative end of the spectrum.

 

John Simons:  A number of different theological options are available other than saying, ‘You’re an idolater. If you don’t repent and accept Jesus as your Saviour, you’re going to Hell.’

 

8)  Reconciliation Via Laws and Commandments

 

39 Articles of Religion - XVIII. Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ.


They also are to be accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Did Laws and Commandments reconcile believers to God and cause them to live righteously?   

 

John Simons: Salvation is something you participate in by faith, by gratefully recognizing what has been done for you.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Many people claim the superiority of Christianity and the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation. Can a righteous person ‘earn’ his or her salvation by obeying those laws and commandments?

 

John Simons: Paul was clear about that.  Salvation is by God’s grace.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Article XVIII of the 39 Articles of Religion says, ‘They are to be cursed who say salvation can be earned by obeying the law’ because ‘men may only be saved by the name of Jesus.’

 

John Simons:  That is a traditional declaration concerning salvation.  I think that a lot of these theological terms don’t have a single meaning.  One lesson I’ve learned from Aristotle is that ‘being’ is multi-layered and ambiguous. I think the same is true of salvation.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  What do you understand salvation to mean?

 

John Simons:  It has meant different things at different times for different people.  For Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Reformed Protestant Christianity, salvation has to do with what God has done for us in sending Jesus his Son, and in giving us the Spirit. And it has to do with participating in God’s own life.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  That sounds like agreement across all the main Christian denominations. 

 

John Simons:  Paul Tillich has an interesting way of outlining beliefs in different eras.  For the first 500 years of the Church’s history, Christianity emerged in a world dominated by Greek philosophy and paganism. The Greek preoccupation was with mortality.  So salvation meant finding immortality beyond death. And that was the gift won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. By the time you get to the 16th century, the question is, ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ The Reformation doctrine of justification came to the fore as a way of addressing that question. In the 20th century the question for us is ‘How can I know that life is meaningful?’

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Judaism and Christianity have conceived of the ultimate meaning of life as a choice between good and evil, between God and the force that opposes God. Is salvation ultimately the separation of the righteous and the unrighteous? 

 

John Simons:  I think the framework within which the New Testament speaks of salvation is apocalyptic, that is, the world that we live in now – as we experience it now - is alienated from God but God is still in charge and will reveal his deity at some point in the future. It will happen when God wraps up his purpose.  If God is truly going to be shown to be just then all the dead are going to be raised up and the righteous will have a share in God’s own glory while the wicked will be consigned to a different place. The promise of his own resurrection and a general resurrection of mankind is central to what Jesus teaches in the Gospel.  The resurrection is a promise of what is to come. For New Testament churches, that is what salvation meant.

 

9) Salvation

 

Westminster Confession -     Of Christ

VIII. To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, He does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same;  making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by His word and Spirit;  overcoming all their enemies by His almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to His wonderful and unsearchable dispensation

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   What is required for salvation?  

 

John Simons: Christ is central to salvation. Christ is the Savior.  I certainly believe that.  But I would also say I don’t think that you have to be a Christian of a certain sort or to hold certain ideas about Christ in order to enjoy what Christ has done for us. I love the sacraments and I love the church but I think Christ is bigger than the church and bigger than the sacraments.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  What do you mean by ‘bigger’? 

 

John Simons: Christ is in solidarity with every human being because he interiorized what it means to be a creature and to be alienated from God.  He fully experienced Godlessness and the God forsakenness of this world.  In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has shown us the fullness of what it means to be a human being. I believe all of that is true about him.  But there are many different ways that people come to that realization.

 

Believer’s Dilemma: What are some of those ways? 

 

John Simons:  People can realize who Jesus is without necessarily attending church or being baptized or belonging to a particular church or having some kind of orthodox base in Christ.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma: Sacraments and church are not necessary to salvation?

 

John Simons: Christ is bigger than that. So, why do we bother with faith and the sacraments? Because it’s a great privilege.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma: What about people who don’t know Christ? They may know God the Creator and they may strive to be ethical and moral. What do you say to someone pursuing righteousness by a faith that does not involve Jesus?

 

John Simons:  I say all the more power to them. They are also children of God

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Believer’s Dilemma: Is Christ essential to their salvation?

 

John Simons:  I would say yes. Christ is essential to salvation. But it’s not up to me to say who God is saving and not saving. If someone doesn’t share the belief that I share in Christ, I’m not going to hold that against him. I’m not going to say, ‘You don’t have faith in Jesus, therefore you don’t have salvation.’  It’s not up to me to make that decision. I think Christ is bigger than my faith. Christ is bigger than the Church.  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   How serious is the danger of not being saved?  It seems disingenuous to warn our neighbours that the building is on fire and that there is only one fire exist, and then to say, ‘But I am not going to tell someone who does not believe that the building is on fire that they are wrong and I am right.  I really have no idea who will be harmed in the inferno. That is not for me to decide.’

 

John Simons:  I understand the analogy but I don’t work in that paradigm.  People can construct theologies that make intellectual sense and are exclusive and condemnatory, but such theologies don’t make spiritual sense to me.  

 

10) Who is Saved?  

 

Believer’s Dilemma:   Is it possible to say who is saved?

 

John Simons:  God decides who is being saved and who isn’t. I am not saying that what people believe is irrelevant to their eternal destiny.  But I don’t know how to correlate particular forms of belief to eternal destiny.

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Augustine understood eternal destiny through the lens of original sin. Everyone was born condemned, a few were saved.  For Augustine, salvation was dependant on baptism.  Unbaptized babies remained under eternal wrath due to their inherited, original sin.

 

John Simons:  I will grant you that the doctrine of original sin in the 39 Articles of Religion is Augustinian. But the authority of the 39 Articles has been contested from the start. This came to a head in the 19th century when it became clearer that the 39 Articles had to be interpreted in such a way that ordained priests in the Anglican Church didn’t have to subscribe to everything that each article says.   

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  Is the Anglican Church ready to dismiss the ugly Augustinian conception of original sin and return to a simple Biblical understanding of personal sin?

 

John Simons:   I believe in original sin, although not in the Augustinian sense.  It is clear that I reject the notion of original guilt. But I don’t think that the world is a place of happy fulfillment for everybody. I think there are huge injustices in the world we live in.  These things aren’t destined to be converted to justice and truth. I don’t think it’s something that comes naturally.  And I believe that prior to the end we need to know Jesus.  I’m not going to use that belief in order to condemn Sikhs and Buddhists. I’m not going to use the need for Jesus as Savior as an instrument of war.  And I’m certainly not going to use the Bible to beat people over the head. I’m not going to say that God condemns homosexuality* because it says so in the Bible therefore they’re all going to be burned in hell. That seems to be a misunderstanding of the whole thrust of the Bible. It’s my job, and the job of the Church, to simply witness as best we can to the new life that’s promised us in Christ.

 

(*Note, homosexuality is condemned in Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Genesis 19:4-7, Jude 1:7, Romans 1:26-27.)

 

Believer’s Dilemma:  How do you do that?

 

John Simons:  I think you do it partly by being real when preaching the gospel or when looking at the text in scripture.  We are not required to have blind faith. We need to be honest when scripture does not make sense to us. There are parts of scripture that are uncomfortable and don’t make intellectual sense or spiritual sense. We need to re-read and examine them carefully.  I think the attraction of the Gospel for me is, it doesn’t really have to do with the condemnation part. For me, the attraction of the Gospel is the beauty of it. I think Christ is bigger than the Church and bigger than my faith.

 

Questions or Comments?

 

Tags: Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Aquinas, William Dembski, John Polkinghorne, ‘Exploring Reality’, Augustine, Pelagius, Platonism,  Gnosticism, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Carl Braaten, ‘Nostra Aetate’, Karl Rahner, George Linbeck, John Hick, Paul Tillich.  

 

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For part II of this interview with Principal John Simons click here:

 

11) Does divine love and justice ensure that salvation is available to all? 

12) What role does human freewill play in salvation? 

13) How does salvation bring an end to sin, suffering and death?  

14) Does supernatural power intervene in the natural world to answer prayer?

15) What is the eternal state?