I continue to be intrigued by a report that emerged in the wake of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, Oct. 4-25, 2015.
The report alleges that, on Oct. 12, 2015, near the start of the synod, 13 cardinals, including New York’s Timothy Dolan, delivered a letter to Pope Francis expressing their concern about aspects of the procedures and emphases of the synod.
Among the claims buried in the cardinals’ letter is one that is worthy of serious reflection.
The cardinals were concerned about “how the church going forward should interpret and apply the Word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture.”
The cardinals’ concern was informed by a certain reading of the experience of some churches outside the Catholic family.
What they said is this: “The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.”
By what criteria does one evaluate whether “liberal Protestant churches” have collapsed? What key elements of Christian belief can these churches be said to have abandoned? Is it true that some churches have used pastoral adaptation as the basis for changing their fundamental beliefs?
Whatever we make of the cardinals’ claims, it seems to me that the church needs to hear a stark warning in what they voice.
Yet, we should not fail to recognize the complexity of the process by which we can hear the voice of God as we seek to relate the teaching of Scripture to the vexed issues of contemporary life.
First, we should note that discerning the mind of Christ is not simply about a Christian taking the counsel that is given in the Bible and applying it directly to a particular issue of concern.
One reason for this is that, in this individualistic world, discernment of the voice of Christ is best done in community with other Christians.
God can speak to each of us in the privacy of our place of prayer, but we must test what we believe we are hearing against the wider sense of the believing community.
Of course, this is a principle that was firmly advocated by the earliest Baptists and it has been affirmed in several other Christian World Communions.
Relating the Scripture to contemporary issues requires corporate, and not simply private, activity. We should not simply rest on the conclusions that we each draw from our reading of Scripture.
Another reason why discerning God’s mind is a complex process is that we do not come to the process of applying biblical teaching to issues of the day with a “tabula rasa.”
Instead, we come to the issues with our minds flooded with all sorts of ideas.
Serious Christians who apply biblical insights in the process of decision making may wish to admit that among the things they bring to the process of decision-making are the values formed in them in their early development at home, school and church.
They also bring the traditions of biblical interpretation and the body of social teaching that they have learned in their church.
Yet, another reason why the interpretive task is a complex affair is that, in God’s freedom, believers may receive “more light and truth” issuing from God’s Word than they earlier experienced.
Of course, every text of Scripture needs to be read in its context. Furthermore, each text of Scripture needs to be read in the light of the whole of Scripture.
Moreover, because God has witnesses in every place and every culture, God may choose to speak to us through human culture and history as well.
Still, there are times when the values of culture are antithetical to what our faith teaches. In this complex situation, there is simply no easy way to speak with confidence and sincerity about the will of God.
Thankfully, about one thing Baptists have made consistent affirmation is this: Once the church has discerned the normative teaching of Scripture, whatever is inconsistent with this is an unacceptable foundation for Christian praxis.
Whether it was with this understanding that the cardinals raised their concern is uncertain.
They mentioned “the Word of God [and] her doctrines and disciplines” as sources for the norms enshrined in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
They would also concur with Baptists on the importance of reading Scripture in the light of the reality of Christ.
Even so, the extent of diversity that marks the social teaching of the churches today – even when they claim priority commitment to the Lord to whom Scripture bears faithful witness – is disconcerting.
Because God is Lord of history, we can be assured that, in all that is happening, “God is working [God’s] purpose out.”
Yet, a return to a situation of greater consensus would be so very welcome. Who would deny that relativism hurts the witness of the church?
Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana, in 2007. A version of this article first appeared on Callam’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow BWA on Twitter @TheBWA.