Friday, December 18, 2009

My take on the Manhattan Declaration

Last Sunday, the Poiema ACG was cut short on time and had to zoom through a discussion of the recently published Manhattan Declaration (Nov 20th, 2009). I do hope everyone will read the document - it's important. The Declaration's purpose is summed up in the preamble:
We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:
  1. the sanctity of human life
  2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.
There is much I like about it, and a few things I don't. First, here's some positives from the document:

1. I like that they place the efforts of the Christians today in a historical context - "Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering". That truth often gets lost.

2. The above assertion that is balanced by the acknowledgment, be it ever so brief, that there have been "imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages". Some might want a more explicit explanation of what these shortcomings were or an apology for them, but that doesn't seem to have been the point of the Declaration.

3. I appreciated that the drafters made it clear that they were not signing on behalf of any institution in an official way: "We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities." I think when church leaders speak out on social/cultural problems they need to make this clear (a post coming later this week I hope).

4. I like that the drafters appeal to natural law and not just special revelation: "We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person." When in dialogue with nonbelievers I think this is the right approach (not to the exclusion of special revelation, but alongside it). Here's one example, "Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits—the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves. Unfortunately, we have witnessed over the course of the past several decades a serious erosion of the marriage culture in our own country."

5. I like that they acknowledge other concerns to which the church should pay attention, but also stay focused on three that are particular concern (expanding it too much would have made it so broad it would have been meaningless): "While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions." I agree that these three issues are of greater concern than say the spread of AIDS. Maybe it would be better to say 'concern of a different, more fundamental nature' than the spread of AIDS'. However, I wish the framers had explained why they consider these more worthy of address than others. They offer, "Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense", but don't spell out why these three are 'foundational'.

6. I like that the document is nonpartisan in nature: "Our commitment to the sanctity of life is not a matter of partisan loyalty, for we recognize that in the thirty-six years since Roe v. Wade, elected officials and appointees of both major political parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to what Pope John Paul II described as “the culture of death.” We call on all officials in our country, elected and appointed, to protect and serve every member of our society, including the most marginalized, voiceless, and vulnerable among us." As someone who has voted for the Republican (Presidential) candidate in every election I could vote, I acknowledge that I have been used by the right. I hate it, and don't see an end to it in sight. They do 'call out' the current President, and I think they sum up the contradictory position of the current President well: "The President says that he wants to reduce the “need” for abortion—a commendable goal. But he has also pledged to make abortion more easily and widely available by eliminating laws prohibiting government funding, requiring waiting periods for women seeking abortions, and parental notification for abortions performed on minors. The elimination of these important and effective pro-life laws cannot reasonably be expected to do other than significantly increase the number of elective abortions by which the lives of countless children are snuffed out prior to birth."

7. I like that the framers aren't merely focused on abortion, but other ways in which the sanctity of life has been eroded. The framers write, "the cheapening of life that began with abortion has now metastasized" and they show proper concern for the various ways that this cancer is showing itself.

8. I like the commitment to action beyond political action: "We will be united and untiring in our efforts to roll back the license to kill that began with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion. We will work, as we have always worked, to bring assistance, comfort, and care to pregnant women in need and to those who have been victimized by abortion, even as we stand resolutely against the corrupt and degrading notion that it can somehow be in the best interests of women to submit to the deliberate killing of their unborn children. Our message is, and ever shall be, that the just, humane, and truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike."

9. I think there is a proper confidence (to steal a phrase from Newbigin). A proper confidence doesn't say we've got it all right, we know what we're doing, just look at us and do what we do. Instead, it confesses we mess up, but we're willing to own that and still declare what is true and right. So, amid the assertions regarding what we see naturally about marriage and the sanctity of life and assertions regarding what Scripture teaches, we read confessions like this: "We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same."

10. I like the compassion that accompanies the sternness. "We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter. We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God’s patience, love and forgiveness. We call on the entire Christian community to resist sexual immorality, and at the same time refrain from disdainful condemnation of those who yield to it. Our rejection of sin, though resolute, must never become the rejection of sinners."

11. Lastly, I like the resoluteness in the document. There is no waivering, and that is to be commended: "Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s."

As I said, there's a lot to like. However, I wouldn't sign it (and am under no illusions that anyone cares). Here's why, and it boils down to one thing - the gospel. Two aspects of how the drafters use 'the gospel' in this document concern me. First, the framers assume that the gospel is something on which Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical (even historic Protestant) Christians agree. It simply is not. The document asserts, "Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace...," and, "It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season."

Since the Reformation, the Protestant church has declared that the gospel consists in the justification of sinners by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide). This understanding of the gospel is officially anathema in the Roman Catholic church. We can have debates on what the nature of the gospel is, but we can't assume or declare we agree when in fact we do not (The Catholic Church hasn't moved towards the sola's of the Reformation. Has the Protestant church moved away from them?). Second, there seems to be a profound confusion of gospel and law in this. Proclaiming that we should honor life, that we should honor marriage, that we should guard freedom of conscience in religious matters are statements of law, not gospel (see my post on Gospel and the Kingdom).

This might seem like a trivial matter or just poor wording on the part of the framers. Unfortunately, it's neither. It's not trivial - without the gospel there is not church, no hope, no salvation. And the wording doesn't seem to be an oversight. Consider Colson's words (one of the chief architects, "I believe the Manhattan Declaration can help revitalize the church in America. One great weakness of the Church today is its biblical and doctrinal ignorance. This document is, in fact, a form of catechism for the foundational truths of the faith." Michael Horton offers his thoughts, "Having participated in conversations with Mr. Colson over this issue, I can assure readers that this is not an oversight. He shares with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI the conviction that defending the unborn is a form of proclaiming the gospel. Although these impressive figures point to general revelation, natural law, and creation in order to justify the inherent dignity of life, marriage, and liberty, they insist on making this interchangeable with the gospel."

There is a lot of debate on this. The document was signed by some men I greatly respect (and will continue to do so despite what I consider to be an error in judgment on this). For example, Church Colson, Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Bryan Chapell, William Edger, Timothy George, Wayne Grudem, Erwin Lutzer, Richard Mouw, Tom Oden, JI Packer, Cornelius Plantinga, Joseph Stowell, John Woodbridge, and Ravi Zacharias all signed it. You can read Al Mohler's explanation of why he signed it, and Ligon Duncan's explanation of how he considers the document to be a matter of judgment, not principle, and Kevin DeYoung's explanation of why he signed it. Other men I respect refused to sign it. You can read Horton, MacArthur, Sproul. There, three reps from each side (also worth reading is Mark Dever's take)!

In the end, I agree with Duncan that it is a matter of judgment. Much will hinge on how you interpret the documents language, particularly the use of the word 'gospel'. I won't sign it because for the reasons stated above, but understand that others who do sign it aren't reading as much into those references as I am.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I think the biggest problem I have with the Manhattan Declaration (and there are many) is what I see as the disingenuous posturing of its authors and signers. The rhetoric of the declaration is so heavily scare-mongering and shot through with implications of Christian victimhood and persecution that it boggles the mind. Are we seriously supposed to believe that Christians are some sort of repressed minority in this country? Seriously?

This is why (sorry to be so long-winded!) the authors' and signers' supposed non-partisanship is just more posturing. They say that "both major political parties have been complicit . . . in the cultural of death," but these people are themselves one half of this equation! Mohler blathers on and on about how he's not going to "bend the knee to Caesar," but this is precisely what he and his religious right cronies have been doing for 30 years (constantly disguised, of course, in precisely this language of brave opposition perfected through years of refining their highly developed persecution complex).