Rowan Williams & N. T. Wright & Sharia Law

Some of you may have missed it but recently the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams suggested that Britain might need to consider adopting portions of Islamic law (Sharia) to govern in Britain, particularly in the context of Islamic communities within Britain. Now, Williams went out of his way to say that the bad parts of Islamic law shouldn’t be allowed, insisting that only the more benign parts be considered as potentially valuable contributions. It seems what Williams was contending for was the idea of a pluralistic society embracing supplementary jurisdictions, while still being, in some fuzzy unexplainable way, responsible to a overarching universal law. This would be, in Williams words,

a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that ‘power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents’

When someone introduces the notion of individuals retaining the liberty to choose the jurisdiction they will be adjudicated under one gets a vision of market place legal arrangements where individuals can shop for the best overall deal.

The Arch-Bishop ended his lecture by saying,

…if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it (supplementary jurisdictions) seems unavoidable.

Now here we have some observations and questions.

1.) Who or what determines the common good? An Islamic answer to what is the common good is going to be different than a Christian answer to what the common good is. A culture of feminism is going to define the common good differently then a culture of Muslims. Whose law or what law or which law will be used in order to decide that question?

The Arch-Bishop assumes a common understanding of a common good. That misplaced assumption is the sand in the gears of his thinking on this subject.

2.) The Arch-Bishop seems to be awakening to the difficulties of any culture being anything but homogeneous. The genesis of the Arch-bishops difficulty is that heterogeneous people are sitting up shop in the same geographic location and that is creating the kind of problems one would expect to find when people of vastly different worldviews become neighbors. His answer is to set up competing but complimentary law systems, which I would think in time would have to give way to competing religious systems, competing familial systems, etc. The Arch-Bishop seems to recognize the problems of the ‘secular’ State providing the totalistic structure under which diverse people are governed. The Arch-Bishop’s answer seems to be to try and find ways to set up competing law systems, but I have to wonder if competing law systems would lead to an amelioration within individuals of conflicted loyalties between culture and state but rather would lead to an intensification of competing loyalties between culture and state due to the inevitable balkanization that would of necessity occur.

3.) Williams seems to understand that if non-enculturated people have to choose between the culture they belong to or what they perceive to be the alien State that is ruling over them the culture will win every time. His suggestion to solve this is to make the State more alien culture friendly by introducing supplementary jurisdiction. One can’t help but wonder though if this becomes a story of the puppy who was allowed to sleep only on the corner of the bed, who, once he got older, ended up covering so much of the bed that the owner was the one sleeping on the corner. Having acquired a taste of ‘supplementary jurisdiction’ why won’t non-enculturated people keep demanding more and more and if they do how do the host people say ‘no’?

What Williams is realizing is that law is religious and that culture is totalistic and when alien cultures are introduced to homogeneous cultures what transpires is either conflict or change, and if change is what transpires then change has to come in the direction of the host culture or in the direction of the alien culture. Williams is, in effect, saying that the host culture must change in the direction of the alien culture.

Apparently many Englishmen, at some level understand that is what Williams is saying and have, understandably, raised a huge stink about what the Arch-Bishop has said.

Coming to the Arch-Bishops defense is another Anglican Bishop, N. T. Wright.

Wright offered the following in his defense,

Second, the fundamental issue Williams was addressing is the relation between the law of the land and the religious conscience of the citizen. For 200 years it has been assumed that these operated in separate spheres: the law regulates my public life, faith or religion operate in private. This was always a dangerous half-truth, since many of the great world faiths, including Christianity itself, actually claim that all of life is included within religious obedience. As some of us used to be taught, if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. In recent years various governments, including our own, have pushed the other way, to suggest that the secular state is itself master of all of life, including religious conviction….Rowan was going to the roots of these problems and coming up not only with fresh analysis but fresh solutions, particularly what he calls ‘interactive pluralism’. The question of how we live together as a civil and wise society while cherishing different faiths is a deep and serious one and can’t be pushed away just because people take fright at certain misunderstandings. His point was precisely that neither the secular state nor any particular religion can ‘monopolise’.

First the great problem here (a problem that also exists in Williams Lecture) is the assumption that the State can be Secular. What Wright calls the secular State is not secular but rather is derivative of some kind of religious conviction. The problem is not one of the Secular state trying to be master of all of life, including the private sphere vs. alien religions trying to be master of all of life including the public square. The problem is that it is a contest between two different competing religions. The Secular State provides its own religion and that religion impinges upon the private realm of citizens causing conflict with citizens who don’t practice the civil religion of the State. On the other hand competing religions, being totalistic in their reach, will challenge the current State because it is not derivative of the alien cultures religions to which the adherents subscribe.

Second Wright’s problem is that he is still trying to carve out some kind of neutral realm where no religion or where all religions prevail. But even if he finds a arrangement where ‘neither the secular state nor any particular religion can ‘monopolise,’ he will have created the monopoly that requires that nobody can have a monopoly. Even if such an idee fixe could be created the requirements that it would take to maintain that idee fixe would constitute a monopoly that any other religion would not be allowed to go beyond. In short, totalistic arrangements or cultural monopolies are unavoidable and inevitable. The problem that Wright and Williams are rubbing up against is their reluctance to recognize that somebody’s religion must be in the ascendancy. The answer that they are offering to avoid this is to find a compromise religion (the ‘no monopoly religion’) that all can sincerely subscribe to while they pretend to give allegiance to their part time gods. Wright was correct when he said that ‘Jesus is Lord of all or He is not Lord at all,’ and to try and discover some system where Jesus wouldn’t be Lord of all, reveals that Wright has some problems in his Theology.

Third, Wright assumes that it is societally proper to cherish different faiths. That assumption is a religious one (the religion of multi-culturalism) and it may not be one that people of other religions cherish. Muslim societies don’t cherish other faiths and depending upon what Wright means by ‘cherish’ I’m not sure a genuinely Christian society should cherish other faiths either.

Look, when one gets right down to brass tacks some faith system is going to produce some law system. That law system will either reflect Muslim Sharia or it will reflect Christian Law categories, or as is most predominant in the West today, it will reflect humanistic law categories. The Islamic presence in the bowels of the West are presenting problems for the West precisely because they, unlike many Christians, have retained genuine allegiance to their God.

It sounds like the answer of Bishops like Williams and Wright is to yield to the demands of aliens in their midst. I don’t suppose that the option of turning away from both the law monopoly of Islam and the law monopoly of the pagan State and turning towards the Lordship of Christ in the area of law occurred to either one of them.

Suggested Replacement For FOS


We, the undersigned office bearers of the CRCNA heartily accept the authority of the Word of God as received in the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which reveal the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, namely the reconciliation of all things in him.

We accept the historic confessions: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, as well as Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony, as faithful expressions of the church’s understanding of the gospel for its time and place, which define our tradition and continue to guide us today.

Personally, I’m not wild about accepting the ‘Our World Belongs to God’ as a fourth form of unity. It strikes me that before that should happen there should be some advance notification to the Churches that that is being considered because there are some people who, understanding the three forms of unity, don’t pay any attention to this ‘expression,’ and thus would need time to get up to speed on what it actually says.

We promise with thankfulness for these expressions of faith to be shaped by them in our various callings: preaching, teaching, writing, and serving. We further promise to continually review them in the light of our understanding of the Scriptures.

I hope that all realize that in this series of posts I honestly believe that I have been shaped by the Confessions in my writing of these posts.

I wonder if Guido de Bres would have characterized the Belgic Confession of faith as a ‘expression of faith’ or if he would have characterized it as a faithful summation of the Gospel?

Now previously I had to defend, and diligently teach the Confessions. I also had to reject and refute all errors. Now, I just have to be shaped by the Confessions. Is this not a downgrade?

Should we at any time become convinced that our understanding of the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures has become irreconcilable to the witness of the church as expressed in the above documents, we will communicate our views to the church according to the prescribed procedures and promise to submit to its judgment.

Doesn’t this have a silencing effect?

We do this so that the church will remain faithful to, grow in understanding of, and be diligent in living out this witness in all of life to the glory of God.

My difficulty with this whole process overall is that it strikes me as an attempt to solve one problem with another problem. The problem that exists currently is that people don’t take the FOS seriously. The answer that has been stumbled upon is to get rid of the FOS so that people won’t have to worry about not taking it seriously. I suppose that is one way to deal with the problem.

Another difficulty I have is the nagging suspicion that this is being done in order to build bigger tents. The Three forms of unity (TFU) and the FOS don’t allow us the kind of flexibility to be all things to all people. The TFU and the FOS don’t allow ministers to do both baby dedications and infant baptisms, and how can we build bigger tents unless we do both? The TFU and FOS are very precise about the character of God in such a way that modern sensibilities are offended, and how can we build a big tent if we offend those sensibilities. The TFU and FOS don’t allow post-modern categories because they speak as if absolute truth can be absolutely known regardless of people’s time, place, or culture, and everyone knows that you can’t build bigger tents with that kind of certainty. Mist is in. Clarity is out.

I don’t think the committee’s argumentation is well reasoned and therefore I oppose this change.

Form Of Subscription Debate (Part II)

The Form of Subscription Revision Committee Report


The history of the functioning of the Form of Subscription (FOS) in the Christian Reformed Church is a story about our denomination’s determination to be and remain a confessional church. This is highlighted in the narrative of the history of the FOS as given in Report 38 of the Acts of Synod 1976, which concludes with this sentence: It may be said that the adoption and use of the traditional FOS has been an integral part of the CRC’s history as an orthodox, conservative, confessional church (Acts of Synod 1976, p. 561).

Here we start with the recognition that the FOS is intrinsically tied up with being a confessional Church. Would such a observation lead one to determine that it is entirely possible that since this is true that it is somewhat likely that should someone mess with the FOS they would at the same time be found tinkering with the Confessional nature of the CRC?

We believe two assumptions underlie this determination. The first is that a confessional church’s identity and mission always arise out of a specific heritage of understanding (“standing under”) the Scripture. In the case of the CRC, this heritage is the interpretation of Scripture as given in the historic creeds of the early church: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed as well as the confessions of the church of the Reformation: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt, sometimes referred to as the three forms of unity. These creeds and confessions were acknowledged to be so constitutive of our identity and so critical to our mission in the world that continuity with them must be preserved. In other words, the church believed it must remain orthodox in order to be the church.

It is certainly true that that ‘a confessional church’s identity and mission always arise out of a specific heritage of understanding the Scripture.’ But it is even more true to say that a confessional church’s identity and mission always arise out of a specific heritage of God’s revelation as given in Scripture. You see the emphasis of the committee falls on human understanding gained in a particular historical situatedness while the emphasis of my statement emphasizes God’s ability to communicate His truth and build His Church trans-historically and trans-culturally. Second, we must keep in mind that it is because of how people understand or don’t understand God’s Word that accounts for their ‘specific heritage of understanding the Scripture’ not their specific heritage of understanding that accounts for how they do or do not understand God’s Word.

The second assumption is that the CRC viewed its orthodox identity to be so tenuous and its mission in the world so fraught with danger that a regulating instrument needed to be employed to keep us orthodox. The FOS, adopted essentially unchanged from its initial draft at the 1619 Synod of Dordt, was taken to be this regulating instrument. This assumption is evident in the statement made by Synod 1976 in its response to the overture of Dr. Harry Boer that, ‘the FOS is not intended primarily as the instrument by which the church examines its confessions in the light of Scripture and provides for the orderly revisions of the confessions. It is rather the instrument for safeguarding the administration of the Word and the government of the church in harmony with the confession’ (Acts of Synod 1976, p. 577).

Reformed Churches for 500 years have adopted subscriptionist procedures. I am not sure that such an arrangement proves that they believed that their identity to be tenuous or their mission in the world was fraught with danger. It may only prove that they wanted a procedure in place that would provide a means to make sure everybody in the choir would sing from the same sheet of music.

Our committee believes that from 1976 on, the history of the FOS indicates that the first assumption remains true (that a church’s identity and mission arise out of a specific heritage) while the second (that a regulatory instrument is needed to keep us orthodox) is increasingly being called into question. Increased cultural and ethnic diversity, the increase in new church plants, and the cultural moment often described as postmodernism are among the factors raising these questions.

Well, I agree that no promissory note, by itself, can keep a denomination orthodox unless there exists a will by those in the denomination to bring consequences upon those who violate the vows.

Second, if a specific heritage is challenged enough by the new cultural moment does the church’s definition of ‘orthodoxy’ change with the advent of a new heritage growing out of the new cultural moment? And if the answer to that question is ‘yes’ would such a change mean a moving away from the old specific heritage that required a precise form of subscription to a new ‘covenant of ordination’ that better reflected the new heritage?

It seems clear to our committee that, historically, the FOS has functioned negatively to effectively shut down discussion on various confessional issues rather than positively to encourage the ongoing development of the confessions in the life of the church. In other words, the FOS has been used to define a standard of purity in the church more than being a witness to unity. The variety of issues with signing the Form of Subscription as well as attempts to change it indicate that office bearers today desire to be more guided and less silenced by the confessional documents.

OK… here is where it gets really dicey.

First the current FOS, in the fourth paragraph, does allow for conversation. Indeed, upon my reading the current FOS encourages conversation. It even reminds those who want to talk about possibly disputed points in the three forms of unity of their appeal process should they believe that they have been unduly silenced in lower church courts.

Second I believe the whole notion of standard of purity vs. witness of unity is a false dichotomy. It is precisely because it is a standard of purity that it can be a witness of unity. Can two or three walk together (unity) except they be agreed (purity)?

Third, one wonders what ‘the ongoing development of the confessions in the life of the church,’ means. In a post-modern context that could mean that we are going to discover that the confessions are going to develop so that they don’t mean what we always thought they meant. I guess living in times where deconstruction has become a byword in our Universities I get a little nervous when I read about the ‘ongoing development of the confessions …’

Fourth the last sentence in the immediate above quote is a logical fallacy that is called a hasty generalization. One could as easily say that the refusal to change the FOS to date reveals that office bearers are satisfied with the current FOS.

Fifth if it is the case that office bearers today desire to be more guided and less silenced by the confessions does that mean that the ability to be more guided and less silenced by the confessions results in office bearers who will be more vocal in thinking themselves free to disagree with where the confessions are trying to guide them? And if they do disagree with the guidance does that mean anything or is that just an example of Confessional development?

Many people in the church continued to wrestle with this issue. In 2003 as a part of a dissertation for his master of theology degree at Calvin Theological Seminary, Rev. Ken Nydam sent out a survey to seventy new church development (NCD) church pastors and fifty established church development (ECD) church pastors within the CRC, seventy of which were returned. (An Historical and Theological Assessment of the Problems with the Form of Subscription in New Church Development in the Christian Reformed Church of North America [Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 2003]). Nydam concluded that while all churches want to retain some kind of doctrinal covenant for the CRC many churches also wonder, if a document that was originally conceived in a historical context of intra-church skirmishes that had political ramifications can be applied to our contemporary mission environment� (Nydam 2003, 13).

The only thing here to say is that this is an open question that needs concrete examples. Why can’t the FOS be applied to our contemporary mission environment? What is it, (chapter and verse please) about the FOS that makes it difficult to apply to our contemporary mission environment? From the document itself what is the sticking point?

IV.) Rationale for the proposed Form of Subscription rewrite

We confess that Scripture is the Word of God. It is utterly trustworthy and reliable in all issues pertaining to faith and life. However, our understanding of it is always limited and in need of refinement. In the words of missiologist Leslie Newbigin,

The responsibility of the church is to declare to each generation what is the faith. This is always a fresh task in every generation. No verbal statement can be produced which relieves the Church of the responsibility continually to re-think and re-state its message. No appeal to creeds and confessions can alter the fact that the Church has to state in every new generation how it interprets the historic faith and how it relates to the new thought and experience of its time. It belongs to the essence of a living Church that it should be able and willing to do so.

(The Reunion of the Church: A Defense of the South India Scheme,
�London: SCM, 1948, 137-38)

No one could disagree with this as long as what is being re-thought and re-stated has continuity with both Scripture and what has been thought and stated before. I mean, Arminius would have insisted that he was just re-thinking and re-stating Scripture’s message. Obviously then not all re-thinkings and re-statings are equal. What standard shall we use to measure our re-thinkings and re-statings if not Scripture and the Confessions as they faithfully communicate Scripture?

The four-hundred year old FOS has traditionally been viewed as being the hallmark of a confessional church. However, the many years of conflicted discussion about the FOS in the CRC reveal the need for a doctrinal covenant more in harmony with current realities. We cannot afford to be more concerned about historical integrity than current expression. Ironically, it has been under the current FOS’s stern watch that a significant and increasing neglect of the confessions has occurred.

First, the many years of conflicted discussion may not reveal the need for the kind of change proposed by the committee. The many years of conflicted discussion could reveal instead that people don’t want to be Reformed, or the many years of conflicted discussion could reveal instead that nobody wants to enforce the FOS.

Second is the committee saying that the four hundred year old tradition of a FOS isn’t or shouldn’t be a hallmark of a confessional Church? Has the committee decided that it is possible for a Church to remain confessional without a FOS? Does the committee have any examples where Churches have remained confessional who dispensed with the strong commitment that comes with signing a FOS?

Third, does the idea about being more concerned with current expression over against historical integrity not communicate some kind of generational arrogance? Reformed people have always been a people who have managed to be relevant (current expression) precisely because they understand how the past is prologue.

Fourth, the last sentence in the quote above is another logical fallacy. This time it is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. All because a neglect of the Confessions has occurred doesn’t in any way prove that it is the fault of the FOS. There could be a host of reasons why neglect has arisen that doesn’t have one whit to do with the FOS.

Fifth, notice also the biased language. The FOS has been on a stern watch. Who wants something looking over their shoulders that is stern?

Our committee believes that a helpful way to view the confessions is to regard them as true snapshots in time of the church’s self-understanding as it wrestled with Scripture in the light of contemporary issues. Understood in this way, the confessions offer deeply grounded guidance to the contemporary church by linking us to the past and reminding us to pay attention to what has been deemed vital in the past. However, there must be ongoing reflection and development as the church constantly seeks to explain what faithfulness to the gospel looks like in its time and place. Synod itself recognized this when it called for an update of Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony because it serves as a dynamic statement of faith [that] must be periodically reviewed and perhaps revised if it is to speak contemporaneously. (Acts of Synod 2005, p. 734).

I believe that a helpful way to view this committees work is to regard it as a true snapshot in time of the committees self-understanding as it wrestled with the FOS in the light of contemporary issues. Other committees might be formed that would give us other snapshots. Therefore we shouldn’t take the committee’s recommendations to seriously because, after all, they are only snapshots.

Once again I find nothing in the FOS that prohibits ongoing reflection and even development. If somebody wants to develop the three forms of unity then all they have to do is come to Classis and explain their superior development and if they are clearly correct then the Confessions will develop.

Next, concretely speaking what does ‘deeply grounded guidance’ mean, and what happens if a office bearer rejects the ‘deeply grounded guidance’ they find in the confessions?

Form Of Subscription Debate

“The first task of any fascist reformation is to discredit the authority of the past, and this was the top priority of the New Left….Received wisdom, dogma, and ‘ritualistic language,’ Tom Hayden wrote in his 1961 ‘Letter to the New (Young)Left,’ would be swept aside by a revolutionary spirit that ‘finds no rest in conclusions (and in which)answers are seen as provisional, to be discarded in the face of new evidence or changed conditions.

J. Goldberg
Liberal Fascism — pg. 172

In the Christian Reformed Church there is currently discussion swirling on the 2005 proposal to substantially alter (some would contend functionally eliminate) the Form of Subscription. For those who are unaware of what the Form of Subscription is, you should know that it is a document that office bearers in the CRC sign, communicating their intent to be loyal to and to defend the three forms of unity. The intent of the Form of subscription is to preserve doctrinal unity in the denomination. In 2005 an adventurous committee was assigned to give the form of subscription language a update, but instead what transpired was a proposal to reinvent the wheel. The committee was assigned a wax and polish job and returned instead with a completely different vehicle.

The reason that I provide that Goldberg quote in connection with this is that when one reads the draft proposal on the table in has a good bit of the kind of smell in it that reflects what Goldberg is getting at in the quote. I do see in the committees work a (perhaps unintentional) discrediting of the authority of the past.

For example the committee can write,

Our committee believes that from 1976 on, the history of the FOS indicates that the first assumption remains true (that a church’s identity and mission arise out of a specific heritage) while the second (that a regulatory instrument is needed to keep us orthodox) is increasingly being called into question. Increased cultural and ethnic diversity, the increase in new church plants, and the cultural moment often described as postmodernism are among the factors raising these questions.

Notice that ‘changed conditions’ are convincing the committee that the Form of subscription and the authority of the past it represents must be severely altered. One wonders if this is the first time since 1619 that our conditions have so changed that it requires largely gutting what amounts to a simple promissory note to be faithful to the Gospel as expressed in the three forms of unity. What has changed so much in our conditions that promising to be faithful to the Gospel is now some kind of barrier? Further, what is the present Form of Subscription a barrier to? I wonder how it is that the requirement for office bearers to sign the present Form of Subscription gets in the way of ministering the Gospel?

Well, having re-read the committee report I have decided to tackle this issue in a different, and more thorough fashion. Stay tuned for a return to this subject.

Also, quickly, please note I am not trying to accuse anybody of being self-consciously fascist. I am just noting the similarities of approaches between what Goldberg sees in the political realm and what I am seeing in a theological realm. Perhaps those similarities will become more clear as I continue to deal with this.

Politics Make Strange Bedmates

“On January 28, 1961, Elijah Muhammad sent Malcolm X to Atlanta to negotiate an agreement with the Klu Klux Klan whereby the Klan would support a separate Black state.”

J. Goldberg
Liberal Fascism — pg. 196

The premise here is that both the Klan and the Nation of Islam were Fascist Nationalist movements who could reach accord on eliminating the presence of each by pursuing ethnic / cultural segregation in agreeing to give each a purified homeland.

Since we see that fascism is colorblind, is it also possible to have a kind of fascism that is reverse of what we see above? In other words would it be possible for a people to desire a homeland that was purified of any distinct ethnicity / culture, choosing instead to build a kind of mongrel nationalism where the kind of ethnic identity required would be no or all ethnic / cultural identity (we might even call it multiculturalism) and where the presence of any unique ethnic / cultural identity except mongrel ethnic / cultural identity would be considered unpatriotic?

Would that be possible?