Confessing the Faith Yesterday and Today: Essays Reformed, Dissenting and Catholic
Alan Sell is a philosopher and philosophical theologian. He is also a doughty defender of the Reformed tradition, particularly that part of it which he refers to as congregational-separatist, and to the study of which he has made a major historical and ecclesiological contribution. This book will be particularly useful to Christians of other traditions seeking to understand the Reformed tradition and its principles in the context of the Ecumenical Movement. Several essays in it deal with other matters, related to general Christian apologetics and to issues of tolerance and religious toleration. The two concluding essays deal with eschatology and systematic theology. In the latter, Sell sets out the principles which have guided him in systematically expounding the revelation of God in Christ.
The most interesting essays in this book from the point of view of those engaged in ecumenical dialogue and relationships are in the second part of the book. The first, ‘Calvin’s Challenges to the Twenty first century Church’ deals with key issues relating to the links between Church and Gospel, Spirit and Word, Word and Sacrament. The second, ‘Rectifying Calvin’s Ecclesiology’ shows how the congregationlist-separatists took Calvin’s ecclesiology to a logical conclusion, finally stressing the total independence of the gathered church from any sort of state interference or authority, a step which Calvin, in the conditions of sixteenth century Geneva, had not taken.
In pursuit of this thesis, Sell stresses the importance of not separating ecclesiology from basic underlying theological principles. For him, due attention must be paid to the doctrines of election, regeneration, adoption, union with Christ and Covenant, if the stress on the nature and authority of the gathered church meeting under the headship of Christ is to be properly understood. One can readily agree with Sell’s position that one must understand the basic theological principles underlying ecclesiology but ecumenical debate is still needed because these basic principles are variously understood in other traditions. A church with strong Arminian principles, which exalts Christ as the ‘general Saviour of mankind’, to use Charles Wesley’s phrase, rather than as the Saviour only of an elect separated out of the rest of humankind, will understand the nature of the Church differently and will tend either to a connexional ecclesiology or one that stresses the importance of an episcopal succession as a key sign of a body that calls people into a body that is potentially coextensive with all humanity and which is certainly ‘sign instrument and foretaste of the Kingdom’, a phrase, incidentally, drawn from the Anglican-Reformed dialogue. Similarly, a strong stress on prevenient grace will also affect ecclesiology.
In 1995, in an article, entitled ‘We are Different’, the late Jean-Marie Tillard pointed to the difference in basic ecclesiology between those churches that stressed the links across both time and space of all the local churches and those that privileged the autonomy of the local church as covenant community. The manner of entry into the one new Covenant of Christ is understood differently in many other traditions and this remains a problem for ecumenical dialogue. At the heart of the debate is a dispute over whether the catholicity that is valued alike both by Reformed and by those with a connexional or episcopal-synodical ecclesiology requires simply mutual recognition or more formalised links of mutual accountability. These remain key issues.
In his essay, paying personal tribute to the gifts he has received from other traditions, Prof. Sell is both irenic and yet deeply critical of what he sees as certain exclusive concepts of catholicity, especially in the Roman Catholic Church. This Methodist reviewer would question his view of Charles Wesley, that the latter’s use of personal pronouns needs balancing with the objectivity of Watts. I would suggest that what makes Wesley generally superior to Watts and, indeed, almost everyone else, save possibly the Byzantine St Simeon the New Theologian, is the sheer brilliance of the way in which he combines the lyricism of praise with the objective truth of the faith as received across the ages. Professor Sell should examine the hymns on the Incarnation, particularly ‘Glory be to God on high’ or ‘Let earth and heaven combine.’ He just might concede my point.
Notwithstanding that particular quibble, this is a good and stimulating book. Professor Sell is never dull.
Sell, Alan. Confessing the Faith Yesterday and Today: Essays Reformed, Dissenting and Catholic. James Clarke and Co, 2013. Retail Price: £24