A message for Synod
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
(1 John 1:1-4, NIV)
Two weeks today, the General Synod of the Church of England (a kind of parliament for our denomination) is due to meet in York. Hidden beneath the surface of discussions on matters facing the church will be a most profound question: who has the right to interpret Christianity? Who determines the content of Christian teaching?
The answer many will give is “our generation”. Equipped as we are with a much better understanding of the world than previous ones, we must be free to reinterpret Christianity for the world we now live in. Thus the Bible’s teaching on the nature of the gospel, or sex and marriage, or the uniqueness of Christ, needs to be reinterpreted for a progressive world. In fact, it needs to be changed.
It turns out that the Apostle John, as he begins the letter that bears his name, was dealing with this question nearly twenty centuries ago. Even in his day, teachers were coming to the churches with their own versions of Christianity. Even then, the question was: who has the right to interpret Christianity?
John’s answer is “the Apostles”. That is who he means by “we” in the passage above. And why? For one very good reason. “We were there”.
Look how strongly he emphasises the Apostles’ experience of being eye-witnesses. We saw, we heard, we touched. He could not make this clearer - and it is of course one of the reasons why we trust the New Testament documents in their account of Jesus.
His aim, however, is not so much to persuade us of the truth of Christianity as to remind us who has the right to explain and interpret Christianity - the Apostles. They saw him, heard him, spent time with him, picked his brains. They, uniquely, knew the mind of Christ. They were there! (In the book of Acts, Luke is at pains to show how Paul, though later on the scene, is also directly connected to Jesus.)
It was C S Lewis who coined the phrase “chronological snobbery” to express how our generation tends to look down on those before it. We are sure we know better! But Christianity centres on the once-for-all historical events of the incarnation, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. But in reality we need to look up to the apostles, not down on them. In any other area of life, wouldn’t we go to the eye-witnesses for the best account of a person’s life and teaching?
John goes on to apply this. He gets his readers to remember the message brought to them by the Apostles, and says, See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. (1 John 2:24, NIV). That is his message to Synod.
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