Friday 21 November 1997

United Church moderator a heretic, professor says

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

The moderator of the United Church of Canada is a heretic, says a professor of modern Christian history.

A heretic is defined as someone who chooses a doctrinal path other than that of the church to which he belongs, says John Stackhouse, of the University of Manitoba.

By that standard, Rev. Bill Phipps "is a heretic according to the United Church of Canada's own standard of doctrine. He's also a heretic in generic Christian terms, because he denies the creeds that all Christians have subscribed to, whether they're Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox."

In interviews with the Citizen and other media organizations, Mr. Phipps denied the divinity of Christ, denied the reality of the resurrection as a historic fact and said he was unclear about the existence of heaven and hell, Mr. Stackhouse said.

"The historic church says there are such realities, which are crucially important to human life," said Mr. Stackhouse, a former president of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association.

He said Mr. Phipps's statements obviously differ from the United Church's own doctrinal statement. These articles of faith say, for example, Jesus "rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, where He ever intercedes for us," and that "We believe that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust, through the power of the Son of God, who shall come to judge the living and the dead; that the finally impenitent shall go away to eternal punishment and the righteous into life eternal."

This weekend, the national executive of the United Church will discuss the controversy over Mr. Phipps's remarks and the calls for his resignation that have come from several congregations, as well as individual members, and conservative groups within the church.

Mr. Phipps also has many defenders within the church, among them Bob Bater, a United Church minister, and former principal of Queens Theological College in Kingston.

"Bill Phipps is not a heretic, " Mr. Bater said. "The current flipflap that he (Mr. Phipps) can't say Jesus is God betrays a terrible misunderstanding."

No church, except possibly the Eastern Orthodox church, has ever been willing to say simply that Jesus was God, he said. What they said, instead, was that God was fully divine and fully human.

Mr. Bater said a careful study of New Testament accounts of the resurrection shows "it's absolutely clear that each of the Gospel writers has a different conception of what happened on Easter morning."

He said all the Gospel writers agree Jesus's tomb was empty the morning after his burial, and that Jesus appeared to the disciples. But he said the appearances could have been more in the nature of a spiritual experience than an actual physical happening.

"My personal opinion is that I don't believe (the post-resurrection) Jesus would ever have appeared on a camera film," Mr. Bater said.

Rev. Michael Steinhauser, a Catholic priest and professor of New Testament studies at the Toronto School of Theology, said few scripture scholars today accept the New Testament resurrection stories as literal accounts of what happened after Jesus's death.

Like Mr. Bater, Father Steinhauser is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a California-based group of biblical scholars that has attempted to decide whether the acts and sayings of Jesus reported in the New Testament actually took place, or whether some accounts were perhaps added in by later generations of writers attempting to make sense of Jesus's impact.

"In modern scholarship, there is a confusion between who the historic Jesus was, and how he acted, and what the later church defines him as," Father Steinhauser said.

"People are asking 'Was the historical Jesus divine?', and the only way we can answer that is to look at the early texts."

Father Steinhauser, co-author of The Man With the Scarlet Robe, Two Thousand Years of Searching for Jesus, said that although Jesus himself never clearly said he was divine, the earliest New Testament texts suggest that early Christians thought he was.

He said "it takes a sophisticated theological mind" to sort out the complexities that lay behind Christian descriptions of Jesus as "Son of Man" or "Son of God."

Mr. Phipps has only raised the kind of questions that are routine in seminaries, but rarely discussed in most churches, said Father Steinhauser. Bringing up such questions often divides believers, but the "only alternative is to tell them nothing," he said.

Peter Wyatt is in charge of helping United Church members make sense of some of these questions about Jesus.

As the United Church's general secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism, he is the main author of a study guide, Reconciling and Making New: Who is Jesus for the World Today?, which is now being discussed by congregations across the country.

He says one aim of the discussions is to help church members work out their own personal understanding of who Jesus is.

"We are a church in which every believer is called to own his or her own confession of faith, and our intent is to bring people some at least of the ferment of faith that is present in the academy (scholarly circles) and in bar-room discussions."

Mr. Wyatt said "My own confession of faith is different" than that of Mr. Phipps, but the United Church has always been a church of diverse beliefs. The church was born in 1925 in a union of Congregationalists, with Presbyterians who believed in predestination and Methodists who believed in free will.

That diversity of belief has been both a strength and a weakness ever since, Mr. Wyatt said.


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen