Monday, June 11, 2012

KEEPER: "Three Streams, One River"

Matthew Brench has given us an excellent image of three strains of Christian spirituality in this essay.


In his last three sermons as Rector of Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, Fr. Jürgen Liias delivered his vision for the renewal of the Church, both locally and globally, in the form of the now-popular “three streams, one river” paradigm.  I have already written a brief summary of his sermons at the All Saints Writers Block, and audio recordings of the sermons can be found at Christ the Redeemer’s Pulpit Blog.  Since there are also a number of other online summaries of the “three streams, one river” concept, I have endeavored to provide some more focused examinations, looking at 1) the particular characteristics of each of the three streams, 2) the scriptural emphases that each stream takes on, 3) how each stream interacts with one another in reality, and 3) what exactly this sought-after “one river” really might look like.

Characteristics of the Three Streams

The very first issue that confronts us as we examine these three streams are their very names.  “Evangelical,” “charismatic,” and “catholic” are words that each carry a lot of baggage – both positive and negative.  The stream entitled the evangelical stream is more akin to classical evangelicalism than the current face of American Evangelicalism, because as it stands today, it’s got a pretty strong impression from the charismatic stream, particularly in the area of the value of the individual and the emphasis on spiritual gifts.  The catholic stream, likewise, is a tricky name because many people only ever use the word ‘catholic’ to refer to Roman Catholicism, and thus there’s a temptation to think that the Roman Catholic Church is the “most” catholic of all churches.  It’s certainly a strong example, but the East Orthodox is just as catholic in this sense, and many Anglicans as well as some Lutherans would argue that they’re just as validly catholic too.

One way to avoid these associations might be to pursue a different naming convention for the three streams, or to focus upon their key characteristics before dwelling on what to call them.  Let’s consider six simple categories by which to contrast the three streams.
Each stream has its own banner under which it gathers to define its primary concern for shaping the Church.  For the evangelical stream it’s the Bible, for the charismatic stream it’s the Spirit, and for the catholic stream it’s truth.  This could very well start a fight among their representatives, because they all care about the truth, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit, and think that their banner-word encompasses the other two.  But it’s a matter of emphasis: “if it’s in the Bible, it’s true,” says the evangelical; “if it’s Spirit-led, it’s true,” says the charismatic; “if it’s true, the Bible and the Spirit will confirm it,” says the catholic.

Each stream sees valid authority in the Church (or standards of doctrinal teaching) stemming from a different source.  The evangelical stream looks to a definite confession of faith, such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and so on.  The charismatic stream looks to the unction of the Holy Spirit, that is, it listens to whoever the Spirit has empowered to teach.  This is the least clear-cut and the most fluid of the three.  The catholic stream looks to apostolic authority, trusting in the continuous work of the Church through history rather than tying themselves down to a single theological treatise.

Each stream has a different hero figure, or a different favorite description of Jesus’ ministry.  For the evangelicals it’s the preacher or teacher, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God.  The charismatic stream favors the prophet, the one who speaks forth God’s word (similar to preaching, but less teacher-like and more focused on the present state of the Church and the world).  The catholic stream favors the image of the priest, who facilitates the worship of the community of the faithful.
Different streams could also be defined by different major holidays that represent their emphases.  The evangelical stream is most about Pascha, focusing on the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The charismatic stream is most about Pentecost, bringing out the emphasis of the empowered ministry that Jesus passed on to the Church in his stead.  The catholic stream is most like Christmas in its focus on the incarnation – the Word made flesh – and its implications for the Church as Christ’s Body today.
Each stream also has its own key buzzword that brings out something that it often squabbles over with the other two (for better and for worse).  For the evangelicals it’s literalism.  In particular this refers to how the Bible is understood and interpreted and applied.  Among charismatics it’s authenticity, referring to how the life of the Church is supposed to be a natural organism, not an artificial construct.  For catholics, the word is tradition, referring to the continuous life of the Church that runs from the first Apostles through every generation to the present day.

Finally, each stream carries with it a major risk or shortcoming which the other two criticize when it flows alone.  The biggest danger with the evangelical stream is partisanship, due to its focus on the primacy of Scripture over any unifying interpretive lens.  For the charismatic stream, the main risk is subjectivism.  By this I mean the danger of reducing the faith to purely individual experiences to the expense of external standards or means of accountability.  The catholic stream’s biggest risk is dead tradition, which is what happens when people imitate the old ways without actually appropriating them for themselves.

So when we find that the terms “evangelical stream,” and so on, are misleading people, it may be refreshing to think of them instead as categories along the lines of Bible-confessional-preacher-Pascha-literalist, Spirit-unction-prophet-Pentecost-authentic, and Truth-apostolic-priest-Christmas-traditional.  Not that these are proposed names in place of evangelical, charismatic, and catholic, but that they serve as clarifications to steer people away from initial stereotypes.

Scriptural Emphases of the Three Streams

Now let us examine the three streams from a different angle and see how each of them approaches the Scriptures that they all hold in common.

The Evangelical Stream

With “biblical inerrancy” and the prime authority of scripture as foundational to the evangelical stream, we find their approach to the Bible to be somewhat akin to how lawyers approach their nation’s constitution: it’s the book that defines everything that can be said and done.  In the evangelical stream, the Bible is the sole primary source for the faith, and is thus held as the #1 teaching tool.  A key passage along these lines is II Timothy 3:14-17.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Central in this scripture-as-teaching approach is the discernment of the Gospel as the overarching message of the entire book.  One of the most popular verses as a result of this focus is John 3:16.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Beyond the content of the gospel message is the question of delivering it.  This emphasis of the evangelical stream is aptly summarized in another well-known passage generally referred to as The Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20.

Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Charismatic Stream

The charismatic stream, with its emphasis on the present reality of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, presents a tendency to look at the Bible in an exemplaristic fashion.  Rather than looking at the Bible as teaching as such, the charismatic stream sees it more of a recorded example of how the Church could (and did) work back in the beginning.  The Old Testament, similarly, shows how God dealt with his people under previous covenants.  In this light, it is hardly surprising that the charismatic stream is often considered as synonymous with the Pentecostal movement, because they both look to the birth of the Church in Acts 2 as a description of how the Church ought to be.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

This exemplaristic approach to reading the Bible also brings out important truths when it comes to understanding the role of the individual within the Church.  For example, while there is a great deal of attention given to how leaders in the Church ought to behave, there are also many passages that address everybody.  The charismatic stream in particular, then, brings to life passages like in Romans 12.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

A logical consequence of this emphasis, then, is a radical sense of equality among Christians, which is also affirmed in verses like Galatians 3:28.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Catholic Stream

The catholic stream presents yet a third subtle different perspective to how the Bible is read.  The emphasis upon a continuous tradition in the Church puts the Bible into a context where it is the sourcebook for many other theological, devotional, and otherwise spiritual writings.  Although it is the source, the primary, the sole completely authoritative document, it is set into a living stream of Christian thought and practice which provides an “authoritative” interpretation of the Bible.  This approach to Scripture may best be understood by taking seriously the possibility that the Apostles didn’t write down everything they could possibly have written, but also passed on secondary teachings and practices orally, as suggested by II Thessalonians 2:28.

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

One of the primary ways that this continuous tradition is understood to be preserved is through a continuous stream of apostolic authority.  In contrast to the charismatic stream, which looks at the Bible as more of an example of what the Church should look like, the catholic stream looks at the Bible as the beginning of what the Church looked like, with the understanding that it would continue to grow through the ages.  This perspective is also in accordance with scripture, as described by the Apostles’ words and actions at the end of Acts 1.

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.  For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry…  For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’ and ‘Let another take his office.’  So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”  And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias.  And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”  And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Additionally, it is important to clarify that in the catholic stream, the Bible is fully integrated into the tradition of the Church; there is no dichotomy of “scripture versus tradition” for them.  As a result, the catholic stream can affirm that one of the most central traditions in all Christianity is the celebration of the Eucharist, even though it’s clearly set forth in Scripture.  For when Paul writes of it in I Corinthians 11, he’s already referring to it as a tradition, or something that’s “delivered” or “passed on.”
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said…

The One River

It seems necessary at this point to give a cursory look at reconciling these three approaches to the Bible, as all three streams provide insights that cannot be neglected.

The Bible could be said to be the evangelical stream’s ‘specialty.’  It is of vital importance to the Church that the Bible be upheld as the primary source of all teaching on the faith.  And when push comes to shove, the charismatic and catholic streams agree, but they provide extremely valuable additions to the basic “authoritative word of God” doctrine of the evangelicals.

The charismatic stream provides a perspective of “living reality” that evangelicalism might be prone to lose on its own.  If the Bible is primary a source for teaching, it could easily be reduced to a textbook, and that is not what it was written to be!  The charismatic stream rightly points out that the Bible speaks of realities that can and should be lived out in every generation including our own, and that it speaks into our time and lives afresh through the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit.
The catholic stream, on the other hand, provides a helpful (and often necessary) perspective on the invigorated reading of the charismatic stream.  As the catholic stream is most rooted in living history, it is able to preserve how the Spirit has moved through the past to get us to the present, and therefore enable us to live in accordance with the previous generations of Christians.  Also, when the evangelical teaching approach threatens to yield partisan readings of Scripture, the catholic stream helps provide boundaries for when biblical interpretation gets out of hand.

Interaction of the Three Streams

In his final sermon at Christ the Redeemer, Fr. Jürgen argued that almost every local church is primarily in one stream, and occasionally you’ll find one representing two streams.  I, however, would argue that there is a bit more intermixing than that.  Much of this stems from my earlier reflections about how it can be misleading to associate these three streams too closely with modern American Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and Roman Catholicism, respectively.  The three streams are named after them, but only in very general terms.  All told, would like to present seven theses against that oversimplification.
The evangelical stream’s commitment to scripture is shared by all denominations.

Of course, this may be a point of argument.  Different groups of Christians define the authority of the Bible in different ways.  Evangelicalism today has extensive definitions of biblical inerrancy that may seem overly elaborate to the Roman Catholic Church, for example.  But at the end of the day, all authentic Christians uphold the Bible as the primary source for their faith, regardless of their interpretive methods.

The evangelical stream’s focus on preaching the gospel is picked up in most charismatic churches.
The Pentecostal movement starting in the early 20th century wasn’t just an inward-focused revolution of Christians seeking new levels of holiness (although that was part of the movement’s agenda).  It was also highly evangelistic, as evidenced by the fact that there are hundreds of millions of charismatic Christians across the globe barely 100 years later.  Clearly they inherited the evangelical stream’s priority for sharing the gospel.  In this particular sense, it’s fair to classify Pentecostalism as a form of Protestantism even though it’s becoming increasingly fashionable to classify them separately.
The charismatic stream’s contributions of realizing individual spiritual gifts and equality has vastly intermixed with modern Evangelicalism.

Complementing the previous point, the Pentecostal movement of the early 20th century has also had two or three waves which swept back into the classic Protestant denominations, carrying with it a sharper focus on the power and meaning of the individual Christian within the Church.  This has been aided by Western individualist culture, arguably to an extreme, but the charismatic stream’s contribution of realizing the value of individual spiritual gifts has definitely made a comeback in most Evangelical churches by now.  And besides, the evangelical stream’s focus on the need for personal repentance and commitment to Christ made it pretty compatible with this aspect of the charismatic stream, anyway.

The charismatic renewal has brought a new-found appreciation for the miraculous in evangelical and catholic churches alike.

On a similar note to the previous point, the charismatic stream’s immersion in the supernatural has also left its mark in current Evangelicalism and Catholicism.  To be fair, I say this only in terms of recent history, for Protestant and Catholic theology alike had been plagued by ‘modernist theology’ for a couple centuries, creating increased doubt in the supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit in the present age.  But earlier in history, the Protestant and (especially) Catholic churches were very much aware of the supernatural power of the Spirit, through the sacraments as well as through other miracles from time to time.

Evangelical & charismatic streams have developed their own traditions.

The catholic stream’s contribution of providing a tradition in which to receive and interpret the biblical faith has been copied by Protestants and Pentecostals alike.  In general, they’ve looked primarily at the history of their own denominations or movements, and received their doctrines accordingly.  Although this can make for authentic living traditions just like the catholic stream offers, it is not on the same historic scale as the catholic stream’s tradition.  But the fact that the other streams naturally develop their own traditions is a sign, I think, of the necessity to embrace tradition purposefully rather than by implication, because we ought to face up to the foundations of how we interpret the Bible, knowing who does and does not inform us in that process.

The catholic stream’s emphasis on the creeds as the center of a “right interpretation of scripture” is largely intact in the evangelical and charismatic streams.

This statement also may start a lot of arguments.  There are lots of denominations and church groups (among some Protestants and especially non-denominational churches) who claim “no creed but the Bible.”  They can repeat that until they’re blue in the face, but when it comes down to it, “no creed but the Bible” is itself a creed.  And, if we were to be honest with each other, we would find that they pretty much affirm everything in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed anyway.  It may not be “official” for them, but unofficially, it’s still affirmed.  Granted, there are many theological questions not touched by those creeds, but the unity preserved in what they do say is profound.  In that light, it is my opinion that those who claim “no creed but the Bible” but still believe what the creeds say should just admit it and explicitly teach from them, because of their powerful unifying roles.
Anglicanism has held the catholic and evangelical streams in tension since the Reformation, and is recapturing the charismatic in varying degrees.

The degree to which “catholic” tradition is upheld in Anglicanism varies to a wide degree, but the bare bones of the catholic stream remain: celebration of the Eucharist, central role of the Creeds, and apostolic succession.  At the same time, the evangelical stream has been enforced by the content of the Prayerbook (particularly in its emphasis upon the gospel by shoving aside some of the more potentially ‘distracting’ traditions) and the 39 Articles (by clearly stating that the Bible contains “all things necessary for salvation”).  And, as already pointed out, the charismatic stream has made its mark in Anglicanism along with the Catholic and Protestant groups.  This is not to say that all Anglican churches are balanced three-stream churches, but within Anglicanism as a whole, all three can be found somewhere.


In light of these seven clarifications, I think it is safe to say that every Christian church is a three-streams church in some sense – there are at least trickles of each stream.  Authentic Catholicism and Evangelicalism are reliant upon the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Catholicism and Pentecostalism are founded on the biblical gospel, just as Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism affirm the same basic credal doctrines as the Catholic churches.  Certainly, most individual churches have their one or two favorites, but these three streams are not the sole property of the denominational groups that they’re named after!

Exploring the One River

To close this examination of the “three streams, one river” concept, I would like to explore more closely what the three streams actually look like when fully combined into one river.  This work already began when I was examining how they interact with one another in the area of biblical interpretation, in addition to how some of the streams interact with one another in other ways, so I would now like to turn back to the characteristics I explored at the beginning of this article, namely, the one-word banner, the source of authority, the hero image of Jesus, the favorite holiday, the buzzword, and the risk.

The one-word banners I identified for the evangelical, charismatic, and catholic streams are Bible, Spirit, and Truth, respectively.  This is perhaps the one most easy to reconcile, because each group is trying to describe the same thing using their respective languages.  The Bible is truth.  Truth is found in scripture.  The Holy Spirit confirms the words of the Bible, never revising them.  There may well be multiple ways to combine and unite these three approaches, but I would suggest something like this: “a Spirit-filled tradition that is faithful to the Bible.”  The essentials of all three are there.

The sources of authority, confessional, unction of the Spirit, and apostolic succession, are also fairly easy to combine.  All you need are “apostolic overseers (bishops) anointed by the Holy Spirit who agree in godly teachings.”  The challenge lies in the fact that many catholic churches insist that all their bishops are anointed by the Holy Spirit by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and are in agreement with sound doctrine by virtue of their education.  Yet we know that bad bishops exist, so clearly one or both of the other two requirements went wrong.  Another issue here is that this synthesis makes it sound like a complete concession to the catholic stream.  Certainly there is, but we’ve got to remember that the idea is to unite the three streams, not trim them down and only stick some of the pieces together.  Rather, what we need to focus on is the three-fold focus of authority: conformity to sound doctrine from the evangelical stream, real calling and empowerment from the Holy Spirit, and formal recognition from the continuous historic episcopate.

Thirdly, there is the question of how a unified three-streams-one-river church would look to the ministry of Jesus.  To put it simply, rather than looking at mainly just his teaching and preaching, or his prophesying and healing, or his priestly ministry, we should look at the combination of all three.  This means that when we identify “heroes” in the Church, or look up to others as good examples, we should keep in mind that the various functions are merely functions of a greater whole.  A good verse along these lines is from John 14, when Jesus tells his disciples that they’ll do “even greater works than these.”  Rather than seeing ourselves as imitating Christ in some particular way, we should see the Church’s ministry as an extension and continuation and enlargement of what Jesus began!
What about the “one river” Church’s favorite holiday?  Could it be the evangelical stream’s Triduum, because the death & resurrection of Jesus makes all this possible?  Could it be Pentecost, because that’s the Church’s birthday?  Could it be Christmas because the incarnation is how we continue Christ’s ministry in this age?  One answer might be to say “the whole liturgical calendar!”  But it’s impossible to get excited about everything all at once; there’s too much to focus on; God is too big; the Church is too big; the Bible is too big.  Another easy answer might be “forget the calendar!”  But that’s more in the spirit of trimming down than building together.  I’d argue that the holiday which best encompasses all three streams is The Day of the Lord, otherwise known as Judgment Day, when Christ returns.  That is, after all, what we’re all working toward.  Admittedly, this choice is kind of a cop-out because there is no actual “Second Coming Day” in the calendar.  However, Christ the King Sunday, right before Advent, is an excellent candidate for the job.

What about a buzzword?  There already is a buzz-verse for Church unity (ecumenical) movements, taken from Ephesians 4.  “There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”  We all believe this already, we all try to realize it in our local churches, and many Christians are already trying to make it happen on a larger scale.  There are other passages in the Bible that speak powerfully to the subject of Church unity, such as the entire 17th chapter of the gospel of John, but I think this bit from Ephesians 4 is the most catchy and popular one already.
Lastly, when looking at the characteristics of each stream, we examined the biggest risk each stream faced whenever it was isolated.  But the whole point of the three streams one river concept is that the Church will be whole and healthy again, and there are no risks inherent in health itself.  Sure, there’s the fact that the Church is full of people who sin, but that’s a fault in the membership, not the system itself.  Admittedly, a perfectly balanced and reunited three-streams-one-river church isn’t likely to be realized before Jesus returns, but nevertheless there is a powerful statement by Jesus (in Matthew 16:18) about the Church in its ideal state: “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  What a promise!

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