Now that the Episcopal House of Bishops, meeting in Glacier National Park last month, has cleared the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, James A. Pike, of charges of heresy, and thereby tactfully disposed of an emotionally charged issue, it may be well to examine objectively some of the bishop’s teachings to see whether they conform to the evangelical and biblical heritage of the Church.

The promoters of the so-called new theology, of whom Bishop Pike is one, herald it as a continuation of the Protestant Reformation, which brought new life and growth to the Church. If this be so, then we should expect the major themes of the Reformation to be expressed in this highly publicized approach to the basic doctrines and creeds of the Christian faith.

Two of the most important elements of the sixteenth-century Reformation were the breaking of the stranglehold of scholastic, Aristotelian philosophy on theology and the return to recognition of the Holy Bible as the authoritative source of Christian teaching and life. A brief analysis of the major theme of Bishop Pike’s book entitled A Time for Christian Candor shows that he not only disposes of the classic doctrines of the Christian faith but also clearly repudiates these two important elements of the Reformation.

The theme, as stated on page 2, is taken from the words of Paul the Apostle: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Its argument is presented in the form of an Aristotelian syllogism. Therefore, if we isolate the major and minor premises of the book, we can have no doubt of its meaning.

The major premise of Bishop Pike’s book is that “earthen vessels” are relative, contingent, and non-essential means of carrying the “treasure” of the Christian religion. They therefore can become outdated, irrelevant, excess luggage.

Churchmen in the meanwhile have, in this regard as in other regards, exalted the temporal as the eternal, the contingent as the final, the ad hoc as the universal, the finite as the infinite. Overlooked is the Apostle’s reminder that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” [p. 32].

A minor premise of the book is that the classic doctrine of the Trinity is only an “earthen vessel.”

The same point applies to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, regarded as so central to the Christian Faith that the explanation of it requires two-thirds of the lines of the Athanasian Creed … [p. 34].

The conclusion is now clear. Ergo: The classic doctrine of the Trinity is relative, contingent, and non-essential, and has indeed become outdated, irrelevant, excess luggage.

Article continues below
The Church’s classical way of stating what is represented by the doctrine of the Trinity has in fact been a barrier with the well educated and the less educated alike. And it is not essential to the Christian faith [p. 124].

It is further evident that the philosophical structure underlying the thought of A Time for Christian Candor is the speculative philosophy of Aristotle. In the light of the author’s early training, this is not strange. He states:

I was raised in a religious tradition which claimed to be able through scholastic philosophy, based primarily on St. Thomas Aquinas (and through him, on Aristotle), to prove the existence of God and certain other basic premises of Christianity [p. 20].

Aristotle, in dealing with any reality, distinguishes between its substance and its accidents. In general, substance refers to the permanent, underlying reality of a thing. Accidents refers to attributes that may either belong or not belong to any one thing.

These two Aristotelian categories are the focal points of Bishop Pike’s thought in this book. When he speaks of the “treasure,” he means the substance of the divine revelation. Among the many other synonyms of this term are the “absolute,” the “ultimate,” the “essential,” and the “product.” When he speaks of “earthen vessels,” he means the accidents of the divine revelation. These are described as being “relative,” “non-essential,” “secondary,” and the like. This scheme of rationalistically dissecting the Gospel is followed throughout.

This Aristotelian mold is then placed upon the textual theme of the book, Second Corinthians 4:7, and used to force from it the opposite of its true meaning. For Bishop Pike, the divine substance, or “treasure,” is a vague, subjective belief in a philosophical concept called the “Ultimate Ground of Being.”

Consciousness of being geared into the Ultimate Ground of Being, openness to the strength and joy and grace of His Presence, has enabled many boxed in by evil to survive in joy.… Persons who have known this strength and power with distressing limitations have come to greater involvement with the Ultimate Ground of their—and all being [p. 90].

The accidents of the divine revelation, or “earthen vessels,” are taken to mean not only the doctrine of the Holy Trinity but also everything else a Christian holds sacred to the faith, including the creeds, the Holy Bible, the apostolic ministry, the commandments, and the sacraments.

Article continues below
Anything else, whether a particular doctrinal formulation, a particular book, or books, a particular scheme of church government, a particular office or person, a particular ethical rule, a particular way of worship. None of these is an essential of the Gospel [p. 24].

But the true meaning of the biblical text is precisely contrary to the interpretation set forth in A Time for Christian Candor. The “treasure” St. Paul speaks of is the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ, revealing God in his threefold activity of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the world, and including in itself the essential elements of the creeds, the Holy Scriptures, the apostolic ministry, and the sacraments. And the “earthen vessels” spoken of by Paul are the ministers who go forth to proclaim this Gospel. According to the Apostle, it is the ministers who are fallible and secondary, not the “knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6) that it is their privilege to proclaim.

Floyd V. Filson comments on Paul’s meaning in this passage as follows:

Perhaps to crush any temptation to pride, and certainly to keep his readers from misunderstanding, he confesses that we have this treasure of the glorious gospel in earthen vessels, a figure suggested perhaps by Gen. 2:7, and used to show how humble, fragile, and transient weak mortal bodies are [The Interpreter’s Bible, X, 318].

And Professor W. F. Howard says:

The contrast between the priceless treasures and its humble, fragile casket emphasized the relation between the divine power and the human messenger. The apostle survives humiliations and sufferings by the life of Jesus within him [The Abingdon Bible Commentary, p. 522].

It is obvious that the Apostle is not dealing with subtle Aristotelian distinctions of substance and accidents, i.e., product and packaging. What he is really saying is that the wonderful good news of salvation through Jesus Christ is communicated by such weak specimens of humanity as we clergymen are, in order to show us that its splendid power belongs to God and not to us.

The questionable practice of bringing one’s own philosophical presuppositions to a biblical text, in order to use the text as an illustration rather than as an objective source of God’s truth, is rejected by the major biblical theologians of today. This type of exegesis has been the greatest cause of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of doctrine throughout the history of Christianity.

Article continues below

Karl Barth, the great pioneer of modern biblical theology, speaks of the way to teach from the Holy Bible:

What one may be moved to say concerning God, the world, and man because he must say it, having let the Scriptures speak to him—the Scriptures themselves, and not the Scriptures interpreted by any particular tradition; the whole Scripture, and not a part of them chosen to suit a preconceived theory … what, after those Scriptures have spoken to him, one may be moved to say in fear and trembling concerning the things about which man of himself may say nothing, or only foolishness, that, if we may judge from our beginnings, is Reformed doctrine [The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 241].

The speculative, non-historical approach to theology based on the teachings of Aristotle was condemned by every Reformer, from John Wycliffe to Martin Luther, and was rejected by the Anglican church at the time of the Reformation.

Luther, in his characteristic way, has this to say: What are the universities, as at present ordered, but as the book of Maccabees says, “schools of Greek fashion and heathenish manners” (2 Mac. 4:12, 13), full of dissolute living, where very little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian faith, and the blind heathen teacher, Aristotle, rules even further than Christ? [“Address to the German Nobility” in Harvard Classics, XXXVI, 321].

The position of the Episcopal Church on the classical dogmas of the Christian faith is clear. As recently as 1960 the House of Bishops in a pastoral letter to the church took a definite stand:

Thus our Church is irrevocably committed to the historic Creeds and regards the Nicene Creed as it was affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. as an indispensable norm for the Christian faith.… The historic Creeds of our Church affirm the indispensable dogmas of the Christian faith.

It is certainly commendable to attempt to state the Gospel in terms that are relevant to the mind of today. But to do so by introducing again into theology the speculative, unbiblical categories of Aristotle, coupled with inaccurate exegesis of the Bible, is questionable. It represents a deviation from the position of the Episcopal Church and also a radical break with the evangelical and biblical heritage of the Reformation.

St. Augustine wrote, “Not every error is heresy, though every heresy which is blameworthy cannot be heresy without some error.” Now that the House of Bishops has disposed of the heresy charge against Bishop Pike, let us hope that the philosophical and biblical error of his teaching will become evident and be corrected before it is too late.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.