Ivanhoe, Fundamentalism & Forgiveness

A few months ago my wife got me a kindle for my birthday. The first book that I read on my digital reading device was Ivanhoe. It was enjoyable and full of great quotes like

For he that does good, having the unlimited power to do evil, deserves praise not only for the good which he performs, but for the evil which he forbears.

At one point in the story Rowena, the beautiful maiden, is “inconvenienced” by the antagonist, a knight of less than pure motive. When he asks her for forgiveness (a less than sincere request) she responds with this statement:

“I forgive you, Sir Knight,” said Rowena, “as a Christian.”

But then a companion of hers at the time, a jester-like character named Wamba (a family name I can only imagine) responds with this funny yet terribly sad reply: “That means,” said Wamba, “that she does not forgive him at all.”

It is the fact that Rowena forgives as a Christian that causes Wamba to call the forgiveness into question. And while I think Wamba’s tongue in cheek statement could be applied to us as individuals, I think it is also true of many Christian groups – including (especially?) fundamentalism.

I guess I could critique other movements or groups but I don’t move and minister within those circles. I am in the fundamentalist camp (at least the historic one) and so instead of lofting grenades into someone else’ house I am hoping that the wounds of a brother are seen to be more faithful than the kiss of an enemy (least of all because kissing your enemy has got to stink).

A while ago I sat with an older gentleman, whom I highly esteem, talking about the small circle of Christianity that we live and minister in. While we both expressed thanks for the strengths of this particular brand of Christianity we both had some serious criticisms. One of those, given by this older gentleman, and I thought was particularly worthy of consideration since it is an element that I believe has been absent in all the discussion between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, was that the Christian leaders in our distant wing of the church were unable to forgive others who were seen to have been wrong many years ago in relation to ecclesiastical purity. They had forgiven them as Christians, which means they didn’t forgive them at all.

This lack of forgiveness (or at least love and respect) is evident in the way that most fundamentalist leaders speak about their evangelical brethren both privately and publicly. There is no surer way to gain an “Amen” or more likely a firm nod of the head than to disparage notable evangelicals past and present. I believe, and this is anecdotal rather than stemming from thorough research, that most fundamentalists have defined themselves by what and who they are against so much so that the actual content of their faith has become almost reduced to almost meaninglessness. What I am saying is that the inability/unwillingness to forgive (not even necessarily to cooperate with) has destroyed fundamentalism far more than theological liberalism.

What was at stake, according to this older fundamentalist with whom I was speaking, was nothing short of the gospel and the testimony of many fundamentalist’s leaders. And how could it be with verses like this:

    • Ephesians 4:32 – Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV)
    • Colossians 3:12-13 – Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (ESV)

Both of these verses connect the command to forgive “one another” with the truth that we have received forgiveness. Indeed Paul goes even further in his letter to the church in Colossae that the pattern for the Lord’s forgiveness of their sins ought to be the pattern for their forgiveness of those with whom they have a complaint. Again I want to stress that I don’t think this means that fundamentalists ought to hold hands with evangelicals if their conscience won’t allow it. But I do think these verses demand that we at least ease up on the rhetoric and stop using our brothers in Christ as our personal whipping boys.

But the reality is that these verses aren’t as pointed as the truth that this older fundamentalist was trying to make. He was thinking of Christ’s words in Matthew 6:14-15 which says “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” So we are to forgive our brothers in Christ not only because we are commanded to and not only because we have been forgiven. But because if we do not forgive others then we ourselves will not be forgiven by God (not in the justification sense but in the restoration to fellowship sense).

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