Thursday, May 16, 2013

Metatheology, Part III: A Theology of Diversity

Other questions:
What is truth?
What is the purpose of the Bible?

In this final part of the series, I ask the question that gave rise to the previous two:

How do we, as Christians, "do" theology lovingly and truthfully in the midst of significant theological disagreement?

Let me unpack what I mean by this question, which has been a burden weighing on my heart and my mind. Regardless of who is right, the simple fact is that God-loving Christians throughout the world and the ages, earnestly seeking to teach the truth and correctly understand scripture, have come to significantly differing theological conclusions on myriad subjects, and these differences have led to a great deal of the strife and division which has scarred this history of the church. This is the problem that Christian Smith in his book The Bible Made Impossible calls "pervasive interpretive pluralism". As Christians we affirm that God's will is for the church to be united in "mind and thought" (John 17:21, 1 Corinthians 1:10), yet we are also told to guard our doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16) and rejoice in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).

It seems like seeking the truth and being united in Christ should be complementary goals, but nothing about the church is as it really should be. Today we see these goals more often working against each other as churches and denominations clash and divide over points of doctrine. One of the primary issues of the "Great Schism" that divided the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches was the "filioque" clause in the Nicene Creed and the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or just the Father. More closely to my own background, the main driving force behind the increasing number of Protestant churches and denominations is doctrinal disputes causing previously whole groups to splinter over baptistic theology, the nature of the bread and wine Jesus said to take "in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and more practical things informed by the Bible like church leadership and worship styles.

And these divisions are not merely institutional in nature. Even today I see Arminians denounced by Calvinists for being semi-Pelagian, baptismal regenerationists as legalists, questioners of the historicity of Adam and Eve as revisionists, and liberal Christians as postmodern, all because their views are considered to be false (along with their faith) according to the sound doctrine of the Bible. This book review espouses the pursuit of sound doctrine as essential for church unity and the antidote to divisions: "If bitterness, gossip, and slander are tearing your church apart, sound doctrine is one of the most necessary tools for sewing it back together. If rivalries and divisions are suffocating the church’s love, it needs to breathe anew the rich air of sound doctrine." Yet all too often, it is the quest for sound doctrine that is the source of these divisions. How can the desire to know and obey God's word be so damaging to the church? But how can we give it up as we are reminded that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching (2 Timothy 3:16)?

The pat evangelical answer to doctrinal disputes is that sin blinds us from correctly discerning the plain and simple word of God (Psalm 19:7) and prevents us from loving our neighbor as we should, so such divisions are sad but unsurprising to the Christian. In other words, "sin" becomes a blanket excuse to just keep trying what we've been doing, because if and when we fail it's sin's fault. (With the implied hope that this time, with this theology book or doctrinal statement or blog post we'll finally get it right and everyone will agree and join us and there will be no more disunity) Well, is holding to a definition of "truth" that is primarily propositional rather than Christological (as I tried to show in the first post) and expects to find one exactly right answer a sin or isn't it?

Morgan Guyton points out this tendency much more skillfully than I can in a lengthy post, "Communion or Correctness? The Underlying Question". He debunks an idea of correctness held by Christians which he defines as "a way of thinking about behavior and opinions in which there is one right answer and the goal is absolute uniformity." In other words, believing that there is one correct way of thinking about God that we're supposed to uncover through the Bible just as there is one correct way to do math. (Though my one and a half years as a math major have lead me to question whether this is true either) With this definition, he somewhat conflates theological correctness and perfect moral performance, but it's still an amazing piece of writing. Some favorite quotes:
God’s holiness comes to mean His pickiness about our imperfection rather than God’s willingness to “cause his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God’s righteousness becomes God’s demand for perfect correctness that is canceled out by the cross, rather than God’s willingness to bear our sins through His Son on the cross (Romans 3:25) and pay for our mistakes unilaterally in order to “reconcile the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God’s justice becomes the damnation that we deserve and get rescued from rather than the moment for which those who are oppressed and cheated and slandered have longed (Revelation 6:10) all of their lives: when “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13) 
The task of the theologian under this orthodoxy [of perfect correctness] is to find the one correct way of interpreting the Bible and write an exhaustive systematic theology that dispels all the so-called “mystery” once and for all so that every Christian will be able to read their Bibles correctly and thus ensure that they have indeed accepted Christ into their hearts correctly so that God will accept their acceptable acceptance (which somehow isn’t justification by works even though people have to work very hard to convince themselves that they have the fruits of regeneration). 
I believe that a certain threshold of correctness is important for the sake of establishing communion between God’s people, but if correctness means chasing after an elusive goal of absolute ideological conformity, then it is a source of schism in the body of Christ and as such a heretical pursuit.
That last quote absolutely nails it. While obviously there are true things that God wants us to believe about Him, the more we try to pin down in fine detail what those things are, one of two things must happen. Our disagreements and even differences of opinion between us and our brothers and sisters may be magnified and blown up as implicit threats to the sacrosanct correctness of your own beliefs (and, by implication, the authenticity of your faith) until they tear us apart. Or some kind of a centralized authority must exert more and more influence to answer the disagreements and define what is "correct" to short-circuit this process, as in the Catholic and Orthodox church (and, arguably, certain more conservative parts of Protestantism with a clearly defined range of "orthodox" beliefs). And as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23) and the Truth we are after in the first place (John 14:6), I don't think this is the solution.

Consider someone who has just become a Christian. Do we expect him to hold the "right" view on predestination, or baptismal theology, or atonement theories, or eschatology? Hopefully not. We're fine with Christians being ignorant of what we believe scripture teaches about certain things (though we have trouble defining exactly what those things are). This indicates that we're not so concerned with doctrinal correctness as we are with a lack of error (which, I would argue, is a mistaken idea of perfection to hold). This could indicate at least as much of a fear of bad doctrine as a desire for good doctrine at work.

As I said last time, one of the main ways we evaluate churches and individual as authentically Christian is whether they hold beliefs consistent with the "authority of scripture" to tell us how to believe and live. So we look for "Bible-believing" churches to attend or warn about X liberal theologian as "unbiblical" in his doctrine. But hear this: if we make doctrinal correctness our definition of authentic Christianity, then irreconcilable differences in doctrine inevitably lead to irreconcilable divisions--and if church history has taught us anything, it's that irreconcilable differences can happen, and have already happened.

Does this mean that the "true church" has been lost, the body of Christ broken into fragments, never to repair unless we can somehow merge all the denominations and factions back into one whole like the early church? No--because love, not doctrinal correctness is the definition of authentic Christianity, as Jesus says: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35) If we know and are known by God through the atoning sacrifice of Christ love our neighbors, and especially our brothers and sisters of any denomination and creed, as Christ did, then we are part of the body of Christ, the church He started and that has continued unbroken to this day.

Of course this doesn't mean that theological disagreements should all just be ignored or that seeking to know Truth rationally doesn't matter. What I am saying is that correct doctrinal belief need not be, cannot be, the foundation for our religion or our churches. It must proceed from a deep and abiding love for God, the Truth; and for one another, not the other way round. For it is love, not orthodoxy, that is absolutely crucial for binding together human diversity into the unity God has called the church to have. I'll leave you with Paul's instructions to the Christians in Colossae, verses 3:1-17 (emphasis added):
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.


  1. "How do we, as Christians, "do" theology lovingly and truthfully in the midst of significant theological disagreement?"

    Its not possible because Christianity is setup as a selfish me me me religion. Its all about being damned by default and gotta get saved: about me me me, my salvation. I gotta ensure I get to heaven: that is the goal, the only goal. This nonsense is inherited from the Pharisees and is a side-effect of belief in the afterlife, really. If you want loving religion, go Sadducee. So long as religion is about who is going to heaven or hell rather than who is pleasing God by their life without the taint of the concepts of heaven and hell, then religion will be a hate-filled enterprise. Its not really possible to love people that you believe God is going to broil for all eternity in a place of conscious everlasting torment. That concept breeds hate. The Sadduccess on the other hand taught a religion of do what right simply because its right: do God's will just because its his will: and IF (and its a big if) there is a reward in an afterlife for doing it, well then that will be taken care of by itself, but probably there is no reward in an afterlife and certainly there is no afterlife of torment. Such an attitude permits one to love even those who are not right in God's sight: at the very least they have no reason to yell at them "you're going to hell" because there is no hell. But they can still try to get them to reform, but without having to engage in all the vitriol that the concept of hell requires.

    1. Well said. I agree that evangelical Christianity tends to make too big a deal out of salvation, knowing you're saved, having an assurance of (that is, having faith in) your saving faith, etc. It's not about crossing the line between heaven and hell and then being all set, it's about constantly walking or running toward Jesus, for eternal life is knowing Him. We do what is right not simply because it's right, but because we're becoming more like Jesus. Christian faith transforms the whole person, not just their code of ethics.

      I'm not really sure where you're coming from about the Pharisees and Sadducees, though. Christianity definitely teaches in a hope for after death (John 11:25), which the Sadducees didn't believe in. After going through all the implications of denying resurrection, Paul says that if we are only Christians for this life, we have made a tremendous mistake (1 Corinthians 15:19). Have you read the series I previously did on Hell? I see a much better (and, I think, more biblical) alternative to either the "eternal conscious retributive torment" view or denying an afterlife altogether.

    2. Its not just "evangelical" Christianity. I don't think you can find or establish a version of Christianity that isn't ultimately all about your personal salvation and a great deal dismissive of relational ethics (that is, of treating others right).

      "I'm not really sure where you're coming from about the Pharisees and Sadducees, though. Christianity definitely teaches in a hope for after death (John 11:25), which the Sadducees didn't believe in." That's a load of baloney. Paul can use the term "hope" all he wants, but Christianity is really about CERTAINTY of a resurrection not "hope." I would say someone who only hopes for a resurrection of the just alone but believes in certainty that the unjust cease to exist and will not be raised, is a Sadducee. I don't buy that the Sadduccees taught a certainty that nobody will be raised; I think they taught a certainty that the unjust cease to exist and held out a thin hope for an afterlife for the just alone. "After going through all the implications of denying resurrection, Paul says that if we are only Christians for this life, we have made a tremendous mistake (1 Corinthians 15:19)." Yes, but Paul was a Pharisee, right? So of course he'd say that: whereas his opponents there in Corinth were also Christians and didn't believe in a resurrection "both of the just and unjust"--were they Christian Saduccees? I reject the notion that Paul is a prescriptive authority for modern Christian belief: he's just a theologian like Arius, Nestorius, Pelagius, Augustine, Aquinas, Manicheaus, Marcion, Socinus, Calvin, Luther, Ratzinger, or any of the rest. Besides, Paul's argument here seems to be more against those who teach a certainty that there is no afterlife for anyone, not against those who say the unjust have no afterlife but the just do.

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