Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Becoming Theologically Bilingual

A funny thing happened at the Faith & Order ecumenical dialogue two weeks ago. In the midst of a discussion about Justification and Justice, the group realized that the Reformed and Lutheran traditions were underrepresented. In order to supplement these voices, the group asked if those who had studied these perspectives might be able to pinch hit. The funny thing was that the most qualified members were from Holiness and Pentecostal traditions.

How ironic: the dominant protestant traditions were being represented by these marginalized, oddball theologians.

Even more ironic: these Holiness and Pentecostal theologians could quote Luther and Calvin by chapter and verse. At some points they were even more conversant with Luther and Calvin than members of the churches that claim these figures as their own.

In the wake of this ecumenical moment, I asked my fellow Holiness and Pentecostal theologians why it is that we know these traditions so well. Is it that we have an inferiority complex and so rely on figures outside our history for theological study? “No,” one of them quickly retorted, “Remember: it’s always the minorities who are bilingual.” Another one swiftly added, “We have to go to their schools, so we have to learn their language.”

At this point it dawned on me: a well-trained theologian from a marginal tradition can offer a special service to ecumenical dialogue. We do not need to simply represent our much-needed voice, but we can also speak intelligently and listen comprehensively to those who are different from us. We know how to dialogue because the dialogue is already going on in our own heads. We may be a key link in teaching the church how to become theologically multilingual.

Any thoughts?
Have you encountered any parallel phenomena?
Are there additional explanations?
Are there any dangers in developing our bilingualism?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Can't We All Just Get Along? Reflections on my Experience at Faith & Order

This past weekend I had the opportunity to be a participant observer at a Faith & Order work session of the National Council of Churches. Theologians from many Christian traditions were there, divided up into groups to hash out ecumenical problems. I joined the "Justification and Justice" and learned a great deal about the dialogical process.

The most interesting thing to me from the weekend was not so much what agreements were made, but how they were made. Why? Because how people argue about doctrine reveals what they think about the nature of doctrine itself. The process of engaging people with different doctrinal commitments is a fascinating case study in different doctrinal theories. Beneath the surface of doctrinal division is the greater division over what we think we are doing when we profess a particular doctrine.

Let me briefly outline three different approaches to doctrinal agreement that I witnessed this weekend:

(1) The "Can't We All Just Get Along?" method proposes that the road to unity is to set aside doctrines-that-divide. Some folks desire to get past our disagreements by avoiding doctrine altogether. Usually some common political commitment is offered in its place. This seems to be the shallowest option, as our real differences are never really addressed, and persist under the surface.

(2) The "Aren't We All Just Saying the Same Thing?" method proposes that the road to unity is to find some common experience that lies behind the different doctrines. Some folks try to get to the bottom of doctrinal differences by claiming that doctrines merely represent different ways of expressing our diverse religious experiences. So the solution to doctrinal differences is to unearth the religious feelings that we do share, and just agree-to-disagree on what to call it. You call it justification by faith, I call it deification, but we both know we are talking about our loving encounter with God. This seems like a promising approach. But the problem comes with the simple fact that most people are not merely expressing their religious experience when they make doctrinal statements. From time to time, people make actual claims about who God is and how God works. And to force them to reduce those claims to expressions of feeling does violence to the actual intent of the believer. So this road is ultimately a dead-end, despite its initial promise.

(3) The "Let's Be Honest With One Another" method proposes that the road to unity is to engage doctrines at face value precisely at our point of disagreement. Some folks realize that the conversation only gets good when we lay our cards on the table and acknowledge our disagreement. The point of dialogue is to really listen to the other person. To really encounter a different person, I have to listen carefully to exactly the things which make them different. In the process of this exchange, we might discover what we do have in common. We might also discover new things that we can assimilate into our thinking. We might also find places of utter disagreement. But in a spirit of persevering love, we can continue to discuss our differences even when we can't seem to overcome them by sheer will or ingenuity. This method may take long, but in the end it seems to be the most interesting and have the most integrity. Plus, agreement that comes through such a method will be genuine and lasting agreement, and therefore will be worth the wait.

Any thoughts?
Can you think of some other approaches to discussing doctrinal differences?
What do you think of these three options?
What is the nature of doctrine in your mind?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Presenting the Tenses of Salvation

Whenever I am asked the question "When were you saved?" I run up against a difficulty. Can salvation be so easily reduced to one specific date? Surely salvation is rooted in the past action of God, continues throughout the present life of the believer, and is consummated at the end of time. Of course, I am courteous enough to not belabor this point every time I am asked this innocent question. But it must be addressed.

I do not desire to answer this question in full here. Suffice it to say that there are three tenses of salvation: past, present and future. Although such an answer requires exposition, this threefold temporal schema ought to be self-evident. Given that salvation is a history of God's action for us and in us, it necessarily admits of temporal tenses. I have dealt with this matter in simple and more advanced ways elsewhere and will continue to do so. But here I am concerned with a different matter: the order of presentation.

The question on my mind is how to present the tenses of salvation. What is the best order of presentation? With which tense ought we begin? With which tense should we end? Which tense should come in the middle?

One might object that this question is irrelevant: "As long as you talk about all three tenses, who cares which order you use? We are talking about the mystery of salvation here!" But it has become clear to me that the order of presentation does matter. Whatever tense is mentioned first is given a slight priority. Whichever tense is mentioned in the middle becomes the hinge. Whichever tense is mentioned last is given finality.

For instance, if one begins with the question, "If you died tonight do you know where you would be?" the future tense is given priority. One might then proceed to discuss the past tense work of Christ as the means toward the end of future salvation. Then one would conclude a call for decision, assigning a certain finality and urgency to the present tense.

An alternative approach would be to discuss the tenses of salvation in chronological order. One might begin with the announcement, "Let me tell you about Jesus Christ!" This gives priority to the past tense. Next one could continue the story of salvation naturally into the outpouring of the Spirit and the experience of salvation here and now. This places the present tense as the hinge between past and future. Then one could conclude by noting future salvation as the ultimate payoff of this history of salvation.

There are a few other logical alternatives. But these are certainly two common outlines for proclaiming the gospel which suffice to make the point that order matters. The problem with both of these approaches (and likely many others) is misplaced emphasis. The first renders the Christ event as a past condition for a future reward guaranteed by a present action. The initiating action of God falls into the background. The second presentation is sensible, but it seems to lack the urgency of the gospel. One simply dangles big picture narrative and waits for another to bite.

My suggestion would be to try the following order: past, future, present. In my mind, such an order combines the strengths of the previous two approaches. First, one would tell the story of Jesus Christ. This gives the proper priority to the past tense action of God on our behalf. Then one would turn from the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the last judgment. Although this seems to be a leap, the two moments clearly go together: "he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of the father from whence he shall judge the quick and the dead." The story of Jesus properly concludes with the claim that he is the Lord and Judge of the universe, the one to reckon with at the end of time. This move preserves the significance of the future ala the first approach. Finally, one would turn to the present tense ("the time between the times") by inviting another to participate in this grand history in light of what has happen and will happen. By ending with the present, one retains the urgency of the first approach.

So that is my modest proposal: next time you are trying to communicate the gospel, move from past to future to present.

Any thoughts?
Can any one presentation really treat all three tenses of salvation fairly?
Does order matter?
How does my proposed order measure up?
What other orderings would you recommend?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Priesthood of Each Believer vs. The Priesthood of All Believers

I have repeatedly heard people appeal to Luther's "Priesthood of All Believers" as a justification for do-it-yourself spirituality. "I am my own priest; I don't need organized religion to have access to God." In the wake of such appeals, many have come to blame the Reformation for the insidious individualism of American religion.

But what did Luther really mean when he declared the "Priesthood of All Believers"? Can "churchless Christianity" be the outworking of the Reformation? Are Luther and Barna just peas in a pod?

This confused protestant legacy can be traced to (among other things) a fundamental misunderstanding in the meaning of the Priesthood of All Believers. In order to expose the counterfeit, let's make sure we have grasped the original:

The Priesthood of All Believers begins with an attack on a roped-off priestly class who alone can procure access to Christ and his saving benefits. The crucial appeal is to the Priesthood of Christ. Christ alone is our priest who offers access to God's grace. Only on the basis of his sole priesthood is our priesthood established. We too are priests, because everything Christ has is ours through the blessed exchange of justifying faith. Thus we are priests as Christ was priest.

So far so good. But here is where the mistake emerges. It is so easy to slip into thinking that we have access to God as Christ had access to God. The priesthood of Christ ends with our priesthood for ourselves. Hence you have the erroneous notion of the Priesthood of Each Believer: every Christian his or her own priest.

But the principle is not that we procure access to God for ourselves through Christ, but rather that we are priests for one another as Christ is for us. This is the logic of the "as": as Christ was a priest for others, so I am a priest for others. On the basis of the priesthood of Christ, all those who believe in him become priests for their family, friends, neighbors, and enemies. As Christ suffers for others, so we suffer for others. As Christ offers forgiveness, so we offer forgiveness to others. As Christ is our access point to God, so we become others' access point to Christ.

So the Priesthood of All Believers does not imply do-it-yourself Christianity. Rather, we are empowered by Christ's priesthood to be priests for one another. Thus the Church is the community of priests, continually offering Christ to one another. And the Priesthood of All Believers is an unmistakably communal activity.

Any thoughts?
Does this rendering of the Priesthood of All Believers ring true to you?
Are there ways of avoiding the mistaken version, or is it inevitable?
How else might one think about the Priesthood of All Believers?
Is there some other way to defend Churchless Christianity other than on the basis of the Priesthood of All Believers?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Can we really say "God is Good"?

Christians dare to talk about God. We say things about God. We make affirmations about God's character. The problem is that God is obviously so much greater than our language for him. In light of the inadequacy of all human language for God, we might be tempted to give up on making bolds affirmations about God. We might go on saying, "God is good," but we don't really mean it in any trustworthy sense. But when we give in to this temptation, we will find ourselves praising God with our fingers crossed behind our backs. How can we affirm the transcendence of God beyond human language without giving up on language altogether?

To find a solution to this conundrum, let's take a look at a well worn but worthwhile phrase: "God is good."

God certainly is good. If God were evil, bad, or less-than-good, we'd all be up a creek. So affirming the goodness of God is probably a good idea. But we immediately stumble onto a problem: what does it mean to be good? Is goodness something we all just know about and merely attribute to God? Do we see glimpses of goodness in our world, then project a God in heaven who is really, really good? We could simply admit that this is what we are doing as we continue to metaphorically attribute goodness to God. Yet such an admission leaves one vulnerable to the accusation that we are just projecting our own fantasies and desires onto God. So we are stuck with a God who is really just a great, big human being. Such a God might be great, but he is would not be God. God must be more than just the best in a group of good things. God is not a member of a class.

How can we bring out the true meaning of the statement "God is good" without falling into mere projection and wish-fulfillment? One way is to modify the statement to "God is goodness." By saying that God is goodness, we are not simply projecting the goodness we see in creation onto an imaginary God. Rather, we are positing that there is an objective reality called "goodness" that God is. God is not one good thing alongside other good things. God is the very goodness from which every other good thing is derived. If there is good in the world, it is because there is a good God. This modification of the statement is on the right track. Unfortunately, it does not go far enough. Why? Because it leaves the impression that "goodness" is a thing beyond God. "Goodness" is some transcendental category that originates with God and then spills out into God's good creation. Thus "Goodness" or "The Good" contains within it both God and creation, and thus becomes bigger than God himself. So this modification escapes the error of projection without solving the underlying problem of projection: that God becomes a member of a class.

A further modification of the phrase brings out the truth of the matter: that God is his own goodness. Goodness is not some attribute that we apply to God in the way we apply it to ladders and apples and people. Goodness is also not some category that contains within it God, ladders, apples, and people. First and foremost, only God is good. Goodness is defined wholly and utterly by God himself. Whatever God is, that is good. If we want to know what good is, we'll need to pay attention to what God shows himself to be. Can ladders and apples and people be good too? Yes, but only is a secondary and derivative sense. We can only be good by participating in God's goodness. It is that God and I are contained in the larger category of goodness. It is that God is his own goodness, and I am only good in God.

So the problem with our human language is not that "good" (or any other proper attribute of God) is inadequate to describe God. Rather, the problem is that "good" is only properly attributed to God, and inappropriately used to describe ladder and apples and people. Anything that is good comes from God, and so we can call it good, but only in a derivatively.

If we keep in mind that God is his own goodness, then we can boldly affirm with the saints of all ages that "God is good!"

Any thoughts?
Does this way of putting things clarify how we can make affirmations about God?
Does the final formula really evade the criticism that all language is mere projection?
Can this formula be applied to any and all divine attributes? Are there any examples for or against?