October 23, 2017

The Questions Belong To All Of Us

question.jpgIt’s not often that I use IM as a place to point my readers to other blogs, but I will make a much-deserved exception for Jordan Cooper’s deft and on-target analysis called “The Threat That Is The Emerging Church.” You must read the post and consider his major points because he is starting to make some connections that I believe are immensely helpful. Jordan’s post stimulated a bunch of thoughts for me as well.

There is, within Protestantism in general and Reformed Christianity in particular, an impulse toward what some of called “reformation and revival.” I would identify this impulse as focusing on four concerns :

-The constant rediscovery of the Gospel itself, in the scriptures.
-The application of the Gospel to the church’s message, mission and structures.
-An authentic Christian experience that increasingly centers life in Christ and discipleship.
-A resulting missionary and evangelistic encounter with culture and individuals.

Gospel, church, experience, mission. These are what we are all doing. Liberals. Conservatives. Every denomination. Every preacher, author and blogger. It’s an amazing commonality that we largely ignore when we are in conflict with other Christians. As much as some of us might want to emphasize the Creedal roots of Christian unity in the Apostle’s Creed, this “Big Four” unity of purpose is perhaps more fundamental. I repeat, THIS IS WHAT WE ARE ALL DOING.

Take for example, two books by an evangelical pastor in the PCUSA, Todd Bolsinger’s “Show Time” and “It Takes A Church To Raise A Christian.” Bolsinger occupies a kind of central high ground in the current evangelical scene. His church is mainline, but he is evangelical, not liberal. He appreciates the liturgical tradition, but is evangelistic. He writes about the centrality of congregational discipleship and personal authenticity. He seeks a recovery of a Gospel that has balance in areas that both liberals and conservatives have tended to distort. He is passionate about the connection of Gospel, church, experience and mission. Bolsinger’s work is free from polemic and presents an example of the best kind of evangelical writing.

It also presents a clear indication that Protestant evangelicals do work from a center, and that center is not theological and Biblical agreement, but these four pragmatic concerns: What is the Gospel? What is the church? What is authentic Christian experience? What does it mean to be missional?

This is true with the Emerging Church as presented in the work of McLaren, Sweet and others. It is true in the writing of the “truly reformed,” as we see it in White and Macarthur. It is true in liberals like Spong. The answers are different, but the Protestant impulse to answer these questions is undeniable. Spong is just as much a Protestant as R.C. Sproul.

Where do we differ? In many, many ways. We differ in the ways we read the Bible, and to what extent certain interpretations and presuppositions about the Bible will control the way those questions are answered. This is a very real difference, with important results. We differ in the ways we approach and answer all these concerns, but do we realize to what extent the questions make us all similar?

For example, consider how the pursuit of these four questions makes us different from our Roman Catholic friends. We are seeking a constant rediscovery and new application of these questions. The Roman Catholic is not, unless the church decides to come into council and reanswer the questions. Protestant Christians LIVE to answer these questions personally and in our congregational lives. Do we look back at how others have answered these questions in the past? Yes, but even those who look back at the Puritans or the early church as worth hearing and imitating agree that these do not answer the questions for us. They show us how others answered the questions. We still answer them for ourselves. That’s why reformers keep reforming, preachers and teachers keep studying, and revivalists keep seeking revival. There is always fresh light to dawn from the Word, and new applications for the Gospel in a changing world and in diverse cultures.

Back to Jordan Cooper. Is the “enemy” the person or the church who is seeking to answer these same questions in reference to the same God, the same Gospel and the same Bible? Are the emerging church, or the postmodern Christian the enemies of the “true” church and the “biblical” Christian?

I frequently hear that we cannot have a conversation about theology and church without clear boundaries about right and wrong answers. Certainly, there is a sense in which this is true in a classroom model. Imagine that I am leading a class on the Life of Jesus. The class discussion may go many different directions, but the class would hardly be well served if the teacher allowed the idea that Jesus was gay or married to stand equal with the view that Jesus was a normal, single man. I might feel, however, that it is in the best interests of the class to allow such “far out” options to be discussable, because if the discussion is properly moderated, they will be revealed as inadequately dealing with the evidence.

As a teacher, I may have class members who insist that allowing such discussions are a waste of time, and an insult to the class. They might insist I exit class members who raise absurd options. They may even engage the students in a hostile manner during class, causing open conflict.

I prefer a peaceful and agreeable experience in class, but I would still maintain that a good teacher should allow the discussion to go on interactively, even if it allows options from far left field to be voiced. It is the responsibility of the teacher, and of the class itself, to “test all things” by the source material. That someone might choose to believe something ridiculous is simply a risk that happens in any class.

The evangelical conversation is much the same. It is not in the best interests of the conversation to control the way these four major questions are answered, or to predetermine where the boundaries are going to be in advance. Let me be clear: there are times some students will be asked to leave the class, but that should be rare….and it shouldn’t happen just because other students are annoyed.

N.T. Wright uses the famous illustration of the church as the “fifth act” of a play that grows out of the Old Testament, Jesus, Paul, and the early church. We look at our four questions (What is the Gospel? What is the Christian Life? What is the Church? How do we do mission?), we look at what the rest of the play has shown us, and then we write our act, for our time, for our culture and calling.

Ever been in a classroom that was left with such an assignment? Some students want to take over and get the job done without any discussion. Other students want to talk about the play. They want to explore possibilities and suggest directions. The “get down to business” students will be annoyed. They may complain, because they want to finish the assignment, while the other students seem to be more interested in the experience than in the result.

Perennial, really fundamental questions will turn into discussions that seem to last forever. Maybe that is exactly what should happen. Rather than say the last good answers to the important questions were given 400 years ago, there is something in Protestantism that says, “Let’s go back and look at the basics again and again….just to see what happens.”

Here at our school, there is a phenomenon I called “turf wars.” Whenever anyone is given a responsibility, they are very sensitive about anyone doing ANYTHING that touches on that responsibility. One of the things I’ve had to learn is that all of us who work here share certain “turfs,” and in these areas, no one can say “That’s mine. Leave it alone.” We have to share, and that is hard for many Christians.

The fundamental questions are not anyone’s property. They belong to all of us, and as much as that irritates the smart, efficient kids with all the right answers memorized, we have to live with it. Spong gets an answer. The emergents get to answer. Wright and company are in the discussion. So are Pentecostals, traditionalists, heretics, Warrenites and all kinds of others.

It’s not a war. It’s a conversation. And if it is like most conversations, there is a lot to be learned from some unlikely places, if we are willing to hang in there for the discussion.

Comments

  1. Very good! I have something to comment about, but I have Bay to Breakers in the morning, so perhaps another time the comment I had in mind will be in mind!

  2. MichaelB says:

    Nice one. Your spot illustration choices are always good too.

  3. joel hunter says:

    You’ve brought the concerns of Cooper’s post nicely into focus. It makes me think of Jesus’ self-description as “the Way.” He is both the destination (the focus of the “results” or “right answers” community) and the *path* for the journey (the focus of the “experiential” or “exploratory” community).

    May I push against one minor point you made? You described the “big four” questions as perhaps more fundamental than the Apostle’s Creed. We are all answering those questions, even those who claim “no creed.” However, you thought the pursuit of these questions is distinctive of Protestants but not Roman Catholics. Something has to give here. If the four questions are as fundamental to “mere” Christianity as you say (and on first pass, I agree that they are), then wouldn’t creed-confessing Christians, including Catholics, be giving (at least part of) their answers to the questions? I don’t think Catholicism is any less concerned with trying to give contemporary answers to these timeless questions (perhaps the different orders of service and rule are indicative of their own plurality of “turf”). If these questions unite Christians, then I would put Catholic leaders alongside the other diverse Protestants you mentioned as part of the same conversation. Or perhaps I misunderstood the distinction you were making.

  4. I need to unpack that a bit. Protestantism, especially evangelicalism, seems to be in CONSTANT rediscovery of these four concerns, while Roman Catholicism already has the answers and emphasizes application more than the theological/Biblical work.

  5. How is it that basic first principle questions could be so badly missed? The four questions posed do not represent the prolegomena of theology. I can agree that theology has often relied upon a prolegomena that is too dependent upon a naturalistic and artificial construct but the opposite reaction, the one you espouse, is equally or more dangerous than what has been the norm during the modern era.

    These ‘concerns” are not merely ‘pragmatic’ in their questioning. The concerns should be to the core of truth and reality. If we cannot even inquire to the most basic of principles, How do I know who God is, then all other “pragmatic” questions lose there meaning.

    So no, the reference isn’t to the same God, the same Gospel, and the same Bible, and the point that you and your ken are missing or ignoring.

    You see friends, it is exactly this sort of agnosticism toward knowledge of God that will eventually lead to full blown nilhism. If first principle questions are left unanswered eventually nothing can be answered. Since this post begins by referal might I make my own? Here is a quote by Jens Zimmerman in the preface to his new book:

    “Modern hermeneutics, however, has become extremely squeamish about the knowledge of God. The notion of revelation and particular religon are viewed with suspicion, often for good reason. The suggested solution, religous pluralism based on the reduction of religous knowledge to apophasis, to radically negative theology, may seem attractive, given our generally vague and noncommittal cultural attitude toward ultimate meaning, but suffers from universally incontestable kernel, such as love and compassion, lacks any possible foundation for these values. If we cannot really know what we know when we love our God, to borrow a phrase from a recent book on religon, how can we still know that the character of this unknown divinity is love or compassion?”
    (Jens Zimmermann. Preface. Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation)

  6. >The four questions posed do not represent the prolegomena of theology.

    I didn’t say that. You’re trying to turn a conversation about one thing into another. I said these are the questions that Protestants are continually answering as they “do church,” so to speak.

    Trying to hurl me off the cliff of the hermeneutics of nihilism is a bit dramatic.

  7. As far as catholics and the “questions”
    I haven’t been a catholic for a long time, but have never jumped on that “bash catholics cuz they can’t be saved anyway” band wagon. I spent at least 12 years as a growing catholic, then 5 years as a searching pagan, and now I’m born again and fighting all labels and dogmas. But from what I recall, and what I discern from my catholic friends, The Rediscovery of the Gospel is done often through retreats and the like. It is relatively new that Catholics actually do “Bible Study” maybe about 20 years or so…but often and traditionally they have gone into the quiet places of the soul to rediscover and recharge…revive their faith.Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about. Life Centered in Christ and Discipleship…yes, I saw, see that there, the dedicated catholics are just as dedicated as any other dedicated believer in Jesus. Missionary, evangelistic work, for sure! It always irks me when i hear foreign missionaries say there are “no churches” in an area when the only church there is Catholic. But I do think that application of the gospel to current times and cultures is lacking because of the attention paid to tradition. Make sense? Relative to your comments and thoughts?

  8. I have just realized that I missed a section in the extended quote of Zimmermann. Here is how it should read (with apologies to the readers and Zimmermann):

    “Modern hermeneutics, however, has become extremely squeamish about the knowledge of God. The notion of revelation and particular religon are viewed with suspicion, often for good reason. The suggested solution, religous pluralism based on the reduction of religous knowledge to apophasis, to radically negative theology, may seem attractive, given our generally vague and noncommittal cultural attitude toward ultimate meaning, but suffers from an incurable inconsitency. The reduction of religon to a general and universally incontestable kernel, such as love and compassion, lacks any possible foundation for these values. If we cannot really know what we know when we love our God, to borrow a phrase from a recent book on religon, how can we still know that the character of this unknown divinity is love or compassion?”
    (Jens Zimmermann. Preface. Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation)

    Oh, no I’m not trying to hurl you off the cliff of hermeneutic nilhism, you’re running full speed toward the cliff all by yourself. Each step is a “leads to” process that eventually ends up falling off the cliff.

    I’m not opposed to a Christian emphasis in ontology as long as it accompanies a strong emphasis in transcendence. When I start to see immanence rear her ugly head and become the dominatrix, we can kiss away axiology.

    BTW, I kinda like pea-green shag carpeting. See, I don’t deny the creative part of diversity. However, if we are still asking what is the gospel, then it’s back to basics.

  9. Cosmo said: “You see friends, it is exactly this sort of agnosticism toward knowledge of God that will eventually lead to full blown nilhism. If first principle questions are left unanswered eventually nothing can be answered. ”

    I don’t think iMonk or the others are being as agnostic as you think and I definitely don’t think we are on a rocket sled towards nihilism.

    The point about these “Christian Questions” is that we all have this sort of underlying foundation that we accept: Christianity (whatever it is) is true, the Gospel represents something true and valuable to the human experience, that we are beings created by a God who in some sense loves us.

    With that sort of a foundation, I think we are quite anchored against a nihilistic free fall, wouldn’t you say?

    With that foundation in mind, it is safe to start unpacking and reexamining our ideas. What is the gospel? Who was Jesus? What was the point of what Jesus says? What is the Bible all about? What is our job on earth?

    I don’t see why those aren’t safe areas to really question and work out. As Phillippians says, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. I think iMonk is someone who really lives out that verse, humbly working out his faith with a desire to know the truth.

    This fear of rexamining the basics seems to me to be the sin of the Pharisees, who had everything figured out, outlined, and codified into Law. Christ came and challenged their interpretation of their own basics, all the way back to Moses. If Christ came today, don’t you think being willing to examine the basics and let the questions be asked would prevent us from making the same mistake as the Pharisees back then?

  10. Cosmo—please stop posting at this site. That’s a nice request on my part. Please honor it.

  11. From the post:
    “The evangelical conversation is much the same. It is not in the best interests of the conversation to control the way these four major questions are answered, or to predetermine where the boundaries are going to be in advance. Let me be clear: there are times some students will be asked to leave the class, but that should be rare….and it shouldn’t happen just because other students are annoyed.”

    Then:
    “Cosmo—please stop posting at this site. That’s a nice request on my part. Please honor it.”

    OH! The grand irony! Apparently I went outside the boundaries of this conversation and I am that rare happenstance. LOL. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on your inconsistencies as we all fail to attain. Perhaps it was the bitter personal revelation today concomitant with this post that left the deepest bruise. Yes, I’ll honor your request herewith.

    Phil, if you want to continue the discussion about foundations, email me.

  12. I have asked Cosmo to not comment here because he/she is commenting about me and my sites at the troll blog run by a person who resorts to vile language, racism, hate and death threats to harass me. Cosmo does not use improper language or harass me at that site, but I cannot accept his/her participation as a conversation partner here when the purpose of that blog is the worst kind of hatred, glorification of hatred and so on, all of which Cosmo is well aware of.

  13. mike kibbe says:

    just a quickie: bishop spong is not, no way, “just as protestant as r.c. sproul.” spong denies the existence of a personal God. spong denies the virgin birth, deity, and resurrection of Christ. spong denies the physical possibility of miracles. not protestant. not orthodox. not christian. to call him liberal is an insult to liberals.

  14. Mike….*long sigh*

    I totally realize that. But Spong is addressing the same questions and doing it in a very Protestant attitude. NOT DOCTRINAL CONCLUSIONS. But attitude. Nailing stuff to the door attitude. Luther complex. Apostate? Sure. But Protestant to the core in ATTITUDE.

    PLEASE don’t say that I said Spong and Sproul are identical in their beliefs!! Not true!!

  15. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    I thought iMonk was pretty clear about what he meant by Protestant. Conflating the doctrinal conclusions of Protestantism with the Protestant method of coming to doctrinal conclusions can’t be done neatly or nicely. I say this as a Protestant.

    I’ve referred to Spong as a fundamentalist for the liberal side just as I have referred to a number of atheists as “born again” atheists because they ply you with arguments for atheist the way they would have plied you with Chick tracts before they became apostate. iMonk can point out that the methods can be employed across the board even if the conclusions drawn are completely different. So in that sense Sproul and Spong are both Protestants in the same way that Benny Hinn and Spurgeon could be called Protestants but obviously we’d tell people to pay more attention to Spurgeon than Hinn.

  16. mike kibbe says:

    i stand corrected; i didn’t read what you said carefully enough. thanks for setting me straight.

  17. I just want to thank you Mike for including a reference to my books in this insightful post.

    I appreciate your thoughtfulness about the “Big Four” and will likely use it as grist for the mill for some further reflections.