Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history - and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary - I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.
After doing a lot of reading over the past couple of weeks I have come to a conclusion that is relatively new to me. Because I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer I have to make that little observation clear, or people will think that I am trying to reinvent the wheel. I am not trying to reinvent it, I am just discovering how profoundly valuable the wheel can be.
The new (or perhaps renewed) concept that has been made very clear to me is that we will not go very far in solving many of the questions facing the Lord’s church today if we do not first come to an understanding about a very basic concept: what is the “kingdom of God?” I believe this is important for a number of reasons. One, I don’t think many people have really thought through this question. I think many, including preachers and Bible school teachers, work under a basic assumption of what the kingdom of God is, but they have not really put any hard effort into either confirming or denying their assumption. Two, I think many are laboring under conflicting ideas of what the kingdom of God is. This is really a problem if a person has not burned a little midnight oil working on this question. The result is too often one view of the kingdom in one situation, and another view of the kingdom in another situation, and too frequently these views conflict with each other, and so therefore cannot both be true. Three, I think some (if not many) are afraid to do much thinking on the subject, afraid that they may be forced to revise some of their viewpoints. This, of course, is the main reason why people do not do any serious thinking about any subject.
Without going into too much detail, there are a number of views that are currently held by church members, each with its own set of problems:
1) The kingdom is equal to the church. I remember being taught we cannot pray for the kingdom of God to come (i.e. the Model, or Lord’s Prayer) because the church was established on the day of Pentecost and therefore the kingdom had arrived. Problem: which church? And if the kingdom of God is the church, why is it so divided? Why are there so many competing visions of the church and therefore kingdom? Why did the kingdom of God fall into such disarray? You can’t say, “because of man’s sinfulness” because the kingdom is God’s kingdom, not man’s kingdom. You can’t have it both ways. And, if Matthew was teaching his congregation how to pray, and he taught them to pray the model prayer, then was Matthew wrong? Why did he include the prayer as a part of his gospel if it was not to be foundational in the church to which he was writing?
2) The kingdom is equal to an earthly kingdom – be it Israel, the United States, or perhaps a reconstituted Israel. Problem: Jesus never spoke of his kingdom as an earthly kingdom. In fact, quite the opposite – he said his kingdom was not of this earth. I know this disappoints the moral majority crowd, but facts is facts. By the way, this is also a problem for view #1 above.
3) The kingdom is totally in the future. Basically related to some form of millennialism (either post, or more likely, pre), this view says that the kingdom has yet to be revealed, but will be revealed either at the end of a 1,000 year reign of Christ, or that Christ will inaugurate the kingdom which will precede a 1,000 year earthly reign. Problem: all the many passages (Luke 17:20-21) where Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as being present even as he speaks – it was a reality on earth even 2,000 years ago.
4) For all the mugwumps out there, there is the “already but not yet” suggestion. That is, the kingdom of God is already here, but yet there is more to come. Problem: which is already, and which is to come? Because when you ask people to get specific, they will combine aspects of all of these as the “already” and the “not yet.” For instance, the kingdom is foreshadowed by the United States (or the new Israel) but will only be completed with the perfect kingdom on this earth (variously identified as the New Israel or the New Jerusalem). Others point to the church as the already, and the ethereal “heaven” as the not yet.
And, just to muddy the waters even more, there is the translational problem of deciding whether to translate the word as it is more commonly translated, “kingdom” (a formal sense) or to translate it in a more dynamic sense of “reign.” Thus, we should not so much speak of a kingdom in the sense of a king and a realm over which he reigns, but as the actual dynamic power of the act of his reigning. There is a difference in talking about a kingdom of God and the reign of God. The one is static, the other is fluid. And, because I am the professor here and not the student, are there passages where the kingdom is static (kingdom), and passages where it is fluid (reign)?
No matter how you define it, the identification of the kingdom of God is critical to one’s politics, and even to one’s ethics. I have learned this in a profound way by looking at how the kingdom view of Alexander Campbell differed from that of Barton W. Stone within the American Restoration Movement. Over time the view of Campbell overcame that of Stone, and it has had a profound impact on the prevailing view of Churches of Christ up to this present time.
Anyway, I thought I would share these thoughts and see if anyone has the answer (tongue firmly in cheek). I would love to hear your thoughts, and perhaps some ideas about how we can come to a more acceptable universal answer. I might even be goaded into giving my own personal opinion.
Or, then again, maybe not.
I’ve been asked occasionally, “How did you get so interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer?” I am not a Lutheran, nor am I a German, nor was I alive during the second World War. To that question I might respond, “How do we get interested in anything?” We are not born liking spicy New Mexican cuisine, breakneck bluegrass music or the Minnesota Vikings. But, through our various experiences we are all (or most of us at least) blessed with the opportunity to become aware of all of God’s greatest gifts. And, even though I cannot remember when or how I was introduced to Bonhoeffer, I consider him to be one of God’s great gifts to me.
I also believe, as I have read and attempted to digest Bonhoeffer’s writings, that he has much to say to a movement that started as an effort to unite all Christians on the simple teachings of the Bible. For today’s post I would like to take a few of his comments (admittedly few and without much contextual background) from his essay, “Protestantism without Reformation” in the volume, Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940 in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). As I read them I could easily imagine some of the thoughts coming off of the pen of Alexander Campbell or Barton W. Stone.
The overall context of these quotes is a report that Bonhoeffer made regarding his visits to the United States (written after his second trip in August of 1939), and the observations he made regarding the differences between the Christian world of Germany and the Christian world of the United States. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things the way they really are, instead of the way we as insiders want to see them. There is no indication that Bonhoeffer was ever introduced to a congregation of the American Restoration Movement (Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, Church of Christ). I would truly love for him to have had that experience and to have written on it, but we can only deal with what we have, not what we wish to have had. I present these thoughts then for your consideration:
The doctrinal differences are often more significant within denominations (e.g. Baptists, Presbyterians) than among the different denominations. (p. 442)
Where churches are not divided by the struggle about the truth, the unity of the church should already be won. But the real picture is exactly the opposite. Precisely here, where the question of truth does not become the criterion either for community or for church schisms, there is greater fragmentation than anywhere else. (p. 442)
Only the truth revealed in Holy Scripture can and must decide between the existing differences. Churches must allow themselves to be questioned by one another on the basis of Holy Scripture. (p. 443)
The unity of the church is both origin and goal, both fulfillment and promise; it belongs to both faith and sanctification. (p. 445)
The claim to be the church of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with pharisaic conceit; rather, it is an understanding that humbles because it moves toward pennance). (p. 445)
It remains a fact that the New Testament gives legitimacy to the concept of church, not to the one of denominations. (p. 445)
The unity of the church as promise, as future, as the fruit of sanctification, is a work of the Holy Spirit…There are no methods that lead to the unity of the church. Only total obedience to the Holy Spirit will lead us to common understanding, confession, action, and suffering. (p. 445)
There are several other quotations from this essay that I would like to present, but they are not really germane to the issue of church unity. I simply present these as thought seeds and to challenge my readers as Bonhoeffer challenged me.
Are your toes as tender as mine are?
Have you ever stopped to consider why airplanes have no rearview mirrors? Actually, I believe there was a model that was produced with a rearview mirror, but it was kind of a novelty. Give up? Airplanes are designed to go in only one direction – forward. If you are worried about what is behind you, just kick the rudder a little and turn your head. Airplanes are designed strictly for optimists and visionaries. Historians need not apply.
I believe therein lies a great message for the church of Christ. As heirs of the American Restoration Movement we look back on our history (at least since the days of B.W. Stone and the Campbells) with pride. Before that, not so much, until we get back to the days of the first century church. So, you might say we have a pair of binoculars attached to our rearview mirror. We are not so much focused on the road behind us, but the distant horizon is a definite attraction.
In one way this is a good thing. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We must be constantly reminded of our history, even more so than we claim to pay attention to it today. (As an aside, I would also argue that we need to add the time from from 100 AD to 1800 AD as well.) Just think of how the Israelites were not just encouraged, but COMMANDED to review and even to relive their past. The feasts of Passover and Booths were not just fun holidays – they were actual re-creations of a rich, powerful, and theologically centered past. So, let us be unequivocal here – knowing and valuing ones history is critical for a healthy and sane future.
But I return to my analogy above. You cannot drive a car, much less fly an airplane, by staring in the rearview mirror. Especially difficult would be to do so with a pair of binoculars attached to the mirror. While a healthy knowledge of, and participation in, ones past is critical for the development of one’s future; the goal, the vision, has to be forward. Just stop and consider how the New Testament writers describe the major processes of discipleship: it is a growing, a transformation, a becoming, a renewal. These are all forward looking verbs. It is no mystery to me that the final book of the Bible is an apocalypse – a deeply metaphorical look into the future. But don’t just focus on Revelation. The author of the book of Hebrews says it all in one terse little sentence, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Look forward, not back. Our rearview mirror is important, but it is to be small and narrowly focused. It is an appendage to the church, not the primary means of navigation. We live our life in the eager expectation of Christ’s return, not in woeful recollection of his temporary death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way: here and now we live in the penultimate, but we are created by our faith in the ultimate. It is not the penultimate that gives the ultimate its meaning, it is the ultimate that gives the penultimate its meaning. I believe Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb lived this focus on the ultimate far more passionately than did Alexander Campbell, and it is instructive that as the Churches of Christ have made their peace with this world they have moved further and further from the Stone/Lipscomb tradition and more and more into the Campbell tradition. You cannot have your eyes focused solely upon God’s kingdom and believe yourself to be anything other than a stranger and a pilgrim on this earth. Stone, and later, Lipscomb were pilgrims. Campbell came to make his peace with the powers of this world, and as he did so he took down his tent and built a house. He ultimately became a very much a citizen of this world.
I love the history of the American Restoration Movement. I also love reformation history, medieval history, and both pre-and post Nicene history. But history can only be instructive, it can never be determinative! We must learn to cast our eyes upon the ultimate, upon the “last days,” so that we can truly live as God’s people and Christ’s disciples in our own age. The ultimate gives meaning to the penultimate. Christ’s return teaches us how to live today.
I will never remove my rearview mirror. But I am never going to try to fly in the fog by watching what is behind me. I want to keep the pointy end going forward, and the shiny side up. I want to take as many people with me as I can, too.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, intellectual debate was a prefered and healthy part of human discourse. It was through debate that ideas were accepted or rejected, minds were sharpened, and conversations were started.
But then the engine jumped the tracks and every car behind it became a twisted metal wreck. Even the word “debate” now is often seen as an ugly word. What passes for debates today are just glorified verbal gladiator exhibitions, where the loudest and shrillest voice wins. Long gone are the concepts of truth-seeking and polite discussions of significant issues. So, because I am a knuckle dragging troglodyte, I would like to suggest we reinvent the polite (although rigorous) form of debate. While I never had debate in high school, and I’m sure there are others out there who can provide the precise rules for debate, I would like to suggest these ground rules from a purely amateur point of view.
1. Actually honor your opponent! Treat him or her as you would like to be treated. Speak deferentially. Acknowledge their accomplishments, training, knowledge and wisdom. After all, you do not want to debate a wet dish rag. If your opponent is worthy of your mental acuity, then let them and the audience understand that you respect them.
2. Begin, continue, and end with the strong points of your position, not the (supposed) weaknesses of your opponent. Let the audience know what you stand for, not what you are against. If you cannot give the audience many good reasons to believe what you believe, maybe you should not believe it either!
3. Know your opponent’s arguments as well as they do. Do not misquote them, or misquote any of their allies. Do not assume you know, make sure you know. If you quote them, quote them in context. Clarify their position before you debate it.
4. Disagree with your opponent’s position, not with your opponent. They may be wrong, they may be right, or they may be partly wrong and partly right. The point of the debate is to arrive at a greater understanding of a greater truth, not to leave your opponent in a puddle of sweat and blood.
5. Do something radical – when your opponent says something that you agree with, magnify that agreement! It is virtually impossible to agree with another person 100% of the time on 100% of the issues. Likewise, it is virtually impossible to disagree with someone 100% of the time on 100% of the issues. So, where there is mutual agreement, loudly proclaim that agreement.
6. If you cannot begin as friends, at least begin with mutual acceptance and admiration, and end the same way. Debate is not a battle to the death, it is the free yet controlled expression of deeply held convictions. I may disagree vehemently with someone’s stated beliefs, but I can respect them as a person and as an opponent deserving of honor.
There are probably other good rules to add to the list. I really kind of miss the opportunity to hear two sides of one issue debated honorably and rigorously. I know that they do sometimes occur these days, but I would like to see more of them (done right, that is). Kind of an aside here, it would also be nice for people to hold their convictions deeply enough to actually be willing to debate them. It is irritating to want to have a conversation with someone only to have them say, “well, you believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want.” But I guess that is another topic for another day.
It is said that Alexander Campbell, one of the fiercest debaters within the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ history, made his supporters furious by inviting his debate opponents out to meals during their lengthy debates. His response was classic. They were men worthy of honor, even though he might disagree with their conclusions. If he could not eat with them, how could he say that he respected them in debate? If he did not respect them, why was he debating them?
Right on, Alex. (And by the way, great hairdo!)