Thursday, January 8, 2009

Deep Thinking In Practical Terms

This post is a little more academic, but I think these are important things to think about.

There are two questions that I have wrestled a lot with lately(lately meaning the last four years in the case of the first question) that I am trying to examine in slightly different lights.

The first question has to do with the nature of "salvation" or the nature of the "gospel." Are these the same things? What are we saved from? Is salvation merely a "pardon" or giving of forgiveness as it seems in many Baptist circles especially. Or is salvation a constant process of taking sacraments and doing good works to become justified in the sight of God, as Catholics seem to think. Is the point of the gospel to get us into heaven or is it to take part in something that is happening here on earth?

These questions are difficult to think through, but I'm trying to put this in a slightly different light. Instead of thinking about these questions in a strictly theoretical and theological perspective where we might debate the merits of each view and its sources of authority, I'm trying to understand the implications of these questions practically. While certainly there is a theoretical aspect to theology and to Christian belief, it seems like Christianity is also intended to be an belief system that is accompanied by a lot of action. So the question I am posing now is "what are the implications for different views on the nature of the gospel/salvation for what we do as Christians?" This is especially pertinent in terms of how we view evangelism. If the gospel is entirely a spiritual message- your sins will be forgiven and you will go live with God in heaven when you die on earth- then our evangelism will be focused on "conversion" and be much more spiritualized. This seems to fit the contemporary Baptist model especially. However, if we view the gospel as a call to participation in God's kingdom on earth (NT Wright is major advocate of this view, for example), then our evangelism will be more focused on calling people to believe in and participate in the work of the church (which will be much more humanitarian and less "spiritual"). So I've really been examining the practical side of this issue more lately and trying to understand how the practical and theoretical influence one-another.

Another related question is an examination of history and how the gospel fits into different historical contexts. For instance, the early church was in a very Jewish context that had at its center the concept of a Messiah. Christianity latched onto that by proclaiming Jesus to be this Messiah. Later, as Christianity expanded into a more Greco-Roman world, it began to adopt the philosophical context of this community by appealing to Perfect-Being Theology especially to explain the nature of God. Most of what we consider the classical theological views of God are taken from Greek philosophy and supported by scripture, rather than the other way around (contrary to the claims of many evangelicals and fundamentalists). As time progressed and the Roman empire fell a more pessimistic and "legal" framework of thinking developed and from that came the theology of Augustine that proclaimed that Christ had paid a certain penalty for our sins, one demanded to "justify" us in the sight of God. And a new view of salvation developed, one in which Christ's work is seen as taking our place and paying our penalty in order to make us perfect in the sight of a God who cannot tolerate imperfection (and yet talks to Moses as a friend, just to give us a hint of where this view, like most, does not completely represent the Biblical data). In other words, Christianity seems to adapt to address different philosophical contexts. In each of these the "tradition" has changed. The question is how does this historical development affect our views today? Should we also adapt to a new philosophical context or do we cling to tradition (a call which ironically seems most strong from fundamentalists who also reject Catholicism's canonization of tradition).

This issue become especially interesting in examining the progression of Protestant thought in the last few hundred years. Protestantism developed as a rejection of a view that had developed in the medieval church to say that by taking the sacraments we somehow obligate God to extend grace to us. I believe the protestants were probably correct in rejecting this theological development in church practice, but Protestants stayed in the same framework of thinking as the medieval church, most adopting views very close to Augustine. However, right on the heals of the Reformation came the Enlightenment, and suddenly the philosophical context of the world changed to being much more optimistic and based around the progress of man's knowledge toward triumph over the forces of the world. In this context, the stories of Christianity seemed outdated and incapable of measuring up to the rigors of academic study. From this context developed Liberalism, which attempted to accommodate Enlightenment thought and in doing so rejected the overwhelming majority of the Christian tradition and formed something radically different from any prior form of Christianity (and for this reason, it seems questionable to consider the more radical forms of Liberalism to be part of Christianity). In response to the extreme measures of Liberalism, Fundamentalism formed which made the opposite error- instead of throwing out tradition they added to it things that had never been essential aspects of the Christian tradition and made them "necessary" to being part of Christianity. Neither view seemed to really address the modernistic social context, and as a result Christianity lost a lot of credibility. Post-modernism seems to pose a similar challenge, but at the same time some very interesting opportunities for Christianity to re-engage the culture meaningfully and address the new context. The question is how this will happen and who will participate? Will more "conservative" Christians shy away for fear of change? Will more liberal Christians throw away theology altogether? Is there some-sort of balance that can be formed to address the culture and still remain essentially Christian?


  1. Good post. I'm thinking on your last paragraph and it occurs to me that postmodernism (whatever that is) has helped maintained the same sort of divide that existed in the twenties between social gospel advocates and fundamentalists: one camp seeing Jesus' call as a call to belief, the other as a call to action. I still see that same divide maintained today by the current culture's love of 'senseless acts of beauty/kindness' and a sort of 'modernist' obsession with truth. Thought?

    Hope you're enjoying the cruise. Why didn't you tell me you had a blog?? (Or did you, and I forgot?)

  2. I see a similar divide as well, and at the moment there seems to be a spectrum of Christian responses- ranging from more fundamentalist "all about truth" responses to very anti-academic "we just want to show people love and forget doctrine" responses to a variety of middle-ground positions. I am curious to see if there will be more definitive moves toward polarizing that discussion, or if the variety of views will be maintained.

    I thought I had told you about the blog... but perhaps I had not.


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