Monday, February 28, 2011

The Spirit of Dialogue: How Should We Act In Light of Theological Differences?

In our interactions with others, whether they be Christian or otherwise, we need to set boundaries. With this in mind, I submit the following exercise of setting my own personal boundaries implicitly based in biblical foundations, as I prayerfully understand them, for others to glean what they will. We must keep in mind that the theological liberties (in an authorized, not inherent, sense) that are afforded us, specifically those that allow us to hold to our differences concerning the faith, are given, not as an inerrant right, but as an allowance of grace. The Lord is very aware of our inadequacies and, more to the point, our stubbornness.

Since it is not a right that we disagree, but an opportunity (for one or both sides to be incorrect without being subject to complete consequence) given to us as a concession for our deficiencies, we must not be content or complacent in our disagreement, for proper/right understanding is at stake (See note: The Importance of Right Doctrine). Instead, we should work diligently with each other through study, prayer, and healthy dialogue to try to bridge the gaps and to try to establish more faithful perceptions of truth that can be agreed upon if enough patience and explanation take place within healthy dialogue.

All involved must remember that if we are to truly consider ourselves brothers and sisters in the faith, then it is our duty, an obligation we owe to each other in the name of love, to treat each other as such. If we are children of God, adopted by grace through faith in Christ, then we all (Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Wesleyan-Arminians, to name a few) must be concerned for the well being of each other, wanting God to be exalted in proper understanding of His divine truth. We are not each other’s enemies. It is important that we keep an openness, realizing that each side potentially has something to offer.

Often times, our theological differences are a matter of semantic over-emphasis as a matter of protecting our own position. In other words, one might choose to use a term (e.g. prevenient grace for the Wesleyan and common grace for the Calvinist), simply because it leans toward one camp over another, but the same person might hold a very nuanced definition of the term that other's might never realize if they do not ask. Just as we should never pigeonhole a person based on their affiliation to a particular political movement (e.g. calling all who are concerned with social and/or environmental justice “liberals”), we should never assume we know all there is to know about a person’s beliefs because he or she considers himself or herself a Calvinist or Wesleyan (or anything else for that matter). Moreover, if time is taken to fully listen and attempt to understand others' positions, instead of wasting time coming up with a counter argument that might be gratuitous, missing all that the person is saying in the first place, then one might (in many, but certainly not all cases) come to realize that the other person’s views are not so different after all, and might not differ in the least, except for emphasis and terminology.

On the one hand, one should not presume to know the extent of another's theological understandings until that person has thoroughly exhausted all the resources that the person in question has provided. Keep in mind, there does come times when there is a need to argue for one's own side in light of another's statement, even when one has not read all that the person whose position is in question has provided. In those instances it is important to note that the position that one is arguing against is an assumed position, unless the person has provided concrete evidence on the particular topic, even if more is stated elsewhere. In other words, all theological dialogue (at least those conversations that do not include a heretical voice) should be participated in with a sense of humility by all those involved. However, because right understanding is at stake, this is not to say that dialogue should not be done passionately. It should. It should be done with a passion to discover truth.

On the other hand, as for the individual making the initial argument, it should be his or her duty in the first place to explain terms to the fullest extent that the individual is capable, especially for those terms that are central to the arguments. Remaining vague in order to maintain use of loopholes and to avoid entanglement is not respectful of the argument or the person one is trying to persuade. In fact, it might be deception. One should be willing to take his or her argument out its logical conclusion to test the strength of one’s case. To do anything less is to risk misleading others by an esoteric rant on tradition. This is not to suggest that one must be fully studied on any matter he or she wishes to discuss, only that they should have a humility in their words (even acknowledging gaps when they are apparent) if it is the case that there remains more to be gleaned, and is this not the case the majority of the time?

Often times, we hide behind the concession of grace that allows us to disagree, not wanting others to pop our theological bubble. We often agree to disagree before any discussion has ever happened, wanting to avoid all conflict. However, if one detects such a weakness in his or her own understanding, then the best thing for that person might be to learn from others, even those that do not align with his or her own tradition. This can be a painful process (I've been there), but through pain comes growth (I would rather betray tradition than betray/ignore truth).

Keep in mind to test the spirit of others who wish to dialogue with you concerning theology. Some are out there to cause dissension and not unity. Others are not spiritually mature enough to discuss disagreement without resorting to anger and/or ad hominem attacks. However, once you do decide to enter into dialogue, be sure to listen intently, not assuming you know precisely what the other is going to say before they say it, and always allow the other to have the chance to qualify any ambiguous statements.

As a final statement, I must recognize the fact that sometimes the only resolution will be to maintain disagreement. This is not the preferred outcome, but, at least until a later point in time when both/all companies involved have had a chance to reflect, some level of disagreement must be tolerated for the sake of brotherhood, and the greater good is being unified as the one body whose concern is not self promotion, but others, especially the lost, who benefit little from our internal bickering and much from our unified efforts. In other words, never allow the perfect to be the enemy of the greatest possible good. Sometimes, the perfect scenario is inhibited by influences outside our control, and, in those cases, we should not resort to an extreme in which those involved are stifled from any further dialogue or common work together.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Our Place as Participants in The Redemption Story

Note: While I usually reserve my longer theological writings for the ministry website, I felt led to place this article on my blog as well. I felt led to do so because the following expresses where my heart is now in Christian ministry. Also, further revision might be made in the near future, but I was anxious to share as soon as possible. I hope you enjoy.

" out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure." -The Apostle Paul, Philippians 2:12

For one to think that he or she as an individual is the end of the redemptive purposes of God, to think that the individual soul is that goal and beyond each of us there is no more concern so that we are not responsible in ourselves to move forward in the process of redemption (of self and others) is to think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of our privilege as believers. To put this a bit more simply, we should not assume that it is God's prerogative to set us free in salvation so that we might live in comfort knowing that we are "good to go," all the while living as we wish, wallowing in our sin. Salvation is the beginning to every Christian story, not the end. Once we accept Christ, we are not done; we are just starting.

If it were the case that God had no eschatological goal/s within human history, but only wished to set apart a people for future glory, the modern, Western equating of justification to salvation would be a much more viable option for coming to understand God's dealing with humanity's crisis of sin. In other words, if God had no particular will for the trajectory of human history, but only wanted to establish true relationship with each of us after death, then it would make sense that all He would need to do is forgive us of all our sins, past, present and future, and allow us to go on unchanged until death and glorification. This is not to say that this would necessarily be the case, only that it would make much more sense than it does in light of the way things really are. We are not in an intermission awaiting death.

The eschatological goals of God (the goals that bring this age to completion in harmony with God's will) are purely set on the redemption of all things. Moreover, all that is God's that pertains to this reality is called to join Him in this redemption process, and are we not part of this "all" as Christians? Are we not His to do with as He wishes? As we will further discuss in a moment, we are called as representatives, ambassadors, of our King to the world. Representatives must reflect the character of their king in order to demonstrate what they mean when they suggest that their king acts this or that way, especially if the king's ways are so totally foreign to the ways of the people the representatives are in dialogue with. And our King's way is certainly foreign to the world to which we present His message; is it not?

In light of this reality, Christian righteousness cannot merely be alien righteousness imputed by the blood of Christ through the forensic pardoning of justification. For to represent God is to be like God, and to be like Him, we must be transformed by Him. While it is certainly true that we are righteous simply for the fact that we are hidden in Him, this cannot lead us to believe this is all that God has in store for us in the redemption process. To be His representatives we must be changed to be made like Him. If it is our purpose in salvation to fulfill this call, then being made righteous has to be a part of that process so that others will take notice of what it is to be like God, and this is only done by the impartation of righteousness by the Spirit of God. In other words, this is not done by our own means; we are only being made in His likeness because Christ has afforded us the opportunity to be temples of the Spirit, where the Spirit has the chance to work in us in order to make us whole.

The majority Western worldview of redemption that has its roots in reformation thinking is inadequate when it suggests to the world that salvation is mostly concerned with justifying the sinner, as if we are an end within ourselves and have no real purpose once we are saved. At the time of the Reformation, it was the reformer's job, such as Martin Luther, to (in the words of Timothy Tennet) defend the doorway of faith. Justification is that work of God that introduces the believer into the faith. It is the entry into the faith. For so long, the church of that day had been preaching the idea that the church itself was the entry way to salvation, and the reformers were reminding the church that it is by Christ that we enter into the church. It is by grace through faith alone that we come to know Christ. This had been lost, and the reformers had to put all their efforts to reestablish this truth. This explains why Luther had such issue with the book of James, wishing to remove it from Scripture. To continue with Tennet's analogy, while Luther was in the doorway of faith, James was in the living room, teaching us, not how to become a Christian, but how to live as one.. In His faithful defense of the doorway that teaches us how to become a Christian, Luther began to ignore what lay in store for the believer. He sometimes ignored the fact of how we are to be a Christian once we are one.

Today, this reformational over-emphasis might not be explicitly expressed by the leaders of the Western church, but it is surely implicitly expressed when these teachers focus so heavily upon justification (what God does for us) with little to no mention of sanctification (what God does in us) when reflecting upon salvation, and what a danger it is to only tell partial truths. While justifying pardon is a crucial point within the order of salvation, we were not bought by the blood of Christ in order to be set free in a purely autonomous sense, even if only until death. In fact, humans cannot be purely autonomous. We must choose who we will serve. We will always be dependent upon the will of God (if we are to truly submit to Him). We were bought at a price for a purpose, to be God's, not our own.

It is not within God's eschatological, redemptive purposes to remove our responsibility and redemption from the realm of space and time, or space-time, however you wish to look at it. Instead, the story of redemption, which is His will, is unfolding around us, and hopefully, if we are submissive, through us. We are to be participants within the story. God has deemed it necessary that redemption break through in the here and now, and while sin, death, and the lost will remain with us, as the weeds remain with the wheat until harvest, we are called to over come sin in the here and now so that we might join hands with the Father as we serve His purpose in saving souls. Therefore, sanctification (actual change) is not an option, but a necessary part of salvation, if the saved is afforded the time here on earth to minister after justification (In other words, while we can be saved even moments before death, if we are given the grace to remain in the world, we must move forward).

Our call to be demonstrators of God's holiness in order to impact the world is given throughout the Scriptures, but for lack of space, I will give but a few examples. The first portion of Scripture that comes to mind explicitly demonstrates our playing a crucial role in the redemption story: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). It is certain that we are called to forgive the transgressions of others when they harm us, but, as my pastor, David Yarbrough, recently reminded us as his congregation, this is not what our Lord is specifically referring to at this juncture. Instead, Jesus says this very thing after telling His disciples to receive the Spirit of God. With the Spirit, we are called to spread the good news of God's forgiveness to the world. We are God's agents of redemption. While, as Pastor Yarbrough reminded us that Sunday morning, we cannot forgive others their sins ourselves, we, as temples, have the ability to bring the Spirit within us out into the world and the ability to proclaim God's forgiving power as the Spirit speaks through us. Thus, our call within the redemption story allows us the privilege to share with new believers, as well as brothers and sisters who have stumbled, that by the acceptance of Christ, their sins have been forgiven.

The next portions of Scripture demonstrates for us that it is not our call to merely proclaim the good news, but to live it out, to demonstrate for the world that our sins are really forgiven and that God has the power to deal with them within us as we live set-apart, holy lives. First, let us look at the OT foundation for this concept: "...the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes...I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and [make you] be careful to observe my ordinances" (Ezekiel 36:23b, 27). Up to this point the Lord is admonishing His people, Israel, for not being good representatives among the nations of the world. Instead, they have made God seem weak and have profaned His name because they had not been living holy lives. In order for us to be representatives, we must take on that Spirit, which allows us to "follow [His] statutes and [to] be careful to observe [His] ordinances." This is affirmed in the NT by Christ when He tells us through The Sermon on The Mount: "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

For us to be part of the redemption story has been God's intent since the beginning. His eschatological purpose for His people to be a part of the redemption story has been revealed time and time again, and has always been God's purpose for His people, as demonstrated in His promise to Abraham, the blood father of the nation of Israel and the Spiritual father of all who call upon the name of the Lord: " you all the families of the world shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3b). God has called us, His people, for a purpose. We do not sit in waiting. We are to join in His work, for He has called us to do so: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19,20). He is with us to the end of the age, until His eschatological goal has been fulfilled He will be working through us for that goal.

In conclusion, I have often heard it said and wholeheartedly agree that Christianity is the only religion that concerns what God does for us instead of what we do for God/gods. However, we need to understand this in its fulness. While it is true that Christianity is largely about what God does for us, we must not allow that to make vague the truth that another aspect of the Christian life concerns what God does in us. Consequently, Christianity concerns what God does through us. For what would be the point of changing us in the here and now if this change was not to make any sort of outward, even social, impact. And this is why I suggest that it would be much more sensible to accept the equating of justification alone with salvation, if God had given no revelation of an eschatological goal in redemption. If I am not called to represent God, then it is not as important that I reflect His image. But, if I am, then it is of utmost importance, and we must dismiss any thought that would have us assume otherwise.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What We Lost and What is at Stake

To say of humanity that we are lost does not begin to bring about the sort of anguish that should be brought about in light of our fall and depravity. The real question is this: What are we lost from? For it is not just life that we lost, but a sort of life, a way of being that is hard if not difficult to grasp by the sinful heart, but, if only glimpsed at, will create a deep and devastating longing that can last a life time. That our God is a God that would will our happiness forever is a concept that has been lost on humanity and even some Christians. But that is why we were created, and that is exactly what we threw back into God’s face when our own selfishness led to a desire for what was not ours to take. The tree and its fruit represents more than mere disobedience; it represents a whole shift in being, a gaining of a perspective, the knowledge of good and evil, which was not really a gain at all, but a loss. This tree represents division between man and God. It represents a division within man himself, man who was created to desire God now, through disobedience, has taken on a new desire, a desire that leads to death, a desire for self. The tree represents the desire of self over God. But who is capable of lifting himself up? Strong as one may be, no one can pull himself up by his own bootstraps. We were made to be carried by God, but we chose the fruit of selfishness which created and revealed in man a division between good, outward focused reality and evil, inward focused reality. If the fall of man, demonstrated in the selfish act of choosing from the one tree that man was to ignore, created a division, a break in the human nature, what is the nature that we lost? We lost the nature of God, being made in His image, and this being demonstrated in the separation of man from God. And what is the nature of God, the image, which we lost? God is love. We lost love. To make our fall anything less than the loss of love is to downplay the sheer horror of what was truly given up by our transgression. This is not to say that God stopped loving us, but something even worse. While God continues to love, we chose to set up a barrier so that His love could not reach us and fulfill us as it once did. If God would have just given up, it might not sting so badly, but in His persistence we see the horrible reality of what sort of love we transgressed. We have tried various theologies to numb and downplay the issue. In anguish, some have suggested we really did not lose much. We are merely pawns in God’s game. We shift the blame or make it trivial. But, we must face reality. We threw love back in Love’s face. How retched? But, hear the good news. We are called to return. We all are called. While love was lost, while love was stripped from Love, Love never stopped searching for the objects of His desire. While we did not want to have anything to do with Love, Love never changed. He still desires us. In order to turn from the sin that we fell into, we must turn from the self, and this is done by the grace of Love. Our own broken nature calls us back to Love, but we cannot tear down the barrier we set in place. All we now have is a plea to Love. Thank Love that it is the nature of love to return to the lost, to even those who have betrayed Love for spite. There is no other motive of Love, but love. Try as we might to shift the story, we will eventually have to accept the truth that what we lost was God, what we have lost is Love. Love is at stake, not mere life, but life abundant with Love. What is at satke is God, the God of our fulfillment. He seeks us all in Love, for Love does not discriminate or show favoritism. Oh how lost we would be if Love was not loving. Praise Him.