Wednesday, February 13, 2013


When challenged about changing his mind on economic policy, John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have answered:
When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?
Whether he actually said that or whether it is original to him is up for some debate. Regardless, he did change his mind on some key economic issues and he was criticized for changing his mind, and was sometimes in the spot of defending his change of opinion. He probably did say something very similar to that at some point.  Anyway, those are wise words. I think it's fair for a person who is committed to learning and committed to truth to change his mind. New knowledge and experience sheds new light.

In contrast, one criticism I've heard of John Calvin is that he first published his definitive work,  The Institutes of the Christian Religion, in 1536 at the age of 27. There were several later editions with the final edition published in 1559. However, most agree that there were no substantial changes to the theology set forth in the original. So, between the age of 27 and 50, John Calvin didn't significantly change his mind on any theological topic. I think that criticism is legitimate. Calvin was a brilliant mind and his asceticism was incomparable. To produce a volume that monumental at the age of 27 is remarkable and I do not want to diminish that accomplishment. However, I find it quite suspicious that his theology did not change during those 23 years (or ever after that). Was he so knowledgeable and experienced and mature at the age of 27 that he was able to systematize his theology so airtight and perfectly that it required no significant change? Or did he stubbornly defend what he already believed and had already written in his magnum opus? The latter seems more likely to me.
John Calvin, Father of Reformed Theology
I see a similar problem with commitment to orthodoxy today. I'm afraid that many churches have a commitment to "fundamental" doctrines that is similar to Calvin's commitment to his Institutes. The conclusions are already defined. A member can study and research all he wants. Restudy, even. However, after the study and research, he still has to come back to orthodoxy. Anything other than orthodoxy will likely be met with resistance, suspicion, rebuke, and/or even derision. One may even get kicked out of fellowship or told that he is not really a Christian, all because he doesn't accept the group's orthodoxy after honest study and research.

In these churches, you can research archaeology, science, biology, and history all you want. Pursue degrees, even doctorate level degrees, in those disciplines. But in the end, you have to come back to the position of a literal Adam who lived 6,000 years ago beginning on the sixth literal day of the existence of the universe. You have to come back to the conclusion that Moses authored all of the Pentateuch. You have to conclude that the Exodus, wandering, and conquest happened exactly how the Bible describes them. If you don't come to those conclusions, your fellowship is at risk.

Another example, study hermeneutics all you want. Research how the Jews throughout history read and interpreted their Scripture. Research how the early church fathers read and interpreted the Bible. Learn all the Greek and Hebrew you can. It's especially good to learn Greek and Hebrew. But all of this learning and research is only good if you come back to the inerrantist / fundamentalist approach (unknown to the world before the 19th century) as the only valid way to interpret the Bible. Otherwise, you'll likely be accused of not having a high regard for Scripture.

And still another example... Restudy the topic of hell all you want. Find out all that the Old Testament says about it. Learn the Jewish beliefs between the testaments about the ultimate end of the wicked. Find out what people in Jesus' day believed. Find everything Jesus said about it. Consider all that the New Testament authors said about it. Find out what the early church fathers believed. But when you're finished with that, you must conclude that we have an immortal soul and that the wicked will be consciously tormented every second of all eternity in hell. Otherwise, much of evangelical Christendom will turn on you.

I could add more examples, but I think these make the point. Evangelical Christians have a problem. And dare I be so bold as to specifically mention my own group, the churches of Christ, as having this problem in particular. The problem is that the commitment to defending certain orthodox views and excluding those who don't hold those views is stifling the freedom to ask questions and learn and grow. Certain questions are off-limits. (This is not true of all evangelical churches nor is it true of all churches of Christ. For example, the church that I am a member of now is certainly not like this. I have immense grace and freedom to ask questions and discuss "off-limits" topics. I try to exercise that freedom responsibly, not attempting to persuade and not pressing too firmly on uncomfortable issues.)

The message that this commitment to orthodoxy sends is this. Certain issues are decided. Truth has been found. Restudy all you want. Just don't draw any different conclusions on these issues, no matter what else you learn. When issues are decided and codified, all you're allowed to learn when restudying are new arguments that support the existing orthodoxy. You may tweak the existing orthodoxy slightly to make it more resistant to arguments against it, like Calvin did, but you are not allowed to contradict these orthodox positions. I've even heard it said, "When someone says they're 'restudying' something, that means that they don't like the truth on that topic any more." I've restudied several topics, and I don't remember ever doing so because of an aversion to truth (or even just because I didn't like what I already believed). However, new (to me) information has prompted restudy several times.

So what's the solution? I don't know, except that we must eliminate the "they don't like the truth" rhetoric. Likewise, those who disagree with orthodoxy must also show gentleness and love. Questioning these issues is extremely uncomfortable, and frankly, not everyone is interested in asking these questions. That's okay. Those willing to question and even change their view on orthodox issues must be sensitive to that. They must not hold contempt for those who are comfortable with and/or agree with existing doctrines.

Some think, and will tell you flatly, that when interpretations differ, it's because one or both parties are wrong. When that narrow view of truth is held by one or both parties in a discussion, the discussion often becomes a contest to see who can resist admitting a mistake first. The first to admit a mistake loses the debate and nobody wants to do that. Then, pride, rather than love, wins. Rachel Held Evans has an excellent post on how to respond when our interpretations differ. I love this quote from that post.
In some cases, folks are so committed to their particular views on these issues they seem incapable of making a distinction between the Bible itself and their interpretation of it, and so any critique of that interpretation is seen as a critique of Scripture itself!  And so we miss one another entirely. Instead of a lively, impassioned debate about the text, we engage in lively, impassioned debates about one another’s commitment to the faith.
I've seen that play out too many times. I've been both the perpetrator and the victim in those kinds of discussions. It's not good and it doesn't display a Christ-like spirit. Is being right the basis (or even a goal) for unity or is service to one another and service to the community, Christ-like love in other words, the basis for unity? Let's strive to make Christ-like love, not orthodoxy, the basis for unity.

No comments:

Post a Comment