November 17, 2019

Monday with Michael Spencer: Standing on My Own Trap Door?

Chapel in Assisi (2019)

Monday with Michael Spencer
Standing on My Own Trap Door? (excerpt from Nov 2008)

I can’t recall the author but I once read someone who portrayed evangelical Christians as people using all their abilities to get other people to agree to evangelistic sentences. The sentences mattered very much; more than almost anything else. Correctly worded sentences, turned into prayers, lectures, books and so on.

Miroslav Wolf said that Christianity carries a life-lived alongside its truths-claimed. Saint Francis — and many others — have suggested that the life-lived communicates far more profoundly than the truths claimed, especially if it’s a matter of which shouts the loudest.

One blogger recently lamented the callous behavior of knuckle-headed cage phase Calvinists, and also lamented the theological cynics who act as if theology doesn’t matter. Having been one and constantly suspected of being the other, I liked what he said.

He makes a good point. The knuckle-headed cage phase Calvinist has theological problems as well as human relationship problems with manners, maturity and civility. My experience tells me that the two are more related than we like to think. The person who says that theology and those who live to obsess over it are an unmitigated good seem to be, uh….a bit overly optimistic.

Take, for instance, the seminary student who discovers that one theological system has all the answers he’ll ever need. All he needs is to buy the books, go to the conferences and check the websites. In more than a few cases, it would be best if he simply stopped his education and went home until he’s willing something to learn again. While he’s certain that he’s right, and he’s correcting his professors and working to overthrow any teacher who doesn’t subscribe to his hobby horse theological system, he’s useless as a student and probably off balance as a human being. The wise and the know-it-alls have no reason to learn from those who can’t/won’t/don’t see the light. (Yes, that’s me in the corner….losing my religion…)

The real problem is whether our know-it-all student is still devoted to Jesus and to what Jesus means in his life. No doubt he’ll say that it’s for Jesus’ sake that he’s hassling his professors, pastor and friends. It’s for Jesus sake that minutia now matters more than his anniversary. It’s for Jesus’ sake that theology stirs him and evangelism/church planting need more study. But does Jesus matter? Period?

The competition to make theology the main thing and just about the only thing is quite real. I have two recent letters from an IM reader distressed that I admire John Lennon as an artist. I assured him that I do not admire Lennon’s atheism, but a piece is still out of place. What’s of real interest to me is why my faith and loyalty to Jesus have to be screened through what I think of John Lennon.

The blogosphere version of the game is to select a few paragraphs out of someone’s blog, write your corrections, evaluations and insertions, then turn the comment threads loose to say the really nasty stuff. The public statement will be “here’s an area of disagreement.” The actual title of the show is “So and So Can’t Possibly Believe This and Really Be A Christian because theology matters.” Theology does matter, but how does it matter? How does it matter among those of us who say the same creed, love the same Bible, believe the same Gospel (even if we emphasize different parts of it in differing ways?)

A recent critique of Calvinism suggested there is an aversion to Christocentric theology. Don’t let that one slip by you. It’s a major league charge. I believe there’s an aversion to Christocentric necessity among theology fans of every camp. I don’t believe we can possibly get anywhere past what God has revealed in Jesus, and by Jesus I mean Jesus, not the character currently appearing in someone’s systematic and complete theology under that name.

We can discuss all sorts of sentences, but we can only know God in and through Jesus Christ. By Jesus Christ I mean Jesus of Nazareth, New Testament revealed, Old Testament concealed, actual God-Man Jesus of the Creeds. Not Jesus dressed up as a speaker at your favorite conference or a professor at your favorite seminary or Jesus hovering over your blog nodding with approval.

Jesus gives us the Bible. The Bible gives us texts. Texts give us words. Words give us something to fight about, to make more sentences about and to write more texts about, taking us back to something/someone we call Jesus. But are we on the right path?

This circle is inherently unavoidable, and extremely dangerous. But a devotion to Jesus should make the wide path of circularity avoidable and the narrow path of following the Trinitarian God possible.

I’m more than ever determined to make Jesus the center, the substance and the unavoidable conclusion of my theology. And when it comes to equipping my students with an understanding of the Bible, I’m going to be sure they understand the relative importance of the recipe, the cake and all subsequent opinions of either one.

I figured out long ago that my place in the world of internet theology is going to be decorated with posts saying that I’m throwing out babies with bathwater and I’m sacrificing truth at the expense of unity, etc. The fact is that I’m as theologically opinionated as the next person, but I’m more impressed with Jesus than I am those who write, talk and preach about him.

The single most unnerving thing N.T. Wright says is his frequent confession that he’s fairly sure he’ll one day conclude about a third of his theology was wrong. How you feel about that statement probably says all that needs to be said about the entire subject.

That means I’ll find something critical to say about everyone (starting and ending with me), just to remind myself that there’s only one Jesus who reveals the God who can’t be known otherwise (John 1:18.) And I don’t believe that when the Samaritans believed in Jesus (John 4), the appropriate next step was to set up polemic and apologetic ministries to straighten out the Samaritans on everything they believed that was wrong. Believers in Jesus one day, dangerous emerging liberals the next.

Those Samaritans (and Corinthians and Protestants and Catholics) DID believe plenty that was wrong, and Jesus spoke to it directly, but he wasn’t selling his big book of right answers. He was saying “All of the questions and answers stop right here with ME. I’m the revelation. I’m the temple. I’m the Kingdom. I’m the Messiah. Game over.”

Do I think some theologians get this better than others? Absolutely. My affection for Luther, Capon, etc. is well known and I don’t apologize for it. Do I think any of these points are worth arguing today? Of course. I’ve read Galatians. I know what Paul said about the Judaizers, who looked right at Jesus and said “Nah…..not enough.” Do I put any of my own arguments with fellow Christians on the level of believing in Jesus? Well on that one, I’m going to be very, very, very, very cautious. I’m prepared to err on accepting many of my brothers and sisters who are devoted to Jesus before I’m prepared to proclaim myself the “reformation police” and demand to see a written essay on your theory of imputation before I let you pass.

So, once again, someone can say there’s all that postmodern, emerging, touchy-feely suspicion of truth itself. I’ll answer that Jesus is the truth. The Bible is true. The Creeds are true. The Solas are true. And you’ll say there’s much to argue about to establish all of those things. You may be right, but one thing I’m sure of: The Great Commission wasn’t about theological argumentation, but about proclaiming the Gospel, planting churches and making disciples. As theology helps us do that, it’s useful. When “doing theology” replaces that Great Commission, something is wrong.

When I replace the Great Commission with the Great Ongoing Polemic To Prove My Theology Isn’t Wrong, it’s time to pull over and check the map and see if I’m anywhere close to where I think I am.

Am I standing on my own trap door when I say “Jesus isn’t identical to anyone’s theology and someone says “Without theology, who or what is Jesus?” Possibly. That’s another argument that can go in circles forever. Count me as one who’d like to find a place to stop, rest, and as the carol says, “Now let us all with one accord sing praises to the heavenly Lord.”

Comments

  1. While there is truth in the observation that theology and the Bible are enmeshed in a cycle of mutual interpretation, I do think that centering on Jesus and the Gospels can serve as a “guardrail” of sorts. As one commentor on another blog so succinctly put it, “While the Bible (as a whole) can be manipulated to say and mean almost anything, the words, actions, and life of Jesus aren’t as pliable.”

    • Yet even the Gospel writers and Paul don’t all have the same view of Jesus and what he “meant”. Isn’t theology an attempt to systemize in retrospect? First comes experience which is notoriously loose ended.

      • I would still say that the Gospels should act as a control on that. And “not the same view” does not equal “contradictory” in my book – at least, not anymore.

        • +1.

          I will continue to beat the drum of “everyone who calls themselves a Christian should read a Gospel account at least once a year to remind themselves how Jesus did things and what was important to him.”

          Too many people these days (or maybe, too many in evangelical circles these days) are too rooted in Paul’s writings.

  2. One of my favorite N.T. Wright quotes is “We are justified by faith, not by believing in justification by faith.” It sort of helped open my eyes to how wrong we can be when we insist that everyone who doesn’t agree with our particular theology is going to hell. This is especially true when it comes to the way that many protestants speak of catholics.

  3. Rampaging Chipmunk says

    Reading these old Spencer posts is easily my favorite part of iMonk. I am saddened that I only discovered this place years after his death. I’m sure that teenage me from the mid-late 2000s would have greatly benefited from speaking to him directly.