I don’t know about you, but I like to read the introductions to books as well as the books themselves. It helps me to understand where the author is “coming from.” I recently read a couple that were particularly interesting.
In 1980, James D.G. Dunn, one of Britain’s premier New Testament theologians, wrote a book entitled Christology in the Making. The preface to that edition was scarcely two pages long. After the book had been “out there” for a few years, and fellow scholars had had time to critique it, the brickbats began flying in. Dunn found it necessary to revise and update his second edition of the book to respond to the critics. In 1989, Dunn published the second edition of Christology. By then it needed a 28-page foreword to explain why a second edition was necessary. Dunn found that much of what he had written in the first edition was either ignored or misunderstood. Secondly, he wrote, “…I naturally wish to respond to my critics – to point out where they have, in my view at least, misperceived my intentions, disregarded key factors, which ought to be determinative in the exegesis of important NT passages, or shown too little awareness of the historical context out which such texts came” (Foreword to Second Edition, p. xi).
After taking pains to explain and re-explain himself, Dunn then makes this statement: “This must suffice as a restatement of the objectives and methodology of Christology. I wish I could feel confident that any further dialogue about Christology, or the issues it deals with would take account of these stated objectives and methodology. But experience so far has not been very encouraging. Nevertheless, may the dialogue continue” (Forward, p. xvi).
Dunn is a professional theologian, and a good one at that. Yet he has experienced what every thinker who tries to introduce new thinking experiences: rejection by the entrenched.
A Second Example
In 2001, another noted theologian, Clark H. Pinnock, wrote a book called Most Moved Mover – A Theology of God’s Openness. His book was written in response to the controversy generated by an earlier book, to which Pinnock contributed. The first book was entitled The Openness of God copyrighted 1994. In the earlier book, Pinnock and four other authors had challenged the traditional concept of God.
Again, the Preface to his second book contains some interesting and instructive thoughts: “I found that one cannot engage in the task of reforming post-fundamentalist thought and escape criticism. Appreciation from some and hostility from others comes with the territory” (Preface, p. ix).
Continues Pinnock: “I did not for a moment imagine in 1994 that our book on the ‘openness of God’ would create such interest and provoke such controversy, particularly in the evangelical community” (ibid.).
Professional theologians like Dunn and Pinnock learned early on that advancing the cause of truth can be “hazardous duty.” Those who are entrenched in ecclesiastical tradition, married to dogma, and handcuffed to hidebound doctrine, do not easily give up the notions that provide them with their sense of comfort and security.
Amateur Theologians in Pod
Most of us in the Churches of God Pod are not professional theologians; we are at best amateur ones. The level of our thought, exegesis and analysis is vastly scaled down from that of Dunn and Pinnock. While they haunt the hallowed halls of Academia, we are reduced to scrabbling around in a much-divided ecclesiastical sand pile. We often speak with great vaporous authority about what the Bible “says” and “means.” We posture, pose and circle the wagons around lofty assertions and rote affirmations that we believe we have “proved” from Scripture. Yet, under close scrutiny, many of our assertions turn out to be no more solid than a sand castle at high tide.
In an earlier column, I wrote that everyone has a personal theology. I repeat that idea here. My own theology has been in formation for 46 years now. Ideas that I picked up and dragged around for decades have now been jettisoned – some on the basis of experience, others on the basis of study. Hopefully, they have been replaced with better, more advanced, understandings.
At times, in this column and elsewhere, I have tried to articulate in writing or in speech, some of my newer understandings and what I view as growth patterns. I have also attempted to explain why I have rejected some of the earlier ideas.
The result has been similar to what Dunn and Pinnock experienced. Though I am merely an amateur theologian, probably unworthy of the title, I do try to be intellectually honest and objective when I study my Bible. I realize however that those who take the risk of advancing the cause of truth, even on this relatively low level, will always find themselves faced with opposition from the forces of entrenchment. Advancing exegetical truth is an exercise in gauntlet-running. Introducing new ideas into a tradition-bound community can even get you killed, as many of the Reformers found out. In fact the whole history of the Church has been one of those in power asserting orthodoxy, and accusing and persecuting others who disagreed for “heresy.”
The Rain on our Parades
No matter how excited one may become over the discovery of some deeper understanding, or of a higher truth, there’s always someone who will come along and rain on your parade. Some of them see themselves as “defenders of the faith.” They are the knights in shining armor, defending the honor of their king and the Creeds against the heretics. Those who advance new ideas are characterized as “enemies of the Cross” and marked for death.
Orthodoxy, it turns out, isn’t a matter of being objectively correct; it’s a matter of wielding ecclesiastical power in a given context. Might makes “right”– even when it’s wrong. All it takes is a following of jut-jawed worthies who will rally around the glorious leader, and you’ve yourself an orthodoxy. All who oppose, no matter how right they may be, are by definition, heretics.
Theology has often been defined as “faith seeking understanding.” That’s a definition with which I can live. None of us has a perfect understanding of Scripture. As Pinnock also wrote in the Preface to Most Moved Mover: “Our interpretations are provisional, and truth is, to some extent, historically conditioned and ultimately eschatological. To paraphrase St. Paul, ‘Now we know in part; then we will know fully (I Cor. 13:12).’ The truth claims we make are all open to discussion and we ought to be teachable and ready to learn because none of our work rises to the level of timeless truth…I think there will always be a place for asking questions and challenging assumptions. Our God-talk is always open to re-evaluation because mistakes can be made and need correcting” (Preface, p. ix).
As we struggle for a clearer vision of God and Christ, and their will for us, we would be well-advised to draw heavily on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to walk softly, in humility, with an open mind, and with a chronic willingness to revise our thinking in the light of better understanding. Yet, even if you do all that, you can bet that some doctrinal Neanderthal will still come along and rain on your parade.