Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Idolatrous Nationalism from SBC Publishing House

militarybible2.jpgThis is no joke. It is not satire. It is the sickening truth.  This is a picture of “The Soldier’s Bible,” part of a series of “military Bibles” being marketed by Holman Bible Outreach International, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.  Lifeway is the official publishing house of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.A.  In addition to “the Soldier’s Bible,” the CSB Military Bibles include “the Airman’s Bible,” “the Marine’s Bible,” “the Sailor’s Bible,” and “the Coast Guard Bible,” each with covers in the distinct colors and insignia of the respective branch of the U.S. military. (There is also, I kid you not, a camoflauge edition!)  According to this website, each edition includes not only the texts of the Old and New Testaments (Protestant canon), but the following features: 

  • The Star Spangled Banner
  • America the Beautiful
  • The Battle Hymn of the Republic
  • Onward Christian Soldiers (I guess they missed the “marching as to war” lyrics and failed to understand that the hymn is meant to depict spiritual warfare along the lines of Ephesians 6:10-17 and is not talking about Christian participation in physical warfare at all.)
  • The Pledge of Allegiance (to the U.S. flag and to “the Republic for which it stands”)
  • The Plan of Salvation
  • Scripture readings for all occasions (including the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, Rom. 12?)
  • Prayers of General George Patton and General/President George Washington! (Wait, wasn’t Patton well-known for believing that Christianity made men[sic] too soft for war? Didn’t he believe that he was reincarnated as an eternal warrior keeping the world safe for more wars? Wasn’t George Washington a Deist??)
  • Quotes from President George W. Bush! (Is that like having a copy of the “Sayings of Chairman Mao?” Which quotes–“Mission accomplished?” “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?””God told me to smite Saddam and I did?”)
  • Officer’s oath
  • Enlisted personnel oath (I guess they are cutting out Jesus’ ban on oaths in Matt. 5:33-37.)

There are additional features unique to each branch of the service (Shudder!).

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics has written on these special Bibles and on Lifeway’s hosting of a special event for giving away thousands to military personnel here.  Timed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the Air Force was initially listed as an official sponsor of the event, but backed out under pressure from church-state watchdog groups.  Ordinarily, I would also be concerned about the violations of the First Amendment in a government agency (the Air Force) sponsoring a religious event and favoring one religion over others, at that.  But I am so aghast at the Lifeway’s idolatrous nationalism (and marketing idolatry–worshipping Mars and Mammon while pretending to worship Jesus Christ!!) that the church-state and civil liberties violations pale and fade into the background for me!

This militaristic-nationalistic event (3-days over Memorial Day weekend 2007) features former SBC president Bobby Welch as keynote speaker. Welch, a Vietnam veteran, is the author of You, the Warrior Leader.

Where to begin? Apparently the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership, or, at least that part of it which makes publishing decisions, has rejected Jesus as the Prince of Peace, the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world.  It has rejected the nonviolence which Jesus practiced and taught; rejected the command to be peacemakers.  This would appear to violate the SBC’s main confessional document, The Baptist Faith & Message which, on OTHER matters, the SBC leadership has increasingly used as a strict creed in recent years.  Although the article on “peace and war” has been watered down from the 1925 version through the 1963 version to the latest (2000) revision of this statement of faith, even the latest version would seem to stand in stark contrast to the militaristic nationalism promoted by these Bibles and the giveaway event.

“It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men[sic] on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.”

That statement of near pacifism is qualified, but not enough to justify the above blasphemy.

Further, the Lifeway people, with at least the tacit support of the SBC leadership at large (they have not protested these products or even raised questions about them), are clearly promoting belief in the United States as a “chosen nation.”  This denies the universality of the gospel. It denies the vision of Pentecost and the vision culminating in Rev. 7:9 in which the glorified church is called out from among all nations, tongues, cultures, ethnic groups.  After all, the message of these Bibles is not merely a denial of Christian pacifism for “just war theory.” No, this promotes holy war in the name of one nation (the U.S.A.), with blessings from past and present military heroes.  This is “throne and altar” theology–a form of thinking which led the German churches to be supine when Adolf Hitler came to power and promised to restore the state churches (Landeskirchen) to their former glory. (It is, perhaps, worth remembering that in the late ’30s, prior to the start of WWII, many Southern Baptist pastors, including an SBC president, expressed admiration for Hitler since he didn’t drink alcohol and closed Germany’s brothels!!!)

Since leaving the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 for the Alliance of Baptists, I have tried mostly to ignore events in my former denomination. I reject their understanding of what it means to be Christian or Baptist. But this will affect the entire Body of Christ.  This is a perversion of the gospel. I cannot be silent. This blasphemy must be denounced.  Although I generally purchase books without regard to their publisher, I am making an exception here because this is so bad. I will purchase nothing from Broadman & Holman or any other division of Lifeway Resources until these “military Bibles” have been recalled and the project scrapped as the heretical, idolatrous, BLASPHEMOUS project that it is.  I urge you to join me.

Write Lifeway and express your displeasure here.

UPDATE: Other Baptist bloggers are commenting on this horror. Read Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptists’s assessment here.  Aaron Weaver, who blogs as Big Daddy Weave, weighs in here.  Brian Kaylor, a communication specialist for the Missouri Baptist Convention, sounds off here.  Laura Seay, political science grad student, lover of Africa, and usually humorous Baptist blogger weighs in here.

May 31, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, Bible, church-state separation, love of enemies, nonviolence, peacemaking | 35 Comments

The Candidates and Torture: We Can Shape the Debate

U.S. readers: the next round of presidential “debates” will happen in New Hampshire on 03 June and o4 June.  Human Rights First has generated an online petition to make sure the candidates are asked where they stand on torture.  You can read and sign the petition here.  We will not know where the candidates stand unless the questions are asked.  We can also contact the candidates campaign websites (especially any we are leaning toward supporting) and let them know that we will not vote for any candidate who condones torture, even “torture lite” techniques such as waterboarding. We need to push harder for closing all secret prisions, ending torture, ending the Guantanamo Bay gulag, restoring Habeas Corpus for EVERYONE, including terrorist suspects, restoring full compliance with U.S. and international law in all human rights matters.

I don’t about anyone else, but I was greatly disturbed during the last Republican debate when only one candidate (John McCain, himself a victim of torture as a Vietnam Prisoner of War) categorically rejected all forms of torture.  That he did so to stony silence while the audience cheered the other GOP candidates torture proposals was quite chilling.  Democrat or Republican, no candidate who condones torture is fit for public office, much less the highest office in the land.

May 30, 2007 Posted by | economic justice, human rights., torture, U.S. politics | 2 Comments

Needed for Long-Haul Peacemaking: A Spirituality of Nonviolence

By now, many in the U.S. have read the emotional decision by “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan to “retire as the public face of the anti-war movement in the U.S.” If not, you can read it here.  For those who may not know, Cindy Sheehan is the mother of a U.S. soldier slain in Iraq whose public confrontation with Pres. George W. Bush in 2004 brought sustained mainstream media attention to the peace movement and to the failures of the occupation of Iraq for the first time.  She is one of the founders of Gold Star Families for Peace (composed of family members of those whose lives have been lost in Iraq), and a member of Military Families Speak Out (composed of U.S. military families who oppose the war). 

I do not question Ms. Sheehan’s right to “retire” from her very public role.  The poor woman has never even had the space to properly mourn her son, Casey’s, death.  Her written decision is full of frustration, the exhaustion of someone villified by the Right and, then, when she held the Democrats to the same standards as she did the Republicans, villified again by the Left.  This kind of “burn out” is common in social activism, unfortunately.  In his memoir of the Civil Rights movement, Walking with the Wind, John Lewis (then Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC or “Snick”], now U.S. Representative from Georgia) talks movingly about the way that many of the civil rights workers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder like Vietnam veterans–but without any access to mental health services.  Today’s anti-war activists aren’t subject to the exact same kinds of stresses–jailed constantly and beaten (and the women activists were often raped by police officers), shot at, seeing friends and colleagues killed, on the go constantly, living on subsistence wages for years, etc.–except for those whose loved ones are in Iraq.  But the pressures are great, nonetheless.

This is a cautionary tale for the rest of us, including myself.  Outrage, righteous indignation, anger, public grief, are all valid reactions to war and human rights abuses, but they will get us only so far. They may strain marriages and family life. They may lead to speech and action that is not in the spirit of nonviolence and active peacemaking.  And, since imperialist militarism is a system (biblically speaking, a Power), it will resist change for the good.  Work for justice and peace over the long haul requires spiritual discipline, requires deep roots in a spirituality of nonviolence, including cultivating the virtue of patience.

Cindy Sheehan is stepping down from her leading role in ending the war and occupation of Iraq. The rest of us need to step up and do more–and beyond ending one war, working for a just and peaceful world on many fronts.  For those of us who are Christians, it is part of our calling as disciples.  But, in doing so, we need to guard against burn-out. We need to attend to contemplative prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

May 30, 2007 Posted by | love of enemies, nonviolence, peacemaking | 4 Comments

Christian Appeal for Peacemaking Action in Middle East

The Patriarchs and Heads of  local Christian Churches in Jerusalem have issued an appeal for International Church Action for Peace in Palestine and Israel June 3-9, 2007.  You can read the entire appeal as a pdf file here.  (Requires Adobe Acrobat reader. Download one for free here.)

Responding to this urgent appeal, which is focused on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War and the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (an event that Palestinians call “the Catastrophe”), Churches for a Middle East Peace encourages all Christians to pray for peacemaking in Israel-Palestine and urges advocacy on this issue.  They suggest that Christians flood the White House comment line and emails with calls for bold diplomacy for an end to the Occupation. The U.S. President has more influence with the government of Israel than any other head of state and has chosen not to work for peace there.

Churches for a Middle East Peace suggests a message worded something like this:

 I appeal to the President to take diplomatic action now to stop the spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence and restore hope for peace. The Arab League Peace Proposal opens the door for Israel-Palestinian negotiations that can end the occupation and lead to a two-state solution. Without vigorous peacemaking, violence fills the vacuum. The time for action is now.

The White House comment line is 202-456-1111 or email comments@whitehouse.gov .  I suggest further that we write letters to our local papers and make this a matter of prayer in all our churches.  Although urgent action for a just peace is needed before the next presidential election, email the campaigns of the various presidential candidates (especially any you support) and let them know that you expect vigorous peacemaking and a return to the U.S. role as an honest broker between both sides, not one-sided support for Israel as some candidates have indicated.

For non-U.S. readers:  Although bold diplomacy from the U.S. president could play a unique role, it may be that a real breakthrough comes from elsewhere. Contact your leaders with similar calls for bold diplomacy.

May 30, 2007 Posted by | Israel-Palestine, just peacemaking | Comments Off on Christian Appeal for Peacemaking Action in Middle East

The Practice of Theology, 3: Branches of Theology

Following clues in the work of the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), I have been describing theology as a practical discipline, investigating, interpreting, and transforming the convictions of a convictional community (e.g., the Christian church or some branch of that Church). I have sought to spell out theology’s character as pluralistic (or contextual), narrative based, rational, and self-involving.  I have tried to indicate briefly how academic theology is a secondary discipline and related to the primary theologizing the churches do through their practices (preaching, worship, hospitality to strangers, instruction of the young and of new Christians, evangelism, service, nonviolent witness and love of enemies, CreationCare, etc.).  Whole books could be (and have) been written about each of those aspects. (Keeping these posts brief has not been easy!)  It is time to say something about the “branches” of (Christian) theology.

Biblical theology.  All Christian theology, of course, will seek to be informed by and normed by Holy Scripture.  However, Biblical theology seeks to describe and interpret the theological dimensions of the Biblical texts themselves. (This is sometimes divided up further into Old Testament Theology and New Testament Theology.) In the ordinary life of the Church, this is done whenever a believer attempts to summarize the “message” of the canon as a whole, or some section of it. In academic circles, this task is usually done by people who have degrees in biblical studies, but not all biblical scholars are capable of biblical theology.  Some biblical scholars are simply historians or archaeologists or literary critics. The biblical theologian will be informed by skill in Hebrew, Greek and cognate languages such as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc., will consult archaeological findings, historians of ancient Palestine or of 1st C. Greco-Roman society, use linguistic analyses or sociological insights, etc.  But the biblical theologian must go beyond all this and seek to encounter these texts on a theological level–the only level in which the Church’s ancient confession that these writings are, in some sense, the “Word of God” makes any sense.

Historical theology studies what the Church (and churches) have taught throughout the ages–or in some particular time and setting.  This is done not just for antiquarian interest, but because the historical theologian is convinced that voices from the past, witnesses to the churches’ life and thought elsewhen, may have significance for the church today.  Some branches of Christianity are more influenced by certain periods of the past (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy focuses supremely on the Patristic writings and especially the work of the Ecumenical Councils of the not-yet-divided Church), or by certain theologians more than others (e.g., Roman Catholicism returns constantly to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas; Reformed Christians give special consideration to the thought of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin; Methodists are especially attentive to the writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley, etc.) It is a rare historical theologian who can convey most of the full sweep of the Church’s life and thought through the ages (the late Jaroslav Pelikan is the only one who comes quickly to mind).

Philosophical theology (called by some traditions “fundamental” or “foundational” theology, though I believe such a designation is a mistake) engages the major thought forms of the day in dialogue, or even debate.  A wider theology of culture, engages not only the philosophical currents in one’s context, but the arts (visual, musical, etc.), sciences, political ideologies, other (rival?) religions, and much else. This branch of theology is closely related to the missionary practices of the church–for in all good mission one listens and learns as much as one teaches.

Pastoral theology focuses closely on the pastoral tasks of the church and its members (not just on a the tasks of the pastor or pastoral team). This is sometimes called “practical theology,” but, again, I think this is a mistake. Properly understood, all Christian theology is rooted in the practices of the church and serves them and is thereby “practical.” “Impractical theology” would be theology cut off from church life and would, Christianly speaking, be useless.

The most daunting branch of theology is also its most normative:  Systematic Theology is its most common name since it tries to bring all these tasks together and state, for this time and place, what the church must teach to be faithfully the church of Jesus Christ, and do so in a fairly orderly fashion. But the term “systematic theology” can give the impression of forcing the Word of God into a systemic straightjacket of human origins, reducing it to an ideology.  So, some prefer the term Dogmatic Theology, but in North America “dogmatic” has come to mean “narrow minded,” so this term, too, is not without its problems.  A recent term that many use is Constructive Theology.  I have no preference here.

I must stress, however, that systematic or dogmatic or constructive theology is not just about doctrine, but also about ethics. Neither can do without the other and both are essential to the theological tasks of the church. Next in this series, I’ll try to show why that is true.

May 29, 2007 Posted by | theology | 4 Comments

2 New Series on Tradition

Two new series are beginning in the blogosphere that will help us understand theological traditions better, one hopes.  Over on Ben Myers’ great Faith and Theology blog, he is beginning a new series called “Encounters with Tradition.” Guest bloggers will contribute who have moved from one Christian tradition to another (i.e., Catholic to Protestant, Protestant to Eastern Orthodox, etc.) and thus encountered the traditioning process differently than those who have remained in the traditions in which they were born and raised.

And on the group blog, Mainstream Baptists, I have begun a series highlighting influential Baptists from around the world, so that we U.S. Baptists begin to have a more global picture of our tradition, to see “being Baptist” in more multicultural terms. 

If either of these series interests you, I hope you’ll give them a look from time to time.

May 28, 2007 Posted by | blogs, theology, tradition | 1 Comment

Joining the Dance

Since this is Pentecost Sunday, I’ll take a brief moment to plug a book by one of my teachers.  Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit (Judson Press, 2003).  Baptists are not well known for writing about the Holy Spirit, especially since the rise of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement, both of which most Baptists perceived as threats and rivals.  Here is a pastoral theology of the Spirit and the community of God in a feminist perspective by the President and Professor of Theology, Worship, Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kansas. Suitable for church studies, there is also plenty of meat here for serious scholars.

May 27, 2007 Posted by | Holy Spirit | 4 Comments

Pentecost: Ending the Curse of Babel

From Rabanus Maurus (776-856), German Benedictine Monk, comes this widely used hymn:

Come, Creator Spirit!

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

O comforter, to Thee we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.

Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;
Thou, finger of God’s hand we own;
Thou, promise of the Father, Thou
Who dost the tongue with power imbue.

Kindle our sense from above,
and make our hearts o’erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high
the weakness of our flesh supply.

Far from us drive the foe we dread,
and grant us Thy peace instead;
so shall we not, with Thee for guide,
turn from the path of life aside.

Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow
the Father and the Son to know;
and Thee, through endless times confessed,
of both the eternal Spirit blest.

Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
with Thou, O Holy Comforter,
henceforth by all in earth and heaven.

In Genesis 11: 1-9, we have the familiar story of the Tower of Babel.  If Babel was Babylon, then the sin in building this tower “unto the heavens” was not merely human pride (although clearly that), but domination. In Babel, as in all empires, we have a false attempt at human unity–a unity through the domination of all peoples by a single nation, a single language, a single ideology. In our day, this imperial vision is described by the social theorist Benjamin Barber as “McWorld.” (He calls tribalist revolts against McWorld globalism “jihad,” and says that both are death to democracy.  I leave experts on Islam and/or globalization to decide whether Barber has chosen the correct symbols to describe these twin destructive forces. I am here just concerned to capture the economic imperialism of “globalization from above” represented by his term “McWorld.”)  Babel is the universalism of an imperial meta-narrative that steamrolls into oblivion all suppressed particularities, local knowledges, ways of life, tongues.  God confuses the languages to end such false unity, but the result are thousands of warring groups failing to hear one another. From the ashes of all imperial dreams comes confusion, chaos.

In Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born as a subversion of Babel’s curse.  Acts 2:1-21  tells a story not just of a miracle of speaking, but one of hearing.  The gospel offers the world a true unity–a unity in which particularities are still preserved:  The multitudes do not hear the gospel in some miraculous Esperanto, but each in his or her own language and dialect, even though the speakers all continue to speak Aramaic with Galilean accents.

There are no “Christian nations.” God does not “save the Queen” of any particular people over others. There are no holy commonwealths or holy empires, Roman or otherwise.  God does not “bless America” without blessing all other peoples.  Biblical Israel was the Elect Nation of God, the Chosen Nation, but only in order to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all peoples. In Christ, the Elect One, the Messiah of God, we have no more chosen peoples, but God calling out a new people “from among every tribe, nation, tongue and people,” Rev. 7:9.  The answer to the confusion of tongues, of warring tribalisms, is not empire, but Pentecost.

The Church is born with the mighty wind of the Spirit and is gifted to speak in new tongues: tongues of peace, tongues of unity. But we must be gifted also to listen, to learn from all localities, all particularities.  In baptism, we put on Christ and therefore there is no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and free, no male and female, but oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:27-28)  Our particularities are relativized, but not destroyed. In listening to the local stories of peoples steamrollered in globalisms, in hearing wisdom in unexpected places, in listening even to our enemies, then we listen to what the Spirit is telling the churches–and that fresh wind gives us tongues of fire.

May 27, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, church, Holy Spirit | Comments Off on Pentecost: Ending the Curse of Babel

Garry Dorrien on Reinhold Niebuhr & U.S. Foreign Policy

I have mentioned Garry Dorrien on these pages before.  An Episcopal priest, historical theologian, and Christian social ethicist, Dorrien recently went from being a chaplain and religion professor at a midwestern university founded by Baptists to being installed as Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary of New York and Graduate Professor of Religion at Columbia University. (Listen to a podcast of  Dorrien’s inaugural address at UTS here.)

 UTS is one of the iconographic places of U.S. religious history:  One of the first places where then new historical critical approaches to biblical studies were practiced, it’s major early biblical scholar, Charles Augustus Briggs was tried for heresy because of this by the Presbyterians and expelled from their ranks. (He became an Episcopalian.) Union’s trustees severed its ties with the Presbyterian church rather than limit academic freedom or be forced to fire Briggs–making Union the first U.S. free-standing theological seminary without ties to a specific denomination. It soon became a center of the early modernist/liberal movements, and then of the Social Gospel. Towering preachers in the liberal tradition such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and George A. Buttrick became associated with Union in one fashion or another.  Later, Union was home to Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realism he represented as a correction to perceived weaknesses in the Social Gospel.  Union was host, briefly or for longer periods, to such diverse figures as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (as a post-graduate student), Paul Tillich (as a refugee theologian fleeing the Nazis), the early process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who was far more Christocentric and rooted in mainstream Christian theology than most process theologians), the Scottish theologian John Baillie, the Welsh New Testament scholar, W. D. Davies (after Davies’ time at Duke and Princeton), and with the career of Fr. Raymond Brown, Union became the first Protestant seminary with a major Catholic biblical scholar.  Union was even briefly a center of Barthian thought with the presence of Robert McAfee Brown. Then Union became a flourishing center of various strands of liberation theology, housing faculty who pioneered in Black Theology (James H. Cone), feminist biblical studies ( Phyllis Trible), North American reception to Latin American liberation theology (McAfee Brown, again),and much more.  Rather than the site of one major theological tradition like many seminaries or universities, Union has been a crossroads of many North American theological currents.  My own mentor, Glen H. Stassen, received his B.D. at Union and was deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, D.D. Williams, & W.D. Davies (but not Tillich who had already left for Harvard; Glen has a profound distaste for anything Tillichian).

Garry Dorrien represents several of those strands in his own work:  He is a self-declared liberal theologian, shaped by the Social Gospel, Niebuhrian realism, and liberation theologies.  He has also been an excellent historian of “Barthianism,” and the rise of post-fundamentalist “neo-Evangelicalism.”  In this interview with Peter Steinfels of the New York Times, Dorrien continues his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq. He also disputes Neo-Conservative claims to inherit the mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr, and surfaces several Niebuhrian themes that it would benefit U.S. Americans to reclaim and recover.

Pacifists like myself are widely expected not to appreciate Niebuhr and Niebuhrians like Dorrien. After all, Reinie began his life as a liberal pacifist, but had a conversion to non-pacifism as Hitler rose to power. He became one of the strongest critics of Christian pacifism in the 20th C.  But, like Duane K. Friesen and others, I appreciate Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticisms of naive, liberal forms of pacifism and believe that Christian pacifism is better for encountering and wrestling with Reinhold Niebuhr’s strong critique. Post-Niebuhrian Christian pacifism, as Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged in his famous essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” is far stronger than any pacifism which hasn’t taken Niebuhr into account.  Thus, I also appreciate Dorrien’s retrieval of Niebuhrian themes to criticize U.S. pride, imperialism, naivete, and Neo-Con hubris.

Hat tip to Melissa Rogers for alerting me to this significant interview.  In the future, I plan to blog through Dorrien’s 3 volume history of American Liberal Christianity.

May 26, 2007 Posted by | foreign policy, theology, U.S. politics | 4 Comments

The Practice of Theology, 2

If theology is a “science of convictions,” then we need to say more about what convictions are.  McClendon distinguishes them from opinions.  [See James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Wipf & Stock, 2002)–a revision and expansion of McClendon and Smith, Understanding Religious Convictions (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).] Opinions are easily formed and easily changed. Forming them may require investigation or logical reasoning, but they do not involve much more than the intellect. We often know exactly how and when we formed opinion X and when it changed to opinion Y.

By contrast, convictions are deeply a part of us. We are very emotionally invested in them. They are not formed easily and they are not changed easily.  They cannot be changed at all without the individual or the community holding them becoming a significantly different individual or community.  In a sense, we are our convictions and, thus, changing them leads to our becoming someone new (or a different community).

Consider some examples.  And here, just for fun, I will tease some prominent theology bloggers and bibliobloggers by using them in the examples.  Imagine, if you will, a Jim West giving up a Zwinglian “pure memorial” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for a Lutheran belief in eucharistic “consubstantiation,” or some other “real presence” sacramental view.  Such a change would not be simply an exegetical or theological change of mind, but a type of conversion and the results would give us a very different Jim West from the one we know (and love?)–but he’d probably still keep calling Chris Tilling “the devil.”

Or imagine D. W. Congdon rejecting universal salvation. Surely that would be a conversion! (Actually, considering that Congdon is a Wheaton alumnus come to Princeton, this would probably be a re-conversion to earlier convictions.) Or what would Guy Davies be like if he came to embrace Arminius’ or Wesley’s views on prevenient grace and free will?

Waxing more serious, I know that my rejection of the view that Christians could use lethal force and serve in national militaries, and my embrace of Christian pacifism (gospel nonviolence)  was not a simple change of opinion, but a conversion. Since I was in the U.S. military at the time, it involved me refusing to don my uniform or pick up my rifle and applying for a conscientious objector discharge. 

The same is true for communities:  Consider those churches in the 16th C. that, under the influence of Zwingli or Luther or Calvin, embraced the Reformation–and were no longer Catholic but Protestant churches.  Or consider those early followers of Zwingli–Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, etc. who followed the logic of Zwingli’s early teaching on baptism and then decided that Scripture had more authority than the Zurich city council and became the first Anabaptists.  Convictions are not changed easily–and they  cannot be changed at all without the individual or community holding those convictions becoming significantly different than before.

Therefore theology not only involves struggle for truth amidst error, but also the risk of conversion and change (not least from the theologian).

Now, all of us hold some beliefs, even some religious beliefs, at the opinion level rather than the convictional level.  Perhaps one definition of “fundamentalism” (whether conservative or liberal in orientation) is that all or nearly all beliefs are at the convictional level–nothing is adiaphora or even of secondary importance, everything is life or death, nothing is not a “test of fellowship,” that separates out true believers from heretics.

Next time: The branches of theology and how this relates to the practices of the Church and churches and the task(s) of theologians.

May 26, 2007 Posted by | theology | 7 Comments