Sunday, October 16, 2005

Are We Rediscovering Theology?

Trying to fall asleep tonight, I ran across this new blog by Leadership Magazine. Based on what I have seen just in these few minutes, I am looking forward to watching their future entries with interest.

One entitled, “Theology Is Back” caught my eye. I am please to hear that there may be a contingent of young pastors who see the deep importance in theology and its application to real life, but the floppy influence of emergent thought and pomo culture couldn’t help but come to the surface. In noting the manner in which theology was important to his particular congregation, the pastor noted:

“We’re dealing with a new breed of college students coming in with a lot of questions. And they’re theological questions,” said Rusty. “They’re looking not so much for answers, but for discussion, for acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the questions.” Questions such as: Where is God? Is a tsunami an act of God? Was Katrina a random consequence of weather patterns or an intentional judgment by God—and if so, what exactly was he judging? Why is my sister dying and I’m not?

That is not at issue for me-many people need to know they can be safe asking those kinds of questions and wrestling with those issues. (Except that, speaking as a former college pastor, I think college students have always had these questions.) It is the next step in the argument that doesn’t make sense to me. The blog continued:

These questions are unlike the theological questions of a generation ago (Is the Bible best described as ‘human’ or ‘divine’, or by the term ‘authoritative,’ ‘infallible,’ or ‘inerrant’?) Many of the theological questions a generation ago proved divisive, separating Christians into competing camps.

This is certainly the wrong conclusion. First, we should note that the debates listed in the quote and so presumptively dismissed were, in some very important ways, the results of the very questions the parishioners were asking in the first quote. If you want to seriously wrestle with God’s revelation in light of these questions, you are going to begin asking yourself how to take Scripture: is it metaphorical? mythical? inerrant? erroneous? Frankly, if someone does not do the work to answer this second set of questions, the “answers” to the parishioner’s questions remain nothing but hallow emotionalism and opinion.

Second, it is popular in pop-theological circles right now to label the debates of “a generation ago” as divisive and separatist. The presumption in this slogan is false: division is not an evil. How exactly are the divisions of a generation ago different than real answers to the parishioner’s questions, and if those debates are attempting to separate good answers from bad, exactly how is that bad thing? In other words, if two of us answer the parishioner’s questions in two different ways (and ways that are not totally reconcilable), how is that not divisive? The parishioner will need to decide between the two answers if they are truly seeking resolution. (I can hear the rebuttal now, “They don’t need to decide between the two. They can accept the mystery and live in awe of God.” I am not a neophyte to these kinds of discussions, and honestly, if someone is seriously asking questions, they are typically not interested in mysterious and evasive answers.)

I find it encouraging that young pastors are finding the importance and import of theology, but if they do not yet see the crucial role of the previous generation’s debates, have they really discovered theology at all?


Nathan said...

Phil -

One point of contention - when you say "division is not an evil", how do you reconcile that with Christ's prayer for unity within the Church in John and the obvious emphasis on unity in the epistles? How can division be considered neutral, or even good, in light of this?

Phil Steiger said...

Nathan-Thanks for your thought and for the chance to discuss this a bit. Within the context of what I was talking about, the process of drawing distinctions between good and bad theology, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, truth and falsehoods has always been a part of not only early Christianity, but of biblical revelation as well.

The division bewteen worshiping God and worshiping idols provides the theological basis for the unity of the Body of Christ. If we pretend there is no difference between good and bad theology or we play-down the distinctions drawn in Scripture over sin and repentance, then our "unity" is false and unbiblical.

I guess it would have been more accurate to say something like, "division is not a necessary evil."

Nathan said...

Phil -

I see better the distinction you are making - I was killing a little time before having to leave for work last night and probably didn't read closely enough.

I'd probably go a step further and point out that merely sitting in a state of constant questioning - wanting to search more than one wants to find actual answers - can be as equally divisive. Except in this case, it doesn't divide between individuals within the church. Rather, it divides people right out of the Church. This constant state of questioning either pushes people out because they actually need answers and will have to look elsewhere, or, they are still wrapped up in the pursuit and with no legitimate boundaries, they simply wander right out of the Body of Christ.

Phil Steiger said...


I agree. It has been my experience that some even take the liscence to question as an excuse to avoid making a committment to Christ. As a result, they feel vindicated in their fuzzy, and ultimately soul destroying, spirituality.

Matt Powell said...

Good post, Phil.

In Ezekiel 22, one of the condemnations God levels at the priests is their failure to distinguish between what is sacred and profane, what is clean and unclean. Too many church leaders today fall into the same error in their desire to have unity. We ought to want unity, but only on the basis of truth, not a false unity of emotion and wishful thinking. We can only be said to be one body when we all have "one Lord, one faith, one baptism."