Churches & Theological Growth (on 1 Cor. 1)


peter-preaching-statue

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.21-24)

As finite creatures, we cannot fully conceive of an Infinite God in all his Truth. Even his revelation is but partial and enigmatic. His truth, then, exists less like the center of a target, and more like various spectrums and tensions in which we exist. On this side of eternity, we live and speak in dialectics where for every point of doctrine in one denomination there seems to exist a counterpoint in another. Truth is not the Lockean notion of our relating to an objective body of facts, but is the point at which two seemingly opposing or paradoxical ideas exist in tension and harmony (such as Jesus = God + Man).

Thinking of these “truth spectrums” while looking at 1 Corinthians, there seem to be two possible errors we can fall into when thinking about theological truth: “over-objectification” which makes this spectrum too narrow, and “over-subjectification” which makes it too broad.

The Jews demanded signs – subjective experience. These were the people that related to truth merely as it “resonated” with them, regardless of the objective facts revealed. Today, these would be the “liberal” churches and denominations of the world – those that are more concerned with cultural accommodation and “experiencing” truth than proclaiming it.

But, the Greeks demanded wisdom – nice, neat objective systems of knowledge and dogma with all the loose ends tied. These are typically the “fundamentalists” – those that leave little to no room for theological “development” because their basic presupposition is that they have established precisely where they are on all secondary theological issues.

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the liberals and folly to fundamentalists. The Cross frustrates over-subjectification because of its very real, objective, historical nature. The Life, Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Christ are very real events in history; and objective events happen in objective time and space to accomplish objective goals in that time and space. God really did come and really did die, and this really does place objective demands and requirements on people in both conduct and belief. It is not that he accomplishes these things objectively just so we can relate to it in whatever fashion we please.

Embodied Faith

But, the Cross also frustrates over-objectification. Though it was an event that took place objectively, it is ultimately received, related to, and responded to subjectively. The objective goals of the Cross are worked out in subjective lives, institutions, cultures, and traditions. Many of the truths and implications of the Gospel come to us as individuals and a Church in the present as we relate to this God with our subjective selves. This is how John Calvin can write in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that we cannot learn theology apart from holiness and obedience:

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves…. Now, the knowledge of God, as I understand it, is that by which we not only conceive that there is a God but also grasp what befits us and is proper to his glory, what is to our advantage to know of him. Indeed, we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety.”

There is a false distinction between Orthodoxy (“right doctrine”) and Orthopraxy (“right practice”). J.I. Packer once said that because the first requirement of the Gospel is repentance, those that are comfortable in their sins are—in a sense— doctrinal heretics, no matter what they intellectually believe.

And this principal isn’t just for crusty conservative Calvinists like Packer, but even progressive post-modern philosophers like Peter Rollins in his book Fidelity of Betrayal:

“One cannot sit on the fence on this issue [regarding God’s existence], because our decision is evidenced in our life rather than in some verbal declaration. Whether or not I say that I believe in God, the evidence of my belief is shown in whether I live as though there is a God or not.”

This is how the Church can grow and develop (and yes even change!) in it’s theology over time as it is progressively and corporately sanctified and washed with the water of the Word: as she learns to live and relate to Him by faith.

Growth, Faith, & “Slippery Slopes”

I had a pastor that once said “if it can’t be abused, it’s probably not grace”; the same goes for truth: “if it can’t be abused, it’s probably not Truth.” “Slippery slopes” or “people taking it too far” are no reason to think something is incorrect (have you really thought about grace recently?).

God has so designed Christianity such that it must be lived by faith. It’s too easy to over-subjectify and use yourself as the litmus test for truth. It’s also too easy to over-objectify and over-define your dogma and ideas, nuancing them so narrowly that you no longer need to trust Him.

Churches ought to commit themselves to facilitating such thinking and exposure to these tensions involved. They must refuse to give in to congregants who try and insist on over-objectifying and over-subjectifying faith. And this is hard. Each of us will be more inclined towards one side of a given spectrum than the other.

This is why church leadership should be filled with women and men with different backgrounds, interests, and yes, even theological convictions. Sermons should engage with thinkers across the spectrum of Christian ideas, allowing for some degree of flexibility as represented in the broader Christian tradition. Returning to Rollins once more, he writes concerning the various tensions that exist within Scripture and the positions these create:

“[W]hat if we are not bound to choose between these two positions? What if we can affirm these conflicts at one and the same moment that we affirm the idea of this text being deeply branded by the white-hot presence of God? Indeed, what if the conflict we encounter in [these tensions] is precisely what we would expect to find in a text claiming divine status rather than something that witnesses against it?”

Churches should boldly and clearly stand in the tension between humanity and divinity, Scripture and confession, theology and worship, already and not yet, modernity and post-modernity, reformed and reforming, proclaiming and pastoring, grace and works, and security and discomfort.

Churches lose their way, minimize worship, and remove the need for faith when they decide the tension is too difficult to hold—when they decide to break it in the interest of comfort, money, or even what they consider good principles and pastoral concern. They should stretch their arms out wide and seize both ends of these tensions and hold them as Christ held the nails bearing the weight and scorn of a world that sought to rest their faith on themselves, their confessions, and everything else but Him.

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