Definitions – Theology

In my thought world nothing is as important as theology. In my spiritual family, nothing is as ridiculed and dismissed as theology. Which makes for some interesting self-talk. Some might question why I spend so much time doing something that no one believes is important. In providing an answer I return to my mantra for this series – it is all in how you define – and understand – the meaning of a word.

In the history of the Churches of Christ, no word is as abused as the word theology. Virtually every promoter of the American Restoration Movement dismissed it, and it would be very difficult to find any prominent leader who would embrace it. The first college associated with the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell’s Bethany College) included a specific clause that prohibited the establishment of a professor of theology. Theology, to many early Restoration leaders, was anathema. Their hatred of the practice, and even of the word, has had lasting influence. In my university training we did not have courses in theology – we took courses in The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament, but nary a word about Old Testament theology.

This dismissal of a perfectly good and useful word is one of the great mistakes of these spiritual giants. I will defend Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Moses Lard, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, et. al., even when I disagree with them, but in this instance they just made a horrible mistake. The huge irony with their mistake is that they were all – every bloomin’ one of them – exquisite theologians. They wrote, and preached, some of the best theology this world has read and heard.

The fact is that any time God, Jesus, the Bible, or any topic mentioned therein, is under discussion, there is theology. Everyone who says or thinks about God or the Bible is practicing theology. If you say God created the world, you are making a theological statement. If you say that baptism is necessary for salvation you are practicing theology. If you make a comment in Bible class that you believe the book of Revelation describes what happens after the day of judgement, you are making a theological judgment.  You just cannot be a student of the Bible and avoid being a student of theology.

As with so many other disciplines, there are a number of sub-groups within the larger field of theology, and here is where Campbell (and his co-workers) made their big mistake. They were reacting against one sub-set of theology, but they “threw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes, when they dismissed the entire discipline because of the abuse of one small part of it. Theology in its largest sense is made up of a bewildering number of smaller subjects – just a few of which are:

  • Christology – the study of Jesus.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit.
  • Eschatology – the study of the “last days.”
  • Ecclesiology – the study of the church.
  • Soteriology – the study of salvation.

To expand the horizon ever further, there is the formal study of Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, Biblical theology, the study of human sin, of grace, of prayer, and even of ethics. In fact, the study of theology is truly extensive. To continue to expand the horizon, each and every one of these smaller segments of theology can be performed on a number of different levels – from the coffee shop table, to the preacher’s study, all the way to the academician’s ivory tower, and a number of stops along the way.

To return to the early leaders of the Restoration Movement – what they were objecting to can be described as dogmatic theology, as opposed to systematic theology. They were all engaged in systematic theology – Campbell and Lipscomb both wrote volumes that could be called systematic theologies. Campbell even called his book The Christian System! So don’t try to argue with me that these leaders were not theologians.

So, what were these pioneers objecting to? While some use the words dogmatic theology and systematic theology synonymously, there is in the most specific usage a significant difference. Dogmatic theology is written for a specific religious group, it is authoritative, and those who are given the power to promote and defend that group are not allowed to stray from it. It is basically creedal in form – “This is what we believe, and if you do not accept this teaching, you cannot be a part of this church.” Thus you have Catholic dogmatic theologians, Lutheran dogmatic theologians, Anglican dogmatic theologians, etc. What Campbell,, recognized was that dogmatic theology is divisive theology. They believed, correctly, I would agree, that the only authoritative word is the Word of God. We might opine on any number of subjects, but we cannot demand that anyone bow their knee to our understanding – only to the inspired Word of God.

Systematic theology, on the other hand, is more general, and does not purport to be authoritative, although it does attempt to be thorough. Systematic theologians say, in effect, “This is what the Bible says about “X” subject, and while I have attempted to be complete, there may be more to be said on this subject.” Campbell, Stone, Lipscomb and many others were consummate systematic theologians. Every preacher who has ever delivered a sermon is a systematic theologian. Every Christian who has ever had a conversation about God, Jesus, the church, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, prayer, or the meaning of the parables is a systematic theologian – just in varying degrees of expertise.

Let us be done with our rejection of the word theology. It is a great word, and an even greater discipline. Let us be wary of being dogmatic, but let us never weary of promoting the proper and necessary study of the Word of God.

**For those who are interested, there is a marvelous little book devoted to this subject entitled, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, published by InterVarsity Press, 1996. It is perhaps one of the finest books introducing theology that I have read. I have some other resources that you might be interested in – if you are curious just comment here and I will provide those titles as well.

An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

In my essay yesterday I pointed out that Barton Stone, and just a generation later David Lipscomb, grasped something about New Testament Christianity that Alexander Campbell either could not see, or rejected. Campbell was an ardent post-millennialist: he believed the movement of which he was a part would usher in the “millennium” and at the end of a long period of human perfection, Christ would come and establish his reign in heaven. He even named his second journal the Millennial Harbinger to emphasize that point. In a semi-related footnote, the Civil War destroyed that belief for Campbell, and he died as so many prophets of human exceptionalism die, disappointed.

Stone, and later Lipscomb, saw things differently. They were just as committed to the restoration principle (just return to the pages of the New Testament in order to restore the church to New Testament simplicity), but they recognized something else. The New Testament has an undeniable forward looking dimension, but it is not created by the wisdom or strength of mankind. For Stone and Lipscomb, if the world is to become a better place, it will only happen by the power of God, and that will only occur through the working of the body of Christ on earth, the church! Lipscomb was especially adamant on this point, writing clearly and passionately that Christians are to avoid every form of contamination with politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Christians could not participate in the army (Lipscomb was horrified at the thought of Christians killing Christians in the Civil War), nor were they to serve in any civil positions. Christians are to live as kingdom citizens, and it is the reign of God in heaven that draws disciples of Christ into living in and promoting the reign of God on earth.

This is the polar opposite of “pie in the sky by and by” theology whereby Christians simply try to be “good people” until they die so that they can float around on little clouds playing their golden harps. This apocalyptic worldview almost got Lipscomb killed, and it was his adamant refusal to participate in politics that has resulted in his influence basically being expunged from the history of the Churches of Christ. On the first point, during a severe outbreak of a deadly epidemic (cholera, if I remember correctly) in Nashville, while Christians fled the city in droves, Lipscomb stayed and used his horse and buggy to drive Roman Catholic nuns around the city so they could minister to the sick and dying. Regarding the second point, it was during World War I, and ultimately World War II that the pacifistic view of Lipscomb was violently rejected (pun intended) so that the members of the Churches of Christ could be viewed as “good patriotic Americans.” Today, among the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ, patriotism is virtually identical to Christianity. Lipscomb, and I believe Stone, would be aghast.

As any reader can probably guess, I am deeply indebted to Stone (what I can read of him, although he did have some weird ideas). I am even more indebted to Lipscomb. I have read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and I am impressed with two things: Lipscomb’s profound biblical knowledge, and his theological insights. Those who disagree with Lipscomb very rarely ever actually engage Lipscomb, they simply defend their love of country and their political commitments more loudly. Which, in an ironic manner, simply proves Lipscomb’s point: you cannot promote God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan at the same time. Jesus said it this way, you cannot serve God and man.

A truly apocalyptic worldview has profound implications for the church. I’m not even sure I understand all of them – no, I am certain that I do not understand all of them. I have lived my entire life in an ethos where Christianity and Americanism were considered identical. America was God’s chosen land, and he blessed it with prosperity and peace. I do not think I have ever seen, and I have certainly not worshipped in, a church that is so fully immersed in the kingdom of God that it seeks to literally overturn the rule of Satan in its community. A congregation that exists so that its members can float around on little clouds when they die is inherently crippled – it has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and certainly no arms or hands to help. Conversely, a church that lives each and every day empowered by God’s indwelling kingdom not only sees, not only hears, but intentionally and actively works to alleviate human misery and to promote that indwelling kingdom.

As America sinks deeper and deeper into moral depravity and violence, I am growing more and more convinced that only this apocalyptic worldview will save the church. We must, we absolutely must, accept the reality that those who deny the lordship of Christ will never be able to think or legislate themselves out of the quagmire that those who deny the lordship of Christ have thought and legislated themselves into. Only when we learn to live, to utterly and totally exist fully immersed in God’s kingdom of love and justice, will the church be able to be the light set on a hill, to be the salt that purifies and preserves this generation.

The Head and the Heart

So far in 2018 I have been posting a flurry of articles, mostly planned and even a few written in the last weeks of 2017. These posts come from a deepening sense of uneasiness both within myself and with what I see transpiring within the brotherhood of Churches of Christ. As I have said repeatedly, the Churches of Christ are my spiritual home, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation). There is just one church of Christ, and I want to be a part of that church.

My uneasiness lies in this: for far too long and for far too many of us (myself included!) the focus has been getting the head stuff right. We argue endlessly over issues which are matters of human reason – can we have separate classes for Bible study, how many cups can be used in distributing the Lord’s Supper, can we have an attached “fellowship hall,” if women can pass the communion trays “side to side” why can’t they pass them “front to back,” can we raise our hands in prayer or during a song, can we use the church treasury to send money to an orphan’s home, can we hire a preacher, youth minister, involvement minister – and if we do, what do we call them. The list goes on and on and on. While I would suggest that the answers to those questions vary in degrees of importance, I will flatly say that Jesus did not die for any of those questions. The fact that any of those questions (among the dozens not given) have divided congregations is a huge blot on our fellowship.

What really terrifies me are the passages in the New Testament that should make us ashamed of our petulance. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:22-23). “Woe to you, scribes and  Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15, all references from the ESV).

I never want to discount the head stuff, the rational part of our faith. But I am only too aware of the trap of becoming so locked into our head that we lose sight of the heart. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In them we see time and time and time again how God disciplines the people of Israel for focusing on getting the rules right and completely missing the point of the rules. Was this not the major point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees?

The “mystics” and contemplative fathers had a saying, or rather an image, that they used, and which I think has great value. They talked about “descending with the head into the heart.” This is illustrated somewhat clumsily in the posture of kneeling for prayer. While kneeling, and with the head bowed, the head is either parallel to, or sometimes below, the heart. It is not a perfect image – but it is still a powerful one.

That is what this blog is intended to be all about. I am, for better or for worse, a head guy. I’m so right-handed and left-brained it is pathetic. But I believe God has blessed me with some profound gifts, and being left-brained is as much a gift as it is a hindrance, and I want to glorify God by using my logic and my reason.

That being said, I just feel a growing sense of dread that God is looking down at all our reason and logic and rationality and is simply furious. Can we not learn, after 2,000 years, that the church is more valuable, and more important, than whether we have pews or chairs, or whether there is a coffee pot in the classroom, or whether we even have a classroom at all?

Lord, have mercy on us, miserable sinners.

I want the church to ascend higher. I want us to attain the calling to which we have been called. I want the church to be the pure bride of Christ who longs for and prepares the way for his coming. In order to do that, however, we are going to have to learn how to descend – descend in to the heart, descend into humility, descend into submission to God and to one another.

Let us ascend lower.

Why is a Knowledge of History so Critical?

Last year I posted an opinion that one of the major issues facing the Churches of Christ in the coming year (and in fact, the coming decade) is the deficiency of knowledge regarding our history. Over the next three posts (at least) I want to expand that thought to include higher education in general, and the study of theology in particular, as particular weaknesses of the Restoration Movement.

Whenever I have mentioned teaching church history, and Restoration Movement history in particular, I typically get the same eye-rolls and groans. “Why do you want to study that stuff?” is the question, and “stuff” is spat out with enough venom to make sure I understand that the speaker is somewhat disinclined to join in with the study. The same is true when the word “theology” is used. A theological education is almost universally dismissed as being either unimportant or even detrimental to a Christian life.

Well, to make this as brief as possible, there are two reasons why studying “that stuff” is so important.

[As a brief aside, I am not suggesting that such knowledge is critical to become, or to remain, a Christian. Heaven will be full of people who had no understanding of church history during their lifetimes. However, I hold teachers and preachers to a higher standard, and I am fully convinced that a greater understanding of history/theology does make us wiser and more thoughtful Christians.]

Reason number 1: a sound theological education makes it less likely that we will make statements that are factually incorrect. NOTE: This is not the same as a lie. A lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of facts as known by the speaker/writer. If we say something that is factually wrong, and we do not know that it is factually wrong, we are not guilty of lying, but we are guilty of perpetuating a falsehood. Why would we want to do that?

I use as one example my own ignorance. I believed for a number of years that it was Thomas Campbell or some such Restoration leader that came up with the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in matters of opinion, freedom; and in all things, love.” Turns out I was only wrong by a few hundred years. I loved to attribute the quote to Restoration leaders, and I’m certain they used it, but it was not original with them. I was not lying when I attributed it to Campbell, but I was factually wrong.

A second example comes from my preaching experience. A preacher friend of mine got red-faced, spitting mad in a preacher’s meeting  as he recounted an experience visiting a church while on vacation. It seems that during the communion service the congregation sang a song. “You cannot perform two acts of worship at the same time” the preacher roared. I wasn’t going to say a word, but I immediately thought of the song “Father Hear the Prayer We Offer” –

Father hear the prayer we offer,
nor for ease that prayer shall be;
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Let our path be bright or dreary,
storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls in hope unweary
Make thy work our ceaseless prayer.

Now, the song is clearly a prayer. If he had ever sung this song, he was doing two things at the same time – he was singing, and he was praying. [Note: the Psalms are Scripture and many are prayers, so when we sing a prayer Psalm, we are participating in three acts of worship: the reading/reciting of Scripture, the singing of a Psalm, and praying.] But somewhere in this preacher’s training he was taught that a person can only worship performing one task at a time. Bad theology or bad history? I would argue it is both. I do not question his motives or his integrity – but his theology is definitely skewed.

Reason number 2: a healthy theological education opens up the possibility that we will view our own particular history with more humility and view others with less loathing. Again, I will illustrate with my own experiences.

First, at one time I was adamant that there was no such thing as the “Sinner’s Prayer” (note the capital letters) in the Bible. Not only was I convinced of that fact, I was utterly contemptuous of anyone who suggested otherwise. My ignorance was matched only by my feeling of superiority. Imagine my chagrin, then, when during a class on prayer I discovered the “sinner’s prayer” (no capitals) in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Although placed on the lips of the tax collector, the teaching comes straight from Jesus. [It is with no small amount of irony that I have to point out that when I arrogantly denied the existence of the “sinners prayer” in the New Testament I was guilty of the exact sin that Jesus was condemning in his parable. Hmmm]

Now, please hear me out – I am NOT defending the manner in which the “Sinner’s Prayer” is used today. The application in which the tax collector’s prayer is used today (in relation to eternal salvation) is a gross distortion of the context in which Jesus told the parable (i.e., humility in prayer). That truth does not absolve my ignorance, and certainly not my arrogance. Now, whenever anyone uses the “Sinners Prayer” as a path to salvation, I have a much better understanding of (a) where they might be coming from and (b) a much healthier way to help them understand the passage.

The second example I have is more technical, but no less powerful. Growing up I was taught repeatedly that the Greek preposition eis must mean “for the purpose of” and that’s it. This is because Acts 2:38 reads “be baptized for (eis) the forgiveness of sins.” In fact, not too long ago I read an article that stated that out of the thousands of uses of the preposition eis in the New Testament, not one single time can it mean “because.” Wow! Talk about skating out on thin ice. (Pardon the pun.) Many Baptists, and a number of other groups, however, do believe that the preposition eis in Acts 2:38 must mean “because,” because they have been taught the forgiveness of sins precedes baptism.

The fact is that the preposition eis must have some sense of the meaning of “because” in at least one usage – Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented eis the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Now, there are a number of ways you can translate eis here, (The ESV uses the word “at”), but you cannot get around the fact that Jonah preached, and the men of Nineveh repented! That is, the repentance was subsequent to, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Their repentance was certainly not “for the purpose of” Jonah’s preaching. The point is not that eis must mean “because of” in Acts 2:38 (I certainly believe it does not, and I know of no committee translation that so translates it that way!) The point is that by not knowing some basics of the Greek language a person can draw some conclusions that are factually wrong. Once again, I am not questioning motives, but only the correctness of some of our statements.

To summarize: is a knowledge of church history or Greek grammar absolutely necessary? Not, as I mentioned above, in the sense of one’s ultimate salvation. We can believe many incorrect things and still be saved by God’s grace. However, for teachers and preachers a greater degree of accuracy is critical in one respect – we must not be found guilty of promoting error just because it fits our “doctrine,” and we must certainly not be arrogant and dismissive of others who hold differing, although incorrect, beliefs.

In other words, we ascend to healthy or “sound” doctrine by descending into the grit and grime of history in order to make sure that what we are teaching is, indeed, God’s truth.

Some Thoughts on the Churches of Christ: A Closer Look

I am both thrilled and scared by the announcement that the Christian Chronicle, a newspaper affiliated with the Churches of Christ, will present a series of articles in 2018 reporting on both statistical and anecdotal snapshots of where the congregations associated with this branch of the American Restoration Movement now stand. Thrilled, because I am vitally concerned about this movement. Scared, because of what I see personally and of what I have experienced in my past. To assist them in this series the authors have prepared a survey they hope members of the Churches of Christ will complete (survey can be found on the Christian Chronicle website). I am a little dubious of the results, as (1) there is no guarantee that the respondents are genuinely members of the church (unless the authors vet every single response) and (2) it is only the individuals on the most extreme ends of a spectrum that respond to such surveys. In other words, only those who are the most angry or the most enamored with the Churches of Christ are likely to respond. Maybe I am too pessimistic – I look forward to the results in the genuine hope that I am wrong.

Because I seem to be genetically incapable of briefly summarizing any of my thoughts about the  church, here is my closer look at the Churches of Christ leading into 2018.

My greatest fear is that, even with the penetrating kind of reporting that the Chronicle routinely presents, only the surface issues are going to be identified and debated ad nauseam. I fear that the discussion will degenerate into a class of 12 year old boys shooting spit balls at each other and disguising the whole fiasco as a debate of deep spiritual import.

Having recently completed my Doctor of Ministry degree on a subject very closely related to this question, I feel at least somewhat qualified to speak here. There have been a number of excellent studies produced by scholars within the Churches of Christ (from all positions) that have explored in-depth the questions such as the Chronicle is raising. Perhaps the most ground-breaking was David Edwin Harrell’s work in the 1960s, but many have followed in his footsteps and have done a masterful job of examining both societal and theological issues within the movement.

My point of departure in addressing our future is this: it is absolutely critical that we jointly and collectively admit and appreciate our history.

I see, on one end of the divide that currently afflicts us, in those who identify (or can be identified) as “progressives” or “change agents,” an almost vitriolic attack against the beginnings of the Restoration Movement. They view such men as Barton W. Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, and others as naive, theological Lilliputians whose writings should be abandoned to the dustbins of history. The ridicule and scorn heaped upon the early 19th century restorers is hardly disguised, and is quite frankly embarrassing.

No less embarrassing, however, is the outright rejection of our history by those who are on the extreme opposite of the theological spectrum. According to the most conservative (or “reactionary”) members, we simply do not have a human history. We are the church of AD 33, no less and no more. It is almost (if not certainly) like 1900 + years of human – and church –  history never happened.

The situation we find ourselves in is this: these mortal opponents, who cannot stand the sight of each other, sit perched on the same flimsy limb that they are both furiously sawing in order to cut each other off. I believe a majority – or at least a significant minority – members of the Churches of Christ are left simply bewildered. They see and hear all the polemic being hurled from one side to the other, but all they want is a place to worship in peace and security. They do not want to blow the church up – but they equally do not want to retreat into some fortified bunker where there is no light from the sun and no fresh air to breathe.

The one thing that I feel in my bones is that the middle of the church is being squeezed by both ends and it is increasingly difficult to identify oneself as simply a member of the church of Christ (little “c”).

If you are wondering, yes, I have some ideas about the origins of our current situation, and even some tentative suggestions about how to move forward. I am, after all, a preacher – and preachers have never been short of opinions and suggestions.

At the end of this already too-long post I would offer this little tidbit: whatever we do, we must once again look to the core of what Jesus wanted his  church to look like (a really good start would be John 13-17). If we can begin there, and somehow learn to acknowledge and appreciate our very human and corporeal history, maybe we have a chance to speak to our culture. If not, I do not have much hope that the vision of Stone, Campbell, Scott and others will survive another generation.

Thanks for reading, and as always, let us aspire to ascend lower.