When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

So, Why Study History?

(Third of three in a series)

So, why do we study theology and history, especially our very real and human religious history? In a sentence, we study these not just to learn the what, but also to understand the why, and hopefully avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors. In this installment I turn my attention to another misunderstood aspect of the Restoration Movement, that of our primary hermeneutic, or how we interpret the Bible.

If you have been a member of the Church of Christ for any length of time you have probably heard the slogan, “We do not interpret the Bible, we only obey the Bible.” Whether you have heard that or not, you have no doubt been influenced by the very real manner in which we do interpret the Bible – that of Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (hereafter abbreviated CENI). Stated as simply as I can, we interpret the Bible by identifying and obeying specific commands, by imitating certain examples, and by drawing inferences or deductions that (at least to certain individuals) are inescapable. Never mind that at each point the hermeneutic is fraught with problems, I would wager that very, very few members of the Churches of Christ understand how that method of interpretation came to have such a powerful influence on the Restoration Movement.

The language, and certainly the thought, comes primarily from Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address (first published in 1809). In his third proposition, Campbell wrote:

That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent.

That paragraph gives us the “command and example” part of how we interpret Scripture. If there is a command given to a disciple or to a church, we obey it. If there is a behavior or practice that is “approved” in Scripture, we promote it. Once again, there are problems here, but we can see how the principle was taught. The problem comes with the addition of the “necessary inference” part of the hermeneutic. I doubt that many members of the church are even remotely familiar with Thomas Campbell’s sixth proposition, which states in part:

That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God . . . Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.

You may want to re-read that paragraph. Thomas Campbell made it abundantly clear that where there are unambiguous commands or examples in Scripture, those teachings must be followed by disciples of Christ. Where human reason has to fill in any blanks, those deductions and inferences may indeed be correct, but those inferences and deductions cannot be bound on anyone who does not see the “obvious” nature of the deduction. Campbell’s wording is profound – a person’s faith must not lie in the wisdom of another person’s brilliant deduction, but only in the “veracity of God.”

Let’s first tackle the problems of “command and example.” It goes without saying that there are a number of dominical and apostolic commands that all disciples of Christ must strive to obey. “Love on another,” “Obey my commands,” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are just a few. I do not think there are many Christians who would disagree with the thrust of those commands.

But what about Matthew 5:27-30? Either there are no Christians who sin with their eyes or with their hands, or we are simply not obeying a direct command by Jesus. Or what about Romans 16:16? How many kisses do you see shared by ushers every Sunday morning? I especially like the manner in which we passionately obey 1 Timothy 5:23.

And what about the example part? Have you noticed that every time the Lord’s supper is described in the New Testament it is being celebrated at night in an upper room? We are told we are to “lay by in store” every first day of the week, as was the practice of the Corinthian church, but do we send that which is received to the church in Jerusalem? Do we wash each other’s feet before every pot-luck lunch?

The point is that there is a certain amount of “cherry picking” that we do even with the “express terms” and “approved precedents.” That discrepancy is multiplied by the tens when it comes to necessary inferences. How many divisions have plagued the Lord’s church just because someone made a “necessary inference” and then demanded that everyone else bow to their conclusion?

Where did we get our dependence on the “necessary inference” part of CENI if not from the Campbells? It was from the pen of Moses Lard, first a disciple of, and then a co-worker of, Alexander Campbell. Within the first generation of leaders the abhorrence of Thomas Campbell to the binding of inferences and deductions had already begun to wane. By the second and subsequent generations the addition of “necessary inference” was firmly entrenched, and has been a thorn in our attempts at unity ever since.

I want to return to a point I made at the beginning of yesterday’s post. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were disaffected Presbyterians. They were reacting against the inferences and deductions that had become church law in the Presbyterian Church. After all, a creed is nothing more than an institutionalized inference or deduction from Scripture. Thomas Campbell saw that when an inference or deduction was promoted, someone else either could not follow the logic, or could come up with a different inference or deduction. He allowed that some inferences and deductions could indeed be considered Scriptural truth, but they could not be bound on the conscience of another Christian!

I do not want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes. While I can identify problems with CENI, I also want to admit to its strengths. At the very least, it is an attempt to follow the doctrines of the Bible as they are taught in Scripture. It is a human construct, to be sure, but the motive of Thomas and Alexander Campbell (as well as their spiritual descendants) was commendable. Yes, mistakes have been made, but let us not go to the extreme that we utterly dismiss the love of Scripture and the love of the church that was demonstrated by these early Restoration leaders.

I believe there is a healthier manner to interpret Scripture than CENI. I am also convinced that we practice a better form of interpretation than we sometimes preach (i.e., we do not amputate hands nor do we gouge out eyes. We recognize those “commands” are metaphorical, and we do not consume wine to the exclusion of water because we recognize that Paul was addressing Timothy’s intestinal problems). My biggest issue is obviously with the “necessary inference” component of CENI, and I believe that is where the need for a healthier hermeneutic is most clearly demonstrated.

How many divisions could be healed, if we simply admitted to ourselves and to others that we have certain inferences and deductions that we hold to be dear, but that we willingly refuse to demand obedience by other faithful Christians?

May we all learn the art of ascending to the heights of what is possible by descending into what is necessary.

The Study of History – Facts are Stubborn Things

(Second in a series of three)

In addition to being a minister by vocation, I consider myself an amateur history buff. One thing I learned recently was the role of the United States and her allies in starting WWII. “Wait!” you said. “Adolf Hitler started WWII and the United States did not enter the war until 1941.”

Well, that is mostly true. Hitler did strike the match that started the fire. But the US, England, and France poured out all the gunpowder that Hitler used to burn Europe to the ground when they forged the Treaty of Versailles. That document blamed Germany for WWI, and made Germany pay reparations that it could never pay; it ultimately drove Germany into a depression the likes of which have never been equaled. All that was necessary was for a master manipulator like Hitler to come along and strike that match. Had the Allies reframed the treaty that ended WWI, Hitler would never have had the leverage he needed to turn the population of Germany against the world a second time. We smugly blame Hitler, and self-righteously overlook our own nation’s role in starting the war. Facts are stubborn, and often inconvenient, things.

What in the world does this have to do with theology, and the Restoration Movement in particular? Only this – very often we only focus on the end result of a very long and complicated process. When we get back to the beginning, and ask the question “why,” we tend to get very different, and sometimes surprising, answers.

Barton W. Stone, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, were disaffected Presbyterians. This means that their religious thought world was primarily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. In their day that Calvinism was  further refined by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Much as only the tip of an iceberg is visible on the surface, Stone and the Campbells were only partially aware of this influence. They wrote clearly and passionately against creedalism and the dangers of denominationalism, but a significant amount of their invective was focused against the legacy of Calvin.

One such teaching of Calvin is that a person can never really be sure of his or her salvation, as feelings can ultimately be misleading (this point is even endlessly debated by Calvinists). If God elects certain people to heaven, and others to hell, there is nothing that you can do to join the first group and avoid the second. More to the point: When exactly could a person be assured of their salvation? If the doctrine of original sin was true, there had to be a point at which God revealed to a person that sin was removed – but what was that point?

The solution (at least in the late 1700s and early 1800s America) was the “mourners bench.” This was where penitents could attend church, listen to sermons, and await the filling of the Holy Spirit that would reveal the gift of salvation. Many would sit on the mourners bench for months, some no doubt for years, before this warming was felt.

As they sought to unify the Christian church, and as they worked to restore that church to the purity of New Testament teachings, Alexander Campbell and his disciple Walter Scott hit upon a masterful observation. Stated most simply and elegantly, sinners could respond to the gospel with three observable steps – they could believe the gospel message, repent of their sins, and receive the washing of baptism. In turn, God made three great promises – the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life.

It was a stroke of theological genius! First, it was sound biblical teaching. Anyone could open their Bibles and verify such was true. But, more to the point, it answered an existential question in a profound and dramatic fashion. I cannot emphasize this enough. It was brilliant theology, although Campbell himself would have vehemently denied the use of the term. Gone was the mourners bench! How could you know if you were a Christian, that your sins were forgiven, that you had the gift of the Holy Spirit and that heaven awaited? By the observable steps of making a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and by submitting to baptism. Thousands responded to this “new” teaching and the Restoration plea spread “like fire in dry stubble.”

Not one to leave well enough alone, Scott further tweaked this plan into his “five finger exercise.” He would ride into a town, gather some children together, and teach them the “five steps of salvation” on the fingers of their hand. They  were taught the importance of faith, repentance, baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then sent home to repeat the message and to invite their parents to attend a protracted “gospel meeting” (an event that sometimes lasted weeks). Once again the results were astounding. Thousands were converted using this simple method of evangelism. But, notice – everything post baptism was excluded.

Through the decades that followed another subtle but critically important change occurred in this “gospel plan.” It was further reduced to the five steps to be accomplished by humans. From the original six steps which balanced human responses to God’s promises, the “plan” was now “hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.” Gone was any reference to God’s promises, or God’s grace. Notice also the total silence regarding an obedient, faithful life. The focus was on baptism alone, a point that was not missed by the multitudes of opponents of these “Campbellites”.

Now we can step back and see how the process where a brilliant theological move has been co-opted into an idol. Stone, Campbell and Scott were responding to a crisis – a crisis that was keenly felt in the churches to which they were speaking. They took the gospel message and formulated an answer that was both biblical and culturally relevant. Over time, however, that answer has become a mantra that is largely devoid of its original context. Worse, by failing to see why the early Restoration leaders formulated this teaching method, we have elevated the method to the status of Scripture itself.

I write this not to disavow the Scriptural necessity to hear the gospel of Christ, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that one must repent of a sinful past and that one must be baptized into Christ. Such is taught from Matthew through the New Testament. My point in writing this essay is to illustrate out how we as humans can turn a process into a goal, a method into an idol. Just as Calvinists had turned the “mourners bench” into an institutionalized exercise, so many in the Restoration Movement have “creedalized” the “gospel plan of salvation” and have turned it into something it was never intended to become.

The result, I fear, is now becoming painfully obvious. The Christian Chronicle is producing a series of articles detailing how the Churches of Christ are shrinking at an alarming rate. True, all “Christian” churches are experiencing losses, but this is particularly troubling to me because we, who proclaim that we are not a denomination and that we are only baptizing to create disciples of Christ, should not be experiencing losses in the numbers  that are being reported. It is one thing to leave a church. But, if we discipled people to be followers of Jesus, and then they leave, they are rejecting Jesus.

Our response to this crisis needs to be as theologically astute and culturally relevant as was Campbell’s and Scott’s in their day. But we are not living in post-Revolutionary America. We are living in post-Modern America, with a whole host of new and different questions. We must be true first to Scripture, and we must also be educated enough about our own history to learn not to turn human methods into church creeds.

I believe that it is very sad that in many ways we have become what Stone, Campbell, and Scott were fighting against. We have become as creedal and divided as the Christian world in general. We have turned the momentary successes of a generation into a permanent temple of worship. More on that in the next installment.

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.

Arrogance, Humility, and Institutional Memory

We are living in a time in which the disease of arrogance is approaching pandemic proportions. Humility, never in the history of man something that was found in over-abundance, has disappeared from all but the most remote corners of discourse. Humility is now considered to be the chief deadly sin. It used to be that mud was only thrown after all facts were depleted. Now, the storehouse of facts remains untouched, while the mud has all but been expended.

While far from being alone, the Churches of Christ have long been accused of arrogance – “You people think you’re the only ones going to heaven” is a refrain oft repeated – and not without some justification. Some members do hold such a belief. However, even among those who do not hold such exclusionary beliefs, there is a sense that, if the Bible is inerrant, and if I believe the Bible teaches something, then my understanding of what the Bible teaches must therefore also be inerrant.

Like I said – we are not alone in harboring such members, but it seems to me that we do have more than our fair share.

This is so peculiar to me, for one reason. The early leaders in the Restoration Movement did not hold such exclusionary beliefs, and the exact opposite concept is enshrined in one of the founding documents of the Restoration Movement.

In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell (father of Alexander), wrote this as his sixth proposition explaining the desire to withdraw from the evils of denominationalism:

6.  That, although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they see the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession. (Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, Mission Messenger, 1978 printing, p. 46)

The target that Campbell had squarely in his sights was the numerous creeds and Confessions of Faith that were used to divide Christians in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It is significant to me, however, that the very language he used “deductions…inferences…formally binding” are those that are used with a reckless abandon by his 21st century spiritual heirs.

Today you let some preacher or blogger infer something from Scripture, and it automatically becomes enshrined as a binding truth for the confession of the Church.

There is a key phrase in the middle of that paragraph is is, to me, astounding – incredible even. Thomas wrote, “. . . for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.” Here we have a statement that could come from the pen of virtually any “postmodern” theologian, and it was written almost 200 years ago!

If you convert someone to a deduction or an inference of man, all you have done is to create a follower of a denomination. If you convert someone to Jesus Christ, you convert them to the power and veracity of God. Anytime you tell someone (or anytime someone tries to tell you), “you have to believe the Bible plus this book” or “you have to accept the Bible and this confession of faith” or “you have to believe in the Bible and this creed” understand that person is trying to get you to accept the deductions and inferences of men as equal to that of Scripture! I wish I could say that such things do not happen within Churches of Christ, but I am wise enough to know otherwise. Preachers and members of the Churches of Christ may not have a written creed, but far too many of them have just as binding and just as distinct unwritten creeds, and those are probably more dangerous than the written versions. At least you can object to a specific written statement. Trying to pin down the unwritten creeds of some members is virtually impossible.

I will not back down one inch from the truths clearly taught in Scripture. I will not easily back down from my deductions and inferences, because God gave me a brain to use and legitimate tools to help me understand his word. But – and this is critical – I cannot bind my deductions on you as a matter of Christian obedience any further than you can agree to my deductive skill and resulting conclusions.

Humility demands that we approach our deductions, inferences, and conclusions with the greatest of reticence and care. As Campbell said, they may well be rock-solid biblical doctrine. But, just as easily, they can become tainted and be less than pure.

Arrogance will not allow that we be mistaken, in any way, shape, or form, in our “human wisdom.” Arrogance demands that everyone bow their knee to our special insight and judgment. When all the facts are used up, arrogance has no fear to start throwing mud. Arrogance is always self-righteous, but never quiet.

I would so much rather be quietly correct, than loudly wrong.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#15)

And so we come to the end of my mostly tongue-in-cheek list of “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection.”

15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15.a.  However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.

This “truth” reveals a long-simmering pet peeve of mine, which I find within congregations of the Churches of Christ, but also within virtually every nook and cranny of Christianity (real or imagined). That peeve is that this generation believes that this generation is the ONLY generation to have everything all figured out, that earlier generations were populated with ignorant boobs, and that future generations will only screw up what this generation has perfected.

I am so tired of a cabal of cultural observers who have anointed the coming generation of “millennials” as the smartest, the brightest, the most observant and intellectually astute generation to have ever walked the face of the earth. I remember reading a report by someone who had interviewed a group of graduating theology students that was so gushing it was nauseating. According to that observer, the group of 22-25 year olds that he was visiting with was so theologically radiant as to overcome the light of the sun.

Really? A generation that has not, or has barely, reached their 30th birthday, and they have already “understood all mysteries and have obtained all knowledge”?

A little confession here, but I am half-way through my fifth decade, and I am only now starting to understand the questions, let alone have any idea about the answers.

Which brings me to my point in Undeniable Truth #15 and 15a. Theology is second only to the field of History that is bound to a study of the past. The old maxim that we are gnats standing on the shoulders of giants is hyperbole, but a warranted hyperbole. We cannot understand our present, let alone make any projections about the future, unless we have a deep and broad understanding about our past.

Where this particular truth disturbs me the most is within my fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To be blunt: the average member of a Church of Christ is pathetically ignorant of his or her spiritual heritage. I don’t just mean historically foggy – I mean historically blind. I hear it in comments both from the pulpit and from the pew. It is embarrassing to hear it from the pew – it is revolting to hear it from the pulpit. For far too many people, the past 2,000 years of Christian theology simply do not exist. It is not that this history is minimized – it is excised! But what that leaves is a person who is struggling to live the life of discipleship with no memory. Imagine waking up each morning with absolutely no memory. How could you function? Yet, we attempt the same impossible task each and every time we disparage or remove any attempt to learn from Christian history.

[A mea culpa here – how can people learn what they have not been taught? Church leaders who do not insist on a basic understanding of church history (including Restoration History) are impoverishing their congregations. A course covering some aspect of church history must be a part of any healthy Christian education curriculum, preferably beginning in the high school years, but continuing on a rotating basis throughout an adult education program. Sermon over.]

The opposite extreme is by no means any improvement. An ignorance of our spiritual heritage has caused some to idolize certain figures who have obtained some measure of notoriety. It is a curious truth: those who are the most historically ignorant tend to idolize historical figures the most. The only problem is, it is not the real person (or the person’s teaching) that they turn into an idol. Being ignorant of the real historical person (or teaching) the modern sycophant creates a straw man (or ideology) and then reads that gilded idol back onto the pages of history.

I have just one teensy, tiny little example. How many members of the Churches of Christ revere some understanding of Thomas and Alexander Campbell? Now, how many of those same members also hold very firmly (even obstinately) to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” to discover how the Christian is to live his or her life today? Okay, now, how many of those who revere Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and who hold unswervingly to the hermeneutic of “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” are aware that Thomas Campbell was firmly convinced of the command part, was reticent about the example part, and was emphatically against using any kind of human inference in determining Christian doctrine! You read that last part right – Thomas Campbell flatly rejected “necessary inference” in his hermeneutic – at least as it related to binding one’s conclusions on others. Yet, if you challenge “CENI” today you better be wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Sigh.

I do not want to worship any human being – and believe me I have my theological heroes! Every human that ever lived has lived in some measure of error – except, of course, our Lord. However – from the second century church fathers all the way through history down to and including such modern writers as N.T. Wright – great minds have wrestled with the teachings of Scripture and the questions of human life. Not all of their answers have been right, and a good many have been wrong. We can no more erase their contributions from our understanding of the Christian life than we can erase our memory of what happened yesterday or last year.

We are who we are because of those who have walked before us. If we see greater truths in the Scriptures (and, let’s hope that we do!) it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Let’s just remember that they too, were gnats standing on the shoulders of their giants.