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.