Structuration Theory and Theology PART TWO: the water and the stones

In the last post I described the sociology theory “Structuration” and how I compare its view (of the development of human societies) to water in a streambed flowing among stones – both the water and the stones mutually affecting each other. I was talking about this because I suspect the history of change in Christian theology is also a story of Structuration.

Christians I know tend to have a variety of ideas about changes in theology. Some see change as a watering down of the clear, Divinely-inspired teaching of the Bible; as in, people change theology to suit their whims instead of obeying what God has said. I don’t think that accurately describes the development of Christian doctrine down through the centuries, and certainly doesn’t reflect how a doctrine like, say, the Atonement, has undergone change. People who take this approach are well-meaning I am sure, but I don’t think their understanding of the history of Christian thought is very robust.

Others see it more in terms of progressive revelation; as in, God is helping us slowly develop better and better theology as the centuries unfold. This sounds encouraging, though we have to admit it’s pretty us-focused, self-serving, and naïve concerning the negative effects much theology has.

Some see it as simply a matter of applying the correct scientific methods of interpreting the Scriptures, and whoever does the best work is the one who is correct. Thus the exegetical wars between Wesleyans and Calvinists, etc. etc., ad nauseum.  I think history has shown these wars of textual minutia to be unwinnable, with a large swath of bombed-out territory in between the trenches, littered with lots and lots of human casualties that too many of the weapons-designers don’t get out to see.

I suspect that the truth about changes in theology is a lot like Structuration theory’s explanation of change in human societies. The traditions, beliefs and worldviews a person grows up with shapes their view of theology, (and their understanding of what the Scriptures mean, and which Scriptures are more important than others). But then again, that person’s unique thought processes interpret what they see in the world around them in ways that are possible to break beyond the bounds of the prevailing thought around them – thus pushing the stream of water flow in a different direction, in a minor – or sometimes major – shift. These changes in perspective in theology are often in response to discoveries or new thought in other realms – biology, physics, archeology, humanities, etc. But it’s not one-way, because the prevailing theology/worldview shapes the assumptions those scientists come to their work with as well. Thus I think history shows that the human society and its prevailing thought systems (and new discoveries) affects theology’s development, and theology affects the society as well, in an on-going interplay.  Easy example: when we discover the earth goes ‘round the sun, instead of the sun going ‘round the earth, it’s hard to stick with a theology – and an exegetical method – that says the sun goes ‘round the earth.  There’s a lot more to be said about this. Our theologies have changed in all kinds of ways down through the centuries because of things we’ve learned in science, or because of our consciences. More on structuration theory and theology in the next post.

Today is the fifth day of Christmas Season in the Christian calendar. So it’s not too late for me to sincerely wish you: Merry Christmas.

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a now-oriented salvation, Part One

When I read 50 of the primary works by emergent authors a few years ago I noticed a growing sense of responding to the call of Jesus to follow Him because of what that following means for life here and now on earth for myself and the world around me, not simply because by doing so I can make it to heaven when I die. Emphasizing the need for salvation around the afterlife has created, in the modern church, far too many people taking on Christian faith as just another expression of selfish, me-oriented, consumeristic society – what THEY’LL get out of it. (And we wonder why there are so many immature Christians in our churches?)

A common trend running through emerging/Emergent/postmodern Christianity is the conviction that the Gospel is not merely a set of beliefs to get you to heaven when you die. Rather, it is an invitation to a new way of life right now, a call to participate in God’s new community here on earth, and a conviction that salvation, in the Biblical sense, is about a lot more than what happens after your funeral. This isn’t to suggest that the modern church was only ever concerned about getting to heaven, but most postmoderns feel that much of the modern church focused so much on after-death soteriology, that it drowned out most of the rest of the message of Jesus, and fostered a Left Behind view of abandonment of the world.

Nazarene pastor Dana Hicks has written: “Focusing evangelism on what happens to us after we die tends to create disciples who are not concerned with either whom they are becoming or the kind of world they will leave behind. Of course, we may die tonight. But it is much more likely that we will live a while longer – a decade or two or three or more. What happens in the meantime? Will we live an abundant life? What kind of legacy will we leave behind?”(Dana Hicks, Postmodern and Wesleyan, 77). Instead of the question regarding God letting you into heaven if you died tonight, Dana  finds the following two questions to be more helpful in speaking to people about Christ,

1”If you knew you were going to live another forty years, what kind of person would you want to  become?”

2. “If you could know what God is doing in the world, would you want to be part of it?”

On Working Out a New Theology

Last year a bright friend of mine who is a missionary in Jordan found himself realizing that big parts of the theology he grew up with could no longer be sustained by the Bible. This was causing him a pretty grueling experience of trying to sort it all out. I sent him this note:

On theology: several times in my life large chunks of my theology exploded in front of me. It felt like safety to run back and dive in to what I had formerly believed, but it would have been intellectually dishonest and fake, because I knew it had too many holes in it. I couldn’t “unlearn” the new facts that had shot holes through my former theology. It’s ok for it all not to come together again right away. Some times it took me several years. I stuck doctrines (or how several fit together) in the “pigeon hole of suspended judgment” and kept reading, talking and thinking and let it take as long as it took to piece together something new. Sometimes it was several years. Each time a piece clicks into place it’s very encouraging. I know the (for me frustrated) feeling of not being able to express what I believe about something even to close people like my brother in law, because I’m not sure what to say and how to even fit it together or even what it is. That’s all fine. Growth takes time. Wiser, smarter men than us have been through this in other generations and now it’s our turn to be faithful to go thru it. As long as you keep loyal to Jesus throughout the process, the doctrines can wax and wane, come and go, piece together or be full of gaps – I think it’s all fine with God. He knows if I love Him or not.  People get loving God and loving doctrines confused. It’s easy to feel like a heretic when you are on your way to a new theology. It’s not heresy, it’s just that you are still looking for what the new theology is that takes into account the “externalities” that blew up your former one. The road to a new, honest theology that brings glory to God is pretty cloudy and foggy while you walk it (unless it’s not for geniuses, but I’m not one). Stuff will start fitting together as time goes by. What I would hate to see you do is shut down the process out of anxiety and “go back” to believing something that you may have seen has some serious holes in it. It’s an understandable psychological move people make – but it’s dishonest about what they’ve learned about the bible – sort of like sticking their head in the sand in order to avoid the tough work of sorting something new out. You are too gifted, too bright, too all kinds of things to be wasted doing that.

Your theology is in its 10th revision

Or fourteenth. Or twentieth.

Some people, when they hear talk of new theology or new work in theology, start talking as if their own theology is the original, Biblical theology and all new work in theology is illegitimate. But no matter what brand of Christian theology you hold to, it’s been through many revisions. Since the earliest centuries Christians have worked, tweaked, revised, changed their theologies as their understanding of God and the Scriptures developed. For example, Calvin (16th century) used and modified Anselm’s ideas (11th century). Anselm had used and changed Augustine’s theology (5th century). Augustine was deeply influenced by many Greek philosophers (400 BC ff) and the theology of the Council of Nicea (325 AD). Of course there were hundreds of other philosophers and theologians influencing Calvin and the Reformers, not just the ones mentioned. This is the way Christian doctrine has developed over 20 centuries. In fact, Christian theology has also been influenced by Muslim and Jewish theologians across the Middle Ages (Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides, etc). If this last fact bothers you, remember that Paul said people figure out things about God even aside from the Revelation in Jesus (Romans 1: 18ff).

No, no, some people insist, but I just hold to the Biblical theology – you know, what they believed in Jesus’ day. Really?  Within Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ day, which theology do you mean? The Zealots’ theology, or the Saduccees’? The theology Rabbi Gamaliel  held, Hillel or Shammai? The separatist theology of Qumran or the Hellenized theology of Pharisees like Paul, who quoted Greek poets and philosophers? It’s clear that most New Testament Jewish theologies had been majorly influenced by Greek thought, and before that Jewish theology picked up many ideas from the Persians. The same thing was going on in New Testament times. A variety of theologies abounded, and they had been modified and revised as time went on.

So when Christians continue the on-going work of theology (“words about God”), we are simply doing what Christians, Jews and Muslims have done for our entire history. Theology didn’t start or end with Calvin or whoever your favorite might be. What people think of as “I hold to a simple biblical theology” is really the culmination of thousands of years of tweaking, revising and modifying. It isn’t going to end this side of the Age to Come. It’s ok. We are still learning, stretching, growing, being taught by God’s Spirit who makes the written words come alive in us.

Next time: what it’s like to be on your way to a new theology