The Practical and Theological Litmus Test

I have a theological litmus test for any action, whether it is a decision by a church, a development initiative by a NGO, interaction between adherents of different world religions, economic theory, or just about anything else.

And this is it: does the action contribute to human thriving?

I think this covers it.

Throughout Scripture the issue keeps coming back to the Creator’s desire for His creation to thrive. While we have tended to read the (selected) texts since the Reformation to be simply about a contractual agreement to escape punishment for sin, the Scriptures continually draw our attention back to the Creator’s desire for shalom for His world.

The problem in Noah’s generation that brings on the apocalyptic flood?  Human thriving cut off by violence across the earth.

God’s continual concern with the welfare of the unempowered throughout the Torah, the writings  and the prophets; Jesus’ hometown self-definition in Luke 4 (18-21);his ministry of healing the sick; his contention that he came to bring abundant life; Paul’s confidence that in the Son all things are reconciled in heaven and on earth and all things hold together in him – all of these are about God’s desire for His Creation and image-bearers to experience wholeness and well-being.

Recall Irenaeus’ contention that the glory of God is man fully alive.

If for each theological direction we take, each decision we render on an action, be it church or community, this litmus test brings us to the crux: does it advance human and creational thriving?  This cuts past culturally-tied issues in Scripture which no longer obtain, it frees us from a legalism that always devolves into dysfunction, it breaks out of adventures in missing the point that accumulate around nit-picking Scripture battles and brings us to the central question What does God want in His world? We need a litmus test that engages that exact question, and I believe this one does.

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Theological Humility

I want theological humility, alongside appropriate humility in every other area of life. It goes without saying that portions of my theology are of course completely wrong – I just don’t know which portions! As Donald Miller remarked long ago, me understanding God is like an ant understanding me.

Thankfully God has revealed Himself through Scripture, nature and, preeminently, the Son, in ways  that we can understand. But the Christian experience of interpreting the Scriptures the last 20 centuries is diverse and multi-flavored. For any one of our traditions to take a stand and say “we are the only people who have this correct. Line up with our theology or you aren’t even Christian” is not only silly, but is also lacking severely in humility. Seriously? The odds that your particular branch of the Christian family tree nailed it, and everyone else is wrong, are hard to calculate, but let’s just say they are extremely low. And in any event, as I’ve remarked before, this boils salvation down to knowing all the answers on a theology test, and not our personal response to Jesus.

I think we all need (and perhaps especially some branches of the family that come to mind), a good, strong, healthy dose of humility about our theology. I would much rather us talk, learn from one another, learn from one another’s theology, work together and endeavor to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom better and better, instead of casting aspersions over the airwaves and in print, declaring that this or that group are no longer Christians, when in reality they hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – it’s just that they don’t sign on to your church’s particular and favorite doctrines.

Humility. Priceless.

Theological Immediacy Syndrome

I think those who decry current theological work suffer from a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without an awareness of how we got our theology, and what that means for the on-going ways theology will develop in our lifetime and well beyond.  I mean by this that they imagine that their theology is a once-for-all-time message that needs protected for theological purity; a beleaguered set of doctrines that has been attacked throughout the centuries and has been successfully defended and still must be. Or, in the case of some of our New Calvinism friends, they imagine Christian theology was one certain accumulation of doctrines that was somehow lost in the early days of the church, re-surfaced when John Calvin came along in France, and now must be protected for all time, the one true expression of The Faith; and if you aren’t sure what it is, just keep your John MacArthur and John Piper books handy.

This, of course, suffers from the fact that it is simply historically untrue. All of our theologies have been through numerous revisions. All Christian theology, including Calvin’s, have accumulated, morphed, jettisoned, adjusted, re-vised and edited themselves over and over again. When people, like the emergents, start writing new directions in theology, they are simply repeating a process that has been going on for 20 centuries.  (And one that we know, from the diversity of Second Temple Judaism, was going on in Judaism during Jesus’ time as well).  Friends of mine who de-cry the emergent/postmodern Christians seem to imagine that whatever they write today might de-rail the Christian faith for all time. I think of that as a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without a long view of history. What the historical process shows us is that, rather than crying heretic! every time somebody tries to do some work, if we sit back and let the pot simmer on the stove, it allows for the on-going work of Christian theology to develop, just like it always has. It takes a while for new iterations of Christian theology and practice to work its way out. We don’t need to rush it or stress.

Brian McLaren on Choosing a Church

A week or so ago  I saw on a blog where someone asked Brian McLaren what church or denomination  he would recommend. (Yes, that Brian McLaren, whom our fundamentalist and hard-core Calvinist friends consider the Anti-Christ). Brian responded with a list of 5 issues important to him in choosing a church. I think this is one fantastic list.  I wish I had written it myself. I am copying it from his blog at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/brianmclaren/2014/01/qr-which-denomination/

A List for Choosing a Church/Denomination:

1. Hand/Mission: Is this denomination more oriented toward maintenance, self-benefit, or the common good of the world? In what ways is this denomination practically expressing its commitment to join God in bringing blessing to the world? Is the denomination more dominated by tradition/the past than by mission/the present and future.

2. Heart/Spirituality: Does this denomination promote personal and communal encounter with God, the neighbor, and the other and enemy, or is it preoccupied with correctness, numbers, politics, and institutional maintenance or aggrandizement?

3. Head/Theology: Does this denomination create space for vibrant theological reflection, imagination, and investigation? Or does it suppress theological curiosity in order to unquestioningly support a predetermined set of conclusions? Does it expect the Spirit to continue to guide us into truth?

4. Backbone/Structure: What kind of support and accountability does this denomination provide to support its staff and members in mission? How nimble and flexible is the structure?

5. Open arms/Ecumenism: Does this denomination wall itself off from other Christian communities, and other faith communities – or does it use its structure as a bridge to facilitate collaborative relationships? And is this denomination interested in welcoming me?

Our best, their worst

This is sort of part two to How do you judge a denomination?   https://toddrisser.com/2013/12/16/how-do-you-judge-a-denomination/

One of the things we need to beware of is comparing our best to someone else’s  worst. We do this all the time. A family member of mine once remarked “Man, those Catholics are really screwed up.”  Having read the gigantic 1994 Catechism, and knowing he hadn’t, I asked “What do you mean?” He went on to describe some Catholics he knew. Of course the ones he was describing were folks who went to Mass once or twice a year, considered themselves Catholic, and didn’t practice the Christian religion at all. I said something like, Are you kidding me? Of course comparing a lapsed, non-practicing Catholic to the best Nazarenes you know makes it look like we are way better than them – how about comparing apples to apples? You don’t think I can show you people who attend a Nazarene church once in a blue moon, who if asked would say “yeah, I’m Nazarene” whose lives are a wreck ? They’re all over the landscape! You can’t think of one group’s worst representatives on the one hand, and think of your group’s best representatives on the other, and call that a fair comparison. This should go without saying, but we do it all the time.

If we are in a group we esteem, we tend to conceptualize that group by its best results. When we aren’t part of a group, or don’t like their theology, etc., we tend to think of the bad examples of why we don’t think they are all that great. Want to compare Catholics to Nazarenes? Put one of our best up against Mother  Teresa or Francis. Want to look down on Pentecostals? Try comparing your life to my great, great Aunt Evelyn. I have “sort-of” “former”’ “non-practicing” “lapsed” Nazarenes all over this town whose fractured, messed up lives would give any lapsed Catholic a run for their money! We don’t accomplish any valuable evaluation of a religious group’s health or end-results by comparing our best to their worst.

How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.

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.