This is a letter from Greg Eby, a student in The Theology Program, to his pastor about The Theology Program.
Remember the rigid Fundamentalism of the 60’s and early 70’s? Or, more specifically, do you recall the Baptist Fundamentalism that was prevalent during this particular era of intense cultural upheaval? I sure do…
The advent of the 60’s introduced us to the Beatles, the hippies, the rock & roll revolution, Viet Nam War protests, promiscuous sex, drug abuse, etc., etc., ad nauseam.
But, in Fundamentalist circles the 60’s precipitated something altogether different…..”The list.” Surely you remember “The List.” While pulpiteers gave lip service to the Age of Grace and extolled the virtue of our freedom from the shackles of the Law, in reality, we found that the Decalogue had simply been supplanted by other unwritten regulations, i.e. “The List.”
While hair length, dress code, and music were the chief constituents of this unwritten list of stipulations, this trio was often accompanied by other rules, some of which found their way into church covenants and were therefore codified in written form. Examples of these included abstinence from the use of playing cards, tobacco, alcohol, and movie theaters. (By the way, I am neither a smoker nor a drinker. I plead the 5th with regard to occasional movie going).
It seems that the Church, reeling from the explosion of worldliness in the surrounding culture, reacted by seeking to legislate spirituality. The lessons of the Old Testament and the failures of the Old Covenant to consistently reform (let alone transform) the children of Israel seemed to have been long forgotten. As a young person I can personally attest that any mention from the pulpit of a vital, personal relationship with Jesus Christ seemed to pale in significance to the emphasis placed upon “The List.” It was an age of legalism, and the Gospel was engulfed within the milieu characterized by rules and stipulations. Consequently, I believe many young people were brought into outward conformity – but remained spiritually stunted inwardly…
Well, lest I seem overly critical of Fundamentalism, let me say that both contemporary Baptists and Protestants owe a debt of gratitude to those Fundamentalists who zealously guarded many essentials of the Christian faith from the encroachment of modernism and liberalism, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Higher critics attacked the authority of Scripture, cast aspersions upon the historicity of Jesus, questioned His deity, and generally sought to disprove the miracles recorded in the Bible…
It seems that Fundamentalism was faced with fighting a battle on two fronts: the impingement of higher criticism on the one hand; the exponential growth of worldliness on the other. I don’t fault Fundamentalism for entering the fray; but, I do decry the fact that many casualties in this war were suffered by young people who were the victims of “friendly fire.” I was one of those. Caught up in a distorted gospel of “do’s and don’t’s,” it was easy to succumb to the notion that external conformity was the defining essence of Christianity… How many young people prayed “the sinners prayer,” embraced outward conformity, and then assumed their fire insurance policy was in full force?
The pervasive legalism in the moral realm was paralleled by pervasive dogmatism in the doctrinal realm. Fundamentalism, in its “knee jerk” reaction to the excesses of liberalism, became very narrow and rigid in its theology. Never mind the fact that God gave us a brain capable of critical thinking skills – the very skills exercised by the Bereans when they compared Paul’s preaching to the Old Testament Scriptures. Of course, by “critical” I don’t mean negative. I am primarily referring to an individual’sevaluation and assessment of truth claims in light of Scripture and in consultation with other believers within the community of faith. The rigid, over-protective, isolationist mentality of 30 years ago was not conducive to “doing theology outside the box.” It was, however, conducive to the indoctrination/regurgitation method of “teaching” doctrine. Consequently, we are faced with a generation of adults who know what they believe, but they are unable to rationally defend their beliefs because they have never critically examined the propositional content upon which they have placed their faith. They don’t know why they believe….
I remember the militant separatists within the GARBC who were so jealous of their pulpit that they were suspicious of any Baptist outside the Association. And God forbid they should share their platform witha non-Baptist! Fundamental Baptists had a corner on the truth and felt they must protect their doctrinal integrity at all costs. This atmosphere was counterproductive to critical thinking and independent Bible study. It did, however, produce its share of pride and judgmentalism. This should be no surprise, for judgmentalism is the handmaiden of legalism.
In my view the fundamental problem with Fundamentalism (no pun intended) is not its enthusiastic regard for absolute truth. (I share that enthusiasm). The problem is its penchant for viewing all theology in black/white, all or nothing categories. According to the strict fundamentalist any doctrine deemed worthy of embracing is automatically decreed to be in the “essentials” category and warrants a “10″ on the scale of certainty. I concede a bit of hyperbole here, but it seems that nothing – short of the identity of the Nephilim in Genesis chapter 6 – is open to debate or discussion… Howard Hendricks cites a quotation in his book, “Color Outside the Lines” that is most applicable here.
“From the cowardice that dares not face new truth, from the laziness that is contented with half-truth, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, Good Lord, deliver me.
–Prayer From Kenya
In TTP (The Theology Program) we discuss an assortment of erroneous methods of “doing theology.” I use the phrase “doing theology” because TTP is a theological methods program – not a catechism. We extol the virtues of doing exegesis within a historical, grammatical, contextual, and literary framework; of comparing Scripture with Scripture; of extracting timeless principles; of distilling those principles into a theological statement (a timeless truth); and then asking the question, “How does it apply to us today?” not “What does it mean to me?” The latter question is characteristic of subjective theology and symptomatic of postmodern epistemology and the manner in which it has infiltrated the Church. In short, the Bible is not subject to a myriad of meanings superimposed upon it by private interpretation.
In The Theology Program we discuss the categories of “True Relativity” (consisting in situations/opinions) versus “True Objectivity” (consisting of the cardinal doctrines essential to historic Christianity but also including those non-essential tenets subject to debate and discussion).
In The Theology Program we ask questions like the following:
- l What teachings are absolutely essential for an individual to be saved?
- l What teachings are essential for orthodoxy?
- l What teachings are important but not essential?
- l What teachings are not important?
- l What teachings are open to pure speculation?
The Theology Program rejects the Postmodern View of Truth and posits the Correspondence View of Truth, “the belief that truth corresponds to objective reality.” But, having said this, we discourage rigidity of opinion and dogmatism in the classroom. Lively interaction and discussion in the classroom is encouraged – in fact, it is an integral part of what TTP is all about. On the other hand, polemics and heated verbal altercations are not permitted. We recognize that no single individual has a corner on all truth and the study of theology is best done “in community” within the Body of Christ. My reasons for saying this are the following:
- l The noeticeffects of sin. Although all redeemed individuals are new creations in Christ, it is intellectually dishonest to disavow the vestigial effects of original sin upon our intellects and reasoning abilities. The remnant of the sin principle in the life of the Christian can impede not only his volition but also his cognitive abilities. I believe this is one of the reasons we often perceive truth “through a glass darkly.” This is also why it is so important for us to renew our minds daily through Scripture reading, prayer, and interaction with other believers.
- l Although supreme objectivity is always to be our ultimate goal, we all have experiential and emotional baggage that we bring to the study of Scripture. In addition, we all tend to view theology through the lens of our pre-understandings and “folk theology.” In our present state of humanness it is impossible to totally divorce these influences from our understanding of Scripture. This is where, I believe, rigid fundamentalists have been intellectually dishonest. Or perhaps they have just buried their heads in the sand…
- l The Bible itself is not a systematic theology textbook. Many doctrinal tenets are rather loosely interspersed throughout its pages. It appears that God expects us to use our minds to organize, categorize, and systematize the truths contained within the pages of His Word. We find doctrinal “dots” all across the pages of the Bible, but God expects us to sharpen our own pencils and connect those dots in proper fashion to produce an orderly, coherent theological perspective. [Moreover, we often forget that many of the refined articulations of doctrine taken for granted by evangelicals have evolved over the course of 2000 years of Church history and are the product of many "movers and shakers" who have gone before us. We stand upon the shoulders of the early Church fathers, and other men like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Though deceased, these men are constituents of the community of faith. Every time we read one of their commentaries or consult one of their works we are "doing theology in community."]
- l Finally, because we all “see through a glass darkly,” we all bring our own alternative brands of Windex to the “glass” in an effort to perceive truth more clearly. And when we read the labels on each brand of glass cleaner we find that each has a unique blend of ingredients. Some might contain a higher percentage of reason and logic; others, a higher proportion of tradition and experience. The particular mix depends upon the individual. But our purpose is the same, to determine the single objective interpretation of the truth. And this is why it is so important for “iron to sharpen iron.” (By the way, don’t laugh at my Windex analogy. I came up with that on my own and I happen to think it is pretty good J).
Students who are new to The Theology Program are asked to temporarily place their current theological constructs on a shelf. They are asked to consider some of the most cogent arguments (bothpro and con) of various – and often divergent – theological perspectives prevalent within evangelicalism. They are asked to ponder the Scriptures supporting and refuting each position. This is where critical thinking skills come into play. In addition, they are strongly encouraged to discuss their thoughts withone another as they progress through the curriculum. This is what “doing theology” is all about. As the student further develops his own theology, many of the constructs placed on the shelf will be re-integrated into his theological understanding. Moreover, he will engage in this process with renewed enthusiasm and fervency because the end product is his theology. It is his because he has appropriated it by conviction. This is the most exciting aspect of TTP. At this point the student is in a better position to defend his beliefs and be the “salt” and “light” so desperately needed in our Postmodern society…
Allow me to close this letter by sharing a classroom experience which had a profound impact on my life. During one of our class sessions I recall a spirited (almost heated) exchange occurring between two of my fellow TA’s(teaching assistants). It happened to revolve around some of the finer points of doctrine pertaining to a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper. I remember intervening privately in an attempt to resolve the dispute. I feared their friendship might be in jeopardy. But what I observed during a subsequent class is what really “blew me away…” With a complete absence of any pretense or hesitation these two individuals greeted each other in a sincere, warm-hearted fashion. What I observed was unfeigned, unconditional acceptance. How could this be? Shouldn’t they be harboring a grudge or nursing hurt feelings? I firmly believe they were illustrating what Chuck Swindoll articulates so very well in this quote from his book, “The Grace Awakening.”
One of the marks of maturity is the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. It takes grace. In fact, handling disagreements with tact is one of the crowning achievements of grace.
Unfortunately, the older we get the more brittle we become in our reactions, the more tedious and stubborn and fragile. For some strange reason, this is especially true among evangelical Christians. You would think that the church would be the one place where we could find tolerance, tact, plenty of room for disagreement, and open discussion. Not so! It is a rare delight to come across those in the family of God who have grown old in grace as well as in knowledge. (Emphasis mine).
Dear Pastor, I am wondering if the gist of this letter resonates with you. Perhaps you have suffered at the hands of fellow fundamentalists because you have dared to be creative and implement innovations in methodology at FBC…..
My object in writing this letter is to be the best possible ambassador for Christ and for Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, and most specifically, The Theology Program (TTP). The study of theology needn’t be dry, dusty, and stodgy. In fact, when it properly engages the critical thinking processes of the brain it can revitalize a church and serve as a catalyst for revival! It has certainly had that impact upon my life.