(by Lisa Robinson)
I was reading Sam Storm’s personal doctrinal statement the other day. I had seen it before, but this time I was most impressed with the diversity of varying theological positions. He readily admits to the eclectic position and has no qualms of not fitting in squarely to any one camp. What I found most refreshing about this statement was that although certain theological conclusions were solidified, there did not seem to be the need to preserve a particular system of thought. In his apparent quest to be true to what he believed scripture taught, he did not seem interested in theological preservation.
What is theological preservation? It is drawing theological conclusions and maintaining thought within those parameters. Typically, our theology is shaped by a variety of factors including personality, church tradition, etc. While we might maintain particular conclusions are born out of extensive and fruitful study, the greater reality is that the product of study often places our theology squarely within a defined system of thought. We become convinced through study and affirmation of the proponents of whatever theological positions are embraced, that our position is the most consistent with the complete witness of scripture. Our theology then hinges upon those conclusions.
Once a particular theological position is derived, I believe it is natural to want to preserve the parameters. Deviations are acceptable as long as points are not conceded to competing viewpoints. In other words, what typically might happen in a discourse about competing positions is that we might make allowances for some acceptable mid-way point, but not so much that agreement might align us with the viewpoint that we are opposed to. We will want to preserve the position we have come to accept as the one we believe is most consistent with scripture.
Often it comes down to particular terms that are affiliated with doctrinal or theological position. In the course of competing positions, we might not want to use certain terms to avoid the affiliation and guilt by association, so to speak. This is why I believe defining terms is more important than the term itself, since there can be varying interpretations. Don’t get me wrong, terms are important. I don’t see them as labels but definitions that provide a greater clarity. Therefore, I reject the idea that we should eliminate labels or terms but do insist the need for articulation on what exactly is meant. But at the same time, we can allow the terms or labels to deter acceptance of valid points.
I have seen this in a number of exchanges of competing viewpoints and will admit to my transgressions in this regard. As I’ve written about previously and was noted in my last post, I have swung the pendulum with respect to spiritual gifts and pneumatology, going from a pretty radical Charismatic position to a soft-cessationist. Lately, I have questioned if that soft-cessationist label is accurate since I don’t believe there is scriptural evidence that gifts have ceased but based on completed revelation and the foundation laid by apostles and prophets, not all gifts are needed in 21st century evangelicalism. Does that negate the existence of prophetic utterances or words of wisdom or knowledge today? I don’t think it does. Again, it depends on how you define them. The cessationist inside me would say “don’t go there, otherwise…” Well, you know the rest. Does my position make me quasi-Charismatic? Maybe and I’m fine with that. Because I don’t see the sense in forcing terms to preserve a position upholding completed revelation while denying the full ramification of the role of the Holy Spirit. But preservation will disable will such honesty and enforce an abolition of certain terms.
By now I can hear the gasps. What is important to note is that my theology concerning cessation of gifts has not really changed and becomes more refined with further investigation. But I think its dishonest to hold to a term and not concede legitimate points based on the complete witness of scripture just so we won’t get confused as being supporters of the competing positions. If fact, I find it quite honorable for those that can accept certain tenets of competing positions, even from other Christian traditions, at the risk of being mischaracterized as being warm to positions they should naturally refute. But such cases demonstrate that with the bounds of orthodox Christianity, there is need to find common ground and not throw the baby out with the bath water.
So how do we overcome theological preservation? That is a good question. I think it starts with the premise that scripture precedes theological systems. Yes, the systems are born out of scripture but can’t then be imposed on a reverse treatment. I’m afraid that is dishonest. I also believe we have to respect legitimate points made by proponents of competing positions. I think our natural tendency would be to conclude that since they uphold to a position we are opposed to, they must be wrong about everything. That is unfair. Lastly, I believe we have to challenge our own theological positions with equal or greater scrutiny of those we refute, taking account of the charges made by the other side to ask ‘is that true’? And that doesn’t mean build up a strawman to prove our legitimacy but to take a critical look at our own theology in light of allegations that are opposed to it. Our understanding will never be exhaustive and we just might discover some things we missed.