Tag Archives: tradition

We’re All Theologians: A Response to Donald Miller

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I count myself a fan of Donald Miller. I am particularly evangelical about Blue Like Jazz. I think the church needs his voice: a Christian able to laugh at Christianity, who is non-ideological, and yet deeply committed to Jesus. But he lost me in a recent column which concluded:

“Let me ask you this: Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and pseudo-scholars fighting about doctrine?

Is it worth it that you are divided against other denominations because scholars picked up their ball and stomped off the playground? If you are tired, then be the church. I’m not kidding; you don’t know everything, but you know enough. Be the church and be united. Let the academics go to an island and fight about the things that matter to them, and we will be united based on the things that matter to us.”

His basic premise: the church is led by scholars, and would be better off led by plumbers.

In some ways, this is patently false. Most church leadership, as I have experienced it, is held by people who have shown themselves to be effective leaders. Often times, these folks are not the most scholarly, but (hopefully) the most effective.

This is also indicative of something I thought Miller would have rejected from his fundamentalist background: anti-intellectualism. Granted, his is a more friendly, postmodern form, but at least here he seems to have an anti-scholarly bent with which fundamentalists of the early 20th century would be sympathetic.

In another sense, he is correct: “professional” church people and new Christians, clergy and laity, both have roles to play in church leadership. In fact, one of the most important, and oft neglected roles of the scholar-pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”¬† (Eph. 4:12) These saints would include plumbers and lawyers and housewives and grandfathers.

Donald Miller may not care much for fights about doctrine, but there will be doctrine regardless of whether or not it is discussed or named as such. This is one of the fundamental lies of the “non-denominational” church movement: there’s no such thing as untraditioned (Miller might prefer un-storied) Christianity. It never has been “just the Bible and God’s people” and never will be. The fact that most Christians don’t know the megachurch they are attending is functionally baptist (most practice believer’s baptism and local church autonomy), and these churches can get away with the claim, is evidence not of too much scholarship but of too little.

All Christians are theologians. In the Christian East, there’s an old saying: “the one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is one who prays.” Not all Christians are professional scholars (thanks be to God), but we are called both to think through and practice the faith. To pit these against each other is a false dichotomy, for they are mutually reinforcing.

So study theology. There is a good case to be made that even atheists should study theology; how much more should God’s people! Dig into the doctrine. Don’t accept just whatever your pastor or parents or “Christian” bookstore claim. Dig deep. Think. Pray. Wrestle.

Every Christian is a theologian; the question is, are we good theologians?

A friendly P.S.:

My own UMC denomination was not formed by an “academic” over doctrine, but over practice. Wesley began an evangelical order within the Anglican Church to reach those that were not being reached, through methods that were being successful in other parts of the Body of Christ. Was he doctrinal? You bet. But this fed his missional drive to all the people that the Anglicans seemed content to leave in the dust. This story brought to you by…scholars. ūüôā

 

P.P.S.:

The Miller article is not as new as I initially thought. My bad! But better late than never.

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The Blindness of Rejecting Tradition

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Notice the use of a creed here?

Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world. ¬† Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:

“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,]¬†drawing¬†a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”

As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy. ¬†What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus? ¬† Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3) ¬†Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to

“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition. ¬†After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)

There really is no escaping tradition. ¬†Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful. ¬†So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.

My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself. ¬†Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.

Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it. ¬†As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.” ¬†(p. 60)

The (Other) Hole in Our Gospel

Evangelicals are getting hammered from every quarter these days.¬† Mark Noll wrote of “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.”¬† (The scandal: there isn’t much of an evangelical mind.)¬† Richard Stearns has written of “The Hole in Our Gospel.”¬† (The hole: Jesus’ call to live radically, doing justice and loving the least.)

Here’s one more for the list, perhaps not as scandalous but perhaps overlooked: tradition.¬† Too many evangelicals, for various reasons, have spiritual, liturgical, and theological amnesia.¬† One evangelical who can serve as a corrective to this tendency is Methodist Grand Poobah John Wesley.¬† Thus sayeth Ted Campbell:

Wesley was, it should be argued, a very unique Evangelical who had an unusual commitment to Christian tradition (especially ancient tradition), and he therefore remains as a challenge (and hopefully a resource) to Evangelicals, who too often in the past have jettisoned Christian tradition as irrelevant to the on-going lives of individual Christians and to the life of the Christian community. (John Wesley and Christian Antiquity, [Nashville: Kingswood Books 1991], 114)