Monday, October 8, 2007

how doctrine divides

After spending a week immersed in Jesus' passionate prayer for unity among his church in John 17, a good friend of mine recently made the statement, "I think open theism is a lie straight from the pits of hell. It is blasphemy, and anyone who believes it is a blasphemer." He went on to compare an open theist to a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness. He even declared that he could not work alongside an open theist for the sake of the gospel.

For those of you who might not be familiar with "Open Theism" it can be defined, in a nutshell, as: the belief that God limits his foreknowledge for the sake of free will. God has "perfect" knowledge right up until the present moment, but does not foreknow everything that will happen. In most forms of open theism God knows his redemptive plan (as in he foreknew he would send Jesus). The issue is clearly based upon a western philosophical system. Probably the most well known open theist is Gregory Boyd. Boyd is a competent philosopher, thoughtful theologian and prayerful pastor. In fact, his open theism came out his understanding of petitionary prayer. The line of thinking goes: If God foreknows everything then why do I need to pray for something? But, if my prayers do actually affect God's work in the world then God has chosen to limit his foreknowledge. This is an oversimplification of the complex philosophical arguments involved in the debate, but it provides enough of a summary to understand the basic idea of open theism.

To return to my friend's statement. Jesus' prayer in John 17 links the witness of the church with its ability to unify. The main thing on Jesus' prayer list for the Church, as he makes his way to the cross, is unity. My friend had the opportunity to teach on this wonderful passage and spent weeks in preparation. He did a wonderful job communicating the meaning of the passage, and I know he is passionate about the unity of the church. Yet, he can go so far as to say that he could not work alongside an open theist to further the kingdom. In his defense, he has rethought this stance after dialog in community (I’m praying that he can work with an open theist). Also, he is known for making blanket statements that he doesn't always fully mean. The reason my friend had such a difficulty with open theism is because he believes that such a perspective limits God's omniscience and omnipotence. Still, the fact that he could make some of the statements he made after studying a passage devoted to unity is baffling to me.

My friend’s view is not without merit. I am not convinced of open theism, nor do I expect him to be. I think Open Theism is an arbitrary issue to the biblical text. How can we expect to put western philosophical categories on Yahweh God? Christians and Jews have always been comfortable assuming God’s sovereignty over all of the universe and at the same time recognizing that prayer can change God’s working in the world. Is it appropriate to label him in such a way that defines how he works in the world?

Yet, my friend’s stanch position against open theism baffles me right up until the point when I condemn others for their doctrine. Could I work alongside a pre-millenial dispensationalist? Could I work alongside a fundamentalist? Could I work alongside a hard-line calvinist? What about a hard-line foundationalist? I would hope that I could answer "yes," to each but I often hold little respect for these theological/philosophical positions and, unfortunately, by extension the people who hold to them. Even though I recognize there are wise, intelligent, and faithful Christians holding to each. As I am confronted more and more with the need to contextualize the gospel, I wonder why it is that doctrine so divides us? Is it really a good idea to try and get at the "essence" of the gospel; to find the supposed "non-negotiables"? These questions seem to come from a Bultmannian framework, and yet it has dominated the evangelical quest for unity. What are we not willing to give up because it is absolutely essential? Is that still a worthwhile question? Is there a better way to get at unity?


Doug W said...

I think that this is one of the huge drawbacks of being non-creedal Christians. Since we don't recognize a creed that everyone agrees with (as to what separates Christians from non-Christians), we end up formulating individual "creeds" (because it is impossible to live non-creedally), blowing secondary and tertiary issues out of proportion, and saying ignorant things like what your friend said.

If you adhere to a creed, you can work with everyone within that circle whose motives are seen to be pure, despite differences in interpretation and theology. As long as I perceive that you are sincere in your desire to follow the Christ revealed in Scriptures, and you believe the creed as the Church has over the centuries, I find nothing that would keep us from working together for the Kingdom.

Of course, all of this is hypothetical. Real world issues are much more difficult.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I think of the presbyterian Church. They follow the Westminster Confession of faith and as a result have rejected the New Perspective as Heresy. It is not that they think the NPP isn't biblical, that isn't the question they asked. The NPP isn't Calvinism therefore it is Heresy. So I don't know that creeds are necessarily the answer, but I agree that it would be helpful to have a more authoritative hermeneutic maybe?

Michael DeFazio said...

Great post, bro. I wrestle so much with these things, especially your last paragraph. It's hard because while in theory I can say I'd work with a premillennialist (for example), but really I'd like it to be on the condition that they never teach. One of the things Fuller has built into me is a deep desire for the unity of the church, and while some ecumenical efforts are perhaps bankrupt dead-ends, we simply can't ignore something that was clearly so important to Jesus.

That being said, it seems so impossible to get anywhere. If everyone could agree to hold to the Nicene or Apostles Creeds, then it seems like we could get somewhere, but even those are open to so many interpretations. But, once again, the reality is that Presbyterians are not going to give up the Westminster Confession and most of the Christian Church won't submit to any creed at all.

I often think about the ecumenical implications of the New Perspective understanding of justification (I should say some versions of the NP), but with this doctrine itself such a dividing line, even this, which seems to offer the church so much potential in this regard, seems like one more dead end.

All that to say, I resonate with the pain you feel over the disunity of the church, and I never want to give up seeking solutions (even small ones).

What do you have in mind with the phrase "a more authoritative hermeneutic"?

Unknown said...

Sorry that last comment wasn't very clear. I wrote it between classes. Anyway, in Doug's comment he points out that creeds can be a helpful unifying force. It can simplify the faith to some essential items. The problem is simplification often leads to oversimplification. Creeds are great, but they can be just as easily misused as the Bible. What might be helpful is, and I think this goes along with most creedal communities, an authoritative hermeneutic. This is one of the things I like about having certain people within the community designated to study (like catholic priests). If you have people who are given the authoritative teaching role then you have some of the creedal unity (similar to the Restoration movement which abhors creeds) based on a particular hermeneutic. Basically, what I'm saying is that we can have creed-like unity by having an authoritative hermeneutic (i.e. a group of people who faithfully guard the interpretation of the scriptures).

Michael Hines said...

You pointed out well that doctrine can and does divide. Sometimes it needs to! There needs to be a clear distinction drawn between the "Christ of Mormonism" and the "Christ of the Bible". There are some teachings (doctrines) so important that the Apostle Paul called them sound doctrine. There is a danger in thinking that since "doctrine divides" it should be avoided. How do you do so and still "preach the whole counsel of God" or as Paul puts it, hold on to "sound doctrine"?

The problem with creeds, as one respondent intimated, is that creeds do not help. Even the Nicene Creed could not unite church warring over the nature of Christ. Presbyterians divided in spite of their adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Campbells simply said, "Why not speak where the Bible speaks." They refined it by calling for "pure speech" -- that is, using Bible names for Bible things and biblical terminology instead of human terminology.

Frankly, "open theology" interests me because it is apparently a way of explaining how a sovereign God could permit free will. It is good to discuss such issues even as A. Campbell and B. Stone discussed their various views of the atonement. They presented their case in their various publications but neither castigated the other as heretic nor rejected the other as unworthy of fellowship.