Beyond Eclectic Christianity

To say that I come from a mixed background is an understatement. I was raised in the Independent Christian Church movement, discipled in a rising megachurch run by one of the current promoters of Radical Christianity, and have enjoyed close brushes with Eastern Orthodoxy and most varieties of Anglicanism. I now embrace Reformed theology, but I got my first steps down that road through reading Thomas Aquinas. I spent several years self-identifying as a “generic evangelical”, and somehow I was almost completely unironic about it. I absorbed all of those influences between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and I have spent the time since sorting through it all.

Given that background, I could almost be a poster child for evangelical eclecticism. But a funny thing happened along the way.

In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton describes Gabriel Syme’s pedigree in this way:

Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left—sanity.

Exposed to wildly varied theological influences in my late youth and early adulthood, I find myself likewise revolting into particularity. I was once proudly inclined to pick and choose the “best” parts of thinkers across centuries and competing schools of thought—and proudly called myself humble for it.

thursday

thursday (Photo credit: cjkershner)

I once somewhat admired the notion of heeding the Calvinists on election, the Arminians on free will, Catholic mystics on spirituality, and certain Charismatics on the Spirit. I am now more inclined to see that as the route of universal condescension. Drilling down into one particular tradition, its predecessors and its context, as a more humbling discipline.

In the preface to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the limits of his concept of “mere Christianity”:

It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.

I would state the point in starker terms. It is not  a mere matter of camping out in the hallway of the correct building but of trying to make one’s bed in an abstract bedroom. (Perhaps claiming that actual stone, steel, and wood feel so rigid or unreliable.) The reality of the Church is far more than meets the eye, and she will not fully appear in her proper radiance until the Bridegroom comes and fulfills all things. But we cannot live in the eschaton while this age winds on.

You cannot find a generic human being.  People are not abstractions; they are startlingly concrete and specific. Families, likewise, exist in the world of experience, not the realm of the Platonic Forms. Yes, we can describe and explain families through abstraction and general concepts. But Motherhood can’t call you on the phone, only Mom can.

And the church is the same way. We don’t need abstract teachers, but concrete, specific ones. That is why Paul calls for churches to be led by overseers who “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9, ESV)

We need definite pastors and church leaders. Not just so we have someone to visit us in the hospital, but for the uncomfortable reason that we need teaching and discipline. We need people responsible to call us up if we’ve been neglecting the assembly, who right there in the flesh reprove our sins and remind us of the gift of grace. Who are set aside for the task, so that rebuke and correction can be kept out of the hands of self-selected busybodies. We need a particular “pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13), both to restrain those who enforce their unique fancies and to keep standards from being too vague to enforce.

It is not only on this collective level where we need particularity. It is all well and good to point to the limits of human interpreters of Scripture and to say that no person or group is ever fully correct. But if we make those cautions our absolute principle, that makes the individual interpreter the absolute authority. More to the point, it undercuts the very good of seeking out teachers and of reading older texts. If we draw from a wide variety of sources with no differentiation, we have no point where we can defer and we can always drop one teacher at the first sign of discomfort.  It becomes very difficult to benefit from study or to gracefully receive correction.

That is not to say that one specific denomination or tradition, as currently constituted and run, is fully pure and right. Nor is it to say that we are all trapped within the horizon of our own confessional commitments. I mean to say that a robust, positive theology has to stand on something rather than nothing. If theology is to be more than a nerdy pastime, a proxy for power games or cultural dueling, or the basis of endless abstract disputes, then we each need to stand within a particular theology, following the example of particular sub-apostolic teachers, and correctable at first resort by a particular range of teachers in light of Holy Scriptures.

One final problem of strong eclecticism is that it is like standing on several stools. One can pull it off for a while, but it is a good way to fall between all of them. The human mind is a marvel at holding inconsistent positions together. This is not entirely bad—it lets us be better than our worst ideas, and it can slow down the full adoption of bad ideas long enough to learn better. But such a position has the stability of a heap of sand. It can stand for decades, or collapse at a slight shake. A mixed, inconsistent worldview is also very difficult to teach and propagate. The student need not have the same motives or personal history to hold the points of tension. In such a case, the students may well end up more consistent than the teacher, in ways the teacher may not like.

All that said, I have not abandoned the idea of broad study, or the maxim that all truth is ours in Christ. I’m still an early modern/medieval history guy who loves the Church Fathers. It is a question first of priorities and secondly of context. Priorities, in that I have a lot of catching up to do in reading the major sources of my relatively newfound tradition. More than that, as a student of history I have a special responsibility to be well informed about that to which I am most directly connected. What credibility do I have in arguing for the significance of late medieval exegetes to modern-day Reformed churches if I can’t do more than mutter partisan shorthand about our more recent exegetes?

As for context, it means reading works from other traditions from a particular position that is held by a community. Knowing and naming where one comes from makes it easier to take inventory of all those presuppositions and biases in advance, so one can see what they are doing while reading and digesting a text. That helps to establish a good critical distance to appraise the good and the bad. It also reminds one, when faced with difficult or perplexing arguments, that there may be others who have also engaged them.

Reading from a grounded position provides a basis to spot the deeper differences—and similarities—between contributors from differing traditions. It’s that very appreciation for how an idea is embedded in the assumptions of a broader theological viewpoint that makes the difference between productive cross-pollination and duct-tape-and-bailing-wire aggregation.

And most traditions include good precedents and models for broad study and appropriation. The more I read in the Reformers, or in 17th-century Anglo-Scottish Reformed authors (i.e., “Puritans”), the more I find them favorably citing works from other Protestant branches, the Church Fathers, and even medieval and contemporary Catholics. More striking than my discovery that “Puritans” wrote the largest share of commentaries on Song of Songs in the 17th century, was to see how many of them love to quote Bernard of Clairvaux on the topic. Particularity need not mean parochiality.

 

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  • gk

    Does Lewis’ image suggest that once we decide to enter a room, we are closed off from one another? Do the rooms have walls?

    • Kevin White

      People in different rooms certainly can have very productive interaction. Varied priorities and basic assumptions can make it challenging.

  • CT

    Very interesting commentary. I hold to no denominational creed, my current church is more non-denominational than anything.

    My theology is based on the Bible, respected teachers, and God’s voice. I agree that some sort of authority is needed, otherwise Scripture interpretation simply becomes subjective based on each individual’s particular views. But I largely reject simply following denominational doctrine. I believe all denominations have much to contribute, providing what they are teaching is in sync with the Bible. I think that was what you were trying to say as well, but I am not sure.

    • Kevin White

      I’m not really a big fan of denominations, either, but probably in a different way. I believe that the church exists at more than a congregational level, and there are rightly levels of real oversight and accountability at different regional levels. But the varied, often ad hoc or temporary fellowships with weak or peripheral distinctives are not always very churchlike in operation. They likewise do not always provide as much in the way of substantive teaching and instruction. In fact, they can be designed so that the regional or national bodies have little ability to address and settle substantial doctrinal controversies. You can have whole clusters of denominations that are, in the sense of my post, in the same substantive tradition. It would be best if they could consolidate their regional church courts and be more of a unified church, but history, politics and pride hinder it.

      • CT

        Agreed on all points. Thank you for the clarification.

  • A.R.M.

    “We need people…who right there in the flesh reprove our sins and remind us of the gift of grace. WHO ARE SET ASIDE FOR THE TASK, so that rebuke and correction can be kept out of the hands of self-selected busybodies.”
    Maybe I misunderstand that second sentence–but it seems to imply only Clergy (or Theologians) should call out sin…? This, of course, would be very different from the way the early Church conducted herself. There was no “setting apart” for the role of disciplining, and meetings were conducted through mutual participation. (“Teaching and admonishing one another,” much like a contemporary Bible Study.) Gal. 6:1 and 2 Thess. 3:14-15

    • Kevin White

      Did you notice that the part where I discuss ordained leadership is the part where I most directly quote scriptures? And note that a strong appreciation of the biblical role of ordained leaders in the church is not necessarily the same thing as clericalism. Both vocational pastors and elders with other vocations are, in my (and my church tradition’s) view equal partners as shepherds of the flock.

      But I certainly would not say that Clergy and Theologians are the only ones who can do any kind of teaching and admonishment. I am neither of those things, and I teach classes at my church. Discipleship, especially in the form of older Christians guiding younger Christians in the faith, is a general responsibility of the flock. But not every sheep is a shepherd. Neither I nor Paul am suggesting that church should be lorded over by Panels of Professional Experts, but by serious, prayerful leaders who have been tested (1 Timothy 3:10) and found to be of sound character and understanding.

      If this were more than a blog comment thread, but I would love to go over all the ways that church office in different forms is a pervasive feature of both the Old and New Testaments.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Amen and Amen. This rang true to a lot of my experience, even the bit about Thomas pointing towards Reformed thought. Actually, it was Gilson’s work on Thomas that gave me a whole new appreciation for the ontological implications of God actually being God the creator and sustainer of all things. Well, again, thanks for the post.

  • Bascon

    Nice read, although I feel when you stated that no one form of
    Christianity has got it right, it sparks to me almost as if the gates of hell
    got to Christianity which Christ promised would not happen to his church.
    From my research the early Church Fathers were very Catholic, and believe
    in the same doctrines today as they did back then, I personally trust the
    authority of the magisterium over someone’s personal interpretation, especially
    since Catholics put the bible together, and also the reason we have a bible
    today. I am curious how you reconcile the theology of the early church and
    reformed theology since they are quite different? I hope you don’t find this as an attack I am truly curious – Pax Christi

    • Ben Thorp

      I think it is probably overstating it to suggest that “the early Church Fathers were very Catholic” and that “Catholics put the bible together”. Most (if not all) the doctrines that the Reformers were objecting to were not held by the early church (papal infallibility, indulgences, the role of the priest, etc), and the call of reformed theology is to return to a theology that is based on the Bible, rather than the layers of tradition that had been placed upon it.

      • Bascon

        “I think it is probably overstating it to
        suggest that “the early Church Fathers were very Catholic” and that
        “Catholics put the bible together”. “

        I wouldn’t know a better way to state it.
        Eucharist, Confession, intercession of the Saints, honor to the Blessed Virgin
        Mary, Purgatory. What would you call it?
        As for the bible, 73 books listed at the Council of Rome under Pope Demasus I,these same 73 books used today by the Catholic Church.. Without the Authority of the Catholic Church
        infallibly declaring what books are in the bible I don’t really see how we come
        to know that any of the books are truly inspired? Who says they are inspired? No inspired table
        of contents? The Authority of the Catholic Church comes from Jesus, same church
        infallibly declares the bible, with the power of the Holy Spirit of
        course. The bible seems to be demoted to
        being just another book if that is not true.. to quote St Augustine “I would not believe the holy Gospels if
        it were not for the authority of the Holy Catholic Church”

        “Most (if not all) the doctrines that the
        Reformers were objecting to were not held by the early church (papal infallibility,
        indulgences, the role of the priest, etc), “

        I must disagree Ben I feel there is ample evidence
        to show that the early church did recognize the primacy of peter, his successors
        and the authority of the pope. I am not
        sure as what you mean by role of the priest? If you are referring to the
        sacramental priesthood separate from the priesthood of all believers, then this
        role was held by the early church who believed in the true presence in the
        Eucharist. As for indulgences, the early
        Church believed in confession and purgatory, which indulgences rely on and were
        practiced by the early church. I could post writings from the early church
        fathers to affirm my statements but for the sake of space I won’t, if you are
        interested in e-mailing me I would be more than happy to share – Mbascon@live.com

        “and the call of reformed theology is to
        return to a theology that is based on the Bible, rather than the layers of
        tradition that had been placed upon it.”

        I believe you can find implicit and explicit
        support for all Catholic beliefs, doctrines and disciplines in the bible. I must disagree that reformed theology is to “return”
        for I don’t find any reformed theology really before the reformation and they
        certainly couldn’t have done it during those centuries prior to the bible because
        without the NT scripture you can’t really have sola scriptura.

        I would hate to flood Kevin’s comments, I am
        more than happy to continue the discussion via e-mail. mbascon@live.com

        Pax Christi

    • Kevin White

      Michael,

      That’s a lot of big questions right there.

      The gates of hell have not triumphed over Christ’s Church! The spark of her life has never been extinguished, even if we are not always good stewards of Christ’s trust. The Church may be in frequent need of reform and renewal, but that does not mean that Christ has failed.

      Note that I say “fully pure and right,” not simply “right”. There is a big difference. “Not quite perfect” is a far cry from “they all have fallen away into falsehood and apostasy.” It’s hard to look at any point in Biblical or post-Biblical history when God has placed indefectable leaders over His people, but neither has He ever shown any sign of giving up on us.

      As for Reformed versus Patristic versus modern Catholic doctrine, or the whole “Catholics put the Bible together” claim, I say we get together the next family visit that we’re both at, grab a responsibly-sized bottle of something, and hash it out at length. A good time would be had by all!

  • Ryan Lunde

    Great post! Thank you.

  • davestrunk

    One of the interesting things about the particularity of Kevin’s life is that I often experience the opposite impulse from baby boom pastors in my denomination. They are still fighting “out of” the denomination we are a part of to claim a broader evangelicalism. It’s amazing how many pastors I have to disagree with about infant baptism in a Presbyterian denomination (context: I’m the one who agrees with it).

    My point is that one can be more consciously unifying if one knows one’s place. I think true particularity breeds more wide reading, in most instances. The more vaguely “evangelical” one is, the less I tend to see them interacting outside their community at all.

    There’s a weird Chesterton paradox in all this, but I can’t quite place my finger on it.

    • gk

      I wonder if Gilbert might say something like:

      One could swim in a pool or the ocean. The pool is as wet as the ocean, yet far safer, and its edges can be seen. The
      ocean is vastly more terrifying and its edges cannot be seen.

      But the pool was made by man, whereas the ocean was made by
      God.

      • davestrunk

        I think this gets to the heart of it quite nicely.

    • Kevin White

      Amen.

      I’m sure there is a good Chesterton quote somewhere that would hit the mark exactly. But then, his complete works probably leave little unsaid!

  • Vain Saints

    I’ve always said that doing things minimizes the emphasis on doctrinal niceties, once you’ve got the basics of the thing down. The Early Apostles, engaged as they were with mass conversions, healings, and changing the world, probably did not have much time for issues of doctrine that were not of the highest importance (e.g. the resurrection and the Divinity of Christ).

    As an aside, I’ve always been curious as to what a Calvinist would say in response to the following analogy:

    Say my house is a wreck. One day, someone named Emmanuel comes to my place and says ‘Your house is a wreck; let me fix it for you’. I initially resist, wondering what the catch is. He says, ‘No real catch; you just have to keep your house in order and call on me when it’s getting a bit untidy.’

    The only thing stopping me from simply allowing Emmanuel to clean up my house is that I wish to take the credit for the condition of it. If I simply give in and allow Emmanuel to clean my house for me, I really can’t take credit for cleaning it. But this is in no way inconsistent with the onus being on me in the first place to swallow the pride and let Emmanuel clean my house. I don’t think ‘merit’ is the proper word simply for this act of entrusting the Work to Emmanuel, and thus I can’t see how this is in any way inconsistent with the doctrine of Justification via Faith.

    Or am I missing something?