Scot McKnight on the "NeoReformed"

Scot has written a provocative piece, a long time coming, that he is finally sharing with the world. Go read it, and then respond to any of these questions that suit you:

1. Is Scot's observation of a surge (a "Resurgence"?) in hyperCalvinism spot on?

2. What do you think of his thoughts about the "big tent of evangelicalism"? (Depending on who answers this question, you may want to broaden the tent even more broadly, to discuss the "big tent of Christian orthodoxy.")

More to the point, How helpful is it for various Christian theological and ecclesiological camps to draw lines in the sand, around themselves, and relegate Christian orthodoxy to their exclusive box? Every person in his or her right mind should agree that there is a line somewhere. Not all ideas can genuinely claim to be Christian. So the real question, the question we come back to again and again, is, What is orthodoxy? Is it a creed? Several? Which one(s)? A 16th century confessional statement?Scot's parenthetical comment about certain tenets of Calvinism erring on "central" components of the Christian faith is revealing of the debate at large. Everyone's definition of what is "central" (i.e. indispensable) is different. To justify their claims, they point back to their favorite theologian(s) and/or council(s) (while turning a blind eye to those points on which they would heartily diverge from said theologians, e.g. Augustine). The best of them hold history loosely and seek to establish their point from Scripture itself, via systematic theology. But I'm afraid this attempt ends up getting the best of them.

I'm going to state this bluntly: there are things systematic theology can and cannot do, questions it can and cannot answer, paradoxes it can and cannot reconcile. Both Calvinist and Arminian systems force us to reconcile paradoxes that cannot be reconciled this side of eternity. Neither, when their implications are teased out to their logical conclusions, offers a theological foundation that can be thoroughly, practically lived out.

What then should we do? I suggest we get on Scot's "big tent" bandwagon (or rather, the bandwagon of orthodoxy that has been pulled by Christ throughout the history of the church).

In order to do that, I'm proposing that we reconsider the way we frame the question of orthodoxy.

I know this is a massive issue, but bear with me. I fear (with a growing host of communication theorists and sociologists) that verbal expressions, as cultural expressions of a particular people in a particular time and place, cannot simply be adopted cross-culturally. The various creeds, councils, and confessions of various peoples in various times and places were drawn up in order to answer questions particular to their contexts. My time studying systematic theology has been sufficient to persuade me of the fact that language, in and of itself, just doesn't quite cut it when it comes to communicating truth absolutely about an infinite God. Again, allow me to elaborate.

The early creedal councils had a bear of a time trying to put into words what they believed the Scripture taught about the Trinity. It took multiple revisions until they came up with a version that suited them. Years later, as they grappled with the internal relationship of the persons of the Trinity, they had to make a critical choice regarding whether the Spirit proceeded from the Father and Son, or only the Father (the filioque controversy). The answer to this question contributed substantially to the split between the Eastern and Western Church.

Today, if you sit in a systematic theology class at any academically/intellectually rigorous theological institution (or read any such author), you will note the obvious weakness of language to fully communicate (transfer meaning from one to another) absolutely. More than language (though certainly not less) is required for true communication to transpire. Shared experience, trust, and so forth (i.e., "noise" reducers) are required. But it is exactly these "noise reducers" that are culturally constructed and bound. In short, the extent to which two human beings have commonality (broadly defined as sharing X between one another) is the extent to which communication takes place. Communication is an act of "communing" with another, of connecting. Much more than verbal systems are required for this.

By implication, then, orthodoxy is an inadequate test of genuine Christianity, and of inclusion "in the tent." For orthodoxy is relegated to the realm of language, and does not include the broad sweep of communication, or "communion." The conclusion, then, should be obvious: the very act of gathering, of communing, is essential to what it means to be a Christian. Deciding who is in and who is out of the tent, then, becomes a matter of assessment of not only doctrinal consent, but communal commitment—and perhaps the latter weighted more heavily than the former.

Perhaps we should reconstrue orthodoxy in terms of hermeneutics rather than explicit dogma.

It would be deadly (and unbiblical) to assume that there is any fellowship outside the Spirit who binds us together. But perhaps a better criteria for inclusion in the tent would be one that emphasizes one's view of Scripture. The Reformers emphasized "sola Scriptura," or the Bible as the final authority for matters of faith and life, the "norming norm", as Baptists would call it. Perhaps this is where we should draw the line. "We believe that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, given to us to know and love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves" (or something along those lines).

This really is the defining issue. Most denominations, churches, seminaries, and divinity schools recognize this, and include it as a requisite criteria of participation in the group. Unfortunately, they add to it a string of interpreted theological statements, all of which are fallible, as additional requirements.

Dennis Hollinger, current President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, offers this helpful (and humbling) insight, which bears heavily on this conversation: "theology may be defined as the human attempt to systematize and apply what revelation teaches about given themes. . . . What must be realized . . . is that the divine reality is not synonymous with words used in Scripture, but rather the biblical words, as cultural symbols, point to the divine reality" ("The Church: A Social Institution?" TSF Bulletin, Jan-Feb '87, p. 19). In other words (and Hollinger states this), the only purely objective truth God has given us is Scripture itself, i.e. the original text itself—the documents, the ink on papyrus. All attempts at theology are subjective truth derived from the objective existence of the text. You see where I am going.

How can we demand as criteria for entrance into the community of faith, consent to the theological products of fallen, finite human beings? Granted the Spirit helps us along in our interpretation, but He does not usurp our humannness (a brief overview of the history of theological interpretation quickly proves that) and thus guarantee infallibility of interpretation.

If I had more time, I would write a clever conclusion to tie all this up in a nice, neat bow. But alas, I do not. So I defer to you: write the conclusion yourself! ;-)

For more thinking on this issue, see my "Too Generous an Orthodoxy: A Call to a New Ecumenical Hermeneutic."


matt stephens

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