Bold Thinking Christianity, Chapter 4–Halting the Drift of Reality Toward Dogma

 

pararew (pararheo) — Drift

“Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we pararuwmen (drift away) from it.”—Hebrews 2:1

                There are times in the history of the church when debate over various “specific” doctrinal or theological issues opens doors to more “general” principles. The specific discussion prompts and stimulates larger trends and truths to become clarified. The results of such new focus are unpredictable and take God’s people in new directions. As a result, the church is forever changed.

                Sometimes for the better. But not always.

                The church is a dynamic, fluid, incomplete, growing, and extremely human entity, not a perfect one. Thinking Christians of all ages have looked back at the two thousand year history of the church and said, “This was a positive development in our witness that furthered the cause of Christ…” while also admitting, “That was not such a good development…it may have set our witness back a few generations, if not centuries.” The crusades are the classic and oft quoted example of the latter.

                There is clearly much debate over which is which. Was the evangelical missionary fervor that accompanied the 19th century colonialism of the West a positive or negative influence? Was the lasting impact of the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s positive or negative? With the advent of modern telecommunications as a tool for spreading the gospel, what has been the long-range impact of televangelism on the church and how it is viewed by the world? Has the obsession with prophecy over the final three decades of the 20th century added to or detracted from an accurate awareness of how God works in human life and in human history?

                Obviously, it depends on whom you ask.

                Catholics are busy asking similar questions about the changes brought about by variousVaticancouncils and Catholicism’s historic responses to cultural shifts. Are they positive or negative?

                The point is: The church is constantly changing, adapting to shifts in culture, modifying its approach, rethinking its doctrines, widening its scope. In general this is a healthy tendency. The church has to grow, and growth means change. Growth also means recognizing where we have had it wrong, and making adjustments—whether it be in doctrine, in theology, in response to the world, or in response to one another—so as to get it right.

                Change is part of growth.

                We have adjusted our approach to missions. Adjustments have come to the charismatic wings of Protestantism and Catholicism. Most would agree that the excesses of televangelism need some tempering. Yet have we brought the eyes of intelligent scrutiny to bear upon our belief systems and doctrinal orthodoxies themselves? Many of those doctrines have roots in the middle ages and even earlier, and have not been subject to much scrutiny since?

                Are we really satisfied that they tell all there is to tell?

 

are we immune to error in our time?

 

                There is nothing so odious about admitting we’ve got something wrong. That’s how growth occurs. The quickest way toward truth is to say, “I need more truth.”

                When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Thesis upon Indulgences to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in October of 1517, he was attempting to address two primary “specific” issues in the church—the system of indulgences, and the doctrine of justification by faith. But the debate sparked a revolution within the church of far more sweeping scope that changed Christendom forever. Indeed, his actions opened the door to a discussion of the very nature of how God relates himself to man. The specific discussion was of huge general import. By saying, “We have had it wrong on these two points,” Luther led the church into an explosive reformation of needed growth and change.

                It may be that thechurchofJesus Christ, as it was in 1517, is at just such a critical crossroads in these opening years of the third millennium since its Lord walked the earth.

                An updated and more expansive perspective of what God wants and is trying to accomplish on the earth through his people, and by what means, may be required in our time. I believe God is anxiously waiting to illuminate this new perspective and bring the needed change to the church that will accompany it. This refocusing period of adjustment may in time represent so significant a turning point in the development of the church that Christians of the future will look back on this era of focus and debate as a “Second Reformation.”

 

looking beyond one’s own doctrinal culture

               

                A monumentally important principle— grasped by few, probably admitted by fewer—is that to grow in truth requires recognition that we do not possess full truth and need more truth.

                Put more simply: To grow requires the recognition that we can be wrong. It is the unusual pastor or theologian who can make such an admission about long cherished doctrines.

                We are shortsighted. Steeped and immersed in the doctrines and traditions that surround us by our spiritual culture and environment, we make assumptions that are not necessarily accurate. The believers of Luther’s day cannot all be written off as stupid, unenlightened, unspiritually responsive people. There were good, obedient, prayerful, Godly men and women alive then too, just as there have been in every era. And yet these good, obedient, prayerful, Godly men and women believed that God worked through the system of indulgences then prevalent in the church. They were too immersed in the tradition and doctrine of the time to be able to see beyond it.

                That’s an easy enough example to grasp. You and I are not culturally immersed in a spiritual environment where indulgences are the norm, so we can easily see beyond that particular doctrinal deficiency which bound the church at a particular time in history. What is not so easy to see is that we are immersed in a spiritual culture that produces blind spots of its own. Surrounded by that culture, we accept the teachings and doctrines of our own spiritual teachers, priests, and pastors without asking if there is more truth to be had out beyond the borders of the accepted theology that we have been fed all our lives.

                Escaping the pitfalls of one’s own doctrinal culture has been the Achilles heel of the church since the apostolic age. We can’t discern our own limitations any more than we can smell our own bad breath. Objective self-analysis has never been one of the church’s strong points.

                The result is nearly always the same. History has proven it and re-proven it a hundred times. Spiritual realities fade and gradually drift and are replaced by dogma and religious systems and institutions. That institutional dogma remains in place until another bold voice at some future time calls again for change and growth and a rebirth of reality.

                Then the cycle begins again.

                Are we really so very different than the people of Luther’s day? We see the short-sightedness of their ideas about God’s work. But we cannot see the shortsightedness of our own.

                Our own realities drift into dogma too.

                That’s why a fresh debate is needed, just as it was needed in 1517. We’ve got to look up and out and beyond the blind spots and doctrinal errors embedded and ingrained and produced by the spiritual culture of our times. We are not so unique as we like to think. We are faced with the same need as Christians of all eras. We are not immune to the same pitfalls.

 

a knee jerk response to the unfamiliar

 

                One of the remarkable and puzzling traits of the ordinary religious mind is its stubborn and argumentative inflexibility in the face of unfamiliar ideas. All my life I have found this tendency to be remarkable and bewildering. One would suppose that spiritual men and women would be more open to ideas than the average person of the world. But in fact, just the opposite is the case. Try as I might, I simply cannot understand this frustrating and, in my view, unChristlike phenomenon.

                We reject what goes against the familiar. The response that springs to mind when confronted with a new idea isn’t, “Wow, what if it’s true?” but, “It’s unfamiliar, therefore I don’t like it and reject it without looking into it further.”

                Sadly, that’s the kind of people Christians often are. We dismiss the new because we have been so saturated with the traditions of our various orthodoxies. As spiritual men and women, we are conditioned to argue against in automatic knee-jerk fashion anything contrary to what we have been taught. Our spiritual leaders have schooled us in this response by their example. It is how they respond to ideas outside their scope of reference too. We have watched them so long that we think it’s the right thing to do. It is absolutely foreign to the knee-jerk mentality to respond to new ideas with, “Hmm…you make a fascinating point…I had not considered that before…perhaps I have not seen this issue as clearly as I thought I had.”

                When you have raised thorny questions or made probing suggestions about some controversial point to your Bible study leader, how often have you heard the above words?

                How often has your pastor said, “You might be right, I might be wrong.”

                On the other hand, how many times do you see touchy questions responded to with ready-made answers—push a button and out comes a pre-programmed response. Our teachers and leaders and pastors and priests are positively full of answers. One cannot help occasionally wondering if they ask enough questions.

                The dilemma before us really reduces to: What if the familiar doctrine is wrong? How ought we to respond? Should we respond with ready-made, push-button, knee jerk answers…or with openness to explore what might be God’s deeper intent, mysteries hidden away in places that formula answers cannot penetrate? We mustn’t forget the indulgences.

 

fear of new ideas

 

                The very suggestion of “new ideas” will no doubt have prompted some to put this book aside before now. Among them will be certain pastors, leaders, teachers, priests, and doctrinal expositors who will warn their people, “Do not read that man’s words.” Others, however, may have long felt an undefined queasiness in their spiritual gut prompted by the inadequacy of certain teachings in which they have been indoctrinated. These individuals may be excited by new possibilities. Those pastors, leaders, teachers, and priests among this latter group will be those not satisfied with formula responses, and who will challenge their hearers with important questions and principles seldom raised among their traditional thinking colleagues

                There may not be many of you. In all times and in all ages the “accepted” doctrine, sanctioned, endorsed, and promoted by the theological hierarchy of the church, is a doctrine from which people are afraid to swerve.

                In general, people have one of three reactions to thorny, controversial, and debated spiritual issues: They ignore them. They fear them. Or they become angry and defensive when presented with an idea that might threaten a viewpoint they espouse.

                Are ignorance, fear, and anger the models that the Apostle Paul exampled for us as he sought to come to grips with a new faith that went against nearly everything he and other first century Jews had been taught all their lives?

                Hardly. Paul was a bold and courageous thinker, unafraid to explore beyond the boundaries of tradition and orthodoxy.

                It is a sad indictment against those leaders and spokesmen and those in the clergy who make it their business to illuminate matters of faith, that they have taught Christians to ignore and fear the unknown corners of faith rather than to explore them boldly and enthusiastically.

                Bold thinking Christians must do the opposite, not to satisfy the curiosity or the intellect with opinions on where Cain’s wife came from, in what century the flood occurred, or what we are to make of Paul’s statement that women should not speak in church. What’s at stake is bigger than that. Bold thinking can’t be reduced to small specifics. Our emphasis must instead focus on how we approach such issues, learning to take up the challenge to think for ourselves, perhaps by asking more questions than we answer.

                It is our methodology that is crucial not that we try to pinpoint specifics with doctrinal precision.

                Do we bury our heads in the sand? Do we cling without logic and reason to knee-jerk explanations that do not probe the depths of Christianity’s dilemmas and inconsistencies?

                I have several books on my shelves with titles along the lines of “Answers to the Bible’s Tough Questions.” Invariably their authors attempt to explain those things in Scripture that we do not have enough information to understand adequately. The attempt to provide ironclad “answers,” however, always strikes me as slightly presumptuous—as if we can know all there is to know about Scripture.

                Many thrive on such attempts, expending enormous energy and study in the quest to discover the exact date and month of Jesus’ birth, on archaeological “proofs” for various Old Testament stories, exploring every biblical conundrum, trying to prove the existence of Noah’s Ark and disprove evolution, and on and on.

                I have always taken a different view. Such topics are interesting to me…but relatively unimportant. Any such study is a means to an end—which is to know God aright. We will never know God’s heart by trying to prove the existence of Noah’s ark. We know him by learning what kind of God he is, and by trusting him and obeying him.

                The Christian church of today is far from homogeneous. It has many such hierarchies—Catholic, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and so on—each promoting its own accepted doctrines. But they are all alike in that the leaders of these hierarchies teach their people to fear inquiry by calling diverse doctrines “dangerous,” and attaching the dreaded label “heresy” to the most far-reaching of them. In our time, one of the most scathing critiques that can be leveled by evangelicals against ideas they find threatening is to call them liberal. From the other side of the spectrum, no more damning charge can be fired than by calling an idea fundamentalist in nature.

                By a huge variety of subtle labels and tactics are believing men and women injected with fear toward any ideas other than what their own spiritual mentors deem appropriate. Most church leaders, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and priests, therefore, do not encourage their listeners to think. To do so might undermine the dependence of the people on their own words of wisdom given out from week to week. Thus, teachings of doctrine and theology must never originate in the pew, they must only originate from the pulpit, whence springs all truth.

                The specifics vary greatly, but in certain ways we are not so very unlike that church of 1517 before Martin Luther exploded it apart. We still look to our priesthood gurus to dispense our doctrines like spiritual pharmacists. We fear to think beyond the doctrinal boundaries they establish.

                Can you be one of the few capable of looking beyond those boundaries, beyond the old paradigm, beyond the cultural milieu of our own time?

                It is the bigger picture of who God is that we seek. I don’t really care who Cain’s wife was. But I care with all my heart who God is. So I will delve, and delve boldly, into Scriptural unknowns. Not so that I can fill in an informational matrix of scriptural data, but so that God’s nature, character, and eternal purpose are more clearly illuminated, enabling me to obey and fall in with that purpose in a more dynamic way.

                Can we be courageous and prayerfully open-minded enough to approach the Bible in the spirit of Paul, saying, “God, how big might you be! How expansive might be your plan! Blow open the doors of my faith to see beyond the boundaries of small-thinking men!”

 

courage to start a revolution

 

                Those thinkers among you—both you who sit in the pew and you who occupy the pulpit—may be few. But you know who you are. You may not be many in number, but it is out of your courage to seek larger truth from God that a Second Reformation may well be born.

                It takes courage to start a revolution…usually the courage of one. Can you be that one? Can you summon the humility to look beyond the familiar of what you have always believed? Can you summon the courageous humility to seek truth from God rather than from what those steeped in the culture of traditional but possibly erroneous thinking say you are supposed to believe?

                Martin Luther began his exploration of the larger scope of God’s work alone too. But fresh ideas that ring with truth—however unfamiliar they may be at first hearing—cannot be stopped. Luther opened the door in his time, and the groundswell grew until it was a flood.

                So too, you few humble courageous souls who determine to explore God’s larger purposes may face criticism and condemnation just as he did. Yet from your ranks the groundswell of bold thinking may grow in our time, as it did in Luther’s, as one shares that truth with another, here a courageous pastor willing to put his future on the line, there a stout hearted Bible student eager to probe the larger intent of the Scriptures, until…the dike breaks and new truth from God breaks upon the church.

                So take heart. God’s Spirit is speaking. We must quiet our hearts and hear his Voice. The future of the church may be at stake. We have to hear him aright.

pararew: pararheo—Drift

        pararheo is used but infrequently in the New Testament but is a concept full of potential meaning (and danger) for the Christian. With the two words that have been considered before it, pararheo again highlights the necessity for clear thinking and mental wakefulness. Literally,” to flow or guide by,” or “let carelessly pass,” the meaning implies mental drift—the failure to give due heed and attention to important truths.  Hebrews 2:1 contrasts bold thinking with lazy thinking in its two phrases: “Therefore we must pay the closer attention [prosecw: prosecho—literally, “to give heed more earnestly”] to what we have heard, lest we drift away [pararuwmen: pararuomen ?] from it. ” (RSV) The King James renders the second phrase “…lest at any time we should let them slip.” pararheo is also sometimes translated “slide,” hence the word backslide.