Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

The Bible and a Hermeneutic of Suspicion

November 10, 2017

This blog is prompted by a column in my own denominational paper, entitled, “Hermeneutic of Suspicion,” by Melissa Miller (Canadian Mennonite, Oct. 23, 2017). The column is a remarkably forthright statement on a widespread view of Scripture in the Mennonite Church of North America, and it goes a long way to explaining why there are growing divisions between conservative “lovers of the Bible” and the liberal/progressive wing of the Mennonite Church and beyond.

Miller begins her column by recounting Paul’s teaching about all Scripture being inspired by God, which she, along with “many of you,” have “imbibed” in earlier years. It would seem that she has moved beyond this naïve position, as she goes on to give a brief history of the power struggles that led to the formation of our canon of Scripture, and that are thought to undermine their authority. Later in the column she expresses sympathies with an atheist friend of hers who simply cannot understand how an ancient book can be an adequate guide to contemporary ethical problems. And then Miller articulates her own “hermeneutic of suspicion” which she learned in seminary and from feminist and liberation scholars. The Old Testament, we are told, was written by writers who were male and privileged, and this will have shaped the stories that they wrote. All this is seen as casting some doubt on the authority of Scripture.

Miller concludes her column by suggesting that perhaps “suspicion” is too strong a word for “some lovers of the Bible,” and so perhaps “caution and curiosity” would be “more fitting” for those who have not advanced to a more enlightened view of Scripture. There is a condescending tone here, and indeed throughout her column, that I find troublesome. I also want to raise a question about Miller’s choice of “curiosity” as a more fitting substitute for “suspicion.” I fail to see the relation between these two concepts. Curiosity has a positive connotation, while suspicion has negative overtones. I am all for curiosity, and there is nothing to stop someone holding a high view of the authority of Scripture from being curious.

Miller goes on to claim that a hermeneutic of suspicion has led her to “a broadened appreciation for the Bible’s powerful message, particularly when interpreted by those who are weak, oppressed and marginalized.” I fail to see how a hermeneutic of suspicion can have these positive results. Curiosity can certainly lead to new insights, but not a hermeneutic of suspicion. Suspicion can only cast doubt on what we read, and in the end it undermines all meaning. This might not be entirely fair to Miller because she is drawing on a particular meaning of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which has some currency in the theological world. Theologians use this expression to refer to a critical understanding of the motivation of biblical writers and the contexts of dissension and dispute out of which their texts arose. But, caution is in order when dealing with motivation. I quite agree that coming to understand a text within its context and trying to understand what problems biblical writers were trying to address can help us to better understand what a text is saying, and what it might have to say to us today. But I fail to see why this needs to be seen as a critical task associated with suspicion. Trying to understand the context and problems that biblical writers were trying to address is a constructive task, and one that curious lovers of the Bible can take with utmost seriousness.

One of the central problems with a hermeneutic of suspicion is that it fails to be suspicious about its own methods. A hermeneutic of suspicion is self-defeating. It should be suspicious about its own method of suspicion. Further, as Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us long ago, doubt can only come after belief. We all need to start with belief and trust before we can practice doubt and suspicion. Indeed, a careful analysis of speech acts will reveal that trust must and most often does precede suspicion. I would encourage Miller to ask herself if she would ground her own communication with her friends, spouse, and children in a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” I am quite sure that she would advise against it. I’m confident she would say that such a foundation would lead to the destruction of the very relationships that she holds dear. What she fails to see is that a hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the Scriptures does the very same thing. What is needed is a hermeneutic of trust.

Sadly, Miller and other liberal biblical scholars have “imbibed” too much of a secular, postmodern, historicist, and deconstructionist approach to literary texts. Here it should be noted that this “school of suspicion” is no longer in vogue in the field of literary criticism. Perhaps Miller, along with other liberal biblical scholars should do some reading in the latest developments in the field of literary criticism.

Miller is also indebted to the writings of feminists and liberation theology. We are reminded that the writers of the Old Testament were male and privileged, and thus again what they have to say needs to be viewed with suspicion. Here again Miller fails to subject her sympathies with feminist ideology to critical scrutiny. To question what someone says because he is a male is not only a failure in logic, but also a betrayal of Christian faith and love. It is a failure in logic because it commits the ad hominem fallacy – attacking persons instead of their arguments. As Christians we are called to love, even our enemies, and we must also be very careful not to create artificial and unnecessary divisions. In the church there is neither male nor female, because we are all one in Jesus Christ, Paul reminds us (Gal 3:28). So let’s be careful here. I as a male would like to join hands with Melissa Miller in our common search for truth, also with regard to a proper approach to Scripture.

Then there is the problem of privilege and power with regard to the writers of the Old Testament. Here Miller’s thinking reflects the spirit of the influential writings of Michel Foucault who claimed that all knowledge claims are rooted in privilege and power. The fundamental problem with reducing knowledge claims to power is that such reductionism is again self-refuting. If all claims to knowledge are merely (or even mainly) expressions of power, then Foucault’s own analysis of knowledge is just another expression of power. So, why bother listening to him? By the same token, Miller’s analysis of the Bible is also merely (or even mainly) an expression of modern feminist power, and so must be questioned as suspicious.

Miller also expresses some sympathies with her atheist friend who thinks that “an ancient book is woefully inadequate as a guide to ethics today.” I am convinced that much of the skepticism regarding the Bible within the Mennonite Church today has to do with its being ancient and outdated. But there are several problems with such a dismissal of the relevance of the Bible to our time. This approach falls prey to what I call “the fallacy of newness.” The old is seen as necessarily outdated and the new is seen as progressive. But old ideas might just be true! Further, many of us continue to find the Bible very relevant to our time. I enjoy teaching the ancient philosophers and find them amazingly relevant to contemporary society. Just last year I taught a course entitled, “Plato’s Republic: Then and Now.” My students and I found that Plato had a lot to say about the political problems we are facing today. Why then shouldn’t the Bible be able to speak to us today? Jesus repeatedly quotes from the Old Testament, obviously seeing it as authoritative and relevant to his time. We can and should do the same.

The Bible’s relevance also extends to the area of ethics. The God of the Bible is the creator of everything, including the ethical norms that he built into creation and which apply to all individuals and all societies for all time. We ignore or disobey these ethical norms at our peril. Many of the commandments of the Bible need to be seen as having universal and timeless application. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus clearly reaffirmed some of the commandments of the Old Testament and went on to say that “anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). Pretty strong words!

Many Christians, including Mennonites, like to believe that the New Testament emphasis on love supersedes the law of the Old Testament. But they forget that the admonition to love is itself a commandment, and Jesus links love with obeying his commandments (John 15:9-17). John bluntly says that anyone who does not do what Jesus commands is “a liar and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:4). And lest anyone gets confused on what this means, John continues: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands” (2 John 6). Paul also reminds us that the rule of love is in fact fulfilled in keeping the commandments (Rom 13:8-10). We are simply wrong in trying to create a disjunction between Jesus’ ethic of love and the ten commandments of the Old Testament. And both have relevance to our time. “Your word, O Lord, is eternal… Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you” (Ps. 119:91).

Thankfully, there is a more positive note in Miller’s column. Sadly this more constructive emphasis is undermined by the overall skeptical stance taken with regard to Scripture. Indeed, it is rather hard to reconcile Miller’s adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion with her hints of a more positive approach to Scripture. But positive hints there are, and I want to focus on these for a while and see how they can contribute to a more coherent and constructive approach to Scripture. Miller identifies herself as one of those “who value Scripture,” and who “trust the God-breath that worked through human hands and motivations to produce them and to guide us today.” Indeed! Here we have at least a partial acknowledgement of the Scripture as “inspired by God” and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness” (II Tim 3:16). It would seem that Miller treats this verse as something that she not only “imbibed” in the past, but that is still a current conviction of hers. So, why all the negativism? Yes, there is a human component to the writing of Scripture, but we must never forget the divine component. The writers of the books of the bible were somehow inspired by God.

Miller also points to Jesus, “whose self-giving love ethic is magnificently compelling, timeless and exactly the model needed for the world in any age.” Here Miller is recognizing that Jesus’ words which are in fact recorded in Scripture are in some way self-authenticating. Those who read the Bible with open hearts and minds will find it to be most compelling. But the self-authenticating nature of the Bible extends beyond Jesus’ love-ethic. It also applies to the timeless commandments of the bible, as already argued. It also applies to Jesus’ penetrating analysis of the human soul. “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils comes from inside and make a man unclean” (Mark 7:21-2). I find this to be a very accurate analysis of the recurring sinful inclinations of my own heart, and I need to be reminded of these words again and again. The writer to the Hebrews describes the word of God as “living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword,” and very much able to judge the “thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12-13). Again, Miller seems to acknowledge all this when she says that the teachings of Jesus “inspire, guide and disturb.” Indeed!

So there are at least the beginnings of a more positive and constructive view of the Bible in Miller’s analysis. Building on this, we need to start with a hermeneutic of trust rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion. Does this mean that we should entirely ignore a careful understanding of how the Scriptures came to us? Does this mean that we should ignore any critical approaches to Scripture? Not at all. But we need to maintain proper proportions. We need to engage in careful and critical analysis of the Bible at the right time and in the right place and in a proper manner. We also need to make sure that we build up the faith of others. Let’s recognize the dangers of hurting others when we engage in an indiscriminate over-emphasis on a hermeneutic of suspicion. With Paul Ricour, we need to move from a pre-critical to a critical to a post-critical hermeneutic when we read the Bible. We need to start with a hermeneutic of trust, move on to a hermeneutic of curious, careful and even critical study, and then move on again to a hermeneutic of trust and reorientation.

I am sure that I will be dismissed by some as a narrow-minded fundamentalist, but let me assure the reader that I am not. As a philosopher, I love to think critically, and I am very much aware of the complexities of language. I, for one, do not accept the inerrancy of Scripture. This doctrine is itself an artificial construct of fallible human beings, developed at a particular time in church history as a response to certain modernist tendencies in theology. As such it bears all the marks of an over-reaction. I reject the doctrine of inerrancy because its approach to the language of the Bible is too mechanical and too simplistic. I like to think of my approach to the authority of Scripture as being even higher than that of inerrancy. So I believe that all Scripture, though written by human beings, is “inspired by God” and is therefore eminently useful “for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness.” I believe that God has revealed himself in our Scriptures, and in Jesus Christ, who is in fact described in our Scriptures. We must not separate these two aspects of God’s revelation. And let’s not forget the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth” who continues to “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I (Jesus) have said to you” (John 14:17, 26).

Of course, there is much more that needs to be said by way of developing a theology of God’s revelation, and then spelling out how God’s word should be interpreted and applied to the contemporary world. But my main concern in this blog has been to critique skeptical approaches to Scripture that rely on hasty generalizations and simplistic slogans. Such an approach to Scripture cannot feed the soul. Instead of sitting in judgement over the Word we need to humbly place ourselves under the Word and let it judge us and also nourish us.

I conclude with some words from a prophet who warned about the coming of a famine, “not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” Then follows a description of men and women staggering from sea to sea, and wandering from north to south, “searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” What is especially poignant about this desperate and hopeless search for an authoritative word of the Lord is that it is “the lovely young women and strong young men” who are fainting because of thirst (Amos 9: 11-13). I want to suggest that it is not only the young but also the middle-aged and older generations who are suffering from a famine of hearing the words of the Lord because of the widespread adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to our Scriptures. May God help us to move towards a more defensible and constructive appreciation of the word of the Lord as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus.


Heterodox Yoder and the Mennonite Church Today

August 14, 2016

Review of
Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder
(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012)

The Heterodox Yoder has its origins in Martens’ graduate work at Notre Dame. Since then, the author has been teaching Christian ethics at Baylor University.

In this book, Martens attempts a survey and reinterpretation of John Howard Yoder’s writings. Martens departs from some standard and sympathetic interpretations of Yoder’s work by scholars like Craig Carter and Mark Thiessen-Nation. Martens faults these standard accounts of Yoder for focusing mainly on his classic texts, The Politics of Jesus, and Witness to the State. In defending his critical assessment of Yoder, Martens makes a point to take all Yoder’s writings into account. Though still somewhat sympathetic with Yoder, and admitting his indebtedness to him, Martens uncovers a trajectory in Yoder’s thought which he finds troublesome, and ultimately leads him to label Yoder as heterodox.

Martens’ criterion for orthodoxy is “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God” (p.2). Traditional interpreters of Yoder would argue that the central thrust of Yoder’s writings was precisely to preserve “the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ against the acids of Constantinianism, modernity, or any number of other threats to Christianity” (p.2). Martens begs to differ.

In his introduction Martens suggests that a good way to understand Yoder’s lack of orthodoxy is to examine his way of doing theology as found in his Preface to Theology (2002). In this work, Yoder outlines different modes of doing theology, and specifically rejects the mode of “dogmatic theology” which he defines as “the interpretation of the statements made by or implied in the classic Christian creeds” (p.2). Instead, Yoder adopts the mode of “historical theology” which is concerned with how Christian convictions came into being. His approach to doing theology throughout his corpus is “inductive and historical,” watching how theology evolved in the early Christian church (filtered through the sixteenth-century Anabaptists), and from that drawing conclusions about how to do theology (p.3). This sounds like an “Is-Ought Fallacy” to me, and Yoder’s historicism has all the marks of full-blown relativism. But I won’t pursue these philosophical points here.

So, yes, Yoder wants to affirm the particularity of Jesus Christ as affirmed by the early church, but his anti-creedal and historicizing approach leads to a radical reinterpretation of the theology of the early church primarily in ethical or political terms. Indeed, “the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a form of secular sociology (at worst)” (pp. 3-4). This, according to Martens is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this unorthodox interpretation of Jesus has been very influential in the Mennonite church today, as I will suggest by way of conclusion later.

Throughout his writings, Yoder wrestles with the question of how Christians relate to and witness to the world (p.12). Indeed, as Martens observes, Yoder is haunted by the charge of sectarianism and his desire to make the gospel relevant and communicable becomes “overriding and, at times, obsessive” (p.139). At one point he suggests the use of “middle axioms” which help to translate the gospel message into language that the world will understand (p.75). But he finds problems with this approach, and in the end middle axioms are rendered obsolete (p.136). Indeed, we already see the shape of his final thinking in his earlier book, The Christian Witness to the State (1964), where “the implicit witness of the church is elevated to direct witness” (p. 136). Then in The Politics of Jesus (1972), the gospel of Jesus is translated into political language, language that the world already understands.

By the end of his writings, Yoder is no longer worried about the church communicating a message, according to Martens. Instead, gospel witness has been transformed into the church itself being witness by virtue of its modelling a new political reality. No need for evangelism! The medium is the message (p. 136). In his “New Humanity as Pulpit and Paradigm” (1997), Yoder says “actions proclaim.” Again in a later work, “First fruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People” (1997), Yoder introduces the sacraments as “marks of the church” that make evident the unity of the message and medium of the first Christians. But, by the end of this essay, Marten’s argues, the sacraments are no longer marks or attributes of the church but “sample civil imperatives” (p.137). For example, baptism is no longer discussed as “a sign of [a believer’s] cleansing from sin,” but as a reconciliation between Jew and Gentle, male and female, etc.. In other words, baptism is fundamentally about the political ideal of egalitarianism (p. 137). The eucharist is all about socialism. Dialogue under the Holy Spirit now functions as the ground floor of democracy (p. 138). Thus essential elements of Christian faith and practice get translated into thoroughly secular terms, which of course the world does understand.

So, what is the culmination of decades of theological and ethical reflection on the part of Yoder? We end up with “a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm” (p.142). Indeed, Yoder falls in line with modern theologians who have reduced the gospel to a secular ethic – Kant, Harnack, Ritschle, and Rauschenbusch (p. 142). What is so misleading is that the language of Yoder and some of these theologians often “seems” orthodox. They use the same concepts as orthodox Christians, but the meaning has changed in a fundamental way. Christ as Lord and Savior is translated into political terms, and no longer refers to a person’s inner transformation and willingness to be make Christ king of his or her life. Key dimensions of orthodoxy, such as spiritual development, divine mystery, propositional confessions of faith, “are as important as wrapping paper” which can be thrown away once the package itself is opened, to use Yoder’s own metaphor (p.144). Martens does not want to call Yoder a heretic, though he admits that Yoder was openly critical of orthodoxy and worked hard to differentiate himself from its concerns and claims (p.144). Instead Martens chooses the softer term, “heterodox,” though in my opinion there is very little difference between being heterodox and being heretical.

Reading Martens’ critique of Yoder has raised two questions for me, that I believe merit further research. First, to what extent has the Mennonite church today been influenced by Yoder? Martens doesn’t really pursue this question. I certainly found Martens’ survey of Yoder’s thought helpful in understanding trends within some segments of the Mennonite church today. All too often I hear the gospel being largely reduced to political and social causes. Like Yoder, many in the Mennonite church seem to be embarrassed about using biblical language to describe sin and salvation. We are so preoccupied with being relevant, with being understood in today’s society that we like to secularize biblical language. Jesus is no longer a divine Saviour who died for our sins, but a moral teacher and an inspiring example to follow. We prefer to talk about sexual health rather than the biblical commandments regarding sex. The “spirit of God” is reduced to a democratic majority vote! We are embarrassed about evangelism as proclamation. Like Yoder we have made the medium the message. Our actions are supposed to convey our message. The creeds are not important – we like to question them.(1) Like Yoder, many Mennonites today see them as mere wrapping paper to be discarded at our convenience. And thus we have confessional anarchy in the Mennonite Church today. Martens suggests that Yoder would have been comfortable with the label, heterodox (p. 144). Many Mennonites today would seem to view being heterodox as a badge of honor. We are Yoder’s disciples, it would seem.

If the above analysis is true, if Yoder has influenced the Mennonite church more than we realize, then we need to pay attention to Martens’ suggestion that the trajectory of Yoder’s thinking has led us in a direction which “can cripple and corrupt Christianity in very troubling ways” (p.147). And this leads to my second question. Are we as a Mennonite church open to hearing this prophetic voice in the church? Will Paul Martens’ critique of Yoder be read and carefully considered? Will we pay attention to other writers who have provided warnings about the direction of Yoder’s thought? Martens himself identifies two such writers, A. James Reimer and Tom Finger, the former arguing that Yoder essentially ignored “theological orthodoxy,” and the latter that Yoder almost uniformly eliminates any form of the transcendent from his theology (p. 143). Are we listening?

In a footnote Martens refers to another essay that created quite a stir in Mennonite circles – Steve Dintaman’s 1992 short essay, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision” (p.147).(2) Martens refers to this essay in the context of reflecting on his own experience of eventually recognizing the dangers of reducing the Christian faith “into just another form of ethics or series of practices” (p.147). Martens expresses long-standing sympathy with Dintaman’s analysis of the spiritual impoverishment that results from a Yoderian interpretation of the Christian faith. This prompted me to reread Dintaman’s essay as well as a series of follow-up essays published three years later.(3) Dintaman expresses surprise at the volume and the intensity of positive responses his earlier essay generated. He received some eighty letters, in addition to phone calls, personal visits, and letters to the editor in the magazines which carried his essay.(4) Of course, there were also negative reactions, afraid that Dintaman’s critique rested on “a total embrace of Luther and/or pietism and/or evangelicalism.” (5) But perhaps, as Dintaman himself suggests, there is another way – a marriage of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism. That is surely at the heart of the Evangelical-Anabaptist networks that are currently forming in North America. Are we listening to the prophetic voices in the Mennonite church today?

1. See my essay, “Question-focused Christian faith” on my blog,
1. Dintaman’s essay appeared in: The Conrad Grebel Review 10 (Spring 1992): 205-208; Mennonite Reporter, Oct. 19, 1992, 8; Gospel Herald, Feb. 23, 1993, 1-3; Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 5, 1993, 6-7; The Mennonite, May 11, 1993, 11-12.
3. “Revisiting ‘The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,’” The Conrad Grebel Review 13 (Winter 1995): 1-22. The essays here are written by Steve Dintaman, J. Loren Peachey, editor of the Gospel Herald, Richard Showalter, president, Rosedale Bible Institute, and Mitchell Brown, pastor, Evanston Mennonite Church.
4. Ibid., p. 2, 3.
5. Ibid., p. 5.

Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age – a review

June 26, 2016

Review of
Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age,
by John Fletcher
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2013.

The Christian church in North America today, including the evangelical church, is rather embarrassed about doing evangelism. In part this is due to fact that the history of the Christian church is littered with obviously immoral approaches to evangelism, from which we want to distance ourselves. But, as John Fletcher points out in the conclusion to his book, perhaps there is a more telling and current reason for our embarrassment about evangelism. We have accommodated to contemporary liberal pluralism, and thus do our utmost to be “pleasingly tolerant, faithful-but-non-fanatic” (p. 309), as per the portrait found in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (2010). “Indeed, so great is the desire to ‘leave everybody else alone,’ so painful the self-inflicted wounds of awkward/offensive/presumptive evangelism, that most self-identified evangelicals rarely evangelize at all, at least not with any frequency” (p. 305). And yet, as Fletcher reminds us, evangelicals should engage in outreach. That is part of what it means to be an evangelical, as Fletcher points out in an early chapter, which provides a helpful analysis of what it means to be an evangelical (Ch. 2). Indeed, Fletcher frequently expresses his admiration for evangelical evangelism, even though he is an outsider.

This raises the question as to why a Professor of Theatre at Louisiana State University, and “a liberal, gay, ex-Southern Baptist, United Methodist” (p. 5), would write a careful analysis of evangelical approaches to evangelism. Fletcher interprets evangelism as a kind of theatrical performance, an “activist performance,” which he uses as an umbrella word to describe a host of other popular and scholarly terms that each touch on some aspect of the kind of performance that he studies – political theater, theater for social change, street theater, people’s theater, community-engaged theatre, theatre of the oppressed, or applied theatre/drama (Ch. 1, p. 18). I found trying to understand evangelism from this perspective to be not only refreshing but also illuminating in that it serves to highlight aspects of evangelism that are easily missed by those immersed in the evangelical mindset.

Fletcher also dares to suggest that progressive left activists have something to learn from evangelicals and their approaches to evangelism (pp. 311-13). Evangelicals are committed to inviting others to a better way, a better worldview, and they engage in evangelism because they believe that their message is in the other’s best interests. Evangelicals, while respecting the deep convictions of others, are willing to challenge them with their own convictions. Some evangelistic approaches also stress the need to understand their target audiences. Worldview assumptions need to be understood to be challenged. “Evangelicalism’s conversionist orientation – imperfectly realized as it may be – offers a reminder that democratically minded activism must always include an element of attraction and empathy with the enemy” (p. 312). Fletcher concludes Chapter 2 with this generous comment: “In a time of cynicism and diminished hopes, in a time of partisan polarization, in a time of desperation and apathy, I am envious of evangelicals’ faith in activism” (p. 45).

The bulk of Preaching to Convert is devoted to a careful analysis of various approaches to evangelism as practiced by evangelicals, who are described by Fletcher as “a heterogeneous collection of communities and individuals who unit in constantly seeking out, innovating, defining, theorizing, criticizing, reacting to, refining, combining, experimenting with, discarding, and realizing this ever-expanding, ever-deepening repertoire of techniques for changing the hearts, minds, and souls of those around them” (p. 309). Chapter 3 examines personal evangelism as proclamation – the “soul-winning” tradition of door-to-door evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” presentation innovated by Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the stop-strangers-on-the-street dialogic evangelism promoted by Ray Comfort in his “Way of the Master.”

In Chapter 4, Fletcher examines a number of evangelicals who have become critical of interpersonal evangelism that limits itself to proclamation. Indeed, multiple congregations across the United States have taken up the “Confessions of a Sinful Church” strategy, where they publicly apologize for “ugly evangelism” (pp. 124-8). Instead of confrontational approaches to evangelism, some evangelicals advocate approaches that involve friendship, careful listening, countering anti-Christian presuppositions, and apologetics. Chapter 4 takes up Jim Henderson’s “Ordinary Attempts,” Greg Koukl’s conversational apologetics, and Greg Stier’s “ideavirus” approach. Each of these approaches draw from the work of Francis Schaeffer who counseled evangelists to spend time trying to understand the worldviews of non-Christians before they tried to persuade them of Christian Truth.

In the third section of the book Fletcher studies two large-scale, more traditionally “theatrical” evangelical performance forms. Chapter 5 focuses on the community/church-based staging of “hell houses” and judgement houses” as a way of reaching the unconverted. Chapter 6 examines the Creation Museum, a multi-million-dollar combination of science museum and discovery-fun-center based around a strictly young-earth creationist viewpoint. Often considered to be exemplars of evangelical backwardness and anti-intellectualism, Fletcher suggests they are best understood as community based productions that accomplish vital work for the producing communities in terms of reinforcing their beliefs, even as they strive to reach the unconverted.

Chapter 7 examines the way in which mega-churches have used seeker-sensitive worship services to attract new members. The chapter begins with an intriguing question raised in a video produced by Richard Reising’s company, Artistry Labs: “What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? A Parable” (p. 221). Chapter 8 is somewhat of an odd fit for this book, and Fletcher concedes this point to some extent. The focus of Chapter 8 is on organizations like Exodus International, which are dedicated to helping homosexuals find healing. Here the focus is not on changing someone else, but on individual conversion. In this chapter Fletcher analyzes the controversies surrounding the effectiveness of gay cures, and the resulting spectrum of positions on LGBT people within evangelicalism.

I found Fletcher’s survey of each of these evangelical performances to be thorough and often insightful, uncovering the assumptions underlying each approach and doing some good comparative analysis. Indeed, his careful analysis belies his status as an outsider. This is in part due to his background as “a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church” and his knowing “from firsthand experience what it is to evangelize” (pp. 12-13). Fletcher is also not afraid to use the works of evangelical scholarship, though he is careful to note and account for interpretive slants that might exist. Interestingly, he draws attention to a “comparable warping in many ostensibly ‘neutral’ works on religion, works that can sometimes dwell more on the author’s distance from faith than on the beliefs and believers being studied” (p. 12). This is very definitely not a weakness of Fletcher’s own analysis. Though he engages in criticism, I found his criticisms to be on the whole fair, and meeting his aim of “critical generosity” (p. 36). At times he quite deliberately defends evangelicals and evangelistic methods against unfair criticisms. It is only in his chapter on homosexuality that his language occasionally becomes a little strident.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of evangelical practices of outreach. Though a book of scholarship, it is very readable, and further, fascinating for anyone interested in evangelical approaches to evangelism.


February 2, 2014

To accuse someone of indoctrination is generally considered to be a serious accusation, especially in educational circles.  In fact, for most educators today, indoctrination is considered to be the very antithesis of what our schools are all about – educating in accordance with principles of rationality, freedom, and respect for individuals.

Religious instruction is particularly singled out as falling prey to the sin of indoctrination.  Not only the church, but church-related schools and colleges are often criticized because they are indoctrinate.  Christian parents are also frequently charged with indoctrination because they seek to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

How can those of us who are concerned about Christian nurture and education reply to the charge of indoctrination?  I want to suggest three possible responses.

There is first of all a problem in understanding what is meant by the term “indoctrination”.  Educational philosophers are particular concerned about clarifying the meanings of words, and much has been written about the concept of indoctrination in the last few decades.  But, as yet there is far from general agreement as to the exact meaning of “indoctrination”.  This disagreement is significant in that it indicates that the concept of indoctrination used by critics is itself vague and incoherent.

Thus, in defending oneself against the charge of indoctrination, one strategy is to ask the person making the charge to define the term “indoctrination”.  One will invariably uncover much confusion and many inconsistencies.  None of the critics of Christian education, to my knowledge, have as yet come up with a clear and defensible definition of this term.  The charge of indoctrination is therefore really vacuous.

When critics accuse Christians of indoctrinating, they are really only giving vent to their feelings of disapproval.  They are doing no more than shouting “Boo.”  Rational defense against such expressions of emotion is not only futile but unnecessary.

One of the major problems in defining indoctrination is that most, if not all proposed examples of indoctrinative teaching methods turn out to be unavoidable.  Thus another way in which to respond to the charge of indoctrination is to ask for specific examples of what are considered to be indoctrinative teaching methods.  One can then show that these very same methods also arise in what are generally considered to be acceptable educational endeavours.

For example, Christian parents are often criticized for imposing a specific religious tradition on their children.  The problem with this charge is that imposition is unavoidable in teaching children anything.  Parents, teachers, or society at large necessarily determine which traditions children are initiated into.  It is simply unfair to single out religion as uniquely susceptible to this supposed “problem.”

The final response has to do with the frequently made assumption that indoctrination is necessarily limited to doctrines or ideologies.  It is further assumed that such doctrines or ideologies are only found in religion, and that indoctrination is therefore impossible in accepted areas of knowledge such as history or science.

Against this it can be argued first of all that there are no good reasons to limit indoctrination to doctrines.  But, even if this connection is allowed, it can be shown that doctrines, however defined, are found in all areas of knowledge.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in all areas of knowledge.

Therefore another way to defend oneself against the charge of religious indoctrination is to ask the person making the charge what he/she considers to be a characteristic of doctrines.  Then show how this characteristic is also found in history or science.

For example, the late British philosopher Antony Flew described doctrines as beliefs which are “either false or not known to be true.”  However, a study of the history of science shows that there have been and still are many beliefs held by scientists which have been shown to be false.  Science also rests on basic presuppositions like the uniformity of nature or the principle of causality that are simply assumed to be true and hence are not really known to be true.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in science,  given Flew’s definition of doctrines.

There are some, in fact, who argue that indoctrination is very common in science.  Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, wrote:  “The dogmatism of science has become a new orthodoxy disseminated by the Media and a State educational system with a thoroughness and subtlety far exceeding anything of the kind achieved by the Inquisition.”

Of course many would reject Muggeridge’s put-down of science.  But it can be shown that science shares many, if not most of the supposedly negative features that lead some to call religious beliefs “doctrines”.  If therefore these “negative” features do not lead us to make the charge of indoctrination in the teaching of science, then I would suggest that we should also not use these same features to make the charge of indoctrination in the area of religious instruction.

This does not at all entail that indoctrination never occurs with respect to Christian nurture.  I do not want to dismiss entirely the charges of indoctrination made by critics against Christian education in homes and schools and colleges.  But what is needed first of all is a philosophically defensible and consistent concept of indoctrination.  Elsewhere I have argued that indoctrination should be defined as the curtailment of a person’s growth towards normal rational autonomy (Teaching for Commitment:  Liberal Education, Indoctrination & Christian Nurture (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).  The aim of all education, including Christian education, is to help children to grow towards intellectual maturity, and that includes helping them to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers.  There are limits to our being independent and rational, and hence my qualification of rational autonomy with the word “normal”.

There is research showing that initiating children into a primary culture is a key to helping children to grow towards normal rational autonomy.  So it is a mistake to think that parents who initiate their children into a particular Christian tradition are indoctrinating their children. As I have already argued, initiating into a particular and primary culture is inescapable.  It is only if parents or Christian schools fail, at the same time, to encourage children to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers (each qualified with “normal”) that they can legitimately be charged with indoctrination.  Sadly, that doesn’t always happens.  But I would suggest that it happens much less often than critics assume.

(This blog is a revised version of an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 16, 1982)



A Philosopher Examines Marcus Borg

September 27, 2012

 Review of

Borg, Marcus J.  The Heart of Christianity:  Rediscovering a Life of Faith

HarperSanFrancisco, 2003

 Why write a review of The Heart of Christianity when this book is already over a decade old?  I read this book because I wanted to come to a better understanding of Borg and the Jesus Seminar, a prominent group of scholars who have been searching for the historical Jesus (cf. xiii).  This book provides a good introduction to the theoretical and practical expression of this scholarship.  Further, the thinking of some of my good friends has been shaped significantly by this scholarship, and so again I felt I owed it to them to try to understand where they are coming from.  Friendship does have obligations!

The title of this book sounds promising.  It is always good to try to define the essence of something.  So I commend Marcus Borg for trying to define the heart of Christianity.  Borg also writes with clarity and passion – not something usually associated with scholars.  And who can object to an attempt to rediscover a life of faith?  Indeed, I found Part Two of the book, in which Borg is re-imagining the Christian life, to be inspiring and challenging in many places. But, nagging questions remain.  What is the foundation of these more practical exhortations?  Is the story of Borg’s historical Jesus – much abbreviated from that found in the gospel accounts – sufficient to support his account of the life of faith?

Early on in the book, Borg confidently asserts that we are undergoing a paradigm shift with regard to Christianity.  There is an earlier vision of Christianity, which “views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees the Christian life as centered in believing now for the sake of salvation later… Typically, it has also seen Christianity as the only true religion” (xii).  Then Borg introduces us to an “emerging paradigm” that has been developing for over a hundred years and is “the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism and cultural diversity” (xii).

Here it is important to note that when Borg talks about an earlier paradigm of Christianity, he is really talking about post-Enlightenment Christianity.  He informs us that the earlier paradigm likes to think of itself as “traditional” Christianity, but its central characteristics have developed since the Enlightenment (2,11).  However, I don’t think Borg is entirely consistent in making this distinction between traditional Christianity and post-Enlightenment Christianity.  Many of the things he finds objectionable in post-Enlightenment Christianity apply equally to pre-modern Christianity.  For example, Borg maintains that it is only in the last few centuries that the “literal factuality” of the biblical texts has been emphasized (56).  Not so, as I will illustrate later. So Borg is really critiquing both traditional Christianity and what he sees as a distorted form of Christianity that emerged after the Enlightenment.  Borg’s own emergent paradigm is in some ways in line with current postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment. But, as we will see, he also draws on Enlightenment critiques of traditional Christianity, when it suits his purposes.  So Borg’s emergent paradigm of Christianity is being offered as even more enlightened than post-Enlightenment Christianity.

Borg admits that the earlier paradigm still remains a major voice within North American Christianity, and is affirmed by fundamentalist, most conservative-evangelical, and many Pentecostal Christians (6).  On the other hand, the emerging paradigm has only quite recently become “a major grass-roots movement within mainline denominations” (xii).  It is “widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13). But again and again in this book, there is a confident assertion that it is this expression of Christianity which is emerging out of the darkness, as it were, and which will in the end win the day.

Borg’s book is in line with many other books whose titles are revealing:  A New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren (2001); A New Christianity for a New World, by Bishop John Shelby Spong (2001); The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle (2008); A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren (2010); and finally another recent book by Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity (2012).  These many confident calls for newness and change deserve our attention. What is this emerging paradigm of Christianity?  Why the need for a radical rediscovery of the Christian faith?  And are the confident assertions of the need for, and the inevitably of, change and newness justified?  This review will focus on Borg as one representative of this movement.  I am a philosopher, and so my focus will be on the philosophical assumptions underlying Borg’s revisioning of the Christian faith.

What then, according to Borg, are some of the fundamental problems with the earlier paradigm and its links with traditional Christianity?  For one, the earlier form of Christianity has a distorted view of God (Ch. 4).  God is viewed as transcendent, a God “out there,” a supernatural “personlike being,” who occasionally intervenes in this world (65).  Borg prefers a God who is more intimately related to the world, and so he imagines God “as an encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is” (66).  Instead of “supernatural theism” he prefers “panentheism,” a term coined by Karen Armstrong to highlight the all-encompassing presence of the Spirit of God.  Now Borg is forced to admit that traditional Christianity has emphasized both the transcendence and the immanence of God, and also that Paul describes God as one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (66).  However, a little later Borg suggests that “supernatural theism in its modern form emphasizes only the transcendence of God” (69).  But this contradicts his earlier claim.  Traditional and orthodox Christianity has always emphasized both the transcendence and the personal presence of God.  So why this call for a new conception of God?  Borg informs us that “for many people supernatural theism is no longer compelling and persuasive” (69).  But is this a good reason for change?  Is truth determined by a majority vote?  There is a deeper issue underlying Borg’s objection to supernatural theism. Supernatural theism leads to an interventionist God.  Panentheism, by contrast rejects the language of “divine intervention” (67).  The real issue here has to do with the possibility of miracles.

Already in Chapter 1, the topic of miracles is introduced and “the miraculous” is identified as “central to the truth of Christianity” (9).  The earlier paradigm of Christianity interprets the Bible literally, we are told, and to a large extent this is “a literalism of the spectacular” (9).  By contrast, the emerging paradigm interprets the Bible as metaphorical (13).  “It is not bothered by the possibility that the stories of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are metaphorical rather than literally factual accounts (12-13).  I want to suggest that it is this rejection of the possibility of miracles in the name of science that is at the heart of the objections that Borg and his fellow scholars have with regard to traditional and the earlier version of Christianity. It is because of their rejection of miracles that they are led to discount the literal truth of much of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.  The miracle stories for them are only add-ons, invented by subsequent followers of Jesus to explain their devotion to him.

But what is so impossible about miracles?  Of course one expects scientific materialists to reject the possibility of miracles. And one can understand why skeptics like to appeal to David Hume’s classic 18th. century argument against the possibility of miracles. But unfortunately, David Hume’s argument begs the question.  It assumes that miracles are impossible because scientific laws are unbreakable.  But you can only know if scientific laws are unbreakable if you know that miracles are impossible.   Hume is arguing in a circle.  Here I would recommend C.S. Lewis’s little book, Miracles, for a readable refutation of Hume’s objections to miracles.

Scientific materialists too beg the question.  They assume that the material world is all there is, and thus God cannot exist, let alone break into this material world in order to do a miracle.  Now what is interesting here is that Borg is not a materialist.  His emerging paradigm clearly affirms the reality of God.  But as we have already seen, Borg’s God is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Instead of “supernatural theism” which allows for a God who can do miracles, Borg adopts “panentheism” which imagines God as an all-encompassing Spirit who does not intervene in this world.  But the description of this all-encompassing Spirit is left rather vague.  Indeed, Borg’s panentheism looks suspiciously like pantheism, which in turn is very much like scientific materialism.  Clearly on this account miracles are impossible.  But this again begs the question.  Why accept Borg’s arbitrarily defined God who cannot do miracles?

Borg goes on to say that he rejects the language of ‘divine intervention’, because of the “insurmountable difficulties” surrounding interventionism (67).  But what are these insurmountable difficulties?   Borg talks about not being able to provide “the explanatory mechanism for God’s relation to the world” (67).  Fair enough!  But is this a definitive objection to miracles?  Is reality determined by what we as human beings with our finite minds can comprehend?  Enough to believe that there is a God who created all things, including the laws of nature, and who therefore can choose to suspend these laws on occasion in order to do the miraculous.  Borg’s God is too small. In orthodox Christianity, God is both transcendent and immanent, and if so then God can intervene in this world, miracles are possible, and Jesus birth and resurrection can be taken literally, as was affirmed again and again in the early church.

Another area of conflict between early and emerging Christianity has to do with Christian exclusivism.  “The earlier way of being Christian was (and is) confident that Christianity is the ‘only way’ (3).  This position is undergoing change according to Borg, and the emerging form of Christianity typically rejects the idea that “[m]y religion is the only true religion” (3).  Indeed, emergent Christianity finds exclusivism and the rejection of other religions as “inadequate” or “unacceptable” (16).  Borg expands on this theme in the final chapter of The Heart of Christianity (Ch. 11).  Borg confesses that he can no longer believe the Christianity of his childhood that maintained that Christ is the only way to salvation (207).  “Indeed, if I thought I had to believe that Christianity was the only way, I could not be a Christian” (221).

A central reason for rejecting such exclusivism is the phenemonon of religious pluralism.  Borg, reflecting the thinking of many Westerners today, considers religious pluralism a new phenomenon – “We have never been here before” (209).  Absolutism too is seen as a product of modernism, a response of the Christian West to the threat of the emergence of secularism in the seventeenth century (212).  While there might be some truth to the claim that Western Christians are a little more aware of the world’s religious diversity, to suggest that we are facing a unique situation that calls for a radical rethinking of Christian faith is problematic for a number of reasons.  As Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished philosopher of religion of our time, has noted, Western Christians and Jews have known all along that there are other religions and that not nearly everyone shares their religion.  The ancient Israelites were clearly aware of the Canaanite religion, and Moses and other prophets warned against being misled by a foreign faith (cf. Deut. 18:14).  Jesus in the New Testament was very much aware of competing religions, and it is in this context that he made his claims to being the only way, the truth and the life (John 14:6; cf. Borg, 221).  Paul’s missionary journeys took him to very cosmopolitan cities within the Roman empire which were in fact religiously pluralistic.  The early Christians and the Christian martyrs were well aware of the fact that not everyone believed as they did.  So religious pluralism is not a new problem that Christians are facing.  And what needs to be emphasized is that it is within a context of religious pluralism that the Jewish prophets, Jesus, Paul and the church fathers affirmed the doctrine of exclusive truth.  Absolutism is simply not a product of modernity as Borg maintains (212).  And Borg is also wrong in suggesting that there are “relatively few” passages in the bible that uphold the notion of exclusive truth (221).  This notion runs throughout the Bible.

But how can Christians make exclusive claims to truth in the face of religious pluralism?  It is this question that is seen as the burning issue of Borg and many theologians, religious studies scholars, and philosophers of religion today. Indeed, Borg maintains that knowing about other religions and the people of other religions “have made it impossible” to believe in Christian exclusivism (220).  But, what is the problem?  Why should the fact of pluralism call into question the idea that there might be such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”?  All of us in our everyday lives encounter differences of opinion and yet we see no problem in claiming that some opinions that differ from our own are simply false. And if we are honest, we would admit that just because we think that opinions that differ from our own are false does not automatically make us irrational, intolerant or arrogant.  I would suggest that human beings are by nature epistemic absolutizers.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with this.  We need to assume that we have the truth in order to get on with the practical business of living.  I fail to see why claims in the area of religion should be any different.

I would further suggest that those who object to absolute truth claims invariably contradict themselves.  Borg himself objects to early versions of Christianity.  Yes, there are times where he tries to be careful not to say that one way is right and the other is wrong (18).  But the overall thrust of the book is that early Christianity is “anti-intellectual,” outdated, and wrong (15).  Emergent Christianity is where it is at.  Any truly enlightened Christian will climb on board. So one way is right, and the other way is wrong.  Indeed, any objections to exclusivism end up being exclusive in their own right.  Hear again what Alvin Plantinga says of the charge of arrogance often made against exclusivists: “The charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby:  Get close enough to them to use them against the exclusivists and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself” (“A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”).

Borg goes on to provide an account of the similarities and differences between religions, and to a large extent I agree with his analysis (215-19).  He then gives his own “testimony” as to why he adheres to a religious tradition and more specifically why he is a Christian (222-5).  “We need a path.  We are lost without one.  Community and tradition articulate, embody, and nurture a path…. Religious community and tradition put us in touch with the wisdom and beauty of the past.  They are communities of memory.”  And why specifically a Christian community and tradition?  Because for Borg, this is familiar.  It is his home.  “Its worship nourishes me; its hymns move me; its scripture and theology engage my imagination and thought; its practices shape me.” This is an inspiring account of why Borg is a Christian!  And then he once again addresses the issue of pluralism and exclusivism, arguing that “we do not need to feel that our home is superior to every other home in order to love it” (224).  The problem here is that most people, most of the time, do feel that their home is superior to every other home, that is if they are honest. Borg gives us a moving account of why he is a Christian.  What he fails to realize is that it there is nothing in his account which is incompatible with a humble exclusivism.  Indeed, some honest introspection would reveal that deep down inside Borg is a humble exclusivist. We all only see through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12).

I move on to another issue addressed in Chapter 3, where Borg boldly states that “the Bible is at the heart of Christianity” (47).  “To be a Christian means to be in a primary continuing conversation with the Bible as a foundation for our identity and vision.  If this conversation ceases or becomes haphazard, then we cease to be Christian” (47).  These are bold claims.  Indeed, I can’t quarrel with these assertions. But, we must be careful not to be fooled by traditional sounding language.  In fact Borg’s understanding of the Bible is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Borg is worried about the biblical literalism and the emphasis on biblical infallibility, historical factuality and moral and doctrinal absolutes that characterize traditional Christianity (43). He offers us instead an understanding of the Bible that is “historical,” “metaphorical,” and “sacramental” (44). Here again we must pay careful attention to the way in which Borg uses certain words.  When he talks about the Bible as historical he does not mean that the Bible is giving us factual history.  Instead, he sees the Bible as “the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement” (45).  The Bible simply tells us how our spiritual ancestors understood and experienced God. The Bible is not “absolute truth” or “God’s revealed truth,” but “relative and culturally conditioned” (45).  And then this blunt statement: “As such, it is a human product, not a divine product” (45).

Strangely, Borg goes on to say that he is not denying that the Bible is “inspired by God” (46).  I find it very difficult to reconcile this statement with his earlier claim that the Bible is not a divine product.  This sounds contradictory.  Borg is also guilty of caricaturing the traditional Christian position as to the status of the Bible.  While he occasionally admits that some traditional Christians hold to a soft kind of literalism (8-9), in the main he characterizes them as adopting a hard kind of literalism where every word of the bible is to be taken literally. I don’t believe this is a fair characterization of most Christians, as it is rather obvious that the language of the Bible is multifaceted, sometimes literal, and sometimes metaphorical.  Again, Borg at times admits this (49), but then goes right on to maintain that “much” of the language of the Bible is metaphorical.  How much?  He also goes on to dismiss the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as not literal, but metaphorical.  Why?  At bottom, his reason for such dismissal rests on his rejection of the possibility of miracles, a point I have already dealt with.

There are in fact very good reasons to believe that the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection should be taken literally.  Luke’s gospel is the result of careful investigation of reports that were handed down to him by the first eye-witnesses of Jesus (Lk. 1:1-4).  John stresses that the gospel being proclaimed was based on that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched” (I John 1:1).  Paul highlights the factual nature of the tradition he is passing on, and specifically underscores the Jesus’ physical appearance to many after his resurrection (I Cor. 15:1-8).  And Peter reminds his readers that the good news didn’t involve “cleverly invented stories” but was instead based on eye-witness accounts of Jesus (II Peter 1:16).

Borg maintains that an emphasis on the literal-factual interpretation of the Bible is a modern phenomenon, a reaction to the Enlightenment (12, 56).  This is plainly false.  The early church clearly interpreted the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as literal and factual.  Of course, they also understood that are parts of the Bible that are metaphorical.  Some of the language of the Bible is poetic in nature, and for that reason should not be taken literally. So we need to take great care in distinguishing between poetic and literal language in the Bible.  We need clear criteria to make this distinction.  And we need to avoid Borg-like generalizations to the effect that “much” of the language of the Bible is “obviously metaphorical” (49).  Indeed, exactly the opposite is true.  Much of the language of the Bible is historical in nature, and the gospels accounts and Acts are clearly meant to be taken literally.  Unfortunately, Borg does not, in this book, spell out the criteria he uses to discredit the literal-factual nature of much of the Bible. But he does identify himself as “a historical Jesus scholar” (xiii).   This is not the place to evaluate the criteria used by scholars of the Jesus Seminar to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sayings of Jesus.  Various scholars have identified significant problems in the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar, and their work is today rejected by many prominent theologians.

There is one more problem with Borg’s treatment of the Bible.  Borg maintains not only that much of the language is metaphorical, but that metaphorical language can be true (49-50).  Again, there is something to be said for the claim that truth can be conveyed by metaphor.  Poetry can convey profound truth.  A novel can give us a truthful depiction of reality. Indeed, I find Borg’s analysis of some of the deeper meanings conveyed by the stories of creation, and Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection to be quite illuminating.  But, and this is a big BUT, there is nothing incompatible with claiming that these stories are factually true and that they also convey deeper meanings. Indeed, Borg is simply mistaken when he suggests that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the stories distracts from their meaning (53).  An Easter sermon that proclaims the historical veracity of Jesus’ resurrection can be, and in evangelical circles, most often is combined with an affirmation that Jesus lives and wants to be Lord even today – Borg’s own interpretation of the meaning of the Easter stories (54).  Indeed, the Christian hope of resurrection after death is dependant on taking literally Jesus own resurrection from the dead, as Paul argues so eloquently in I Cor. 15:12.  Paul goes on: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (v. 14).  Metaphors simply cannot provide the comfort and hope that Christians need at funerals.

One final evaluative point.  Again and again I find the language Borg uses to be very misleading.  For example, early in the book Borg maintains that in his emerging paradigm he “strongly affirms the reality of God, the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the importance of a relationship with God as known in Jesus, and our need (and the world’s need) for transformation” (17).  But, Borg has radically altered the traditional understanding of each of these themes (17).  Let me focus here on one of these – the centrality of Jesus (Ch. 5).  Borg argues that Christianity finds the primary revelation of God in a person, namely Jesus, the Word made flesh (80).  He declares the following as the central meaning of the incarnation: “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life” (80).  He even declares Jesus as more important than the Bible in disclosing who God is (81). This sounds so orthodox! I can agree with all of this.

But in the next section we discover that Borg is using orthodox language in a very unorthodox way.  We are informed that the traditional way of interpreting all of this “no longer works for millions of people, both within and outside of the church” (82).  To interpret Jesus as literally performing miracles, being born of a virgin, and rising from the dead, and claiming to be the only way of salvation is “not only unpersuasive, but a barrier to being Christian” (81-2).  Here again, we discover that truth is to be determined by popular vote, including the vote of those outside the church! And again Borg gives us a metaphorical interpretation of the life Jesus.  We need to distinguish between a “pre-Easter Jesus,”  an itinerant and wise teacher, and a “post-Easter Jesus,” a Jesus still in the grave, but who is reinvented by the disciples and given supernatural powers.  We are told that to emphasize the divinity of Jesus in fact undermines the utterly remarkable human being that he was” (83).  This needs some argument!  And again we are told that a literal reading of Jesus is a distraction and a stumbling block to understanding the true metaphorical meaning of his life, works, and words (86).  I have already argued that this is a false claim.  And once again we are reminded that “a strong majority of mainline scholars” do not believe that Jesus speaks of himself as the Messiah, the Son of God or the Light of the world (86, cf. 92).  But note, not everyone, even among mainline scholars, agrees with Borg and company. Indeed, there are eminent scholars who disagree with Borg and the Jesus seminar, and who find the distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus to be based on arbitrary criteria.  But what is perhaps more disturbing is way in which Borg and company use conventional language and then rob it of its conventional meaning.  This is at best misleading, and at worst outright deception.

Running throughout the book is a contrast between two paradigms of Christianity, an early and an emerging vision of the Christian tradition and the Christian life.  Early in the book, Borg informs us that the emerging paradigm “is widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13).  Borg and other scholars advocating the emerging paradigm at times are very confident that the emerging paradigm is correct one and that it will eventually win out (see esp. Phyllis Tickle).  This is presumptuous.  Yes, at times Borg tries to bridge the differences between the two paradigms (16-18).  In good postmodern fashion, he informs us that “there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being Christian” (17).  Sadly, this is contradicted in the very next sentence when Borg informs us that “there are some wrong ways of being Christian,” one obvious example being a group like the Ku Klux Klan (17).  I quite agree!  But, you can’t have it both ways!  And the overall thrust of Borg’s book is that his emerging paradigm is the right way to understand Christianity and the Christian life. I believe that he has got it wrong.

What we have here is not the gospel of the New Testament, or the gospel of the early apostles, but a gospel according to Marcus Borg.  While his book attempts to define “the heart of Christianity” he has in fact ripped the heart of out of Christianity, and there is nothing left but a story of a good man, part fictional, and part historical.  While such stories can be inspirational, they are hardly the stuff one would live for or die for.  And Borg’s gospel simply will not sustain the practical challenges of living the Christian life which he so passionately tries to articulate in Part Two of his book.  But to argue this point would require another essay!

Question-focused Christian Faith

May 14, 2012

There has been a growing emphasis on questions in our churches today.  “Question-shaped faith,” is the title of a provocative piece in a recent issue of the Canadian Mennonite.[i]  Troy Watson, the author, is pastor of a St. Catharines church tellingly named “Quest Christian Community.”  “Questioning one’s beliefs is also at the heart” of a recently established innovative church which meets at a downtown Kitchener hotel, says Brad Watson, pastor of the Nexus Centre.[ii]  A video series used in some churches is suggestively entitled “Living the Questions.”

This emphasis on questioning would seem to be closely associated with a postmodern approach to the Christian faith.  Troy Watson’s article is part of a regular column in the Canadian Mennonite, entitled “Life in the Postmodern Shift.”  Brian McLaren is one of the primary leaders of the postmodern shift in the evangelical Christian church today. The title of one of his recent books is significant:  A New Kind of Christianity:  Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith.[iii]

Clearly there is something healthy about this emphasis on questions.  The Christian faith does raise some questions that beg for answers.  The church should be a place where young people and adults can ask the questions they are facing with regard to their faith.  Without questions, the Christian faith is in danger of becoming stagnant and even dogmatic. Questioning helps us to avoid tunnel vision. We need to grow, and for that to happen we need to keep asking questions.  Asking open questions is also a key to leading engaging bible studies.[iv]  Over the many years that I have taught adult Sunday School, I find myself spending more time preparing the right questions that will stimulate good discussion and learning.  Of course, as a philosopher I love questions and critical thinking, and I like to think I have something to contribute to the church because I am a philosopher.

But, and this is a big But, there are also dangers inherent in the current emphasis on questions.  We need, first of all, to distinguish between genuine questioning and questioning for the sake of questioning.  Genuine questions and doubts needed to be treated seriously in the church. Indeed, we need to create an atmosphere in the church where our young people are allowed and even encouraged to raise the questions they are struggling with.  But questioning can become frivolous.  In my teaching career I have encountered students who ask questions simply because they find this entertaining.  Sometimes I cannot help but think their real motive is to impress everyone with their intelligence.  Questioning can become an end in itself.  This is what Paul has in mind when he describes some people as “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (II Tim 3:8).  Of course it is no accident that the emphasis on questioning is associated with postmodernism, which tends to have problems with the very idea of truth. Healthy questioning has a goal in mind – to find answers, to find truth, and to be more obedient to the truth of the gospel message.

We also need to remember that we can only ask questions if there first is something about which to ask questions.  Questioning is parasitic on something else – on the existence of a body of beliefs that are already given. Questioning presupposes a tradition already present that can be questioned.  You just can’t start with questions.  Believing comes before questioning.  Here an important question comes to the fore.  What is our attitude to the belief-traditions which we inherit? All too often I find questioners assuming a stance of superiority over tradition. Traditional beliefs are looked on with disdain.   The bible has a lot to say about the danger of pride.  All of us struggle with pride, but I think it is a special temptation of those of us who have benefited from a good education.  This is the problem Paul addresses in the first few chapters of his first letter to the Corinthian church when he talks about destroying the supposed wisdom of the wise, and the supposed intelligence of the intelligent.  Paul isn’t advocating anti-intellectualism here, because he himself was a scholar, and he goes on to talk about a genuine type of wisdom (I Cor. 2:6).  As Paul Gooch has argued, what Paul is really concerned about is the conceit of human knowledge.[v]  This also applies to the arrogance often surrounding the treatment of traditional beliefs as inferior simply because they are traditional.  Healthy questioning treats traditional beliefs with respect.  This surely is part of the meaning of the frequent Scriptural exhortation to honor our parents.  Honoring our parents includes honoring the beliefs they hold.  This does not entail that we should never question the beliefs of the previous generation.  But when we do, we should always do so with an attitude of indebtedness to the generations before us.

It is no accident that the postmodern emphasis on questioning likes to stress what is new.  The titles of some of Brian McLaren’s books are telling: A New Kind of Christian (2001), and A New Kind of Christianity (2010).  If the central focus is on questioning the beliefs one has inherited, then of course “truth” can only be found in that which is new.  Here again, we need to be careful not to overreact against the new.  The world is changing, and so the good news of the gospel must constantly be reapplied to the newly emerging context within which we live. But we need to be careful not to become too preoccupied with that which is new.  Just as we need to guard against the idol of traditionalism, so we must guard against the idol of newness.  We need a balance.  McLaren in fact expresses a better balance in an article he has written, entitled “A New Kind of Old Christian.”[vi]  Yes, indeed!  But why then focus on newness once again by giving his more recent book the title, A New Kind of Christianity?  Of course this is good marketing, but faithful Christians are more concerned about faithful representations of the gospel, even in the titles they choose for their books.  Our model here should be Jesus who at one point describes the good teacher as one who “is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasurers as well as old” (Matt. 13:52).

There is another worry that I have about our current preoccupation with questioning in the church.  Questions always arise out of a certain context. Questioning is not a neutral activity.  Questions arise because the person raising the questions has been sufficiently influenced by another set of beliefs to prompt this person to call into question the beliefs he/she formerly held. And sadly, in such questioning, this agenda-driven context is all too often not made transparent.  The ten questions that Brian McLaren addresses in his more recent book are not only calling into question the long-standing answers that have been given in the history of the orthodox Christianity. They also arise from a “new” theology that stands apart from traditional Christian beliefs. To his credit, McLaren has been fairly open about the post-modern agenda that drives his questioning.

Not so in the video series referred to earlier, “Living the Questions,” being used in some churches in their Sunday school program.  The title of the series is problematic for a number of reasons.  It gives the impression of an open and invigorating exploration of the Christian faith.  But it is not long into the series when one discovers that some basic Christian doctrines are being called into question – the resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, and the Trinity.   The main participants in the video series are scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar, and their sympathizers, and it is their agenda that is being promoted with all the boldness that typically accompanies the academy. And we are also informed that the consensus of scholarly opinion is moving in their direction.  Indeed, one is given the strong impression that anyone holding traditional views is simply naïve.  How arrogant!  Scholarship is significantly divided on the questions being raised in this video series.  There are many well-established theologians with first-rate scholarly qualifications who strongly disagree with the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.  At the very least the video series should acknowledge this.  An open-minded presentation of the issues would present scholarly evidence on both sides of the issues being raised.  A question also needs to be raised as to why any church with an orthodox confession of faith would use such an agenda-driven video series as part of its Sunday school curriculum. One final problem with the title of the series.  It doesn’t say, “Living with Questions.”  Instead, “Living the Questions.”  The problem here is that questions cannot in themselves provide a foundation for living.  We can only live on the basis of answers, however tentative these might be.

Here another problem arises.  The questioning pose has a humble air about it.  It is people who claim to have “answers” that are seen as arrogant and dogmatic.  Clearly there is a danger of arrogance and dogmatism in claiming to have answers.  But this danger also applies to those singing the praises of questioning, as I have already shown.  It is high time that we recognize that there is such a thing as liberal fundamentalism, with all the negative associations typically built into the notion of fundamentalism.  And to stigmatize those who are honest enough to claim to have answers is to be involved in unfair caricaturing.  The apostle Paul, for example, in his classic description of love, goes on to remind us that we only see through a glass darkly, we only know in part (I Cor. 13:12).  That sounds pretty humble to me, and it can describe those who claim to have answers.  Indeed, I would suggest this is the position of most theologians who adhere to traditional theological beliefs.

It is therefore disingenuous for Brian McLaren to give the impression that he is taking the high ground when he claims, in an introductory chapter of his more recent book on ten questions that are transforming the faith, that his aim is only to provide “some provisional, preliminary, incomplete, but promising responses that I’ve cobbled together or gleaned from others on the journey” (p.22).  Oh how humble this sounds! But there is more!  “Responses, please remember, are not answers:  the latter seek to end conversation while the former seek to stimulate more of it” (p.22).  Really!  A fair portrayal of the history of theology will reveal that providing answers in theology most often has gone hand in hand with stimulating conversations and ongoing revisions to theology.  But there is even more to McLaren’s tirade against answers:  “Remember, our goal is not debate and division yielding hate or a new state, but rather questioning that leads to conversation and friendship on the new quest” (p.23).  This is caricaturing and posturing at its worst.  Debate does not necessarily lead to hate.  There are many theologians who disagree strongly with the answers other theologians hold, but who are still the best of friends. Questioning simply does not have a purchase on conversation and friendship.  And it is simply hypocritical to reject “answers” when McLaren’s caricaturing and posturing is very much rooted in an assumed answer – a postmodern theological position.

I also have concerns about Troy Watson’s analysis of the reasons why religious institutions discourage questioning.  They do so, Watson argues, as a means of control.  He quotes Noam Chomsky who describes such control as limiting the spectrum of acceptable opinion but then allowing for lively debate within that spectrum.  We also discourage questioning, Watson argues, because of fear and the desire to keep the peace.  Now there is some truth to this analysis.  The only problem is that these reasons for discouraging questions apply to all institutions, including the academy.  Our universities too limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion and then only allow for lively debate within that narrow spectrum.  I also find this to be an accurate description of the musings of liberal theologians, the Jesus Seminar, and postmodernists.  We need more integrity in assessing the reasons why all of us are a little protective of the beliefs that we hold.

I conclude with an historical note and want to suggest that our contemporary preoccupation with postmodern questioning is really a very “modern” phenomenon.  There is more continuity between postmodernism and modernism than most people realize!  French philosopher, Rene Descartes, is generally seen as the father of modern philosophy.   Descartes should also be seen as the father of the questioning fad in the church today.  Descartes begins his famous Meditations (1641), by acknowledging that from his earliest years, he has accepted many false opinions as true. This prompts him to resolve “that if I wished to have any firm and constant knowledge in the sciences, I would have to undertake, once and for all, to set aside all the opinions which I had previously accepted among my beliefs and start again from the very beginning. … I will therefore make a serious and unimpeded effort to destroy generally all my former opinions” (translated by Laurence J. Lafleur).  After systematically doubting all his beliefs, Descartes discovers one truth that is absolutely certain, his famous “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes’ approach has been subject to much serious criticism in the history of philosophy. Unfortunately for Descartes, his one certain truth is not quite as certain as he thought it was.  And if his one certainty is dubious, then Descartes is left drowning in a sea of uncertainty, a possibility he himself describes in the second meditation. Indeed, there are problems with the very goal of absolute certainty that drove Descartes’ methodological doubt.  It is also impossible to question or doubt everything.  You simply can’t start from scratch. There are a number of assumptions Descartes makes that remain unquestioned.  There is also a strong individualism that pervades Descartes’ approach.

What is the alternative?  We need to recognize the importance of the community in coming to know, including the community of past generations.  We need to acknowledge that we can only question if we have first been given something to question.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us, “The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.” Questioning and critical thinking is dependent on our first being initiated into a particular tradition of thought.  A conservative posture is therefore the appropriate response to tradition. We should cherish the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations. This does not preclude critical thinking and questioning.  As fallible and sinful creatures, we always need to be open to re-evaluating what we believe.  But this should done carefully, assessing beliefs and assumptions one by one, not by a wholesale rejection of everything we believe.  Our epistemological stance should be one of committed openness.  We should be honest and admit the “answers” that we tentatively hold at the present time.  At the same time, we should be open to critically evaluating these answers, always with a view to discovering more complete answers and coming closer to the truth.  We also need to be patient, realizing that we will only know fully and completely in the eschaton, when we will see Jesus face to face.

[i] “Question-shaped faith,” by Troy Watson.  Canadian Mennonite, Feb. 6, p.13.

[ii]  “A different kind of Sunday service,” by Liz Monteiro, Waterloo Region Record, Nov. 19, 2010, p. D7.

[iii] Published by HarperOne, 2010.

[iv] See a description of a recent seminar for pastors, chaplains and congregational leaders of the Mennonite Church, Eastern Canada, “Catching the spark … Carrying the light:  Facilitating Dynamic Bible Study,” in the Canadian Mennonite, Feb. 20, 2012, p. 16.

[v] See Paul Gooch, Partial Knowledge:  Philosophical Studies in Paul. University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

[vi] Leadership, Winter, 2005, 26(1).

Efficiency vs. Faithfulness

July 20, 2011

By most standards I am not an efficient person.  I am slow at thinking, and even slower at carpentry.  On my desk there is usually a backlog of items that should have been completed yesterday.  I have to work long and hard at preparing lectures, sermons, Sunday school lessons and newspaper columns.

I have often felt badly about my inefficiency, and thus I was most interested when a friend told me that Jacques Ellul dealt with this problem in his book, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (Eerdmans, 1972). 

In this series of meditations on II Kings, Ellul explains why inefficiency is deplored today.  Ours is a technological society.  We value people, and even more, machines which can get a lot accomplished with a minimum of effort and energy.  Efficiency is also at the heart of capitalism.  The more efficiently and cheaply an item can be produced, the more profit can be made.  Generally we are governed by vision of what is great and powerful and effective.

Ellul goes on to show that efficiency is not necessarily a virtue.  With God it is not efficiency, but faithfulness that really matters.

There are two kinds of kings found in the Old Testament, according to Ellul – those who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, as the house of Ahab had done,” and those who followed David and did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.  What is somewhat disturbing is that those kings who were faithful to God often met defeat, while those who were cruel and disobedient to God often were highly successful monarchs.  From man’s point of view, the disobedient kings must surely be rated the more efficient.  But God is strangely unimpressed.  He is more concerned with faithfulness, even though this leads to failure from a human point of view.

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness also has something to say about efficiency.  Jesus is about to begin his ministry, and the tempter, who is well acquainted with efficient ways to get things done in the world, offers him some advice.  An efficient way to get a hearing from the masses would be to satisfy their physical needs – give them bread.  But, Jesus chooses a less efficient method – proclaiming the Word of God.

To do the spectacular, like throwing oneself down from the temple, would be an efficient means of getting people’s attention (how much more so if it could be televised!).  But Jesus prefers a less spectacular approach, and consistently tells those whom he has miraculously healed not to spread the news.  An efficient way to gain all the kingdoms of the world would be to bow down to Satan, to adopt his tactics, to exercise power, or to use forceful means. But instead, Jesus chooses the way of the cross, a way that seems foolish and hopelessly inefficient.

One of the greatest temptations of the church today is to be efficient rather than faithful to God and his Word.  It may be more efficient to run a church like a business corporation, but is this being faithful to God’s Word?  Hiring consultants to run a slick campaign to raise money for church projects might be efficient, but would our Lord be impressed?  The electronic church might be more efficient that the pre-electronic church, but is it faithful to the even more old-fashioned model of the church instituted by Christ?

Paul warns us to be careful how we build the church (I Cor. 3:10-15).  There are some methods that might be efficient but they might also be unworthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Only if the church is built by those means that are faithful to its foundation, which is Jesus Christ, will it survive.  Efficiency at the expense of faithfulness always falls under God’s judgment. 

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 12, 1982, and is here slightly revised.)




Neglect of the Christian Mind

February 28, 2011

“The greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.”

This disturbing assessment was made by Dr. Charles Malik, an old and wise Christian statesman and former president of the United Nations General Assembly, in an essay which one Canadian Christian educator has identified as “required reading for every born-again Christian in North America” Christianity Today (Nov. 7, 1980).

I see two significant kinds of anti-intellectualism within evangelical and Mennonite churches today. There is first of all an outright denial of the mind as important. This is in a large measure simply a reflection of the spirit of anti-intellectualism that pervades our entire society. Subjective emotional experience is all that matters for many people today.

John R.W. Stott tells the story of a minister who believed in the important place of the intellect in preaching. Some didn’t like it. A church member wrote to the minister to complain: “Whenever I go to church, I feel like unscrewing my head and placing it under the seat, because in a religious meeting I never have any use for anything above my collar button.”

There is also the tendency on the part of some to see the work of the Holy Spirit as incompatible with the exercise of the mind. Contrary to Paul, some feel that when a person sings or prays with the spirit, he cannot at the same time sing and pray with his mind (I Cor. 14:15).

As Anabaptists/Mennonites, we like to stress the need to put truth into practice. The old Mennonite motto was “he who would know Christ truly must follow him daily in life.” This is a healthy emphasis, but there is the danger that this is somehow seen as incompatible with the search for truth, as something of value in and of itself. Thus some have expressed concern about the scarcity of theological scholarship in our circles, as well as in the evangelical community at large.

The second kind of anti-intellectualism is more subtle, but perhaps more significant. There are an increasing number in our churches who must in some way acknowledge the importance of the intellect, as discussed above. The level of education of members in our churches has increased substantially over the past several decades. We have many students, teachers and other professionals in our ranks.

But, there is a tragic failure on the part of many of these same individuals to cultivate a specifically Christian mind in their studies or professions. The Christian faith is somehow compartmentalized so that it is only relevant to the saving of one’s soul, not to the thinking that is required in one’s field of study or chosen profession. Thus, Christianity is stripped of a significant portion of its intellectual implications.

Again and again, I meet students who have not begun to think through their field of study from a Christian point of view. There are Christian psychiatrists who deny the doctrine of original sin when they practice psychiatry; lawyers who fail to see how the biblical principles of justice and fairness relate to their practice; teachers who refuse to acknowledge God as the source of all truth taught; businessmen who don’t seem to share the biblical concern for the poor and the needy.

We are generally unconcerned about our children being indoctrinated into a secular frame of mind in our public schools. Where we have provided an alternative to public education, there is a tendency to think that the only difference between our own Christian schools and public schools is that our schools have chapel each day, and the positive influence of Christian teachers. We have not fully appreciated the difference Christ should make to the study of history, science, and even mathematics.

There is a serious need to reaffirm the importance of the intellect. The mind is an essential aspect of human nature. God made us this way, and right from the start, communicated with man and woman as though they were intelligent beings (Gen. 2). We are to love God with our whole being, including our minds (Matt. 22:37). We must be careful that our zeal for God is based on knowledge (Rom. 10:2).  Our thinking must not be conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2).  The fear of the Lord is to be seen as the beginning of knowledge – all knowledge (Prov. 1:7). In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). Christians are called to cultivate a uniquely Christian mind.  We are to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 17, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)


Reflections on Christian Schwarz and Natural Church Development

January 13, 2011


There was much that impressed me about Christian Schwarz and what he said about Natural Church Development at the Leadership Conference of the Canadian M.B. Convention 2000. His sincere Christian faith and his commitment to the church were quickly evident.  He clearly practiced what he preached.  He demonstrated critical openness with regard to his own thinking.  He even dared to question some of the claims of current church growth gurus.  Schwarz is a very gifted communicator.  He served us well.  However, some of my initial misgivings were reinforced as I listened to Christian Schwarz’s explanation of his research program and his advice to the church. 

 Science and the Bible:

Let me first comment generally on his research program.  There can be no doubt about the seriousness with which the research is being conducted.  Data is being collected worldwide and is being fed into sophisticated computer programs which in turn generate instructive analysis about natural church development.  Again and again we were reminded of the scientific basis underlying this research program.  At one point Schwarz even challenged us to suggest any other way one might be able to find out what leads to healthy growing churches.  My answer – the Bible!    And here is my first concern – science has replaced the Bible as the authority of what we should do in church. 

This concern, of course, raises the question of the relation between the findings of science and the Bible.  Ultimately, for Christians there should be agreement between what the Bible says and any conclusions drawn from authentic scientific research.  Both are an expression of God’s Word.  And Christian Schwarz was careful to observe that the eight quality characteristics of growing churches that he had discovered via his research could all be affirmed by the Bible.  But why seek empirical confirmation of that which is already found in the Bible?  Is this approach not finally a betrayal of trust in God’s revelation? Is it not further an unnecessary accommodation to the scientism that grew out of the Enlightenment?  In my college teaching, I spend a good deal of time unmasking the pretensions of science.  I was therefore somewhat shocked to discover that the M.B. church itself has succumbed to these very same pretensions by inviting Schwarz as the main speaker of our convention. 

Surely at a church convention, the Bible should be held up as the ultimate and the main authority for any pronouncements that are made.  Jesus is the head of the church, not science!  I was therefore disturbed that in the leaflet advertising Convention 2000 and which was distributed to all the churches, Christian Schwarz was described as “an engaging speaker.  He’s easy to listen to, and his messages come from a level of knowledge which make him deeply credible.”  Surely credibility should be based on theological foundations, not scientific expertise.  Surely at a church convention, expository preaching should be the dietary staple – but there was little of this at our convention.  We have here just another illustration of David Well’s portrayal of the decline of theology within evangelical churches.

 Gaps and Biases:

Reliance on scientific methodology, of course, brings with it the problem of bias which is very common in scientific research, and there is evidence of bias in Christian Schwarz’s research program.  There are some noticeable gaps in the eight quality characteristics that are identified as essential to healthy growing churches.  For example, Bible teaching is not cited as one of the eight qualities.  My Bible, however, tells me that this is central to a healthy church.  Preaching, teaching, and the prophetic word are identified as the higher gifts that we should be striving for in the church (I Cor. 12).  But Schwarz said, “Scientific research shows that churches with pastors with a classical theological training are declining in quality and numbers.”   Really!?  Is there perhaps some other factor that is the determining cause in this alleged scientific analysis?  As any first year student in the philosophy of science can tell you, it is all to easy to identify a wrong cause because of bias in your methodology.

One of our senior church leaders identified another missing quality in Schwarz’s list of healthy churches – tithing and sacrificial giving.  Again, there are good biblical grounds for identifying this as an important characteristic of a healthy church.  Paul spends a good deal of time on this topic.  Should this characteristic therefore not also be confirmable by scientific research?  And I wonder whether its omission as one of Schwarz’s eight characteristics occurred because of a bias in the questions asked of churches in his international study – perhaps questions about tithing were not even raised in the research.  And what about suffering as another defining characteristic of a healthy growing church?  Or, obedience?

Schwarz might explain these omissions by claiming that these characteristics are subsumed under the categories of worship or passionate spirituality.  But could not worship itself be subsumed under passionate spirituality?  And why not place empowering leadership under gift-oriented ministry?  These questions raise another problem: Which characteristics should be included under which category?  Is there not a good deal of arbitrariness involved in selecting these specific eight categories as essential to healthy churches?  Might there be some other features that could be equally well highlighted as universally characteristic of healthy growing churches?  And what about the qualifiers attached to some of these eight characteristics, qualifiers which place a lot of emphasis on feeling and emotion.  “Passionate spirituality.”  “Inspired Worship.”  My Bible tells me that zeal without knowledge is dangerous (Romans 10:2).  It is important to pray with the spirit together with the mind (I Cor. 14:15).  Marva Dawn has recently warned us about the idolatries of excitement and charismatic personalities that govern much of the church today.

 The Mystery of the Gospel:      

Christian Schwarz describes his program in terms of “Natural Church Development.”  There is something odd about the use of the term “natural.”  Surely the church is also supernatural!  I realize that Schwarz would agree with this, but he tends to dichotomize the natural and the supernatural. Surely even the human contribution to church growth needs to be divinely inspired if it is to have any effect.  And can the supernatural be captured in terms of precise, measurable, and natural categories?  We must not eliminate the mystery that is at the heart of the gospel.  We must also be careful not to expect the precision of science to apply to people and to dynamic organisms like the church.  Church profiles can be wrong?  Gift-discernment also simply cannot be reduced to precise measurement as is assumed in various current programs advocated by Schwarz.  There are any number of people who think they have certain gifts based on these “precise” programs, but who have got it wrong, and who, as a result, are an embarrassment to the church, and who are ultimately hurting the church because of the errors involved in “scientific” self-assessment.  Again, we must remember that a genuinely religious phenomenon, at its heart and in its totality, escapes the net of scientific theory and analysis. Scientific naturalism, at its core precludes the divine, and hence there would seem to be a basic incompatibility between the biblical doctrine of church and Schwarz’s scientific analysis of a healthy church.

Quality and Quantity:

One final concern is the tension between quality and quantity in Schwartz’s approach.  At times he was careful to distance himself from thinking of church growth in terms of quantity.  Qualitative growth (healthy churches) is what we are after.  But excessive concern about a church’s spiritual health can lead to a kind of spiritual hypochondria.  Schwarz used the analogy of a thermometer to encourage us to make repeated us of his church profile to measure the health of the church.  We can be too concerned about measuring church health.  Might it not be better to wait for God’s final evaluation, “Well done”? 

On the other hand, Schwarz did at one point say that our motivation should not even be a healthy church.  Quality also is not a goal in itself.  Now I was confused!  What are we after?  In the end, it became clear that the dominant concern is growth in numbers.  Schwarz’s approach is very much an outgrowth of the church growth movement which is dominant in many evangelical quarters.  Success is where it is at.  But, the Bible teaches that faithfulness, not success, should be the norm.  In fact, some Old Testament prophets were specifically told that they would not be successful (Is. 6:9-13).  There is a danger in evangelical churches that we make an idol of church growth and success.  Christ wants a pure church (Eph 5:25-7).  And the last book of the Bible “calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev. 13:10). 

Does the above critical analysis entail that Christian Schwarz’s program should be completely dismissed.  I don’t think so.  I agree that biblical norms for healthy churches should be open to scientific verification to some degree.  We must just be very careful to recognize the limits of science, and hence of Schwarz’s program.  We must also be careful not exaggerate the precision of the research results, church profiles, or gift-discernment programs used. Aristotle long ago warned us not to demand more precision than the subject matter allows. The church is finally a divine institution, and therefore not entirely subject to scientific analysis and prediction.  Above all, let’s allow the Bible to be the primary and final authority in defining the characteristics of a healthy church.

 (This article first appeared in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 22, 2000, pp. 6-7, under the title, “Reflections on Natural Church Development,” and is here slightly revised.)

Builders, Boomers and Busters

December 6, 2010

(A shorter version of this blog first appeared as an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 22, 2000, pp.10-11.) 

“Relevancy:  Listening to the builders, boomers and busters.”  This heading was found on the front cover of a recent issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald  – part of an excellent series on the church (April 14, 2000).  The heading referred to an article based on a sermon by Bill McRae, “Serving our Generation,” which begins with a plea for the Christian church to adapt to the rapidly changing times of the 21st. century.  David is held up as a model of someone who “served God’s purpose in his own generation” (Acts 13:36).  The men of Issachar too “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (I Chron. 12:32).  The core of this essay involves an analysis of the varying characteristics of builders, boomers and busters, with the aim of helping the church serve the present generation.

Analyses of the various generations of our time abound, as do the calls for relevancy.  But I am becoming increasingly concerned about these analyses and calls. 

For one thing, such calls represent a preoccupation with the findings of the social sciences.  Much time is spent describing the characteristics of Generation X and Y, and who knows what the next generation will be called!    Such a preoccupation with the social sciences entails that we are the mercy of the expert.  And social scientists are very much the experts of our time.  But they can get things wrong!  There are biases that might skew their findings.  Most importantly though, we need to be careful not to become too preoccupied with description which is the central task of the social sciences.  Yes, they can perhaps help us with understanding our times.  But, surely understanding what we are like is less important than understanding what we ought to be like.  Prescription is more important than description.

I also worry about our tendency to categorize, to put labels on groups of people.  Such typologies divide.  They also overlook the important fact that people are not all that different, that human nature really does remain the same over time.  The basic human needs of builders and boomers and busters are similar.  We all need love.  We all need a solution to our common problem of sin.  We all need Jesus.  We all need some discipline.  We must be very careful not to exaggerate the differences between generations.

I have been teaching at universities and colleges now for over 30 years.  I have become familiar with each new generation entering higher education.  And I can testify that roughly students have remained the same over all these years.  Yes, I am aware of some broad differences.  If anything, students are becoming more self-centered and promiscuous in the last while.  This past year I even wrote a memo to one of our program directors suggesting that this was the first time in my teaching career that I felt that I was teaching a class of semi-barbarians!  But even here, we know that human nature has always been sinful, and that self-centeredness and promiscuity are as old as mankind.

This brings me to another problem with the current emphasis on understanding our generation in order to be relevant and able to serve them.  Trying to be relevant also can be carried to an extreme.  Frequent reference is made, in current writings on the generations, to Paul’s model of becoming all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak” (Acts 9:9-22).  But what exactly does this mean?  Surely it does not mean that in a class of self-centered and promiscuous students I should become self-centered and promiscuous in order to win these students for Christ!   Surely it does not mean that I should change my “message”  – water it down, perhaps – to make it more palatable.  Surely it does not even mean that I should change my approach (“my methodology,” as McRae maintains) in order to somehow identify with these students more closely.  Yet these are the things that seem to be suggested when I hear calls to be relevant to the next generation.  We are told  to adjust what we do and say to the generation we are serving.  But how far can we take this?

Let me illustrate.  I teach courses in ethics at a secular college.  What does it mean for me to be relevant to a generation of students who are very self-centered and promiscuous, and maybe even semi-barbarian?  Do I water down my defense of absolute moral values, which is one of my objectives in an ethics course?  Not at all.  For me, understanding today’s student means that I must be even clearer in defending the values of generosity and sexual fidelity in marriage than in times when these values were largely accepted. My students often don’t like this emphasis of mine.  But that in no way makes me change my approach in order to be supposedly relevant.

I recall a lecture where I was defending the possibility of absolutes in the area of sexual ethics.  One girl responded, loudly, so all could hear, “You have just spoiled my weekend.”  Sadly, this girl never returned to class.  You lose some.  On the other hand, I get students who come to me after the course and inform me that while at first they thought I was crazy, by the end they came to realize that there must be some ethical absolutes after all.  That is what it means to understand and serve the next generation.  Instead, all too often in the church we are adjusting what we do and say (method and content) in accordance with the supposedly unique characteristics of the next generation based on the “expertise” of the sociologist.  And what are the results of such adjustment –  “the lovely young women and strong young men will faint because of thirst,” Amos warned in times that were no doubt similar to our own (8:13).

Thus far I have dealt generally with the problem inherent in letting description govern prescription.  Let me now apply this specifically to some of the features often thought to characterize the various generations in relation to the church.  The McRae article suggests that builders like a formal program style, boomers prefer relationships, and busters prefer spontaneity.  Regarding ministry motivation, builders act out of a sense of duty, boomers are motivated to ministry by the sense of personal fulfillment and achievement.  Busters like challenges.  In worship, builders like reverence, boomers, interaction, and busters, energy.  We are to take these as givens.  McRae suggests that each characteristic of the three segments of our generation is just a “preference.”  “None of these characteristics is wrong.” 

This is just plain nonsense!   And this nonsense derives from a preoccupation with sociological description and the resulting failure of nerve to engage in ethical and spiritual evaluation of the supposedly dominant characteristics of each generation.  Take for example the so-called “preferences” in worship.  Builders like reverence.  Perhaps they are too concerned about reverence!  We need to evaluate their preference in the light of biblical teaching.  Perhaps the builder preference for reverence is based on an overemphasis on the transcendence of God.  Similarly, the buster preference for energy in worship needs to be evaluated.  It might be based on self-absorption and a preoccupation with experience and feeling.  Perhaps busters need more of an emphasis on the transcendence of God.  We are not just dealing with personal tastes here.  Generational tendencies need to be critically evaluated in the light of God’s holy Word.

“Boomers are motivated to ministry by the sense of personal fulfillment and achievement that the ministry gives them.”  Again, while this might be factually true, this still needs to be evaluated.  Does not this kind of motivation sound terribly self-centered?  And is not the builders’ strong sense of duty preferable, and more biblical, than the boomer motivation?  Busters support causes, we are told.  Is there not a danger of falling prey to fanaticism with this kind of preoccupation with causes.  And is there not a danger of pragmatic relativism with the boomer’s preference for “how to” sermons?  The critical questions could go on and on.  The central point I am making is that we cannot simply accept generational characteristics as givens.  And we should not blindly adjust church programs in the light of these generational characteristics.  Some of these characteristics are wrong.  The Bible specifically warns about catering to the fancies and fads of a fickle people (II Tim. 4:3).

So does this entail that there is nothing to be said for trying to understand our times and to serve our generation.  Of course not!  Ignorance and irrelevance are not virtues.  We need to understand the somewhat unique characteristics of the next generation (though we must be careful not to exaggerate their uniqueness).  And we need to try to serve the next generation, not by blindly adjusting church programs in accordance with their preferences, but in terms of their real needs.  Biblical principles and precepts must remain the determinants of what we do in church, as the article I have referred to clearly affirms.  The “message” and the “motive” must never be changed. Christ must remain the head of the Church.   But, this same article suggests that what can change is the “methodology” which must adjust to the characteristics of each generation.  But even this will not do.  Methodologies are not neutral! The methods we use to reach each generation too are subject to the principles and precepts of God’s word.  Method, message and motive must all be evaluated from a moral perspective, as Paul clearly teaches (I Thess 2:1-6).  What this entails is that the church today needs a much more carefully nuanced analysis of understanding our times and serving our generation.

There is one final aspect of the current emphasis on generational analysis that needs to be brought to the fore.  There is a tendency, on the part of some (most) analyses, to treat each generation as equally important.  Not only are the characteristics of each generation thought to be equally valid, but each generation is assumed to have equal right to have its preferences met.  At times this egalitarian emphasis gives way to a more radical claim, namely that the latest generation is more important than previous generations.  “The greatest challenge we face is how to adapt in our rapidly changing days so that we will be relevant,” McRae maintains.  We need to have the courage to “run some risks and change course” so that we will “serve our generation,” especially the next generation. (There is an ambiguity in the phrase “our generation” which hides the emphasis on the next generation which is McRae’s real concern).

The fundamental problem with both the moderate and the more radical versions of this emphasis is that it involves a violation of the biblical mandate to honor our father and our mother (Deut 5:16).  This commandment does not only apply to young children.  There are no age limits attached to it.  The younger generation is asked to honor the older generation and this will surely also entail respecting the traditions that define the older generation.  And there is a promise attached to such honor and respect – “so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  A church will only endure and enjoy long health if the old and its traditions are properly honored and respected.

Instead, we today seem to be paying special honor and respect to the young, to the emerging generations.  There is a profound level of disrespect for the older generation in our churches.  A dear old saint recently shared with me the struggles he has with the church that he has always been a member of.  He cannot understand the fast-talking pastor – another feature of our contemporary generation.  He cannot join in the singing (even though he loves to sing) because he is simply not familiar with the choruses that are the main musical diet of this church.  Thus he, together with a good percentage of his congregation, are forced to rely on the more traditional religious programming on the media after church for their spiritual nourishment.  When I suggested to this 90 year-old that he might changes churches and attend instead a neighboring church where there is a more balanced worship diet, he shook his head and said he couldn’t do that either.  Loyalty is a virtue for this older generation – and that is an admirable characteristic!  So they suffer in silence.

A pastor of one of our churches, a church which is very modern in its worship style, recently made a statement to the effect that if the elderly did not like the worship in his church, they could go to the foyer in the back of the church and worship God by themselves.  This was stated publicly at a supposed Anabaptist conference!

This is cruel.  Those who are responsible for the worship culture of these churches are acting unchristianly.  They are being unbiblical.  There is something fundamentally wrong with adjusting a worship program mainly or only to the younger generation.  It represents a lack of love, which is to be the defining characteristic of the church (John 13:34-5).

But that is not all that is wrong here.  The bible tells us that the older generation has a key role to play in teaching the young.  Yes, a  young Timothy is allowed to teach, but only under the supervision of the veteran missionary, Paul.  Indeed, Paul addresses several letters to Timothy, giving him very specific advice on how to serve as a pastor.  And when young Timothy finds it necessary to rebuke an older man, he is told not to do this harshly, “but exhort him as if he were your father” (I Tim. 3:16).   Older women are to train the younger women in the church (Titus 2:4).  We have come a long way from this in our churches today.  I talk to older pastors and they fear being put on the shelf before their time.  The advice of older leaders in our churches is simply disregarded.  An older woman I know recently highlighted the change we have undergone:  “When I was young I had to listen to the old in the church.  And now that I am old, I am told that I must listen to the young.  There never was a time when anyone listened to me.”  How sad!  And what a loss for the younger generation who have a lot to learn from the old.  No wonder they “stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east,” searching for authority based on the Word of the Lord (Amos 8:12).

I would suggest that we have here a key to overcoming the problems inherent in the current preoccupation with generational analysis and its aim of understanding our times and serving our generation.  The older generation in the church is in a unique position to teach and even admonish the younger generations, thereby correcting some of the weaknesses that seem to be inherent in them. 

The church is meant to be intergenerational.  But the builders have a unique contribution to make to the boomers – this is a biblical precept.  And both the builders and boomers have something to contribute to the busters.  This is not at all to say that the busters with their energy and enthusiasm don’t have something to contribute to the older generations.  They may even be able to point out some of the blind spots in the builder generation.  God’s ideal is that old and young work together in the church, each contributing their unique gifts, and most importantly, each submitting to the authority of God’s Word.  Where God’s spirit is present, “your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).  That is God’s ideal for the church.