“as much” or “more than”?

This week I had a conversation with a friend who is somewhere in the Emergent field.  At one point in our discussion he said, “You probably aren’t going to like this, but I value the conversation more than being right.”

What troubles me about his comment is the phrase “more than.”  If “conversation” reflects the ethical, relational side of the Christian faith and “being right” stands in for doctrine, then he essentially said that he values ethics more than Christian doctrine. 

This snapshot crystallizes the problem I have with my Emergent friends.  I do not understand why my friend did not stop at “as much as.”  We all agree that Christian ethics matter as much as doctrine, for faith without works is dead.  But once we say “more than,” we open ourselves to false beliefs that will destroy not only the Christian faith, but eventually the Christian ethics that my friend so wants to protect. 

How long can we practice Christian ethics and enjoy Christian conversation once we have given up our quest for the “right interpretation of Scripture”?  Can we live Christianly if we do not believe Christianly? 

18 Comments

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  1. What comes to my mind is a quote I heard to describe the Da Vinci Code: “Blasphemy delivered in a soft voice with a knowing chuckle.”

  2. Perhaps your friend meant that he enjoys actual conversation that builds and fosters loving relationships, rather than the browbeating “ethical” baseball bat that is so often passed off as “intelligent conversation”.

    I do not think we need to give up our quest for the right interpretation of Scripture, but we need to understand that like in Romans 14, there can be differences of interpretation between two different Christian groups. And just the fact that these two different groups disagree does not make one “more Christian” and the other “less Christian”.

    Granted, there are some positions and beliefs which we cannot accept as still being Christian, and this is where doctrine is necessary.

    As for this Emergent Type, there are many differences between my beliefs on certain issues and the beliefs of the denomination I grew up in (CRC). But when I really consider these differences, they don’t seem so different as to require a break in communion.

    My pastor likes to say that the Grace of Christ is big enough to cover these disagreements.

    wingnut

  3. “Can we live Christianly if we do not believe Christianly?”

    I would have to say no, we can not. At times one may live Christianly without belief, but this will neither sustainable, nor will it be Biblically grounded and faithful to God in any deeper sense.
    It is from right understanding of God and his plan in the world that we can faithfully act out our part in it.
    Without right belief, right practice has no real foundation. Without right practice, right belief has no real life.
    How hard it is for us to reach that ‘as much as’ point though…

  4. Wingnut:

    I agree with what you say. My only outstanding question is why I hear “more than.” Isn’t “as much as” sufficient to protect our need for good conversation?

  5. Mike,

    I would see the “more than” as not disregarding doctrine, but disregarding the argumentative and combative way that we tend to defend and discuss doctrine.

    The problem is that we tend to reject the doctrine because of the results of discussing doctrine, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    In that way, your friend values simply talking with someone who may disagree with him on certain issues “more than” convincing that someone that he is right.

    The goal is not to convince everyone that you believe the right things and that everyone else is wrong, the goal is to recognize our differences and then work out what is actually important to agree on as Christians, and what we can have different opinions about.

    wingnut

  6. wingnut gets it. When it boils down to it, which is more important, maintaining a relationship with a brother or sister in Christ or insisting on being right about a particular doctrinal stance (given that the other agrees with the major points of historic Christian belief, i.e., The Nicean Creed, etc)?

    I am pentecostal – I don’t imagine you all are, but I enjoy your blog post over at the Koinonia blog – you have good things to say. Of course we may not agree with everything all the time, but is that the point? There are some who disagree with a major point of Pentecostal doctrine such that there is just no way they could maintain fellowship> Is that necessary?

    So, I would enjoy stimulating engaging conversation “more than” insisting on being right about a particular doctrinal stance.

    Does that make sense?

  7. I’m assuming words from Paul like, “These three remain, Faith, Hope, and Love, but the greatest of these is Love” don’t really apply to your theology? I bring that one up because it seems to imply that if Love is the greatest than Faith (aka doctrine?), and Hope are not. (Or is this one of those passages to turn into metaphor for the sake of a pure doctrine?)

    What about Jesus’ own words as he summed up everything that preceded him: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, Love your Neighbor as yourself. ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS REST ON THESE TWO COMMANDS.” I know that your response is likely to point out that it is written to “Love him with all your mind” and you may be prone to argue that Jesus is saying that the right theology is how we love God with our mind. Fine. I can accept agenda driven theologians. But it seems to me that the value of his statement is not about using any of the parts in any particular way (heart, mind, soul) but about having those parts, all of our parts, in communion (aka relationship) with God. Did you catch what Im implying? The ultimate value Jesus gives everything that went before him is relational, not doctrinal.

    I find it interesting in the above quoted statement in Matt it is in the context of two bickering doctrinal views (each believing that there way was right) and Jesus’ answer simply bypasses their desire to be right doctrinally and takes the conversation back to love, an action, the relational side.

    Lets jump back to Melkizedek and Abram. After Abram returns from battle in Gen 14 this King from Salem brings bread and wine and dines with Abram. A very short quote is inserted that Melk blesses Abram in the name of El. I know that you are familiar with El Dr. Wittmer, the high deity of the Akkadian region. He blesses Abram with THAT name. Obviously Melk is acknowledging the correct God, the Creator God. Melk in some way saw the blessing working its way out in Abram and in turn recognized the God that was at work in Abram. BUT he used the wrong language to define it, in fact he uses Akkadian cult language to define it. So while acknowledging the Creator God at work in Abram he used the wrong terminology. As far as I can tell, according to you, this is a man who has the wrong theology yet Abram accepts it, they eat together, and Melk is blessed because of it. Melk had the wrong theology, but he did the thing he knew based on his culture and relationship and blessing followed.

    Dr. Wittmer, is there any place in the Scriptures where God in any form endorses the right Theology OVER Love?

    As a follow up, Is there any place in Scripture where God in any form endorses Love OVER the right Theology?

    It seems that indeed love, relationship, and communion with each other just may be MORE significant than the right doctrine. I agree with the person you had conversation with.

  8. I value being right more. Not being right while others are wrong, some sort of sophomoric pride thing. I wish EVERYONE was right…
    right about who God is
    right-ly related to God
    up-right and blameless in his sight because of the shed blood of His Son.

    We’re all in a bus on it’s way over a cliff. The conversation is fun, but I’d rather use it to convey the RIGHT information that, without Christ, that drop is into a bottomless pit.

    I guess I’m a jerk. Or, then again, maybe I’m more compassionate than those who just want to have some stimulating conversation and leave their partner in fellowship to a fiery eternity.

  9. Crap. I meant “on its way over a cliff.” Not “on it’s way…”

    Mea Culpa. My greatest pet peeve…

  10. Mike – I’m with you 100% especially after reading the comments. “More than” is inappropriate. Perhaps this is simply an overreaction to a wrong overreaction in the direction (e.g., argumentative, combative, etc.) but that doesn’t make it right – it’s just wrong in the other direction.

    To your questions:

    How long can we practice Christian ethics and enjoy Christian conversation once we have given up our quest for the “right interpretation of Scripture”? Not at all. The heart done seeking truth in Scripture is done demonstrating truth in life.

    Can we live Christianly if we do not believe Christianly? Nope. But I’ll add that conversely we do not really believe Christianly if we do not live Christianly.

  11. Mike,
    I talk with a lot of young emergent types, too. Because there is such a wide spectrun of thought in the emerging conversation, you will find some who actually do not care about being right doctrinally. However, I would imagine, but could be wrong, that anyone in the “emergent field” who talks to *you* has some grasp on the importance of holding to right doctrine.

    You and I were trained in an adversarial mode of theology-making…someone has to be right and so someone has to be wrong. When I was at DTS those guys at Fuller were wrong, wrong, wrong. Southern Baptists were wrong. Pentecostals and charismatics were wrong. Catholics were very wrong. We were always right.

    I don’t think that our more young conservative-leaning friends in the emergent field are using “right” in the sense of orthodoxy. I think they are using “right” as an interpersonal relational term for the sake of conversation. In a scenario of “I’m right; you’re wrong” immediately conversation is shut down.

    For your emergent field friend to say I value the conversation *more than* being right does not mean doctrine is demeaned, but that in the conversational moment, even if I think you are wrong, I want to stay in the dialogue with you. I will not dismiss you as a person because you think or believe differently.

    Dr Victor M Matthews taught that Jesus gave people their rightful place in his life. For example, Jesus stayed in dialogue with the woman at the well even though she was very, very wrong on many counts. His staying in dialogue with her even while telling her she was wrong led finally to the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and the conversion of her village.

    Thanks for all you do, and I appreciate your mentoring of Jeremy Bouma.

    John

  12. If God valued the conversation more than (or even as much as) right belief then we should expect to see a slew of unbelievers in Heaven, shouldn’t we? Pilate, various Pharisees, Ciaphas . . . Satan? All of these had conversations about belief but didn’t end up on the right side of belief. Somehow I don’t envision passing food to the Prince of Darkness at the banquet table at the Feast.

  13. Of course I agree that minor points of theology are not worth sacrificing our unity in Christ. But I don’t understand why good friends in community shouldn’t aim their conversation at discovering the truth–regardless how insignificant the point is. I am simply arguing for a balanced both/and, and I wonder why that is controversial.

    Some of you attempted to paint my view as an extreme, as if I value being right more than personal relationships. I suppose that this makes it easier for you to take the opposite extreme, but you aren’t being fair to my position and your view is now extreme. I said that I value both truth and love for brother/sister. Please tell me what is wrong with that.

    John:

    Thank you for your insights. I do wonder why saying that I think my view is right automatically shuts down the conversation. Indeed, it seems impossible to have any genuine conversation if both parties refuse to say what they believe (i.e., what they think is right). But as long as this word is shared with respect, it would seem to foster conversation. Personally, I have found it hard to converse with some Emergent people, for they either attempt to agree with everything I say (it is hard to dialogue if there is no distance between us) or they don’t answer my questions. Sometimes I wonder how much genuine conversation actually takes place!

    J:

    Melchizedek is not a good example to support your case, as we know so very little about him. Walter Kaiser thinks that he may have known and obeyed the vestiges of pre-Abrahamic revelation. I also wouldn’t read too much into the name “El.” Its compounds are used for the true God throughout the Old Testament. The gospel always uses the terms for God of the culture into which it is being expressed, as it did with “El” in the OT. Note that in context Abraham uses the term, Yahweh, as if to say that he and Melchizedek were addressing the same God.

    I don’t know why I should produce Scripture which says theology matters more than love, as I clearly said that is not my opinion. Regarding the importance of belief for salvation, see 1 John 3:23 and John 3:18 for starters.

  14. J. said, ” I bring that one up because it seems to imply that if Love is the greatest than Faith (aka doctrine?)…”

    Well now I’m in a real pickle… I happen to think the faith of I Cor. 13 is focused more on the action of faith…. It’s not that doctrine is absent. The pasage itself is on the “doctrine” of love.. So now if I say that J.’s understanding of the focus of faith in that passage is not fully accurate, does that make me “argumentative”? Is it “argumentative” to insist that a proper understanding of how the word “faith” is used in the passage is pretty important to understanding the intent and meaning of the passage? Of course I don’t beleive at all that someone who dosen’t agree with my understanding of the use of “faith’ in I Cor. 13 is “damned and lost…”

    Contrasting love and theology is comparing oranges to apples. It’s not a matter of “either/or”. I Cor. 13 gives us a “theology” of “love”. It’s “both/and”.

    Theology discussed under the terms of modernity does tend to get argumentive. But I’ve “argued” elsewhere that as Christians we cannot accept ALL the terms of modernity or ALL the terms of post-modernity as a basis for our theological discussion…

    Shalom…

  15. Richard W. Wilson December 8, 2008 — 3:29 am

    Wow, I appreciate your commitment to being in conversation with us all about going beyond conversation to conceptual commitment regarding God and Jesus. How could it not be so, considering that we are crafted in, though now corrupted beyond, yet destined to be conformed to, His image as we believe in him. Amen.

    I personally think that J is on to something concerning Melkizedek. It has struck me as powerfully significant that Jesus is designated as a priest of “the Order of Melkizedek” though it is evident that Melkizedek was not in personal possession of a doctrinal or cognitive clarity about who “the God most high” was in relation to the calling of Abraham by YHWH. There is inclusivist potential in the biblical doctrine here that hasn’t begun to be tapped–Mike’s protestations notwithstanding. Mike, your comment regarding Abraham’s use of the NAME, “Yahweh, as if to say that he and Melchizedek were addressing the same God,” could be used for altogether the opposite argument. To whit: the God Abraham knew as YHWH was also known by Melkizedek as the more “universal” God Most High since Abraham honored Melkizedek specifically as such. This looks to me a lot like a specific doctrinal belief that we should conform to. Your comment regarding the way “the gospel always uses the terms for God of the culture into which it is being expressed” seemed to me at least potentially to be reversed in the case of Melkizedek as the predecessor and exemplar forour Christ.
    All the best to those in Christ,
    Richard

  16. Richard W. Wilson December 8, 2008 — 3:54 am

    Mike:
    Perhaps you discuss the subtleties of your comment at the top of this blog in your most recent book (which I have yet to read), but I think the two sides of the coin(s?) you pose here aren’t actually opposites or necessarily problematic except in terms of the content by the two perspectives as perceived by the “other” side.

    You say: ‘If “conversation” reflects the ethical, relational side of the Christian faith and “being right” stands in for doctrine,’ without considering whether this is a fully justified “if.” The “conversation” is just as often conceived as precisely about the doctrinal side of our common faith and “being right” is characterized as an ethical failing of self-righteous behavior. So, how are these actual as opposed to conceptual polarities? From the fundamentalist perspective being “right” also implies behaving properly regarding doctrinal relationships in the church and from the progressive side believing appropriately includes behaving faithfully in relations with others. These are not opposites except in content as protagonistically perceived, or so it seems to me. Hope that helps.
    All the best in the knowledge of the love of Christ,
    Richard

  17. The bible seems to indicate a “more than” when it examines faith, hope, and love along side one another, does it not?

    The question, I suppose, is in what type of act does this love adhere? Sharing the Gospel is without a doubt an act of love, but if our communication of an imperfect understanding of the whole of Yahweh is simply a conduit for the power of the divine, then I believe in faith that God will move as He sees fit through my imperfect words. Love covers a multitude of sins, after all.

    Furthermore, sharing the Gospel is but one of an array of loving acts (albeit, perhaps, the most important). Do we really believe “they will know we are Christians by our correct doctrine”?

    I wholeheartedly endorse the attitude embraced by your conversational partner. But it’s okay Mike, I’ll love you even if you disagree.

    thewanderer

  18. Amen! Thank you for this post.

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