the charity of clarity

After a night’s sleep, I have a further thought about Rob’s interview with Adrian Warnock. It seems that only one side in that dialogue was actually trying to have a conversation. The other was working even harder not to say something. That reminded me of a post I made on Dec. 3, 2008, when Brian McLaren was the non-communicative pastor du jour. What I wrote then seems as applicable today, so here it is–my first ever repost.

My class on the Reformation wrapped up today with a look at the Baptist denomination, which arose from within the Puritanism of 17th century England.  Near the end of the class we peeked ahead to the GARBC split from the Northern Baptists in 1932.  As I prepared for the class, I was struck again by the similarities between the liberalism/fundamentalism controversy of the early 20th century and what seems to be happening today. 

Only 1% of the Northern Baptists were considered liberal, but they were able to gain control of the denomination because the majority of Northern Baptists just wanted everyone to get along.  The conservatives pressed for clear doctrinal positions, but they were voted down by the majority as intolerant and divisive. 

Most thought that the conservative call for clarity was unloving.  Why couldn’t they be content with vague generalities?  Didn’t they care that clear statements of faith were bound to divide brothers and sisters who realized in the bright light of clarity that perhaps they disagreed in some important areas?  Better to wink and get along than to be clear and risk breaking the bond of unity.

Isn’t this similar to what is happening today?  Conservatives increasingly are asking key Christian leaders to clearly say what they believe:  must you believe something to be saved?  Is hell for real and forever?  Is the Bible a revelation from God?  Does Scripture teach that homosexual practice is sin? 

Many leaders duck these questions, often answering with another question, saying that these are the wrong questions to ask, or questioning the motive of the person who asked it. 

Here is my question:  which person in this scenario does not love his neighbor?  Many assume it is the one raising the question, for she appears to be the aggressor, putting the leader on the spot.  I propose it is the obfuscating leader, for muddying the waters on purpose demonstrates disrespect for the listener.  Teachers who love their students, pastors who love their people, and authors who love their readers take care to nourish their faith with truth.  Those who conceal their actual beliefs (or bury them in the endnotes) likely care more about their own careers than the followers who depend on them for guidance.

It is not unloving to ask these leaders to clearly spell out what they believe.  Considering the stakes involved, it would be unloving—both to them and to their followers—not to.

10 Comments

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  1. Mike, I ask you to read the Gospels. Note how Jesus responded to questions. Most of the time he did not give direct answers.

    Why are you criticizing Christians for following the pattern of Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t he be our primary exemplar?

    Questions normally contain within them certain assumptions; a certain framework for viewing the world. To answer a question directly basically involves accepting the underlying assumptions.

    Jesus seldom answered questions directly because he was challenging the assumptions underlying them. This is the same reason people like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren sometimes don’t answer questions directly which are asked from a conventional conservative evangelical framework. They don’t agree that the framework is faithful to the Gospel.

    And while you’re reading the gospels (with an open mind, please!), note that Jesus is continually in conflict with the folks that are upholding doctrinal purity. He also repeatedly praises people that would have been considered heretics in that day. Note that in Luke, when asked what was needed to inherit eternal life, Jesus didn’t answer directly but told a story in which a Samaritan, a flaming heretic in the eyes of his audience, was the example fo what was needed. Is your approach like that of Jesus or like that of Jesus’ critics?

    Brian McLaren has made an analogy of the Bible to a crossword puzzle. He compares some of the typical claims about the Bible to putting a cover on the crossword puzzle box which does’t match the pieces in the box. Mike, I ask you to throw away any thoughts of the mental picture you have of what the Bible teaches, and read the Gospels with a fresh, open mind, seeing what they *actually* say and protray. Like Brian did, you might find that they don’t say quite what you always assumed they do.

  2. Bill:

    I thought of that, but the analogy between Jesus and Bell doesn’t hold. Jesus often answered with questions because his opponents were attempting to trap him. The British interviewers weren’t trying to trap Bell, they were only trying to have a conversation with him.

    Sometimes Jesus asked questions as an indirect way of teaching–he was trying to communicate something. If this is what Bell was doing, then we must ask what he was trying to communicate. Whatever that was, it certainly wasn’t the clear teaching of Scripture.

    I’m sure you won’t agree with me, but the Bible is much clearer than you, Rob, and Brian want to suggest. I’m all for asking questions, but not when the answers are already obvious and not when the person is ostensibly participating in a conversation. How can you have a conversation when one side refuses to make assertions?

    I feel like you and me already went around on this–last year, about this time. I’m guessing neither of us has changed our minds since then.

  3. Well one of the major differences is about what questions the Bible is really concerned about answering. What Bria McLaren has found, for example, is that it is fairly clear in answering some questions that he didn’t have a clue it was even addressing in his conservative evangelical/ fundamentalist days.

    I haven’t read Rob’s book, but you keep bringing up Brian, and I have read a lot of his work and he is a friend of mine. He’s written a lot about what the Bible does say.

  4. It wasn’t that long ago that there were those who predicted the outcome of an unhealthy emphasis on “method over message”, “church growth”, “seeker sensivitive” services… How is the Church to recognize godly counsel? What should the response be? Mock it? Debate it to death? Proclaim that God can’t be put in a box? Move with the times? Emphasize the need to get out of “comfort zones”? Where are we now?

  5. Dr. Wittmer, I’m very much looking forward to continue to work through your book and plan to offer a response at some point over on my blog.

    I agree with you that the inquisitive method of many emergent/emerging thinkers can at some point become distracting and counterproductive to constructive conversation. Its greatest strength can become its greatest weakness in a hurry. Not only has Bell asked numerous questions in his work (especially as you note in the opening chapter) and in his interviews, he has failed to offer any substantive answers to most of them. The answers he does provide are often in the face of traditional views and he offers no solid exegesis or theological underpinnings to substantiate his claims; when moving in the face of majority tradition, you must offer more in depth exegesis, theological argumentation and reasoning such as that done by Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry. It seems as if his intentions with the book are more to raise questions and awareness for the issue of evangelical universalism than prove robust thought on the matter.

    What is even more unhelpful for me is that Bell leaves many questions by interviewers or in general unanswered in public forums, yet he provides “answers” of a sort for them in his book. Why the dichotomy? Is he trying to force people to buy the book to get his “real” answers?

    I do want to converse through one issue though, focusing on your quote:

    “I’m sure you won’t agree with me, but the Bible is much clearer than you, Rob, and Brian want to suggest. I’m all for asking questions, but not when the answers are already obvious and not when the person is ostensibly participating in a conversation.”

    I would agree with you to a point: Scripture is clear on primary issues, but on secondary issues, it isn’t so clear and this is why we have such a divergence of interpretations throughout the history of church. This means that one is forced to ask the question of whether or not certain eschatological matters (such as the nature of punishment in hell, its duration, postmortem opportunity for salvation, reconciliation of “all” things) are entirely clear in Scripture. From your quick dismissal of Bell’s position, I see that you believe they are; this would seem to mean that you believe this is what we could consider a primary issue.

    To quote a confession you’d probably agree with: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, VII)

    This shows that not all things in Scripture are as clear we’d like them to be. I think sometime as conservatives, we want to overemphasize the clarity of the Bible for the sake of protecting it from criticism. First, God doesn’t need us to protect his inspired word and second, the problem of clarity is more with us as interpreters than in the text.

    It is hermeneutically naive to believe that we as Western Christians, roughly two thousand plus years from the writing of the text can understand it with crystal clarity. Further, we are finite as interpreters and no matter the text, we cannot claim to have infinitive interpretive abilities. That would be to posit ourselves as gods! Beyond that, with the Bible’s unique nature as the Word of God and our nature as saints AND sinners with the remnant of our depraved flesh always with us, another layer of difficult is added.

    Moving back to the issue of primary and secondary beliefs, the major creeds of Christianity don’t contain much information on hell and what they do contain about the descent into hell is highly disputed and for some actually points to universal reconciliation. It seems more secondary for them. Moving forward in history, yes, the major Reformed confessions take a much more definite position on hell and eternal punishment, predominantly based on the traditional position of eternal conscious torment (ECT hereafter) that has been the majority belief since the time of Augustine. I see a bifurcation between evangelicals who hold to hell as ECT and those who either believe in universalism or annihiliationism; the former tend to hold hell as a primary doctrine (closed fisted or handed), not to be questioned, while the latter are open to reexamining the tradition via Scripture because they consider the clarity of Scripture less definitive on the matter.

    This points the discussion in the direction of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Typically as Protestants following “sola scriptura,” we would want to say that Scripture plays a magisterial role, while tradition plays a ministerial role. What, I see in the quick and ready dismissal of Bell’s position, without extensive exegesis and thought, is a reversal of these positions and a functional elevating of tradition above Scripture. Now, no one would posit this explicitly, but because of the quick nature of many dismissals (by especially neo-Reformed thinkers), without at least pausing to reexamine Scripture, this is what is functionally happening.

    Reexamining Scripture doesn’t mean that we are denigrating our traditions, but simply searching the source of those traditions again. I feel as if this in in itself is treated as wrong because in some ways some people have made their traditions more sacrosanct than Scripture! There is no harm in taking a serious look at Scripture and seeing if maybe we’ve erred in some way. The obvious example of biblical justification for slavery comes to mind quickly: a prior hermeneutic provided the underpinning for the continued practice of slavery late into the 19th century. After study, one may come to conclude their traditional views were well founded on Scripture, but I feel as if neglecting this task is implicitly diminishing the work of other Christians.

    With all that said, I hope that the conversation over the nature of hell and the afterlife moves from the level of simple dismissiveness, to one of discussion and dialogue. This will allow for evangelicals to show that they truly love one another even when they differ drastically on interpretive matters. You have, more so than many, offered a model of love, yet I would ask you to continue to drive deeper and examine some of the issues surrounding universalism on a deeper level than I’ve seen in your book so far. Thanks for your book and your blog as a forum of discussion!

  6. Randy, you act as though evangelicals have not addressed universalism. Read the weighty exegetical and theological essays in Hell under Fire, edited by Morgan and Peterson. Sure more can always be done, but do not act as it if has not been done. It has been done–and by the top evangelical thinkers in the world–Block, Yarbrough, Moo, Beale, Packer, Ferguson, Morgan, Peterson, Mohler, etc.

  7. Jose, my dear friend, we meet again. One book can’t refute an entire position and further most evangelical universalists don’t deny the reality of hell. Many of these very thinkers you’ve named are from one confessional perspective as well and one that I’d say is mired in traditionalism. I don’t think universalism has been dealt with adequately by evangelicals or I wouldn’t be calling for more nuanced discussion! The problem with most evangelical attempts at critique is that they are improperly aimed at pop, pluralistic universalism and not the evangelical type.

  8. Excellent thoughts, Mike. Could not agree more. I’m doing my part to promote Christ Alone, and look forward to it.

    Keep up the great work.

  9. Randy:

    Thanks for your post–I would say a couple of things.

    1. I don’t equate primacy with clarity. Just because I think that Scripture is clear about a subject does not necessarily mean that the subject is of the very first order. For instance, good Christians may disagree with what I think the Bible teaches about hell. I think they are wrong and have raised many difficulties for themselves, but of course they can still be followers of Jesus.

    2. My book is not attempting to deal with all the facets of universalism, in part because I simply follow the order of topics in Love Wins, and in part because I don’t think universalism is the main thing. In Love Wins it is actually a symptom of a much deeper problem, a redefinition of the gospel. This is the point I am most interested in correcting, and I hope you agree that I accomplish this. While I have one chapter on universalism and one chapter on hell, I don’t cover all of the details of these important subjects.

    You may want to see my chapter on hell in “Don’t Stop Believing,” among other sources noted by Jose, for more on the evangelical understanding of these issues.

  10. Mike,

    Thanks so much for your new book. I read through it in a day and have reviewed it and recommended it without hesitation on my blog today. Blessings,

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