Finding better ways to do theology

David Fitch offers an interesting analysis of why the winds of popular theology in North America have changed direction so dramatically in the last two or three years. In his view—though this is not his metaphor—the weather system is driven by the Christian publishing business. Over the last decade “publishing superstars” such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, blowing from the warm south (this is a northern hemisphere metaphor), have dared to “ask questions that have been avoided or shut down within evangelical church culture the past fifty years”. But having asked the questions, having raised the issues, they have failed to deliver on their promise. So the wind has veered round to the north, sweeping in from the chill wastes of the neo-Reformed movement. Or as Fitch puts it, the “wandering herd heads for the monster wave of the Neo Reformed”—and the paragraph sinks finally into metaphorical chaos.

The attraction of the neo-Reformed movement is that it has provided thousands of young leaders with “theological substance sufficient for the formation of church life”. That makes sense. Church is “big business” in the US—not just in the literal sense—and you can’t run a business on good questions alone. So either we accept the prevailing weather conditions and prepare ourselves for a long cold spell (this is, I admit, a highly prejudicial controlling motif) or we have to build a viable “alternative theological coalition”. Fitch suggests a coalition of “Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist-communal-wholistic-Baptist, Holiness/Charismatic oriented, Kingdom minded, evangelical Missionals”. He concludes:

the “Rob Bell HarperOne” episode speaks to the growing need for another place to do theology from whence the emerging church (the church emerging in this generation – not to be confused with the Emergent church) can find direction for the challenges of the new post Christendom landscape we find ourselves living in.

This seems to me to be right. The emerging church, appropriately qualified, needs to find a place to do theology. My concern with Fitch’s proposed coalition is that the labels sound too cautious, too conservative, too traditional, too familiar. This may be a good place to start; it may constitute a necessary accommodation to the realities of modern church in the US and in different terms elsewhere. But I would question whether such a grouping, framed in this way, really has the boldness of theological vision necessary not merely to provide a counterweight to the neo-Reformed movement but to break from the Christendom mindset, to dismantle the tedious antitheses that characterize the modern Protestant paradigm, to forge a credible evangelicalism for the age to come. We will not deal with the challenges of the post-Christendom context on the basis of Christendom assumptions.

This is why I think that the New Perspective is so important: it offers a reading of the New Testament that is both a radical departure from the modalities of Christendom thought and radically loyal to the text. My suspicion is that Fitch’s coalition of “Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist-communal-wholistic-Baptist, Holiness/Charismatic oriented, Kingdom minded, evangelical Missionals” would find some of its cherished convictions seriously challenged by a consistently applied New Perspective hermeneutic.

A nice post by Roger Olson about British postconservative evangelical scholarship (“N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham and others”) provides a different perspective on the task of shaping a new theological landscape. Americans need to be reminded from time to time that their construction of reality, their take on the world, is not the only one out there—no matter how powerful the American Christian-commercial complex may imagine itself to be. The thrust of the post is that British evangelicals “for the most part, agree to disagree among themselves and do their work for the Kingdom of God without fear of someone who agrees with them watching over their shoulders to censore or punish them JUST BECAUSE some ultra-conservative person with a following puts pressure on them”.

That is just one aspect of a much broader problem. The post-Christendom church is struggling to redefine itself both practically and theologically under extremely detrimental conditions, many of which are self-inflicted. We should certainly not delude ourselves with the thought that there are quick publishable solutions blowing from the north or south or even from the east. The church—the whole church as it is descended from European Christendom—is called to the hard and painful task of re-establishing its raison d’être, and the sooner we realize that this is something we have to do together rather than by perpetuating old historical conflicts, the better.


Jim Hoag | Tue, 03/08/2011 - 02:54 | Permalink

Andrew, Thanks so much for this post. Especially statements like "We will not deal with  the challenges of post-Christendom on the basis of Christendom assumptions" which clarified so much. And this, "My suspicion is that Fitch’s coalition of 'Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist-communal-wholistic- Baptist, Holiness/Charismatic oriented, Kingdom minded, evangelical Missionals' would find some of its cherished convictions seriously challenged by a consistently applied New Perspective hermeneutic." At any rate, I'm sensing a new energy, an (inadvertent) shot in the's like something with the Bell incident has been exposed for all to see and has further helped shove this "movement" forward.

Hey Andrew,

I like what you're saying! so much so that a group of us are already acting to form a coalition along these lines. It's in the planning stages but indeed the New Perpsective authors play a central role as well as the Baptists who come from the UK ( notice the president of my seminary as well as our preaching prof both are Baptists coming from the UK - ). Admittedly, the labels I chose are somewhat entrenched constituencies. But seminaries and church leaders from these groups are highly energized to provide the foundation for a theological engagement that engages the challenges of N America's new post Christendom cultures.

Thanks for your work on your blog! Hope to meet along the way.

James | Sat, 03/12/2011 - 19:31 | Permalink

But even Anglophiles might not wish to take the church in the UK as an exemplar of how to thrive.

Isaac | Thu, 03/17/2011 - 19:52 | Permalink

That is just one aspect of a much broader problem. The post-Christendom church is struggling to redefine itself both practically and theologically under extremely detrimental conditions, many of which are self-inflicted. We should certainly not delude ourselves with the thought that there are quick publishable solutions blowing from the north or south or even from the east. The church—the whole church as it is descended from European Christendom—is called to the hard and painful task of re-establishing its raison d’être, and the sooner we realize that this is something we have to do together rather than by perpetuating old historical conflicts, the better.

I am very interested in this topic.  I'll distill it down to simply making the Church relevant to mankind.

I wholeheartedly agree that the biggest challenges facing the modern church (not capital "C") are all the result of centuries of self-inflicted wounds.  Of course, this is not a brilliant observation, but it is honest (which may make it seem more profound a realization than it actually is).

Of course, from the days of Yeshua, there have been misunderstandings and theological struggles that caused the initial fissures in the accurate and true teachings of the Word of God.  In fact, some of the fissures obviously predate Jesus and have never been bridged or filled.  But focusing on what has happened since the narrative of Yeshua began, it is clear that there are major theological divides in what should be "the body of Christ."

 So your concluding remarks are exactly correct.  For us to ever succeed in the mission of creating a "spotless bride" for Jesus to return to, we MUST work together and be utterly prepared to toss aside differences in the greater interest of becoming relevant and powerful.

Raison d'etre?  Simple.  Become the bride of Christ.  Usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The challenge?  To do so in a way that is as broadly inspiring as possible to Jew and Gentile.

Seems to me if the mission is clear, and can be agreed upon, the hangups are going to come from the process and methods.  What has to be set aside, and what cannot be compromised.  

Here are some random, impromptu thoughts.

To pare away those theological principles and teachings that are NOT essential is, perhaps obviously, to identify most of those things that have caused divisions within the Church (aka the body of Christ).  What?  

Going about this is easiest if we identify those things that are indispensible.  Everything else will be fluff.  What is indispensible?

1.   Conclusive belief that Yeshua was Messiah, and fulfilled whatever prophetic criteria exist for that to be established not just by faith, but by evidence of things seen as well as unseen.  

2.  An understanding that Yeshua and his message that ...all the Law and the Prophets hang upon the two 'greatest' commandments - is foundational to understanding God's nature and the path to righteousness.

3.  The Kingdom of God arrived with the arrival of Yeshua, and subsequently the arrival of the Holy Spirit gave us the power and ability to operate as Kingdom believers, according to Torah principles, but where grace abounds.

4.  Love is God's fundamental nature.  Grace and mercy are God's operating principles.  Faith is a gift from God, that allows us all to make it through in spite of the "winds and waves" of circumstance that come against us.

5.  There is a devil - Satan - and he (and his minions!) does in fact roam around seeking those whom he may steal from, kill or destroy.

6.  A corollary to the above is that God is not responsible for causing or inflicting pain and sickness and suffering upon people.

7.  Perhaps it might be worth also identifying the MANY and conspicuous Pagan traditions that have crept into "Christianity" and have progressively made it anathema to so many in the world.  Because the holy has been made profane in so many areas, it is impossible to expect that an intelligent and seeking mankind could ever get any individual or its collective brains around a religion as overly complicated, full of contradiction, and patently unholy as Christianity has become.  To steal from somebody smarter than I, Christianity has come to exemplify the triumph of symbolism over substance.  All of the many divisions with the body of Christ are derivative from this tradition of profaning that which is - or was - Holy.

I may be rambling at this point and I'm definitely operating seat of the pants.  But the point of identifying "essential truths" is what matters.  We have to agree on certain inalienable truths, and go from there to make belief and passion for Yahweh relevant and sustainable.  Yahweh should be the cry of our hearts...  but doing so within the fractured and profaned framework of what has become a failed perspective, a failed church, a failing Christendom, is impossible.  

We do need a fresh, pared down, honest and inspiring new perspective in order to reinvigorate and achieve the mission, which is, in its broadest sense, the mission of becoming a spotless bride for Christ.

Jim Hoag | Wed, 03/23/2011 - 23:59 | Permalink

Yesterday I got a response (see below) from someone commenting on a statement I made about emergent, high profile leaders (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell etc) sometimes being ambiguous "enough" to create a vacuum, allowing Reformed theology's "absolutes" to appear more attractive as they rush in to fill that vacuum. I then mentioned that a way to fill it might be a New Perspective on theology or some extension of it. 

Here's the comment:
I agree with you that a union of the New Perspective with an Emergent/Missional approach to the church is the best way forward for the church, and like Dave  I'd love to see a coalition built around that.
Sadly, however, I am increasingly getting the impression that a lot of the Neo-Anabaptist/Radical Orthodoxy folks out there don't really want emergent types like Brian or Rob or me as a part of that coalition. Maybe they don't get that our hesitancy to give solid answers and root ourselves in one particular theological tradition is itself a deliberate theological response. Or maybe they just don't like that response (not surprisingly - few people are comfortable with letting ambiguity, gray areas, and diversity of opinions remain unsettled for too long). Either way, once again I feel like folks like myself are being pushed out of the camp - only this time not just by the Neo-Reformed crowd. Hopefully I'm wrong.

I hope he's wrong too. How do you think I might respond? Or better yet, how would you respond? Thanks Andrew.

Jim Hoag | Thu, 03/24/2011 - 21:48 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,
I noticed you didn't get to the above comment. I know you are busy and inundated with other more recent comments and I don't expect immediate responses. (or for that matter, any response necessarily!). But I just wanted to know if I might be asking the wrong questions. It wouldn't be the first time! At any rate, if ever you do get around to it, I'd value your opinion on the above situation. Thanks!

Sorry, Jim. I’m working on it. It was a bit difficult without the whole context—a link to the thread would have been helpful. Also I feel I only have a limited grasp of the situation in the US and I don’t want to try and answer questions just for the sake of it. Sometimes matters seem clear, sometimes they don’t. But I plan to touch on the question of the exclusion of the emerging types from the coalition in a post today or tomorrow. Right now I’m off to church.