Monthly Archives: February 2008

Newbigin & the Enlightenment

For class last week, we read through the first few chapters of Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. It was pretty hard stuff. I managed to pull enough out of the text to respond to the questions. Your thoughts are welcomed on anything below (or on other tangents as well, hahaha)…

Newbigin on Doubt & Dogma

The Enlightenment use of “dogma” carries a strong negative connotation (postscript 2-25-08: it’s baaaack!), a tie to faith-based ignorance and/or arrogance. In an appeal to New Testament etymology, Newbigin traces “dogma” to dokein, which means “to seem.” In Acts 16, the Jerusalem Council decreed what “seemed good to a competent authority and was promulgated as such.” (Newbigin p.5) Chances are that even a brief history lesson describing our faith reveals dogma’s entanglement “with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom – freedom of thought and of conscience.” (Newbigin p.10) But our defense of pure and essential dogma can fairly claim that its past abuses do not necessarily make it inherently flawed or evil. Nevertheless, these days, this term carries so much ‘baggage’ – needs so much ‘unpacking’ – that I try to avoid it in describing the essentials of our faith, and instead find it much more productive to attempt to revive the narrative of God’s love for and involvement among us.

Newbigin on Tradition & Authority

A key Enlightenment paradigm was the rejection of authority as implicitly tied to tradition. Everything was to be tested (postscript 2-25-08: it’s baaaack!). Newbigin says that any defense of the Christian faith must address the Enlightenment era’s rejection of giving such weight to tradition. I struggled with this section of the reading. I’m unclear on precisely what Newbigin advocates, but I take a cue for my own response to attacks on authority and tradition from an anatomy illustration he uses. On pages 40 and 41, Newbigin points to John Oman’s reflections on the frailty of the optic nerves in his book Vision and Authority. He comments so powerfully on the writings of his first theology teacher: “It would seem, in other words, that the Creator had intended fallibility to be part of our human nature, and that the appeal to an authority beyond our own fallible vision is an offense against our Creator.” (Newbigin p. 41) So, in response to Enlightenment criticisms of the tacit authority carried by my faith’s tradition, I say, “That’s a good point… maybe those guys didn’t have it all figured out. Let’s explore it some more…” In other words, perhaps the best defense against Enlightenment claims about tradition is a healthy dose of realizing humanity’s fallibility. This selection from Newbigin merits an entire week’s worth of reading. So in the absence of fully grasping his theses on tradition and authority, I’ll just go on trying to be a good Berean.

Newbigin on Reason & Revelation

A solid response to Enlightenment claims about Christianity’s ties to reason and revelation simply rests on the issue of context. Newbigin says it well: “the development of a tradition of rationality is never unrelated to the social, political, economic, military, and cultural changes which the society in question is going through.” (Newbigin p. 54) In my mind, if today’s challengers to faith want to embrace pluralism, they must concede that their own framework (i.e. tradition of rationality) arose from a particular context and is not sufficiently universal to make unreasonable my decision to pursue a life of faith.

mission of God

Last week, in our class discussion, we explored how the recovery of missio Dei (the mission of God) might be tied to church renewal. One of the key articles for this discussion was titled “Recasting Theology of Mission: Impulses from the Non-Western World,” by Wilbert Shenk. If you can find the article, I encourage you to read it. I’m not sure about the copyright implications of posting it here though, so you’re on your own, unfortunately.

Shenk’s first mention of missio Dei is an assertion about its central role as the foundation for the theological concerns of the New Testament church. As I read this sentence, I could not shake from my mind the Acts 6 story of the apostles delegating food-distribution duties to other believers “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” On the face of it, this story could be improperly read as an example of the apostles’ humanity, an unfortunate record of an arrogant refusal to “get their hands dirty.” But what if the apostles teach us to each fully embrace our unique gifts in the service of the message of Jesus Christ? Contrary to the easy misinterpretation, this story is about nothing less than rolling up one’s sleeves and engaging the world in Christ’s name. For the apostles, spending even an hour doing something other than preaching and teaching was a disservice to the movement. Likewise, they expected the differently gifted believers to step forward and serve the common cause by organizing food distribution. The western response to this situation might have been, “Well, go find some more believers to sell some land and we’ll hire someone to make it happen. And let’s not repeat the Ananias incident this time…” Preposterous! The apostles refused to simply “write a check” to solve a problem.

It is when we as individual Christians reclaim our own potential to contribute to the mission of God in a hands-on way that we will see renewal in the western church.

To ponder…

  • Is missio Dei a piece of flawed terminology? In other words, does it employ an elitist linguistic device (namely Latin) to describe a term focused on egalitarian involvement in invoking the Kingdom of God?
  • Does the western church excessively write checks to solve problems? Or does it have its sleeves sufficiently rolled up?
  • How does the apostles’ delegation story strike you at first glance? At second glance? After detailed exploration?

P.S. – I’m beginning to understand why my seminarian friend Shedden blogs so much when his classes are in session.

1-2-3 Meme

I have been tagged for the 1-2-3 Meme by good friend Matt Shedden. The game is to grab the book nearest to you and turn to page 123. Find the 5th sentence and share the next 3 sentences with everyone. Then you tag five people.

My book is Family Based Youth ministry by Rev. Mark DeVries. On page 123, the 5th sentence is:

In an extensive study of the effects of divorce on children, one fact stands out as a stark indictment to churches. Less than 10 percent of those children of divorce who were interviewed “had any adult speak to them sympathetically as the divorce unfolded.”

A convicting passage for me, no doubt. I have students from divorced homes, and I’m guilty of the indictment. Ouch.

Ideal and Divine Realities

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This passage, pointed out by a trusted mentor, has been important for me this week. Sometimes we just need to get over ourselves. I’m not perfect… so sue me.