Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Dogmatic Turn Part One

The Dogmatic Turn and the Pivotal Role of Presuppositionalism

Part One

The gap between what we profess and what we know is literally unfathomable (Deuteronomy 29:29; Hebrews 11:1). In principle, one can be on one side or the other on the doubt/faith axis and many points in between. I would describe myself as leaning strongly toward the faith continuum, though with many residual doubts in the ongoing encounter with life and culture in which Paul’s dictum of daily dying is no simple process. Nonetheless, in an emphatic evangelical (re)-turn after a long odyssey toward the theological liberal pole some years ago, I made a deliberate shift from radical historicism as a Christian to a return to a more distinctive theist grounded evangelical theology. This was the result of much searching and what I perceived through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This self-referential claim has the power to convey something of its essence to those within the faith, but may appear exceedingly problematic among those viewing the Christian faith from a more external position. This I acknowledge, but cannot directly address, though additional commentary will follow in succeeding posts.

The issue I am seeking to address here is the pivotal, though secondary role of the relationship between faith and culture. There is something deeply compelling about the quest to embrace culture and faith on the basis of what each has to offer. For example, a profound respect for the transcendence of God should also lead to an abiding creation theology as reflected in Jurgen Moltmann's creation theology. There is also the evangelical desire to be swallowed up in Christ, in the best Pauline sense of the term, and to have one's whole being defined and thereby enhanced through a radical embrace of the image of God in the abiding quest for holiness as one's most singular and passionate calling in life. Such theology provides scope for an embrace of culture and nature within faith, but not to the extent that either of these is naturalized in any manner that that marginalizes the power and significance of God’s transcendent majesty and awesome infinite love and holiness. To put this in theological parlance, I accept Moltmann’s quest to subsume nature and culture within faith, but only through an emphatic Barthian turn to the Bible and the sovereignty of God.

In my own experience I had pursued the perspective of faith "from below" for many years. After considerable angst in grappling with the tensions stemming from the grounding point in secular culture through what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann refers to as “funding postmodernity one verse at a time,” I came to the conclusion of the need to recognize the essential difference between dogma and apologetics in which in which critical reasoning (apologetics) cannot subsume dogma (faith) which has its own poetic language that cannot be translated into other idioms.

No doubt this was a move made within history in an effort to move beyond historicism as an enclosed world view. In making such a shift I had to view my primary interlocutors, the post-liberal Brueggemann and the naturalistic pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, in a less privileged perspective, both of whose collective work I continue to respect and admire a great deal. In the process I made a distinctive orthodox shift toward the United Church of Christ centrist theologians Gabriel Fackre, and Donald Bloesch. In the past few years, I have been extremely inspired by the many writings of J.I. Packer who has spoken very deeply to my evangelical sensibilities who also introduced me to the Puritans, especially to the solid theological pietism of John Owens.

In the very process of making this transcendent turn, I encourage my evangelical friends to loosen up a bit on the doctrine of literal inerrancy in that the stake in the ground is not the historical accuracy of the New Testament, but the radical claim of God in Christ reconciling the world (2 Corinthians 5:19). Moreover, in loosening up on literal inerrancy, while holding firmly to the biblically revealed God in Christ, one is in a better position to embrace what is truly important in a radical biblical perspective. Among other things this avoids the all-too-easy temptation of caricaturing secular thought and culture in the very process of exercising serious and sustained critique of what contemporary Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as our Secular Age. The challenge I would posit to evangelical theology is to grapple with the allure, the power, and realities of secular paradigms for all they are worth, while adhering to the higher calling that faith overcomes the world on its (faith's) own terms, not the worlds. Rejecting escapist strategies to which we are all tempted, the challenge is that of pressing on in fear and trembling on the assumption that God is laboring within us with us in the effort to walk worthily in our calling amidst the many fears and doubts we experience throughout our lives (Philippians 2: 12-13).

I say to my mainline friends, loosen up on your desire to put context in the first place in grappling with the biblical text. As we've learned in a century or more of theology and cultural criticism, context is both important and inescapable. However, when cultural context is given a privileged interpretive place it becomes an idol which profoundly limits the influence of the text to exhibit its dynamic saving and cleansing holy power. Rather, I say, the core claims of faith as such (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-4; Romans 1:1-6) remain the foundation, a foundation which has transcended many ages and historical locations, however flawed our filtered perceptions of those foundations may be. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid in Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

I do not say disregard context; an impossible task in any event, but in faith as the substance of things unseen, to embrace this mystery in full faith unreservedly without doubting at least as a radical ideal with real intent (James 1:6-8) even as we see in a glass darkly and may experience much doubt at the core of our being. That is because, on faith, the core of our being is less real than the putting on the Lord Jesus as our new identity, which requires as part of the process the full surrender of ourselves to new being in Christ as the basis of gaining new life possessing an eternal significance of great worth which can begin to be experienced in the here and now (Romans 6; John 6). Clearly, such identity transference is an imperfect process. It is one, however, that calls us within the mystery of the privileged stance of revealed faith to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and will, and to keep knocking, knocking, knocking, until the grace of God breaks in and floods our life with the righteousness of Christ that passes all understanding. It is this and nothing else which is the Alpha and Omega of the born again experience (John 3:5-8), the foundation of the Christian identity upon which all else resides.

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