Saturday, September 5, 2015

Further Discussion on the Role of Theology in Clarifying Points of Encounter between Liberal Theology and Biblically Based Evangelicalism

 George (original)  In my view the issue is how seriously is the Christian faith to be taken in the contemporary world by mature adults.

Mark: That is indeed a serious concern. But theological clarity is not really a good general predictor of effectual faith. See for example The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Don’t Christians Live What They Preach? by Ron Sider.  

George (new): Mark, your point is well taken and Ron Sider’s article is cogent.  It is also in agreement with the Gordon-Cornwell theologians, Richard Lints 
 and David Wells who make the point that one of the reasons that popular evangelical culture is so prey to contemporary cultural fads, especially the self realization ethic, is because the evangelical movement as a whole lacks a well thought-out and cogent biblically-based theology grounded essentially in reformist principles. While I take issue with some of the implications of both Lints and Wells (I cannot accept the level of certainty that their claims of an exclusive Christianity are based on) I applaud them for laying out a solid framework for a contemporary evangelical theology.  By doing so, they establish a structure through which meaningful dialogue with the more liberal theological branches of contemporary Protestantism can take place. On that, see especially Gabriel Fackre’s Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective (Eerdmans, 1993)

As I had brought out in my last response to Dave, I am making the case that one of the critical dialogue partners of denominations like the UCC is (or needs to be!) with articulate evangelicals like Lints, Wells, and Fackre, authors, I may add, whose books I have never seen in the Hartford Seminary bookstore.  There might have been a course or two that has provided a solid study of contemporary evangelical thought at HS, but other than a recent summer course taught by Tony Compollo, I’m not aware of much of an emphasis at HS on the intricacies and depth of evangelical theology.  By contrast, I know that Lints, in particular, while remaining firmly rooted in the precepts of evangelical theology (see his The Fabric of Faith, 1993), brings into his seminars texts from both the postliberal and liberal Christian perspectives).

With you, I agree that theology is not everything, and for many people perhaps not important at all.  Effective preaching, inspiring music, informed Bible study, the formation of a meaningful community, the opportunity for service, etc., all these are crucial for the formation and sustaining of a mature adult-grounded faith.  As stated previously, theology is a late work, but an essential one if there is any value in connecting faith to reason and the critical issues and questions people bring to their faith journeys.  Even as the former has the primary status, the quest still involves faith seeking knowledge, as the mode of encounter, for many, in conjunction with the perplexities and temptations of the secular city.  Moreover, the matter depends on how one defines theology, which I don’t view as an exclusively academic pursuit, but coming out of the questions and thoughts of any and all in their seeking and their doubting about what this life of faith means in the context of a life pursuit.

Lints, Wells, and Fackre have something of substance to say about an evangelical-based Christian faith as grounded in the contemporary setting.  One may or may not agree with all, or even much of their commentary.  Well and good.  At least they clearly articulate what it is they believe and the supportive reasoning at the level of accessible theological discourse.  If denominations like the UCC are to have serious discourse with the evangelical sector, their theologians are going to have to be at least as comparably articulate.  While any viewpoint expressed by a theologian is not to be taken as the gospel, interpretations can be authoritative in the sense of the cogency of their arguments and the comprehensiveness of their vision.  One can take issue with what any theologian (or anyone else says), but I believe denominations like the UCC are well served to take with much seriousness the challenge of writing cogent theological discourse, which speaks to those in the pews with as much passion as does the call to social justice, or more appropriately, “social witness” (Fackre, 1998, Restoring the Center).  Mature adult Christian identity hangs in the balance. Theology is not everything, but the quest to link faith to the life of the mind and the perplexing questions with which people are grappling, is one of the core challenges that denominations like the UCC need to face.

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