This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

This is a response I wrote to a friend's Reformation Day sermon in which he postulated two different Christianities, one "traditional" and this other, new one he calls "inclusive, accepting." 

You graciously and courageously asked for responses to your sermon.  I respectfully give you mine.

I think you may have identified a “theological chasm” in the church.  However, I certainly don’t recognize myself in the way the evil second theology is depicted.  

I suspect that the most fundamental difference between the two theologies lies in the different understandings of human nature and sin.  One group comes from the Augustinian pole that holds the “total depravity” view of human nature.  That is, human beings are now, due to the Fall, inherently evil.  The redemption they require is basically a replacement of a rotten soul by a new soul, imported from without.  

The alternate view is that human nature was created basically good and remains so.  Original sin is very real and powerful, but it did not destroy, annihilate, and mangle the soul beyond recognition.  Rather, sin is depicted as something that covers, obscures, is encrusted upon, imprisons, or buries the soul.  Deep underneath this accrual, the original good and blessed soul remains.  Therefore, conversion and redemption are spoken of in terms of images like cleansing and liberating.  The idea is to rid the soul of the alien gunk piled on top of it.  

I abandoned the former view a long time ago.  While it is clearly present in Augustine, Calvin, and others, I find it nowhere in many of the other early church fathers, nor is it necessary to read the scriptures as saying this.  Augustine’s view was rejected, sometimes explicitly, by many of the Greek fathers, and it remains a bone of contention between the eastern and western churches today.  In other words, the “new” theology of acceptance and inclusion was not invented in like 1972.  It stretches back to the early church and, as I pointed out on Saturday, even to the prophets.

The missional implications of each view are instructive.  Under the first model, the approach is, in effect, to “destroy the village in order to ‘save’ it.”  The practice would be to wipe out pre-Christian cultures and replace them with “Christian” culture.  It is to teach people to hate their former lives in order to embrace their new “saved” life.  

Under the second model the approach is more “inclusive” in that the idea is to find and lift up the good in a culture, reframing it in terms of the gospel.  It is finding the good in people and building on it, bringing it out, liberating it from the bondage of sin by the power of the Spirit.  This is the missional strategy that characterized, for instance, both the Celtic missions and the Russian mission in Alaska.  They transformed and transfigured native culture, rather than destroying it, which has often been the approach in the west.  To our shame.

The idea that the former model of Christianity is the only one “handed down through the ages” is simply wrong.  It is a particular stream of Christianity, and a problematic one at that. 

It is also important to note that some form of the “inclusive” theology has persisted in western  Christianity for two thousand years.  Figures like Francis, Eckhart, and Bernard, movements like the Celtic mission and the Rhineland mystics expressed it as well, at least in part.  And, while Jesus does say “go and sin no more” on at least one occasion, and he did have a transformative effect on the people he met and healed, he far more often says “your faith has saved you,” at least implying that something already existing inside the person was activated by an encounter with the Lord.

What happened was two things: Protestants started reading the Bible without the blinders of this particular form of “orthodoxy,” and discovered that the version of original sin we had always been fed wasn’t necessarily there.  And we gained an exposure to the eastern Fathers that demonstrated that there were older and more orthodox ways of talking about original sin than that of Augustine.

That’s all an oversimplification, but you get my drift.