Because the church now resides in a growing state of exile, from both Christendom and a sympathetic host culture, I have suggested that we need to adjust our thinking and mission to this new reality. I believe this requires a whole new way of thinking and believing about who we are and what we should be doing as the church.
Not If We Believe, But What We Believe
When I was a young man, in college as well as in graduate theological study, the assumptions behind my training were fairly obvious, even though I did not understand them at the time.
The modern assumption was that the primary challenge to Christian faith was intellectual. My professors taught me how to have answers to those ideas that opposed the faith. The old, faithful expressions of Christianity were under attack and I needed to know how to answer this assault and make disciples who could do the same, at least in simple, workable ways.
The famous existential (liberal) theologian, Paul Tillich, believed the greatest challenge was to create a new and better-adapted systematic theology. My conservative professors believed that we needed to resist this “new” enterprise. I was even taught, “If it’s new it is probably not true, and if it is true it is probably not new.” There is one serious flaw in this simplistic formula. What I was taught was the really old was really not that old at all. It was a systematic theological framework that depended a lot more on modernity, and Christendom, than it did upon the ancient faith of the ear together in the Spirit.
In the twentieth century a liberal theologian had a profound conversion to Christ and began to challenge this way of thinking. His name was Karl Barth. Barth deeply believed that when one came to know Christ, as revealed by the Spirit through the biblical story, he would be different, not just think about various ideas differently. While his theology had some major holes in it he was fundamentally right about this point because it is truly Christocentric. As Hauerwas and Willimon put it, “Barth taught that the world ended and began, not with Copernicus or even Constantine, but with the advent of a Jew from Nazareth. In the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, all human history must be reviewed” (Resident Aliens, 24).
In Barth’s paradigm the task of theology was not to translate the Bible and Jesus into modern categories that could meet the challenges of unbelief and liberalism but rather “to translate the world to [Christ]” (Resident Aliens, 24). “The theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel” (Resident Aliens, 24, italics in original text).
New Thought or New Life?
The Christianity that I grew up within, which we call conservative evangelicalism, believed that the answer was found in an infallible Bible. We believed this for at least two reasons. First, we were the products of an ecclesial divorce from a church that came to eventually argue that they were doctrinally right because of an infallible magisterium, or teaching authority (Roman Catholicism). Second, we were the product of the Enlightenment and modern thought forms that pushed us toward a place where we could promise a kind of mathematical certainty to those we taught about the Christian faith. If we did not have an infallible authority we could not teach a certain and intellectually air-tight faith. An infallible Bible meant we had a certain and clear faith, or so we thought.
Christianity is much more than a new way to understand the world. It includes something like a way to understand the world but it is so much more. Evangelicals have still not discovered this in a significant way. Christianity, as Hauerwas and Willimon argued in their 1989 book, Resident Aliens (Abingdon), “is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot be otherwise seen without Christ” (Resident Aliens, 24).
Tomorrow: The problem of Constantine and our modern world views.