At the Society of Pentecostal Studies conference early last month, one of the biggest questions we got after our presentations had do with whether an emerging church systematic theology could even be developed. That challenge is something still to be sorted out, even as I and the others affirmed the possibility. There already is a developing theology, after all, with systematic thought helping it and reflecting on it to steer it towards becoming a more adequate, fruitful, constructive theology.
I was looking for something else this morning, and I happened to come across this old blog post I wrote a few years ago. Thought it is worth reposting today.
If you wander the halls of emerging/missional thought most of the conversation is about ecclesial issues. Liturgy. Leadership. Gender. Sexuality. Culture. Sometimes the issues drift a bit into topic of salvation, Hell, judgment, which are theological but which relate more specifically to the topic of who is in and who is out, what is a real church, what is a pretender. What is a community? What does a Christian community do? What is the focus? The practices? The rhythms of the week?
Look at Gibbs and Bolgers 9 traits of an emerging community: 1. Identifying with Jesus 2. Transforming secular space 3. Living as community 4. Welcoming the stranger 5. Serving with generosity 6. Participating as producers 7. Creating as created beings 8. Leading as a body 9. Merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities.
These are expressions. Practices of the community which say very little about what a person might hear if they ask, “Who is God?” or “Why did Jesus die on the Cross?” or “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Oftentimes what a person might hear would differ very little from what they might hear in a typical Baptist or Presbyterian church. The medium has changed. The basic message has not.
Now for most this would seem a good thing. Don’t mess with what is right, right? Reformation zeal for challenge, and questioning, and change, and dynamic re-examination of core doctrines has led to post-Reformation stagnation in which orthodoxy is less about finding out the truth of God and more about making sure to stick to what Calvin or Luther or Wesley thought. A supposed Golden Age of the Spirit’s revelation ended centuries ago, and now we assess each other by how well we do or do not fit into pre-approved boundaries.
Yet is this good? Is this right? Can we say that not only do we need liturgical change in the face of a changing society but also theological transformation? The latter is thought forbidden with charges of caving to the spirit of the age thrown willy-nilly. Theologians are scared. Pastors are frightened. Everyone ducks behind the safety of era old walls, not daring to venture out for fear of being branded as a heretic, branded by those who themselves are branded by others, who think the Golden Age of the Spirit wasn’t in the fifteen or sixteen hundreds but centuries before.
Do we just respond to the spirit of the age or is there something more potent that not only suggests but might even require our re-assessment of the very foundations of our theology. Not to toss it all out, but to reframe it, to restore it, to take out the dross and the filth that has accumulated. A new theology that takes account of the Jewishness of Jesus, which is the Jewishness of God himself in expression. Removes the assumptions of brutal ages and pagan philosophies that filled Christian theology with all sorts of exceedingly rational, coherent, and utterly wrong doctrines. What does Athens, after all, have to do with Jerusalem?
Theology now is top heavy with Athens, so much so there’s not even an awareness among those who lash out with charges of heresy that they, the self-appointed inquisitors, would likely fall on the wrong side of a Scriptural conversation with Jesus. The absence of an integrated Old Testament theology, the plucking out of passages to apply to latter day questions and assumptions, the breaking apart of Scripture into mangled bits and pieces rather than a coherent whole story told of God’s pervasive interaction with humanity and the world abound in sermons, in books, in countless conversations. Orthodoxy has less to do with God and more to do with our settled systems of assumptions about God. God is second to the theology. And that is wrong.
Theology is broken. It’s not until we begin to re-assess theology at its most bare forms again that we will see a resurgence in our communities. Look at history. Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Anthony, Francis, Benedict, Ignatius–they formed movements not on liturgical change but rather on substantive renewed understanding of core doctrine. Their God was different than the God of other Christians around them. Expected different things. Demanded different service. Valued different mindsets. Asked for different works. The theological changes erupted into ecclesiastic transformation.
This doesn’t mean tossing out Scripture or right, established doctrines. That results in empty churches, famished souls, starved spiritualities. It means embracing Scripture anew. It means taking Scripture more seriously, not less. It means listening to not the spirit of the age, but the Holy Spirit of the ages, who has worked in and through history to guide and reveal, opening up society to take an ever greater appreciation for the justice and love of God.
As some see their primary goal for the church of God to revolutionize leadership structures or liturgical moments, I see my goal as focusing on the theology first, and the practices derived from this renewed perspective. Not that I’m starting something new. We see this work begun in many circles, often academic, in the books of NT Wright who refocuses us on Jesus. With Jurgen Moltmann, who emphasize the hope of God, even in the realities of the worlds suffering. Many others have written for decades, spurring and teaching. But not drifting into the lives of the congregations and communities.
So the pastors and the teachers and the prophets, not just the academics, need to follow the paths of Wesley and Luther and Calvin, and with new daring rediscover the fullness of God, who was and is and is to come. Not to pursue falsehood instead of established truth, but to get rid of the accumulated falsehoods that have led to decrepit communities. Geneva was not, after all, the Kingdom. Sin abounded. Mistakes were made. Nor did the Great Awakenings keep people awake or Pentecostalism remain an ever present fire. Society is broken. Christendom is lost. All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t reflect enough of God’s truth to maintain a season of God’s reality.
If then the words spoken about God did not result in fullness and peace we run into a quandary. Either God is broken or theology is broken. Many popular atheists today would suggest the former. I disagree, but now have to face the fact that it is theology that is broken and theology which requires a fix.
A task for a lifetime. Wary and daring. Hopeful and cautious.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus .”
Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus . Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
If we too wish to see Jesus we need to follow him, not the broken theology. Wherever he might lead, wherever he is.