I’m not an angry pastor-theologian. I don’t wake up in the morning and read through my Google Reader in order to find the blogs that are teaching heresy so I can comment and post responses here. That’s not the general thrust of what I think is a good use of my time, unless I believe something might negatively affect the people I serve. Let’s be more pointed. I’m not an angry Calvinist. I know you’ve met one of those guys before, so let’s just get this clear – I’m not one of them!
My theological “heritage” is diverse enough to have taught me that God’s a lot bigger than the theological categories that we often try to self-impose upon him. That’s not a concession that I do not believe the theological conclusions that I hold are false or not important. It’s simply a reality check. The church is big, bigger than we often want to admit.
So I travel in some pretty diverse circles, and I think you should consider doing so too. I’m speaking specifically in regards to evangelicalism (Catholics, Orthodox, and super conservative Lutherans, forgive me!). Within the evangelical movement, there’s a great deal of theological diversity. There are Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and a host of other traditions. If you think about it, it’s pretty diverse. I mean… like, all over the theological map. This is obviously both a strength and a weakness. For our purposes, let’s think “strength” more so than weakness (another blog for another time!).
In the past ten years, I’ve preached in pretty diverse circles. I’ve spoken in Baptist churches that were borderline Fundamentalist (think “King James only”) as well as Pentecostal churches that highlighted the gift of tongues and very expressive praise and worship music (think “swing from chandeliers”). I had a honor of speaking in a local ELCA Lutheran church (think “traditional Lutheran vibe”) as well as speaking for a large Charismatic church (think “banners, flags, and tambourines”). When I travel to Africa, I generally have opportunities to of speaking at a bunch of different churches that are affiliated with a wide variety of denominations (think “very eclectic and diverse and all over the theological map”).
I currently serve the Association of Charismatic Reformed Churches as the moderator pro tem. This is a pretty strong confessional Reformed group that holds to Continuationist theology. I love those brothers! And the community of believers that I serve and lead is currently in the process of being adopted into the Association of Vineyard Churches. The Vineyard has historically been known as a bunch of “empowered evangelicals,” so there is a lot of theological diversity. Our church subscribes to the confessional statement and theological vision for ministry of The Gospel Coalition and would probably find Together for the Gospel as a bit too narrow for us (and by “bit too narrow,” think “way too narrow”!). This is all to say that we do our best at joining the quest for the radical middle.
So what’s my point? Great question. I just wanted you to realize the kind of diversity I’m talking about.
The natural question that some have asked me is: How in the world are you able to swim in such diverse waters?
I want to try and offer an answer for that. I can only speak for myself here. Here’s how I hang out in some eclectic circles:
(1) I take Peter Meiderlin’s statement serious: “In essentials, unity; In doubtful things, liberty; But in all things, love.” Determining the essentials, or the center, can be difficult for sure, but I believe when you have a proper understanding of those essentials (the center), the rest (liberty and love) seem to be a bit easier.
(2) I read widely. Some Calvinists only read books from Reformed theologians. Some Arminians read only works coming out of the Wesleyan tradition. Pentecostals often only read in their stream and Baptists don’t venture outside of theirs. Reading widely actually teaches you an essential tool when swimming diverse. What tool? You learn to play by the theological rules. As you probably know, words obviously have meanings. And within certain theological traditions, words are often very loaded. The concept of “free will” is quite loaded when spoken in Reformed and Wesleyan circles. A lot of talking past each other happens when terms are used with no qualification. When Pentecostals emphasize a “Baptism in the Spirit,” there’s some theological (and practical) connotations, right? Amongst Pentecostals, using that term is a solution whereas amongst Baptists, it’s a red flag!
So for me, I take the time of reading wide. I have learned from folks like John Calvin, Thomas Schreiner, Jürgen Moltmann, Karl Barth, Gordon Fee, George Ladd, Augustine, Roger Olson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Horton, D.A. Carson, G.C. Berkouwer, John Stott, Grant Osborne, and a host of others. I mean, that’s not even remotely close to a representation of my diversity, because those guys are all actual theologians and scholars. The practical and pastoral diversity might cause some of you to question my evangelical credentials (I once purchased a copy of John Owen’s The Glory of Christ and An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, which includes essays by Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, & Brian McLaren!). But I like learning…
This has helped me to understand a little bit of where people are coming from. As a theological thinker, it helps me “pick the battles” that matter rather than arguing over secondary issues. And if we do discuss secondary issues, I think having a better understanding of differing theological frameworks helps.
(3) As I stated before, I really do think the Body of Christ is bigger than we often assume. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s theology is equally true (it isn’t!) nor that theology doesn’t matter (it does!). But we are quite arrogant if we believe that we can’t learn from other theological traditions. As a Calvinist, I believe that God providentially has those traditions from a reason, so why not learn from them? Different perspectives can be quite helpful in how we theologize.
What do you think? Is learning to play by the theological rules helpful? Have you ever had a conversation that went nowhere quickly, simply because you were talking past each other and didn’t understand the frameworks? What are the weaknesses, dangers, and cautions that I’m not addressing?
Look forward to hearing your thoughts…