A Third Theological Revolution
Two times in my adult life, I have experienced dramatic change in how I understood and practiced Christian faith. The first occurred in my early twenties with a transition away from a more emotionally based faith (that even included some association with classic Pentecostalism) that could not address the intellectual questions I was wrestling with in college. The catalyst was a little book by John Stott titled Your Mind Matters and the heft was delivered by Os Guinness’s powerful tome titled The Dust of Death published by InterVarsity in 1972. Guinness not only help me to grasp the significance of the 1960s but offered an evangelical faith that spoke to the hard questions sparked by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the various social revolutions that had emerged in the United States.
Finding a faith that spoke to the modern world
So, I found a biblically-based understanding of faith that served as an anchor for a season of deep emotional pain and stress that I experienced in the mid-1970s. If you are like me, you know that the stresses of our early young adult years can play all kinds of havoc on our persons, especially when we need to struggle with how our faith relates to the modern world. And, my introduction to the modern world of working in a Christian school for a couple of years was not a very happy one. In fact it was bad enough to drive me into therapy.
But Stott and Guinness were good guides, especially as I went off to Fuller Seminary to finish my first advanced degree and serve the Advent Christian Church with my vocation. Eventually, I wound up in Charlotte and found a whole set of new challenges–especially adjusting to how Christianity was practiced in the American South. I remember seeing my first public Ku Klux Klan demonstration in broad daylight at the corner of Independence Blvd. and Idlewild Road five months after we had moved. “You’re not in Kansas (or California) anymore,” I thought to myself.
Moving away from rationalist faith
Seeing the Klan do their thing was only part of it. I witnessed some pretty tough church fights and struggled to come to terms with how Christians could be so cruel to each other. I had seen the same thing in California, but this time it touched off the start of another important transition in how I looked at the faith. But the challenge reached a crescendo in 1989 at a theological conference I attended outside of Chicago. Here I saw the dark side of American Evangelicalism. The evangelical elite was attempting to draw doctrinal boundaries and a few presentations got pretty ugly, especially when one of the views I held was denounced as heresy by a TV evangelist. (No, it was not Jim Bakker.)
I didn’t react very well and looking back, I should have simply folded my tent and walked away. Driving home, I realized that I had pretty much bought into the standard Evangelical way of thinking. Believing the Bible, but analyzing it using the canons of logic and human reason. I was a Carl Henry evangelical, and all of a sudden I realized that would no longer work, and that I had become what the UNC Chapel Hill historian Molly Worthen would later describe as an “Apostle of Reason.” Richard Foster had opened my eyes to the affective dimension of faith, and now it was time to jump in. And, out of that, my faith came to a point where the cognitive and affective could be integrated in a way that would draw me toward what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 6 as “union with Christ.”
Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us.
And there I have lived for the past 25 years, learning to read Scripture through a different lens and devouring works by Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and especially Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard, and a number of writers on the spiritual life. So I reached my sixties thinking that all was well–that is until 2016. It was a rough year–another back surgery, the demands of a busy academic schedule, the death of my 95-year-old mother whom we had moved from New Mexico in early 2012, and a season when it seemed like the United States and American evangelicalism were coming unglued. I wasn’t looking for it, but I should have known. It was time for another major transition in the way I understand the Christian faith. This one has been sparked with my dissatisfaction with the sad state of American evangelicalism in America 2019.
Life in the Trinity
Anyway, I’m still working this one out, but I want to communicate its broad strokes. It has to do with a fresh reading of the early creeds and confessions, especially the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and my growing conviction that much of American Christianity has cut itself off from the historic Christian faith especially in terms of how we grasp the Triune existence and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Western Christianity seems to have reduced Christian faith to a transaction–a decision that somehow makes one right with God without the ongoing work of the Spirit. But the more one reads Holy Scripture, the clearer it becomes that the essence of Christian faith is relational–relationship with God and as a result learning practices that deepen that relationship and enable us to express it among the people of God and among people outside of the faith.
First the best way to read Scripture is through the the bifocal lens of the early Christian fathers and the creeds and confessions. Scripture grounds the gospel in human history– in concrete events surrounding our Lord’s death and resurrection. Moreover, Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God frames the Christian faith in the biblical symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and consumnation (what N.T. Wright calls “new creation”).
The early Church Fathers (and mothers) understood this far better than we do. I do not claim that these early Christian writers spoke with one voice on all matters. But I am saying that if we read early Christian writers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine we discover an understanding of faith far more biblical than our modern encrustations allow us to see, especially because how we understand things is clogged by our addictions to technology and American individualism.
Even more, the sixteenth-century reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, understood this and their work reflects a love for the early Christian creeds and the value of the early Church fathers. They were in touch with the early Christian writers in ways that we are not. The Catholic scholar, Robert Louis Wilkin, argues that what emerged from early Christian writing was much more than mere teaching and writing. They crafted an intellectual and affective understanding of life and worship in all of its dimensions that was grounded in what the church taught about Jesus Christ.
Second, adoption is the key metaphor in understanding the essence of Christian salvation. What happens when we commit to following Jesus? We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. In John’s gospel, over and over Jesus reflects on his oneness with his Father. It is the essence of his identity. Then, in Romans 6 Paul reminds us that followers of Jesus are “united with Christ” meaning that our very identity is shaped by our ongoing relationship with the risen Christ. Through Jesus Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God and through our adoption we are united with Jesus Christ in ongoing relationship. Just as Jesus is the Father’s natural Son, so we are adopted sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ. This leads to the following.
Third, the Christian life is “life in the Trinity,” where we learn to relationally participate in the Triune life of God as his adopted sons and daughters. I think I’ve known this intuitively but since 2016 it has come front and center especially as I’ve watched so many evangelicals sell their souls to the political idols of our day. About 250 years ago, Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us. Even when we find agreement with others in different groups on 90 percent of what we believe, we become like those evangelicals at that 1989 conference I attended ready to go to theological war over things that we perceive as a threat.
My Christian friends in eastern churches like the Coptic Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox churches see the goal of the Christian life in far different terms. This is not to say that they are anywhere near perfect in following Christ or that they don’t have conflict over theological and political matters. Or that they have no need for reform. But while Western Christianity sees faith as transactional, Eastern Christianity sees it more in relational terms. Nowhere is that better seen than in how Eastern Christians understand the Christian life, what the theologians call “sanctification.”
Western Christians given their transactional approaches to faith see the Christian life reflected in outward practices. Catholics see outward participation in the sacramental life of the church as the ground for Christian life. American Fundamentalism has viewed it in terms of avoidance–non-participation in practices defined by their leadership as “worldly.” Mainline Protestants see it as participation in activities related to their approved understandings of “social justice.” Evangelicals have tended toward the need for theological precision, an impossibility given the conflicts between Baptists and Pentecostals, Methodists and Presbyterians, and a host of disagreements about how best to frame Christian teaching. Eugene Peterson describes all of this for what it is: “Spiritual pornography is prayer and faith without relationship, intimacy with Jesus reduced and debased into an idea or cause to be argued or used” (Tell it Slant, 2008).
Eastern Christianity (and not just Eastern Orthodoxy) tends to view the matter differently. The Christian faith involves learning to participate in the divine life of the Trinity as his adopted sons and daughters. One of my Gordon-Conwell colleagues commented about the importance of this discovery for his own faith. “Oftentimes, I would wake up and wonder how I could find Christian community. Now, I wake up and realize that I don’t have to go find Christian community, because I am already living in community with the the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Exactly.
For a few years back in the 1980s, I subscribed to USA Today. Then I stopped for this reason: Every time I read their editorial page it presented a new “issue of the day” for me to worry about and for me to “virtue signal” that I was fired up and concerned about their flavor of the day. That is an exhausting way to live. What is better is learning to know God and participate in his Triune life. From that posture, I can then live with purpose while recognizing my human limits. I cannot fix America or the world. I cannot even fix myself. But i can align myself with the Triune God because he is sovereign and he sustains me as I live in community with him simply because I am a recipient of his amazing grace.
As I said above, I’m still working out all of this especially as I witness the decline of American Evangelicalism. Perhaps that decline is best because we can stop with the “virtue signaling” and allow the Spirit to draw us deeper as individuals and communities of faith into what actually matters–the Triune God himself.