A Pragmatic Faith?

How do we read the Bible? I've been raising some questions about the way in which we approach the Bible, reflecting on suggestions by the late Disciples historian/theologian/church leader, Ronald Osborn. Osborn's book The Faith We Affirm (Chalice Press, 1979) was intended as a primer on the basic beliefs of the Disciples of Christ -- keeping in mind that we're a non-creedal people. He spoke of a reasonable and an empirical mind -- both of which suggest that from the beginning in the 19th century the Disciples have tried to come to the Bible with an open mind, seeking the truth. This is very much a modern approach.

The third principle, a "pragmatic mind," is an interesting idea. We hear a lot today about practical Bible teaching. These are claims made for preachers who infuse their sermons with psychology and then proof-text with Scriptures that supposedly affirm their proposition. These are considered biblical, not because the preachers wrestle with the biblical text, but because the preacher quotes a lot of scriptures.

By pragmatic, however, Osborn has something different in mind. What Osborn has in mind is this -- the Campbells and Barton Stone assumed that we should put our beliefs into practice. We test it, and if it doesn't work, then we ask why.

This statement is also sort of a riff on an old Disciple slogan -- "Where the Scriptures speak we speak, where the Bible is silent we are silent." Over time Disciples of Christ folk began to discover that even though they might start with the New Testament, it was silent on a lot of elements of church life and practice. And so something called the "law of expediency emerged.

Osborn writes:

This meant that congregations have to use common sense and reflect on the lessons of experience. When the scriptures point to something we ought to do, but do not tell us how to do it, congregations need to decide on a course of action which seems most expedient. (The Faith We Affirm, p. 20).

Isn't this what we all do? The problem we face is that sometimes we forget that even when it seems to point us in a direction, the context is two millennia old. And so we have to be even more pragmatic as we seek to translate into the modern world.


John said…
I just finished reading this week's Chapter in Osborne's book. In lieu of saying that "the Disciples mind is biblical, reasonable, empirical, pragmatic, and ecumenical," I would argue for a different terminology: The Disciples mind is Biblical, compassionate, inclusive, challenging and dynamic.

Each of these terms, (Biblical, compassionate, inclusive, challenging, and dynamic) communicates a lot more to me personally about what it means to be a Disciple of Christ in the 21st Century. I believe these alternative terms more effectively communicate that the DoC is a denomination not just of the head, but of the heart and hands.

We give priority of place to Scripture as the revelation and self-disclosure of the Divine, communicating truths about God and about how we are to respond to God.

The twin principles which govern how we embrace creation and how we interact with it are compassion and inclusivity. We cannot be faithful to God's call to stewardship, or Jesus' call to love God and one another, unless we do so with profound compassion, and not just for those who are closest to us, but with respect to all of God's creation.

We are challenging, not content to stand idly by accepting what is, and what is said, without testing those against what we hear God calling for. Jesus asked Caesar: what is truth? We cannot begin to approach truth unless first we ask the question, and second, we seek after the answer.

Jesus asked his disciples: who do you say that I am? We come back to this question at every turn, and we can never be content with the answer at hand, not just because we are incapable of grasping the whole truth, but because Jesus is a dynamic entity. Hence, true Disciples are always challenging, lovingly, but earnestly.

And we are dynamic, in our faith, our worship, and in our lives. We adjust to what God and our fellow beings bring to our doorstep. That is why, as a people, the DoC reject a static creedal formula. That is why, as a people, the DoC cannot embrace an episcopal hierarchy - the dynamism of our denomination, of our congregations, and of those who worship with us cannot be fettered by fixed understandings, or by authoritarian restraint. We need the theological space to respond to the claims which the Holy Spirit makes on each of us, and on all of us. It can be theologically dangerous, but the life of faith is not without risk.


Your terms are interesting and represent an intellectual move that has occurred over the past 30 years. Osborn is very much a Modernist. Your terms have a very strong post-modern feel.

So, the question is -- how does a movement with a very modern(ist)foundation engage a postmodern age?
Anonymous said…
"So, the question is -- how does a movement with a very modern(ist)foundation engage a postmodern age?"

Accepting me as a member was a good start. Good definition John, I couldn't be here without feeling the very things you just proclamed are real- David Mc
Anonymous said…
Bob, Wayne and I use to sit next to Mr. Osborne just about every Sunday at church. We had nooo idea until much, much later who we were sharing the pew with.... He was a wonderful, thoughtful and gracious man. Thank you for sharing his thoughts and writings with us.

Blessings, Jan
Anonymous said…
Hey, talk about post-modern. Read the unanimous viewer comments.-


John said…
Reconsidering this first chapter, I am even more strongly compelled to replace Osborne's formulations with something more contemporary.

Also, I find myself rejecting his claim that most Disciples reject spirituality, mysticism, sacramentality, and praxis in favor of a "head religion" comprised mainly of sober scriptural reflection. In my experience of contemporary Disciples I have not found this to be true. It may have been true in earlier generations, but not today, especially when it comes to late baby boomers and beyond.

I also note that this book, written by someone who may fairly be described as an architect of the DoC as a denomination, goes to great length to define DoC in terms not only of who we are (or were back then) but by distinguishing us from those who are different - drawing boundaries. I guess that is a natural part of building a denomination? I would prefer to see us defined from the center, rather than from the margins.

Should we not take the time to update our resume, to a proclamation which more closely approximates who we claim to be today, "a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world"?

Comprehension of "wholeness" and "fragmentation" requires a profound spirituality, and not a little mysticism. Such comprehension requires that we look at and listen to the wounded in the world, and that we seek out the Holy Spirit for guidance so that we indeed move in the direction of wholeness and not toward greater disruption and pain. And that we look not just through the lense of scripture but through serious and sustained prayer. And a "movement" implies action, not mere reflection.

John said…
"Post modernity" began with the atomic bomb; in the debris of two cities destroyed by just two bombs, we discovered for the first time the truth that human progress, even human survival was not inevitable. We confronted the staggaring truth that humanity could destroy itself, by chance or by choice.

Also in the post - World War II debriefing we also discovered that human goodness, Christian charity, was an illusion. We could not take our eyes off of the horror of the death camps where so many faithful Christian Germans driven by hatred, savagely undertook to eliminate a people, a nation once favored by the Christian God.

It took a generation for the enormity of the discoveries to become clear to all, but now they define our current age. Whether in religion, politics, international affairs, or in our personal lives, whether conservative or liberal, few would deny these truths, and few would deny the hold which these truths have over our beliefs and our decisions. Success is not assured, reason is not an irresistible force for good, nor is Christianity presumptively a force for good in the world. Human flaws coupled with human powers place everyone and everything at risk.

This is the "fragmented world" in which we now live. This is the context which the DoC must come to terms with.

Osborne's conceptualization of the DoC denomination was constructed in the context of a desperate grab at the dying era modernism, an effort that fought mightily to turn away from the awful truths of post-modernity.

It is time to leave go of the pretense and accept, even embrace truths which have always been with us, but which we were until recently ill-equipped to discern.

So how shall we choose to define ourselves in this new age?

Anonymous said…
I don’t know John. It seems to me Hitler evoked God so much that it made Germans trust him and the other Nazis a little too much. Maybe they should have used their head. Some with the US in using atomic wepons. We were on God's side you know. David Mc
Anonymous said…
Hey, a new report on "thinkers"-


David Mc

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