Saturday, July 10, 2010

Theology and Liberty; or, How do you think theologically but not dogmatically?

Icon of Gregory of Nyssa
4th cent. theologian
I am a Disciple of Christ.  In making that claim, the confession is two fold.  First of all, I am a follower of Jesus Christ, as are all Christians.  I confess him to be the Christ and Son of God (Matthew 16:16) and name him  Lord and savior.  I am also a Disciple of Christ by denominational affiliation.  The Disciples emerged on the 19th century frontier as a reform movement concerned about the unity of the body of Christ.  The founders were disturbed by the fragmentation that was experienced on the frontier.  Being influenced by a number of factors, including the emergent democratic feelings after the founding of the American nation along with the Enlightenment ideas of John Locke and others, they embraced the idea of a simple biblical Christianity, a faith founded on a commitment to New Testament Christianity.  This led to a rejection of creeds and official faith statements.  Unfortunately, over time, many in this tradition confused this commitment to non-creedal Christianity rooted in a commitment to recovering the New Testament understandings of faith with being non-theological.  That is, many in the Disciples concluded that since we're non-creedal it doesn't matter what you believe.  You're free to do what you want, without any touchstone at all -- in other words, something akin to what you'll find in many Unitarian Universalist churches.   But that is not how the earliest members of this tradition understood their task.
Although not as well known today as he was in earlier years, British Disciple theologian William Robinson, was one of the most thoughtful of Disciple theologians.  He was influenced by Karl Barth, but sought to go beyond Barth to the biblical text itself.  He understood that we are non-creedal, but he pushed Disciples to think theologically.  In a book written in the 1940s entitled What Churches of Christ Stand For, Robinson gave a definition of what this work might look like (Churches of Christ here is the British equivalent of the Disciples and not to be confused with the more conservative American portion of the Stone-Campbell Movement).

Whilst Churches of Christ have, like Catholic Christianity in general, always placed great emphasis on the Church as a Divine Society, on Church unity, and on the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as real channels of grace; yet they have differed significantly from Catholic Christianity in rejecting creeds and confessions and have regarded them as divisive in their influence.  In this their attitude has been nearer to that of Quakers.  It must not, however, be understood that they have been unconcerned about belief itself, regarding it as a matter of indifference what was believed.  No! they have contended earnestly for the "faith once for all delivered to the saints," but they have ever been opposed to the summing up of that faith in a creed or confession, regarding the New Testament itself as a sufficient basis of union for all Christians.  Moreover they have always been suspicious of metaphysical explanations of the facts of Christianity, and have refused to make them binding upon men's consciences.  Thus they have never regarded theories  of inspiration, of the entrance of sin into the world, of predestination, or the Atonement, of the Incarnation, and of the Trinity, as of the Faith.  . . . They declared that they themselves were neither Arminian nor Calvinistic, neither Unitarian nor Trinitarian but simply Christian; and they saw clearly enough that such confessions were divisive in their effects.  Their attention seems not to have been directed at all to such a simple statement of facts as the Apostle' Creed.  There is no doubt that they would have accepted every clause of it, but only because they could have found these clauses within the New Testament itself, and because the expressed the facts  of the Faith and not abstract theological dogmas.   (William Robinson, What Churches of Christ Stand For, (Balsall, Heath, UK:  Berean Press, 1946, pp. 63-64)
Although the use of the word "facts" might be off putting for some, the point here is that there is freedom to wrestle with the biblical text and from that make theological affirmations.  Disciples have, for the most part, shied away from what he refers to at "metaphysical explanations," speculative statements that are more rooted in Greek philosophy than biblical understandings.  Thus, he might affirm the "facts" of the Trinity without choosing to embrace any particular theory of the the Trinity.  

What we learned over the years, as Disciples committed to unity among Christians, is that it is difficult to abandon abstract summations.  It's difficult to throw off traditions long passed on.  If you throw off some, you have a tendency to adopt others, perhaps new ones.  So, how do we think about our faith (which is what theology involves) without becoming "dogmatic"?  

1 comment:

Keith Watkins said...

Bob, William Robinson was a remarkable figure in the Disciples theological tradition. More than most, he was in close contact with the classical theological tradition while continuing his own distinctive Disciples emphases. His early book, "Essays on Christian Unity," is my favorite. As I remember the book, Robinson provides a tighter connection between the Churches of Christ and the great tradition than he does in the excerpt you have keyed in. (By the way, check your excerpt for typos.) Robinson was on the faculty of Butler School of Religion (now Christian Theological Seminary) when I was a student there.