Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keith Davenport on Drawing Lines (or "on Denominations," or "on Open Theism," or...)

Over the last 24 hours I have been mauling over lines. Okay, so the issues have been much bigger than just lines, but perhaps you will understand better if you listen to this:

Jeren Rowell - NTS - January 22, 2010 (right click and choose "open in new tab")

Once I served as an administrator over a dozen or so different ministries. These ministries ranged from music and drama to prison work to caring for the elderly. The leaders of these groups where from a variety of denominational backgrounds, yet we all served together on the same ministry council.

The leaders often changed from year to year. This was normal and a part of this specific ministry context. In my last year as part of this council a gentleman became the leader of one of the ministries. Throughout the first few months of the new year, it became evident that this leader had no intentions of making it to any of our weekly meetings (we met for 1 hour each week). So, according to our procedures, the administrative office and I reminded him of the expectations of his position. After several more week with no change, we asked him to appear before the judicial branch of the council for an interview, which was also according to the procedures established by the council.

During this discussion, some disturbing issues came to light. A large part of the reason that this ministry leader was not taking part in the council was that many of the other leaders were believers from other denominations and theological traditions. After quoting 2 Corinthians 6:14 to the council and claiming that he could have no fellowship with us, I quickly ended the meeting out of pure surprise, and probably a little anger.

This individual was not from some small tradition that most of us have never heard of. No, he is part of a very well-known theological tradition and today is probably a minister or professor in a main-line denomination. However, he felt that if someone did not hold the same beliefs that he did, that person could not be a Christian. Figuratively, he drew a line and said, "If you stand on this side of the line with me, and believe just as I do about Scripture, God, and Salvation then you are a Christian. If you stand anywhere on the other side of this line, no matter how close or far from my beliefs, you cannot be a Christian for you do not believe as I do."

Lines bother me. I suppose that it is natural for humans to believe that whatever it is that one has decided in his or her heart is true must, therefore, be true. For quite simply, you would not believe something is true or right if you did not believe it to be so. I realize that this is somewhat of a redundant philosophical statement, but it is an important starting point. For example, if you believe that it is right to believe that abortion is wrong, then you are going to believe that any other stance on abortion is wrong, or maybe even sinful. You believe one stance is right, if another stance were also right, you would then believe in that stance too.

Okay, let's get away for philosophy now. Just so I don't lose you. If you got that, great! If not, just forget I even typed that paragraph.

Yes, we can draw lines on some things: God is good; murder is wrong; homosexuality is a perversion of God's original intentions for human sexuality; Jesus died on the cross and rose again; etc.

But there are also some things we cannot draw lines on. For example, we cannot truly think that one denomination or theological tradition is the only group who is truly serving God and will be the only ones in heaven. Here's a segment of an article I wrote that is supposed to be published sometime next month:

The universal Church needs Baptists to remind us how sovereign God is, Catholics to teach us how our faith can be learned through liturgy and the importance of the history of Christianity, Pentecostals to remind us of the significance of the Holy Spirit, and Nazarenes to remind us that God desires for us to live holy lives. We cannot be the body of Christ without each other. The fact is, when Christ returns all believers will be gathered around the throne of God joining in the same song of worship.

There is no theological tradition that as a corner on the theological market. I am a Wesleyan without shame. However, I believe that I have a lot to learn from Calvinists about how God is Sovereign and how I should study Scripture.

Besides this point on denominations, I have also found people that last out against specific theological issues. They draw lines -- it is either this or that and there is no "both."

╬. A very hot topic these days (well, for some) is Open Theism. This is the idea that God sometimes changes His mind and He does not always know what humans are going to do before they do it. There are many verses in Scripture that seem to point this conclusion. Here are just a few: Exodus 32:14; Numbers 14:11; Deuteronomy. 9:13–14, Deuteronomy 9:18-20; 1 Samuel 2:29-30; 2 Kings 20:1–6; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Jeremiah 18:7–11; Jeremiah 26:3; Jeremiah. 26:19; Ezekiel 33:13–15; Ezekiel 20:21–22; Amos 7:1–6; Jonah 1:2; 3:2; 4-10; Joel 2:13–14;

Traditionally, however, Christians have believed that God is omnipotent and omniscient. He knows what we do before we even do it. Also, many believe that God has a very specific plan for each individual. Some, but not all, would even believe that God has predetermined the exact order our lives are going to be lived out in. There are also many verses in Scripture that point to this conclusion (however, not as strong to the exact predetermination). Since we might be more familiar with this understanding, I will not provide specific Scriptures.

So what do we do? The line has been drawn. We either believe God is omnipotent and omniscient because the Bible says so or we believe that God changes His mind and doesn't always know what's coming because the Bible says so.

Now, those who find themselves in a group that draws such lines would simple say at this point that the Bible only says one of these two options, and not both. With the full awareness that I might be wrong, I believe that in order for a person to read one or the other of these two understandings in Scripture he/she must be approaching Scripture presuppositions that already discredit the other camp. They let their theology interpret Scripture rather than Scripture interpret their theology.

I believe that the Bible is God's revelation of Himself and His work in the world to us. Although Christ was the perfect revelation of God, Scripture reveals the identity of Christ and God's redemptive work throughout history. Scripture, according to Outler's understanding of John Wesley, must be interpreted through reason, history, and experience. (This is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral) Theology must be formed using this model, and we simply read into Scripture our theological presuppositions.

So since the Bible seems to point to BOTH Open Theism AND God's Omniscience, would it make more since to realize that both camps offer insights into the identity of God. Instead of picking one or the other, what if we find the Scriptural Truths in each and let them sing together the song they were meant to sing about our God. It's not that either one is absolutely correct, because each group maintains some ideas that can't be find in Scripture. It is, however, that each group has something to offer the Body of Christ in order to more fully reveal God.

Just as different denominations give us a fuller revelation of Christ's intent for the Church, so different theological camps and traditions offer insight into our theology. Instead of being driven by fear that the Church is going to fall to these "foreign doctrines," perhaps it would be better to live in dialogue with them. Glean what is good, get rid of what is not. Instead of ostracising another camp, converse with them with an open mind and the Bible in hand.

There are other issues that are also up for debate these days:

Fundamentalism vs. the Emergent Church
Holiness in a Moment vs. Holiness as a Process
Changing things to reach today's Culture vs. Traditions with a Strong Heritage
Orthodoxy vs. Scholarship

There are many others, too. But I think the same principles apply to all of these. There is something we can learn about God from each of these stances. However, the via media (The middle way) is often the best option.

C. S. Lewis wrote "He's wild, you know. He's not like a tame lion."
May we not try to confine God to theological constructs or traditional beliefs. He is not man and His ways are not like our ways.

Also, I do not believe that we need to feel responsible for sustaining Christ's Church. Jesus told Peter that the Gates of Hades will not overcome the Church. I am under the firm belief that God Himself will protect His Church, and we do not need to feel like we are responsible for keeping it "pure" or "right." Although we must continue to follow the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit that has been guiding this Church for far longer that we or our denominations have been in existence.


  1. Keith, as I read this I have no doubts that you will be a pastor and leader who keeps the Church and the Gospel relevant and compelling for this generation and hopefully generations to come. Keep it up!

    "Yes, we can draw lines on some things: God is good; murder is wrong; homosexuality is a perversion of God's original intentions for human sexuality; Jesus died on the cross and rose again; etc."

    These lines could use an addendum: Murder is wrong, but if you believe in "Just War" can it be used as a "lesser wrong" (God ordered armies to fight in Scripture). Homosexuality may be a perversion, but so is gossip, materialism, and most of the entertainment we enjoy today.

  2. I pray that God will use me like that.

    I am not sure that I would make "just war" and murder synonomous. Without addressing "just war," I would make a distinction bewteen "murder" and "killing."

    You are right to add to my list of "perversions." It's not an exhaustive list, but just a few examples.

  3. Keith,

    I must humbly disagree with the via media. In my opinion it does not capture what is right about either position. I believe it is a both-and. John Wesley's sermon, "The Scripture Way of Salvation," for instance, describes sanctification as both instantaneous grace and a process of works of piety and works of mercy.

    To be truly unified as a Church, we will need to learn how to live in diversity, in pluralism. We can agree on the essentials, perhaps delineated in the creeds, but we may need to leave room for differing opinions. Even the creeds are multivalent, having more than one meaning, just as scripture is multivalent.

    If this is the case, the only line that should be drawn is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

    I find it dangerous to confess certain groups of people as residing outside the lines of Christianity. These 'others' are the same people Jesus hung out with. Are we like excluding Christ?

    ALL of this comes back to a discussion of the Doctrine of God. The Trinity is a unity in diversity. God is love, the essence of relationship. To truly be in relationship, to truly have love for another, one must be vulnerable and willing to be affected by the other. To say that God is all-powerful does not mean that God has all the power. God, in creating us, gave us free will. Thus, God gave us power, God shares God's power because God is the source of all power. Now, whether we use this power for good or evil is a different story...

  4. Sorry, I didn't quite complete my thought... Since God shares power, we should too. We should allow each other's beliefs to stand and give each other equal reign over the mission of the Church... ideally, anyway!

  5. Great topic. I would say, where perhaps others would say this is too simplistic, that theology is solely our interpretations of the statements made by a God that is wholly other. We can become confident in our beliefs but never as firm and arrogant as to think we've received the highest revelation. We should never decide that our theology is how God works all the time. Always allow yourself the beauty of being surprised by God. After all, figuring out my wife is not the goal of the relationship. It is really about learning to love and trust her. The same is true with my relationship with God. I would be hesitant to reduce a vibrant relationship into a list of dogmatic (yet realistically subjective and non-essential) beliefs. Sorry, that was longer than I liked.

  6. Great comments! Keep them coming!

    Thanks for the clarification. I meant what you said, but it seemed like I said we need to abolish different groups and become one middle ground for us all to stand on.

    However, what I meant is that groups that believe certain things should not reject all other groups simply because they believe something different.

    Instead people who believe differently than others should be open to conversations on how we can learn from each other.

    Nathan is right, God is a Holy Wholly Other revealed to us through Christ in Scripture. Instead of measuring the beliefs of others by our own beliefs, we must measure them against Christ as revealed in Scripture.

    We are a community, just like the Trinity.


What do you think?