Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Messy God?

One of the few periodical e-mails I actually like to receive, amid a sea of bills and notices and spam, is the Christianity Today magazine e-mail, which finds my inbox every day. While perusing the articles a few weeks ago I found this one, which made me think a bit. Why? Because the author, Carolyn Arends, sounds a lot like me!

"I've been searching for frameworks, outlines, contexts; ways to more thoroughly understand what I believe," says Arend. These sure sound like words what I try to do. I love to study Scripture and read through theological works--anything that will help me to think in new ways, to clarify God's truth, to see his work in a way that fits. Maybe I have some sort of "inner engineer," because when it comes to doctrines and theology, I find myself wanting to take it apart and see how it all works. After all, knowing how it's put together helps me know how to use it--to live it.

But as I continue to encounter people from different Christian traditions and denominations, I become aware that God simply doesn't behave as a God who can be dissected.

But there are people—wise, godly people—who grin at me like my husband did at my organizer. "Do you think," asked my friend Barbara, who happens to be a theology professor, "that part of you is looking for control?" I stared at her blankly. No, part of me isn't looking for control. All of me is looking for control. I hate chaos and uncertainty. I am deeply bothered by doctrinal divisions within even the small confines of my own church tradition.

And honestly, I really don't like it when God behaves unpredictably, when he seems to be as much about mystery as he is about revelation, and when he refuses to fit into the slots I have labeled for him.

Faith would be much tidier if God could be contained within mutually agreed upon doctrinal positions. Scripture would be much more manageable if it were pure exposition, if there weren't all those sprawling narratives, wistful poems, and cryptic apocalyptic visions. Why didn't God give us his Word in sermon points that spell out catchy acronyms? Why is it all so messy? Even our most precise expositor, the apostle Paul, holds revelation and mystery in tension. In his letter to the Ephesians, he proclaims, "God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure" (1:9, NLT).

When I read this, I had to laugh a bit. Let's get serious here, folks. Of all people, I could probably think and talk and debate for hours over a lot of doctrinal issues and why I believe them to be biblically and practically valid. Yet the Holy Spirit will continue to bear fruit and create redeemed disciples of Jesus Christ even in people and churches who hold different, even opposing, doctrinal views from my own generally Reformed convictions.* For as much as truth needs to be defined and defended--the Holy Writ says so itself--the Spirit of God seems to be moving in an even bigger way. I'm not saying this to pluralize Gospel truth. I'm saying this because the fact is there are godly people bearing the fruit of the the Spirit who don't hold to the doctrinal positions I do.


* I'm thinking of, for example, differing views on divine calling, baptism, the Lord's Supper, eschatology, the nature of worship and the church, speaking in tongues, etc. On the latter, "tongues" freak me out. I have friends who claim to pray in tongues. I see no reason for them to exist, the Scriptures are enigmatic as to what they are or whether they were to have ceased, and yet godly people still claim to pray in such languages.


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

"truth needs to be defined and defended--the Holy Writ says so itself"


Interesting post - it would be fun to talk through this with you in person.

Andrew said...

"Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us." (2 Tim. 1:14) -- The gospel and the "whole counsel of God," the "faith once for all passed down to the saints" is something that Paul says is like a deposit which has been entrusted to him, to Timothy, and to other ministers of the Word. Therefore they are to keep or guard it.

"Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 19:30) When something is distorted that means it is twisted so that it no longer resembles the original. Unless we have an actual definition of the "truth" of the gospel, then it's meaningless to speak of it being twisted.

"They must keep hold of the deep truths [lit. mysteries] of the faith with a clear conscience." (1 Tim. 3:9) Paul then goes on to define what are the mysteries of the faith, its content.

"Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some." (2 Tim. 2:17-18) Truth cannot be wandered away from unless it has a core or boundaries. Some evangelicals prefer a "center-set" theology in which orthodoxy is on a continuum of how close or far you are from "core" doctrines. Others prefer a "boundary-set" theology in which you're either within or beyond accepted orthodoxy.

So I hope you find this to be sufficient warrant that doctrinal truth itself needs to be defined and defended.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Drew, no specific verses came to mind when I read "the Holy Writ says so itself". I assumed you were referencing a passage of scripture I just didn't know. Therefore, I was requesting the reference; I wasn't arguing with you.