Tag Archives: Scripture

Theology as Discipleship 3

In chapters four and five Johnson turns his attention to scripture, providing a functional account of biblical authority. Because God elects his witnesses and identifies with their words—as Christ does with his own witnesses in the New Testament—and because God continues to use scripture as a medium of revelation, it is authoritative. Through these words the ancient witness and the contemporary hearers are linked in the one story and activity of the gracious God.

God’s movement of grace in the past, and the biblical authors’ obedient response to it, reverberates here and now as God uses the authors’ past actions to produce our faith and obedience in the present. In this way, Scripture itself ties God’s various saving acts together to form a single story, a unified history of God’s grace and our response to it (93).

Despite this beginning, Johnson’s description of biblical authority quickly passes over to an ontological and christological account. Scripture is inspired by God—breathed out by God as God’s own very speech, and as such is God’s Word in human words. Even more specifically, Jesus Christ is this inspiring God, who thus stands at the centre of scripture and is therefore, the criterion of all biblical interpretation. Theology, therefore, is learning to think in accord with “the mind of Christ,” illuminated by the Spirit and guided by the scripture.

Scripture’s purpose is not to help us fit God into our lives but to see how our lives fit into what God is doing in history through Christ and the Spirit. Rather than trying to insert Scripture into our reality by figuring out how we might apply it to our lives, our task is to reinterpret our lives and the whole of reality in the light of Scripture (106).

An implication of this view is that interpretation of scripture is not a free-floating, ad hoc, or reader-centred enterprise. Christians and theologians alike are to learn to speak of God appropriately by being inducted into communities and practices of interpretation, and participating with the community of faith in the present activity of God. Thus Johnson identifies three key interpretive principles. First is what he calls the Augustinian principle: all true biblical interpretation will lead to deeper love of God and neighbour. That is, interpretation is measured by outcome rather than by content alone. Biblical interpretation is itself oriented toward discipleship. Second is the ecclesial principle: we read and listen with others, including the tradition of the church. Believers continue to give their attention to (a) the message of Christ, (b) that of the apostles, and (c) the present work of the Spirit. In fact, Johnson suggests that interpreters start with the present work of the living Lord and Spirit as an exercise in hearing, following and participating now in the life and work of God. This, he suggests, is theology as discipleship. But both poles of this interpretive scheme are necessary. Unless we give our attention to the message we are in danger of drifting. Yet the present work of the Spirit also opens the possibility of new and surprising interpretations that we might never otherwise have noticed. This leads finally, to the third christological principle which insists on interpreting all scripture in the light of Jesus Christ as the criterion of interpretation.

Scripture, then, is central to the work and practice of theology. It is the chief creaturely means through which God speaks (110).

Our calling is to help the church think and speak about God correctly so the church can partner with Christ in God’s saving plan for history, and we interpret the biblical text in light of this calling. Our primary goal is not to extract isolated doctrinal truths from the text and then use them as the building blocks of a theological system. Our goal is to help the church interpret Scripture faithfully so that the church can follow Christ as the Spirit leads. This means we interpret each passage in light of how Christ and the Spirit are prompting us to live in relation to God and neighbor right now … We engage in this task knowing the text will be interpreted properly only in light of the living Christ. …Our proper response is to read it with humility, openness and the expectation that God might surprise us (129, original emphasis).

The Word & Work of God

As Barth considers the eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ, he notes in passing that,

The very best of the older theologians have taught us that in the word which calls and justifies and sanctifies us, the word which forms the content of the biblical witness, we must recognise in all seriousness the Word of God. Beside and above and behind this Word there is none other. To this Word then we have good cause to hold fast both for time and eternity. This Word binds us to itself both for time and eternity, and in it all our confidence must be placed. This Word does not allow us to go beyond it. It allows us no other view of God or man than that which it reveals itself. It focusses all our thoughts upon this view and keeps them focussed there. It warns us against any distraction. This Word alone must satisfy all our questioning because it alone can do so. The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word (Church Dogmatics II/2, 150).

Barth is here arguing against speculative doctrines of divine election that begin elsewhere than with the revelation of God given in Jesus Christ. How can we truly understand the divine work if we turn from the place where God has made himself known: Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in holy scripture. When Barth says, “Word of God” we do well to keep in mind that he refers to both the Living and the Written Word in their mutual relation.

Of interest to me was the last sentence in the above citation, which provides a hermeneutical and methodological principle: The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word.

It is not uncommon to speak with Christians who adhere, for example, to the word of Jesus but who do so in a way at odds with the life and work of Jesus. Nor is it uncommon to speak with Christians who seek to follow in some aspect of the way and ethos of Jesus but do so in a way at odds with his teaching. For Barth, Jesus Christ is the criterion of all knowledge of God, but Jesus Christ as both the word and the work of God. No separation is permissible here, nor any division on the one side or the other. It may be that the emphasis falls now at this point, and then at another. It is likely that theological reflection leading to faith and work will alternate back and forth between the two, allowing both the Word of God and the work of God to mutually inform one another, but always with a precedence given to the Word which binds us to itself, and to and by which we also are bound.

Luther, Scripture and Conscience

Scott Hendrix’s comment on Luther’s declaration at Worms is worth repeating:

Although Luther was aware that different interpretations of scripture could be valid, he did not waver. His answer to Von der Ecken was the long version of a blunt statement he had made to Cardinal Cajetan three years earlier: “Divine truth is lord also over the pope, and I do not await human judgment when I have learned the judgment of God.” For Luther, the issue at stake in Worms was not how to interpret scripture but who could interpret scripture and discern the timely truth it contained. His “incontestable arguments” were based on what a text said and not on who offered the interpretation, that is, not on the pope’s interpretation because he was pope. And that his ‘conscience was captive to the word of God’ was not an internal moral meter that measured right or wrong, but loyalty to the highest authority on which one depended for the truth. For Luther in 1521, that authority was the gospel found in scripture.

Luther was a theology professor at an institution that did not promise freedom of speech. He had sworn allegiance both to the Roman Church and to holy scripture, which he was obligated to teach. Initially he saw no contradiction between them. The indulgence controversy, however, forced him to choose, and he confessed to Cajetan that his loyalty to scripture was higher than his loyalty to the pope. His conscience was now captive to scripture and not to papal interpretations of scripture… (106).

Reading Scripture as Spiritual Practice

A month or so ago I decided to read through some of the Old Testament historical narrative books, given that it has been sometime since I have done so. I decided to start with Ruth and read it a chapter a day several times before moving to 1 Samuel. One of my spiritual practices is to read a portion of scripture and then journal one page of reflections about it. For the last couple of years my attention has been given largely to Psalms and James, with other bits and pieces of scripture thrown in. With James I might focus on a single verse for days at a time, though I do prefer to work with larger portions of text. At present I am reading a chapter of the Minor Prophets and a chapter of 1 Samuel most days.

Alongside my reading of the biblical text, I like to also use a commentary or two. Typically, I read a passage for a day or several days, journaling as I go. And then I pick up the commentaries to see what they say. I find that I am often on a good track in my own deliberations. I find often that I learn new things about the text that enriches my reading and deliberations. I sometimes find I disagree with the commentators’ interpretations, or have gone in different directions in my own interpretation. Using several commentaries helps protect against singular views, bringing different perspectives into dialogue that mutually inform and condition the various readings.

My interpretations are no doubt idiosyncratic, though I do endeavour to practise good exegesis. I try to hear what the biblical authors were saying in their own context. I try to read with some degree of historical and literary expertise, though my historical knowledge is better for New Testament reading than Old Testament. The commentaries are indispensable for this kind of background work which often so illuminates the text.

Of course, I bring myself to the text as well. This is one of the benefits of dwelling with the same text for days at a time. After a few days of meditating on a passage, and having done initial exegetical work, all kinds of life-observations and questions that concern my present circumstances begin to surface. More importantly, I think, implications and applications, and theological, ethical and pastoral connections begin to show up and impress themselves upon me. The biblical passage starts to work its way into my consciousness and do its work. Sometimes this can be deeply instructive, or comforting, or challenging, or enlivening. The Spirit speaks through the Word, mostly unobtrusively, and so quietly—though sometimes not so quietly—shapes and reshapes my thoughts and imagination, my commitments and priorities, my intentions and behaviours. Often, I am led to prayer.

Reading the biblical text slowly, exegetically, reflectively helps me get past the “professional hazard” of reading just for information, or to tick off another occasion of legalistic accomplishment, or for sermon preparation. It also helps me get past a “merely exegetical” reading where I am slicing and dicing, examining and parsing, acting as though I am the master of the text, and it is simply a thing to be studied and understood, as though at a remove from my life. Journaling my understanding, insights, and responses slows me down further, helps me internalise the text, and draws forth thoughts and insights that I might otherwise have missed. I am often struck by what I write—not because what I write is a stroke of genius, but rather that things emerge that I did not anticipate. I usually start with ideas already known or anticipated, but as I write insights dawn, wisdom comes. Engaging the commentaries expands this process, slowing it further, introduces dialogue and further reflection leading to additional insight and creativity. Marinading in the text like this evokes a stillness and an openness to the breath of the Spirit, and to prayer. “Text” becomes Scripture. It becomes more of a “living word” that accompanies me through the day. It speaks.

I love this little cluster of spiritual practices that has so shaped and continues to shape, my life. It is a fountain of life and an opening of wisdom for me. I am not sure how it started, but I recall filling exercise books with my studies and reflections as a young Christian. Now I use a handsome leather bound journal because I want to keep the records of these encounters and reflections. I still only write a page a day – maybe 300 words, maybe 400. It is the only form of journaling that has ever “worked” for me.

Is there time enough simply to meditate my way through the entirety of Scripture like this? I don’t know, but I hope to try! This little set of practices, along with the practice of regular corporate worship, are those practices which have sustained my spiritual life over the years. I cannot do without either of them, and when one or the other slips, so too does my spiritual vitality.

A passage in Proverbs helps capture the vitality of the Word for me. The passage focuses on parental instruction, though in the book the “my son” texts seem to convey a divine as well as a human exhortation.

My son [my daughter], keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them on your heart always, tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life… (Proverbs 6:20-23).

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

MelanchthonIn her The Roots of the Reformation Gillian Evans devoted many pages detailing the recovery of the biblical languages by the Renaissance and Christian humanists which played a decisive role in the Reformation. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) claimed that Hebraei bibunt fontem, Graeci rivos, Latini paludes—“the Hebrews drank from the spring, the Greeks from a river, the Latins from a swamp” (Evans, Roots, 264).

For a thousand years Western Christianity had relied on the Latin Vulgate and the numerous commentaries and glosses that had arisen around that translation. Copyist errors, traditional and philosophical interpretations, and certain translational decisions by Jerome in the fourth century all muddied the waters of biblical interpretation. Hence the humanist and Reformation cry, Ad fontes!—“Back to the sources!”

One of the Reformers, Philipp Melanchthon insisted that learning the biblical languages was essential:

Led by the Holy Spirit, but accompanied by humanist studies, one should proceed to theology . . . but since the Bible is written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek—as Latinists we drink from the stream of both—we must learn these languages, unless we want to be “silent persons” (Evans, 264).


Likewise Martin Luther, according to biographer Scott Hendrix:

Erasmus need not have worried that Protestant reformers would destroy good scholarship. All the leading reformers were trained in the classics and most had earned advanced degrees. They had no intention of abolishing the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, since the knowledge of those languages helped to make the reformation possible. Writing to a familiar supporter in 1523 Luther emphasized that point:

“Do not worry that we Germans are becoming more barbarous than ever before or that our theology causes a decline in learning. Certain people are often afraid when there is nothing to fear. I am convinced that without humanist studies untainted theology cannot exist, and that has proven true. When humanist studies declined and lay prostrate, theology was also neglected and lay in ruin. There has never been a great revelation of God’s word unless God has first prepared the way by the rise and flourishing of languages and learning, as if these were the forerunners of theology as John the Baptist was for Christ” (Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 169).

Luther’s final sentence is well worth considering. I have often repeated to my students a comment my former Greek professor made to me: “If you can learn to read the Scriptures in the original languages you will gain 20-25% additional insight into the text.”

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 77:10-12

hot-coffee & beansToday I am preaching on Psalm 77 at Harmony Baptist Church in Perth. It is a wonderful psalm, a personal lament that turns into a song of praise and trust. The key verse that makes the transition is difficult to identify. Verse 10 in the NASB reads:

Then I said, “It is my grief,
That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

In the NIV the same verse reads:

Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal:
    the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’

Evidently the underlying Hebrew is somewhat obscure, leading translators to different conclusions. Either verse 10 is the climax of the lament of the first half of the psalm, or it is the transition to the more hopeful outlook of the second half. We get an indication of how this transition takes place in verses 11-12:

I shall remember the deeds of the Lord;
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all Your work
And muse on Your deeds.

The psalmist meditates on the works of God, as made known in Scripture, and specifically, God’s saving work of redemption at the Red Sea (Exodus 14; cf Psalm 77:16-20). And as the psalmist turns their attention to God, as they meditate in the Scriptures, hope begins to break forth in the midst of their despair. They, too, are the children of Jacob, God’s flock, and so the object of his care and saving mercies.

To meditate is to consider, to ponder, to imagine, to allow one’s mind to turn the Scripture over and over. One analogy I use to describe meditation is the old process of percolating coffee which no one uses anymore. The hot water runs through the beans and as it does, the water is transformed, taking the colour, the scent and aroma, the flavour of the coffee beans. It is no longer water, but coffee. So, too, as we meditate in the Scripture, the fragrance and texture, life and power that is in the Word somehow begins to seep into our lives, working its transformational magic, changing us as the ‘Word takes flesh’, becomes embodied, in our lives.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (4)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:34-44, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

In the second sub-section of Barth’s prologue to the doctrine of election, he considers the source and foundation of the doctrine. He begins by identifying four insufficient bases for the doctrine including simple repetition of the tradition, the utility or usefulness of the doctrine, Christian experience, and a focus on the omnipotent divine will. Of these, Barth focuses especially on the third and fourth items which although wrong in form (52), are yet somewhat correct in intent or substance, in that they at least direct their attention to the elect person and the electing God. Barth declares his methodological hand early:

We must at this point recall the basic rule of all Church dogmatics: that no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as a part of the responsibility laid upon the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. Thus the doctrine of election cannot legitimately be understood or represented except in the form of an exposition of what God Himself has said and still says concerning Himself. It cannot and must not look to anything but the Word of God, nor set before it anything but the truth and reality of that Word (35).

Barth does not reject tradition, of course, but insists that it cannot be the subject and norm of dogmatic effort. Rather its function is to serve the Word.

But we shall be doing Calvin the most fitting honour if we go the way that he went and start where he started. And according to his own most earnest protestations, he did not start with himself, nor with his system, but with Holy Scripture as interpreted in his system. It is to Scripture that we must again address ourselves, not refusing to learn from that system, but never as ‘Calvinists without reserve.’ And it is to Scripture alone that we must ultimately be responsible (36).

In turning to Scripture, however, care must be exercised lest Scripture be misused:

Is it right to go to the Bible with a question dictated to us by experience, i.e., with a presupposition which has only an empirical basis, in order then to understand the statements of the Bible as an answer to this question, which means chiefly as a confirmation of the presupposition which underlies the question? … If it is to be a question of the divine judgment, as it must be in dealing with the doctrine of election, then Scripture must not be brought in simply as an interpretation of the facts of the case as given by our own judgment. The very facts which we consider must be sought not in the realm of our experience but in Scripture, or rather in the self-revelation of God attested in Scripture (38).

Barth insists that the doctrine of election cannot be read off our experience of the results of gospel proclamation and human response. Such an approach not only is a misuse of Scripture but presumes that the judgement of human experience is equivalent with divine judgement. Barth’s discussion in this matter, then, is a decisive repudiation of Calvin’s approach (39-41), whom he accuses of feeling very competent to distinguish “if not the reprobate, at least the stupid and deceived and wicked who in that age formed so distressingly large a majority of men” (40).

The fact which above all others inspired Calvin, and was thus decisive for the formation of his doctrine, was not at all the contrast between the Church on the one hand, and on the other the heathen world entirely unreached by the Gospel. … Again, it was not the positive observation that at all times the Gospel has both reached so many externally and also seemed to prevail over them internally. … [but] that other fact of experience which excites both pain and anger, the fact of the opposition, the indifference, the hypocrisy and the self-deception with which the Word of God is received by so many of those who hear it (80 per cent, according to the estimate there given). And it is this limiting experience, the negative in conjunction with the positive, which is obviously the decisive factor as Calvin thought he must see it. It was out of this presupposition, laid down with axiomatic certainty, that there arose for him the magnae et arduae quaestiones [great and difficult questions] for which he saw an answer in what he found to be the teaching of Scripture (39-40).

Behind this approach is a presupposition that election concerns God’s eternal and decisive foreordination of every individual in their private relation to God, which is then understood, on the basis of experience, in terms of election and rejection. Although Barth accepts that every person does indeed stand in a private and individual relation to God, and that this relation is indeed decisively determined by God’s election, he nevertheless rejects the presupposition that election is focussed first and primarily on the individual, and the corollary idea that each individual’s private relation to God is thereby unalterably established and determined in advance. God’s election is gracious and free, focussed specifically and primarily on Jesus Christ and his people, and only then on the individual (41-44). The great danger, Barth suggests, is that reading divine election from our experience of the fruitfulness or otherwise of the proclamation of the gospel will result in a portrayal of the electing God who resembles “far too closely the electing, and more particularly the rejecting theologian”! (41)

On the Reliability of Scripture

berkouwer2Gerrit C. Berkouwer reflects on the reliability of Scripture in light of its dual nature as ‘the Word of God and the word of man.’ No theory of inspiration is adequate which does not “agree with the ‘phenomena’ of Scripture” (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, 242). Still, the reliability of Scripture is a critical religious matter, correlated with trust. “The reliability of God is the unshakable foundation of such a trust; … However, one should not think that he enters into an entirely different sector of trust when considering the reliability of Scripture” (241).

Yet the kind of reliability Berkouwer has in mind is not that of the precision, accuracy or exactness of, for example, modern historiography; modern concepts of reliability are foreign to Scripture. He is not concerned by “innocent inaccuracies” (245). Nor is Scripture intended to instruct us concerning the composition of the cosmos or of the human person. “The purpose of Scripture is directly aimed at the revelation of God in this world and to man” (245, original emphasis).

As Ridderbos writes, the evangelists did not intend to give “an historical narrative of Jesus’s words and works but a portrayal of Jesus as the Christ.” This is the character of our gospel, or, expressed in other terms, not report but witness (247, original emphasis).

If absolute preciseness and exactness is seen as the ideal, excluding all interpretive subjectivity, in order to render ‘facts’ as objectively as possible, we must conclude that the Gospels do not coincide with this ideal and therefore are not reliable (248).

The reliability of Scripture, therefore, is in accordance with its purpose, not the character of its precision or otherwise.

Thus, various emphases on witness, truth, and reliability are clearly evident (Jn. 19:35; 21:24). But these are not in opposition to a freedom in composing and expressing the mystery of Christ; their purpose is rather to point in their testimony to that great light. … For the aim of the portrayal was not to mislead and to deceive; it was not even a ‘pious fraud,’ for it was wholly focused on the great mystery. This explains why the church through the ages was scarcely troubled by the differences pointed out long before, and by the inexact, non-notarial portrayal. A problem was created only as a result of attempts at harmonization and the criticism that followed (252).

That is, the church has long recognised—and been unconcerned about—discrepancies of detail in the gospels. The problem arose as a result of harmonisation and historical criticism and led subsequently to anxiety about inspiration on the one hand, or a conviction that the gospels were unreliable on the other. Both concerns are invalid because they ground the reliability of Scripture on its verbal precision rather than on the content and reliability of the witness to Jesus Christ, and the use made of that witness by the Holy Spirit to guide us to salvation (254, 263).

If Scripture is truly what the church confessed it to be in its creed, we should continually be reminded of the prayer during all reading of Scripture: “Come, Creator Spirit!” … The message of Scripture alone, convincing and overwhelming as it is through the power of the Spirit, clearly can lead us quietly to trust this reliability (264).

Noel Vose: A Life Well-Lived

Noel Vose 2
Noel, on his 91st birthday, at Providence Church in Midland.

Yesterday I joined many hundreds of others to celebrate the life of Noel Vose. Noel was one of those rare breed whose lives are larger-than-life. At the age of ninety-four he remained active, alert, engaged, interested, and loved.

The young Noel’s circumstances were humble, his education meagre. Yet against the odds he gained an education, finally being awarded his PhD for a thesis on John Owen in 1963 from the University of Iowa. His wife, Heather, and their two children had already returned to Australia from the United States, and so Noel sent a telegram to advise of his success: “NOW IM A PHOOLISH DUNCE LOVE NOEL” (See Moore, Noel Vose, 130).

I have a vague memory of Noel telling me once that he was the first Baptist in Australia to be awarded the degree. Or perhaps he said “first Baptist minister.” Either way, he was rightfully proud of his achievement.

Noel became the founding principal of the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia. Many years later I was the recipient of his diligence and industry, becoming a student at the College, and years later again, am privileged to teach at the now renamed Vose Seminary.

Noel went on to lead the Australian Baptists before serving as President of the Baptist World Alliance. He has met with heads of state and sat on international councils, exercising his enormous influence for good. In his eighties, the Roman Catholics and Baptists were conducting an international consultation at the Vatican. Noel was invited as a Baptist representative and in a small gathering also met his Holiness, the Pope.

After preaching at Parkerville one Sunday morning from Psalm 77 on the importance of meditation in the Scriptures, Noel thanked me for the message and told me of that meeting. He told of a cardinal speaking to the small group and citing Jerome, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!” He told of another meeting on another day in which the Pope spoke and also cited Jerome, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!”

“Twice they said it, this cardinal and the pope! We Baptists sometimes think we are people of the word, but we are not the only ones! And we had best stay people of the word!” And then he looked me square in the eye, gripped my hand and said with great emphasis, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!

For all his stature and accomplishments, Noel was interested in the individual, taking time to seek out the newcomers and the young, to inquire after their faith and learn of their ministry. One left his presence feeling carefully listened to, challenged, and deeply encouraged.

When Noel learned of my own interest in Karl Barth, he told me of attending Barth’s 1962 lectures in Chicago. He had driven all night with a friend to get there, and upon arriving and hearing Barth’s slow English in a thick guttural accent, wondered how he would stay awake! The room for the first lecture was packed with several thousand people and Noel had had to stand in the rear of the auditorium, peering around a column. After a few minutes, however, he realised that Barth was making him think “great thoughts about God.” A few weeks later, he gave me a little parcel: it was his handwritten notes from that series of lectures, as well as his copy of the famed Time magazine featuring Barth on the cover. “You might find these of interest,” he said.

In his address at the funeral, Arthur Payne said of Noel, “he was a man in whose presence you became better than you are.” Even more insightful was the word spoken by his granddaughter about his life of prayer. He told her many times: “Your prayers are powerful; you can change the world with your prayers.” He was a man of regular, constant, fervent prayer.

A man of prayer. A man of the Word. A man of immense personal integrity and presence. A man of vision, devotion and compassion. A man tireless in his service of God and God’s people. Noel Vose has left us an example to follow and perhaps, a mantle to take up. His was an extraordinary life, a life well-lived. May we follow him, as he followed Christ.

Outgrowing Christianity?

candle-blown-outA couple of weeks ago I was browsing blogs and read Rachel Held Evans’ post “On ‘Outgrowing’ American Christianity.” Evans is speaking of a particular kind of evangelical Christianity, and notes especially, the situatedness of all theological reflection. One of her correspondents, however, goes further, and speaks of outgrowing Christianity, and not simply a particular expression of it:

Leaving the evangelical church for a more liturgical church (Anglican and Episcopal) was my first step towards atheism. What began as an earnest soul-searching attempt to deepen my faith, thanks in part to the gay marriage debate, led our devout Christian family towards the search for another denomination. In researching the various denominational stances on gay marriage and other issues, we ended up towards the Episcopal end of the spectrum. Eventually, after months and then years of searching for the right church for our family, we gave up on organized religion. Our search exposed the same ugliness and patterns in every denomination we explored. Letting go of organized religion was shocking and absolutely the last thing I ever expected would happen to us. But I’ve never felt so FREE – so in love with humanity for the sake of humanity, itself. A Christian can ABSOLUTELY “just stop being religious.” I did. My husband did. Our family did. As I grappled with why my soul felt so liberated, and continued to study and search and read, I had no choice but to become an agnostic, and ultimately an atheist. I see the world through a much clearer lens now. Ironically, letting go of religion, and eventually any concept of God, has given my heart the capacity to love others like never before.

In a follow-up comment answering a question from a second correspondent, the woman continues:

I will tell you that my experience, including the order of events towards agnosticism and ultimately atheism, is a very common one among those who de-convert from Christianity. The actual desire to deepen one’s faith/study apologetics/sharpen one’s ability to defend one’s beliefs intelligently has led quite a few down the path I’ve taken. I have read many, many stories of Christians who were searching and ended up on the exact same path: at first bandaging the issues with a new denomination…which eventually revealed the man-made ugliness and restrictions of all denominations…which led to questioning organized religion…which led to abandoning organized religion…which led to embracing agnosticism…which ultimately led to atheism. I’m grossly oversimplifying this, of course. It was an agonizing journey, full of late nights and sleepless weeks. It started three to four years ago for me, but really ramped up over the summer and early fall. I lost my faith ultimately in a matter of months. It is one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, times in my life.

The woman who styles herself, “Lost My Southern Graces,” is a closet atheist. She has not yet told her extended family or friends of her de-conversion: she is sure they will not understand, and that she will certainly lose her friends. She jokes that her community will “eat me alive.”

Why do some people walk away from the church? More deeply, why do some people walk away from faith itself? Although every person’s story will be uniquely theirs, I also imagine that there are some common threads which unite many of these stories. I certainly recognise aspects of my own story in hers, although ultimately, I ended up with faith renewed rather than faith lost.

In a recent sermon I identified five reasons for doubt including lack of opportunity, disillusionment with the church, moral, experiential and intellectual factors. It seems the second and fifth factors have played a role in “Lost My Southern Graces’” loss of faith. I resonate with her desire for a more aesthetic worship experience; evangelical worship is sometimes akin to a dry cracker biscuit at dinner time. But aesthetics alone are unlikely to sustain a rich and mature faith. The root of my own quite profound experience of doubt had its genesis in an intellectual approach to Scripture and faith. After being raised in a Roman Catholic family, I found my own faith in a quite fundamentalist Pentecostal sect which emphasised the truthfulness of the bible but in a very naive and idiosyncratic way. After about fifteen years with that group I began broadening my theological horizons, eventually taking a degree in theology during which I was introduced to critical study of the scriptures. “Lost My Southern Graces” is right: many a Christian’s faith has floundered on these shoals.

My boat almost capsized. For about two years I thrashed about this way and that, now so very uncertain of the sureties I had previously held. I no longer knew whether or not I could trust the Bible, believe in God, Jesus, heaven, or anything else. In hindsight, my faith was real enough. What was utterly insufficient for the impact of formal theological studies was the intellectual framework that surrounded and supported it. When that intellectual framework began to collapse, it felt as though my faith would also fail. But for the grace of God, it may have. It is possible to tear down and substitute a Christian intellectual framework with a more rationalist or secular worldview, and in so doing depart from the faith one once held. My problem was even more basic: my Christian intellectual framework was under-developed. I liken it to a primary-school understanding of Christian faith trying to withstand the assault of tertiary-level critical studies. In cases like this, something has to give and often, it is the faith that gives. This is part of the reason (not the only reason of course) why so many young Christians flounder when they enter university studies.

What helped me tremendously was undertaking a directed study programme toward the end of my undergraduate degree on Scripture, Revelation and Authority during which I had to research and write two major papers. The first was an analysis and assessment of various Evangelical approaches to biblical authority, and the second an analysis and assessment of Karl Barth’s doctrines of revelation and scripture. The first paper helped me discover that one can hold a high view of scripture in a number of different ways, and that some models, indeed, are much better than others. But it was Karl Barth who really helped me. Although I do not go all the way with Barth, it was his trinitarian and christological approach to revelation and scripture that gave me the intellectual framework I needed for a more adequate doctrine of scripture capable of intelligent engagement with the world of critical study and of sustaining a devotional practice whereby the bible functions in a sacramental way in my life, a vehicle for the presence, wisdom, and encounter with God.

That was almost twenty years ago. I still face doubts from time to time but do so now from a position of greater understanding. My faith has been deepened and enriched. I am quite aware of the contingent nature of faith now, and hopefully I no longer exhibit the triumphalist and somewhat arrogant note that once I think I did.

“My” faith? Yes. My faith is genuinely mine in the sense that it is my response to, and decision in the light of, God’s initiating movement of grace toward me. But in a deeper and much more wonderful sense, it is not mine at all. More than anything else I have come to realise that it is not me that holds onto him, but he who holds onto me.

I have found that God is greater, even than our unbelief. “Lost My Southern Graces” has outgrown the church, outgrown Christianity, outgrown even, she says, the concept of God. My hope though, is that she can never outgrow God himself.

As for me, I found I could not outgrow Christianity, but my understanding of Christian faith had been outgrown and needed to grow up. When it did grow up, I found a large and roomy house, and even some of those rooms which still hold difficult questions find a place in this lovely and light-filled house.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)