Category Archives: Culture

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve

by Matthew Pinson

I have been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. Scruton is the best-known conservative intellectual in Great Britain. A philosopher by training, he has written more than forty books on issues as diverse as politics and the environment and art and music. He gave an excellent presentation of the latter two subjects in his BBC documentary, Beauty.

Conservatism is largely about the principles of cultural and political conservatism that emerged from seminal thinkers like Edmund Burke. But theological conservatives can learn a lot from it. In reading Scruton’s section on Burke, I came across a great passage that summarizes a key principle of conservatism and Christianity that I strive to pass on to my students in my courses at Welch, and it’s about continuity with the consensus of scripturally based tradition that has been bequeathed to us.

Edmund Burke is famous for his quip that “we must reform in order to conserve.” He believed that, in political and cultural life, revolution is dangerous, because it rips people from the organic inheritance that they received from their fathers and mothers. That was the problem he saw in the French Revolution, which he despised, but not in the American Revolution, which he defended.

So, Scruton explains, Burke saw the American founders as going back to the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen. “The U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee to the people what they had once enjoyed,” he says. “It was the residue of an already established practice rather than a recipe for a new order of things.” This is like the Protestant Reformers, who I explain to my students were not revolutionaries but were recovering an ancient tradition that had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

I explain to my students that sometimes we conservative Protestants are tempted to be intimidated by our difficult cultural circumstances, in which Christianity is being treated with hostility by the cultural elites and by many in the neighborhoods where our own churches minister. I am tempted—we all are tempted—to be revolutionaries, to try arbitrarily first one thing and then another that has never been tried before, hoping that maybe something will stick, something will do the trick. We hope we’ll stumble onto that cultural silver bullet that will open the floodgates for people, finally, to overcome their cultural objections to the faith and pour into the church.

The Reformers and the great missions pioneers and our early evangelical and Baptist and Free Will Baptist forebears did not choose the way of revolution. Instead, they chose reform. They knew the church needed renewal, freshness. But they sought what Timothy George and others call “renewal through retrieval,” reforming the church by recovering precious truths of faith and of practice that have been lost or at least eclipsed in the recent past.

This gets back to G. K. Chesterton’s idea of “the democracy of the dead,” to C. S. Lewis’s counsel not to be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” but instead to “let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through our minds.” It means that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves and our current, passing moment. We are continuing and conserving the faith and practice of that “great cloud of witnesses” that has gone before us, so that we will have something worth passing down to those who come after us.

This is what the Christian tradition has called the “communion of saints.” It’s something that transcends the present age which is passing away with its lusts. It spans centuries and generations and classes educational levels and races. It’s a communion we risk getting out of touch with if we have a revolution and discard the Christian tradition of faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do).

 

2017 Symposium Recap – David Outlaw on Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Kevin L. Hester

As part of the fall 2017 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission on Theological Integrity, Dr. David Outlaw, Global Education Specialist with Free Will Baptist International Missions, presented one of the more thought-provoking theological explorations. His reflection on Christopher Wright’s 2006 publication, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative spurred significant discussion and laid the groundwork for re-visioning how Free Will Baptists understand their role of theological education, especially in non-Western cultures.

Outlaw related his own experiences and difficulties in expressing typical Western theological expressions to non-western cultures. His proposal was that Wright’s missional hermeneutic may allow for a more bibliocentric approach to theological education in cross-cultural contexts. He began by reviewing Wright’s work and explaining his concept of a missional hermeneutic. Following some helpful assessment, Outlaw then teased out several possible implications of this hermeneutic for theological education in light of the worldwide Church.

A Missional Hermeneutic

Outlaw communicated his vision of Wright’s idea of a missional hermeneutic as the grand story of God’s redemption expressed in Scripture. He argued that this Biblical metanarrative provides a basis for approaching and communicating truth about God in ways that move beyond proof-texting, avoid alien cultural expressions, and begin with Scripture rather than philosophical speculation. Such a Biblically-centered approach underscores the Bible as the inspired, authoritative source of knowledge about God and helps to promote a Biblical and theocentric worldview.

Outlaw traced Wright’s work in outlining God’s gradual revelation of Himself in Scripture primarily though His actions. These actions in the Old Testament included creation, judgment, and the calling of a people (Israel) to Himself. In these actions God demonstrates his holiness leading to judgment and love leading to redemption. This narrative unfolds in the New Testament, most perfectly with the salvation made known through Jesus. ultimately in His death, burial, and resurrection. At Pentecost, the redemption of God’s people was expanded to all nations. Paul’s preaching and the growth of the early church made it clear that God’s purpose in revelation and redemption was a global one.

Missional Practice

The ongoing activity of the Church should then be understood as the work of God through the Church rather than the work of individuals. The same narrative of redemption presented in Scripture is ongoing throughout the world today. God is building His kingdom in and through the Church and this has implications for the way the Church lives out these kingdom principles in the world today. This calls the Church to be actively engaged in preaching the Gospel. The Church should proclaim a holy, righteous judge who loved us enough to send His Son for our redemption.

But God’s kingdom extends beyond individuals. God cares for all creation and is renewing this creation through the Gospel and through His people. God’s mission cries out for justice as the Church works to eradicate the effects of sin in interpersonal relationships. God’s mission to the world demonstrates the inherent value and equality of all those created in His image. God’s mission also frees redeemed humanity to exercise appropriate dominion over all areas of God’s creation. This recognizes both the appropriate use of natural resources, but also a concern for the preservation of these goods given to us by God.

Moving Forward

While Outlaw reasserted the basic outlines of Wright’s thesis, he did not do so without criticism. While he appreciated Wright’s focus on mission as the work of God, he recognizes that even focusing upon the Biblical narrative will not allow us to fully escape the cultural and hermeneutical grids through which we read and interpret the Bible. He expressed concern over Wright’s perceived overemphasis in ecology, while simultaneously underscoring the truth that the mission of God extends to all creation and will ultimately manifest itself in the new heaven and the new earth.

Outlaw believes that a missional hermeneutic has two overarching strengths in reading the Old Testament. First, it allows the Christian to obtain a fuller picture of how the Old and New Testaments connect with one another as parts of the same story. Second, it allows room for Christians to come to understand Israel (at least historically if not more) as a focus and an instrument of God’s redemption.

Outlaw also believes that such a hermeneutic can highlight the need for missional activity and inform its processes. Rather than starting with a systematic theology, he proposes that Christians working cross-culturally emphasize Biblical theology, training new believers first and foremost in the Biblical narrative of God’s redemption as story. Because stories are part of who we are, it allows Christians wherever they are to see themselves in the light of God’s redemptive purposes. Preaching and teaching then should move beyond reductionist approaches to expository preaching to include the missional moment of God’s redemption as we strive to locate, interpret, and apply a Biblical text.

Conclusion

The strength of Outlaw’s presentation is found partly in Wright’s work and partly in Outlaw’s experience with communicating Christ cross-culturally in Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America. Outlaw’s cultural lens and his work contribute authority and wisdom to his words. Such a perspective allows him a unique position from which to gauge the sometimes hidden cultural components of the Christian message. Nowhere does he call us to leave off theological thinking. In fact, he argues that such a response would be unhelpful. Instead, he simply asks that we recognize the cultural components of our understanding of the Gospel and to begin, not with theology, but with Scripture. Only when we have grasped God’s unfolding of Himself in the time and space of this world as he builds His kingdom will Christians be able to find their own place in this world and in God’s story.

David Outlaw: A Consideration of Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Symposium Recap – Cultural Evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis

by W. Jackson Watts

Raven Tuttobene, a graduate student at Welch College, presented a paper entitled “I Love Lucy: Assumptions in Using Cultural Evolution as the Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis.” We’re always pleased to have first-time presenters on our program, especially ones who can further expose some of the errors in modern thought about Christian Scripture and doctrine.

Though “I Love Lucy” was a famous television program years ago, the Lucy referred to has in mind the common name of a collection of bone fossils discovered in 1974 in Africa. Lucy is thought to be something of a missing paleontological link between modern human beings and our ancient relatives. Tuttobene uses this play on words, it seems, to make a connection between the theory of cultural evolution and how this is the actual underpinning of a broader, beloved theory or hypothesis about how the biblical documents came to exist in their present form.

The Documentary Hypothesis (sometimes referred to as JEDP) is the dominant model used to explain the origin and composition of the Pentateuch. Made famous by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen in the nineteenth century, this perspective sees the first five books of the Bible not as a unified work from a single author (Moses, for example). Rather, it sees it as a series of sources collected over a long period of time by different editors or redactors. Thus, JEDP stands for Jahovist, Elohimist, Deuteronomist, Priestly.

Although this theory has undergone some revision, and some biblical scholars have jettisoned it in favor of other theories, it still is the basic theory underlying much of critical biblical scholarship. Anyone who has taken a basic Bible Survey course is at least familiar with this theory. For those who have made use of biblical commentaries, it is quite likely some of those commentators assume this paradigm.

Tuttobene’s paper isn’t interested in reexamining all the particulars of the theory. Instead, she wisely focuses on a deeper idea or assumption underlying the Documentary Hypothesis: cultural evolution.

By cultural evolution we essentially mean the notion of history as the inevitable progression and development of human reason, and the human race being further educated, moving toward deeper degrees of rationality. Religion recedes where complexity and rationality in society increases, and evolves into more complex religion.

The original basis for the Documentary Hypothesis was a Romanticist view of cultural evolution which saw early religion as free, simple, and innocent.  Yet in the context of the Enlightenment, evolutionary thought about culture and religion saw early religions as barbaric and violent (60). So which is it?

Tuttobene asserts that the very existence of cultural evolution is a problematic basis for religious interpretation. The developments described by the evolutionary model of religion have never been observed. Instead, what Wellhausen did was focus on “demonstrating the progressive nature of the Israelite religion and retroactively superimposed this standard on the whole Pentateuch.” (59). Yet therein lies some of the many problems with his approach.

There is a great degree of ambiguity in the theory and methods associated with historical criticism. How does one situate a text in its ancient context? Does the context help us understand the text, or the text the context? Is there a consistent textual standard? If not, by what means might one divide the JEDP documents? Why are other ancient near eastern texts treated as discrete, unified documents, but biblical texts are treated radically different?

Tuttobene attempts to put her fingers on the contradictions between a Romanticist view of cultural evolution, and the evolutionary model of religion of the Enlightenment. Moreover, she raises questions about how these contradictions give rise to other ambiguities in the actual application of biblical historical criticism.

Implications

I think the biggest takeaway from Miss Tuttobene’s presentation is two-fold. First, it is incredibly difficult to uproot widely accepted theories once they have taken hold. Therefore, one quite literally needs to focus on the roots of such theories, as well as the components of the theory’s application, in order to launch an effective critique on a bad theory.

Second, I don’t think we have given nearly enough consideration to how secular views of progress (whether they concern religion or society in general) undergird much of our contemporary life. When we think about how many ethical debates go, whether on human rights, capitalism, religious liberty, or other matters, we can always tease out some implicit view of progress that is supposedly what should direct where we land on these debates.

Instead of spending all of our time debating the particulars of policy proposals (and we should do this), we need to spend more time and energy targeting the problematic assumptions about cultural progress that underlie our debates. Tuttobene’s paper helps us think about this concerning biblical scholarship, but even in other areas also.

Raven Tuttobene: I Love Lucy: Assumptions in Using Cultural Evolution as the Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis

 

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Reflection

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I read Tom Wolfe’s latest work, The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe is well-known and controversial journalist who has authored fiction and non-fiction works on a range of subjects. In the aforementioned title, a sort of exploration into philosophy, science, linguistics, and history, Wolfe devotes significant attention to the story of Daniel L. Everett.

Everett was a missionary sent by the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the Pirahās (pronounced pee-da-HAN) Indians in the Amazonian jungle. I had heard of Everett before and discussed his story with a Brazilian friend, though I did not know the whole story. What I did know was so fascinating to me that I picked up a copy of his memoir, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon Books, 2008).

Continue reading Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Reflection

An Episode in Cross-Cultural Theological Instruction

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I had the honor of serving as a visiting professor at the Los Cedros de Líbano Seminario (the Cedars of Lebanon Seminary) in Pinar del Río, Cuba. This is the seminary of the Cuban National Association of Free Will Baptists. Incidently, their national association will be holding its 75th national convention later this week.

This was the second time I have visited our island nation neighbor to the south, a land which has for many decades been dubbed “the land of Castro.” Certainly much has changed in relations between the United States and Cuba in recent years. Only time will tell the full implications of those changes. Of course, more changes are likely to come as international commerce, the Internet, and other elements are increasingly introduced. Above all else, the flow of American money into any country carries with it a dynamic that is hard to entirely assess.

But I came to Cuba not as a tourist or businessman, but as a brother and servant, at least I hope that is how it was perceived. The Cedars of Lebanon Seminary has done a tremendous job training countless Christian men and women for service to Christ’s church throughout the island and the world. Its graduates are pastors, missionaries, youth ministry leaders, women’s ministry leaders, and more. That some of their American brothers have been welcomed to lend a hand in their theological instruction is a great privilege that I hope is not underestimated.

Teaching theology is itself a peculiar task. Once we move beyond some of the misconceptions about what theology or doctrine is (no small feat), there is the challenge of determining how to convey ideas—often complex ones—to a particular audience. As Cuba is a foreign country with a unique history, language, economy, customs, and socio-political arrangement, these factors must be taken into account in theological instruction.

The topic of my course was theological anthropology. Essentially, my task was to instruct 1st thru 4th-year seminary students on what the Bible teaches about man.[1] Some of the specific areas we covered were the doctrine of the image of God, man and woman as a gendered beings, and the total personality approach to humanity. Most of the instruction was done with the help of translators, for whom I am so grateful. Though my own understanding of the Spanish language facilitated my teaching and preaching at times, without translators I would have been useless to these students.

As a student of language, as well as someone who stands in front of people each week attempting to communicate God’s truth, I cannot help but marvel at what a unique thing language is.

I think far too often we take language for granted. We assume that the challenge of learning and teaching is bound up largely in our ability as teachers and preachers to understand for ourselves. And indeed, you cannot effectively teach what you do not adequately understand! Yet there is a personal, intellectual, and symbolic world we quickly move into as we open our mouths to speak understanding into the ears, minds, and hearts of our students. We must master our subject, or something close to it, but then we must master our audience as much as we can.

Approaching the Challenge

Mastery of cross-cultural instruction is difficult for any number of reasons. First, we have to do the hard work of learning something about that unique audience. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they presently believe? What do they love? What do they fear? Certainly the Bible gives us a foundation for knowing the answers to such questions among any audience of human beings.

However, answers to these basic questions take on slightly different nuances in different times and places in human history. I’m increasingly convinced that even the most seasoned pastor probably needs two to three years in the pulpit at a new church before truly knowing how to speak to that specific group of people in an optimal way. Thankfully, the clarity of Scripture and the power of the Gospel is such that God can still use His servants to accomplish something even in new settings.

A second challenge is understanding the words, images, idioms, and concepts of that target audience if we are to introduce something new, or reform an understanding something already present. This is especially important when one is teaching through a translator. The translator is certainly as immersed in the linguistic-intellectual challenge as the teacher himself. It becomes especially important to read the faces of students as the words are said for the second time.

I have spoken with many folks who have preached with the help of a translator before. The one observation that always emerges quickly is just how problematic our American idioms and metaphors are, even when heard by skilled translators. I’ve heard more than one humorous tale of a preacher growing increasingly frustrated and stammering as he tried to explain an idiom to a translator, bringing the already-plodding sermon to a screeching halt.

Nonetheless, the hard, but crucial work of communication requires that we focus on the core biblical metaphors in order to make cross-cultural instruction most beneficial. If we increasingly grasp the everyday idioms and metaphors of the target audience, then those can also be employed in the teaching task.

But the beautiful thing that I was reminded of is that in Christ, even a teacher and student of different origins still have a common language: the Scriptures. They have a common goal: Christlikeness. They have a common law: the way of love.

Accordingly, I have great confidence—in principle and from experience—that the Great Commission works. Ours is only to find our place in that work and do it.

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[1] There were also some pastors who sat in on the classes who were on campus for a pastors’ conference. Additionally, a few other professors were present at times during the week.