Last week I presented a broad overview of how I believe the church has evolved in America during my lifetime. I now believe that there should be little doubt that the church is not only in rapid numerical decline but intellectually and spiritually we are almost powerless. A major reason for this condition lies in the loss of what I referred to as “the romance of orthodoxy.” When good orthodoxy is joined with a deep sense of mystery shaped by paradox I believe we see a better way to enter the next era of church history. I want to explore this idea today.
The Greeks, from whom we inherited a great deal of how we do theology, sought to argue from a premise to a conclusion. The goal was to create a logical and coherent discipline of the mind. During the Enlightenment this project was taken to extremes from which the church has never recovered. But the ancient Hebrews never understood the sacred scriptures in this way. My Jewish friend, Fr. George Koch, an Anglican priest and the new chairman of our ACT3 board, has helped me think through this very deeply over the last few years. George insists that scholars like Marvin R. Wilson are right when they refer to the Jewish roots of Christianity and speak of “block logic.”
This is something very different from the Greek way of thinking. In “block logic” concepts that do not appear to fit together, forming a cozy and rational pattern, are “blocked” together and faced honestly. Whether these concepts appear to be awkward or contradictory they are never separated. Barry L. Callen says that in the Hebrew world this way of thinking created “a propensity for paradox” (Caught Between Truths, Emeth Publishers: Lexington, KY, 2007, 11). Western minds, especially Christian minds, have a hard time with this idea because we were so profoundly influenced by Greek and Roman thought. We see all truth as linear and logical. But, as Barry L. Callen has rightly concluded: “The Bible is filled with block logic” (11).
Let me illustrate what I mean. The Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. But it also says that God hardened Pharoah’s heart (cf. Ex. 8:15; 7:3). The Bible also says that God is wrathful and merciful (cf. Isa. 45:7; Hab. 3:2). Jesus is the “Lamb of God” and the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (John 1:20, 36; Rev. 5:5). Divine predestination and human choice and responsibility seem to be in conflict, at least depending on how you read these truths in Scripture. Which one of them is true? Barry L. Callen writes: “The best answer is ‘Yes!’” (11). By this he means that the truth lies in paradox. We must have the mental and spiritual humility to bow before God and his Word and never force our truth systems onto the Scripture. We must learn that the ancient Hebrews knew and trusted what they could not fully understand. If I had one message for my friends who are so deeply divided by Calvinism and Arminianism this would be it–learn to practice “block logic.” I could add a host of similar issues to this list but what I’ve said here should communicate my point clearly enough.
Orthodoxy means to “think both straight and whole” (italics are by Callen, 11). But much of church history has been about thinking straight, not whole. To be orthodox requires much more than affirming a list of truths that have been determined to be official. If we think as the ancient Hebrews did we will be willing to approach doctrines with a broader perspective, always looking for intricate shades of interrelatedness and meaning. We will not be lazy or sloppy, but open and searching. We will not succumb to the loudest, newest or most intriguing voice, whether it is new or old. And we will not merely recite the creed and thereby end all dialogue.
The direction that we need, in short, is a “post-conservative evangelical theology” that embraces paradox while it also seeks a “critical and generous orthodoxy” that is both ancient and future. We must not become slaves to tradition and we must avoid the trendiness of our times. I believe Baptist theologian Roger Olson is right when he says we need to know the Christian traditions, and the history of interpretations, while we still “use reason as a guide and culture as a conversation partner” (Callen, 12).
We need a renewed commitment to wholeness! This is true for the way we think and the way we live. Our theologians need to become deep practitioners and our practitioners need to grapple with the greatest paradoxes of deep theology. This is what the great Christian theologian James Denny meant when he said, “Our evangelists need to be theologians and our theologians need to be evangelists.”
A few weeks ago TIME had a feature article on the new evangelicals who are openly affirming the LGBT agenda within their churches and ministries. I know many of the people who were quoted in the article. I thus read with a great deal of sympathy. I also read with a great deal of concern. Not concern in the way that many conservatives express concern for such brothers and sisters. My concern was for the very apparent lack of perspective that is held by these young leaders. They have embraced a major social and religious issue with all their heart, but they seem to have very little understanding of the wisdom of paradox in both theology and life. I found myself cheering and weeping at the same time. The only serious corrective that I see for this kind of theology and practice is not found in conservative or progressive churches. It is only found in recovering the ancient Hebrew way of “block logic.” We must relearn how to “think both straight and whole.” The challenge here is great but our times require it. Indeed, our Lord calls us to do this if we love him with both our mind and our soul (Matt. 22:34-40).
Copyright 2015. Reprinted by permission. Dr. John Armstrong. Dr. Armstrong is the founder of the ACT3 Network. He is active in missional ecumenism. He has a passion for the unity of the Body of Christ across denominational and doctrinal boundaries. His articles may be found on his blog at www.johnarmstrong.com and www.act3network.com.