Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fundamissional: Tradition and Teachability — Part 1

One of the most valuable pieces of advice that I received early in ministry was to make a practice of reading and listening to teachers who are outside of my own theological tradition. This has not only exposed me to differing perspectives across the bandwidth of theological opinion but it has also engendered affection and respect for brothers and sisters with whom I do not agree and would have otherwise dismissed as doctrinal opponents.  It has also kept me humble.  While I believe my doctrinal convictions have been rightly formulated, thoroughly tested and proven biblically sound, I want to allow those convictions to remain open to challenge.  Otherwise, I stand to lose the objectivity that was present when those convictions were developed.  I want to find a good balance between certainty and teachability; and I have discovered that this practice of hearing, considering and understanding contrary positions to be a helpful practice toward achieving that end.      

There is one unassailable barrier to knowledge.  And that is to assume that you’ve arrived at a comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge of a particular topic to be considered.  In many cases, this barrier is not the consequence of hubris but of tradition.  Alternative interpretations of Scripture and dogmatic formulations are sometimes rejected solely on the assumption of theological tradition and not on the basis of overwhelming exegetical proof.  In these cases, right interpretations of Scripture are wrongly refused before they are ever given a fair hearing.  Everyone has traditions and we are all subject to the influences of those traditions and the loyalties that those traditions arouse.  And sometimes we dismiss another's theological position based on the supposed interpretation or assumption of our traditions rather than on an airtight biblical argument which would show an opposing position incorrect.  The only sure way of preventing this from happening is to be aware that our traditions exist and that we each share the potential for promoting our traditions over the traditions of another. 
Sometimes we simply dismiss the merits of another tradition because the language used to describe the practices or teaching within that tradition are foreign to our own.  Because our theological vocabulary is the thread that knits our doctrine and tradition together, it is unsettling when someone comes along and begins to weave their foreign language into the tapestry of our religion.  In some instances, the language is not altogether unfamiliar, it is just used differently to describe concepts of common faith and practice that we would otherwise agree upon.  Words are sometimes given different meaning, or different nuances of a word are favored over nuances which we would prefer.  Community, organic, living the gospel, incarnational ministry, contextualize and other buzzwords put those who do not share the missional vernacular on edge.  And often, this unsettled response results in the wholesale dismissal of a teaching that would otherwise be worth our consideration.

We are right to be on guard when unfamiliar language is being used, of course.  There is, after all, no shortage of warnings in the New Testament against false teachers and their distorted doctrines.  Timothy is instructed to watch his teaching closely and to persevere in it, because in so doing he would save both himself and his hearers (1 Tim 4:16).  The stakes, then, are infinitely high here, so having a defensive posture toward foreign ideas and unfamiliar language is not a wrongly conceived or unwarranted position to take.  It is altogether appropriate because it is an apostolic mandate to be vigilant in our defense of the faith (Jude 3).  Problems arise, however, when we have the threat level of our theological defenses set so high that we reject, out of hand, any teaching that comes to our door from somewhere outside of our own tradition.  When unfamiliar language, teaching, or practice is presented, then there is a tendency for the excessively defensive to rebuff it based upon nothing more then its unfamiliarity.  And there is perhaps no other area of evangelical tradition where the dynamics of this defensive response is more readily experienced than in the realm of ecclesial convention.  That is, there seems to be an undue defensive reaction to questions of how the life of the church is to be expressed in the world.  And when alternative forms of church structures or models are presented, then we have the propensity to buck against them because “That’s not how we’ve ever done it before.”  These types of responses are presumptive because they often reject innovations to ecclesial practice uncritically.  There are no questions over whether the introduction of innovations should be considered; there is no wrestling over the bases for our current ways of doing church; there is only an appeal to the past.  In instances such as these, I have to ask myself whether we are genuinely interested in expressing the church rightly, faithfully, and biblically; or, if we are simply bent on doing church in a way that is comfortable and familiar?  

“The person who claims that they have no traditions, is slave to their traditions.” — James White