Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Critiquing the Past

I'm teaching Intro to Theology again at the university and this time I have online students. So we are doing a private blog experiment. I post a blog with questions after a couple of the lectures and the students interact with it as part of their assignment marks. It's working great so far.

Our last class we finished up a brief overview of the history of Christian theology and after I met up with an old friend. So when this old friend began criticizing Calvinism I decided to weigh in with some of the stuff I was teaching about the history of the Reformation. The conversation started to go sideways so I did the only sane thing - invited him to pray with me. We prayed, God came, we had a more normal conversation.

So I came home to write my first blog challenge with the class and this conversation on my mind. My blog was about the ways we critically engage with theologies of the past. The conversation was quite insightful - I always seem to have such great students! The students didn't seem to get that part of my line of questions was me processing the encounter with my old friend. And through the conversation there emerged a sense of responsiblity in critically engaging the past.

One insight was that there is often something that unsettles us about the way theology is framed in the past. That this can be a good thing in that it can lead us to wrestle through to what is essential and what needs to come forward in our culture. Evangelicals are innovative, if we are anything. We tend to do this part intuitively - reframing conversations and styles to faithfully present the gospel in every context we have seen. Because this emerges form discomfort, the tendency is to be highly critical of the past theologies. To even blame them for holding us back. But the reality is that they did the same thing we are doing - which is how they ended up with the framing and form the did. So that led to the second important insight: retrieval.

When we've found new ways forward the responsible thing to do is then to go back and retrieve what is good - even if that is a good reputation. I am not a Calvinist, but I did find myself defending Calvin and his theological offspring. This is because when I look at the conditions in which Calvin worked, the challenges he faced mediating between Luther and Zwingli, I am impressed to say the least.

The responsible thing is to honour the past, thank the past for pushing us into the future while also being faithful to the message it had received.

In a time when all denominations and movements seem to be shaking up things. It is a good reminder that we owe a debt to the past and while it does push us into the future, it also knew that same pushing from its history.

So how do you honour traditions and theologies that you no longer find helpful?

Frank Emanuel - Pastor Freedom Vineyard


  1. Interesting topic. I am just reading about how we as Protestants tend to draw dividing lines over certain doctrines instead of celebrating our unity in Christ. That part of the reformation mindset, I suppose, which is not all that helpful.

  2. We like schemas and categories, especially when they are neat and tidy. The problem is that people, like life, are never neat and tidy. We can have ideas that do not fit the expectations. Liberals with conservative ideas, and vice versa. In North American evangelicalism we even developed a polemic way of navigating the world, so that it is us and them, and we want to be clear about the us. When really we have so much in common to begin with. One of the things I loved about Wimber was his ecumenical heart, he learned from Wagner to focus on the good in other movements (or to keep silent). In the heritage of that we Vineyard folk can be great bridge builders for other Christians.

  3. I like that how you said that, for we do ‘owe a debt to the past’. The question is: how do we decide what debt we owe? Do we simply draw a line through previous traditions invariably leading up to ourselves (whiggish theology)? Or do we actually bump up and wrestle with other times and traditions, perhaps risking being changed by their horizons?

    The problem with criticism, as with your old friend’s view on Calvinism, is that this so often fails to be sufficiently self-critical. Person ‘A’ will critique viewpoint ‘B’ without being conscious of the hermeneutic and worldview differences between the two frameworks. Perhaps this is to be expected, for you cannot immerse yourself fully into a community without some level unreflectiveness/forgetfulness. We can try to think through our own presuppositions in light of others and other possibilities, but the ensuing cognitive dissonance will eventually keep us from seeing the contradictions and lapses in our own framework.

    In the logic of our western, secular society this process of waking up and interacting with other times and traditions often only gets so far off the ground before stalling out at a type of accommodating pluralism or inclusivism, that at root is covertly another form of exclusion and imperialism (Milbank). It swallows up otherness and bars the path to real love and healthy respect for difference (perhaps as a reaction and a distancing from previously held narrow-minded “conservative Christian” views).

    You asked, "so how do you honour traditions and theologies that you no longer find helpful?" Well I think of the Vineyard often and fondly. My time there was seminal in fostering a sense of community and a real sense of presence, emotion, and intimacy with God. To show honour I still wrestle with her. It’s the best I can do.