Thursday, June 26, 2008

Theology as Anthropology

I don’t normally comment on Baptist politics. Frankly, I’m not all that interested. I’d rather go shopping, and I think you know my policy on shopping. But a recent row among Baptists caught my attention not so much for what they were fighting about as what they weren’t. It seems that at a recent denominational gathering of Baptists, the Presbyterian pastor turned seminary professor turned pastor again, John Killinger, created a controversy during a workshop he conducted around his new book, The Changing Shape of Our Salvation.

The presenter apparently argued for an understanding of the doctrine of salvation more along the lines of “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment” rather than salvation in some eschatological sense achieved via Christ’s atoning death on the cross (orthodox Christianity). Some who heard him were uneasy with his soteriology believing his views called into question both Jesus’ divinity and the efficacy of his atoning death. But I think they’ve missed the real issue here. It is not a matter of his views of the “how” of salvation that troubles me here; it’s the “what.” To be honest, even those of us who believe in the atoning death of Jesus haven’t the faintest idea how it actually works, and anyone who says s/he does is either dishonest or delusional. All theories about how the atonement works are just that – theories, as C. S. Lewis says, “…to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.” That’s not what bothers me here; rather it is the fact that he apparently thinks salvation is more about us than God, more man’s achievement than God’s gift, more human development than divinely-wrought transformation. Succinctly: He understands theology as anthropology.

A little context might be helpful. Over the last 50 years or so biblical scholars and theologians have debated the whole notion of whether or not the biblical soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), which is essentially and fundamentally eschatological in character, is comprehensible and relevant to contemporary people. Marcus Borg’s, Jesus: A New Vision, is characteristic of this perspective in which he, while not denying the essentially eschatological nature of the biblical soteriology, abandons it nonetheless in favor of a perspective more palatable and popular to modern persons, namely, Jesus the charismatic change agent of the contemporary culture. Borg certainly wasn’t the first to deconstruct the eschatological herald of the Kingdom of God the New Testament portrays Jesus as being. Many biblical scholars have struggled with the whole idea of salvation understood eschatologically (“saved” means “saved from”… The Wrath, Hell, Judgment, this present evil age, etc., and not just “saved for” a la salvation as “self-actualization theories”). Their reasons for abandoning the clear New Testament teaching about the eschatological nature of salvation are two, chiefly: (1) Such views are too escapist, too other-worldly, too pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye, and run the risk of abdicating the Christian’s responsibility to redeem this world rather than just living for the next; (2) Modern people have no understanding of, or appreciation for, the kind of “delayed gratification” associated with salvation in the afterlife. They’re far more interested in the here and now. Moreover, the biblical images of the eschaton (end of the world) are odd and off-putting to modern ears. Hence, it’s better just to jettison them altogether in favor of a doctrine of salvation that is more personal, possible, and practical.

But the New Testament is thoroughly and irrefutably eschatological in perspective. When Jesus says “Kingdom of God” he means “another world” breaking in and breaking through, disrupting the ordinary order of things. Jesus doesn’t come so much to “fix” this world as to announce its end and the advent of a whole new world he calls “the Kingdom of God,” a world so disquieting, unsettling, disruptive, and counter-cultural that it takes a transformation so radical, so complete that it can only be described as “being born from above.” The Spirit of God conceives this transformation; it is not merely the result of trying harder and doing better; it is not just “tweaking” the human personality here and there; it is not “human development” or “self-actualization” or “self-realization;” it is self-denial, self-destruction, death and life, and life via death (see Mark 8:34-35). Indeed, I often say that I can extrapolate one’s entire theology pretty much by how one answers a single question: “Do you believe that salvation is essentially something ‘in here’ (that is, inside me) that I must bring out to the surface, or is salvation finally something ‘out there’ (utterly beyond me, outside me, external to me) that must come inside me and change me in order to save me?” The latter is New Testament soteriology; the former is humanism (I resist the adjective “secular” as redundant). That is to say, the Christian view of salvation, everywhere attested in the New Testament, is that apart from God’s intervening and transforming grace, I am helpless, hopeless, and incapable of “self-fulfillment” and “self-actualization.” Matter of fact, “self-realization” is about the last thing I want! The more I succeed, the more I fail. Indeed, there is no “me” to be actualized or realized apart from God’s dream of “me” when He “thought me up” and brought me out of nothing into the world. Any other “me” is a fraud…or a monster. Once again, Lewis put it succinctly when he said: “…fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

But this perspective of “theology as anthropology” is deep within the theological education community. I ran afoul of it some years ago in a faculty meeting. We were wrangling over a spiritual formation curriculum for seminary students when I expressed surprise at the document with which we were presented purporting to be a curriculum designed to “form our students spiritually.” But when I looked at the curriculum, it was heavy in behavioristic psychology, developmentalism, secular “leadership” material, and systems theory, and light on anything that could be remotely described as “spiritual” formation; indeed, there was precious little “God-language” in the document at all! That is to say, it was not about forming persons in Christ, cultivating their spiritual life, enhancing their relationship with God. It was pure developmentalism conceived in thoroughly secular and even a-theistic (and I mean that literally – "no-God") terms. It was anthropology disguised as theology. I said so, much to the consternation of the faculty. Finally, one of them, in a fit of frustration, protested with passion: “But human development is spiritual development!” There it is – theology as anthropology. I was disappointed but not surprised. As a statement of what is wrong with theological education, I couldn’t have said it better myself – theological education that isn't (theological, that is).

Let me make myself clear: Finally, essentially, necessarily theology is about God. Salvation is God’s work, not ours. If it isn’t, why bother? If becoming a Christian is finally no different than joining any other club, then why bother? If the mission of the Church is merely to help you "succeed" (whatever that means) in this world, why not just stay home and watch Dr. Phil or Oprah? You don't even have to tithe! If the Church is merely a sanctified Rotary Club, as Will Willimon puts it, why bother? As Will quips: “At least the Rotary Club serves lunch and has their meetings at a convenient hour!” A soteriology that is more anthropology than theology is no soteriology at all, at least not in the New Testament sense.

Let’s let Lewis have the last word:

The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. …He invented–as an author invents characters in a novel–all the different men (and women), that you and I were intended to be. …It is no good trying to “be myself” without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. …I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call “me” can be very easily explained. …Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. (from Mere Christianity, “The New Men”)

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