2006-12-20

Of Tightropes, Foundations, and a Healthy Church

I have been wanting to write something about the nature of true "orthodoxy" for quite some time, but every time I get started it quickly becomes thousands of words long. So, I am going to attempt to say something short… Well, at least short for me.

There is a common version of "orthodox" theology out there that likens the Christian worldview to an unassailable Stronghold built upon an unmovable foundation. This Castle must be defended day after day from the attacks of barbarian "unbelievers", and the rising torrent of the flood of Godless "culture". Yet, the Strong Castle remains unmoved. It never advances out from the Rock it is built on, but calls all to flee from the Land of the Godless and find refuge in its static, changeless walls.

And certainly, there is much Scriptural (and Traditional) backing for such an idea. The Apostles (and their teachings) are pictured as our foundation, with Jesus Himself as our chief cornerstone in multiple Scriptures (cf. Eph 2.20). Certainly numerous Psalms speak of Yahweh as our "crag and stronghold", and a "castle to keep us safe". God's commands and promises in Scripture are pictured as unchanging and reliable, something we can build our lives on like a house built on stable ground (cf.Psalm 119). And then there is the end of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord tells us to build upon Him and His Word as our Rock, and not upon shifting sands (presumably including the fickled fads of culture and our own tastes).

But, have we pushed one Biblical metaphor too far, into a place that brings sickness to the Body of Christ? I mean, which is the controlling metaphor for God's people: A static structure, or a living Body? I think that the living model, pictured as a Body, a Family, a Marriage, and even an Army, is the controlling metaphor through which we must read metaphors of stasis and unchangeability. While this may sound subtle and theoretical, I think that there is something in this that deeply affects how we see God, and how we see ourselves, as His Church.

Over and again, Paul exhorts Timothy and Titus to teach "sound" doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1-2, 2:8). But "sound" is not a sound translation of the Greek words that underlie them (which come from the Greek root "hug-i-ees"). Most translations make these words sound like an obvious referent to a "sound" structure, or a "sound" building that is built on a firm foundation. But, this word is not used of material structures, but of physical bodies. It actually describes the health, wholeness, and equilibrium that is found in a healthy organism. The concept that it refers to is very similar to the Hebrew concept of Shalom, which is the defining feature of the Reign of God. Shalom means peace, harmony, health, and wholeness, both within people as individuals and within communities. Paul wants Titus and Timothy to teach "healthy" doctrine that helps people and communities to enter into the "shalom" of God. That is why his frequent greeting the communities and people he writes to is "grace and peace" to you from our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Phlm. 1:3).

So, what does this have to do with orthodoxy and "foundationalism"? Well, there are two ways to have "peace": the "peace" found in a museum and the "peace" found in a marriage. Peace in a museum is relatively easy to attain. First, you kill everything and pose it just right. Second, you put it on display. Third, you never let people touch it. Finally, you just lock the doors and keep everyone out for fear they might mess up the relics. Then you have total peace and complete silence.

Then there is peace and harmony found in a marriage. It is found when two people constantly work together and communicate to resolve differences and hold in tension each other's needs and desires. It is the harmony found in a dance, as each partner takes turns leading and teaching the other. It is the harmony found in a really good symphony.

Now for the million dollar question: What type of peace does Christ want for His Body and Bride, the Church? The static, immovable peace of the museum, or the dynamic, balanced peace of the marriage? I think the answer is obvious, and for those who do not find it obvious I would be happy to spill a few thousand words trying to spell it out from Scripture, but not right now. God desires shalom to come through life and relationships, not peace that comes from death and frozen formulas.

It seems that orthodox thinking folks have a bad habit of freezing doctrine at one period of history (whether that is the 700's, 1500's, 1800's or 1950's), stopping people from touching it, and hiding it away from any serious inspection with the epithet "heretic", "unbeliever", or "outsider" for those who would question it. Doctrine becomes something more akin to admiring a statue than embracing a Person. Instead of being "healthy" teaching, it becomes something like rote memorization. It is like the image of doctrine as a Castle somehow kills the doctrine and puts the teaching of the Church to death.

But, how does this relate to the very important Biblical imagery of the foundation and the fortress? Do we just jettison language and metaphors that imply stasis and stability in favor of metaphors that favor process and change? And, if we do that, doesn’t that very quickly move us into a religion that looks very little like Christianity as we know it (and all of the problems that go with that, as exemplified by the downfall of revisionist mainline denominations everywhere)? Yes, if we jettison metaphors of stasis and stability we quickly get a different religion, a different Gospel, and a different Jesus.

But, I am not saying we should jettison anything, rather hold it in tension with other Biblical truths. In fact, tension between truths is what I think Orthodoxy is. I would argue that the Rock we build on, and the Castle we hide in, is not an "it", but rather a Person (or rather, Three Eternal Persons in One Being). I think that when we locate our stability in words and systems of doctrine we are precisely putting our hope in the wrong "thing", because what we hope in is not a "thing" but a Person. Yahweh is our "Stronghold". Jesus is "the Rock". It is not the system of words we use to describe God that is unchanging and totally reliable, but God Himself that is unchanging and totally reliable.

And God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and Omega. He is the unchanging Source that gives rise to all that is, and the Dynamic-yet-stable Love toward which all things go. He is the Rock at the beginning pushing us forward, and the Rock at the end beckoning us homeward. In the middle is a tightrope, which we walk on, in a journey from Eternal to Eternal. The tightrope flexes and bends, sways and swaggers, but it is firmly embedded at the beginning and the end in the Rock who does not move, and who will not fail.

Instead of building a castle as our vision of orthodoxy, how about walking a tightrope? Instead of constructing a fortress, how about we see ourselves balancing on a high wire? Instead of looking at theologians as expert engineers competing to see who can build the biggest, best skyscraper, how about seeing them as trapeze artists, masters of balance and movement?

Traditional versions of orthodoxy have tended to alleviate ambiguity between Scriptural truths (such as the twin facts of divine sovereignty and creaturely free will) by building up such a huge case for one that the other seems small and insignificant by comparison. For instance, the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition tends to build up the case for divine sovereignty so large, that it simply subsumes free will as a rather insignificant side effect of being under the control of the Creator. On the other hand, the Arminian and classical Liberal traditions build up the case for creaturely freedom to such an extent that one wonders if God is still involved with His creation at all. Both sides of this issue tend to ignore crucial evidence from the other side, or interpret Scriptural texts that disagree in hollow and artificial ways to make them say what they want said.

Instead of explaining away whatever does not fit well on our firm foundation, how about we walk in tension with them in the same way that quantum physics has been able to walk in tension with the wave-partical duality of light, or the indeterminate-yet-predictable nature of particle movements? What if we see that God the Father is our source of stability- our unchanging Source and Goal. What if we look at God the Son as the highwire we are walking on, carefully balancing between errors on the Left and errors on the Right in the same way that He balances between being fully Human and fully Divine? And what if we depended on God the Spirit as our balancing rod, which we grip tightly to keep us from falling off on one side or the other?

Then perhaps we could have a much more productive, creative engagement with a number of paradoxes that we find in Scripture and life, without explaining away either side. Perhaps we could be orthodox and healthy Christians by keeping a balanced tension between such issues as: Law and Mercy; Judgment and Forgiveness; Condemnation and salvation; Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom; Creator and creation; Stability and change; Crisis and process; Scripture and culture; Truth and ambiguity; Community and individuality; Political "Left" and political "Right"; General and specific; The universality of God's Love and the particularity of God's Self-Revelation in Christ; Matter and spirit; Objective reality and subjective experience; Fact and Value; Truth and Love; Is/is not and should/should not; Scripture and tradition; Faith and reason; Revelation and science… just to name a few of the major paradoxes that have dominated philosophy and theology for the last 2000 years.

What if we developed a habit of thought that acknowledged the full reality of BOTH sides of all these dualities, without making one side "more real" than the other side? And what if we spent our time, not trying to explain away one side in terms of the other, but trying to find a way to understand the full participation of both sides in God's Creation. I think this "tensional" view of doctrine will lead us into the Shalom of God, and keep us more healthy and harmonious than "foundational" views of doctrine. I think this type of Orthodoxy better approximates our Creator, who in Himself is a balance between One and Three, a Community in Unity, without diminishing either side of His own Reality. I think this style of thinking best represents our Lord Jesus Christ, who is a tightrope walker between humanity and divinity, creature and Creator.

May we all come to walk the tightrope of Reality following Him.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.