Third Way as Sweet Spot

Third Way as Sweet Spot December 15, 2008

The Third Way is like the sweet spot on a golf club — when you hit the ball on the sweet spot you avoid the ball wandering either left or right. This analogy is from Adam Hamilton’s book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics, and provides us with an opportunity to talk about the struggle of pursuing the Third Way — it will not be the legalism of the fundamentalist or the libertinism of the liberal. It seeks a way that is both holy and loving — both, always.

For those of you who have escaped libertinism, what was the biggest fear? For those who have escaped legalism, what was the biggest fear? What’s the hardest part of the Third Way that is neither legalistic nor libertinist?

Both legalism and libertinism provide certainty, but the Third Way — to use Hamilton’s words — is “liberating — and terrifying” (37).  It is far easier to say “tell me what to do” or “tell me what not to do” than to say “know the Story, live the Story, and the Spirit will guide.”

Hamilton suggests the earliest Christians faced this very issue with
the Pharisaic Christians who wanted the Gentiles to follow the Torah
and the earliest leaders found the sweet spot. How?

First, they advised (see
Acts 15) a posture of sensitivity, of not scandalizing, of respect for those who
followed the Torah and they advised the Jewish Christians to respect
the Gentile life of the Gentile Christians.

Second, Paul urged Christians to
follow the Spirit. Anyone, Paul was also teaching, who lived by the
Spirit was holy and loving — both, not just one or the other. Paul knew that life in the Spirit meant freedom: “for freedom Christ has set you free” (Gal 5:1).

Third, Paul — and James — and John — taught that morality can be reduced to its utter essences: loving God and loving others. What I call the Jesus Creed.

Here’s what I believe: anyone who wants to live in the Third Way seeks to love God and love others, seeks to follow the Spirit, and adopts a posture of sensitivity to others.

And here is where the Third Way avoids legalism: it trusts others to do the same and can live, in trust and respect, with the decisions of others who also live in the Spirit, who also love God and love others, and who also adopt a posture of sensitivity.

It is easier to be a libertine and let everyone do whatever they want; it is easier to create rules/legalism for others to live by. It is far more difficult to discern how to live by living the Third Way. Once again to quote Hamilton, the sweet spot is found in “the call to freedom that comes by grace and the call to holiness in seeking to live by the Spirit” (41).

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  • Jeremiah Daniels

    Perfect. I have not read Jesus Creed but I have Blue Parakeet on my shelf to be read over the holidays.
    Its amazing how God works. Everything you state above has naturally evolved in my own outlook over the last 10 years. I’m sure yours is more nuanced and detailed, but shockingly I’ve stated almost everything wrote above in classes and sermons.

  • brambonius

    shane claiborne has some interesting examples of ‘the third way’ in his books.

  • Very good, indeed. It is what I have been trying to articulate to my friends regarding the whole abortion issue — that all I can do is love God and love others and respect that they will do the same thing.
    I also like the idea of ‘sensitivity to others’ instead of the confused idea of ‘tolerance’.
    Blessings from God be with you.

  • Your Name

    great topic and this is one more book that I will need to put in my growing “to read” pile. I started on Blue Parakeet a few days ago at the urging of some of my ministry friends.
    I think the issue of finding a middle way between the polarized extremes in our society, political as well as religious is vitally important, although difficult. I really liked your summary of Hammilton’s view on how to avoid legalism. This is what I have found myself doing on the university campus with my young colleages who mostly tend toward being libertines…
    thanks Scot!

  • Your Name

    So, it is really not about text, but about the relationship of two different kinds of people, which is what conflict resolution is about. The “spirit” is understood differently, as well. Some may approach the text in faith, mystically, some may approach with reason the Church Fathers, some may look to present day mentors to seek wisdom…which is “correct”, it depends on your own conviction. There are reasons why people do one or the other. It is much more profitable to be open to another’s “reason” and then take it into account when one resolves their own convictions. Convictions may change and we must be open to that kind of growth!

  • joanne

    The worst part about living under legalism is the fear and shame that is attached to God. It is not a healthy fear of God that brings life but a shamefilled fear of God that creates significant distress. The fear coupled with shame keep persons bound and afraid to their knowers. (the ones who tell them what God says or what the bible says).
    I think in legalism sin hi-jacks the law and uses it in unfitting ways that do not bring life. Instead I think Paul invites believers to know God through the Spirit and carefully discern in one’s own sense and in a community sense. It is not an exact science and therefore scary.
    However, I believe that if a community teaches discernment of self and within the community, I think there will be greater maturity of people both spiritually and emotionally.

  • John L

    Scott, a maturing Xn faith, I think, is characterized by an increasing respect and innate sense of friendship towards the “other.” Religious others, political others, cultural others… all the same other.
    As reply #5 infers, legalism, is not so much about religious information, but simply about our heart’s posture towards the entirety of God’s creation – recognizing, not simply in the head but deep in the heart, that ALL people are God’s people.

  • James Petticrew

    I remembering hearing FF Bruce preach (he was a better scholar than preacher) but this was the essence of what he said, to live dangerously by grace and the leading of the Spirit.

  • sorry, I am still learning how to post in this format … I was #4 above…
    I can really indentify with the author’s comments about the liberating and terrifying nature of trying to learn how to live in the relatively undefined middle way of faith toward the Holy Spirit and sensitivity toward others. It can also be a bit disorienting. I have found it tremendously helpful in learning how to live out my faith in a university campus like “a light in the midst of a corrupt and perverse generation” (phil. 2:15) without becoming preachy or becoming a libertine. Most of my grad student colleagues are inclined in the direction of libertines … and I have probably teetered on the edge as I adjusted and found my balance in the gray area.
    Thanks, Scot, for bringing this book to our attention.

  • My biggest fear, coming out of a moderately fundamentalist background, is the slippery slope. In fact, you’ll hear exactly this language of “listening to the Spirit” and “welcoming the other” from those who are advocating that the Church fully accept homosexual practice. This sounds great — I wish in some ways that I could just go along — but that would mean endorsing practices that the scriptures repeatedly say place people outside the Kingdom. It seems awfully difficult in these circumstances not to pull the legalistic move of asserting the authority of the Biblical texts concerning homosexuality.
    In fact, it seems to me that for this reason we can’t just avoid the language of “authority.” “Freedom” and “authority” shouldn’t be thought of as opposite poles. “Freedom” involves freedom from slavery to sin; the Biblical text warns us about some practices as a guideline to help us enjoy this freedom. We have to work hard to understand the text, appreciate its role in the economy of salvation (so as to avoid Bibliolatry), and span the hermeneutical horizons of the ancient world and our world (so as to avoid — but all with a posture of humility before scripture as God’s transforming written Word.

  • I think one of the criticisms of the Third Way is that it attempts to avoid theological conflict at all costs. I am not saying this myself. However, listening with sensitivity even in the early church, and with Paul in particular, scandalizing communication was used. Paul was not hesitant at all to draw some sharp lines and use some salty language against his opponents. I don’t hear a lot of “Let’s be calm and have a ‘dialogue'”. Does Hamilton have a place for intense conversational conflict?

  • Dan

    When Hamilton speaks of the “third way” is he trying to unpack what Jesus is describing when he uses the image of a small gate and narrow path leading to life? Is the “third way” another way of describing what Paul means when he calls the disciples of Jesus to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called”?
    I think Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 hints at just how difficult this Way is!

  • Rick

    Dopderbeck #10-
    I agree with much of what you said, although I did have a slight problem with your line,
    “It seems awfully difficult in these circumstances not to pull the legalistic move of asserting the authority of the Biblical texts concerning homosexuality.”
    “Asserting the authority of the Biblical Texts” should not be seen as legalism. I think we have become so sensitive to the charge of legalism, and Bibliolatry, we hesitate to refer to Scripture (although we need to do so humbly). Perhaps a clarification of what constitutes legalism is needed.
    The “listening to the Spirit” should include reading, meditating on, and referring to the Scripture He inspired.

  • John L

    Comment #10 says, “My biggest fear, coming out of a moderately fundamentalist background, is the slippery slope. In fact, you’ll hear exactly this language of “listening to the Spirit” and “welcoming the other” from those who are advocating that the Church fully accept homosexual practice.”
    Doperback, regardless of how you feel about homosexuality… if a person’s sexual orientation would preclude an authentic, abiding friendship with them, I think we’ve missed the heart of Christ.
    I suppose this kind of friendship also requires a fundamental trust in God – a trust that deep friendships with “others not like us” will not somehow “corrupt” one’s faith. A Christ-saturated life must offer more than “religious information” to others. The fruit of the Spirit reads like a textbook definition of friendship – and is the polar opposite of legalism.

  • Pat

    A distinction I’ve found useful is between being at the center of your faith rather than the edges. Christ is at the center. As long as you try to get close to him, you don’t need to worry about the edges and what rules define them – you probably won’t even be close enough to the edges to see them!
    This would apply to sharing the faith as well. We can try to express to people the benefits of being beside Christ, and let them be drawn into the center by the holy spirit. Who made us border guards?

  • BeckyR

    After I left legalism, I had a dream where the gate keeper to heaven said I could come in but I had it wrong – that is, non-legalism was wrong, and that Falwell was right. It was a dream that stuck with me but didn’t sway me from going away from legalism. So I’d say for me the biggest fear in leaving legalism is not being right, non-legalism being wrong.
    Schaeffer writes in the back of one of his books that it’s easy to be holy without love, or loving without holiness, but to do both – holiness and love, requires living in the Spirit. That’s been my experience.

  • Something’s not sitting right here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
    One thing I think should be said is, if there were a “3rd greatest commandment,” the great emphasis of the NT after loving God and loving your neighbor is “be holy as I am holy” (stated in various ways but by every author).
    Second, using Paul’s example, when pressed, he said don’t eat meat (legalism?) and circumcized Timothy, but then he wouldn’t do it to Titus. I’m not sure how “love” enters into the equation. At some points he seemed determined to stand on the truth no matter what.
    Third, doesn’t loving God require a committment to holiness and truth?
    Fourth, but if “love covers a multitude of sin,” is that the best way to err?
    Finally, I think the conclusion sounds more postmodern than Christian. We aren’t sure what’s right, so we’ll never criticize your actions? That’s not NT Christianity. It isn’t the unloving but the glutton and the adulterer who will not inherit the kingdom.
    Everyone is going to oscillate between legalism and libertinism at some point, but if I have to err, I think it better to err to the side of honoring God as holy and just.

  • Scot McKnight

    Here’s something I say above: “Second, Paul urged Christians to follow the Spirit. Anyone, Paul was also teaching, who lived by the Spirit was holy and loving — both, not just one or the other. Paul knew that life in the Spirit meant freedom: “for freedom Christ has set you free” (Gal 5:1).”
    So, to me, loving God and loving others entail/s holiness for holiness is pure love of God and love of others. You may have heard/read me say this: I’m nervous about bifurcating God’s attributes into love and holiness. I’d rather speak of God’s loving holiness or holy love. If we define love aright and live love aright, we don’t have to side toward holiness/justice vs. love/compassion.
    Some conservatives tend to define holiness in unloving ways; some liberals tend to define love in unholy ways. The Third Way in morals involves both.

  • RJS

    Holiness is important – but what makes us holy and pure?
    It seems to me that the way to define holiness is to look first at how Jesus lived and what he taught.
    It sometimes seems to me that legalism defines holiness in ways consistent with OT purity laws and the requirements for the priest to serve and enter into the holiest parts of the temple and such, not in ways consistent with the behavior and teaching of Jesus.

  • RJS

    What I am trying to say in my previous comment is that, while I think holiness is important, and it is important to honor God as holy and just; in our dealings with people if we err, we should err on the side of love.

  • Scot (#18) — but without invoking the authority of scripture, how do you answer revisionists in morality who use this very language of “listening to the Spirit” in an effort to write a new wiki note on the Bible’s sexual ethics?
    Rick (#13) and John (#14) — how interesting that my comment provoked such opposite reactions one after the other!
    Rick, I think “asserting authority” can be legalism when a person merely use some set of proof texts to try to prove that his or her position on some issue perfectly represents infallible law. We can go so easily from the infallibility of the inspired text to the infallibility of our understanding and application of the inspired tex.
    Maybe this has something to do with the meaning of the term “authority.” In our Western culture, “authority” has an almost violent meaning. In the Church, the authority of scripture expressed in the Reformational sola scriptura ultimately is a leveling authority — no individual’s reading of the text stands above the text. I guess what I’m getting at is a humble posture of study, submission and exhortation as against an angry posture of Bible-thumping.
    But John — I agree with you that Christians ought to be able to have “authentic, abiding” relationships with others, including people who are gay. As many people like to point out, Jesus had “table fellowship” with sinners — and in fact we all are sinners who aren’t entitled to a seat at Jesus’ table. Yet, Jesus also called sinners to repentance. An “authentic, abiding relationship” is a two-way street; table fellowship and relationship don’t require either party to ignore that which makes them uniquely who they are. The Bible’s sexual ethic is one of the things that identifies the Church as a holy people and helps sustain the family as an important locus of our community. Authenticity in relationship, I think, requires us to acknowledge a real difference with those who want to do away with this distinctive.

  • RJS

    I don’t know how Scot answers revisionists – but of course this kind of argument comes up in many places. I don’t think that it is up to us to provide an answer – it is up to us to live. Although discussion is certainly good.
    If the Bible was completely clear and easily applied – and if it was not necessary to depend upon the Spirit for interpretation – the legalist tendency might make sense. But that isn’t the case – we all interpret and apply. Whether the issue is sexual morality, gender roles, generosity, or appropriate use of force application and interpretation is necessary.
    The only way forward is to depend on the guidance of the Spirit.

  • Scot McKnight

    I quote you: “Scot (#18) — but without invoking the authority of scripture, how do you answer revisionists in morality who use this very language of “listening to the Spirit” in an effort to write a new wiki note on the Bible’s sexual ethics?”
    Great question: I answer the same way Paul does in Galatians. Anyone who lives by the Spirit will follow the contours of the Spirit-shaped Scripture. This does not minimize Spirit; treating it as a Lawbook does.
    Take homosexuality: I’m not convinced we say “it’s wrong because the law-shaped statements of the Bible say it’s wrong.” Those statements reflect the larger Story and are therefore more than legal statements. I’m convinced we are to enter into the Story of the Bible through the Spirit and live it out in our world through the Spirit. The contours of that Story, and the teachings on homosexuality, will guide anyone who seeks to enter into that moral question today. Anyone who lives by the Spirit will live in line with that Story and the Story-line on this question is reasonably clear. Anyone who neglects that Story-line is not living within the Bible’s Story.

  • T

    Good stuff all around.
    I think one of the hard parts of the Third Way is staying in the painful place of (i) caring for someone who’s going the wrong way and simultaneously (ii) not using legalistic manipulation to get them to turn and (iii) not losing one’s own moral convictions out of sympathy. Because of the pain of this (of which Christ’s cross is the ultimate?), I think the temptation to stop doing one of those three is sometimes very strong.
    Also (perhaps with John Frye-11), I don’t think it’s necessarily legalistic manipulation to tell someone what you think the outcome of a given direction is going to be.
    And RJS (19), I agree. I grew up thinking of holiness in that ‘religiously perfect’ kind of way, usually associated with Jesus as an acceptable sacrifice, but lately I’ve tended to think of holy more as completely set apart for a particular purpose. But then holiness just begs the question, for what or whom are you ‘set apart’? People are to be exclusively available for the will and purposes of God in the world, just as Jesus was. From the looks of his life and teachings, it’s the Father’s love and power, in a variety of forms, that’s going to come through when someone empties themselves in the way Jesus did to make space for God to live and act through them. The Father’s love is the purpose, the activity, for which we are set apart.

  • If we can liberate holiness from the category of “behavior” and set it in the category of “being,” we might more readily avoid legalistic moralisms. “Be holy, for I AM holy” is what we read, not “Do holy things because I do holy things.”

  • Rebeccat

    T, I really like and agree with your 3 ways of walking with someone who is in error. One of the more freeing experiences as a Christian was when I realized that as someone who is given over to God, I needed to spend a lot less time obsessing over what the right thing (among a number of possible right things) was to do. If I chose wrongly, God would correct me and help me find my way back. Not that I feel free to choose wrongly, but that the fear of making mistakes is greatly reduced because I can trust God even when I can’t trust myself. And if I can trust God with myself, then I can trust God with others as well.
    I think that one of the things which is often missing in discussions about how to deal with those who are in error and calling for repentance is love. If a person knows that you truly love them and that you will continue to love them even if they continue in error, they are much more open to hearing that they are in sin and need to turn away. If someone knows that they are loved, then they can trust and confrontation doesn’t have to break the relationship. However, many people want to put a call to repentance at the center of their relationships with people who are in error and use love as an add-on. We need to make love the center of our relationships with people rather than the call to repentance. It is God who changes men’s hearts, not us. We need to trust that God will do His job and be content with the job we have been given which is to love above and beyond anything else.
    As for people who insist that they are following the Spirit and such while disregarding scriptures, I think the only thing you can really do is make a point of modeling how follow the Spirit in love while also remaining faithful to scripture. I think the problem is our tendency to think that we need to argue everything. Often, confidently stating what you think (ie “here’s what I’ve always thought about that”) is more powerful than arguing (ie “well, that doesn’t fit with what the scriptures say here. . .”). Arguing puts people on the defensive and pretty much never changes people’s minds. Sharing what you think as a simple statement meant to show your way of understanding the matter can be powerful over time. It can feel and often look like playing a postmodern game of “you think what you think and I think what I think.” But people aren’t actually that dumb. Especially with God’s hand at work, they’ll think about it if they don’t feel so threatened by it. But, again, it means having to trust God to do the heavy lifting rather than trying to force the issue ourselves.

  • Cam R

    I have been reading Tim Keller’s book “Prodigal God” and he discusses both legalism and libertinism through studying the parable of the prodigal son or of two sons. The elder brother and the younger brother are both alienated from the father, one in his strict obedience and the other in disobedience. And what is scary for me—being prone to legalism, is that it is the elder brother who doesn’t end up jointing the father’s party at the end of the story.
    I have found that legalism can creep in on both my conservative and liberal sides whether it is personal holiness or seeking justice and serving the poor to merit God’s approval and acceptance. Still I am challenged to look to Christ and not my own conduct for definition of holiness. I still need to really understand and live out of God’s good news of grace through Christ.
    My fear is that I will just exchange one set of legalities for another.
    Perhaps the Third way revolves around realizing the gospel of the Kingdom and Christ’s grace in our whole being and living out a Christ centered life. Where God’s approval and acceptance is based on what God has done in Christ and life is an out flowing being caught up in the triune God’s life and love.

  • Jayson

    I wanted to comment on your response in #23 about living out the storyline of the Bible. I struggle with reducing the Bible to a moralistic text which is the same struggle I sense for a lot of people in this string.
    The question is on issues regarding sexual ethics, gender roles, dietary law, hospitatlity obligations, etc.–Is there anything that can be clearly separated from the cultural perspective in the context of these categories and is it a pick and choose theology if we try to do so? ex…Abraham the Father of the Faith of God’s Chosen could not be an elder if we listen to Timothy.
    I am not saying eliminate moral codes, but if moral codes are used to define who is in Christ or outside of the Kingdom of God (as is often the case when discussing homosexuality) then we are all in trouble.
    PS Not saying you did this, just adding the thoughts running through my head as I read the posts.

  • Scott C

    I am inclined to be skeptical of the definite article in “the Third Way”. The point I see in “Third Way” language is that we should always be suspicious whenever we are only given two choices. But of course there are usually more than three choices, also. Can we really learn that much about what we are supposed to do by identifying two “extremes” that we are supposed to avoid? Aristotle advocated finding the mean–but recognized that exactly what the mean is, is relative to the trait in question, the person, and the situation. It is not so easy as mathematically calculating the halfway point between legalism and libertinism. I am also inclined to suspect that the labels “legalism” and “libertinism” are labels we apply to laws we don’t think are truly normative and freedoms we don’t think we truly have. Part of looking for a third way involves realizing that some laws are good, but not all, and some freedoms are good, but not all.
    Another point to keep in mind: sometimes Jesus used dualistic categories: for example, the narrow way vs. the broad way. I don’t think he intended his disciples to look for a third way, I think he wanted them to pick the narrow one.

  • Scot McKnight

    Scott C,
    Thanks for this. I’ve felt that tension all along … I don’t see it as “the” Third Way in the sense that it is the “only” third way. I will keep thinking along this line and try to use “Third Way” instead.
    It’s more like “A” third way the way some NT scholars write “The” Theology of the NT and “A” Theology of the NT.

  • Michael W. Kruse

    I haven’t read Hamilton’s book (a Kansas City homeboy btw) but here is the trouble I have with “Third Way” discussions.
    Let’s assume we could agree on a test that ranks on a scale from conservative to liberal or legalist to libertine (make this politics or religion). Joan and John take the test. Joan scores 98% conservative and John 98% liberal. Joan and John are both civil people who engage others in a caring respectful manner. Are Joan and John “third way” people? If so, then isn’t the third way simply about civility (i.e., the content of beliefs is largely inconsequential)? If not, then why not?

  • Dianne P

    I like to think of the Third Way as a roomier way – of course, narrower in the sense that it’s focused on Jesus, but I think broader in the sense that it encompasses far more than we, in our (limited) assessment, might think it could be. And I don’t see it as gray – a boring, lifeless, muted combination of black and white – but rather joyfully and riotously multi-colored. Maybe something like Joseph’s technicolor dream coat. Yes, that’s it, technicolor. Full living overflowing technicolor, made into a dreamcoat. A beautiful, unique, technicolor dreamcoat for each one of us. That’s my “third way”, and I’m stickin’ to it 😉
    If I were forced at gunpoint to choose a favorite bible story, it would be the prodigal son. A great observation – the son who claimed to see a narrow way – narrow by his definition, not by God’s – was the one who missed out on the party. A pastor once said that Jesus not once rebuked sinners, but rather saved his harsh judgment for the pharisees – those who were quite sure that they got THE “way” exactly right. And it’s always a great reminder that it IS a party that we are called to. What a bible we have that is full of examples of the party – and what a party it is! In my more irreverent moments, I think the call of Jesus might be translated into the postmodern theology of that famous philosopher, Wayne, of Wayne’s World – “Party on dude”.

  • Scot McKnight

    That comment doesn’t sound like you. No, neither John nor Joan are Third Way folks nor do they want to be. But I’m not into judging who is and who’s not … I’m trying to map being moderate when the faith needs it. And I don’t think it’s about civility but about substantial positions being taken. Third Way has to do with knowing that extremes are just that — I’m firm on orthodox theology but when there’s no reason to be dogmatic and hard-nosed on things, I don’t see any reason to be.

  • RJS

    Actually – I thought #32 sounded a lot like Michael, especially in light of much of the emergent conversation of the last several years. It often seems as though conversation emphasizes civility, diversity, respect (and social justice) over theology and content. In this sense both John and Joan are “third way.”
    But I don’t think this is the kind of third way we’ve been discussing here, especially in context of Friday’s installment on essentials. The JC flavor of third way defines essentials carefully – and accepts diversity beyond this.

  • Rebeccat

    If I may add one thing, I think that being a 3rd way person probably also entails a willingness to listen openly to differing ideas and opinions and consider them judiciously. I hate to make presumptions about how people wind up where they do, but I doubt that either John or Joan would be characterized by a willingness to listen openly and consider new ideas judiciously. Which is probably how they ended up at the extremes to begin with. I agree with Scott that the Third Way will mean taking substantive positions. But those positions are going to be arrived at out of a willingness to look for unlikely truths in unlikely places. In my own walk, there are a hierarchy of truths which would require varying levels of proof for me to reconsider. The resurrection is pretty darn unshakable. But my opinion on the meaning of a particular bible verse is probably open to revision if I were presented with a compelling case. A Joan and a John, however civil they might be, are probably too married to all aspects of their belief system to be open to new ways of looking at things. The interpretation of a verse of scripture and the resurrection are protected with equal fervor. It is this tendency to treat every little thing as settled which it seems to me that the Third Way will reject. What people are perhaps missing is that a willingness to hold onto core orthodoxy while simultaneously wrestling with hard questions and being open to new (or old, but forgotten) truths will mean coming to ideas on matters of substance which will differ from those held on the left and right. But as soon as we insist that others stop their own wrestling in order to adopt what we have learned, we will be killing off the very process which animates the Third Way (at least as I am understanding it. If I’m off course, please feel free to correct me!)

  • Michael W. Kruse

    I’m not sure what I intimated but I didn’t mean anything snarky. 🙂 I think RJS (#35) heard me intentions. More thoughts.
    If we’re talking about more than simply being civil, then another set of questions emerges for me. On any given issue, might the conservative position be the one that is spot on? On another issue might the liberal position be the one on target? Therefore, the position would not be some Third Way. Maybe in other cases a Third Way is better.
    I’ve written before about C.S. Lewis’ idea of Bulverism; his characterization of 20th Century discourse. With Bulverism, one first presumes one’s opponent is wrong and then hypothesizes about what led the opponent to become so evil or so silly. Every effort is made to focus on the purported cause of the opponent’s malevolence or silliness, all the time avoiding substantive discussion of the actual issue.
    There is frequently a shade of Bulverism in the alleged “Third Way” conversations I’ve been a party to. Implicit is the notion that someone with a strong conservative or liberal conviction has not evolved to a level of maturity and insight of “Third Way” thinkers. The focus then becomes how we help this person possessed by evil (or folly) emerge from their errant ways to our level, rather than on the substance of what they are saying.
    From my Mainline Presbyterian circles, here is an instance of how some who purport to be “third way” play out. A person has the conviction that same-sex unions should be conducted by the church but she is uncomfortable with the belligerent strident nature of same-sex activist groups within the church. Thus, what is needed is a third way between the strident misguided folks who oppose same-sex unions (which in her mind is all opponents) and the mean-spirited same-sex activists who have the right policy in mind. In other words, a liberal who wants a more civil atmosphere. It becomes an affective way placing the opponents on the defensive while claiming the mantle of having taken the high road. “Third Way” becomes the third point in creating a triangulation.
    I’ll confess that when I hear “third way” in my setting, red flags emerge and careful listening is done to discern if the level of authenticity behind it.

  • Scot McKnight

    By all means: one of the hallmarks of Third Way is that it can be both liberal and conservative, either/or and not always some other path. For me, the main reason for a Third Way is that there are two extremes, neither of which is right and that a moderate view is needed. But this doesn’t exclude the conservative view at times and the liberal view at times. One of the points is that these things can’t be politicized so that the liberal view is always right and the conservative view always wrong… etc..
    I know of the civility you are worried about.

  • Tom Pratt

    I like what you’re trying to do in the long run, Scot.
    But I wonder whether triangulation is just or makes prophetic sense in the short run.
    Conservative fundamentalism has done so much recent damage to evangelical expressions of faith. I guess we should hold those ‘libertine’ liberals’ feet to the fire too, but I’m still looking for that crowd in your everyday evangelical church. Maybe he’s the guy taking out the trash after the service :^)
    I understand triangulation if you’re trying to address larger cultural or political issues, but I wonder if moderation sometimes falls short of the pastoral and prophetic needs of the day within the evangelical church.

  • mariam

    What exactly does “libertine” mean in the context of Christian theology? I suspect I am being insulted with a word I don’t understand 😉 Are you a libertine if you turn a blind eye to greed and overconsumption? Are you a libertine if you think God won’t really mind if we don’t love our enemies? Or is being a libertine just about sexual mores? Are there conservative libertines and liberal legalists?
    ChrisB #17 But, alas, there wasn’t a third “great commandment”. Just the two. So I think you have this statement backwards: It isn’t the unloving but the glutton and the adulterer who will not inherit the kingdom. Obedience and submission to God spring from love. If we start we love, the rest follows. If we don’t start with love there is nothing pleasing to God about our following of the rules.

  • I like to think about a Third Way in terms of grade averages. The two extremes are As and Fs (set aside for now which side you think gets the F and which the A). A third way would be a C average, but not because it gets all Cs. It’s a C average because it gets As and Fs, or Bs and Ds, or some combination thereof. It’s not about finding the exact middle on every question (since that’s likely to be a moving target anyway), but about being both thoughtful and faithful on every question. Whether the answers we arrive at (and we will arrive, at least for awhile) are called liberal or conservative doesn’t matter.

  • dopderbeck

    Travis (#41) — I dunno — who wants to be the one with a “C” average? We wouldn’t want a third way to be just mediocrity.
    Scot (#23) — ok, I’m with you, but… I’m attracted to a third way for a bunch of reasons, one important one for me being the ability not to be defensive about the questions modern historiographic and scientific methods find in the Biblical text. So, a third way looks to a theological hermeneutic, and then we can say that coming to the text with a second naivetee or a perspective rooted in the rule of faith, the outlines of something like sexual ethics for God’s people are clear.
    But, doesn’t this just land us right back in the same boat with our modern questions about the text? Wouldn’t the second naivetee or rule of faith also require us to take the Bible’s ancient cosmology or propagandistic history literally? If not, how do we determine what is the kernel and what is the husk? Or is the answer simply that the level of certainty we might want in this regard simply isn’t available? Is the via media then really a via?

  • dopderbeck@42,
    In my analogy, the grades have no value in terms of quality. I find it useful to get at the idea that being moderate doesn’t necessarily mean being centrist in the sense that you find the middle ground on everything, but may in fact mean being theologically conservative/politically liberal, or liberal when it comes to women’s roles but conservative on homosexuality, or perhaps thinking of the virgin birth as mythic while insisting on the historicity of the Resurrection. But like all metaphors, if it doesn’t work for you, ignore it.
    I’m not a fan of the language of the kernel and the husk, though (since we’re tweaking metaphors). It’s not that the husk is irrelevant and the kernel essential. The husk is a protective mechanism. The husk is absolutely essential WHEN IN SERVICE TO the kernel. So also the Bible’s speaking in the language of ancient cosmology isn’t a problem to be fixed. It’s part of God’s incarnation in human history. It’s a strength, not a weakness.

  • Dianne P

    Travis, 40 and 42,
    Amen, and Amen. It’s not about toeing some imaginary middle tightrope. It’s about being able (dare I say “free”?) to consider all the awesome possibilities. All.
    Wasn’t Jesus free to bring back to life the daughter of the temple big shot, Jairus, and also free to respond to the bleeding woman who touched his garment?
    For me, it’s a life of both/and, not either/or.
    And yes, yes, to the husk and the kernel. Didn’t someone named Paul once upon a time make a big deal about the hand and the feet and the eye…