When May Contemporary Christians Diverge from Traditional Christianity?
I am a historical theologian who specializes in studying and teaching about “traditional Christianity” and its alternatives—especially so-called “heresies” that arose within Christian circles but were sidelined and excluded by the leaders of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches. I have done this work for forty plus years in four American universities. I have written and published about twenty books (either solely or with one other author) and more articles and chapters in edited books than I can count or keep track of. All that is to say that I am confident that I have a good grasp on what beliefs about doctrines and ethics the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages have held to.
I have become convinced that many contemporary Christians are too ready, if not eager, to toss out traditional Christianity in favor of a newish, made up “Christianity” that appeals to contemporary nonChristians and many young Christians filled with doubts about traditional Christianity.
And yet, I have championed and defended some contemporary Christian revisions of traditional Christianity—as not heretical. There are times, I believe, when we do need to revise the traditional Christian consensus. When and why and how?
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
There are no easy answers except one. We should deviate from and revise the traditional Christian consensus when scripture demands it. “God always has new light to break forth from his Word” said Separatist Puritan preacher John Robinson to the so-called “Pilgrims” as they left for the New World. No system of truth is equal with scripture itself. “Our little systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God, art more than they.” (Alfred Lord Tennyson)
I have great respect for the teachings of the church fathers—Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil and the two Gregories), Cyril, Augustine, John Chrysostom, et al. I have great respect for the faithful medieval Christian theologians Anselm, Aquinas, et al. I love and greatly respect the Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Hubmaier, et al. I have great respect for the post-reformation Christian teachers such as Pascal, Hooker, Owen, Edwards, Wesley, et al. I include in my “canon” great modern Christian teachers like Finney, Hodge, Dorner, Barth, Brunner, Henry, Ramm, and even Moltmann and Pannenberg.
None of that is to imply they were infallible; I am only saying they were and are great Christian teachers who stayed very close to the Great Tradition of ecumenical Christian beliefs about God (triune), Jesus Christ (both truly human and truly divine), salvation (by grace alone), and the future (Jesus Christ will return to establish God’s kingdom forever).
But they all also agreed on some ethical issues. Until recently no Christian taught that homosexual behavior (same-sex intercourse) was permitted by God or the church. Until recently no Christian taught that abortion was permitted (except possibly to save the life of the mother). Until recently no Christian taught that greed or conspicuous consumption or gambling is alright for Christians. Until recently no Christian taught that divorce was okay (with some exceptions made for adultery and abuse). Now we have large swaths of American (and other) Christianity promoting sexual intercourse outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Now we have large swaths of Christians teaching that abortion is always and only a woman’s choice—even within and among Christians. Now we have large swaths of American Christians condoning divorce and remarriage for any reason or none. Now we have large swaths of American Christians teaching a “prosperity gospel” that says God wants all of his people to be rich.
I do believe all the Christian leaders and teachers before the twentieth century would turn over in their graves if they knew the extreme permissiveness about both doctrine and ethics ruling our American “Christian” churches today.
Does that matter? To many American Christians (and no doubt other Christians) it probably does not matter. They now go by what seems right in their own eyes and much of that is based on feelings and desires to “fit in” with culture.
No, the only time we are allowed to break away from Christian consensus throughout the ages is when fresh and faithful interpretation of scripture, not adulterated by non-Christian culture and desire to accommodate to it, demands it.
Imagine this. A contemporary Christian turns around and looks back at all our spiritual ancestors, the “great cloud of witnesses” that went before us, and says “You were all wrong because our modern culture says so.” Hardly anyone would do that, but many are implicitly doing it—in the way they accommodate to modern and contemporary culture and change traditional Christian moral norms and doctrines on the basis of feelings.
Now, having said that, Christian theologian and biblical scholar William Webb makes a convincing argument in Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (InterVarsity Press, 2001) that there are some “trajectories” within scripture itself that demand disagreement with post-biblical traditions. In other words, scripture is not as clear as we wish it were about women and slaves, but there is a clear trajectory toward their liberation in scripture. He makes a convincing case that there is no such trajectory in scripture about homosexual sex or marriage between persons of the same sex.
Those of us who are firmly against slavery and firmly for equality of women with men can say to Christian tradition: You didn’t continue the trajectory within scripture, so you were wrong. But we can’t say the same with regard to abortion or homosexual sex or divorce or greed or …
I once knew there was a line, however difficult precisely to identify, between conservative and liberal churches. Now I find it difficult to see any line dividing them insofar as allegedly conservative churches have dropped all expectations about the permanence of marriage, about money and possessions and how to handle them, about abuse of alcohol, about gambling, etc. And why would it surprise anyone if many of them are now edging closer and closer to becoming “welcoming and affirming” of openly practicing gay people who are proud that they have sex with people of their own gender? Many are falling off that cliff and still claiming to be evangelical. And yet they cannot make any biblical case for it. It is clearly based on niceness and cultural accommodation. Doesn’t the Great Tradition of Christianity matter to them? Are we constantly to reinvent Christianity to make it palatable to modern, contemporary cultural despisers of traditional Christianity?
If someone asked me to identify the main problems with American Christianity, including so-called evangelical Christianity, I would name two: anti-intellectualism and unthinking permissiveness. Both are evidences of cultural accommodation.
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