Thursday, December 21, 2006

Martin Marty on diversity in the ancient church

One last comment regarding the Ancient Evangelical Future conference. Martin Marty's address was an evaluation of the Call document and a whirlwind tour through church history. A few offhand comments he made at the end really resonated with me - he said something along the lines of, "Was the ancient church's polity congregational, presbyterian or episcopal? Yes. Was their soteriology Christus Victor, penal substitution or exemplary? Yes." He went on to give a few other examples of such diversity among the patristic and early church fathers, affirming that the Christian church has always practiced and believed various dimensions of a number of issues, even while affirming one key unifying truth: "the human Jesus is the exalted Lord."

During the follow-up panel response, one of the theologians pushed back on Marty on all this, saying that there might have been diversity, but one or another position was the main belief or practice, and kept pressing to argue for the primacy of one particular view. Marty pushed back and basically said, sorry, it's not that simple. Yes, we have one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and the Nicean and Chalcedonian and other such creeds and formulas for the general consensus. But in any number of theological areas, diversity is simply a historical fact.

And it struck me that this is the difference between the systematic theologian and the church historian. The theologian wants to press for precision and the way it (perhaps) ought to be. The historian accounts for what actually was and is.

Personally, I find historical theology extremely helpful in navigating the multitude of options in Christian belief, church practice and the like. I've always been something of an evangelical mutt, heir to multiple traditions, seeing the value in the rich, diverse heritage of the faith. That's why I love IVP's four views books and the fact that we're broadly evangelical and publish a variety of perspectives on various issues. Even though I will usually find myself agreeing with one view in particular over others, I still find it valuable to understand why other Christians in other traditions believe and practice differently. If something was believed at some point in church history by some group or another, there were probably historical reasons for it. In the overall 1 Cor. 12 ecclesiology of the body of Christ, it seems that we need different parts of the church to emphasize things that other parts may have de-emphasized.

Tangent: I recently read our new The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, and something I found interesting was that three of the four contributors argued in a more traditional theological and philosophical framework (which was okay but somewhat flat), while one contributor was able to engage the imagination and to be far more holistic in his presentation, using examples from Narnia and elsewhere to demonstrate why his view is more comprehensive and persuasive than the others. (Example: In response to the view that the atonement should be understood in terms of healing and restoration, he said, imagine that a scientist discovered a cure to every virus in existence. While it would be true to cheer, "Yay, he healed us of our infirmities!" the more fundamental truth is that he conquered the viruses and defeated the powers that caused the infirmities in the first place. Thus the Christus Victor view includes and supersedes the healing view of the atonement.) Whatever one might think about the theological merits of any of these positions, I think this contributor was a far more effective dialogue partner than the others because of his rhetorical approach and pastoral style. (It's telling that he is the only one of the four contributors who is a working pastor rather than a seminary professor.) This is something that Scot McKnight has blogged about, arguing that professors and seminarians tend to talk in theological seminary-speak and do not know how to communicate effectively with people in the pew.

Anyway, enough for now. I'm off to Urbana 06 after Christmas and probably won't be able to blog for the duration. Merry Christmas!

P.S. Some material from the Ancient Evangelical Future conference is available online at the Paradoxology blog. You can start here and scroll forward or go to the end and work back. I've updated my previous entries to have direct links, and here are entries on the presentations by Brian McLaren, Frederica Mathewes-Green and Lauren Winner.


L.L. Barkat said...

Enjoy Urbana! (Don't you want to live-blog it for us? :)

Anonymous said...

Good rhetoric does not necessarily make for good truth. Someone, a respected biblical scholar, told me that the Christus Victor view was poorly represented (in IVP's four-views book on the atonement) by the author that you praise. Hmmm.

Al Hsu said...

Sorry, L.L., I'll probably be too busy to do any blogging onsite at Urbana! I believe you can watch some of the sessions online at, if you're interested.

And I agree, anonymous, good rhetoric does not trump actual argumentation or sound theology. My point here is merely that good communication and rhetorical skills must go alongside the task of doing theology. I think a fair number of theology texts are perhaps technically accurate and logically consistent in their argumentation but not very winsome, engaging or ultimately persuasive to anyone other than those already convinced of their position. What we profess can certainly be either aided or obscured by a poor presentation.

And just for the record, I was already quite appreciative of the Christus Victor model long before reading this particular four-views book. I also recently came across this nice quote from N. T. Wright in his recent Evil and the Justice of God:

"I find myself compelled toward one of the well-known theories of atonement, of how God deals with evil through the death of Jesus, not as a replacement for the events or the stories nor as a single theory to trump all others, but as a theme which carries me further than the others toward the heart of it all. I refer to the Christus Victor theme, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come in to play their respective parts." (pp. 94-95)

Mark Goodyear said...

Al, you evangelical mutt, this post left me swimming a bit. Great stuff.

Steven Purcell, the new Laity Lodge director, will be up at Urbana too. Maybe you'll bump into each other (yeah, right). Have fun.

And Merry Christmas.

Margaret Feinberg said...

Great thoughtful post. I recently heard a popular speaker/author and while I disagreed with much of his theology, the way he said made me want to agree with everything. said...

Speaking of Brian McLaren & Lauren Winner they are part of a Bible project called The Voice. I saw at you can download the first chapters of each. There are also good videos and video blogs from Chris Seay there.