Wednesday, 23 March 2011

How can we display a generous orthodoxy? (A Community Called Atonement)

A few years ago we had Erwin McManus at Junior Ministers' Convention (a retreat for Methodist ministers in their first ten years of minsitry).  I was really taken with what he said to us.  I think it was at this time that I began to hear of some new leaders that seemed to have interesting things to say.  So I came home and ordered a couple of books from Brian McLaren.  It was with excitment that I sat on the toilet one day and began to read his book A Generous Orthodoxy.

But I was soon frustrated.  I felt that it didn't say much.  I was irritated with his redefining of labels, but more irritated about how he sidestepped tricky issues like 'Hell'.  I am not sure if I have read two-thirds or only a half of this book but I doubt that I will ever finish it.  Since then I have heard people describe McLaren as neither orthodox or generous.  Although I am told that he is a really nice guy.

Now I make no bones about the fact that I sit in the 'conservative' evangelical camp.  Although I need you to realise that I do not see 'conservative evangelical' as being about cultural conservatism (I don't want to dress up for church), silly issues (like the idea that the King James Version is special) or being non-charismatic (Carson's Showing the Spirit does a great job of demonstrating that all the spiritual gifts are for today).  To me being a 'conservative evangelical' primarily means that I believe that the Bible is totally reliable and the re-discovery of justification by grace through faith is the brilliant legacy of the reformation.

One further thing that I need to clarify.  I did not grow up in Northern Ireland and so I have had very few encounters with the cultural/political conservative fundamentalists that so many people here seem to have had bad experiences with.  There is no problem with the 'right' that tempts me to the 'left'.  To be fair I should say that the cultural/political conservative fundamentalists I have met have not left me with a negative impression. When I worked in Dungannon as a lay-assistent I occasionally did some hospital chaplaincy and if I saw 'Free Presybertain' on the list my southern prejudice expected to encounter a bigot, yet I have not yet met a Free P that I did not find to be a decent person.

Of course I am not coming at theology without my own baggage.  I am an insecure person who longs for certainty.  If you wanted to explain away my attachment to a conservative theological stance you might begin there.  But there are other reasons that I feel have led me to this position - like the simple fact that it makes sense to me.

Anyway, I have disgressed from the reason why I am writing this post.  How can we be both generous and orthodox?  I recongise that in the New Testament there is both warning of those who distort the truth and examples of confrontation with those whose teaching endangers the community of faith.  At times I have despaired that some church leaders have said things that seemed, to me, to fly in the face of what the Bible teaches and yet no-one challenged them.  But, I confess, I have not been able to fully figure-out where the boundary lines are to be drawn.  I struggle to know which issues are open for reasoned debate and which should get our blood boiling.  I also haven't figured out when to dialogue with people and when there isn't enough common ground to work from.  I want to be 'friends of all and enemies of none' but I am also warned that we need to beware when all people speak well of us.

The reason for these ramblings is that Virtual Methodist has inspired me to read Scott McKnight's A Community Called Atonement.  I have only just begun, so I can't yet say that I endorse this book.  From what I have read about McKnight I will not agree with everything he will say.  Indeed I have already come across at least two, very minor, issues on which I disagree with him.  I also have to say that this is an intelligent book, and not being overly bright I may be missing the gist of some of the things that he is saying.  Perhaps it is full of heresy and I have simply failed to see it.

But for me this book at least feels like it might be the generous orthodoxy that can help me.  I have no doubt that conservative evangelicalism has blindspots (in how it has been taught) that our friends need to point out.  As a conservative evangelical I despair that some people's theology is so focused on life in this world that they seem to forget that will will spend far more time in the next;  I am saddened that some seem embarrased by a God who is both good and angry; and I am bemused by definitions of the kingdom of God that fail to mention that we don't enter that kingdom unless we are born anew.  However, as a conservative evangelical, I love the fact that McKnight has already challenged me to see the local congreation of believers as a community of the atonement and an outpost of the kingdom of God, that he reminds me that God wants to recreat the cracked 'image of God' in his people, and that he is highlighting the sharing and love that should characterise God's people.  Of course none of these things should in any way at varience with the beliefs held by my fellow conservative evangelicals (although, at times, we have been guilty of failing to emphasise the present transformation that should be seen in and through the redeemed people fo God).

I will finish with a few quotes (I have only read the first four chapters):

The gospel we preach shapes the kind of churches we create.  The kind of church we have shapes the gospel we preach.

The kingdom of God ... is what God is doing through the community of faith for the redemptive plans of God - including what he is doing through you and me.

Any atonement theory that thinks exclusively of the earth is inadequate, just as any theory that shifts to thinking too much of eternity is also inadequate.

To be forgiven, to be atoned for, to be reconciled ... is to be granted a mission to become a reciprical performer of the same: to forgive, to work atonement, and to be an agent of reconciliation.       


Virtual Methodist said...

if this were facebook I'd be pressing a "like" button... Not because of your generous citing of my good self, but because a generous orthodoxy and a theology of the atonement that is Biblical, contextual and communal is what is needed. As Newbiggin always taught "the herneneutic of the gospel is the local church..."

To whom it may concern said...

Thanks VM