Dear Young, Restless, and Reformed:
We need to hash some things out. See, I was trying to avoid this conversation, I really was, because so often these kinds of things degenerate into arguments that are frankly repellent and repulsive, especially to non-believers, but it seems that there are too many of you to ignore. You have most of the big-name pastors (Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll) and have a lot of influence in the evangelical world, of which I consider myself, in some strange way, to be a member. So we should really talk.
I want to start out by saying that I admire your enthusiasm and your passion. You’re good people, by and large. I rarely meet one of you whom I don’t genuinely like. You have a love for the Scriptures that I envy, and I wish I could quote Scripture as readily as you do when entering into a theological discussion. And I wish I were as passionate about evangelism as you, too. But in all of that, I have a word of rebuke, and, I think, of encouragement.
First, the rebuke:
You’re very proud.
I say this, I hope you understand, not in condemnation. We are all proud at times, and perhaps I should take a good look at the log in my own eye before I point out the speck in yours. The things is, I think most of you know that you’re proud. You say this among yourselves in private, or to those you trust. “My biggest struggle is pride,” you’ll say. I’ve heard this a lot. John Piper took a sabbatical this year, in part, to deal with pride. Mark Driscoll struggles with pride. In fact, I know that you struggle with pride because you are always talking about humility. It’s one of your favorite topics.
And still you struggle. And I’m wondering if you’ve stopped to consider whether there might be some deeper emotional logic behind this fact. Because from my perspective, it makes perfect sense that you’d be dealing with pride. You see, I think there is a certain amount of theo-logic behind this tendency of yours.
Let me back up for a second.
Can we just acknowledge this together? The world is a confusing place.
It’s big, it’s complex, there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot to learn. You might even call it chaotic: at first or second glance, it seems random, meaningless, and even cruel. All kinds of things happen that we don’t understand. That’s stressful. Yet we humans are, by nature, meaning-making creatures. We are trying to figure it all out! And that’s an enormous task.
Religion is one of the ways that we make meaning out of the world. One thing that all religions do is order the universe. This, in the face of a chaotic reality, is a very comforting thing. We are comfortable with order. We are not comfortable with chaos. We want to make sense of things.
This would all be well and good if we agreed about what meaning can be made out of the world. But we don’t. In fact, far from it. Some of us are Christians, some Hindus, some Muslims, some Buddhists, and some are non-believers. And there are myriad other religions, other worldviews besides the ones I’ve just mentioned. And even within Christianity there are differences. There are Orthodox and Catholics and Protestants and Copts and Abyssinians. And within Protestantism, there are even more differences! There are Lutherans and Anglicans and Presbyterians and evangelicals and Quakers and Mennonites. And just look at evangelicalism! There are charismatics and cessationists, liberals and fundamentalists, Calvinists and Arminians, and, yes, universalists, inclusivists, exclusivists, and all kinds of in-betweenists.
In light of this diversity, can we acknowledge something else together? The Bible is a confusing book.
A reader who comes to the Bible for the first time, without any kind of prior knowledge, is likely to be very confused. There’s a lot of strange stories about people who lived a long time ago. There is a God who wrestles people and appears in bushes or as three strangers. There is a great deal about a guy named Jesus. There are a lot of letters to some churches by a guy named Paul, and some letters after that acknowledging that much of what Paul said can be confusing. There is a vision at the end. There is a lot of song lyrics, and some poetry, and some ancient erotica (seriously, what is that doing there?). There are lots of people predicting the future: sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong.
We approach the Bible in a very similar way that we approach the world: we both inherit and construct a system of meaning within it. We, inevitably, interpret. And that is a very dangerous task.
With most other texts, interpretation is really quite harmless. I don’t care much what sense you made out of Ulysses or Catch-22, to be honest. But the thing about religion, and about worldviews in general, is that is makes a certain claim on us at an existential level. It demands attention, and action. It is of the utmost importance. There is much at stake. So we cling to our religion, to our doctrine, to the way we view the world, in spite of the very real possibility that, well, we might be wrong. And, from a purely demographic point of view, we very likely are.
But we don’t like to admit that possibility, and frankly, deep down, we feel threatened by those with whom we disagree. Don’t think I didn’t notice how in a tizzy you all were about Rob Bell’s new book. For many of you, the video was a confirmation of what you had always suspected: Rob Bell is a heretic. Universalism is heresy, and Rob Bell must be a universalist, so he’s a heretic.
Are you so quick to condemn? Is it your place to judge? Who gave you the authority to deem some to be orthodox and others to be heretics? Many, many Christians throughout the history of the Church have believed that, in some way, God will bring all of Creation into God’s Kingdom. Conversely, believe it or not, that doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that you hold so dear—the one that you scorn Bell for not holding to—is a relative newcomer on the theological scene. Bell seems to love God and the Scriptures as much as you do. Why is he instantly an outsider if you happen to disagree? Why not listen to what he has to say? Is he that much of a threat to you?
You worship the same God, yet you would cast him out of your circle at the first sign of dissenting opinion. This is hardly the treatment demanded of you by Jesus, or the Scriptures.
My suggestion is that the vehemence, anger, and frankly, hatred of your response (and you can rationalize it all you want, but I know hatred when I see it) indicates that something is deeply wrong with your perspective. So, here is my message to you Reformed kids, or at least, the ones who struggle with pride so much:
Believe in God, not in your understanding of God.
Many of you, I think, believe more in your doctrines about God than in the true God, whom those doctrines are provisional statements about.
Trust the Bible, not your interpretation of it.
I know this is hard for you folks, saying that you may be wrong. You, more than most, I think, are prone to an immense amount of existential anxiety—a certain gnawing fear of where you stand in the world—and doctrines that are very concrete and specific give you an incredible amount of comfort. Being ‘right’ means that you know where you stand, and this knowledge, in a confusing and chaotic world, seems crucial to survival.
But certainty, especially of the theological variety, can be the most unforgiving of idols. As soon as we reduce God and God’s ways to a set of propositional truths about God, we stop worshipping God altogether. We worship doctrine instead, and doctrines are as unworthy of our worship as any Asherah pole or image of Baal.
What’s worse, we become . . . proud. If we alone have the right doctrine, we alone the right understanding, then really, how silly or misguided or in error are those people who think otherwise? Right? I mean, how could they even believe anything else? After all, we so obviously have the right answer . . .
You see what I mean? It is your certainty—really, your almost cavalier cocksureness about what is true doctrine—that leads you to prideful thinking.
And now, the encouragement:
Friends, what you must recover is a deep, abiding sense of wonder at God’s mystery. It is only in the eschaton, at the end of days, that we will know fully, even as we are fully known. Until then, all our doctrines—whether that be universalism or cessationism or penal substitutionary atonement or anything else—are “best guesses”. They are thoughtful reflections and meditations on Scripture, tradition, and our own experiences.
Please, please understand that God is a mystery to be encountered, and encountered in the Person of Christ, not a doctrine to explain. Because of their provisional nature, because they arise out of this encounter, our words about this God—our theologies—must be brought forward with open hands. They must be offered, not wielded.
True humility emanates naturally from acceptance of this fact. We. Do. Not. Know. God alone is Truth.
You want to be humble? Give glory, then, to the One who is revealed not in human words, but in human form; not in what we say about God, but in what God says about us; not in the wood and clay of human doctrines, but in our own encounter with the great mystery of a human Person—that is, Jesus Christ our Lord!
It is when, and only when, we encounter this God that we can experience true humility. For before this peculiar, mysterious God, all our words, all our doctrines become but stammers and stutters in the presence of the One Who is Holy. In the presence of the Living God, all must fall silent.
Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters. May God grant you an assurance of God’s love today, tomorrow, and the next day, too. May you forever grapple with God’s mysterious presence.