Last Tuesday night I went out to Brentwood to attend one of the guy’s Bible studies that meets in our college ministry. It is getting near the end of the school year and they had me out so that they could pose a lot of different questions to me…to see if I could give them some sufficient answers to some difficult questions. What was really intriguing to me was that the questions they asked me, were really many of the same questions that I remember asking others when I was in college. It’s almost as if there is a path that people, or at least college guys, have to tread, and have certain questions answered, if they are to move forward. And I say college guys, because I think that I remember college girls asking different questions. That is a stereotype, but I don’t generally remember the guys and girls asking the same questions, though they both were important to one’s faith development. But, we were in non-coed Bible studies, so what do I know.
So it was no surprise that the first question posed to me was in regards to Romans 9:13-21. So you know where that question is going. Free will vs. determinism. Predestination. Etc. With some minor discussion about open theism.
Then the question meandered over to the problem of evil, or theodicy.
Then the discussion led to Biblical inerrancy and infallibility.
Then we ultimately closed with a lengthy discussion on Creation and issues relating to it. Was the earth created in 7 days? Are parts of Genesis to be taken literally, like the Creation account, the flood, etc.? What do we make of the multiple creation and flood stories in other cultures that predate and have similarities to the Biblical account?
That is the gist of the two hour conversation that I had with about eight guys last week. Needless to say that I was a little overwhelmed. Not because I hadn’t asked those same questions myself. Not because I haven’t already studied those ideas in detail. But rather, how do you answer tough questions, but allow people to come to the conclusions themselves; to mature and to grow. Meaning, how do you not just become the “Bible Answer Man” that spews out answers, but doesn’t challenge others to take on and own their faith and wrestle with the tough issues. These guys are all very smart guys, and they have taken on and owned their faith, and are clearly wrestling with these questions. And I think they were just generally interested in what I had to say, especially as I have been pastoring them, and some of them for over four years.
What do you do when you come to an antinomy in the Scriptures for example. For example, what do you do when you come to passages that seem to stress God’s sovereignty over an issue, say salvation, like Romans 9. But then you have passages, say in John’s gospel (3:16-17), where one’s belief in God seems to require an act of free will and not coercion. How do we hold these two in tension with each other?
I have a lot of questions. And I think I have a lot more questions now at 31 years old than I had prior in life. Some questions have been answered for me, and others seem to be unanswerable, or require me to live in mystery without trying to have everything figured out.
The difficulty in being a pastor in ministry comes when tension arrives between feeling the pressure to be the “answer man” and have everything figured out for the congregation, and sometimes wrestling with your own questions, and not wanting to be inauthentic by throwing out an answer to satisfy. My students know this well about me. They know when I am being inauthentic and have doubts and questions about certain things, versus when I am really passionate and have little or no doubts in some areas.
Now hear me clearly here. This is not to say that we wade out into the Christian life without any foundation, with no answers. That would be inaccurate and the scriptures give us plenty to be confident in. For example, in I Cor. 15 Paul says that if we don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, then our faith is in vain, and we are to be pitied. Belief in resurrection is necessary to our faith. Does that mean people don’t doubt it, or don’t wrestle with it? No. But it means that resurrection is ultimately an event and doctrine that we believe and place our faith in as Christians. But that is different than saying that I clearly understand the issue of free-will and determinism perfectly. It is here that I very much like Augustine’s dictum: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” – Augustine.
There seems to be doctrines and truths that we must clearly have unity in, and there seem to be other doctrines that we have more freedom in to disagree. And so how do we as Christians and leaders discern between these two?
I was thinking about these things when I read Brent’s great post today. Brent looks at the issue of “total depravity” and “open theism” in Genesis 5:6-7. It’s a great post and I recommend you read it. I had some questions for Brent in the comments section of which he responded as well. If people were to read Brent and I’s blogs, they would know that we are probably very different theologically on many issues. I’ve known Brent since college and I can remember us disagreeing on theological issues for a long time. So how do Brent and I as Christians, come together and hold to, and agree on essential issues of doctrine, while at the same time not allowing our disagreements on certain doctrinal issues not keep us from dialoguing or working and serving together.
I am going to close with a quote from a fairly controversial evangelical figure, Clark Pinnock. Which is sort of apropos, since Brent was discussing “open theism” and Pinnock is one of the leaders in the “open theism” movement. And no, I’m not an “open theist” so save the emails 🙂 But I like what Pinnock has to say about the role of pilgrimage as a theologian, and I think it is pertinent to us as Christians. Because, do we really have all the answers at 18, or 22, or 30, or does our faith and theology grow and mature and sometimes change as we grow older and mature? I know that my faith has evolved a lot in the last ten years, and it has evolved even more in the last five years as I have been pastoring The Quest. We are often afraid of change, especially in our theology, but changing may often bring us closer to God and the truth, rather than our fears of moving away. Pinnock says:
The great majority of theologians change their minds quite often. We often refer to their early work and their later work, and sometimes also to the middle stages of their thought. Karl Barth, undoubtedly the greatest theologian of our century, illustrates this very well, and he was not ashamed of changing his mind. It is better to change one’s mind than to continue on a wrong path. Of course there are some who do not follow this rule: they refuse to change. Theologians like Bultmann and Van Til, for example, seem to have thought they possessed all the “right” answers from graduate school on and never saw any reason to change them afterward, though many of their readers saw reason to change. But such theologians are the abnormal ones, and it is rather hard for ordinary mortals to identify with them. The reason for this is that in theology we are dealing with great mysteries and intellectually complex problems that can be excruciatingly difficult to sort out and to understand. So almost anyone who seriously tries to resolve them will experience struggle in doing so and changes in his or her understanding. Not only are individual topics like predestination and election remarkably challenging in themselves, but also the interconnections between such themes and other topics in the total grammar of the Christian faith are tricky to establish and maintain in a balanced way.
So I do not apologize for admitting to being on a pilgrimage in theology, as if it were in itself some kind of weakness of intelligence or character. Feeling our way toward the truth is the nature of theological work even with the help of Scripture, tradition, and the community. We are fallible and historically situated creatures, and our best thinking falls short of the ideal of what our subject matter requires. A pilgrimage, therefore, far from being unusual or slightly dishonorable, is what we would expect theologians who are properly aware of their limitations to experience.
The Grace of God and the Will of Man by Clark Pinnock, pp. 15-16