In recent weeks I've been reading the accounts of various theological debates, primarily between the Emergent crowd and what's often called the Neo-Reformed crowd. It all started when a pre-release video was put out to hawk Rob Bell's new book "God Wins" along with snippets from his soon to be released book. From these meager (though not to some) resources many deigned to presume that Rob had "proved" himself a "universalist" though the term never occurs in either the video blurb or in the parts of his book that have been released. That's not to say he doesn't hold to universalism. He may. But the evidence wasn't in yet. The book was released in "pre-publish" form to several people so that they could review it, both those who would be favorably disposed and those who differ deeply with Rob's views, whatever they may be. And now we're finally beginning to see reviews from those who have actually "read" the book. And for me, this is just as interesting.
Both Greg Boyd and Tim Challies were given pre-releases of Rob's new book and have posted their reviews. For those not in the know, these two guys are as theologically polar opposite as you can pretty much get, at least within the Protestant Christian world. Greg Boyd is extremely Arminian in this theology to the point that he advocates a view that's called "Open Theism" which posits that God may not "know" every detail of the future, all in order to preserve a view of human freedom called "libertarian free will." The idea behind this view is that in order for God to be "good" human agency must be uninterrupted, thus even God's perfect foreknowledge would impede that freedom. Therefore, since that "freedom" is essential to us being morally responsible, and in order to maintain God's goodness, his own knowledge must itself be contingent to our "free will" actions. (within Free-Will Theism or Open Theism there are degrees. Some are ontological Open Theists (God "cannot" know the future), which I consider to be open heresy, whereas others, such as Boyd, I consider to be excessively kenotic (God's self emptying prerogative seen in Christ's incarnation) but nonetheless within the pale of orthodoxy [barely])
Tim Challies, on the other hand is a well known figure among the Neo-Reformed. The vast majority of the critiques of Rob's new book have come from this crowd, The Neo-Reformed are Calvinistic in their soteriology/salvation theology as well as in their anthropology/doctrine of humanity. By the way, as a confession of my own views, I'm quite Reformed and Augustinian about both the human condition and God's sovereignty. But what does it mean to be "Reformed" or "Calvinistic" or even "Augustinian" in our theology, whether about God Himself or about us as humans?
A quick definition of terms might help here. To "be" Reformed is to emphasize certain attributes of God as being preeminent, in particular his sovereignty and holiness, and among many Reformed folks, his wrath. It's also to emphasize the utter devastation to the human condition that occurred at the "fall," the event that forever changed us, not only in our natural state, but also in our relationship with a transcendent and holy God. Since I'm basically a Calvinist myself, I should make clear one thing that's often been misconstrued. To be "totally depraved" is not to be as bad as we can possibly be, but to be thoroughly and completely infected by sin in every part, even if only in the slightest way. I often use the illustration of a glass of water being tainted by a drop of poison. Whether it's one drop or the whole glass, it's deadly either way. This is the conception of the holiness of God in this vision. In both reviews I noticed how their theological perspectives shaped and eventually determined their reading of Rob's words.
This little kerfuffle which has garnered so much attention amongst Evangelicals and has even reached the New York Times, betrays, at least for me, a certain theological myopia that has ignored a much larger and richer Christian picture. The "four great Christian traditions" of Christianity seen in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Reformation Christianity, and Anabaptist/Independent Christianity (inclusive of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements) each have a vision of God's character at their center driving their ethical impulses.
I look back to Paul's description of the divisiveness in the Corinthian church which Paul describes so vividly in chapter 1 of 1st Corinthians. He starts out by commending them, as he typically did to whatever church to which he wrote. But just after that he confronts them on their factionalism. Some of them were following after him. Some were following after Cephas, otherwise known as Peter. Others were siding with Apollos. And some were even saying that they just followed Jesus. Paul criticized "every one of these" factions as being untrue to the gospel message.
It seems that the Corinthians were as prone to seeing God "on our own terms" as we are now. I'll admit that my analysis if this passage may be as much eisegesis as exegetical, but when I see Paul's description, I can't help but notice this four-fold division that fits rather neatly with the divisions of church history.
The initial separation (1054AD) was between East and West; between the Orthodox East with the Catholic West. As I see it, this represents the Petrine and Apolilnian split. This split was a combination of theology and ecclesiology combining with sinful impulses on both sides. Later we saw the split between Petrine and Pauline understandings of Christianity in the Protestant Reformation, also with sinful and holy impulses driving each side. But what's really surprising is that the followers of Jesus were criticized as well. In other words, each of these views was seen as being separatist, not allowing that God might speak through a slightly different voice.
It seems that Paul says that God speaks through through a multitude of voices, yet ultimately with one voice.
So in light of this dim light, can we see forward toward an ecumenical light? Can we be Christan in a ;large sense? Can we be Christians in that large sense and still be Christians?