When it comes to theological method, that is, how we connect the truths of God’s word with the problems of human life, neither fundamentalism nor progressivism will do. Please understand me; my point is not about the theological beliefs of these systems but their methods of forming beliefs. Whereas fundamentalism has strong (and proper) convictions that Scripture is the sole authority for faith and practice, it has a stubborn tendency to ignore the world’s questions today. When fundamentalists do speak to those questions, too often they provide pat answers that are merely proof text treatments of the beliefs of their generation, coupled with the self-righteousness of “orthodoxy.” Progressives, on the other hand, are deeply aware of and sympathetic to new questions. Still, they seem determined to find answers anywhere but the Scriptures, and thus often end up just promoting the solutions of the current generation outside the church. Simply put, a proper theological method takes every question in its most profound and challenging form and seeks its answers through fresh and deep study of the Scriptures.
The Fundamental Problem
For those of us who have a fundamentalist predisposition, we need to become reacquainted with our need to continue developing our theology. Our age comes with questions that, at least in their framing, are new and thus require fresh answers. Our current understanding also is not perfect but has hidden cultural baggage. To act otherwise, as if our theology is complete and without error, is to deny the reformation heritage we seek to defend. The reformers called the church to be Semper reformanda, always reforming. Human beings, even those translated into the kingdom of light, are finite, corrupt, and prone to error. To resist the need for theological refinement is to resist the church-purifying work of the Holy Spirit.
Also, when the world calls out the church for the inadequacy of its answers, often with the language of hypocrisy, it does the church a favor. In our defensiveness, we can miss this blessing. If the emperor has no clothes, it is not necessarily evidence that he has nothing to wear, but instead a call back to the wardrobe, and any posturing about being fully dressed denies not only our need but, more importantly, denies our resources. When criticism is deserved, it should send us back to the book of life for what we need. And when the good news is good to us, we can again proclaim it to a desperate world with compassion and conviction. The Gospel, after all, calls only recipients as its messengers.
The more progressively oriented among us would also benefit from a recalibration. It is not enough to recognize the validity of our generation’s questions, the inadequacy of the church’s current answers, or the hypocrisy of their lives. The need to avoid error also has a propensity to self-righteousness, this time not through defending the status quo but through distancing oneself from it. Running from one mistake does not make one right. Dissociating with those who are wrong is not enough to be righteous.
There is also the obvious danger of throwing out the word of God, and even Jesus himself, in your deconstruction. To some degree, I am sympathetic with how disorienting the stubborn defense of inadequate or even wrong answers from those who were to be our guides in truth can be, but what if there is still truth to be found? I fear many are like the younger brother in Jesus’ parable, mistaking the elder brother’s relationship with the father as all there was and fleeing for the far country. It is possible to avoid becoming an elder brother without becoming a prodigal. Knowing the elder brother has nothing to teach us about the father should send us directly to the father himself. (It is also worth noting that it is the younger brother’s actual experience of the father that makes the elder brother jealous and forces him to confront the reality of his dissatisfaction.) Whether it is our understanding or the understanding of others that have failed us, we must maintain Peter’s conviction, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Lastly, there is the danger of settling for the answers our generation gives to these questions. Firstly, please realize that these answers appeal to you because they come from the culture you swim in. In many instances, this is the exact reason why the “traditional” solutions appeal to the fundamentalist. Both are cultural, just across the generational divide. Second, we must realize that present-tense answers from our culture often seem true not because of their proven track record but because consequence takes time. The last generation’s mistakes have already born thorns and thistles, but our ideas are mere seedlings. What we need is not contemporary errors but timeless truth, and only the word of God produces a harvest of life (Isa. 55:10-11).
The Word for Today
Amid the challenges and culture wars of our day, there is a need for people willing to supplement their predispositions and not settle for a fundamentalist or progressive method.
We need confidence in the word of God and the humility to hear the questions and even criticisms of our world.
We need to develop our theology, neither settling for what is nor supplementing with what is external and untested. We need to honor those who have gone before us, not by sitting down or abandoning them but by pressing on. We must be convinced that although God’s word neither changes nor needs to, we are desperate for it to change us.
This is mission-critical. The church’s witness is at its strongest when it lives on the cutting edge of theological discovery. Not because novelty sells but because transformation validates. God’s word is living and active. It speaks in the present tense. There is manna for today’s hunger, but it must be freshly gathered because yesterday’s manna has a tendency to worm. Only a theological method that completes the entire loop, taking today’s questions to the word of God, has ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. And only the church that hears has anything to say to our world.