A Rejoinder To James McGrath

So, here's the order of the conversation thus far:

Initial Post: James (Flaming Meteorite Challenge)
First Reply: Michael (A Response to James)
Second Response: James (Community of the Saved or Salvation of the Community)
Third Reply: The current post (contents below)

Some others who have joined in the convo: Ken Brown (1) (2) *[update] (3) and Drew Tatusko (1) *[update] (2).

In his latest addition to our “blogalogue” or as McGrath calls it, a “blogversation”, James posits the idea that, “…it is not that Christianity is a group that one enters because only therein one can find salvation, but one enters it (either?) because it offers a community of those who have had a particular experience of God and are united by it, and invite others to have it.” Fundamentally, I disagree with this. Let me explain why.

Firstly, while there is a communal aspect to the Church/Christianity, I think it a travesty to say that this is why one enters. The Body of Christ is more than a social club and/or community of persons who have a shared experience of God. Secondly, the goal isn’t to join the Church. The goal is to join oneself to Christ. The Church does not offer salvation, or right-standing with the Triune God, Jesus does. So, we join ourselves to Him and as a result, we are joined to the Body of Christ. This is a fundamental difference between how James and I understand salvation through Jesus alone and also being part of the Body of Christ.

Thirdly, I think one is incredibly hard-pressed (James doesn’t seem to think so, though) to make the argument that the Church is the community whereby persons come together because they have a shared experience of God. One only needs to look at the letters of Paul to see that they congregations are widely different and that this is the case, at least in part, because they’ve had different experiences of God. Sure, the message Paul preached to them was the same but the way the Corinthians responded versus the way the Thessalonians or the Galatians reacted are quite dissimilar. If you were to compare a few of the people from congregations I know of or have been part of, you would also see that their experiences of God are way different. In many cases, it is the rural lifestyle, the familial aspect of the congregation, the small-town identity that is the uniting shared experience, not the “experience” of God. Some have spoken in tongues and others haven’t. Those who haven’t have even tried to invalidate the speaking in tongues experience saying that the people are just crazy or were even being used by satan. That said, the people still congregate together, love one another and serve. However, it is not their experience(s) of God that keeps them united as much as it is other factors. For sure, this element was present in the Early Church as well.

Fourthly (let me build on the previous point here), the non-tongue speakers want nothing to do with speaking in tongues, so, the tongue-speakers will not “invite others to have it”. That experience of God is not a shared or evangelistic one. What is shared, however, is the belief, confession and lifestyle built on the premise that Jesus has given them right-standing with God. Do people have to believe this? Yes! Do they have to confess it? Yes. Do they have to live life based on it? Yes! All of these have to be in place. Thus, I wholeheartedly disagree with James when he says, “It is hard to imagine any way that Paul could have made clearer that what he means by "faith" is not believing Christian doctrines to be true, or even necessarily having explicit knowledge about Jesus.” This means I also disagree with Ken Brown when he comments, “Therefore, it is possible to follow Jesus without knowing it, and thus it is possible to be saved without hearing his name.” It is abundantly clear to me that the Early Church expected and would not compromise belief in Christ in tandem with confession and lifestyle (e.g. ethics, character, praxis, etc.). To counter both of these statements, then, I would say there is no place in the NT that supports either of these statements. Even more, from a theological standpoint I also think this is the case. (Note: I’m not being aggressive or angry here, I’m just attempting to state my position. So, please do not read this as me being offensive or nasty. Tone is often lost in blog posts, so, this is one point where I feel like I should state my tone.)

While I appreciate to a large degree James’ knowledge and implementation of the social sciences in his interpretation of the passages/issues at hand, I also think he misapplies some of those insights. For example, he is right to point out that Paul is redrawing boundary lines and redefining community. But I think he overstates the case, to a very large degree, when he seeks to apply these insights to how Jesus sets people in right standing with God. For example, he states that Paul “makes” a redefining characteristic of the community “trust in God”. (On a side note, I fail to see how this is something innovate among believers or the believing community!) Paul doesn’t “make” this or even “define” this. Instead, it has always been this way. What Paul “does” is proclaim that to trust in Jesus is to truly and fully trust in God. This “trust” concerns the issue of how one attains right standing with God (again, through/by/in—each preposition having a similar meaning here—Jesus!). So, I would say to James that, if he wants to argue that Paul is reorienting things, he must argue that ultimately, Paul is arguing that to trust in God is to trust in Jesus and Jesus only. It is not simply a social marker or some identity issue at hand—though these aspects are certainly a result of what’s going on.

Finally, I also disagree that it all boils down to different interpretations. The fact is, some interpretations are solid and grounded and some are not. Hermeneutics is not just an anything goes type of game. I would assert, then, that what James has offered here is problematic because he’s attempting to use the social sciences to make the theological issue of salvation/right-standing about something other than what it is. The social sciences only help explain the results of the belief, confession and lifestyle that persons employ. The social sciences do not create these things but rather hey only help explain them. It is fact that one must trust in Jesus alone for salvation, a trust that is actualized by a held belief, which is realized/stated in a confession before the community and lived out/applied before the entire world (first in baptism, then in spiritual praxis, along with personal/social ethics and then evangelism). This goes for everyone, including Cornelius!

(I want to note once more, that I am not at all attempting to be vicious or aggressive at any point. Where it may seem like that or where I may be stating disagreements, I am doing it with a spirit of peace and even humility. Please, do not attempt to read the above words in another way.)

1 comment:

  1. I've replied - thanks for such an engaging conversation...and to think we've only barely started!