The Shape of Progressive Orthodoxy: Part 4 of 7


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This is the fourth installment of my seven-part series on Progressive Orthodoxy, argued in six theses. Written here are Thesis 3 and Thesis 4. Just as a reminder, these theses are quite interrelated, though they may well make sense individually. As such, it may be helpful to revisit the first three posts (part one, part two, part three). Due to their interrelated nature of these posts, there may be some repetition, but my hope is that the shape, nuances and texture of my argument will become clearer because of this. And again, these are cross-posted to my own blog, Constructing Adventist Theology, where you can read some of my other work that reflects what Progressive Orthodoxy looks like “in action.”

THIRD THESIS: Christian ethics and Christian ontological claims cannot be separated.

As I have argued it, the gospel is primarily an ontological claim; that is, it is a statement about the natures and future of God, humanity and the rest of creation; it is a claim about the way things actually are in their being. What I have consistently encountered in my faith community, from both those who are liberal and conservative, is a de-emphasis on these ontological dimensions of the gospel (which are the real content of the gospel!), and an over-emphasis on the ethical dimensions.

This is commonly pointed out among conservatives, who are often (deservedly) accused of being legalistic, obsessing over personal piety. But the proposed solution to this seems always to be a suggestion that “we need to talk about grace more.” Hardly ever is it suggested that there should be a reconsideration of the gospel itself. Likewise, within many progressive circles there are endless (tiresome) discussions about social justice, women’s equality in the church and gay rights (all of which I fully support!), and in these discussions there are endless references to the Bible—sometimes doing exegetical gymnastics around ‘problem passages’, so as to provide compelling, biblical justification for their positions to those in the church who are more conservative.

The progressive’s obsession with ethics is, in my view, nothing less than a new legalism. And too often in these circles, the uniqueness of Jesus is implicitly (or explicitly) denied, and the gospel is reduced to the teachings of Jesus, and his example of welcoming the marginal and weak; as Hart has written, this is “a moralization and spiritualization of salvation that [makes] Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian kerygma.”[1] But hardly ever is it suggested that there should be a reconsideration of the gospel itself, that a richer understanding of the gospel would actually render better arguments than their often pathetic and unpersuasive use of ‘proof-texts’. Indeed, both liberal and conservative understandings of Christianity have done violence to the Bible and to the gospel, and both have chosen their own expressions of the same legalism.

In my discussion of the first thesis, I explained that the revelation of God in the Christ Event calls from us the appropriate response of doxological living, a life of thanksgiving towards God, and one of the ways I envisioned this working itself out was through a commitment to ethics. I suggest that it is not only true that the Christ Event calls for response in the form of ethical living, but that any Christian articulation of ethics (and I recognize that there are many) must be able to demonstrate real continuity with the ethical vision implied in the Christ Event; moral arguments must demonstrate how their sense of ethics is derived from the implications of the Christ Event. For this reason, the Progressive Orthodox reading of the Bible is one that looks for its witness to the gospel, and upholds the words of the Bible as faithful witnesses to the gospel, so that our exegesis and interpretation are faithful and subject to the Christ Event. The claims about God and the creation made in the gospel underlie and determine our ethical deliberation as Christians.

The reason for this is simple: all ethics imply relationships, and all relationships imply a cosmology, and all cosmologies imply ontological claims. To say it differently, every ethical claim is necessarily grounded in ontological claims. This is true of Christian ethics; this is true of Nietzschean ethics.

I agree with Alasdair MacIntyre when he insists that all ethics are grounded in traditions, and that these senses of justice are expressions of specific senses of rationality that are also grounded in traditions.[2] What I am suggesting is that there are too many ethical visions being promoted in the name of Jesus which have, in reality, no connection with the tradition of the gospel; this includes those supposed expressions of the gospel which seem to have no ethical demands at all. A Progressive Orthodox Adventism resists and must resist all of these, recognizing that every bit of personal piety and every social activism and claim about equal rights must grow naturally from the gospel itself, and if there are ethical demands that have no continuity with the implications of the gospel, then they are not binding. Further, a Progressive Orthodox Adventism also recognizes that every ontological claim has ethical implications, and that the ontological claims of the Christ Event are no exception, and so there can be announcement of the gospel without always upholding its ethical demands—for justice, equality, righteousness, etc.

FOURTH THESIS: ‘Orthodoxy’ is primarily ‘right glory’, from which its second definition, ‘right opinion’ is derived.

Derivation

The word ‘orthodox’ comes from a combination of two Greek words: ortho (straight; right) + doxa (opinion; glory). In typical Christian usage, the term is used as a descriptor of those ideas that are deemed ‘correct’. However, in the context of church life, the term is always inevitably a description of the majority opinion. My usage here is decidedly different, and while the reader may find my usage problematic, I hope that it will become evident why I have chosen this usage, which is explained in detail in the first installment of this series.

I have already argued at length that the source of our theology must be the object of theology: God in God’s revelation—the Christ Event. To this Event I am ascribing the fixed description of objective orthodoxy: for Progressive Orthodoxy, every articulation in the church of orthodoxy (in worship and theology) seeks to be a reiteration of the implications of that ‘particular glory’. For this reason, as we strive to better understand the implications of the Christ Event, we become better able to judge between theologies; those theologies which more closely resemble and better articulate God’s revelation in Jesus are better theologies, and those which do not resemble God’s revelation and articulate it poorly are worse theologies.

This is, quite obviously, the continued principle behind Barth’s theological exegesis: just as he sought to find the degree to which the words of the Bible were bearing witness to the Word of God, what I am suggesting is that theology may be deemed more or less orthodox according to the degree to which it faithfully bears witness to the Christ Event. All theology must strive to bear witness to this Event in its fullness.

Integral to this striving to faithfully bear witness to the Christ Event is paying close attention to the ways in which others in the church’s history have witnessed to it; there is no need (or excuse) for us to reinvent the wheel. Historically, orthodoxy has been, to a large degree, defined as agreement with the conclusions of the ecumenical councils, as expressed in the creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian). These too, like the Bible and like contemporary theology, must be engaged with critically and openly, to discover how faithfully they have witnessed to the Christ Event. Thus far, I have found that they have been deeply faithful (hence my comfort with, and even gravitation towards the term ‘orthodoxy’). But even if someone finds them unfaithful, they must not be dismissed before they are adequately wrestled with and understood. As Barth said, “Do the great teachers of the Church, do the Councils not possess a—certainly not heavenly—but, even so, earthly, human ‘authority’? We should not be too ready to say, No…. it must be borne in the mind that, as member of the Church, as belonging to the congregatio fidelium, one must not speak without having heard.”[3]

Subjection

I do not want to be redundant by pointing out that the obvious claim I have made is that Christian theology and practice must be subject to the Christ Event. I will now mention one implicit dimension that may have gone unnoticed: no theological question or idea should be rejected outright because it is uncommon or because it challenges previously held assumptions. Rather, the question that must be asked of these is whether or not they violate the integrity of the witness to the Christ Event, and whether or not they inhibit Christians from faithfully living doxologically.

A theology which recognizes the Christ Event as its object, Lord and criticism does not ask, “Does this or that theory agree with the Bible?” No, it asks, “How does this or that theory correspond to the Christ Event as witnessed to in the Bible? How does it challenge or enhance my understanding of this Event? How does this inhibit or clarify my witness to it? How does this deter or encourage me to live more doxologically?” Perhaps the most pressing example with which to test this method is the question of evolution: how does an evolutionary account of origins challenge or enhance our understanding of the Christ Event? I will not seek to answer this now, but what I will say is that the answer can no longer be so absurdly simple as, “It nullifies the cross because of death before sin,” or, “It doesn’t affect anything.” When we put to the test our theology against the object of our theology, it forces us to be more honest with the implications, and this gives us the freedom to continue striving for better understanding of the Christ Event, and for better ways to witness to it.

Projection

It is only when we recognize that the true object of our theology is God in God’s revelation—and not the Bible itself or the religious life of the community of faith—that we are able to truly recognize the need for continued, critical reflection on our own theology. And more than that, only when the object of theology is the Living God can we expect continued revelation and leading by God’s Spirit as we continually grapple with the gospel in the various contexts in which we live and believe. Thus, it must be said that Progressive Orthodoxy sees the task of theology not only as bearing witness to the past, but also seeking God’s glory in order to guide the church and the world into the future. ***** [1] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), p. 156.

[2] See Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). See also relevant sections in Alasdair MacIntyre, The MacIntyre Reader, ed. Kevin Knight (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), pp. 105-119, 159-170, 202-220.

[3] Karl Barth, Credo, trans. J. Strathearn McNab (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1964), p. 181.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2352