Recently a pastor in my denomination (The CRCNA) announced that he is leaving the denomination because he ‘has doubts’ about the doctrinal positions that he is supposed to defend and teach. He indicated that he is pursuing a ministry position in the United Church of Canada.
He is not leaving because he is no longer a Christian.
He is not leaving because he is done with the ministry.
He is not leaving because he no longer is interested in following Christ.
He is not leaving because he no longer is interested in preaching and teaching.
He is leaving because we’ve created a culture in which you have to be ‘on board’ with a narrow band of dogma constructed primarily in the mid-1600’s.
Is this a good reason for someone to leave our denomination? Some would say, “Absolutely.” “Of course!”
I’m not so sure.
An Outdated Approach
A philosopher friend (a graduate of Calvin College’s philosophy department) has noted:
“One of the challenges is that to support something like, say, the Canons of Dort, is to support an interpretive process that current scholarship no longer adheres to. It is based on proof-texting. Taking verses of various books without regard to context, authorship, intended audience, historical circumstances and the like — and then mashing them together. This very process is foreign to the Bible itself.
You might even say that it is to ignore the historical-grammatical manner of interpretation that Calvin Seminary teaches its own students: you understand a single verse, text, or book of the Bible in its context. That includes who wrote it, who it was written to, what else was happening at that time, what the larger argument of the entire letter or gospel or book is, and so on.”
It seems to me that to dismiss all of that when it comes to endorsing a theological system that was developed prior to the current and best modes of biblical interpretation is to ask the impossible of its graduates: “Here’s how you best understand the text, but now that you’re going to be a pastor, ignore all that, sign the dotted line, and keep on teaching things that may (or may not) hold up under further scrutiny.”
For example, nearly every single point of doctrine in the Canons are made by quoting a single verse from varied and disparate sources like Ezekiel, Moses, Paul, and all too infrequently, Jesus. This ‘systematic’ approach to theology has been disregarded by the leading and best theologians today who prefer a narrative approach to theology in which the themes and storylines of whole texts are used, rather than the ‘hunt and peck’ method of proof-texting that can be (and has been!) used to justify just about anything.
As J.R. Daniel Kirk, New Testament Professor at Fuller Seminary has noted:
“Narrative theology is more content to leave stories as stories. Perhaps more, narrative theology is content to talk about God as God interacts with Abraham, and Moses, and David, and Jesus, and Paul. To what degree can we speak of God truly when we have not located God as the actor in a story that unfolds in and among the people?”
The Bible is comprised mostly of stories! Not of raw data that we can pick and choose and then compile. A systematic approach to the Bible is too often foreign to what the Bible actually is.
Kirk also notes (and this is an important point):
“Narrative approaches also tend to have more patience with leaving contrasting voices on the table to continue their conversation. The Bible is a narrative, not a philosophical system, so univocal theological points are not expected.
For systematic theology, we must finally say either, “justification by faith apart from works” (Paul), or, “justification by works and not by faith alone” (James). As a discipline, narrative theology can allow those to have a longer conversation, at very least, before resolving the issue–and may not feel the need for such a resolution.
And there, perhaps, is the rub.
Systematic theology is driven by the complementing notions, natural to me and to most of us I suspect, that there is one right answer and that it is ours for the finding.
Narrative theology, because it functions in the realm of story rather than system, has more breadth for multiple right answers, or multiple interpretations (stories are slippery like that) of the right answer(s).”
This double-minded approach —teaching contextual biblical interpretation on the one hand, and ignoring it on the other— that we are asking of our pastors and theologians is a problem, and if it doesn’t lead to a personal crisis or the beginnings of doubts – a la John Suk — then perhaps that particular student wasn’t paying attention during their biblical studies courses.
Is this really the place we want to be in?
Where the leaders among us who have wrestled with these issues, struggled as to whether or not they actually believe them, who love God and at the same time are trying desperately to be intellectually honest —and come out on the other side with their faith intact— are asked to leave? Are not these the very kind of leaders we need? Yet the only space we seem willing to make for them is the doorway.
If I were sitting in the pews, I would much prefer this kind of pastor, as opposed to one who grew up being spoon-fed certain doctrines since childhood without ever honestly engaging them. (Is this a caricature? Maybe. But it seems that most who would ‘wrestle’ with the confessions know there is only one real outcome: get on board or get out. That tends to make for short –and less than genuine– wrestling matches.)
At this point, it should be noted, I am not dismissing the results of the confessions – but asking, is the process at which its authors arrived at them a process that anyone even endorses today? (Some have noted that in fact the authors were using a form of narrative theology to support their systematic doctrines, and that may be so – I’m certainly not an expert on how these things came about – but in reading the documents themselves and the various texts cited one might ask if that is really the case. It appears they approached the texts with their theology in mind and allowed that theology to determine the way the texts were read, rather than allowing the various texts to speak on their own.)
The Christian Reformed Church is in many ways facing a crossroads: do we continue to demand rigorous adherence to outdated doctrinal formulations and in the process risk losing some of our most thoughtful and faithful people? Or do we shift our relationship to these historic confessional documents that ‘creates space’ for those who love God, want to serve him, but aren’t sure they can subscribe to everything in the fine print?
There is nothing wrong with saying that these documents have shaped us deeply, and they will continue to do so— as historical documents (which is what they are!). But do we really want to say they are the final arbiters of what the varied biblical authors had to say about God, faith, and the Christian life? One can scarcely imagine that the original authors of these confessions assumed they were writing something that would be calcified into the ‘final word’ on these matters for all time. In fact, as Karin Maag, professor of history at Calvin College recently noted, “They were not consciously planning to write a perfectly-crafted document for the ages.” No doubt the very act of writing a new doctrinal statement – as they were – implies that this act must happen again (and again). (Also note: we don’t make anyone sign on to Calvin’s Institutes, or Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism – yet those things continue to shape us).
One section of the Canons of Dort is prefaced with: ‘Rejection of the Errors by Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed’. In other words, in a certain time and place, these things were deemed important.
But is anyone today honestly concerned about whether God chose them or they chose God, or whether that kind of question can even be properly answered (or needs to be answered) this side of eternity?
I’m not sure the biblical writers were as obsessed with such dogmatic approaches as some of us are. They were telling a story. A narrative. One in which people engaged God, and God engaged people. Granted, there are points that can be made abstractly about the whole thing, but the point is the story!
So many of the doctrines we are demanding adherence to were ‘constructed’ out of verses taken out of texts that were not actually concerned with that particular point at all, when read in light of the whole. This is not to say that they are ‘wrong’ per se, but simply that they often miss the forest for the trees.
The point of the story is that our world is broken and God is renewing it through Christ – and we are called to hear that message, receive it, share it, and live it!
To instead freeze some doctrinal points derived out of dubious interpretive methods as some ‘perfect picture’ of who God is or what faith is, is to miss the point entirely! It is to construct new idols which we now demand people must worship. I think the Reformers had a thing or two to say about the propensity of people to create such objects of worship.
One could imagine Jesus showing up to one of our Synodical discussions about the form of Subscription, and —reprising his stint at the temple– ripping up the Confessions and turning over tables, lighting the Form of Subscription on fire and yelling: “What are you doing about the brokenness of my world?! You’re sitting here constructing ways of keeping people out, when I was about letting people in! I tore the curtain, and you’re sewing it back together!”
An Unnecessary Departure
I continually meet people who have never heard of these documents and yet have some of the deepest, most thoughtful lives of faith I’ve encountered.
Are they ‘off-track’? Are they less Christian? Is their faith less sincere?
The average person today isn’t wrestling with these issues – these things aren’t even on the radar. Today there are far different concerns.
If we want to continue to be less relevant to our culture, we can continue to stand on our little turf of doctrinal smugness while shoving everyone else off.
We can talk about ‘every square inch’ belonging to Jesus while making sure that we only cover about six inches square because we’re so tightly wound up with doctrinal anxiety that people are no longer interested in being around us.
Many have celebrated Suk’s departure as ‘honorable’ and ‘filled with integrity’. They have lauded his honesty and willingness to own his doubts — now that he’s gone.
“He doesn’t fit here – he should just serve elsewhere.” And so on.
Perhaps a polite version of the heresy witch hunts of times past. In the old days you might have been burned at the stake or imprisoned. Now we simply drop hints and give a wink, perhaps send a letter or two, have someone make a phone call… until you finally get the hint, and leave of your own volition. It’s much neater and easier that way.
Suk wrote a recent blog post entitled, Time to Put the Confessions to Pasture? A number of CRC pastors responded with things like, “Let me ask you, John, why are you still in the CRC? Perhaps it’s time for you to leave.”
I think far too many breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing of Suk’s departure. He made many uncomfortable, which is precisely why I wish he would have stayed. But then again, when you have a doctrinal system that has ‘comfort’ at its core, you can expect the status quo to reign supreme.
(Incidentally I can’t recall Jesus preaching about being comfortable… or if he did, it was something like ‘Woe to you who have received your comfort now.’).
What seems clear to me is that people have invented a religion (CRC Dutch Calvinism) that is more important than following Christ. A religion that doesn’t have space or room for theological wrestling, for philosophical questioning, for honest inquiry — and for seeking out the truth. Many in our circles talk about seeking truth when the fact is that they are simply in favor of maintaining the status quo.
If we are really interested in following Jesus and seeing his kingdom come, it might just be time to release our grip on this religion we’re so attached to. In fact, it might be time to lose our religion altogether, if in fact, we want to save it.
Suk’s departure makes me sad. He feels he could ‘no longer serve in good conscience.’ That makes me sadder – not because he was wrestling or because he had doubts — but that we’re not that interested in having those kind of people around. For me – that’s exactly the kind of pastor I would want to have: one who is searching, wrestling, praying, struggling, doubting, loving, walking by faith, humble about what he or she knows and doesn’t know. A real person.
Some celebrate his decision, but I feel it’s one he shouldn’t have had to make.