Many learned people have studied systems of doctrine and have been convinced by the arguments put forth in them. Most other people however probably join churches not out of doctrinal conviction, but for more organic or natural reasons.
- They were led to the Lord by someone who attends that church
- They like the music
- They like the pastor
- They like the messages
- They have many friends there
- Most of their family attend it
- They were raised there
- It has been an intricate part of their tradition
And so on.
For better or for worst, this is probably the case most of the time. This doesn’t mean that theology or doctrine does not play a part. It usually does, but usually it’s role is secondary and only after the natural outworking of indoctrination takes place does it become primary.
But many after avid study become convinced for one reason or another to change theological allegiances (which often goes hand in hand with changing denominational allegiance). Consider
- Clark Pinnock who famously journeyed from 5-Point Calvinism through Classical Aminianism and into Open Theism
- R.C. Sproul who purportedly moved from Arminianism to 5-Point Calvinism
- Francis Beckwith who resigned as president of the ETS to join the Roman Catholic Church
- Edith Humphrey who journeyed from the Salvation Army through Anglicanism and into Eastern Orthodoxy
These are just some of the more well know shifts which occurred as a result of having been convinced by one system of theology or another. Such shifts occur probably every moment of every day somewhere in the world.
The point is that we find the system which we believe is most aligned with Jesus and make an allegiance to that system of theology, and in so doing we have brought ourselves in closer alignment to Jesus himself. We are a people who access Jesus through our theology. If we somehow feel detached from Jesus we reexamine our current theological allegiance which, if found wanting, we discard in favor of another theological system which shows greater hope of best expressing the real Jesus (or Paul, for some).
When I was young I knew nothing about this tradition or that tradition. I knew there were Protestants which I took to be synonymous with “Pentecostal” and “Christian”, and then there were Roman Catholics which in my mind were people who needed to get saved. I knew nothing of the Eastern Orthodox.
Years ago when I began to explore theology, two systems kept vying for my allegiance: Calvinism (which I associated with “once saved, always saved” theology) and Arminianism (which was the alternative). The moment someone says that they are a Calvinist or they are an Arminian two things happen: 1) they have drawn a line in the sand and 2) they have made an allegiance.
Given the reasons above for people to choose their system of theology (that they are what they are for natural unreflective reasons or they are what they are because a system of theology makes the most sense), I find myself in no-man’s land. I am what a friend of mine recently termed a “theological maverick”.
I did not study Arminianism, find that it makes the most sense, and then start calling myself an Arminian. Rather, I studied Arminianism, found that it agreed with me, and then started calling myself an Arminian. It is not so much that I am an Arminian, as it is that an Arminian is me. I am not defined by my Arminianism, my Arminianism is defined my something about me. Namely, that I am post-conservative.
The significance of this point can’t be missed. My allegiance to Jesus is not defined by a system of theology. I don’t get closer to Jesus or further from Jesus based on committing myself to Calvinism, Arminianism, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism or any other -ism. My theology is not based on any of these systems. My theology – my articulation of God and Creation and everything involved in that – is derived from the Scriptures.
This means that I am not threatened by biblical engagements on “hell” or biblical engagements on “sin nature” or biblical engagements on “justification by faith” and so on. Do I believe in some sense of Total Depravity? Yes. Do I believe in justification by faith? Yes. Do I believe in “hell”? Yes. Now let’s discuss what we mean by those terms.
Let’s be open and engaging. Not flippant or wishy-washy. But not so dogmatic and close minded as to say that our definition of these terms is the definition of these things. I’m not emergent, postmodern or liberal. But neither am I modern, conservative or a fundamentalist (though at times I can be a little bit of all of this).
My philosophical approach to the Christian faith is a post-conservative one, a term I proudly borrow from classical Arminian, Roger Olson.
Post-conservativism is marked by the habit of keeping all of our traditions (even my Arminian one) and beliefs open to revision in light of further biblical insight and study. It does not bow to novelty or contemporary assumptions (like liberalism) but neither does it pay blind homage to fallible traditional beliefs in light of God’s unchanging Word.
I will not be strong-armed – neither by Calvinist’ nor by Arminians – into adhering to certain beliefs unique to the Reformed tradition by raising those distinctives up to the level of orthodoxy or heresy. Orthodoxy and heresy are determined by the Church Universal, as McGrath says in his book Heresy: “A heresy is a teaching that the whole Christian church, not a party within that church, regards as unacceptable.”
This is why – in the recent debate – I will not stand along side my neo-Reformed brethren or for that matter my Arminian friends in their sustained attack against Rob Bell. I stand opposed to their onslaught and I do this without affirming Bell’s teaching. This is crucial to note because everyone wants to force everyone else into one side of the camp or another. “You’re either for us, or your for them way over there.” I say, let’s engage Bell’s book the same way I engage dozens of other books here on Covenant of Love every week: critically. The best example of this is Dr. Paul Owen’s review of Love Wins.
Dr. Owen’s overall assessment of the book?
“Let me just start out by saying that there is nothing particularly amazing about the theological contents of this book. His theology is evangelical, Arminian, and Baptist. His view of Scripture is well within the mainstream of the evangelical world. His openness about the question of the salvation of people outside the Church is hardly remarkable. He plainly upholds justification by faith, the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Christ and all the faithful at the end of the age, etc.”
In other words – yawn – boooorrrrinng. There is nothing novel about Love Wins. That is, broadly speaking, Bell’s book – and thus his views expressed in it – fall within Christian orthodoxy. But let’s not stop there. Just because broadly speaking Bell is orthodox does not mean that in the particulars we have nothing to criticise and tear apart. That is the nature of book reviews often, and that is usually the nature of theological engagement. And Dr. Owen does a fantastic job of tearing asunder some of Bell’s arguments (particularly his engagement with Chapter 3).
Now my point here is not to rekindle the so-called Rob Bell controversy, but to point out that I am first and foremost post-conservative. This means that if I am presented with a view of hell – squarely based on scripture say, from an Orthodox perspective – or, to add a curve ball, a view of God’s omniscience also squarely based on scripture but which holds that the future is partly open, I would rather engage and listen to what my interlocker has to say rather then wave off his views and engage in a knee-jerk reactionary defense of my system of theology.
I am an Arminian because I am post-conservative. But one day I may be post-conservative and no longer welcome in the Arminian camp. Such is the nature of putting scripture first.