On the pulling of theological threads

25 Jul

God seems to revel in pulling the thematic threads of his own story. It’s just an observation from my own somewhat intense reading and meditating in the biblical texts for going on forty years now; an observation with which you are certainly free to agree or disagree…

I used to find such divine thread pulling threatening. Words like “discrepancy” and “contradiction” would come to mind. It was embarrassing, and I felt an urgent need to harmonize any seeming discrepancy or contradiction, making the text smooth. Flat. Manageable. As if God were looking for a top-notch PR man to provide fig leaves to cover those awkward places of the Bible’s nakedness. That’s what theological systems typically require – or typically what the defenders of theological systems seem to think is their duty. But God seems to enjoy the tension. Sometimes the tension is between two different contributors to his “wiki-narrative” (as per Scot McKnight) like a James and a Paul; sometimes it’s between different characters in the same story (witness Job); sometimes its within the same man at different stages of his life (witness Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). I don’t think He wants or needs PR men to protect any “divine sweater” from snagging. He wants that Fruit-of-the-Loom inspector to join him in pulling at the threads of the Book – and if we owe any duty to our theological systems it’s not to tenaciously defend them but to pull on them even more intensely – and thank others who do. God embraces the contradictions and the tensions, even as we try to flatten them through our systems.

Paradox typically has little place in religious paradigms.

Which is perhaps one of the reasons Bell’s Love Wins has hit such a nerve among evangelicals. Bell is clearly pulling the threads of the evangelical paradigm – more than that, he’s questionning the validity of the entire sweater – or perhaps even the benefit of even having a theological “sweater” period. But I doubt that our human propensity to knit such theological systems will ever be curbed. Nor do I think that it necessarily should be. I like sweaters, and it can be quite revealing on many levels to try on the rather wide variety of theological sweaters from the three major “stores” in the “mall” of Christendom  (western evangelical, eastern orthodox, roman catholic). I just think it unwise to literally knit any of them into our flesh. The marks of Jesus are enough.

I think Wittmer is reading Bell correctly, as he observes in his critique Christ Alone:

“Bell’s opening chapter raises many questions that few evangelicals are struggling to answer. In my view, these additional questions don’t drive us deeper into the mystery of God. Instead they seem to raise doubts about the evangelical view of salvation.”

Wittmer’s first statement in the above quotation – that Bell’s questions “seem to raise doubts about the evangelical view of salvation” – meets with my own “duh” response, with all due respect (that’s clearly why Bell wrote Love Wins), while his first sentence in the quote – that Bell raises “many questions that few evangelicals are struggling to answer” can either be an indictment of Bell for being impertinent or of evangelicals for failing to ask and address questions that evidently are being asked in the culture at large about that evangelical sweater we are sporting so proudly.

At the bottom line, Bell would seem to be asking if in fact “Christ alone” means only sound, evangelical Christians in good standing are saved, redeemed, going to heaven; in other words only those who understand and appropriate the evangelical theological system and become card-carrying members of one of its affiliated religious institutions. Through his picking up the “evangelical sweater” (manufactured courtesy of Luther & Calvin & Augustine, et al) and his annoying pulling threads and poking holes, it’s pretty clear that Bell believes the sweater has a faulty weave that simply can’t contain the Story, that the “mystery of God” doesn’t fit in the evangelical box. Which is certainly an arrogant thing for a young upstart to suggest in the face of such giants as Augustine and Luther and Calvin.

Almost as arrogant as nailing theses to a church door.

More to come…


Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings


Tags: ,

3 responses to “On the pulling of theological threads

  1. micheael s jackson

    July 26, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    My nature seems to just get along nicely with both discrepancy and the sweater. Although,first, I know chaos, the type found preferably in nature, where I’m always very comfortable with stuff, and I don’t have any control, bring me lots of joy.It just gives a strong sense of belonging and wonder, a quality about me which couples the chaos with order.
    Another example which combines both contradiction put together with order is the variety we have getting together in parties or concerts, or a good old fashion non vindictive, theological debate. Both these probably call for just degrees of both. There is that aspect of me that strives to understand the qualities of Gods orderly side. I start getting a bit anxious to find the threads of continuity in the deity when there isn’t any order around. But God I believe,says thats ok to relax and go have a home brew, (as we used to say), I’ve probably too many, it will be alright.
    Again I notice how we act so entitled to say we want it all our way or we get all Abercrombie and spoiled acting. I want to be comfortable and happy with the paradox of the contradictions in creation. I would prefer more natural contradiction instead of the godly,(lower case kind).Theres where we usually will tend to start putting venues in the darn smorgasbord isle.But it could be the easiest way to understand it, instead of choosing God preferences. I’m sure Rob Bell like most all of us is here to say we can’t wrap our heads fully around it really,I can’t so lets just enjoy the mystery of God in observing and lifting the sweater of religious doctrine.Blessings,Mike

  2. wordhaver

    July 26, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    “Coupling the chaos with order” is probably the greatest challenge of this walk of faith we share. I think it’s a matter of trusting in a deeper order even when we can’t see it through the tangles. I continue to appreciate you and your thoughts, Michael!

  3. Jon T

    August 2, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    I think you nailed it. Seems like I’ve seen two basic responses to Love Wins. There are those who are threatened by it and those who are challenged by it. Those who are threatened seem to be those who’s theological systems are “knit into their flesh” (Awesome use of the sweater analogy, by the way). I’m totally with you in letting the Bible be what it is, messiness and all. Or at least in holding that up as the ideal. I find myself wanting to knit ideas into my flesh and “fix” the scriptures far too often!


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