Monday, April 28, 2008

Theological Diversity

This is a topic that seems to be gathering some momentum lately within The Salvation Army. To characterise the debate as being only between 'liberals' and 'conservatives' would be to grossly oversimplify the matter - and also to marginalise those who don't see themselves fitting under either of those labels. The basic question is 'How much room exists for differing theological opinions within our movement?'

Knowing when we've crossed the line is somewhat dependent on who gets to draw the line. Personally, I take a broad historical perspective and acknowledge that the church has always been in the process of defining what (and therefore who) is in and out. Whilst this creates its own difficulties by excluding people, it also recognises that there has never been a single correct, pure or authorative form of Christianity or for that matter of Salvationism.

I suspect that everyone has a slightly different idea of what the essentials are, those things that we cannot possibly do without. For me, Jesus has to be central. I'm particularly interested in the renewal of historical Jesus studies but I don't see them as capturing everything that is important about the Christian faith. There's also something important here about judging people by their fruits. I'm as far from perfect as the next person and my life is full of faults and unworthy behaviours. However, my purpose in following Jesus is to make this world a better place and hopefully I will one day be able to show that I've done more good than harm. Don't judge my theology (or anyone elses for that matter) by the clumsy words that I use to describe it, but perhaps instead by the way that our theology shows itself in practice.

7 comments:

james said...

This is an interesting debate jason.

If we are looking at fruit and historical prospective surely we need to go back to what Booth and the early Salvation Army were on about. Thats when it was growing fast and had its fruit. Thats when the doctrines were put there.

I dont see why Salvationists need to keep questioning the doctrines. They are tried and tested and found true.

I know of 'Salvationists' who dont agree with the doctrines and find it a shame that people would sign a covenant to God knowing they are lieing...

My position is, that if people want different views than the very simple doctrines then find somewhere else to do that. The mission focus of the Salvation Army depends on Salvationists who believe the doctrines.

JDK said...

Hi James,

I agree that the doctrines have a vital place in our movement. However, I've personally been challenged by people on theological issues that have nothing to do with the doctrines. Some people would also argue that only one particular interpretation of the doctrines is acceptable - or perhaps that only one valid interpretation exists. I'd suggest that the Bible offers some slightly different interpretations on a variety of issues - surely we are not suggesting that our doctrines are more perfectly formed that the Bible because they are somehow more pure and not open to interpretation?

In fact, the different explanations from the Handbook of Doctrine to Salvation Story demonstrate that we continually need to be re-interpreting theology in the context of our culture and time. I'm a little uncomfortable for instance with the non-inclusive language for people, which is a characteristic of the era in which they were set down. Does this mean that I can't affirm the truth of the doctrines? Of course not - it doesn't obscure the fact that they pass on critical elements of the Christian tradition of which I see myself as standing firmly within.

However, I also think that there still needs to be a place for people who want to join in the mission of The Salvation Army who find themselves unable to sign off on the doctrines with integrity. And we need to ensure that these people are not treated like 'second class citizens'.

Regards, JDK

Paul Gardner said...

Jason
I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on this. Over a year ago I commented about an editorial in a certain TSA magazine and have now re-posted my entry with a reference to this post of yours.
We need to make sure we're not scared to have the discussion, and not be scared about the possibility we may be wrong in some (non-imperative) areas!
God bless
Paul

Claire said...

Thanks for this blog. I think this is one of the crucial challenges facing the Salvation army today.

I like the analogy of our God-created world, in which there is so much diversity. It seems that God appreciates difference and in fact doesn't create everything the same, but with much colour and diversity of form and therefore diversity of purpose.

It follows for me that perhaps the church, like the created world, should also reflect the creativity and diversity of God, by accepting and empowering in ministry those with diverse understandings of God.

However this takes much grace from people of all theological persuasions to accept and work with each other. I would love for the salvation army to embrace such inclusion.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a denomination where the theology was very different to TSA. As an adult a become involved in the salvation army and my eyes were opened to alot of things. however, as i had been brought up to believe one thing - i had to wrestle with what was the truth. I learnt that many of the things I had been brought up to be true were in fact someone elese interpretation of the truth. when I became a senior soldier i did t his with great conviction and i signed my articles of war knowing i was leaving behind that which i had grown up to believe, no-one forced me it was a decision i made after much soul search. i have not brought into the salvation army my own beleifs but have taken on the beliefs that i agreed i would follow - i can tell you that if we were all allowed to bring in our own theologies we would have alot of confusion and turmoil as is starting to happen and this saddens me. each denomination has its own set of beleifs and all of them cant be trully correct and we will not know this for certain until we get to heaven and can ask God himself. in the mean time we need to live in this world and do this and influence as many people to join us on the faith journey. however if matters of theological difference are going to confuse and turn people away we are not being true. you just have to look at what happened to the uniting church who allowed basically a free for all on theological issues - they split against each other and in many places are almost non-existant. we dont want this in the salvation army and we are a mission not a theological debating school. lets get on with the mission and if the theology offends you so much you like me must choose what you should do about that.

GDM

james said...

perhaps you could share more doctrines that are a bit iffy? in my experience the things people debate are

1) who gets saved and how - this of course is clear as crystal "repentance towards God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, are necessary to salvation." Easily backed up by scripture.

2) hell - again, clear as crystal "We believe in the immortality of the soul; in the resurrection of the body; in the general judgment at the end of the world; in the eternal happiness of the righteous; and in the endless punishment of the wicked." Again, easily backed up by scripture.

3) holiness - this one is open to more interpretation... "We believe that it is the privilege of all believers to be wholly sanctified, and that their whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Easily backed up by scripture again...

JDK said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I guess the variety of opinion demonstrates something of my point.

James, I wouldn't describe the doctrines as 'iffy'. I'm just suggesting that our interpretation is determined by time and context.

Let me use your 'hell' example. The word 'hell' doesn't appear anywhere in the doctrines. Is hell a fiery location in the underworld or a symbol of permanent separation from God? 'The endless punishment of the wicked' doesn't really define what the punishment will be (apart from its length) or who the 'wicked' are. Possibly the clearest example of this in Scripture is Matt 25 where judgement is based on what we do, not what we say.

Regards, JDK