Saturday, January 24, 2009

Interpersonal rather than propositional?

To reflect on the 1st chapter of Bevans' book I have to say the two points that really stood out and appealed to me were: 1) the shift in theological thinking from propositional to relational categories and 2) the growing awareness of how the doctrine of the Trinity reveals a God who is to be understood primarily as relational.

In many ways this amounts to the same thing: to stop trying to conceive of God in abstract terms and then feel that signing a list of statements about God is an act of faith and to realise that God is not knowable in terms of propositions but only as God is personally encountered through the scriptures, church and everyday life.

Evangelicals have long been fond of saying "it's not a religion it's a relationship" but have then proceeded to reveal a list of philosophical propositions which require your intellectual assent before you can be considered a Christian. The problem for us religious types is that when you really understand that Christ calls us into relationship rather than into a list of 'articles of faith' then it becomes very hard to work out who is in and who is out. If you can cast someone into the outer darkness for using 'infallibility' instead of 'inerrancy' to describe their view of the Bible (neither of which actually tells us anything useful) then it it easy to keep control of a religious group. But if you have to admit that the most heretical thinker might still have a closer walk with God than you do it should force you to greater humility, tolerance, and openness to other people's views. After all its not about 'being right' but about being in relationship. It's not about knowing about God but about knowing God personally.

Let me know what you think :)


  1. It sounds good but it doesn't wash.

    I love my wife. We have a great relationship.

    "Wow, that's great. What's great about her?"

    Well, that's not important. What's important is that I'm in a relationship with her.

    "I heard that she's really irritable in the mornings."

    Well, some might have said that but, you know, my wife isn't like that. I know because I'm in a relationship with her."

    "You're obviously a nutcase. Is she actually your wife?"

    Etc, etc. Relationship's a great word but to be in relationship you have to know something about the other. That's why confessions are important.

    I think the problem I have is that what you've described is very subjective: "But if you have to admit that the most heretical thinker might still have a closer walk with God than you do."

    How can he, if his God bears no relationship to the God revealed in the Bible?

  2. You are of course, absolutely right. Any authentic relationship is dedicated to constantly improving knowledge and understanding of each other (especially a marriage). But because it is easier to control I think the tendency is to focus on the knowing about rather than the knowing personally. The knowing about should be at the service of the knowing personally. My point about Heretics is not that anyone can believe anything but that those who have been burned by the church over the centuries have often been lovely, caring people who had just got a couple of doctrines wrong but whose lives showed an authentic walk with God. I think its a bit of a Matt 21:28-31 thing. How we live is more important that saying the right words. Words matter, of course they do, but saying the right words does not excuse living the wrong way, and living rightly can coverup a lot of wrong speaking. The relationship is more important than the doctrine. But doctrine is still important because of its ability to shape the relationship and because it is part of the relationship.

    Are you preparing the pyre now?

  3. You have both made some really good points. To quote "The Castle", I think that the 'vibe' is what is important.
    At various stages in my Christian walk, I have fallen into the trap of focussing on knowing about God and at other times on knowing God. The times when I try and get my 'doctrine' straight can be the flattest times for me spiritually. However, when I concentrate on doing my best for God, spending time with Him and having a passion for His people, I feel uplifted.
    This is just anecdotal evidence from myself, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same for everyone.

  4. I'm very uncertain about anything that places the emphasis on us.
    If it's about how I'm feeling, or how well I'm doing in the relationship then I'm going to be pretty concerned that we're drifting into mysticism and pietistic nonsense. God has saved me in Christ whether I'm feeling it this week or not.

    I'm also catching a whiff of works-righteousness about. The Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses kick me into touch when it comes to being a "good" person. But despite their protestations that they have a relationship with Jesus they don't because their Jesus is completely different to the Jesus of the Bible.

    Always keep hold of the doctrine because without it you get empty churches and people who don't know Jesus at all.

  5. You are right that 'feelings' are generally a poor guide for any relationship so easily affected as they are by triedness, hormones, hunger, chemicals and circumstances.

    But is a saving relationship with Jesus a relationship with a real person, or purely an intellectual construct which must be precise in order to work properly? Surely you can have real relationships even while significant misunderstanding persists? Can't Jesus save LDS and JWs even though their understanding is flawed? Surely what you are advocating is in fact works righteousness... salvation by doctrine?