Tuesday, October 14, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Interview with Michael Wittmer (pt. 1)

What follows is Part 1 of my interview with Dr. Michael Wittmer. If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Wittmer, I highly recommend that you check out his first book, Heaven Is a Place on Earth, an engaging and entertaining work with the potential to change the way you view the world. Seriously--I'm not over-selling it. But you should be over-buying it. Click here to do so.

Dr. Wittmer is a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, a former missionary to China, a preacher, lecturer, theologian, and philosopher. Plus he's cool. He's like Indiana Jones, but without the violence, promiscuity, and little annoying sidekick. But if he ever decides to acquire one, I'm throwing my hat in ("Dr. Jones, hold on to your potatoes!")

All the great men in history--whether they be artists, musicians, scientists, or generals--have had great mentors that helped them develop the skills, knowledge, &c that made them the legends they are. Luke Skywalker had Yoda. Ritschl had Schleiermacher. Timothy had Paul. Tony Bennet had Duke Ellington. But each of these great mentors undoubtedly had dozens of less-than-spectacular protégés as well.
I understand that, long before Luke or Obi-Wan ever came on the scene, there was a Jedi named Lloyd who studied under Yoda. He didn't defeat the empire or change the course of history, but Lloyd learned a lot about handling a light saber and using the force from old Yoda.

So, what I'm saying is: Wittmer is the Yoda to my Lloyd.

Sometime soon (Zondervan's website says December, but I hear it may be sooner), Dr. Wittmer has a new book coming out; it's called Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough. In it, Wittmer critiques both his own conservative evangelical background and the ever-growing innovative, postmodern (read: emergent) church. I got a chance to read this book in its early stages (apparently my name is even hiding in an endnote somewhere) and, believe me, you don't want to miss this one. It's funny, insightful, and--unlike a lot of material on this subject--very much pastoral and gracious toward both sides of the conversation as Wittmer lays out a biblical third way.

Anyway, enjoy. I'll post the rest of the interview when I get back into town at the end of the week. If you want to pre-order the book, you can get it at a significant discount from Amazon.com.

There's a lot of talk lately about doing away with “foundationalism.” Can you briefly describe what this means and give me the quick version of your take on this issue?

MW: Way to start off with an easy one! In their important book, Beyond Foundationalism, Stan Grenz and John Franke say that we need to stop being foundationalists and follow the thinking of Alvin Plantinga. This is confusing, for Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology is widely known to be a form of foundationalism called “weak foundationalism.” So what Grenz and Franke are really against is not foundationalism per se but just the strong variety.

Both weak and strong foundationalists think that our beliefs are logically constructed like a house, with our more basic beliefs, or presuppositions, supplying the foundation upon which the others rest. The difference is that strong foundationalists think that our foundational beliefs can be irrefutably proven (modernity) while weak foundationalists think that we are entitled to hold unproven beliefs so long as they have not been disproved (an optimistic version of postmodernity).

Recently I asked Franke how he could be against all forms of foundationalism and still approve of Plantinga’s epistemology. He told me that I was right, that he and Grenz are really against strong foundationalism rather than foundationalism in all its forms. But then he added that he did prefer to think of our beliefs as an inter-related web, where no belief is more foundational then another, rather than the house paradigm of foundationalism. So I’m not sure where he stands on the issue.

Personally, I am fully committed to weak foundationalism, which allows me to hold without indubitable proof belief in God’s existence and his revelation in Scripture. Everything I know is logically dependent on these prior beliefs, for God’s existence grounds the deliverances of reason and Scripture grounds the deliverances of revelation (see chapter 10). And I’m not a fideist, for Romans 1 says that everyone knows that God exists and Calvin rightly reminds us that Scripture is self-authenticating.

ZB: Postmodern innovators, as you call them, are quick to condemn anything that smacks of modernism in the church. Should we be concerned about our churches having become too entrenched in modernism and, if so, how should we (and how shouldn't we) deal with this?

MW: Thanks for using my term. See, it’s catching on already! Every culture presents new opportunities for communicating the gospel but also new dangers that threaten to compromise it. Every culture has good elements which present new insights into Scripture, but every culture is also fallen, which means that it may also capture the gospel.

The modern world is no exception. An overly modern church may treat the Bible like a scientist studies a specimen (inductive Bible study methods), emphasize knowledge and believing the right things rather than actions or living in the right way, think that it can prove the articles of faith to any rational, honest person, and—here is a big one—spend very little time in prayer. Most moderns pray very little, both individually and corporately, because we think that there is nothing that we cannot solve on our own.

The best way to combat the pitfalls of modernity is not to uncritically embrace all things postmodern, but rather to expand our peer group. If we read the Bible with people who are only like us then we will only ever see what we have always seen. But if we read Scripture with people who are different from us, both in the present and especially with the church of the past, then we will inoculate ourselves against being blindly captured by our present cultural moment. If we read the great theologians, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, then we will more easily spot and correct our compromises today.

ZB: How did you feel when Brian McLaren tearfully declared to the “What's Emerging?” conference that no Calvinist had ever treated him as kindly as you treated him?

MW: I don’t remember the tears, but I suppose that it made me feel kind of good. The world needs more compassionate Calvinists!

(editor's note: I'm pretty sure I remember the wiping away of a tear. Plus, I think I can hear a little cracked-voice emotion as well. Then again, to me, McLaren
always sounds like he's trying not to cry. Listen to the audio and you be the judge. -Z)

How did you feel at the same conference when, immediately following your “Calvinist Response” to the Emergent movement, I told you that I thought I loved you?

MW: I remember being put off by the uncertainty of it, and yet strangely that quasi-loving statement changed my life in ways that I am just now beginning to understand (some of them good).

ZB: It seems to me that the pendulum image is at the heart of your book (i.e. avoiding shortfalls of both conservative and postmodern Christianity.) Would you call yourself theologically moderate? If not, please explain why/how you have staked out the central real estate in each of these pendulum diagrams.

MW: Moderate sounds too tepid for me. I would call myself a theologically conservative Calvinist who is attempting to reach out and find common ground with those who I think are committing serious theological mistakes. At first I thought that I was staking out middle ground between fundamentalists on the right and Emergent on the left, but upon further reflection I concluded that I am really calling for both/and. Rather than fall off the edge on either side, we need to embrace both beliefs and ethics, the importance of this life and the next, both personal and public morality, both sexual purity and compassion for practicing homosexuals, etc. My prayers will be answered if Emergent Christians recognize this as the third way they are after and theological conservatives, while rightly critiquing the other side, also realize that we have blind spots of our own that need fixing.

That should whet your appetites. Check back soon for the rest...
(Click here for part 2.)

1 reader comments:

Rus-n-Mer said...

Good interview, but either I did not understand it or he did not answer the first question? :-)
On being a moderate? IMO there is no such thing when it comes to religion or politics, either you "are" or you "are not" the fences here are too high and narrow to sit on.