Showing posts with label embrace the tension. Show all posts
Showing posts with label embrace the tension. Show all posts
Friday, January 8, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Bullseye, part 2

I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted here. The stupid thing is that I've had four or five ideas for interesting posts of moderate length, and yet did not put fingertip-to-keyboard because I promised that my "next post" would address specific items of ecumenidom. Like anybody would have even cared.

But, here I am, true to my word, darkening the bullseye. I was rather surprised at how nice everyone was last time around--maybe because most of the "true reformed" folks had already un-friended, un-followed, and dis-fellowshiped me (see last post). Anyway, if you're a "Rome as the Whore of Babylon" type, no need to bite your tongue for my feelings' sake. Let's get it lively in here. And if you're a "we need Luther to interpret Paul" kind of cat, you're really going to think me some sort of suspect quasi-Christian in a minute.

So anyway, the two things I left hanging:

1. The Baptist connection to my ecumenism. This may seem weird, since most Baptists today are über-separationists. And when you read our definitive (at least in my opinion) confession, the 2nd London (1677, 1689), there is a reference to the pope being Antichrist.

But I'm thinking more about the practical aspects of early Baptist life in America. In Rhode Island (before it was Rhode Island), two cooperating settlements--Providence and Newport--were the first places in America where Christians of different stripes lived together in harmony. Quakers, Baptists, Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, and even more obscure sects, all living together without flogging, banishing, beating, burning at the stake, etc.

Now, I realize that this has more to do with the separation of church and state than how one defines the church, but I see it as a metaphor for a spirit that was present within many early Baptists. Despite their religious toleration and the spiritual benefit of the doubt that goes along with the doctrine of Soul Liberty, the Baptists did not sweep religious differences under the rug. They debated. Week after week, you could find public debates (as well as many private conversations) about the important differences in doctrine between these very different traditions. The ecumenism (if it can be called that) present in Providence and Newport was not a "thin ecumenism" (the lowest common denominator type), but a "thick ecumenism," which acknowledges and debates differences, but does not see non-essential divergences as default communion-breakers.

Even going back further to English Baptist history (the beginning of our movement, despite what the silly "Trail of Blood" Baptists try to claim), we see a tendency toward a broader view of the church. In 1673, John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress) wrote, “The church of Christ hath no warrant to keep out of the communion the Christian that is discovered to be a visible saint of the word, the Christian that walketh according to his own light with God.” Again, Bunyan didn't sweep these differences in doctrine under the rug. Like many early Baptists, Bunyan was an accomplished debater and, like many early Baptists, he had his area of expertise: debating Quakers.

Likewise, William Carey, the father of modern missions (and the man who baptized our beloved Ann and Adoniram Judson) was pushing for a worldwide ecumenical meeting, in which all Christian groups were recognized and represented as early as 1810. To the over-Jack-Chicked, Left Behind crowd, this sounds like Mystery Babylon the Great just waiting to happen. But to a Baptist with a high view of Christ's historic Church, it's a logical and (if approached correctly) beneficial idea.

2. Communion Despite Differences in Soteriology. So here's where I'm going to plant myself on several people's skubalist. I believe that when we get to heaven, we will find people of many varying soteriologies there (soteriology is the doctrine of salvation), all having been bought by the blood of Christ. No, I'm not suggesting some PoMo "all paths lead to God" nonsense. I affirm all of the Words of Our Lord as true, including his statement, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me." Yes, it is only through Christ that any fallen human can have any hope of salvation. But throughout Christian history, many different traditions have described this salvation by Christ in many different terms and with oft-conflicting concepts.

There's the obvious difference of Calvinist and Arminian (the issue of whether man's will plays any role in his salvation). The "true reformed" folks would have us believe that any non-Calvinist is a heretic (a Pelagian of some rank) and, therefore, not saved. Greg Fields has (I believe correctly) identified this as a new form of Calvinist Gnosticism. Who could ever read the works of John Wesley and then declare him unregenerate? It's beyond me. And I believe Satan gets giddy over these attitudes. After all, a house divided against itself will fall.

Alright, you say, but even I would have to admit that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are doomed, blasphemous abominations, and that any unity with them is simply the work of a compromising, worldly spirit and another step down the path toward a one-world-church...right? Pffft. Wrong.

I believe in and preach substitutionary atonement; divine election; salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And while I'm happy to make a righteous judgment (κρίνω) about the Arminian view of salvation (and that judgment is: they're quite wrong on the details), I will not judge the individual (κατακρίνω) because Jesus himself warned us against doing so (Mark 9:39-41, Matt 13:29), as did the Apostle Paul (Romans 14:4). For this reason, when I encounter Christians who worship in churches that affirm the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athenasian Creed, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, his death for our sins and resurrection for our new life, his ascension, and his coming again...well, call me nuts, but I think of them as Christians. And I have no problem worshiping with them in our interdenominational Good Friday service or welcoming them to our table when we observe the sacrament of Holy Communion.

I tell sinners and self-justifiers to repent and believe, to flee the coming wrath of God. From my pulpit, I preach a Protestant, Calvinistic understanding of salvation. I don't sweep differences under the rug. Like my early Baptist forebears, I have the debate, the discussion, the exchange. But if a Protestant understanding of Sola Fide is absolutely essential for a church to be considered a Christian church, then there was no Church on earth for at least 1,000 years. In fact, if agreeing with Luther or Calvin on all matters soterological is the criterion for salvation, then, while we Calvinists love quoting St. Augustine and claiming to have an "Augustinian view" of salvation, Augustine himself is certainly in hell.

Even if we make substitutionary atonement the lynch pin (while I absolutely do believe it is grounded in Scripture and is the most biblical way to look at the cross), almost no one spoke of it at all until Anselm of Canterbury (born a thousand years after our Lord's ascension). Do we assume that he was the only true Christian on earth at that time? I'm afraid I cannot. Jesus' promises vis a vis his Church were just too many and too far-reaching.

Am I making a plea for watering down doctrine based on history rather than Scripture? No. In fact, I don't want us to water down doctrine at all. I am making a plea for embracing the tension that is present when we recognize that the Church is bigger than our own movement. The tension I feel between my Calvinist soteriology and the Church unity that Jesus himself prayed for, between my confessionalism and my ecumenism. This tension is going to involve acknowledging that growing along side the wheat is some chaff. It involves deciding where non-essentials end and the beating heart of the Gospel begins, and doing so in a way that recognizes the unfathomable depth of God's grace,shuns all neo-gnosticism, and does not make me and my movement the default yardstick.

How you do it is for you to figure out. I'll just point you to that old maxim, which has been attributed to everyone under the sun: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. I believe that's a good starting point.

But, at the end of the day, there will always be theological tension there (as there should be). Embrace it.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Thursday, December 10, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

This is Me Painting a Bullseye On My Head...

I have a mostly-faded bumper sticker on my 1996 Lumina, nestled in amongst the many other sun-bleached slogans (and the still new and vibrant Ted Wins sticker), that reads EMBRACE THE TENSION. I bought it from myself on Café Press.

In addition to sounding deep, this phrase ("embrace the tension") is really the center of my theology. What many have called "mystery" or "paradox," I think is better described as theological tension. And, of course, when we humans come into contact with tension, our natural response is to ask, "How can I remove it?" Whether, we're talking about a relationship, a headache, or a tug-of-war contest, we see tension as a negative, and usually we won't rest until we've done away with it.



That's why Christianity—in its truest form—is such a hard sell, particularly to Westerners who really have the corner on approaching every tension as a logical problem to be solved. Christianity, at every turn, is concerned with owning the tension present when finite beings commune with, and try to understand, an infinite God. There's tension everywhere: God is transcendent and immanent. God is fully revealed and fully concealed (thank you, Karl Barth). God is three and one. Christ is human and divine. We are justified and sinful. God elects his own and exhorts us to preach the Gospel to all people. I could go on and on.

And what happens when a very analytical Western mind (like mine) starts trying to over-categorize and over-define these tension-filled doctrines? We fall into error. Either by inappropriately emphasizing one side of the tension to the detriment of the other (see: tritheism and modalism; Arianism and docetism; antinomianism and perfectionism) or by splitting the difference, thus creating some half-baked, half-way, tensionless Christianity.

After all, while "God is three, not really one" and "God is one, not really three" are classic Trinitarian heresies, the mean approach, "God is two," is so far out there, it doesn't even have a name ("bitheism," I guess). Another example: orthodox theology understands Christ as being human and divine (meaning Christ has two wills). That's a tension. To try and resolve this tension, the Monophysites tried splitting the difference, saying that Christ was sort of a hybrid half-God, half-man. This too is a dangerous heresy with far-reaching implications, even on the atonement.

It was finally making some peace with these tensions that led me away from Dispensationalism, to an amillennial view, recognizing that the Kingdom will neither be entirely realized in this world (a la postmillennialism) nor is it entirely for the Last Day and the days after that (a la premillennialism). Rather, the Kingdom is both already and not yet (as is reflected in our praying, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.")

So far, so good, right? Here's where the aforementioned bullseye gets firmly applied to my cranium. I believe that this theological tension should be applied to how we define the church, who is in the church, what constitutes a true church, etc. In short, to use a dirty word, I'm talking about Christian ecumenism.

Scripture teaches us to judge others carefully by their fruit (yes, Jesus told us to judge, John 7:24) , to determine if they are truly Gospel preachers and faithful teachers, or whether they are ravenous wolves, false prophets, depositors of dangerous leaven. Jesus also prayed that his followers would be one, even as He and the Father are one (John 17). Jesus told his disciples both, "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Matthew 9:40) and, "He who is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30). Jesus warned that wheat and chaff would grow side-by-side until the end (Matthew 13:30), while other passages indicate that the visible church is holy, separate unto God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 John 2:19).

Again, tension abounds. And, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, an attempt to compromise by splitting the difference is an absurd non-option. As a result, many Christians just run to one extreme or the other, clinging to their favorite proof-text while ignoring their opponents' choice verses (or re-interpreting them in light of one's own presuppositions). The result is twofold.

First, there are Christians and churches who would never even begin to define what makes a Christian. Doctrine is glossed over (after all, who am I to say?). Everything is considered a non-essential preference. The passive voice abounds. Go ahead and deny the divinity of Christ, the atonement, the resurrection, whatever—we can all sort of agree on a vague "parenthood of God and siblinghood of man" idea. Whatever it takes to avoid offending the golden calf of inclusiveness. This is the kind of ecumenism I hate. The kind that marks all doctrinal differences as out-of-bounds for discussion and sweeps them under the rug.

Then, there are Christians who go to the separatist extreme. Everything becomes an essential doctrine, especially if it can, in any way, be tied to how we understand what Christ did on the cross (although the more Fundie churches will disfellowship you for the most random, outlying belief). Much like the bishops of Rome and Constantinople simultaneously excommunicating each other, you wind up with Calvinists and Arminians trading anathemas, charismatics and cessationists mocking each other from the pulpit, and believers of all stripes making an absolute mockery of Christ's high priestly prayer (which, I could argue, constitutes a kind of practical Trinitarian heresy, as we grossly misrepresent the way Christ is in the Father and the Father in Christ).

This is the basis of a song I wrote a few years ago. (Yes, I'm an amateur musician, or at least used to be, and still enjoy writing music). A couple months ago, I tried laying it down in something of a flat-note-fest, and posted it to my facebook page. A couple of my facebook "friends" sent me strongly-worded rebukes and one of them, with a click, dissolved our "friend"ship.

Yeah, it's that kind of deal. So in this, my hundredth blog post, let me blow your mind with my horrible, horrible ecumenism:


  • At a youth work camp, this past summer, while we were meeting in the sanctuary of a Catholic church, one of our kids asked if Catholics are Christians. I answered, "Yes, of course."

  • I am part of an inter-denominational clergy group comprised of ABC, PC-USA, ELCA, UMC, UCC, Episcopals, and several very socially active, predominantly African-American denominations. And I love it when we worship together.

  • I signed the Manhattan Declaration, not because I think it will do any good, but because I saw so many self-designated protectors of the Reformation getting their boxers in a bunch because the document was somehow watering down the Gospel.

  • Tent revivals and Pentecostal preaching really get me excited, as long as the cross, blood, and wrath of God are clearly preached (and they usually are).

  • I still love Billy Graham and still want to meet him before he dies.

So, I'm just a theological liberal, right? Well, consider:



  • I'm a five-point Calvinist. Every week from my pulpit, I preach total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Sometimes I touch on limited atonement :).

  • I believe that, while he was defeating Satan (Heb 2:14-15) and giving us an example of how to love each other (1 John 3:16), the primary effect of the cross was that Christ bore the wrath of God in our stead.

  • I reject all "purpose-driven," seeker-oriented, man-centered approaches to the church and the Gospel.

  • I subscribe to the 2nd London Baptist Confession.

  • I believe that God created the world out of nothing and created humans as humans at the beginning of time.

  • I believe in a literal virgin birth, resurrection, and Second Coming. I believe that Jesus Christ was (and is) GOD IN THE FLESH.

  • I believe that Jonah was very literally swallowed by a whale and very literally puked onto a beach.


Tension, tension, tension. Am I trying to eat my cake and still have it? If so, I guess that's the case with the dual nature of Christ and the Trinity as well. Am I placing my brand of ecumenism on the same level of importance as these central doctrines? Of course not. But I do believe that the same theological tension is present.

I have more to say on the subject, particularly 1.) how Baptist distinctives have informed my ecumenism and my living out of same, and 2.) how I can worship with someone whose understanding of salvation differs from my own. But I shall do that in my next post. For now, the bullseye has been painted. Take your shots.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach