Boiling Down the Faith?

In this month’s Christianity Today, David Neff interviews Kallistos Ware of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Neff mentions the Protestant impulse “to crystallize a central message and a central experience.”  He asks whether the fullness of the faith in the Orthodox church sometimes obscures the faith’s center.

Neff’s identification of this “boiling down” impulse stuck with me today as I played with the boys and turned into a lobster on the beach in South Haven, MI.

I recognize this impulse to find a center, especially in evangelicalism, but I also think it’s not necessarily a good thing.  This could make for a fascinating discussion, but just to mention a few things that give me pause.

First, what are the central things and what lies near the periphery?  You might think that Christian eating habits are not that big of a deal but in Galatians 2, Paul saw ecclesial table manners as having everything to do with justification by faith.

Second, it seems that this well-intended impulse has had disastrous anti-nomian effects.  Our long history of emphasizing the “central experience” has downplayed lives of discipleship.  If you’ve converted already and the central “entrance” experience is finished, what remains?  Well, a life of discipleship . . . if you’re interested.

This has been one of the biggest struggles of the Protestant tradition—to try to find something that compels obedience to Jesus.

Third, our evangelism strategies have all been oriented around “boiling down” the faith to its essence, typically something that can be communicated in three minutes or less.  What we end up with, quite often, is churches filled with people who feel that they have the “important things” dealt with and figured out.   Everything else about the faith is negotiable or unimportant.

There’s lots more to say about all this, of course, but I just wonder if this “boiling down” impulse has been all that helpful, or if it perhaps needs a second look.

14 thoughts on “Boiling Down the Faith?

  1. athanasius96

    Well said, especially in reference to evangelism. Full worldviews and full lives are needed to live the Gospel and share the Gospel. And yes, there is much more to be said by definition of the very topic! 😉

  2. jdmoser07

    The difference in linguistic patterns and conceptual schema between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Western Protestant Christians is so fascinating to me.

    The Eastern Orthodox Church emphasizes the internal coherence of Christian life and belief to a much greater degree than most Western Protestants. I wonder if Alasdair MacIntyre’s thesis about the condition of Western public morality might accurately depict what makes up Western Protestant evangelicalism today, in that we have quite the fragmented array of doctrines from a variety of traditions within Protestantism that really do not cohere with one another well. Many churches are founded upon a Lutheran reading of Paul which sets justification by faith over-against works, and yet many of the same churches ascribe to a neo-Wesleyan view of sanctifying grace for the purpose of describing what sanctification is (although the neo-Calvinists wouldn’t dare call it that!). The western church, much like the west itself, is a smorgasbord of separate intellectual, theological, and liturgical, traditions: some of which are incommensurable, yet they exist together in a turbulent relationship.

    One of the obvious roots of this problem is the doctrine of sola scriptura merged with the Protestant emphasis on individual reading of the Scriptures. Both factors have given way to a diversity of beliefs about God centered around personal readings with no central ecclesial authority. Thoughts?

    1. timgombis

      Yes, jdm, that seems a good description of the chaotic situation in which most Protestants find themselves. There’s a constellation of disconnected doctrines and concepts and it’s far easier to simply latch onto one or two of them as “the essentials” and leave the rest for academics, imagining that they have no place nor relevance.

      What I find grievous about all this is that there are so many and profound resources in the faith for the varieties of challenges and struggles in our world that are unexplored and, to say the least, underappreciated. That internal coherence to the faith that you mention is far more powerful and life-giving than anyone recognizes before they discover it.

  3. bobmacdonald

    I boil down my ‘theology’ to three words – help, thanks, and sorry. All three of them are quite capable of filling the pot so it doesn’t boil dry. I think what you are talking about is the fearful need to understand and to wrap up some message as if its packaging were the essence. Help, thanks, and sorry are the ongoing reality of daily continuous interaction with the Most High. There is where I think the locus of discipleship must be.

    I am still wrestling with the whole history and tradition of course – but from my vantage point in a catholic tradition, I deal every day with people who have no relationship to it. What is real to them is my presence to our shared work, the way I deal with authority, problem solving, and teamwork. All of that requires mutuality, willingness to admit error, and creative work together the results of which I can’t anticipate apart from the responsibilities of supporting our customers.

    There is a full human and therefore spiritual reality to this work, but the package is flesh not concept, a bodily life in a working community. I worship in a full liturgical tradition. I can’t imagine trying to run the church. I would never run it the hierarchical way. I never found that to work well in business. Somehow the least and the greatest, the new employee and the owner all had to discover creative communication that resulted in the necessary product. I think I know what the church’s product should be – and it’s not an explanation.

    I might say the product is people who are fully alive – but that too, is a short sentence with capacity to fill the pot. I guess we just keep stirring.

    I really enjoyed your series on election. I have been translating the psalms for the past 5 years and the elect has, as a result, been in and out of my consciousness in various forms continually: as individual, as poet, as the Anointed, as the king, as Israel, as the people, as the company of the ones to whom mercy in covenant is known, as anyone who fears God, and so on.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks, Bob. It seems that for folks in traditions that have a good grasp of the faith’s fullness, constantly focusing on some essential points is a good thing. We have that throughout the Scriptures of Israel. But in my (non)tradition of evangelicalism I’ve seen that our boiling down the faith has had more negative effects than positive. We’ve lost sight of the faith’s fullness, and I think we’ve done this in so many ways that cause people to lose heart that the gospel (in its fullest possible sense) has resources within it to account for all human experience. This is why people who suffer deeply as evangelicals often drift from the faith. Greeting card theology can’t account for how deeply our hearts have been wounded.

      1. bobmacdonald

        Thanks Tim – fullness is difficult to escape from. Within it, some may still have missed the engagement of faith, and for those outside it, the language of the liturgy seems without relevance. Your words make me ponder. How important it is to hear and wonder about the varieties of fullness that are in the history of Christendom from miaphysite to chalcedonian, and why it is that the Christians killed each other over their theological differences. I don’t think I want to masticate the fragments of the pole of Simon Stylites except metaphorically. What will I do in my tradition? How will I find an effective engagement with those for whom Christ died whether they teach Sunday School with me or whether they work with me and have a tradition that is completely outside Christendom? I don’t think it will do to be preached at with words that exclude. I don’t think preaching works very well at all – though there are a few I have really learned from.

        Thanks for the stimulus to think. The pot’s simmering. I think I will add some vegetables.

  4. S Wu

    Fascinating discussion, Tim. Thank you! I have been thinking a lot that the distinction between faith and faithfulness is quite artificial.

    Before I became a Christian, I had another religion (a mix of Confucianism, Taoism, ancestral worship, etc). To “believe in Jesus” means to give my trust in and allegiance to the God of the Bible as revealed in Jesus (or, more precisely, the Triune God). But together with that is also a call to faithful obedience to this same God. It does not make sense to separate faith and faithfulness.

    Any thoughts?

    1. timgombis

      I exactly agree, and that’s the thrust of the NT use of pistis. “Allegiance,” which is a more comprehensive term than “faith” may be more appropriate, actually. “Faith,” sadly, leaves open the possibility of mere mental activity to the exclusion of action, which is not in view in the NT.

      1. S Wu

        I have also been thinking that if we have a comprehensive understanding of pistis in terms of belief, allegiance, fidelity and faithfulness, then we can read the notion of discipleship in the Gospels and Acts in a refresh way. The call to discipleship (not in terms of a program or training course) seems to be about following the suffering and servant King, whose act of love on the cross for our sins demands us to live faithfully for his kingdom.

      2. timgombis

        Yes, exactly. That way Paul and the Gospels are not in contradiction, and it also makes all the terms for expressing being Christian just facets of the many-sided reality of discipleship.

  5. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.15.2011) | Near Emmaus

  6. bobmacdonald

    Not only are Paul and the Gospels not in contradiction, but neither is the TNK in contradiction with this engagement of faith. Particularly the psalms, the most popular book in the NT and the source of such learning of mercy for Jesus and any who his disciples.

    1. timgombis

      Exactly, Bob! If you steep yourself, as you’ve done, in the psalms over a long period of time, the rest of the Scriptures begin to make sense and the tensions inherent in the narrative begin to also find their proper places. Budding theologians would do well to soak in the psalms over a long period of time!

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