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Accentuating the Positive

June 25, 2012

Last year I was invited to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Scottish Evangelical Theology Society, and I was asked specifically if I could engage the question of how to handle diversity.  My address has now been published in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 30/1 (2012), 21-29, and by permission of the editor I have posted the PDF of the article on the “Selected Published Essays, etc” tab of this blog site.  The title of the article: “You’ve Got to ‘Accentuate the Positive’:  Thinking about Differences Biblically.”  Here’s the link to the SBET:

http://www.s-e-t-s.org.uk/bulletin/archive/2012/06/22/301-spring-2012

My emphasis is the article is that a readiness to accommodate diversity in a positive manner seems to have been one of the key characteristics of that cluster of forms of early Christianity that comprise what has been referred to as “proto-orthodox” Christianity.  The original connotation of “heresy” in early Christian usage was a sectarian outlook, a narrow religious “party”.  I give some examples of the diversity that we see represented directly in the New Testament, which is a collective statement affirming a critical diversity.  Early Christianity at its best was more of a jazz combo, with creativity and room for variations, rather than a tightly orchestrated symphony with each part written out in detail and conforming to a closely-directed performance.

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10 Comments
  1. Larry,

    I think your essay misses the real nature of the division between “inclusivist” and “exclusivist” Christians.

    Although I was raised attending a Southern Baptist church whose members were proud to call themselves “fundamentalists,” I myself never chose to be baptized, to join the church, to “accept Jesus as Lord and Savior,” etc. I was therefore an outsider who became intimately familiar with the insider perspective of “exclusivist” Christians. (To be sure, I did not much enjoy the experience, though it was indeed educational: a couple of decades of being told why you are going to Hell can be a bit tiring!)

    These folks see themselves as pursuing one very simple and highly focused activity: accepting and proselytizing for the literal truth of the key doctrines of traditional Christianity (an actual physical Resurrection, a true virginal conception without involvement of a male human being, an Incarnation of a being who truly existed since the Creation, etc.) for the purpose of getting themselves and others into Heaven.

    They were happy to admit that “liberal” Christians such as yourself could be decent enough human beings, but you are simply not interested in pursuing the activity in which they are single-mindedly interested. Who is “really” a Christian, who really deserves “fellowship,” etc. all really misses the point.

    By analogy, if you were to approach some friends who had formed a bowling team and announce that you wished to join the team, but that you had no interest whatsoever in bowling and no intention of ever playing the game, you would not be surprised if you were not welcome to join up.

    Similarly, if I were to approach the physics faculty at your university and announce that I would like to join their faculty because the benefits are good and I hear they are a fine bunch of fellows, but that I had no desire to teach physics or do research in physics, I would not expect them to take my application seriously.

    In the same way, the “exclusivist” Christians are pursuing a very specific activity in which “liberal” Christians just do not want to participate (wisely, in my judgment). Most of them do not hate or despise you “liberal” Christians; most of them would probably be happy enough to have you as a neighbor.

    But you happen not to want to participate in the activity to which they are so dedicated, and, therefore, they understandably do not see you as part of that activity.

    Of course, you and I think they ought to rethink the activity in which they are so piously engaged, the certainty with which they hold propositions that we find a bit problematic, etc.: i.e., we think they should think more as you and I do.

    But, given that they are not willing to do so, given the basic commitments and beliefs that they have chosen, it seems to me that their exclusivity is not only understandable but indeed eminently logical.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Thanks, Dave, for your extended comment. But I have to take issue with you central assumption: that those who affirm key beliefs of Christianity are asked to accept as fellow Christians those who do not.
      This is not at all my point. Instead, what I’m urging is that Christians distinguish precisely between core beliefs and those that may have arisen subsequently and on which equally committed Christians disagree. It is an “all or nothing” approach to Christian belief (i.e., you must agree with all my beliefs to be in fellowship with me) that has characterized Christianity (especially in the West), which comprises an exact reverse of the sequence and emphasis in the text of Ephesians to which I drew attention.

      • Larry,

        You wrote:
        >But I have to take issue with you central assumption: that those who affirm key beliefs of Christianity are asked to accept as fellow Christians those who do not.
        This is not at all my point. Instead, what I’m urging is that Christians distinguish precisely between core beliefs and those that may have arisen subsequently and on which equally committed Christians disagree.

        Larry, I think you are misunderstanding what I wrote and, more importantly, how the “exclusivist” Christians think. They are not trying to distinguish who are “equally committed Christians” nor are they trying to “distinguish precisely between core beliefs and those that may have arisen subsequently.” You and I may think that is what they should be doing, but they just are not.

        In a way, I think you are pursuing, or at least you seem to think they are pursuing, an “essentialist” search for who are the “true” Christians. I realize that they do sometimes speak in a manner that could be interpreted in such a way, but I think that is not fundamentally what they are about.

        Their main issue with you is not that they meet some abstract definition of “true Christian” and you do not. Their issue is that they are embarked on a very specific enterprise in which you choose not to participate (wisely so, in my judgment).

        I spent my entire youth discussing (usually arguing) with these folks and have continued discussions with them over my decades as an adult. I find it odd that most people not immersed in that milieu seem to find it very hard to see where the “exclusivists” are coming from.

        Again: most of them are not unwilling to associate with “liberal” Christians like you or even with non-believers like myself. They’re happy enough to have folks like us as co-workers, neighbors, even relatives (again, in saying this, I am relying on over a half-century of personal experience with such people, both in my home state back in the Midwest and out here in California).

        What they do insist on, quite correctly as far as I can see, is that what they are trying to do in connection with the Bible, Jesus, etc. is an activity that you and I are quite unwilling to contribute to. If people like us got involved, we would only get in the way of what they are trying to do.

        That seems to me a very commonsensical approach on their part: they are trying to do something with regard to their churches that you and I do not and cannot participate in or support. So, why shouldn’t they engage in those activities separated from people like you and me, while being happy to interact with us in other venues (work, neighborhood, etc.)?

        It seems to me that your essay fails to acknowledge where they are really coming from on this issue and the fact that their attitude is quite sensible given their commitments.

        I’ll add that personally I’m a bit bemused as to why “liberal” Christians are bothered by this: if my neighbor wants to be involved in Masonic mumbo-jumbo and I do not, why would I want him to acknowledge me as a “fellow” Mason? Similarly, if the “exclusivist” Christians want to engage in an enterprise in which you and I do not wish to participate, why would we object that they do not consider us comrades in that enterprise?

        It looks a bit as if “liberal” Christians wish to impose their concept of what Christianity “really” is (e.g., “fellowship” with all “Christians,” taking “Christian” in a latitudinarian sense) on people who do not share their views.

        I hope it is clear that I am not objecting in the slightest to publicly criticizing the substantive theological and historical views of the “exclusivists,” views which I find bizarrely false. But, given those views, their exclusivism seems to me to make perfect sense.

        All the best,

        Dave Miller

      • Dear DAve,
        I’ve posted our rather extended comment (but hoping not to set any precedent for length thereby!) because it’s thoughtful, and also misinformed. First, you presume that I’m speaking from the standpoint of someone who doesn’t affirm such things as Jesus’ unique significance and doesn’t approve of evangelism, neither of which is correct. I recognize that definitions of “liberal”, “conservative” and “evangelical” vary, and so how I will be viewed depends on the standpoint of the viewer. Some will see me (as you apparently do) as “liberal”, and others speak of me as “evangelical” (NB: small “e”, as I don’t like party-labels or the cultural connotations that sometimes accrue to the term with a capital “E”), and perhaps others in some other camp.

        Second, I didn’t set out to dictate, for my essay was *invited* specifically to address a meeting of evangelical theologians, who asked me to offer *biblical* bases for how to respond to diversity.

        Finally, what I’m calling for isn’t an undifferentiated “soup” of various Christians. From the earliest years of the Christian movement there appear to have been various types and groups, and that’s in principle OK. So, e.g., most of us think that there were “Johannine” Christians (likely based in Ephesus). But, as John 21 shows, they were ready also to acknowledge fraternally those linked more with Peter, although they retained their own distinctive regard for their leader and his emphases. So, let each group pursue its own emphases. But recognizing other types of believers as genuine co-heirs of God’s salvation is pretty crucial I would say. As you class yourself as not a Christian, that may not telegraph as important to you. But it is.

        I think that we’ve dealt with this particular thread sufficiently, and I hope you’ll agree.

      • Larry,

        Sorry for being wordy: it is hard to make such points briefly.

        I would like to correct two misconceptions if you will indulge me:

        You wrote:
        >First, you presume that I’m speaking from the standpoint of someone who doesn’t affirm such things as Jesus’ unique significance and doesn’t approve of evangelism, neither of which is correct.

        No, I do not presume that at all: I do presume that you do not share the very specific goals held by most of the evangelicals/fundamentalists I’ve known and that therefore they are right to think that “fellowship” with you would not advance their goals.

        Second, you wrote:
        >Some will see me (as you apparently do) as “liberal”, and others speak of me as “evangelical”

        I tried to put “liberal” in quotes to indicate how the evangelicals/fundamentalists I have known categorize folks like you. Personally, I just view you as an interesting scholar, and have already picked up some of the books you’ve recommended (mainly by Hengel).

        Thanks for indulging me.

        All the best,

        Dave Miller

  2. John Moles permalink

    I am very glad to see a NT scholar of your distinction arguing this essential case loud and clear in a public forum. Would that others follow.

  3. Bobby Garringer permalink

    I’m having trouble locating any statements in early Christian writings — prior to Tatian’s Diatessaron — that indicate Christians were “deeply troubled” by differences in the Gospels.

    I also cannot find documentation that clarifies — in his own words — why Tatian published the Diatessaron. (I have seen some indications that he was selective in what he included and have read suggestions that a part of his motivation may have been to “purify” the Gospels in favor of an adopted heresy.)

    Please comment.

    • The classic discussion is: Oscar Cullmann, “The Plurality of the Gospels As a Theological Problem in Antiquity,” in the collection of Cullmann’s essays, The Early Church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology, edited by A. J. B. Higgins. London/Philadelphia: SCM/Westminster, 1956, 39-54. More recently: Helmut Merkel, Die Widersprüche zwischen den Evangelien. Ihre polemische und apologetische Behandlung in der Alten Kirche bis zu Augustin, WUNT, no. 13 (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1971), which includes evidence of early pagan critics of Christianity who pointed to differences among the Gospels.
      Among things on Tatian, I recommend: Tjitze Baarda, “DIAFWNIA–SUMFWNIA [Gr]: Factors in the Harmonization of the Gospels, Especially in the Diatessaron of Tatian,” in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Origins, Recensions, Text and Transmission, ed. William L. Petersen (Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 133-54.

  4. I really enjoyed the article. It was good for me to hear that unity of the faith is an eschatological hope to be realized later, not a present day reality.

    Maintaining unity of the Spirit, however, is a present day occupation for us.

    Thanks again.

    I’d like to learn more about “proto-orthodoxy.”

  5. Tim Mildenhall permalink

    You know, Larry, the Jazz v Symphony image has never really been specific enough for me. There are so many things to admire in both. The description that goes to the issue is centre bounded or edge bounded. If that’s what you’re getting at, yay from the bush in extreme north west Australia.

    I don’t know what it is in pastoral practice up here, but so many guys go for edge bounded. I call them 100% ers. If you don’t agree with me 100% then actually i’m not even sure you’re Christian, is how it goes. oh for that intoxicating joy of knowing God’s grace, that he is for us in Christ.

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