A couple of excellent, thought-provoking quotes from D. H. Williams (see previous post) on the enduring role and value of tradition that I can’t help but share:
“Unlike the trivial sort of gospel preaching that one encounters in too many churches today where the goal of ‘accepting’ Christ is so that one will go to heaven, the early fathers believed that God’s salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ meant providing a believer with the means to perceive God and thereby share in his divine life. That is, salvation was supposed to culminate in the divine theosis or deification – becoming transformed according to God – a seminal part of the teaching of early fathers…the point is that faith is a divine work of salvation ‘in us’ as well as ‘for us’ in order to change us, that we may behold God” (Evangelicals and Tradition, 140).
I can’t help but wonder how much of the malaise and decline of American evangelicalism stems from precisely this “dumbing down” of the Gospel, giving congregants and a needy world alike just one little nugget of gold when there is in fact an entire storehouse full of the treasures of the wonder of God’s salvation. One of my Dallas professors was infamous for an approach to evangelism that boiled down to a “presentation of the gospel” (exactly what Williams criticizes) which could be “accepted” by signing a little card to that effect. Is it really God’s intention, I can’t help but wonder, that we make a one-time “acceptance” of him for the sake of a “get out of hell free card,” when in fact what his desire (as the church fathers demonstrated) is to invite us ever deeper into the mystery, love, and fellowship of the Triune God?
I suspect a great deal of the approach to Christianity that Williams criticizes stems from our modern American predispositions (1) to drive a hard distinction between “spiritual, simple faith” and “dry, intellectual theology”; (2) to privilege individual dimensions of salvation to the complete neglect of the corporate or cosmic elements; and (3) the belief that people are basically stupid and “can’t be bothered” or trusted with anything beyond the most simple spiritual truths.
“Preaching easily slips into the mode of moralizing or anecdotal storytelling, and eventually the flock of God can no longer stomach a diet that might cause them to think deeply about the content of the Christian faith. Congregations are well schooled in neatly dividing the faith into practical and theoretical aspects, convinced that only the former are of concern to them. Theology is therefore an elective of the Christian life, not necessary and too divisive for a religion of civility. In their quest to reach culture, evangelical congregations have become the cultural preferences of their audiences: anti-institutional, informal, non dogmatic, therapeutic, and unaware of the difference between tolerance and moral confusion.
Yet many evangelicals are discovering that no amount of creative packaging and marketing of the gospel will rescue church ministry if they lose the theological center that enables them to define the faith and prescribe the kinds of intellectual and practical relations it should have in the world” (178-9).
Ouch. It’s hard to argue with his assessment. But as I think about my own preaching and teaching, I want to assume the best of people; I believe that most laypeople are in fact hungry to go deeper in their walk with God and learn more about the faith. I suspect that some congregants’ suspicions stem more from bad past experiences or fear of the unknown (the “hunker down because what’s out there might destroy my faith” mentality) than anything else, and that most of them are in fact ready for a more high-calorie diet, provided it’s fed in a slow and gentle manner. Still, sometimes it’s not all about giving the people what they want; it’s often also about giving the people what they need…