Theology Fail or Prophetic Utterance? Yes.

I noticed that Tony Jones has a new book out called: The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. The basic gist of the book is that the Didache provides a helpful way to think about community life. Which, in and of itself – fair enough. I’m not really concerned to comment on the volume itself (as far as I know it is insightful), but instead the reactions from the volume. It is a worth while exercise to go to Amazon and look at the comments, just to get a feel for what many evangelicals think about theology and, more importantly, ecclesiology. The general concensus seems to be that Jones’ volume is not a work of theology (which is why it is deemed valuable), but a practical work which goes beyond the point in time where everything went wrong (Nicea?). It is hard to know what the issue here is, but this is such a standard failure in theology by evangelicals that it needs to be noted – that if we could only find a really really old document, then it would be correct. I would point out the errors but they are just too obvious.

So, it would seem, that this is just theology fail at its finest? But not so fast. I think what Jones and guys like McLaren are doing is true prophetic utterance – not in achievement but in error. In other words, theology fail is prophetic utterance, because it should expose the wrongheaded notions of an a-theological approach to, well, theology. I think their voices are exactly what the evangelical world needs to hear, because their errors are simply the errors of  the bulk of evangelicals. I have no doubt that we are close to one of these guys picking up Strauss, but now utilizing the Didache (or fill in the blank with whatever cultural assumption you want) as the “criteria by which to distinguish the unhistorical in the Gospel narrative.” This would be remarkably similar to McLaren’s recent project which, in the words of one of his more generous interpreters, is simply von Harnack reimagined.

So why are children of evangelicalism returning to accounts of ecclesiology, Scripture and theology proper that fail to start with specifically theological Christian commitments, looking instead to reconstruct and baptize a time in history that was too early to have lost the plot (as it were)? This, again, is the prophetic utterance of judgment on the horizon of evangelicalism unless it is willing, like Ninevah, to repent, and in the case of evangelicalism, repent of a biblicism absent from any theological moorings.

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12 thoughts on “Theology Fail or Prophetic Utterance? Yes.

  1. Is the attempt to reconstruct an “original,” historical Christianity – from the time of Jesus himself say – useful in any way?

    The attempt to reconstruct an historical Christianity, from before c. 300-410 AD, has some academic validity; the same as Archeology. But course, no single written document before the fourth century – like the Didache – should be considered absolutely authoritative; a wider range of documents WOULD be necessary. While physical/archeological evidence is somewhat useful too.

    Of course, so far there is not much good data from the early era: there are very few original documents. And archeological data is not adequate either. While scientific evidence against any and all miracles, is rather negative. So that any “historical” picture to date, seems speculative … or seems like undisciplined, original prophesy or fantasy.

    So admittedly, the attempt to find an historical Christianity is problematic. But what about, now, the other side of the coin? What about the also rather extreme anti-historicism of many Theologians? The extreme distaste (fear of?) any search for origins? There are some extremes and abuses here, in extreme anti-historicism, too.

    Some anti-historicists even suggest that 1) not only is the search for origins problematic, it 2) is not even desirable. Since even if we could find an original Christianity, it would nevertheless, not be definitive. In effect, some hint that Christianity’s “true” or best form, is the sophisticated and developed form we have today; not what it originally was. Many would therefore hint that we should not commit the “genetic fallacy”: we should not even assert that “real” Christianity is what the early Church thought; or even what Jesus himself thought, c. 30 AD? The best and “true” Christianity, is the evolved form we have today.

    Many would take the distaste for origins very, very far therefore. But still, aren’t there some obvious problems, in expressing near-total disinterest in the historical Jesus, say? Aren’t there some obvious problems in speaking as if Christianity is best defined by, or can be dated from, the moment of the appearance not of Jesus, but of a relatively sophisticated and well-documented … Theology?

    Among other problems: are we deifying Theology here? And then too, if we are deifying Theology, then … WHICH theological theory should be our deity?

    To be sure, it does seem that Evangelicalism is now getting somewhat more sophisticated; and is trying to recapitulate, belatedly, the progress of academic theology, c. 1700-now. And eventually, it will probably take some evangelicals, up to contemporary times. Which seems useful.

    Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?

  2. It’s because Evangelical’s anthropological/epistemological foundation is the same as those they “apparently” opposed in the past (i.e. Fundamentalist heritage). It’s the logical conclusion to rationalism — for the Evangelicals, ironically, their ‘rationalist’ foundation is clothed in an anti-intellectualist attitude (i.e. pietist). But it looks as if we’ve almost come full circle in the broader evangelical world.

  3. Where are some evangelicals eventually headed? Eventually they are headed where much of religious study went before them: into the logical-historical method. Which grew tired of theological speculation, and just wants whatever facts or reasonable extrapolations, that are available.

    No one here supports that? Granted, it is not quite theology (at least superficially); but it is religious study. And it is the predominent trend, many feel.

  4. “So why are children of evangelicalism returning to accounts of ecclesiology, Scripture and theology proper that fail to start with specifically theological Christian commitments, looking instead to reconstruct and baptize a time in history that was too early to have lost the plot (as it were)?”

    A bit off topic but, it’s interesting to note that it seems that at the Wheaton theology conference one of the most common criticisms of Wright’s work is that he takes this history over theology sort of approach. Hays in particular pushed on Wright for trying to reconstruct a Jesus ‘behind the text’.

    At the same time there’s no doubt that more and more Evangelicals are interested in canonical readings of scripture, theological interpretation, the catholic tradition, etc.

  5. “…this is such a standard failure in theology by evangelicals that it needs to be noted – that if we could only find a really really old document, then it would be correct. I would point out the errors but they are just too obvious.”

    I would benefit from knowing what you perceive as the errors. I tend to agree with you about the aims of retrieval by Jones and others. It’s not like we can return to a pre-Constantinian time and enact the Gospel in community, to paraphrase Newbigin. Just because it’s old is not equivalent to “purity” or “uncontaminated” or “the-faith-once-given.”

    Not that we should ignore it either: indeed, the irony for me is that some better critical engagement with the Didache for the contemporary reader, i.e., non-specialist, would have made for a better book. I looked over the Amazon comments: lots of fans of Jones there, their disclaimers notwithstanding. Who among them situated the Didache in its historical and cultural setting, and took Jones on? The approach to community and discipleship within needs some elucidation; it would yield some important contrasts to our culture in NA: we need something more than “this is that.” :)

    Also-and maybe this is one of the errors you observe- the folks who label Jones’ book as “practical” don’t often perceive such a move of distinction as a theological decision unto itself. Thanks for the post.

    • Mike, in my mind, it is a failure in several key theological loci, such as the lack of a real doctrine of revelation, which is why the ancient material is so important (because somehow getting closer to the Bible in history is somehow allowing us to re-interpret the biblical message), ecclesiology, in that there seems to be a fundamental belief that ecclesiology is simply figuring out how to act and “what to do when.” I think, when push comes to shove, these guys are simply evangelical in the worst sense of the word – they are looking for pragmatic solutions that will “fix” the church. Whether that is the didache (Jones) or believing in some kind of evolution in God (McLaren), it is a failure to truly think theologically about life under God.

      • Thanks for the reply. I find your comments helpful, in that you make clear the theological moves of looking and fixing that are around in abundance.

        If I am tracking with you, the absence of a doctrine of revelation *could be* replaced by Jones et al with an experimental attitude that subtly distances itself from a life in God in while asserting to take on board texts with a closer historical proximity to the NT, thus generating “church.” My description may not be as helpful in making clear what is going on, but there is some version of revelation at play here, but it’s not nearly as transparent as one might ask for. Thanks again.

  6. I just glanced through the entire Didache. It wasn’t hard to do: it might be ten pages long.

    Basicially, it’s a very, very simple rule book; a list of simple, conventional rules: don’t steal or murder, etc… Possibly it was designed even for children. Probably I’d translate the title, as “Didactics.” Or maybe the New Testament Made Simple.

    And honestly, there’s not much if any explicit theology or theologizing in the original itself. It is just a very, very simple list of basic rules for living, excerpted from the Bible.

    Even under analysis, those rules don’t imply much that is very, very different from what appear to be its main source: Matthew stripped of any common Mathew/Mark material. Though among other things, apparently (in my lightning review) it doesn’t seem to mention a Church much; or no mention of bishops or priests, etc..

    So it might be that much of the lack you are finding in Jones’ criticial text, honestly reflects the very same bareness, found in the original text itself. Not much ecclesiology in the original, for example. Which to be sure, is in itself a statement about churches or church leadership: the document itself seems to find them unnecessary.

    To be sure, it would seem hard to believe that we can’t take away SOME theological conclusions from a book this old (allegedly; only unveiled a century ago). But to tell the truth, this would probably be the very least overtly theological of all the books in the Bible, if it was still included there.

    It’s pretty much just a very conventional list of very common laws, rules: don’t lie, steal, murder, and so forth. The Bible boiled down to a quick list of rules.

    It would be very, very hard for anyone could make very much out of it theologically; it’s pretty barren material.

    Probably the original book, the Didache itself, is guilty of the sin you are complaining about: it doesn’t think theologically.

  7. The reactionary nature of all theology locates it in a particular context, at least in my opinion. Some Evangelicals seem to be realizing that many of the ‘ givens of Evangelical faith (however defined) come not from the Scriptures themselves (as we would like to think), but from the heat of theological polemic. The so-called ‘solas’ of the reformation era come to mind, as does the more recent insistence on inerrancy. Understood in their context, these stands can make sense. However, when they become creedal necessities, then too much delving into the question ‘why?’ raises threatening answers. We Evangelicals thought for a long time that we were preserving ‘Biblical’ Christianity, and now many of us are realizing that, to a certain extent, we are just as guilty of recreating Christianity according to our likeness as the (fill in the blank) movements of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The problem is, as Protestants our bluff has been called. All of us base what we believe as Christians at least on some sense that this is ‘what the Bible teaches’. But now many are realizing that our authoritative Scriptures lead us to different conclusions, and on issues of primary significance (the concept of adiaphora is an unsuccessful – in my opinion- attempt to minimize the significance of our inability to agree on just about everything). The Orthodox and to a lesser extent the Roman Catholics do not have the same problems with regard to foundational truth because they have a much stronger appreciation of the place of unwritten apostolic tradition which has tended to fill in the gaps on those issues we Protestants fight most about. So this is actually a problem of our own creation. Our reactions against perceived abuses (Western medieval Roman Catholic ones to be specific, and the earlier Roman Catholic unilateralism that increasingly separated the West from the rest of the church) led us Protestants to construct authority structures that, while accomplishing their original goal of setting Protestant theology free from Roman strictures, have proven unsustainable. I wonder if this is the reason so many of our Evangelical compatriots are reacting against Evangelical sureties, trying to find more secure footing on other ground. Of course, the Enlightenment provoked a similar crisis in its time. As our own histories demonstrate, the prodigious efforts of 18th – 20th century theologians to find their way through those issues never really resolved the fundamental question. So here we go again?

  8. William:

    I think your comments are directed at Kyle. But to briefly interject my own opinion? I think Kyle and I both ARE suggesting that history repeats itself; that Evangelicalism is reliving the history of Theology. Some people suggest that (hopefully, just some part of) every generation has to repeat the past’s mistakes, to catch up to the present. Learning the hard way. Though surely some of us don’t need that.

    Personally though I differ with Kyle over his emotional enthusiasm for Theology, and even traditional religion. I support a more sophisticated Theology; but prefer the modern/postmodern moment. When emotional attachment to the failed theologies of the past, collapses after repeated failures; and a much cooler, critical science of God, logical-historicism, takes its place.

    Which is not just a repeat of the past.

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