You know something is wrong with you, but you don't know what. You feel pain inside, but don't know quite where. You read an author and find yourself uneasy, but you don't know why. Then one day, something gives the game away....
The trouble with western scholars
So it has been with my reading of so many western biblical scholars such as NT Wright. At one moment you are convinced that they are true evangelicals because they may believe in a literal historical resurrection (a basic requirement of biblical orthodoxy) but on another occasion your spirit is disturbed within you. You wonder what is wrong.
One problem is their marriage to the academy instead of the church. Across this intimate relationship pass ideas and priorities largely undetected. For one, academy scholars must provide novel research to justify their existence in the academic world (novelty is what matters, by definition, in academia). Nothing wrong with new frontiers, but faithfulness to the doctrine once delivered is a little more important than novelty to the church.
Secondly, those who enjoy this cosy relationship with the academy often fail to critique the spirit of the age which permeates the academy. It's the medium they have swum in from undergraduate days and like a fish who can't describe water - because he can't see it - so academics can't even see the zeitgeist they inhabit. This latter point is not insignificant, for scholars often end up judging the Scriptures by the passing criteria of their age ("oh this is not very accurate by the canons of modern historiography") but never consider allowing the zeitgeist of Scripture critique the world's passing standards ("who cares two hoots about the sequence of events - that is a concern of passing so-called scientific story telling, not of meaningful narrative").
A new problem
Recently, I stumbled upon an additional problem of western scholars. Back to NT Wright. I have learnt alot from him, respected his scholarship and enjoyed his easy style of writing, but almost ever time I read him, I came away uneasy. There was always something missing that should have been there and something present that shouldn't have been. This unease went on for ages, and was accentuated by the Steve Chalke Problem (Wright stands behind "That Book") until I read his preface to Surprised by Hope. Then I realised what was Wrong with Wright - and not only with Wright....
The context of theology matters
These are the words which set off the alarm bells: "My life has been remarkably free from tragedy" and "seldom have I stood at a deathbed" (p.xii). Now, we can't help it if tragedy hasn't stopped at our door or if for some reason we haven't experienced death first hand. But could it be, and now I speak beyond one single author to all who write theology in the West - that a life relatively free of suffering is a poor context for doing theology?
And especially if that theology has been done in the easy environment of the Academy?
Can you really do Christian theology from a life-context of ease? You can do theology, but can you do Christ-ian theology?
This is what I mean.
The theology of the New Testament was hammered out in the fires of hard coal-face mission and persecution. Paul didn't sit in a plush office turning over nice theological statements; he wrote from a prison cell. That made all the difference to what he wrote. We could say he wrote out of a life of suffering suffused with glory. And all true Christ-ian theology must be written in blood, for only then can it be said of the theologian....
- You share the world of your Master, walking in his footsteps, the man of sorrows, experiencing his life, learning to see things from his point of view.
- You share the same world as his followers who are called to a life of suffering and cross-carrying.
- You are not writing for the approval of your university peers (who cares what men think?), you are writing for the benefit of hungry aching sheep. What a difference that makes! Novelty gives way to fidelity, clever writing to edification.
- A life of tough ministry sorts out priorities - some stuff just ain't worth writing about.
- From prison, the true future world glows bright! Your hope, rather than mis-shaped by this-worldly priorities, is now shaped by an eternal perspective: your blessed hope is the return of Jesus Christ!
We must be suspect of the theology of all armchair theologians. We should listen to an Athanasius, Luther, Calvin and Ridley, because they walked in the pathway of their Master. But it's alot harder to follow the kind who have suffered little.
Wurmbrand's Pastor Friend
Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years in prison, 3 of them in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement was so much like hell that he had to look at his glass of water to assure him he wasn't in hell, for, he reasoned, there was no water in hell. Here then was a man who suffered, and likewise many of his fellow pastors.
One day he was speaking to a fellow pastor-sufferer (who, in fact had never even seen a complete copy of the New Testament!) And Richard was explaining western theology to him. This pastor said in reply, "Have those who thought out these theological systems...ever carried a cross?" He went on to ask how a man who was carrying a cross could even think systematically!
I think he's got a point: it is frankly impossible to separate theology from life, and unless the life of a theologian mirrors the life of the man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the theology that flows from that pen will suffer. On the last day, it may prove to be nothing more than dross. Clever dross, perhaps, but passing and ultimately ineffectual dross.