Monday, September 24, 2007

"He's the truth..." Why Evangelical Theology Fails

The other night MSNBC ran a story about Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson, whose "gospel of inclusion" got him in hot water with the Evangelical community of Tulsa, OK -- and barred from his alma mater, Oral Roberts University (where he attended, but did not graduate).

According to Pearson, the gates of heaven are open to everyone, including Satan himself. Hell is not a destination in the afterlife but a metaphor for the painful situations of our own making in this life. According to Pearson, Satan himself could be reconciled with God if he simply said he was sorry for having "competed" with God.

On the program, the response to Pearson's "revelation" was sobering: Shortly after his "revelation" was made public, he lost his church, his congregation, and his status in the Christian community. “People don’t follow preachers as much as they follow popularity," the downfallen preacher observed. "I always knew that. And as soon as I quit preaching what was popular, the people were gone. But I didn’t expect them to leave so fast.”

Ironically, it was the Episcopaleans -- a group that is about as far removed as possible from the Pentecostals in Christian ideology and culture -- who gave him a second chance. Tulsa's most prominent Episcopal church, Trinity, gave Pearson and what is left of his congregation the use of their facilities. (I guess with all the other doctrinal and disciplinary shenanigans that have been going on of late, the idea of hell being a metaphor is irresistable.)

Now, the good "bishop" did have a few faithful follow him to his new digs. One quote in particular -- by Julia Nowlin, a member of his congregation since 1991 -- gave me pause:

"He's [Pearson's] the truth and I'm sticking to the truth because the truth will set you free."

"Protestant Theology": A Study in Self-Promotion

This story is a sad one ... it's never a happy day when thousands of people are spiritually disillusioned, or faith communities demolished. Some souls never recover from such a shock, and become hardened to all truth.

Fortunately, this kind of thing has the opposite effect on some people. Kristine Franklin and her family had one such "happy ending" ... It led them into the arms of Mother Church -- after being Protestant (anti-Catholic) missionaries to Guatemala for many years. You can read the story here.

The point that both these stories illustrate (one negatively, the other positively) is that it is impossible to remain theologically on track without being willing to subject yourself to a higher disinterested, historic, and objective authority.

Appealing to the Bible alone -- or any other document that requires interpretation, for that matter -- is insufficient simply because interpretation is inherently subjective.

Appealing to the spiritual authority of a single person (either oneself or one's pastor) is insufficient; the perspective of any single individual lacks historicity -- that is, rooted in a particular time and situation -- and colored by that individual's subjective experiences and motives (hence, not disinterested).

Because the Catholic faith is founded on the original revelation of Christ to His apostles, which He instructed them to pass on to others, it has historic presidence with objective origins.

Because the teaching and interpreting authority of Christian doctrine has been entrusted to those with a familiarity and respect for the theological "stream" that runs from that original source to the present time (an objective source of knowledge), and who have responsibility both to lead (a diocese in the case of a bishop, a parish in the case of a pastor) and follow (the continuous teaching of those in union with the pope in the first case, and the authority of the Magisterium in the second), those teachings are safeguarded from inappropriate personal agendas or "slants" that make these teachings truly disinterested. (The truth is transforming, rather than transformed; it changes the person who hears it, rather than being stretched and pulled to suit individual desires and preconceptions.)

What Is Truth?

When truth is interpreted by contemporary, subjective, and "interested" individuals, heresy results. We see this happen over and over in Church history. The first seven centuries of Church history is replete examples of men (usually) who went off on some theological tangent ... and councils that met to respond to those missteps, to set the course of the Church aright.

For example, in response to the erroneous ideas of men such as Arius to Nestorius to Marcion, the Church Fathers developed the great Christological and Trinitarian dogmas -- including, in 432, the Council of Ephesus that declared Mary the Theotokos, the "Mother of God."

As a Protestant, I often fell into the temptation of expecting that all truth would automatically line up with what I already believed to be true, based on my own subjective interpretation of Scripture. What I failed to consider was that my own interpretation might not be the right one. That is, just because an idea doesn't "fit" within my own parameters of truth doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't true ... It could mean that I need to adjust my own understanding.

This revelation was difficult to swallow at first. It required that I make a "paradigm shift" of the will -- choosing to suspend judgment, and consider that it could be my own course that might be in need of redirection. It is this paradigm shift of the will -- a laying down of my own authority, and a submission to a higher one -- that is at the heart of most true conversion. It is painful. It is difficult.

It is also necessary. Knowledge alone cannot touch the heart and transform it unless the will is also moved. We cannot afford to suspend all judgment -- after all, many of the heretics of the early Church truly believed that they had received a special insight from God, and chose to die rather than renounce that message. However, we cannot make ourselves the final authority. To the extent that we are willing to humble ourselves and submit to the higher authority of the Church -- a disinterested authority that is objectively and historically based -- we can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us on the path of truth.

1 comment:

a kelly said...

I've been thinking about all the many churches out there. I imagine what an amazing force we could be if we were all united. Even if we see our church as the True One...I think that sometimes God uses our lack of unity for the greatest good. So while their minds and hearts are closed to complete union in the Eucharist many Evangelicals and Protestants do bring people closer to the Lord. Just not as close as they could be.