Thursday, October 2, 2014


The Christian Quest for Answers to  Everything

President George W. Bush was faced with questions from the press about retaining Donald Rumsfield as Secretary of Defense. Mr. Bush acknowledged he was aware of the speculation, but asserted "I am the decider." With somewhat awkward words, the President was claiming that, as the Chief Executive, the big decisions belonged to him, and he would make them.

This morning, as I was tooling (though not "toking on a number") around the Internet, I came across one of those "ask the pastor" Blogs. This man, whom I had never heard of, entertained questions from readers and offered his answers. This set me thinking about how many settings there where Christians ask questions and various authorities give answers. Growing up in the church that hosted the Pensacola Theological Institute, I remember that one of the most popular features was the daily question and answer session. Sometimes there were fireworks, and sometimes laughter, but there was also much earnest questioning. I remember when Ed Clowney and Gordon Clark were on the same panel and disagreed about Romans 7. When Palmer Robertson said he was converted by Billy Graham and Lloyd-Jones replied that Dr. Roberston was converted by the grace of God. When Robert Strong and Clark Pinnock (in his orthodox phase) debated the implications of Romans 6 for baptism. I remember thinking delusively that I had arrived when I was on a panel with Jim Boyce and John Gerstner at a conference. I don't attend conferences anymore, but I will guess that the Q&A sessions are still included and popular. 

It occurs to me that there is, among Protestants, a quest for something approximating the role, in the popular imagination, of the Holy Father in Roman Catholicism - a Decider-in-Chief. But then, as Americanized Christians, we retain the right to reject the Authority if the answer does not suit us. This, too resembles the American version of Roman Catholicism as evidenced by the fact that the majority of such Catholics use birth control despite what the Pope says about it. 

Sometimes questioners are opinion sampling. A month or two before I became a campus minister I was introduced to a young woman who was a student at the college I would serve. Very shortly after our introduction she told me about a young man she had been dating and asked what I thought she should do about him and their relationship. (Several years later she married him, and I officiated.) Her questions made me feel like a pastoral guru whose reputation as a dispenser of wisdom must have preceded our meeting one another. Alas, I found she was asking many people the same questions. One of the things I came to see about myself, and some others, is that that sometimes we are not so much seeking the safety of a multitude of counselors as seeking someone who will give us the answer we want.

Sometimes as questioners we are looking to avoid blame. "I did what I was told to do." My wife and I are adept at doing this when we are deciding about where to go out to eat. What if the food is bad? Neither of us wants to bear that guilt, so we do our best to get the other to decide. Is she decides, the "woman thou gavest me" is to blame. If I decide, the "serpent" is to blame. Sometimes this need to avoid responsibility for decisions extends to very big decisions. "Pastor X told me to go to that college." "Dr. Y told me to take that job." "Sister Z told me to marry him." So, "It's not my fault."

However, what strikes me most is that we ask too many questions. Or, perhaps it is better to say we put too many questions into the wrong categories. A Christian tendency is to make every question about truth and/or morals. 

One of the main reasons for this asking questions and wanting answers about everything is the ever popular and much promoted "worldview" philosophy. If there is a Biblical/Christian view of everything, then every question is theological/ethical. If Christ is Lord of everything, then he must have truth for me to believe and/or a command for me to obey about everything. The problem, as I see it, is that God does not have a view of everything about which we want to ask. God does not care to answer every question we care to ask. 

But, if we make every question theo-ethical, then we face the question of how to get the right answers. Lacking a Pope, you may turn to "authorities" whom you, for reasons good or bad, trust. What does Tim Keller say? What does John Piper think? What is N.T. Wright's opinion? This approach can easily turn into, "I am of Paul," or, "I am of Cephas,", or "I am of Apollos," or, "I can trump you all; I am of Christ." If you prefer a sort of evangelical consensus, you may ask, What does the Coalition say? Or, what do Mark, Kevin, and Lig think? If you have a high view of the church, and if you are a Presbyterian, who wants to know whether women can serve in combat roles in the armed services, you might ask the General Assembly to answer. If you are an Anglican, you might ask the Bishops to make a statement. If you are a Baptist...well, I don't know what you do. 

But, what if we don't get the right answer? What if we don't like what the authority says? What if we don't agree with church's declaration? We fall back on the individual conscience, sometimes wrongly called "the priesthood of every believer." We defend ourselves with, "I can read the Bible for myself, and I am led by the Spirit, too." In effect this means you are your own Urim and Thummin. It makes every Protestant his own pope.

If we are Protestants who have no magisterium, what should we do? We should trust the collective wisdom of the church (in our corner of it, whatever that might be), but (1) we should limit our questions and (2) the church should limit its answers. Limit questions and answers to what? To matters that are clearly theological and ethical. Don't ask the church to have a view of the gold standard, or to tell people for whom to vote, or to decide whether you and everybody else should home school, or whether Scotland should have gone independent, or whether ministers should have Social Security.

What does that mean? It means you accept as truth and duty whatever the church (your denomination practically speaking) has chosen to commit itself to as truth and righteousness, whatever it is willing to impose on your conscience. If you share in the decision making authority of the church, limit the questions you entertain and be very, very careful and restrained about the answers to which you want to commit the church. For confessional churches (and here I may be in the minority, but I think the Anglican Church is a confessional church - what are the Articles if not a confession of what the church believes?), this means the really important questions truth and righteousness have been asked and answered.

Ask whatever other questions you are interested in and can find somebody willing to answer. But remember, the answers are just opinions. And what you decide to do with the answers are just decisions. Don't try to make a big deal out of everything.  You're just going to have to live with ambiguities, with unanswered questions, with not having every duck in the row where he belongs.

I will give you some clear binding opinions about a few imporant matters. Seminoles are bad. Gators are good. Taylor Swift is bad. Merle Haggard is good. Barry Manilow is bad. Frank Sinatra is good. Sushi is bad. Fried catfish is good. Decaf is bad. Dark roast is good. The Kardashians should just go away - far away. You are probably wrong. I am usually right.

who's the decider?

what do you think about..."

we don't need a pope but we need something

not just opinions, or academic discussions - people are wanting to know what is true and what is right

Melinda opinion shopping

maybe we take on too many topics

answer what the church collectively says - or at least your liitle corner in it

anglicans - got it that we are not as interested in theological preciesion as some- but we dohave the common acceptance of the 39 articles

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