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RE: [findingfaith] What are the essentials?

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  • Stephen Shields
    Hi Rogier! It s been a while! r: This is an interesting question to me, as I will participate in a forum next month that asks a very similar question: what
    Message 1 of 17 , Jun 1, 2003
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      Hi Rogier! It's been a while!

      r:

      This is an interesting question to me, as I will participate in a forum next
      month that asks a very similar question: 'what is the gospel we preach?'.

      (I work with a Christian missions group that seeks to plant churches
      ('communities of faith') in major European cities, and in so doing we hope
      to contribute to the start of a new grassroots movements of people following
      Jesus.)

      I can't get around the fact that, while totally understandable, the question
      actually seems a little modernist, in that it seeks to reduce our faith (or
      the Biblical story, for that matter), to it's essence. Reductionism is a
      trade-mark of modern thinking.

      As I have been preparing for this forum I have been studying and reading
      Jesus' teaching, and it seems to me that Jesus' gospel is 'situational' -
      it's different in every situation he encounters. Hence it is possible for
      Nicodemus and the rich young ruler to get different answers when they ask
      'what must I do to be saved?'.

      Augustine's quote is great, but many religious wars have been started about
      the essentials. What are the essentials? Who defines them? What happens when
      I deem one essential more essential than another? What happens if we
      disagree on the essentials in the first place? Can we still break bread
      together? How much tension can we cope with before we disassociate ourselves
      from one another? Here is a sociological observation: he who defines the
      essentials, holds the power. Historically you can make a case that in some
      cases people defined essentials not so much because they really cared about
      the essentials, but because they really cared about holding the power that
      deciding the essentials brought them. To put it simply: the will to power is
      part of our desire to define the essentials.

      And yet I have struggled with the question of the essentials myself very
      much. How could we ever be one (as Jesus prayed in John 17) if we could not
      reach agreement on the essentials?

      I have this novel idea I am playing with: what if God never intended for us
      to agree on all the essentials. What if the variation he has so cleverly and
      skillfully brought out in the natural realm is the same variation he would
      like to see in the church? What if he never intended us to be the same, look
      the same, talk the same, or (dare I say it?) believe the same? What if he
      always intended for a high degree of ambiguity to exist? I know this raises
      many questions, such as: 'how can we be one?', and 'how can we organize
      ourselves?' and 'how do we know we can fellowship together (when are you too
      far removed from me for us to still cross the chasm between us?)?' - but
      humour me, okay? I'm trying to make sense of God and life and ministry after
      relinquishing my desire for control and institutionalism and monolithic
      groups and order and ...

      What would happen if each local community would decide for itself what its
      essentials are? If all over the place each community of faith decided on its
      own identity and values and emphases? I know, there would be some groups
      that would probably go of the deep end - but then again, those groups have
      always existed, haven't they? It's not like our modernist drive for a clear
      definition of the essentials ever cured that problem. Actually, I reckon
      that in this day and age, in our global village, our many cross-border
      contacts would keep us in check, at least to a degree (call it
      cross-fertilization).

      I imagine that what would emerge would be a lovely varied quilt of
      communities accross our local maps, each with its particular attractions and
      particularities - come to think of it, not all that dissimilar to nature
      itself: varied, colorful, organic, interacting with its context, growing,
      struggling a bit here and there, producing fruit, each after its own
      kind)...

      Come to think of it, it's not so different from what has happened accross
      history already - but it's very different from what we desired when we built
      our systems and organizations and institutions, when we fought our religious
      wars, organized ourselves, spoke out against each other, called each other
      heretics (I live in Europe where these religious wars are a major factor in
      the secularization of my continent)... I cannot escape the conclusion that
      the ideological and organizational unity we sought is just not going to
      happen!

      What if, in the meantime, God has been building his church, just like he
      intended, without agreement on the essentials, but with the variation, the
      color, the quirks, the oddities, the differences, the strengths, the
      weakenesses, the fruits and the flowers?

      I'd be interested in your thoughts!

      Rogier
      www.thejourney.nl

      ss:

      Thanks for this!

      Rogier, I would say that balance is the watchword here. The NT docs do seem
      to clearly differentiate those who are in the kingdom and those who are not.
      And surely there is some essential set of facts that **derive** from a real
      relationship with God. (I phrase this carefully. A modernized
      evangelicalism would posit the facts themselves as the foundational thing).
      So we would do well to avoid the Scylla of requiring complete agreement on
      every point of theology and the Charybdis of saying "Hey, it doesn't matter
      what you believe." Surely there are some non-negotiables about which we
      would be held accountable if we did not make earnest effort to share these
      with others.

      That being said, I tend to be an agnostic inclusivist. I simply don't know
      what God's gonna do with the possible category of folks that are genuinely
      seeking God but haven't yet been exposed to these nonnegotiables. All I
      know for certain is that belief in the Lord Jesus Christ (and I use "belief"
      in both its propositional *and* transpropositional senses) brings one into
      the kingdom. So this I proclaim and leave that which I don't know to God.

      Thanks!

      Stephen Shields
      sshields@...
      http://www.faithmaps.org
      http://faithmaps.blogspot.com
      "navigating theology, leadership, and spiritual formation in postmodernity"

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    • Stephen Shields
      David Eland commented: It s funny that you would describe the words of a 4th century pastor as modernist, how far back does modernism go? (I m not well
      Message 2 of 17 , Jun 1, 2003
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        David Eland commented:


        It's funny that you would describe the words of a 4th century pastor as
        "modernist," how far back does modernism go? (I'm not well versed in
        the definitions of modern vs. post-modern.) Wasn't it Greek
        philosophers who said everything has a true essence? And that it should
        be possible to strip away the outward appearances and find the true
        essence. I think one example I heard was that there are many kinds of
        chairs but each one contains the true essence of "chairness" and without
        that, it would not be a chair.

        Was Augustine saying that there can be great varieties of Christian
        communities of faith but all are united by some essentials. I'm also
        pretty ignorant of Augustine--did he describe these essentials?

        ss:

        I think this is a good point, David. It does seem sometimes that those
        writing in the pomoChristian thoughtspace equate a modernized approach to
        propositional truth with all categories of truth (I'm not accusing Rogier of
        this, btw).

        thanks,

        Stephen Shields
        sshields@...
        http://www.faithmaps.org
        http://faithmaps.blogspot.com
        "navigating theology, leadership, and spiritual formation in postmodernity"

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      • Stephen Shields
        Rogier commented: I find it interesting that three people have responded with specific proposals for essentials - and all of them have been different. ss: Yes!
        Message 3 of 17 , Jun 1, 2003
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          Rogier commented:

          I find it interesting that three people have responded with specific
          proposals for essentials - and all of them have been different.

          ss:

          Yes! Larry Crabb recently said that repentance is idiosyncratic. We might
          suggest that the same thing is true of what traditionally has been called
          "saving faith". If we accept that there is some set of nonnegotiable
          truths, surely the exact way I explain them and hold them in my mind in
          paradigm will vary from others. And so our wise Lord is the one that
          determines the acceptable degree of correspondence between our paradigms and
          objective truth.

          'Course I realize I"ve opened another can of worms! But I suggest that a
          full appreciation of the subjective nature of truth doesn't vitiate its
          objective nature. The variable and highly differentiated subjective
          experience of truth can coexist with its objectivity. You might be bored by
          my comments and can't wait for me to shut up as the minutes creep by. Or
          you might find this moderately philosophical discursive highly stimulating.
          But the quartz in your watch still vibrates at a defined number of times per
          second irrespective of your subjective experience of time. So also God and
          His truth.

          fwiw,

          Stephen Shields
          sshields@...
          http://www.faithmaps.org
          http://faithmaps.blogspot.com
          "navigating theology, leadership, and spiritual formation in postmodernity"

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        • Stephen Shields
          Chris opined: I don t think we can get away from essentials anymore than a wheel can get away from a center. Maybe the dilemma is how we define essentials
          Message 4 of 17 , Jun 1, 2003
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            Chris opined:

            I don't think we can get away from essentials anymore than a wheel can
            get away from a center. Maybe the dilemma is how we define essentials
            rather than whether we have them or not. Or for a church to say we have
            no essentials? Is that an essential? Maybe like a wheel, it would be
            better for churches to speak about the center and those things that
            encircle it recognizing diversity here among churches but all or most for
            example have beliefs and practices that center around worship, teaching,
            communion, etc. Just like there is unity and plurality in the Trinity,
            maybe stressing both unity and plurality among churches would be healthy
            and stressing one against the other would be unhealthy?

            ss:

            I like it!

            Stephen Shields
            sshields@...
            http://www.faithmaps.org
            http://faithmaps.blogspot.com
            "navigating theology, leadership, and spiritual formation in postmodernity"


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          • Stephen Shields
            Dave differentiated with: Chris and Stephen, I wonder if we are using the word essentials in the same way. For example, ... Does that mean churches should
            Message 5 of 17 , Jun 1, 2003
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              Dave differentiated with:

              Chris and Stephen,

              I wonder if we are using the word "essentials" in the same way. For
              example,

              Chris said:
              >Just like there is unity and plurality
              >in the Trinity, maybe stressing both unity and
              >plurality among churches would be healthy
              >and stressing one against the other would be unhealthy?

              Does that mean churches should have unity in essential beliefs? Or are
              you saying they have unity in love, mutual respect, etc. but can have
              different even contradictory beliefs?

              Stephen said:
              >I suggest that one can make a good beginning
              >at the essentials by determining what beliefs
              >all of these different yet truly Christian
              >churches held in common

              I wouldn't think that sharing common beliefs means those must be
              essential. However I would expect essential beliefs to be shared by all
              Christians.

              I am using "essential" in the sense of what is "required and absolutely
              necessary." To remove something essential means that the first thing no
              longer exists and it becomes something different. For example Christ is
              an essential part of the Trinity. Remove Christ and there is no
              Trinity. A god that is not triune is a different god from a trinitarian
              god. That does not necessarily mean that everyone must believe in the
              trinity. It just means that one belief is true and the other is false.
              God may or may not require that people believe that he is 3 persons in
              one being. He may graciously accept many people with incorrect beliefs
              about his nature. Certainly God cannot require that we have a perfect
              conception of him because finite beings cannot fully understand an
              infinite being.

              On the other hand, is it likely that God requires some minimal
              requirements for what we believe? Certainly Paul expressed this at the
              Areopagus in Athens. Acts 17:16 says, "While Paul was waiting for them
              in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of
              idols." If all conceptions of God are equally acceptable then why would
              Paul be distressed? Paul goes on to tell the story of Christ and his
              resurrection. Then he states in Acts 17:30, "In the past God overlooked
              such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For
              he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he
              has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from
              the dead."

              "He commands...he will judge...has given proof..." those are strong
              words. If we do not have minimal correct knowledge of God then is it
              possible we are really worshiping an idol rather than God? If there are
              essentials then it would be good to know them.

              ss:

              Thanks Dave, a helpful distinction.

              Stephen Shields
              sshields@...
              http://www.faithmaps.org
              http://faithmaps.blogspot.com
              "navigating theology, leadership, and spiritual formation in
              postmodernity"

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