Good theology, Bad theology

Within the first 18 months of arriving at the church I previously served, 12 different people decided to leave. When the average attendance of a congregation is around 100, 12 people is a lot of people. Some of them quickly slipped out the door while others drug out the process of their departure, but every single person made it clear that the major (if not only) reason they were leaving was because I believed “that everyone was going to go to heaven.”*

To a person, they could not get it through their heads why I would preach about God’s grace the way I did – a way that (to their minds) absolved individuals of making a decision to be and behave in a way that was different from how they had previously lived. As one gentleman told me, “Let’s face facts – God loves us all, but some people are sinners and are going to Hell.”

Obviously, that man wasn’t jiving with my theology. Well, that’s an understatement. That man thought I had my theology all wrong. I know as much. He told me. 🙂

From where I sit, I believe that it is of utmost importance to take into account the ways in which a particular theology calls us to live. Some theological expressions are more tightly constructed than others. Some make use of narrative as their primary thread, while others make use of propositional statements. But no matter what they look like, there is good theology and there is bad theology. The difference between them is their ethics. In other words, you can tell whether your theology is Christlike or not by how well it equips you to love your neighbor.

This whole “Love your neighbor” thing constantly trips me up. Every Maundy Thursday I am made aware – again – that the New Commandment is to “love one another as I have loved you.” Of course, my mind naturally goes to Jesus setting the benchmark that “they will know you are my disciples because of how you love one another.” And, then, there is that pesky “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Deconstructive critiques aside, the text is pretty clear that, in the end, we are to love our neighbor.

And so this, for me, is where I think we can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel that is “The Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist.” If I am going to claim that my understanding of the work of God in Christ is better than a fundamentalist’s, this is how I am going to know if my claim holds weight or not. Which of us holds a theological viewpoint that allows us to better love our neighbors?

Actually, that’s a silly question. I’m sure Fred Phelps loves his family just as much as I love mine. It would be ridiculous for me to assume otherwise.

No, I think the real question is not one of “how” but of “who.” It’s not a matter of knowing how to love, it’s a matter of knowing who to love. I think the real question is the one posed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?”


*I actually don’t believe all people “are going to Heaven.” As these folks used it, “Heaven” is a decidedly Judeo-Christian belief, which other religious traditions do not subscribe to. To be clear, I do not consider myself a Univeralist (the belief that Jesus Christ’s work is effective for all people, everywhere regardless of their decision or opportunity to enter a relationship through him), but, rather a Pluralist (the belief that God calls people into relationship through various religious traditions). However, when someone is on their way out the door, that distinction seems a little silly to insist on, right?

22 thoughts on “Good theology, Bad theology

  1. Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the Layman printing presses running a new story. 🙂

    I admire your forthrightness with your congregation. Heaven, Hell, universalism and pluralism make up the third rail of theology that most ministers aren’t willing to touch (including me in my current congregation). But I think these matters constitute some of non-Christians biggest disconnects with our faith.

  2. Landon,
    I appreciate your writing, as I have said before, and I was jiving with you until that last paragraph. Your whole blog leading up to that is exactly what Scripture describes – a theology of grace and shepherding. The man who shared his thoughts with you is so much like the presbyterous brother in the parable of the lost son, that it is not funny. I shared this week with my congregation that if we look around our pews and we don’t see many younger brother types, then that means they are more full of older brothers than we want to admit. We want a grace based theology, and many in our denomination want a moralistic based theology – which is an outcome of Christendom.

    The problem, I see, arises with your last distinction – universalist v. pluralist. And the problem is that neither are reformed. I don’t knock you for having that view. Many of my good friends have that view. But they are not Presbyterian. And that has been my biggest struggle with many progressives in our denomination – they like the home called Presbyterianism because it frees them to “think what they would like” and celebrate the diversity in that. But they do not want to subscribe to what the home has been about since its inception. In essence, we want the freedom of the denominations recent slant, without the doctrine it has historically clung to. And we all know that doctrine unlocks scripture.

    I will go back to a previous blog you wrote where you said you take scripture seriously. There is a big difference between taking something seriously and submitting your life to it. If you hold to the Presbyterian Doctrine that Scripture is the “only rule of faith and practice in the life of the believer” that means all of scripture, not just the love your neighbor part. It means all scripture is equally inspired. It means that God calls the elect (though many confuse this with the Presbyterian Denomination), and that elect comes through Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. It means that even when Paul is offering confusing, seemingly unacceptable teaching for the church, you submit yourself to it anyway, trusting that the God will use your obedience to grow God’s kingdom, and in that, your faith as well. It means that we don’t look at others and say, “they are a good person” because God’s Word does not call us to be a good person. It calls us to a life of obedience as a Gospel Transformed person.

    I am so far from being a “Fundamentalist” as you call people, that it is ridiculous. But, I am a Evangelical Christian (Which I think is a redundant statement) who holds to the doctrines of the Presbyterian Delivery System, and in that finds freedom to preach grace that is only found in Jesus Christ, through his atoning work on the cross for my and your sin, and through his resurrection so that I and you might have abundant life. It has never been about religion for me – only Jesus. And from one Presbyterian teaching elder to another, our doctrine does not allow us to have Jesus+

    • Robert,

      From one Presbyterian teaching elder to another it is precisely Reformed theology with its emphasis on the sovereignty of God, God’s election of Jesus Christ, and the importance of scripture that Christian universalism makes most sense. The idea that Landon, or I, who read scripture as faithfully and with as much attention to history and theology as any other teaching elder would somehow fail to submit ourselves to what the Holy Spirit illumines for us in God’s word is just another form of the same old “I’m holier and more Christian than thou” meme.

      You’re right though, from my perspective: we can’t have Jesus+, which is precisely why the revenge fantasy of “Hell” is so unChristian. Jesus will be all in all. Every knee will bow. None of those knees will be tortured eternally by the God revealed in Jesus Christ who is light and there is no darkness in him at all.

      • Aric,

        I am intrigued by the question your comments raise for me: Is Universalism a Christian idea?

        I am inclined to say “No,” but for different reasons than, say, Robert has expressed he would.

      • Aric,
        Thank you for the response. But as I mentioned in my comments to Landon, there is a big difference between the seriousness of Scripture and submitting your life to it. To say that the “fantasy of ‘Hell’ is so unChristian” points to exactly what I am talking about. Presbyterian doctrine unlocks how we view scripture. You are pointing out some of those doctrines and we agree on those – sovereignty of God, God’s election (though in the way you are using it in your explanation, it seems like you mean the doctrine of providence, and not election as seen through the reformed understandings of predestination (whether Calvin, or 17th century Calvin followers called reformed orthodoxy, or Barth, as all are a bit different in presentation) – but in doing so, you are leaving out, dismissing or substituting others which contrast your views, like the authority of Scripture (which is also an ordination vow – and does not mean importance of scripture), Limited atonement, Sin, depravity, and the historical doctrine of salvation by grace. By leaving those out, it allows one to classify something which Jesus discussed a great amount, as a “fantasy.” As I mentioned above, this is my biggest struggle with progressives and I will now add conservatives, that we pick and choose which doctrines afford us the right to believe what we want, without having to be held accountable on the others.

        The problem in our denomination is not a sexuality one. It is a much bigger issue that no one wants to discuss. The two extremes of the church are using similar terms, but defining them extremely differently, thus providing the chasm that does not allow us to truly celebrate the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ. That is why Progressives and Conservatives can’t sit down any longer and find common ground, and why one side calls themselves right, and the others wrong. I wish there was solid ground for discussion, as I love this denomination, and would love to see it not deteriorate more slowly, or rapidly depending on where you are looking from.

      • Robert,

        I submit my life to scripture, to say otherwise is to impugn my integrity though you are very polite and don’t seem to think what you are saying is offensive. The very nature of scripture (and doctrine) is that it affords multiple interpretations and faithful obedience may look different from one person to the next. I’m happy to debate interpretation, but not willing to accept a discussion where one side holds that they are the obedient ones and the other is disobedient/heterodox.

        Jesus never mentioned Hell once. He mentioned Gehenna quite a few times which was the city dump outside Jerusalem and used it in a variety of powerful metaphorical illustrations about the kind of suffering that a life lived against the kingdom would result in, but never did he detail a doctrine of eternal (in duration) torture in a metaphysical realm after death.

        Being Presbyterian doesn’t mean pretending that Christianity started with Calvin or falling into lock-step with the Synod of Dort (which itself gravely misinterpreted some of Calvin’s thought). There are doctrines which we share as a treasured heritage, but among them is Freedom of Conscience. The rest are not intended as straight-jackets, but as rafts to get us across the lake. Once you get to the other side you leave the raft behind and walk on shore.

        As an example Double Predestination conflicts with a belief in God’s benevolence and God’s sovereignty, makes the atonement unnecessary and is nonsensical once you realize how little support for Hell is found in scripture. I understand God’s election as Barth did – God eternally elects Jesus Christ. God does not choose you or me or any group of people. God’s love is ever directed at the beloved and we find ourselves in Christ by virtue of the unLimited Atonement of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Dort was flat wrong on that one. The overwhelming evidence of the New Testament is that God’s will is to reconcile all things.

        I agree that divisions in this denomination are deep and difficult to bridge because we use similar language to mean different things, but this is not a new development. When has the church NOT been arguing in precisely this way? What is disturbing is not that the disagreement exists nor that communication is a challenge – those things we can work on. What is disturbing is when one side tries to claim ownership of the language and to tell the other side that they heterodox, or that they are hypocrites because they don’t use the language to mean the same thing. The history itself reveals that these terms and ideas have always been disputed.

      • Robert,

        One last thing, and please allow me to be a tad “clerky” for a second.

        I think part of the issue at hand is that there are different interpretations of what it means to be within the bounds of the Reformed Tradition in terms of mental ascent, behavioral patterns, and theological expressions, but I (personally) have now had 3 different presbyteries affirm my good standing when I willingly submitted myself to them.

        I believe that I, Aric, and those who understand the Christian Faith in a similar way are submitting our lives to the Lordship of Christ under the guidance of Scripture and our Confessions (as required by the Book of Order). Would I be received into membership elsewhere? That is not mine to say, but I feel confident that the fruit my life has born has sufficiently demonstrated to my colleagues that I have been called and gifted for ordered ministry and have joyfully participated in all that that entails.

        So, while I am happy for you to express your interpretation (and I take your witness to heart), you and I are but two people, and neither you nor I alone do not get to judge another’s suitability.

    • Robert,

      While I, obviously, disagree with you on your point, I do want to note that you engage these topics with a fair amount of grace, and I am grateful for that.

  3. For the record, the Northridge Homeowner’s Association has not taken a stance on these theological matters – just the idiot HOA president who left a comment while logged in as the HOA. 🙂

  4. These are hard questions for each of us that have been called to ministry to answer. As a United Methodist we preach grace freely given, (Open Source) yet there are troublesome scriptures that bring arguements to your thoughts. In the end I am just glad to say that the ultimate decision regarding admission to heaven is not mine to make and resides with the God I worship.

  5. What is the loving thing to do when congregations want to leave a denomination whose theology (and ethic) is in destructive tension with their own?

  6. Landon,

    3 thoughts.

    #1 – It is the “who” not the “how” of love that matters- amen! We are saying something very similar in the last chapter of our book (Never Pray Again) where we argue that the quintessential form of Christian love is “enemy-love” because it takes the logic of “who” to its most expansive and gracious place.

    #2 – Heaven, despite being a common Christian belief is bad theology and bad interpretation of scripture. I’m not so worried about whether people of other religions go to heaven because I think the very idea of heaven is a waste of time. The Kingdom is coming here, to Earth. We’re to be about making this place ready for God’s reign of Shalom.

    #3 – I agree that it is offensive and simplistic to suggest that other religious traditions are full of “anonymous Christians”, but some forms of pluralism are very compatible with Christian Universalism (see Mark Heim) and I think it makes the most sense from within the Christian perspective to merge those two points (Universalism-Pluralism).

    • #1 – I can’t freaking wait for this book.

      #2 – Agreed. Totally agreed.

      #3 – Any particulars of Heim’s work you would suggest? Say more of how might we merge the two perspectives in a healthy way when you’ve got time, please.

      • The book by Heim I’m thinking of “Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, but he’s come out with another since on Trinitarian approaches to pluralism that also seems promising.

        Traditional Pluralism has followed Hick’s “one mountain many paths” approach. This is problematic because as you point out religions ask different questions and provide very different answers. Maybe we’re not all headed to the same mountain peak. Maybe “religion” isn’t even a very meaningful word to describe widely divergent systems of thought. Any position we could take which would claim to know the ends of all religions would be hopelessly hubristic anyway.

        Instead Heim suggests to really respect another religion we ought to assume that multiple paths lead to multiple ends. That the truth of a particular religion is peculiar to it and only makes sense within its own context. With this suggestion we are cast back into our own tradition as the only viable starting ground for dialogue, rather than some imaginary neutral territory.

        Once cast into our own tradition the question then becomes when stream of my tradition deals best with other traditions. In my opinion the universalist stream (which is very ancient and definitely native to Christianity to answer your question above) provide the most solid footing because it suggests that we should look for Christ outside the bounds of our faith. This does not mean a Buddhist is an anonymous Christian – they may indeed be up to something very different, but even so Christ may be working in and through them toward the good of all that God loves, even as they are engaged in a different project from us.

  7. I read your blog earlier today I had come back to it later and have just been stuck with something in my mind in other conversations I have had with teaching elders in the church about mission and outreach. In the last paragraph you describe yourself as a pluralist. I had not heard of that term before. I had thought you were either a person who holds to the notion of salvation through a particular faith or that all people will find entrance to the prized place. I have not come to a clear understanding yet of a pluralist, but I might as I ponder your work more.

    Where I have a hard time with pluralism or universalism from the Christian perspective is the sacrifice of Jesus. The historical profession of the church has been that Jesus is the one begotten son of God. In confessions, we declare that it is through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we have reconciliation to God. The problem I struggle with is if Jesus came to sacrifice himself for a new relationship with people and they are unwilling to accept the sacrifice offered on behalf of that person, why does that person receive the new life or get the prize? It would seem to me that if all ways a appropriate and we can have a relationship with God outside of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice made by Jesus was a suicide.

    What follows after this is that I begin to question what the importance might be for the Presbyterian or any other Christian body to proselytize people into the faith proclaimed. This might be where the difference between pluralism and universalism comes into play. There is not need for evangelism, mission projects, or other outreach events in the church.

    I hope this is understandable. I am wanting to present these thoughts in a way to encourage conversation and understanding. So, I wanted to chose words carefully and they do not seem to be flowing as the thoughts in my head are flowing.

    • Het, Matthew. Thanks for the comment. No worries about things not flowing. In blogworld, things don’t have to be perfect, in my opinion. These questions are big, deep and complex matters to be sure. Let me give you a shorthand of my thinking, but please don’t read them as a brushing off. It’s just such a big discussion.

      I can affirm just about everything you might want me to, up until the point where we might insist on “converting” others. If they are living the “Life Abundant” then why should we mess with them? Shouldn’t we, instead, assume that God has got them taken care of even though we might not understand how?

      One image from the scriptures that is pretty helpful to my mind is the idea that you know a tree by its fruit. If people are already bearing good fruit, then what is the need for evangelism? Your probing here is exactly where I’m heading with inquiries in my life right now. What is the nature and purpose of proclaiming the Good News?


      • Landon, thanks for the words back. I guess where I struggle in the conversation is not so much the fruit, as I agree we will know the tree by the fruit. I also agree that not all who call Jesus Lord will be acknowledged by Jesus later. My struggle has been and is in the statement in John 14:6-7 where Jesus tells the disciples “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know my Father also. From now on, you do know him. And you have seen him.”

        I am struggle with this as I discuss with other Teaching Elders where the passion for mission and being a missionary in the immediate community to grow the Kingdom of God.
        Thanks for the thoughts and the work I must put in.

      • The best I can do is point you to a book by a seminary prof of mine: The Wide Wide Circle of Divine Love by Eugune March. there is an entire chapter devoted to that. I’d try to explain it, but it’s worth it for you to read MArch’s words yourself.

  8. A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk into a bar… | landon whitsitt (dot) com

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