Monday, December 08, 2008

An Interview with Michael Wittmer

I recently interview Michael Wittmer, Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, on issues related to his excellent new book, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough.

Labels can sometimes hinder meaningful dialogue, but they can also be helpful in giving us ways of thinking abo
ut various groups. How do you classify liberals and conservatives and their interaction with postmodernism and modernism?

Everyone acknowledges that Christianity in the modern period was marked by the battles between liberals and conservatives. Liberals accommodated the gospel to the prevailing culture, denied the supernatural, and elevated social ethics over belief in the specific, historic doctrines of the faith. Conservatives responded by grounding their beliefs in Scripture, accepting at face value its miracle stories and assertion of Christ’s deity, and emphasizing the need for sinners to put their trust in the gospel in order to be saved.

Today, some people who are on the liberal side of the ledger are suggesting that the simple fact that they are postmodern enables them to transcend the modern labels of liberal and conservative. I disagree. While many of whom I call “postmodern innovators” (roughly Emergent) have not overtly denied the supernatural, they clearly accommodate the gospel to our postmodern culture and assert that we don’t need to believe in Jesus in order to be saved (they argue that following the way of Jesus, which cashes out as inclusively loving the other, is sufficient). Thus, I believe that most postmodern innovators are trending hard in a liberal direction, and some have apparently already crossed the line.

So how would you classify your own views and approach?

I would call myself a postmodern conservative. I am postmodern in that I believe that every worldview begins with specific presuppositions (Cornelius Van Til) or basic beliefs (Alvin Plantinga), is best understood as a distinct narrative (e.g., the biblical worldview is creation, fall, and redemption), and is unable to objectively prove itself to someone who refuses to be convinced. I am postmodern because I concede that everything we know is filtered through our unique perspective. And yet I am conservative because I believe that our finite and often flawed thinking is able to know the truth about God, ourselves, and the world.

I am also conservative because I believe that right doctrine matters as much as good behavior, and in fact the latter only truly proceeds from the former. I also believe that this right doctrine is the historic beliefs of the church found in Scripture, the Apostles and Nicene Creed, and most faithfully expounded in the Reformed branch of Protestant Christianity.

You write that “The history of theology is a story of pendulum swings. The church pursues one line of thought until it reaches an extreme, and then, like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, swiftly swings to the other side.” Can you give a few examples?

This pendulum swing shows up in nearly every chapter of Don’t Stop Believing. For instance, I received the distinct impression growing up in my conservative Baptist church that believing the right things was more important than doing the right things (ethics was important, but we knew that God would forgive any sin as long as we asked in Jesus’ name). Now some who grew up in a similar environment are reacting too far in the other direction, and openly declaring that how we live is the only thing that matters (you can be saved without believing in Jesus).

We emphasized our depravity so much that sometimes we obscured our image of God, and we sang that Jesus died “for such a worm as I.” Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and some are saying that everyone is so good that they are born without original sin.

We emphasized the next life sometimes at the expense of this one. As one best-selling book explains, this life is just a warm-up lap, batting practice, or dress rehearsal for the real thing. Now some are rightly reacting against this, but are going too far in saying that concern for the next life is an unhelpful distraction for living in this one.

We emphasized penal substitution at the exclusion of the other atonement theories (e.g., I don’t remember hearing much about “Christus Victor”). Now some are over-reacting and accepting every theory of the atonement except penal substitution.

We were so disgusted with the sin of homosexuality that we didn’t always do a good job of loving homosexuals. Now some are attempting to make up for lost time and so embrace homosexuals that they refuse to say that their practice is wrong.

We were pretty confident that we knew our Bibles and had the answers for life. We had objective, absolute, and universal truth that we could prove to anyone. Now some are reacting to our perceived smugness and insisting that the Bible isn’t clear and that no one can say for sure who God is or what he is like.

Do you notice a pattern here? Those who try to steer out of a conservative slide tend to over-correct. I attempt to show in Don’t Stop Believing that we do not need to choose between these extremes, but that Scripture teaches us to embrace both/and: beliefs and ethics, this life and the next, penal substitution and the other theories, our createdness and fallenness, confident answers and humble questions, etc.

You classify various beliefs for Christians into three categories: (1) what they must believe, (2) what they must not reject, and (3) what they should believe. Can you walk us through each of these categories?

These categories are my attempt to describe the relative importance of Christian beliefs, distinguishing between those beliefs essential for salvation and those essential for a healthy Christian worldview.

In the book of Acts, the bare minimum that a person must know and believe to be saved was that he was a sinner and that Jesus saved him from his sin. As Paul told the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:29-31; cf. 10:43). This is enough to counter the postmodern innovator argument that we can be saved without knowing and believing in Jesus.

But any thinking convert will inquire further about this Jesus. While he may not know much more at the point of conversion than Jesus is the Lord who has saved him, he will quickly learn about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, deity and humanity, and relation to the other two members of the Trinity. Anyone who rejects these core doctrines should fear for their soul.

According to the Athanasian Creed, whoever does not believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Jesus is damned. However, since it seems possible for a child to come to faith without knowing much about the Trinity or the hypostatic union (this is likely not the place where most parents begin), I take the Creed’s warning in a more benign way—that we do not need to know and believe in the Trinity and two natures of Christ to be saved, but that anyone who knowingly rejects them cannot be saved.

The final category is important doctrines which genuine Christians may unfortunately misconstrue. I think that every Christian should believe that Scripture is God’s Word, know its story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, and know something about the nature of God, what it means to be human, and what Jesus is doing through his church. However, many people have been genuine Christians without knowing or believing these things (though their ignorance or disbelief in these facts significantly diminished their Christian faith).

Thus, I believe that every doctrine in this diagram is crucially important for sound Christian faith. And some are so important that we cannot even be saved without them.

I’ve heard some say that Doug Pagitt is a panentheist who denies original sin and has no soteriology. Fair or unfair?

Doug isn’t always clear about his beliefs, but this seems to be a fair description.

1. Panentheism: I have heard Doug say that we need to reconsider every Christian belief, including the Creator-creature distinction. At this year’s ETS conference, R. Scott Smith of Biola read a paper in which he persuasively demonstrated that Pagitt is headed in a panentheistic direction. Smith cites Pagitt’s essay in Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, in which Pagitt says that he is reconsidering “the idea that there is a necessary distinction of matter from spirit, or creation from creator” (142). This is extremely troubling.

2. Original sin: Pagitt devotes 50 pages in A Christianity Worth Believing (120-70) to debunking the Westminster Standards and their belief in original sin. He says that original sin means that people “suck,” and anyone who sees a newborn knows intuitively that people “don’t suck.”

3. While I haven’t heard Pagitt expound a soteriology, his view on original sin would likely call for some type of liberal redemption—where we save the world by changing social, economic, and political structures. I would guess that his view is similar to Brian McLaren’s and Spencer Burke’s, who believe that everyone is born into the family of God and they remain there unless they intentionally opt out.

In summary, why do you believe that Christians today should be postmodern conservatives rather than postmodern innovators?

Because the future of the Christian faith is at stake. J. Gresham Machen refused to judge whether the liberals of his day were genuine Christians or not, but he knew for sure that they were teaching a religion that was different from authentic Christianity. So today, I believe that some postmodern innovators may be genuine Christians, but what they are teaching is definitely not the gospel.

I don’t worry much for Brian McLaren, for he grew up Plymouth Brethren and states that he believes in the Nicene Creed. I worry for his followers who didn’t have his privileged upbringing. If the only Christianity they know is what they hear from him, then they will think that the gospel is that good people who ask good questions and do good things go to heaven.

The tragedy is that the postmodern innovators’ entire program is so unnecessary. Everything they want only comes from the orthodox Christian faith. Belief in sound doctrine supplies the ground and motivation for social ethics; assurance for the next life supplies the resources to care for this one; a solid biblical worldview provides the ability to care for each other and the environment, etc.

I believe that their cavalier dismissal of 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy will undercut the foundation for their social program, and they will ultimately be left with nothing. This is what motivated me to write Don’t Stop Believing. I intend it to be an evangelistic tool—to reach out to the many confused young people in this postmodern generation and tell them that we hear and share their concerns, and that if they really want to make headway then they should move with rather than against the specific, historic doctrines of the Christian faith.