Preaching Holiness

Recently I had opportunity to attend a mini conference on “Preaching Holiness.” This is worthwhile conversation that reminds us we are not God and that God should always be the wow factor in the church.

This was an enjoyable conference for me not only because of the theme, but this gathering is full of friends and mentors and others I have served with for a long time. This is my family. I was raised among this crowd and this message. These are my people. Still, I cannot help but notice that we have some tendencies that are puzzling at times and perhaps disturbing at others.

Here is one small voice from the crowd who wants us to be able to articulate biblical holiness more articulately, effectively, and faithfully.

1 – I understand our desire to illustrate holiness with personal stories that serve as evidence for the work of God in our lives. I fear they sometimes make us sound as if we have mastered holiness or at least make us sound holier than most. Perhaps this draws some to our message but I admit to having doubts.

2 – It is easy to fall into a trap of thinking the best way to preach holiness is to emphasize what it is not. For example, it is not Calvinism. This tends to send messages of some sort of class system in the kingdom as if we are superior to others. I propose we would serve ourselves better to talk about what holiness is.

3 – We have a tendency to act as if preaching love and grace results in listeners thinking it is ok to stay the way they are. If we take the gospel seriously we know these are the very things that spur one to change. Perhaps we think prevenient grace is preferable or superior to other stages of grace.

4 – We love to reference John Wesley in our conversation about preaching holiness and rightly so, no one has been more influential in our branch of the family tree. But I cannot help but wonder what he would think if he felt we were branding our heritage as greater than others in the Body of Christ. Or if we began reading the bible to find evidence for his way of thinking. It was Dennis Kinlaw who said “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God.”

5 – It is easy to make holiness sound as if it is an individual pursuit. Sometimes we make it sound as if it is lived best in our secret places. While no one would deny the importance of holiness in secret, should not our emphasis be on the influence holiness has in relationship with others? It was Wesley who said “Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy adulterers.”

Yet, I cannot help but notice how we emphasize sin as an individual matter. We even might refer to a sinful individual as a loser. What we tend to not talk about is the way sin hinders the body. The health of the body and the witness of the body are both hindered due to sin. Sin has corporate effects. I propose we would do well to discuss how church and world are cheated by sin. This is, as Wesley might emphasize, a relational religion.

We tend to do the same thing with ethics. Ethics is fitting to emphasize while in conversation about holiness. Still we tend to emphasize individual ethics. This is odd when we are reading texts that are written to congregations. Perhaps we would do well to emphasize how ethics support or hinder the body. Emphasize how Christian ethics influence the world. This becomes important when we speak of a gospel that knows of “no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

While talking about ethics it is worth mentioning that to say slanderous things about politicians or pop stars while discussing holiness may be somewhat contradictory. Even these people belong to a world that “God so loved.” We know the holy work of a holy God is evident by the way we talk about others.

I spent most of our time together waiting for someone to talk about how holiness occurs in relationship. While God can perform His work in whatever way God desires, it is evident He has chosen the church to nurture and disciple one another. Perhaps some will resist this thought, but the New Testament appears to support the idea that holiness is a group project. We need one another. Perhaps that is the primary reason I am so grateful for the people I gathered with at this conference.

6 – Preaching about holiness can easily fall into the trap of simply repeating terms from a systematic theology text. This occurs despite our repeated emphasis that Wesley did not write a systematic theology. Yet we continue to preach a systematic theology. Perhaps this is most puzzling for me. We know a systematic theology, no matter how honest or helpful it may be, is always less. Always. This is not only wise counsel for sisters and brothers who adhere to a systematic theology different than our own, this is wise counsel for us also.

Much of what occurs in a setting like this is preaching to the choir. From one grateful to be part of the choir, I am glad for some diversity of thought. Though I may have questions about some things, I am glad to be part of this body. I was raised by this bunch and raised on this message. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Caught Up in Reckless Adventure

Systematic theology can be a helpful enterprise. A good one can help us frame biblical thought in ways to articulate what we believe with some clarity. Nevertheless it is good to ask if we tend to over emphasize our systematic theology of choice.

It is true the biblical text can feel like a reckless adventure. This is one reason we might feel the need for a systematic theology. Systematic theology makes things more predictable and helps us think we can know what happens next. On the other hand, reading the bible may have us feeling uneasy about what just happened or leave us with questions about why God acted that way. The biblical text brings surprise and leaves us with mystery.

We might feel uneasy about finding such a surprising unpredictable God. Yet this God is such a large part of the story that to tame Him with religious terms or to pretend we have Him figured out is to create an entirely different story. Still we formulate theories to explain biblical themes. While this can be full of good intention, it can come with a dangerous level of certainty. Systematic theology may bring assurance to some of us, but it does not always reflect what life looks like.

I fear our systematic theologies allow for a hermeneutic of dismissal. That is, permission to look past texts that do not support our systematic theory of choice. To gloss over any text or to force it down a particular path will only give us slivers of what the bible is actually trying to tell us. In the name of certainty and assurance we settle for slivers of God and slivers of grace and slivers of other things that matter.

Systematic theology comes with a temptation to be overly cognitive. If we can make it a thinking exercise then perhaps we will not have to behave differently. We sometimes give ourselves permission to make a verbal stand about something without demonstrating the behavior that reflects what we stand for. We can then preach holiness without being holy. We can then preach peace without being particularly interested in it. We can then preach grace as if it is something others should practice. We can then convince ourselves that to believe something and to say it out loud is more important than to change our behavior.

The bible was never intended to be a collection of proof texts to be pulled out on demand to make a case for our theories. The bible is the story of God’s mission in the world. All the text calls for is that the church will take it seriously. To become caught up in the reckless adventure that is the bible.

Theology with Rough Edges

Systematic theology is intended as a helpful exercise. It helps us make sense of complicated ideas. It helps us to articulate some of the thinking that has taken place over the centuries. Yet, no matter how well we categorize our thoughts, it remains that God revealed his news to us through the complicated stories of saints and sinners. Since we are removed by time from these events, it is sometimes tempting to remove the news from the original contexts in an effort to understand it more accurately.

This can result in a topics approach to theology that can be helpful yet is still artificial. We can state with some confidence that the bible does not take a topics approach. It is a collection of experiences that tell how salvation entered history and the different ways it looked at different periods of the history. On account of that, the bible cannot be interpreted faithfully in a vacuum. It is not intended to be read in laboratory conditions. The fact remains we will be most faithful when our theology continues to have some rough edges.

Karl Barth and Exegesis

As the Nazi’s purged the German universities of those who did not think like them, Karl Barth exhorted the students and preachers he left behind with some version of the following quote. (This one is found in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period by Richard E. Burnett).

Dear friends, who have listened to me, the main thing you have heard from me is dogmatics. Dogmatics is a high and steep art. I do not want to deny that, humanly as well, I strive after it with a certain love and desire. And I dare say that I have noticed that many of you have been excited about this subject matter as well. If this now for the moment has come to an end, accept this as a signal for you to temporarily begin anew your studies at a different place. Take now my last piece of advice: Exegesis, Exegesis, and once more, Exegesis! If I have become a dogmatician, it is because I long before have endeavored to carry on exegesis. Let the systematic art, which can also make one mad, rest a little and hold on to the Word, to the Scriptures, which is given to us and become perhaps less systematic and more biblical theologians. For then the systematic and dogmatic tasks will certainly be taken care of as well. That is what I wanted to say to you and in this way I wish to be you farewell.

Amen.