Being Theologically Conservative
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
April 2, 2009
Enough friends have asked me how I can be pro-GLBT, pro-choice, and a socialist and still consider myself theologically "conservative" that I decided to answer in more detail here.
The first point that I should probably clear up is that being theologically conservative is not the same thing as being socially conservative. Despite what Focus on the Family and other fringe groups on the axis of intolerance want you to think, Christian views on social issues have changed from generation to generation - and they've changed dramatically from era to era. If Christianity is defined by a particular social agenda, then there have been almost no Christians since the third century.
Likewise, trying to use some form of convoluted logic to make the words of the Christian scriptures "inerrant" is not being a theological conservative. Clearly the people who wrote, compiled, and edited the Jewish and Christian scriptures didn't think they were creating an inerrant collection of documents. They would have made them more homogeneous if they had. People who talk about biblical "inerrancy" are really just using a code word for their desire to subordinate Scripture to their social agenda; and they typically do so with people who don't have the scholarly background to appreciate how ludicrous their claims really are (or to realize that the "inerrantists" aren't conserving anything, they're creating a new doctrine).
The reason that I began with the negatives, defining what "theologically conservative" is not, is that - for me - paring Christian identity down to the essentials was part of the process of defining my own role as a pastor. Through ordination, the Church entrusts to its clergy the custodianship of the Chruch's identity; and so understanding what is "Christian" and what is not is part of a pastor's role. Consequently, when I was ordained I realized it was important to try have a working definition of the word "Christian" if I was going to be able to do my job well.
If one takes this exercise seriously, it's harder than it seems. On one side, there are the shrill voices of the fundamentalists. In order to place their counter-cultural assertions beyond critique, fundamentalists insist that even the most minute component of their doctrine, no matter how scant the biblical or historical support for it might be, is an essential part of being "Christian."
On the other side are the real liberals. They claim the label Christian, while ignoring, denying, or contradicting nearly everything that Christians have historically believed - be it the deity of Christ or even the authority of God.
Both extremes have kept the label "Christian" because they have positive associations with it or because it gives greater credibility to their belief systems; but in neither case is the label helpful. "Being a 'Christian' means understanding the world exactly the way I do, even if I don't realize that the way I understand the world is very different from how Christians have historically understood it!" is not a useful definition. Nor is, "Being a 'Christian' can really mean anything as long as you include the word 'Jesus' in there somewhere."
But with so many groups offering so many different, and contradictory, understandings of what it means to be a Christian, where can one turn? For me, the logical answer was (and is): Scripture and History.
Scripture alone is not completely helpful in this regard. Even if one limits such a search to the New Testament, the authors there wrote from very different perspectives and with different, sometimes competing, agendas. One of the reasons for the great variation in modern definitions of Christianity is that, lacking an external locus of authority, people have picked and chosen what they liked from Scripture to define Christianity.
An example here is the debate over predestination versus free will. There are biblical passages that support both positions, but adherents to each camp will insist that their position is the correct, Christian view. They do this by privileging the texts which support their view, and subordinating the texts which disagree with them. As a result, they claim that they are simply "taking the Bible at face value" and "letting Scripture alone define their beliefs." What they are really doing, however, is imposing their beliefs on Scripture.
A couple of useful things come out of this realization. The first is that lots of things that might be helpful to have in a consensus definition of Christianity (like, for instance, settling the question of predestination) can't be included. That's because the biblical record is too mixed. This is even true on really major questions like the mechanism of justification/salvation, and on key social issues like slavery. If one approaches Scripture honestly, allowing its authors to speak with their individual voices, it becomes clear that the basic definition of Christianity, its essential heart, must allow for a diversity of views on many theological points.
Also, the value of history becomes clear. "Christian" isn't just defined by Scripture. It is defined by the people who died for the gospel in the first few centuries of the Church's development. It is defined by the people who, 350 years after the time of Christ, selected, compiled, and edited the Scriptures that would become the Bible. It is defined, in short, by the historical identity of the Church.
In addition to the necessity of history in establishing some consensus on interpreting Scripture, a study of Christian history is essential since that is the history of the Bible. Scripture was not created ex nihilo. The same process of prayer, study, debate, and encounter with the world which produced the creeds and early doctrines of the Church is the process which produced the Christian Scriptures. The Bible did not come to be in a vacuum, and trying to interpret it outside the context which produced it is nonsensical.
And so, in my personal journey to find a working, consensus definition of Christianity, I turned to Scripture and history. Fortunately, at that point my work was really done. Christians had already worked out two beautiful, consensus statements of what it means to identify oneself as Christians: the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed. Interestingly, neither statement makes any mention of social issues or addresses the kinds of minutiae that Christians use for division and dispute these days. There was already enough history of dispute over those kinds of things that the Church knew that any statement of faith which was based on them would exclude more Christians than would include them.
Instead, the creeds focus on the heart of Christianity: a specific understanding of metaphyscial reality. This includes the preeminence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reality of the Holy Spirit, the brokenness of humanity, the need for restoration to the divine reality of God, the importance of community, and the defeat of death through the suffering, execution, and physical resurrection of Jesus, God Incarnate.
It is not in its practical morality that Christianity defines itself. Lots of groups produce moral views that are nearly identical to those held by most Christians. Nor is it in its explanation of the inexplicable that Christianity defines itself. The creeds are noticeably lacking in the kind of theological specificity that modern logic craves. The holy is, by definition, "other" and undefinable.
The uniqueness of Christianity is found in its metaphysical claims, its assertions about the nature of the human condition and the reality of a holy Creator seeking a relationship with us. It is for that reality - made explicit in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - that the martyrs gave their lives. It is that reality that Paul proclaimed on Mars Hill. It is that reality which, no matter how it is encumbered by our own agendas and weaknesses, changes lives to this day. To deny any part of those metaphysical claims is to create new set of metaphysical beliefs, essentially a new religion. If someone wishes to do so, far be it from me to stop them. Nevertheless, a new religion needs a new name. It is not "Christianity."
To finally answer Colin's question, I define myself as "theologically conservative" because I define the gospel - the good news of Christianity - in a way that is consistent with how Christians have historically defined it. No matter how trendy or convenient, I will not take away anything from the heart of that confession. There is a God, incarnate in Jesus, who died of necessity to restore relationship with a broken humanity, and in his resurrection is victory over death.
Nor will I add to that definition, as fundamentalists do with (ironically) their own kind of liberalism - assuming somehow that their specific, modern understanding of morality and social issues is the unique and most accurate understanding of Christianity. In so doing, they ignore both the consensus of history and the diversity of Scripture, treating both dishonestly or, at best, disingenuously.
I am theologically conservative because I believe that, to be a "Christian" means to neither add to nor subtract from the common beliefs of those who died to give the word its meaning.