This one might not be of general interest, I’m warning you now.
Yesterday Michael Goheen was in town, speaking at a Surge Network event for a bunch of Phoenix church planters and at least one blogger whose presence was akin to a fly on the wall. Goheen’s talk was both autobiographical and theological — I guess you could say it was the autobiography of his journey through different Christian traditions in five stages. In showing the reasons why he has moved from tradition to tradition, including the pitfalls he discovered along the way, he spoke charitably about the traditions he has left behind, which I really appreciated.
In my own theological journey, lately I’ve been reading some stuff by Abraham Kuyper and folks with a Kuyperian take on things (for example, this, this and this), and I’ve found it deeply encouraging and instructive. So yesterday’s talk with Goheen was just what I needed: he too has been shaped by a Kuyperian framework, though he has also recognized what he perceives to be some of its weak spots. It’s some good food for thought. So, as I’ve done once or twice before, I offer you a blog post consisting of lecture notes, most unvarnished. This is Goheen’s journey — not mine — though it’s a journey I’m grateful to learn from, and I hope it’s helpful for you too.
1. Born again into Pietism, which consisted believing and confessing the right things and being born into the church; not much concern for a warm, deep relationship with Christ or the ethics that follow. It was largely cold, cerebral orthodoxy. It was very individualistic and very other-worldly, without appreciation of the resurrection of the body or the new heavens and new earth. The mentality was getting people onto a lifeboat and off the sinking ship of Creation.
2. Became interested in Calvinism as a theological system after stumbling upon the Westminster Catechism, and went to study reformed theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. There, he found two traditions at work: Scottish and Dutch. While he deeply appreciated the Westminster Catechism, and continues to value it contextually, he found it to be a dated document that was still very individualistic, whereas Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and other Dutch theologians were onto the bigger picture.
3. In the Kuyperian/Reformational stage, he was seeing that the Bible is one big story, which stood in contrast to Pietism’s individualism and other-worldliness, which he found refreshing. It seemed to him that systematic theologians had taken the story and turned it into a system; basically saying the Bible got its form wrong, and they were finally getting it right. His belief was reinforced that the gospel wasn’t just about Jesus saving individual souls, but about the gospel of the kingdom. Its cosmic scope challenges our individualism and other-worldliness, and the concept of covenant helped him see the importance of community. As a pastor at this point, he wanted those in his church to believe the right ideas; they in turn started asking what it meant for every area of life: what does the gospel of the Kingdom have to say about literature, business, education, and all kinds of social, economic and political issues? He wasn’t sure, but together they started trying to find out.
4. The next stage was rediscovering Kuyperianism not as a theological system but as a worldview. Kuyper saw the Enlightenment/modernism as a pagan force that shrunk Christianity down to individualism, which he saw as a direct threat to the gospel and the church. Further, he saw modernism as a religious worldview, and a dangerous one; it wasn’t spiritually or morally neutral as many claimed. Christ is Creator, Reconciler and Lord of all, and as such he is concerned about individuals but also cultures. Therefore we need a rigorous all-of-life worldview recognizing the Lordship of Christ. In this stage, Goheen began to understand the importance of creation and its goodness, and how that understanding shapes our worldview, and in turn, all spheres of life.
5. The fifth stage began when he was introduced to the work of missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, who was deeply rooted in both scripture and tradition, and what he said was relevant to all of life. Newbigin showed him that mission is central to the whole biblical story. He began to see that mission is as wide as creation. Newbigin was radically Christocentric and saw the relevance of Christ to every area of life. Kuyper started with creation and moved toward Christ; Newbigin started with Christ and moved to creation. Realized that if he’s going to understand the biblical story, he needs to start with Christ. Mission was not for a chosen few in the church; rather, it’s for laypeople in the context of “secular” workplaces. Newbigin, however, didn’t have a full doctrinal appreciation for creation, so it excited Goheen to do synthesis with these two mutually enriching traditions. Kuyper spoke of transformation a lot, but not of suffering (we can learn from Pietism on this point); he learned about that from Newbigin as well. He also gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of spirituality, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, good preaching, fellowship and meditation on Scripture. Without that deep rootedness, you’ll give up or you’ll get arrogant, using any methods necessary to reach your goals. Finally, he learned from Newbigin the indispensability of the local congregation; in emphasizing the importance of all spheres of society in God’s plan, Kuyper had minimized (intentionally or not) the uniqueness of the local church. This fifth stage, and the present one, is what he calls missional Kuyperianism.
Some various scribbles from the Q & A time…
- Christ is central to mission, and the church is indispensable
- Worldview studies is helpful in preparing us for mission
- “Story” is more than biblical theology; it’s the true story of the whole world
- Worldview is a servant to help us open up that story and equip us to be faithful in all of life
- Mission is as wide as life: we witness to the good news that Christ transforms marriages, politics, etc. – every area of life
- Is there a preference given to personal evangelism? We do need to speak, but our lives and our actions need to back it up. Nietzsche said something like this: “If I’m to believe in their Redeemer, they’re going to have to look a whole lot more redeemed.”
- Asked who else is along similar “missional Kuyperian” lines, he said there are pockets here and there, but Richard Mouw and Tim Keller are two prominent ones, though neither necessarily use that term.
- The already/not yet tension keeps us from being triumphalistic and also keeps us from defeatism or escapism.
- Overwhelmingly, critiques from Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America are that the Western church is too rationalistic, individualistic and dualistic. We’d do well to listen to them humbly.
Is there any congruence between Goheen’s journey and yours? Do any of his conclusions along the way strike you as particularly insightful — or worrisome, for that matter?