I believe in arguing about words. The quest for understanding and the discovery of meaning—dialogical endeavors from beginning to end—require a certain verbal contentiousness. The truth is logos and not just any logos. With these stakes, semantic naïveté will not do. The struggle to say what we mean is too important.
But I would say that. My religious forebears cried, “Bible words for Bible things!” Such wordiness is in my theological DNA. Then again, those ancestors would likely see me as a mutant (or maybe just a degenerate). I let fall the banner of biblicism and took up the cause of theology: to speak of things taught by the Spirit, “interpreting Spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor 2:13); to speak, in Christ, “as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence” (2 Cor 2:17); “speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15); “as one speaking the very words of God” (1 Pet 4:11). Yes, these are themselves Bible words for a Bible thing. Yes, Bible words are indispensable. But these words speak of a thing that exceeds the bounds of Bible words alone: the truth—all truth, to which the Spirit guides us (John 16:13) in every language, context, and situation.
The Bible interprets the world but does not speak every word of interpretation for us. So the sufficiency of Scripture is a hermeneutical doctrine. The work of theology is to interpret all things in relation to God, the logos (John 1:1), who is over all, through all, and in all (Eph 4:6), who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17). Bible words are sufficient for guiding this interpretation, by the Spirit, in Christ, for the glory of God; Bible words are insufficient for articulating this interpretation faithfully, wisely, and contextually.
Interpreting all things in relation to God, therefore, requires something more than arguing about Bible words, important as those arguments might sometimes be. We need not only Bible words for Bible things but, more fundamentally, words for things—things the Bible does not speak of and cannot be forced to say (such as what it means to “follow” Jesus here and now!). We must argue about the words for those things because their meaning is not indisputable, and our disputes about meaning cannot be settled by appealing to Bible words alone.
This claim is a necessary prologue to what follows because disciple is a Bible word, which tempts us to narrow my essential question, What is a disciple?, to a discussion of biblical semantics. But even a sophisticated lexicography and a nuanced account of biblical usage cannot answer the question completely. Because the argument is about how the church today uses the word, and any well-intentioned urging to return to “the biblical meaning” of disciple will fail to provide an adequate answer. In this series, I will engage the relevant biblical semantics, because it provides the proper frame for the interpretive work that may give rise to a contextual theology of discipleship. But the question of what a disciple is—and, therefore, what discipleship is—in the twenty-first century will be answered through an argument about words that ranges beyond the bounds of biblical language. Accordingly, even the basics of discipleship language entail more than reference to a concordance and Greek dictionary.
What Is a Disciple?
I phrase this question in the context of a cultural upheaval in which the question What is a woman? animates public discourse. I hesitate to make reference to this skirmish in the culture wars because I’m convinced that the Western obsession with sexual identity is a passing phenomenon, and I would like to avoid the potential distraction it presents. Yet, there is presently no more poignant example of the problem of language that the question What is a disciple? also faces.
Here’s the problem: the meanings of words are socially constructed. This does not mean they are utterly subjective but that they are negotiated through convention and usage. Certainly, the letters that combine in the English word woman do not inherently contain significance. They are used to designate something, but what? Does woman refer to biological facts like XX chromosomes? A set of characteristics, whether physical, psychological, or social? A self-perception? And who is to say what the usage of the word should be? The linguists who write dictionaries? No, they are the curators of convention. Philosophers or sociologists? No, they may expertly analyze arguments or offer their own, but they cannot determine meaning.
Similar questions apply to the word disciple. Does it refer to essential characteristics? Behaviors? Dispositions? To whom should we appeal for answers? Lexicographers? Biblical scholars? Theologians? How might we settle disputes about usage?
Moreover, when words refer to matters of personal identity, negotiation commonly becomes conflict. Is a woman someone who identifies as a woman? Is a disciple someone who identifies as a disciple? Can we answer such questions individually? If not, how does the way someone else answers the question bear on my own identification? Is my identity itself socially negotiated? (Hint: absolutely.)
Many Christians feel they have a clear understanding of what disciple and discipleship mean and how their definitions are rightly delimited because they are accustomed to appealing to one source of authority or another. Abstactly, a disciple is, for Christians, whatever God says it is; a person is a disciple if God says she is. Concretely, a disciple is, for Christians, whatever the given sources of divine authority—the designated arbiters of convention, such as tradition, Scripture, and magisterium—specify. Yet, both what God “says” and what the sources of theological authority “say” is only ever a matter of interpretation.
For my anti-clerical, anti-tradition tradition, this is where biblicism rears its head. The payout of using the Bible as a catalog of definitive truths, including authoritative definitions that need no arbitration because of their utter perspicuity, is a sense of clarity and stability about our knowledge of things and the words we use for them. But many Christians, not least those with biblicist instincts, are mistaken about discipleship. I empathize with these instincts. I feel the pull of easy answers. They are comforting. But they are deceptive.
What we make of the biblical language of discipleship is a function of social construction. The meanings of Bible words are not a property of the text of Scripture. They are, rather, theologically constructed by the community of faith through interpretation.
What we make of the biblical language of discipleship is a function of social construction. The meanings of Bible words are not a property of the text of Scripture. They are, rather, theologically constructed by the community of faith through interpretation. We decide together what words like disciple mean through the properly conflictual process of interpretation, which involves argument and embodiment. Discipleship is inevitably what we make of it. This is as obvious as the freedom of every Christian reader to assess and critique what I say about the biblical language of discipleship. This is the game we are playing presently.
Imagine, if you can, that you are in prison. Perhaps the justice system worked as it should. It does much of the time. You committed a crime and paid the penalty. Perhaps the system failed you. It does far too much of the time. You languished in prison unjustly. Either way, your former life is nothing but a memory.
You did what you could to endure encarceration. Church people came into the prison regularly to read the Bible with the inmates, and you attended every time, even when the lessons were not particularly helpful. Because of good behavior, you were transferred to the county workhouse, which allowed for lower security and additional opportunities. You made the most of each one. You attended classes offered by well-meaning people on the outside. They weren’t always interesting, but their kindness was meaningful.
Now, your release date approaches. But your family and friends cut ties. You have no money, and your prospects for employment are few, to say the least. The question looms: how will you begin again?
Upon release, things are worse than you imagined. You have no income, but fees, fines, and expenses pile up immediately. You have nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, no clothes but what you wore out, and no income. And it turns out, the church people who taught you the Bible on the inside are not interested in helping practically now that you’re out. Your “debt to society” is paid, but society clearly has no place for you. Suddenly, the question is not how you will begin again but how you will survive.
You’re sleeping on the street and relying on public services and benevolence for basics: a meal, a shower, a coat, a blanket. You’ve interviewed for a few jobs, but most employers won’t give you a second look because of your record, and you don’t have the clothing necessary to make a good impression anyway. And how would you get to work if you got a job? You can’t afford to get a driver’s license (forget a vehicle) or other essential documents. Sometimes you can use public transportation, but most of the time walking is the only option. You have no cell phone, and payphones are a relic of the past.
People look at you with pity or derision, or they simply ignore you. Maybe drugs or alcohol were part of what landed you in prison, but you’ve been sober for years. Maybe not. Either way, your situation is overwhelming, and any escape is tempting. Swiping something to eat from a gas station starts to feel like your best option today. You live at constant risk of being cited for loitering or public nuisance.
The cycle we call recidivism is frequently rooted in such situations. Beginning again is massively challenging. There are many public services on offer in most cities, but they tend to create dependents. Even the best services—so-called “wrap-around” services—tend to leave critical gaps that break down the process for many prospective clients.
For example, one organization in my area requires prospective clients to attend a three-day orientation in order to become eligible for services. But how can a newly released person get to the organization’s facilities? What will she eat for those three days? Where will she sleep? Even if other organizations might provide solutions, it is not obvious how one would find them, much less travel from place to place to acquire them.
Even more fundamentally, many newly released people lack basic life skills, such as making a plan for the day or budgeting. Many landed in legal trouble because of bad decisions rooted in learned behavior, and prison does not serve to inculcate a different way of life. Old patterns persist.
“Reentry,” as it’s called, is complex and dauting for these reasons and more. So what does it mean to begin again? How is it even possible?
When Jesus read the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4, he identified the release of prisoners as a dimension of the good news of the kingdom of God:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19; NRSV)
Thankfully, the twenty-first century has witnessed an increasing embrace of the kingdom’s holistic implications among Christian traditions that previously reduced the gospel to one version or another of “spiritual” salvation. The gospel redemes every dimension of life! The good news is truly good in every way. But the hard truth is that the modern “penal” institution creates all kinds of challenges that the gospel must also address, and the American church has largely failed to imagine its role in bearing witness to the kingdom after freedom.
The term of art for church work among the recently encarcerated is transitional ministry. In recent months, I’ve begun learning what transitional ministry means. There is plenty of poverty in the United States, and it has many faces. But I’ve learned that one of its most powerful manifestations is the desperation that plagues so many who come out of prison. The transformation that Jesus’s kingdom promises in American society should be manifest among the tens of thousands who struggle to find new life after freedom. Good news to the poor is good news to the freed; good news is new life after release. As the church in my context struggles to imagine what it means to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in word and deed, transitional ministry is a sphere of vital witness.
Good news to the poor is good news to the freed; good news is new life after release.
But, frankly, most Christians fear to step out on this water. The challenges are overwhelming. The costs are extreme. The risks are unavoidable. The “results” are elusive. In short, transitional ministry is a mission field.
I will continue to reflect on transitional ministry as I learn what it means to love neighbors who seek new life after prison. My hope is to help Chrisitians who seek to imagine what participating in God’s mission means in their communities. For many, bringing Luke 4 to life contextually and personally is not easy. There are reasons this is true, and I do not judge anyone—even myself—who longs to proclaim good news to the poor but struggles to imagine what that means in practice.
Praise be to the God of salvation, who leads his people in mission!
I recently gave a lecture titled “Discipleship in a Secular Age: Toward Missional Community” at Harding University’s annual lectureship, which focused this year on “Culture and the Crucified Christ: Studies in 1 and 2 Corinthians.” My present ambition is to repurpose the research and reflection that went into preparation for that lecture in order to develop this series, Toward a Theology of Discipleship.
Admittedly, I’m taken with the idea of moving “toward” theological concepts. The subtitle of this website is “Theology on the Way.” Triple entendre aside (ask me later), the journey metaphor dominates my imagination. Theology happens on the way, in the experience of participation in God’s mission. This journey is the church’s locus theologicus (theological location), inescapably. It defines us; we are the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Our path follows behind Jesus, who is the Way (John 14:6). Our God-talk happens in-process, provisionally, haltingly. Faithful understanding is a horizon we are always moving toward.
In this sense, I am in pursuit of a theology of discipleship. I see the need not only for a theology born of the journey of discipleship but also, more specifically, for a journey toward a more faithful account of discipleship. My core contention is that discipleship is a theological problem. I circumscribe this claim contextually by referring to discipleship in twenty-first-century US America. I am after a contextual theology of discipleship that addresses the needs of the church in American culture.
What needs? I see many that are relevant. The need to talk more deeply about discipleship than much of the popular discourse does. The need to provide an account of discipleship that makes a difference in the midst of the US church’s post-Christendom decline. The need to awaken those who consider themselves disciples of Jesus but have never experienced discipleship. The need to make better sense of the call to make disciples. The need to reunify the life of discipleship and the theology that should animate it. The need to engender local, missional communities.
That’s a tall enough order! I’ve mapped out a long series of posts, and I expect many more will emerge . . . along the way. I intend to keep each one short—well, shorter than I’m prone to, anyway. But in the aggregate, I hope a theological panorama will come into view, a vision of discipleship rich and textured enough to fire our imagination but also concrete and practical enough to answer questions on the ground. That means I’m interested in your questions. Please share them in the comments or on social media. Yours might become the topic of a post.
On a final note, I should locate myself (again) in my theological tradition. Although I hope to engage readers and friends beyond Churches of Christ, although I will consciously write for a broader Christian audience, and although most of my interlocutors will come from other traditions, I am nonetheless committed to practicing critical self-awareness as a theologian. So I begin with a necessary, if pedestrian, confession: my tradition shapes my perspective inextricably, for good and ill. I write as a member of Churches of Christ, shouldering our baggage on this journey with others whose packs are quite different. The implications are sure to unfold as we progress, but I’ll do my best to transform them into explications. The first is this:
Mark, John Mark, and I argued in Discipleship in Community that discipleship is the theological center of gravity that holds the core commitments of Churches of Christ in orbit. Well, that’s my metaphor. But it captures our idea. Like holiness in the Wesleyan tradition or God’s sovereignty in the Reformed tradition, discipleship orients our understanding and experience of God:
It is our contention that the orienting theological concern of the Stone-Campbell movement and Churches of Christ can be summarized by the word discipleship. . . . A concern for discipleship is deeply embedded in our DNA, but it is also a central biblical theme and one that helps set the church on mission. We propose that the best way to address our current disorientation is (1) to return to an emphasis on discipleship in our theological reflection and (2) to actually get back to the work of discipleship. It should also be stressed that discipleship includes reliance on God and participating in God’s work in God’s timing. Prayerfully waiting on God is an important spiritual exercise during times of disorientation. Theological reflection in Churches of Christ gains traction not when it is an exercise in abstract speculation, but when it arises from and aids authentic discipleship.
Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, and Greg McKinzie, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future (Abilene: ACU Press, 2020), 13–14.
Discipleship is not optional or ancillary. It is not a mere practice or a program. It is the organizing principle of our way of life.
Discipleship is not optional or ancillary. It is not a mere practice or a program. It is the organizing principle of our way of life.
In God, “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But in Christ, we are disciples, for God is “always leading us in a triumphal procession in Christ and spreading everywhere, through us, the smell of knowing him. Because, to God, we are the aroma of Christ among both those who are being saved and those who are being ruined: to some the stink of death unto death, to some fragrance of life unto life. So who is qualified for these things? For we are not like the many who sell the word of God for profit; rather, we speak in Christ, as people of sincerity—as people sent from God, standing in God’s presence” (2 Cor 2:14–17; my translation).
Being led by God, sent from God, in God’s presence: this is discipleship, and it shapes how we speak about God and emanate the knowledge of God. So theology arises from and aids authentic discipleship. And the same is necessarily true of our theology of discipleship! This circularity presents a unique problem, and its nature is theological.
If you’d like to come along as I address it, then join me on this leg of the journey. It might be long, and my baggage might slow us down sometimes, but the horizon is full of promise.
This month, I started a part-time position as the missions minister at Stones River Church (SRC) in Murfreesboro, TN!
SRC is a small church of about fifty adult members, and the leadership has graciously stretched our budget to the limit to make this support possible. At present, my responsibilities are limited to 10 hrs./wk., but I’m hoping to expand this role through fundraising (jump to details below).
Maybe you’d like to help? In this post I explain what’s happening and how you can get involved. Here’s the headline: God is up to something amazing in Murfreesboro!
The New Gig
I finished my PhD work in February and hoped to begin teaching full-time this school year. As the door closed on that plan, another opened. I now find myself called to leadership in a church that is leaning into a missional way of life. I’m truly delighted to help lead my spiritual community into deeper participation in God’s mission.
So what is a missions minister? I admit to suggesting this title.
“Outreach minister” is the conventional language for such roles, I suppose. But I’m not sure “reaching out” quite captures the essence of joining in God’s mission in our local context. The Spirit is at work before and beyond us, and our intention is to witness to the kingdom’s inbreaking wherever it manifests. We’re not “in here” trying to reach people “out there” (doesn’t that have the ring of attractional church models?) but to join God out and about in the neighborhood!
Whatever missions minister means, it surely involves serving the church as we share in God’s work in the lives of others.
At SRC, my role is focused on organization, equipping, and leadership in relation to congregational participation in God’s mission. We are on the way toward a missional life together as disciples of Jesus, and I get to help guide the journey. It is a breathtaking, joyful process.
In recent months, God has led us into unimagined relationships and opportunities. At a pace that has surprised us and stretched our capacities, we’ve begun serving both our local public school, Mitchell-Neilson Elementary, and our neighbors who have recently transitioned out of incarceration.
Late last year, SRC entered a season of prayer and fasting with the hope of discerning how to participate in God’s mission in our city. We began walking around the church’s neighborhood together, asking God to open our eyes to the Holy Spirit’s work, and spending time in prayerful conversation afterward.
Soon, new relationships began to form. We found ourselves in Mitchell-Neilson Elementary, welcomed to pray and speak with the principal about the school’s needs. So we brought our prayer walk into the school’s hallways and classrooms and quickly were given opportunities to serve. SRC volunteers have provided breakfast for the teachers and staff, read to students on Read Across America Day, presented on Career Day, helped facilitate Field Day, helped stock prizes for student accomplishments, and delivered essentials to struggling parents.
Mitchell-Neilson is only a few blocks from the church building, and it happens to be a Title 1 school with the highest incidence of low-income and at-risk students in the Murfreesboro City system. A surprising number of the families live in temporary housing (such as motels) and lack basic resources. Last month, the principal and many of the faculty and staff attended SRC on Sunday morning to share their struggles and hopes. It was an astonishing time of dialogue and worship.
We continue to be surprised by the opportunities to serve families in our immediate context that have arisen through this new relationship.
At the same time, God brought a visitor named Julie Hadlock to SRC. For years, Julie has led a ministry called Next Step, which primarily serves men and women transitioning from prison back into society.
Many of the people who live on the street in Middle Tennessee are former convicts, and many of them end up back in prison. This cycle has a great deal to do with the lack of resources available to people released from prison. From needs as simple as obtaining a driver’s license and finding a place to sleep to challenges as complex as learning key life skills and joining a healthy community, the difficulties of transitioning into “normal” life can be overwhelming.
When Julie showed up looking for a church home, we were in disbelief. We had prayed about learning to serve the homeless and marginalized in our city in deeper ways than volunteering at soup kitchens or handing out hygiene kits. But we never imagined that God would put an expert on our doorstep! Since then, Julie has placed Next Step under the oversight of SRC. We have hosted over 60 men from local transitional housing (“halfway houses”) at a yard party on the church grounds, and we’re outfitting a storage building to house essentials such as clothing and small appliances for neighbors newly released from prison. We anticipate many new friendships will develop from this partnership!
There is so much good work to do, and I’m praying that God will provide financially so that I can devote my attention to this ministry.
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I suppose a reflection like this one is bound to be somewhat self-indulgent. It is personal and particular. But I hope it also proves useful for others considering a similar path. And perhaps it will serve a deeper purpose. At the heart of my journey is a question of vocation, tangled in a messy relationship with values inherited from my church tradition and cultural background as well as my own commitments to God’s mission. I wonder (still!) how to live in the tensive space between the church and the academy and how to serve God’s purposes with the peculiar gifts and acquired skills that pertain to scholarship. What follows is a narrative, neither prescriptive nor critical. It is how I remember this journey.
The Journey to Doctoral Study
I went to Harding University (Searcy, AR) in 2000 to pursue a BA in missions. There was enough wise counsel in my life at that time to convince me of the need for both a college degree and preparation for mission work. I never seriously considered attempting to go straight to the mission field, but by the time I graduated high school I was set on cross-cultural mission work, and I was impatient to get to “the field.” The degree was a means to the ends of effectiveness and fundraising. Yet, I was convinced of the need for education, and I had a thirst for knowledge. That lost-in-the-desert, cracked-lip kind of thirst. One of my dearest friends, Bryan Tarpley, and I imagined for ourselves a future in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Inklings—thinking, writing, and arguing in a pub about the deep matters of faith and their representation in our work. These were childish ambitions, no doubt, but they were at the heart of my love for learning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already torn between the desire to get to work in mission and the longing to understand.
Harding was a life-changing experience, as the university should be. I quickly realized that my seriousness about learning was a relative outlier. Megan Bills, who would become my wife, was in my freshman Bible classes for majors. (Her brothers, who were also ministry majors, told her about the loophole that allowed Bible minors to take the “best” Bible classes, so she declared a minor and enjoyed the benefits.) She likes to recount her memory of the long-haired guy who constantly (and impatiently) raised his hand with questions at the end of class, preventing early dismissal. For me, questions about God were urgent, and the university was there to answer them. I revelled in the pursuit of their resolution. I needed it. And I found that I was good at seeking answers and finding even better questions.
By the time I graduated—with two minors (Spanish and Psychology) and a glut of elective biblical Greek courses—I had discovered an unrequited love of scholarship. I had also realized that I was not yet prepared for mission work.
I applied to graduate schools and chose Harding School of Theology (at that time, Harding University Graduate School of Religion) in Memphis, TN. Part of the Harding school system, HST is a separate campus, the closest thing to a dedicated seminary among Churches of Christ schools. The experience of graduate education was a sheer delight. I completed an MDiv with voracious pleasure (and painful labor), all the while working on mission-team formation and fundraising, as well as serving in ministry with a Spanish-speaking congregation. In that course of study, I took one of Evertt Huffard’s courses, Spiritual Leadership. Evertt was a mentor in many ways, but this course in particular culminated in a spiritual autobiography that served to identify a personal “bent in life.” Through this process, I identified my trajectory as that of a “missionary scholar.” I knew that I was called to the concrete practices of mission work, but scholarship now had a permanent place in my life. I didn’t know what this would entail, only that it was true.
My family and our teammates landed in Arequipa, Peru, on September 1, 2008. We gave ourselves to the best practices I had learned in the previous eight years of study: language and culture study, relationship formation, and prayerful discernment of God’s purposes in our context. In the meantime, I launched Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis because I couldn’t let go of the scholarly dimensions of my vocation. God blessed our work and taught us so much along the way. I was far from the best missionary during the six and a half years we lived in Arequipa, but God was faithful. I believe we bore witness to the kingdom of God in our faltering ways. But above all, I’m grateful for what my Peruvian sisters and brothers taught me about God. Those lessons have shaped my vocation more than any others.
My family went to Peru prepared to stay for ten years but intending to question our place there after five. In 2013, we began thinking about how to transition in a way that would leave the church in a healthy place (a story for another post). For our family, the primary motivation for this question was Megan’s and my sense that the next phase of our journey toward a scholarly vocation was on the horizon. The decision was fraught, to say the least.
God called us to Peru. We staked a great deal on that perception, and nothing in our experience suggested it was wrong. I was not an academic who had ended up in the mission field but a missionary who had fallen in love with the academy. But was that love also in service of God’s mission, or was it a betrayal of my family’s calling? We decided that following Jesus meant applying to PhD programs and returning to the US.
Application and Admission
The first step in application to PhD programs was the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) test. Although I had taken the GRE for grad. school applications, the scores are valid for only five years, so retaking it was necessary. The exam must be taken at an official test site, which required me travel from Arequipa to Lima to make the attempt.
To say I hated this process is an understatement. The test consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. According to my natural gifts, words come easily, and math is a nightmare. If you wonder what math has to do with a PhD in theology, I can confirm that nothing is the answer (usually). Nonetheless, I had to suffer the indignity of demonstrating that my mathematical abilities place me in the 50th percentile of GRE test takers. I’m not an idiot savant, just a math idiot, and my math score was not likely to improve with further attempts. Competitive programs sometimes take all three scores into account, and I had no idea how this would affect my applications. I scored quite well on the verbal reasoning portion, but the further rub was my writing score. Unlike the other two sections, analytical writing is scored by a human. Despite the subjective element of this process, I had confidence in my writing abilities. After all, I had excelled in writing throughout my academic career so far, and I had spent four years editing others’ composition. As it turned out, however, I scored a 4.5 of 6, little better than the 3.5 average score. It was a travesty, in my estimation, proof of the fallibility of timed writing exercises and standardized grading practices alike. Still, the feedback was humbling, and I had to decide whether to retake the exam on the chance that the score would improve. Since a 4.5 was sufficient to apply to the programs that interested me, I decided to rely on the second step of application, the writing sample, to make my case for admission.
To serve as my writing sample, I wrote an article for Missio Dei titled “Currents in Missional Hermeneutics.” I intended that missional hermeneutics would be the focus of my dissertation, one way or another. This intention also shaped the selection of the programs to which I applied. PhD study is largely a function of “fit,” the extent to which one’s research interests match the faculty of prospective programs. That is, I applied to schools with faculty whose interests seemed to match my own. Ultimately, a single faculty member must choose to take on an applicant, becoming an advisor or mentor (called Doctorvater [Doctor Father] in the German tradition that dominated theological studies for centuries). Missional hermeneutics is an interdisciplinary endeavor, so I looked for programs in which missional theology, biblical interpretation, and theological hermeneutics might converge. I applied to three: Fuller Theological Seminary, Boston University, and Southern Methodist University. In each of these programs my degree would have been different. In other words, I was not pursuing a specific degree—systematic theology, missiology, practical theology, or biblical studies—but a place from which to develop missional hermeneutics interdisciplinarily.
In the mean time, we left Arequipa, arriving in the US on January 12, 2015. We lived with my wife’s parents and prepared for a move to Pasadena, Boston, or Dallas with the awareness that I might not be accepted anywhere. It was a time of nervous waiting and hope. I worked on my in-laws’ farm and taught Bible class at one of our supporting churches as we coped with reverse culture shock. Finally, I received a no from SMU and a notification that I was on the wait list for Boston. The acceptance letter from Fuller came last. Shortly thereafter, Boston let me know that I had been moved from the wait list to accepted status. The financial prospects were far better at Boston, but I believed that Fuller was the best fit, and Joel Green, my future mentor, would be best suited for guiding my interdisciplinary pursuits in missional hermeneutics. So, we set our sights on Pasadena, California.
Residency at Fuller
The PhD is built to guarantee expertise, which traditionally has meant depth at the cost of breadth. This is not an arbitrary mode of operation but a requirement of mastery. The sheer amount of work already done in any single, small area of scholarship is staggering. A scholar can easily and profitably spend an entire career focused on one aspect of one subspecialty. To attempt more is typically the work of a lifetime that stays within the confines of a single discipline. It is, therefore, no wonder that so many scholars look askance at supposedly interdisciplinary work. All too easily, work between disciplines does injustice to each specialty at issue. I pursued a degree in theology, commonly called systematic or constructive theology. Given Fuller’s structure and faculty, this was my best approach to missional hermeneutics. My focus meant working in hermeneutics from a theological perspective (so-called theological hermeneutics) and crossing into biblical studies and missiology. The traditional divisions between systematic theology and biblical studies already problematize this project. The further division between theology and missiology, expressed at Fuller in the existence of two separate schools—the School of Theology and the School of Intercultural Studies (formerly the School of World Mission)—indicates the complexity and hazard of my undertaking.
I was right about my fit at Fuller. In 2020, the seminary made the groundbreaking decision to combine the two schools as the School of Mission and Theology. This was, to say the least, a significant development. But it predates my coursework. When I entered, separate faculties and relatively incompatible degree plans were the norm. Nonetheless, my program was open to me crossing into the School of Intercultural Studies for missiological coursework. This was a tremendous privilege that benefited my thinking and writing in significant ways. Even in the discourse called missional theology, which is my point of departure, the division between missiology and theology has persisted in powerful ways, and I was looking for a bridge across the gulf. Fuller afforded that possibility. Moreover, Dr. Green is an expert in and a practitioner of interdisciplinarity. His guidance helped me to navigate the tensions between the methods and interests of distinctive approaches to my subject matter in a way that, I believe, does justice to their particularity. I like to say that I did a systematics degree under the guidance of a New Testament scholar in order to develop a missional approach to Scripture. Whatever the result, I found in Fuller a place to make the attempt.
Doctoral study was a delight, even as it was grueling labor. Over and over during those years, I looked up from my reading to marvel at the opportunity to focus exclusively on the pursuit of understanding and gave thanks to God. Dedication to research and writing is understandably of interest to few. More than that, it is a privilege. I could not have asked for more, and I loved every minute, both the successes and the failures. Seriously. The flood of reading, the seminars, and the struggle to put it all together in words brought me great joy.
I have to mention the mentorship of Dr. Green as a highlight of the experience. He is one of those rare individuals with the capacity for an unbelievable amount of productivity at the highest level. Among his unusually large number of doctoral mentees, how he manages to do so much is a commonly discussed mystery. A scholar of the first degree who publishes prolifically, he was both the dean of the School of Theology and the seminary’s Provost when I entered the program. Despite this, he was always available to offer counsel and hosted a reading group in his home every Tuesday evening for most of the school year. His communication was prompt and his feedback on work was extensive. His guidance was kind and generous. I’m not being compensated by Fuller to say such things! These are the facts of my experience. I undertake my career in the academy with his mentorship as the standard that I will try to meet.
Working as a teaching assistant and a research assistant was another valuable part of the experience. I served as a teaching assistant for ethicist Erin Dufault-Hunter and, later, for New Testament theologian Marianne Meye Thompson. From these outstanding professors, I learned important lessons about teaching in graduate theological education. I also worked as a research assistant for Dr. Green, gaining further insight into the scholarly publication process. These jobs allowed me to earn a bit of income while remaining focused on my vocation. I did not take those opportunities for granted, and I remain grateful to have worked under scholars of such high calibre.
Shortly after landing in Pasadena, my family found a spiritual home at Hollywood Church of Christ. For me, theological scholarship is for the church and is properly rooted in the life of the local congregation. HCC is the church family that grounded and sustained my PhD work. This is to say too little, but words fail. Our time in California would have been immeasurably impoverished without the love of the sisters and brothers in Christ who gather to worship God as HCC. It is impossible to imagine our lives at Fuller without these spiritual friendships.
At the same time, integrating with HCC was challenging because we had only recently left behind our roles in Arequipa, where ministry was a lifestyle and, therefore, a key piece of our identity. To land in a church as nothing more than new members was a shock. We had to begin learning what it would mean for us to live like we had taught others—not as employed missionaries but as missional disciples. Seven years later, I can’t say we have figured out what exactly that means—or, rather, that I have figured it out (I think my wife is way farther down the road). But I’m profoundly thankful that we began that journey with HCC.
Our family life during those Pasadena years is full of sweet memories. Our kids grew from 8, 6, and 4 years old to 12, 10, and 8.
The five of us lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment on Fuller’s campus—the most “affordable” option in Pasadena that would allow us to function with a single vehicle. Megan commuted to her job teaching middle school in a charter school in downtown Los Angeles, and I walked the kids to school. That first year, Cohen (our youngest) hung out with me while I studied and stayed with church friends or babysitters while I was in class. The diversity of LA was a huge blessing for the kids, who saw themselves as Peruvians. The girls’ half-year in the small-town school system of Tullahoma, Tennessee, had been jarring. They had been the only White kids in their Peruvian schools, so the multiethnic experience of the McKinley Elementary School (host to more than 80 languages) was a relief. I remember Ana (our oldest) happily explaining after her first few months in school that her two best friends were from India and Colombia, and she was from Peru. When she went to the Colombian fiend’s birthday party, her mother was surprised to learn that Anita was a gringa. In truth, LA eased culture shock for me and Megan too. That emotional monster loomed over us for some time to come, and the diversity of both Fuller and Megan’s job, as well as our new church family, was a joy.
Maintaining emotional health in a PhD program is no easy feat. Across disciplines, rates of depression and anxiety diagnosed among doctoral students are extraordinarily high. Christian schools are no exception. A friend recently said the experience sounds like prolonged hazing, and I think the analogy is apt. The pressures are immense. Fortunately, I did not experience the extreme suffering that many do. I believe a strong support system made the difference—my wife, church family, and mentor deserve credit. But, without a doubt, longterm friendships helped me maintain sanity. I have to thank Kyle Smith (my former teammate in Arequipa), Bryan Tarpley, and John Middleton for serving as a pressure release valve. I cannot imagine what might have become of my emotional health without their encouragement. I managed to escape every summer to spend days playing Dungeons & Dragons, laughing hysterically, and soaking in their companionship. They were a blessing in ways they do not understand.
Likewise, finding friendship among colleagues was a tremendous blessing. It happened that the minister at HCC, Martin Rodriguez, started a PhD in intercultural studies at Fuller at the same time that I began my program. Martin is a first-class missiologist and a gifted practitioner whose spiritual companionship proved to be among the most life-giving serendipities of my time at Fuller. Similarly, a number of my classmates, who also participated in Dr. Green’s weekly theological interpretation reading group, became friends. That group—I’m thinking especially of Reed Metcalf, Jason Moraff, Ryan Gutierrez, and Melanie Dzugan—continues to reconnect at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting and spur one another on in the pursuit of scholarship. Finally, I am grateful for the friendship and collaboration of Carlos Cevallos, the director of Fuller’s Centro Latino and my co-author on “Between Service and Scripture: A Qualitative Study of Missional Hermeneutics,” an article published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation. Carlos generously introduced me to his lovely church community in the course of our research. I treasure the experience of working with him to produce that article.
Another vital dimension of my experience was participation in two scholarly societies. First, the professor who guided my independent study in philosophical hermeneutics, Dan Stiver, encouraged me to present my work at the Society of Ricoeur Studies (dedicated to the study of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s work). I did and became an SRS member. Until the pandemic, I was a regular at the annual meeting, presenting a paper every year and savoring the high-flown philosophical discourse of those gatherings. Delving the depths of Ricoeur’s thought has been such a life-giving experience. That must sound strange to most readers, probably for more than one reason. But it’s true. Laboring through his translated works (I don’t read French, yet!) is difficult, but I have found a sense of—the best word for it is relief in his insights. It’s a feeling like everything has been a bit out of focus, and you didn’t know that was the problem, but you could sense that something was wrong, and then suddenly everything shifts into HD resolution. I’ve had similar experiences with other philosophers (Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer) and many theologians: that sensation is the high that scholars chase. But wrestling with Ricoeur was unique in the extent to which it gave me clarity. It has been such a privilege to get to know SRS members and learn from them. I’ve been warmly welcomed as an “evangelical” (that’s how they see me) theologian, which no doubt has much to do with the fact that Dr. Stiver, a Baptist, is a founding member of the society. Thank God for trailblazers.
Second, the Society of Biblical Literature’s Forum on Missional Hermeneutics is the group I was most eager to join. I had been thinking about missional hermeneutics as such almost since the Forum’s inception, though I was unaware of its existence before I found some of its conference papers posted online around 2009. So I went into the doctoral program with every intention of hanging around the Forum meetings at the SBL conference until they let me in or told me to go away. It turned out (no surprise) that they were open and inviting to anyone with interest in missional hermeneutics. And let’s just say, I was aggressively interested. The Forum cochairs, Michael Barram and John Franke, whose work I had been incorporating into my thinking since grad. school, were an encouragement as I began to participate in Forum discussions and share my work. In 2020, I presented a paper (via Zoom, of course) titled “Revisioning the ‘Mission’ of Missional Hermeneutics as Solidarity: Womanist, Mujerista, and Feminist Contributions to a Postcolonialist Missiology.” In 2021, I participated in a review panel for Dr. Franke’s book Missional Theology: An Introduction. Delightfully, my program ended up tapping Dr. Franke to be the external reader for my dissertation. I suppose turn about is fair play! I’ve served on the Forum steering committee for a few years now and help keep our website updated. To be affiliated with this cohort of scholars is a deep privilege.
All the while, my work with Missio Dei continued. Shortly before our departure from Peru, I brought together the first board of directors for the Missio Dei Foundation (MDF), the legal entity under which I had created Missio Dei. My intention was always to build from the journal, whose management was feasible while I was a full-time missionary, to an organization with a larger agenda. During my years in Pasadena, the board grew and began to explore new initiatives. Principle among those was the establishment of a section dedicated to mission studies at the Christian Scholars’ Conference (CSC), an annual meeting of Stone-Campbell scholars and friends. I have had the opportunity to convene or participate in a variety of the ensuing sessions. One of the most memorable CSC events during these years was the banquet we hosted in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Mission journal, a watershed publication for Churches of Christ. In conjunction, I edited the oral history of Mission, written by my long-time friend and graduate school companion Bob Turner, and conducted an interview with some of Mission‘s key protagonists. The MDF board has built the Mission and World Christianity section of the CSC into a vital forum for missiological dialogue among Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Lately, our energies have been directed toward the establishment of the Gailyn Van Rheenen Endowed Session in Mission and World Christianity, whose inaugural lecture will take place at this year’s CSC. Like the other scholarly conferences, these meetings were formative and life-giving. I am especially grateful to David Fleer, the CSC director, for his patient support of our work. Among the MDF board members, Chris Flanders of Abilene Christian University, who also serves as an editor for the journal, became a friend and mentor. Chris is a graduate of Fuller’s intercultural studies PhD program and a brilliant missiologist. His partnership has meant a great deal during the turbulent years of doctoral study. But I must add that collaboration with all of the MDJ editors, MDF board members, and CSC participants has been a profound privilege. Once again, I cannot conceive of my doctoral study years without these relationships shaping the experience.
In addition to the constant composition of editorials, articles, and book reviews for Missio Dei, conference papers, and other writing assignments, I was fortunate to share my work in various publications. Those are listed in my CV and do not bear specific mention here. I should note, however, that most of these publications are largely a result of the encouragement and aid of my doctoral mentor, Joel Green. Wise counsel is worth more than silver and gold. Especially noteworthy is the publication of a coauthored work, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future (2020). I was privileged to collaborate with my former teachers Mark Powell and John Mark Hicks on this important project. In keeping with my emphases in the doctoral program, I worked especially on the chapters devoted to the themes of Scripture and mission. To say I was delighted by this opportunity would be an understatement. Mark and John Mark played a major role in my theological formation, and writing with them was a joy.
I would be whitewashing my story of postgraduate study if I failed to mention the financial hardship that came with it. Talking about money is gauche. It tramples the strict divide between public and private in American life. And it risks the appearance of a sort of whiny self-pity. I was raised among a people who would say, “If you want money, get a job. If you want more money, work harder,” so I feel this hazard keenly. As missionaries, we chose a lifestyle of financial hazard. In some ways (including some unhealthy ways!), this choice affords a spiritual validation. Serving God whatever the cost is its own kind of blessing. To be clear, we wanted for nothing in Peru, and our supporting churches (congregational support is the model among Churches of Christ) provided faithfully for our family’s needs. Nonetheless, the notion of accruing savings, much less wealth, is typically foreign to the missionary lifestyle. Perhaps this is as it should be. Regardless, it made the move to expensive doctoral study in southern California daunting. Megan’s public school-teacher salary was our primary income, and the cost of living was significant. We paid for the program and the margin of expenses that a teacher’s salary could not cover with federal student loans. I obtained some doctoral fellowship money from Fuller, but the model there is competition for limited funds (things would have been different at a highly endowed school like Boston University). We accrued over $90,000 of debt in my four years of coursework at Fuller. This is not a complaint but a fact. Like most doctorates, attaining a PhD in theology does not result in significant financial prospects: it allows one to work as a university professor, which is not a lucrative career path. This is the vocation I have pursued, and the cost of doing so in the early twenty-first century economy of higher education is part of that calling. As one of my graduate professors advised, if you can do anything else, do not get a PhD. I could not choose anything else, and I do not regret its cost. But the financial reality of that decision deserves to be recorded in this recollection.
The culmination of doctoral coursework is comps. (comprehensive examinations). In my program, this consisted of four exams: one on the methods of my primary concentration (systematic theology), one on the methods of my secondary concentration (New Testament studies, focused on biblical theology), and two on theological subjects of my choosing: theological anthropology and the doctrine of atonement. I took one quarter (Fuller’s is a quarter system), which is effectively ten weeks, to study. For each exam, students are given an extensive bibliography and a menu of example essay questions. While the adjective comprehensive is somewhat misleading—the point is not total knowledge of a subject, which is impossible—the process serves to demonstrate mastery through wide-ranging, nuanced discussion of major questions in a given subject area. Alongside the dissertation, these exams represent the bar one must clear in order to earn the title “doctor.” I read, took notes, and organized my thinking with an intensity that far surpassed anything my studies so far had required. Essentially, I created and memorized a detailed outline of my understanding of each subject area. I can say without reservation that preparation for these exams was the hardest single thing I’ve done. The experiences was exhausting, but it was gratifying to realize that I had achieved a grasp of and a perspective on each topic: passing the exams instilled a profound sense of accomplishment and did a great deal to subdue the feelings of inadequacy, usually referred to as imposter syndrome, that persisted despite my strong performance in my courses.
Exams behind me, the dissertation proposal was the next step. This consisted of another quarter-long research process, focused now on determining the problem the dissertation would address. The proposal consists of a paper-length discussion of relevant sources and issues and, at last, a preliminary outline of the dissertation itself. This is submitted to one’s first and second readers, who must approve the project before it can move forward. In addition to Dr. Green, who was my first reader by default, I asked Dr. Stiver to be my second reader, knowing that theological engagement with Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy would play a major role in my argument. He graciously agreed, and I got after it. Frankly, this portion of the process was not difficult. In fact, it was a relief to put together the ideas I had been developing throughout the program in a focused thesis, and the proposal came together readily. Drs. Green and Stiver approved it with the advice that I would likely have to reduce the scope of the argument in one way or another. (They were right.)
Teaching and Dissertating
I began gleefully working on the dissertation the following quarter, producing a bloated and incomplete initial chapter by the end of the term, and then launched into another chapter the next quarter. I loved being immersed in the project, straining to build the largest argument I had ever attempted. Having the space to run at full-throttle was a blast. That freedom was a function of both the space a book-length project affords and the privilege of researching and writing full-time. I was aware that the latter was not a financially sustainable situation, however, so I rejoiced in the opportunity while it lasted. In the meantime, we began making plans to escape the southern California cost of living.
After applying for a couple of teaching positions, an opportunity to teach at Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN) as an adjunct (part-time) faculty member came to my attention. I applied for the position, and in June 2019, four years after our pilgrimage to Pasadena, we said goodbye to our dear friends and church family and set out for a new home in middle Tennessee. With no guarantee of a full-time position, this was a risky move. But it put us in proximity of Megan’s parents (our kids had never lived near grandparents), and a part-time position in a more affordable economy was the best option for continuing to work on the dissertation while paying our bills. We landed in Murfreesboro, TN, half-way between Lipscomb and the grandparents. Megan got a job at a Murfreesboro middle school, and I set about finding a rhythm of teaching and writing.
Learning to be a university instructor is, of course, challenging all on its own. Even teaching part-time (3 courses per semester instead of the 4-course full load), the constant temptation was to neglect the dissertation. More, it was disheartening to recognize that splitting my attention between two important endeavors, not to mention family and church commitments, meant that I was doing nothing as well as I wanted. Everyone faces this challenge in one way or another, so I do not mean that the difficulty was unique. But I will say that writing a dissertation is demanding in a special way. As many have said, only those who have done it can appreciate the challenge. The demands of pursuing a research agenda at the highest level are tremendous, but unlike other sorts of scholarly writing, the psychological pressures of finishing the degree add a complication that is difficult to express. I have no doubt that others have faced this situation more gracefully, but in my experience, it was a long, hard road to travel.
In my second semester of teaching, COVID-19 began running through the US. The result was that more than half of my dissertation was written during the pandemic. For many who have similar stories, this no doubt compounded the difficulty of writing. I recall colleagues experiencing a malaise during the period of intensive social distancing that sapped their creativity and will to write. My students certainly displayed such struggles. I must admit, however, that, for me, it was an unbelievably productive period. It cut out my commute to Lipscomb and freed me from the seemingly endless parade of social obligations, activities, and school events that frustrated my concentration. (For me, long stretches of uninterrupted focus tend to produce more pages than cumulative small chunks of work). And, as a strong introvert, I conserved a great deal of emotional energy during the shutdown, which allowed me to manage the stress of writing more effectively. (This is not a retrospective assessment. I’m introspective enough to have noticed the comparison at the time. At the risk of seeming at least a little antisocial, I felt really good emotionally for almost the entire shutdown.) The result was that I got more done than I can explain. Looking back, I truly can’t recall how I managed to arrive at the summer of 2021 with only a fraction of the dissertation left to draft. I certainly recall the sensations of bogging down in endless reading, getting lost on rabbit trails, languishing over a paragraph, giving hours to a single footnote, and imagining that the dissertation would never end. And during this period, we bought a house and moved in. It doesn’t seem that the dissertation should have come together, but it did.
Along the way, I cut a chapter from the original proposal and wrote and discarded the better part of another. Still, the word count of the complete draft was nearly 20,000 words over the allowed 100,000. The revision process was bloody, and some darlings died. But finally, I cut it down to size, added the front matter, formatted the bibliography, and submitted. After generating the PDF of the final draft, I cried. Not from a sense of relief—the result remained unknown—but of gratitude and joy.
From the date of the dissertation’s submission, the committee (the first and second readers, plus an outside reader unknown to me) had six weeks to read it. The defense date was set for February 1, 2022. At Fuller, the doctoral defense entails a meeting (via Zoom in my case) of the candidate and the first and second reader. The outside reader submits written feedback, which the first reader represents in the defense conversation. Those six weeks were nerve-wracking, not because I lacked confidence about the work I had done but because I was ready to know the result. I was concerned about the possibility that I would pass “with revisions,” meaning I would have to put in significant time reworking some aspect of the argument in order to finish. I would have been happy to pass “adequate,” meaning no revisions were necessary, but I had worked with the ambition to pass “with distinction,” Fuller’s highest honor for the PhD dissertation. The day finally came, and I logged on to Zoom with great anticipation. Dr. Green put me in a waiting room for a few minutes while he and Dr. Stiver discussed their thoughts and the third reader’s (John Franke’s) written feedback. Then I rejoined the meeting and we talked for over an hour about various dimensions of my argument and the questions that it raised for them. Once we got started, my nerves subsided and I settled into a truly delightful conversation.
After this, they put me back into a waiting room while they deliberated. Then I rejoined them and Joel delivered the verdict: pass with distinction. I was elated! But the additional feedback was overwhelming. All three readers expressed high praise for my work and encouraged me to seek publishing opportunities. I feel awkward sharing that feedback. But, to be transparent, I also feel tremendous gratification at the success that years of wholehearted work produced. I continue to feel surprise that the argument came together and gratitude to God, my family, and the church for the gifts that made it possible. I can hardly believe it. After almost seven years, I became doctor!
Unanswered Questions of Vocation
During the past seven years, I have struggled with the question of what doctoral study has to do with mission. My dissertation specifically addresses the theological definition of participation in God’s mission and argues that it is essential for the church’s engagement with Scripture. To a great extent, it is an argument for practice—theory for the sake of practice and theory that depends on practice. The result was a pressure to write not only from prior experiences of practice but in the midst of practice. Yet, the time that writing required, at least in order to finish relatively quickly, precluded significant participation in mission. In fits and starts, I gave time to what opportunities I could. But the truth is, research, writing, and teaching are consuming endeavors. The sense that I had left mission for the academy was a constant source of angst.
There are tidy answers to this dilemma. Some are content to point out that each part of the body has unique gifts and contributions. Others highlight the idea that scholarship is itself an aspect of ministry, a practice in its own right. These are valid points in the abstract, but I find them unsatisfying apart from the concrete practices of participation in God’s redemptive work in the world (which the academy frequently seems to ignore). This is an idea that requires explanation, but I’ll leave that to the dissertation! And that is precisely the bind that I find myself in: theory and practice, understanding and action, exist in an indissolvable tension. I am still working out the nature of this relationship for myself. Given my tradition’s skepticism about “theology” and the powerful cultural current of anti-intellectualism that sustains it, my tendency is to advocate for the value of rigorous, critical engagement with the ideas that inhabit practice. At the same time, my sympathies with those who call in good faith for action persist. It seems to me that the burden to justify the value of scholarship for the church is heavy. To be a “doctor of philosophy” necessarily calls for a reckoning with the wisdom of the cross, which any follower of Jesus may embody. Yet, theology, in the sense that vocational focus affords, best serves the church’s need to delve the deep things of God. Participation in mission that ignores theological critique is naïve at best and frequently destructive. So I set out on the next leg of the journey committed to theology on the way. For me, “faith seeking understanding,” as theology is classically defined, must be faith embodied in the practices of participation in God’s mission. No other faith is worth the quest for understanding; faith demands nothing less than the quest for understanding.
[I wrote this for a doctoral seminar on Biblical Theology and Theological Hermeneutics. So, it’s technical . . .]
In The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible, Christopher Seitz takes up the work of his teacher, Brevard Childs, seeking to reform biblical theology in terms of its innate canonicity. Yet, the series in which the book is published—Studies in Theological Interpretation—implicitly identifies canonical interpretation with the biblical theology movement’s rebellious offspring, theological hermeneutics. Canon, for Seitz, is the common ground between biblical theology and theological hermeneutics. Thus, in the tradition of biblical theology, Seitz insists that theological interpretation must not silence the “discrete voice” of the OT, but, in a twist, this is a theological rather than a historical-critical argument. The claim that the character of Christian Scripture is its canonical form (its “formal aspect;” Kindle loc. 250) serves to pull OT theology toward theological interpretation while preserving, above all, the OT’s integrity apart from the witness of the NT and the authority of the church.
Seitz is also concerned about the hermeneutical crisis of the Anglican Communion. In addition to being the Senior Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and a renowned OT scholar, Seitz holds three positions that stand to inform one’s reading of The Character of Christian Scripture. He is Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, President of The Anglican Communion Institute, and founder and executive director of The Cranmer Institute, which “seeks to rejuvenate Anglicanism in the US and throughout the Anglican Communion.”[1. The Cranmer Institute, “Vision,” http://www.cranmerinstitute.org/vision. The Anglican Communion Institute is housed within the Canmer Institute, and it is not evident how distinct the two initiatives are.] He writes, then, not merely with pastoral concern or love for the church but as an activist for unity and renewal within the Communion. Chapter six makes this evident, taking “the same-sex crisis in the American Episcopal Church” as a case study in the loss of canonical interpretation (Kindle loc. 2483). Despite the impression his style and interlocutors give, Seitz asks about the character of Christian Scripture not in the ivory tower of academic inquiry but in the mire of ecclesial dispute and decline. The hermeneutic to which the question corresponds is not objective but deeply interested. From this perspective, Seitz’s insistence on the “plain sense” of the final form and reliance on the liturgical inculcation of the rule of faith as “tacit knowledge” seem geared for the churchly purposes that motivate him.
In summary, an extension of Childs’s canonical interpretation preserves the discrete voice of the OT for an ecclesially interested theological hermeneutic. These broad strokes indicate the purpose and contours of the book’s argument. In what follows, I offer a more detailed review of the argument, then an assessment.
Review of the Argument
Seitz unrolls his thesis slowly and, in fact, never really articulates the full argument that the book undertakes. In chapter four, he states:
A simple thesis would appear to commend itself at this point: historical analysis of the use of the Old in the New threatens to create a disproportionate picture of what theological use of the OT by the Christian church should actually look like. And in so doing, it has also failed to reflect on what it means to speak of the NT as canon. (Kindle locs. 2127–32)
An earlier iteration of the same “thesis” appears in chapter two:
It will also emerge as our thesis that for the purpose of Christian theological reflection, the OT and the NT simply do their work differently, and not crudely developmentally, such as would lead one to conclude that the NT is more suitable for theological reflection than the OT in the very nature of the case. (Kindle locs. 1493–95)
Seitz takes the developmentalism of the historical analysis of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum, represented chiefly by the popular work of Richard Hays, as the foe he must vanquish, and he insists on stating his thesis in terms of the need to vanquish this foe. This is such a critical issue because he perceives that developmentalism has gutted the canonicity of Anglican hermeneutics and, conversely, that the OT cannot speak into the Communion’s hermeneutical crisis unless developmentalism is decisively deposed:
At the heart of the problem is a model of approaching the Bible in which the two Testaments of Christian Scripture have been reduced to phases in the history-of-religion, one improving upon the other, and then finally, a new religious phase improving on them both and giving us a new word to guide our sexual lives under God. (Kindle locs. 2771–73)
This final “phase” is a direct descendent of the Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach, in which the church should, for example, imitate Paul’s OT interpretation. When Seitz takes up Childs’s claim that “we are not prophets or apostles,” it is not merely to assert that “it is not possible to adopt the pneumatological stance of Paul” (Kindle loc. 780) but, further, to rule out the logical conclusion of such a procedure: taking Paul’s example to legitimate a similar minimal selection of NT texts in the next phase of development. In other words, developmentalism tracks along the following route:
The final form of the OT is reverse engineered into developmental phases in which later compositions and redactions are the reception of earlier ones. This sets theology in a history-of-religions mode, establishes a precedent for taking particular texts as developmentally relative, and prioritizes the historical reconstruction of “original” meaning.
The NT is construed as another phrase of development, and the church identifies with the NT phase. The reception of the OT in the NT becomes authoritative, potentially restricting the “meaning” of the OT to the limits of its NT reception (either in scope or significance).
In order to broaden the limits of the NT reception of the OT, historical-critical methods render the NT authors’ exegetical practices for replication with other OT texts.
The historical-critical treatment of the NT renders it ultimately another developmental phase that must itself be selectively and critically received.
The church ultimately identifies with the current developmental phase, construed in terms of the Spirit’s ongoing work. As always, it is necessary to progress beyond previous stages of understanding.
The “the present popularity of treatments of the use of the OT in the New” is what seems to put point #3 in Seitz’s crosshairs repetitively, almost redundantly, throughout the book (Kindle locs. 381–82) and to shape his articulation of the thesis.
Nonetheless, the critique of NT reception of the OT is only a premise of the the book’s actual argument. Seitz comes nearest expressing this in the introduction:
To speak of the OT as Christian Scripture requires a genuine interpretation of its literal sense according to its canonical form and character. This need never line up with this or that material use of the OT in the NT in the precise form that the NT demonstrates, much less in a form we are able to reconstruct and then imitate. (Kindle locs. 308–11; emphasis added).
Still, the second premise of the thesis is missing: the rule of faith is what ensures such genuine interpretation.
The point is that the rule of faith opened the Scriptures to a reading of extended senses, which were argued to be embedded in the literal sense of the OT in its given form and in its historical life, in order to clarify the most basic theological and trinitarian confession in the church’s lived life. (Kindle locs. 238–41; emphasis added).
The correlation of the two premises is at the heart of the book. The rule of faith is a hermeneutical rule for reading the literal (also called “plain”) sense of the OT as a discrete canonical witness; but it is, in this argument specifically, the corrective to the popularization of the Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach that presently perpetuates historical-critical developmentalism. Accordingly, the conclusion of the seventh chapter, dedicated to the role of the rule of faith, does not draw its conclusion without asserting the corrective:
In sum, the use of the rule of faith, with its assumptions about the character of the Scriptures that would in time become an older Testament, should serve a limiting function, guarding against an account of the two Testaments of Scripture that views them as one-after-the-other and not as mutually informing, mutually influencing witnesses, and turning the OT as Christian Scripture into a species of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum. Rightly understood, the early appeal to the rule of faith is a guard against this precisely because the Scriptures of Israel make their Christian notes sound within the literal sense of their own stable deliverances and are seen to be decisive just for this reason. (Kindle locs. 2947–52; emphasis added)
For clarity, the thesis might therefore be restated thus: To speak of the OT as Christian Scripture requires a genuine interpretation of its literal sense according to its canonical form and character, which the popularity of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach undermines but the rule of faith preserves.
In this light, the book’s argument runs fairly straightforwardly. (1) Brevard Childs was right about the canonical form and character of the OT. (2) The NT reception of the OT leaves much to be desired as a form of biblical theology. (3) The Book of Hebrews is a good example of the problems with attempting to imitate a NT author’s reception of the OT. (4) Classic, premodern Christian interpreters offer a better option for theological interpretation of the OT than Richard Hays’s and N. T. Wright’s historicist reductionism. (5) The final form of the OT text requires a better option anyway (read: Childs, like Luther and Calvin, also offers a better option). (6) The same-sex crisis in the Anglican Communion is the fruit of developmentalism. (7) But the rule of faith can guard against developmentalism and restore to the church interpretive instincts commensurate with the character of the two-testament canon.
As my review suggests, the book lacks clarity in the articulation of its thesis and suffers from repetition and disorganization. Furthermore, Seitz’s prose is often tortuous, his turns of phrase muddled and his antecedents indiscernible. He oddly changes “tone” in chapter six, as though feeling the need to admit ecclesial concerns are not truly at home on the heights of canonical criticism. Happily, this results in a little more readability (causing one to wonder whether Seitz takes “tone” to refer to clarity). After the fashion of his teacher, the scope of Seitz’s argument is ambitious, to say the least, especially given the brevity of the volume. He engages the vast work of Childs and his recent detractors, the recent NT scholarship of Hays and company, the history of interpretation (particularly of the Reformers), the Book of Hebrews, a large selection of OT scholarship, contemporary Anglican hermeneutics, and the rule of faith. He is a jack of all trades and credibly a master of more than one, but those for whom he writes before the “tone” change are likely to find the argument broad and shallow.
Questions that Seitz might have addressed with deeper, more measured treatment therefore remain pressing. Regarding his chief concern, the portrayal of Hays’s work is disappointingly a caricature that devolves into assertions about “simply unilateral replication of this or that NT voice” (Kindle locs. 1627–28). Another core problem is his failure to define the “plain sense,” which is particularly important since it is only plain in light of the rule of faith. The plain sense seems to be that which refers to, variously, the “subject matter” and the “Sache” of Scripture, but this does not clarify the term. Instead, these terms coordinate with another vague notion: “theological pressure.” Following Childs, the final form of the OT exerts pressure as a discrete voice that refers to the same subject matter determined by the rule of faith, so that the literal or plain sense of the OT is “extended” canonically: “Yahweh is this Triune God and we know it from the first witness itself, when its literal sense yields this up in the light of the second witness (Kindle locs. 972–73). It never becomes evident how the definition of the word discrete can be reconciled with the phrase, “in the light of the second witness.” The dissonance is heightened by Seitz’s insistence that the rule of faith “arises on the basis of a stable, anterior witness (the OT)” (Kindle locs. 2899–2900). Without the “allied” (Kindle loc. 970) pressure that the rule of faith makes evident, the pressure of the OT’s discrete witness cannot be extended, yet that witness is so discrete that the rule of faith is based upon the OT already witnessing to God in Christ. In the end, there is a vicious circularity to Seitz’s argument. He hopes the rule of faith substantiates a theological case for the discrete voice of the OT’s plainly Christian sense, but this discreteness is undercut if that sense was not always already plain prior to the rule of faith.
My final critique regards the commitment to populism and perspicuity that undergirds Seitz’s argument. He states, “Appeal to Scripture’s plain sense is born of the conviction that the Bible can have something to say without other forces needing to regulate that or introduce a special hermeneutics from outside the text so we can know when and where it can speak” (Kindle locs. 2572–75). Concomitantly, “basic convictions about the way the Bible—and especially the OT—speaks of the Triune God are not sophisticated or theologically complicated ones” (Kindle locs. 2627–28). Instead, the “rhythms of worship” impart “tacit knowledge” of these basic convictions. (Kindle locs. 2629–31). In particular, “at the heart of the internal movement of a two-testament Scripture is a collateral conviction: that God is One, and unchanging. Or, to use the language of Prayer Book worship: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.’ ” (Kindle locs. 2585–87). The liturgy imparts the assumption that validates the canonical reading: God does not change, therefore, God in Christ is Yahweh. The logic of Seitz’s overall construal seems to be that the OT witness is perspicuous, because rule of faith is perspicuous, because liturgy is perspicuous. Therefore, the claim that God does not change needs no textual substantiation and is subject to no textual challenge. For example, God becoming flesh cannot entail actual becoming, because that would require the subsequent witness to refer differently to a changed subject matter. Seitz contends the two testaments refer to the same subject matter, unnecessarily flattening the notion of sameness and establishing it as a presupposition. In this way, Seitz uses the appeal to populism and perspicuity to make a confessional claim the unassailable basis for the discrete witness of the OT to the triune God. This is an example of the sort of move that makes me sympathetic to biblical theologians who see theological commitments as a threat, not because neutrality is better or even possible but because a commitment is so easily established methodologically as a way to short-circuit the very texts that would challenge the commitment itself.
What does it mean to say the OT has a discrete voice as Christian Scripture?
What are the benefits and limitations of the historical analysis of NT reception of the OT? Is it inherently developmentalist? Why?
What are the benefits and limitations of classic or premodern interpretive practices in comparison with the practices of, for example, Paul? Does the “closure” of the NT create an essential difference between them? Why? What are the necessary differences between premodern and postmodern practices?
Do the apostles and prophets have a distinctive “pneumatological stance” that sets their interpretive practices apart from the rest of the church’s? Why?
What role should the rule of faith play in theological hermeneutics? Does it substantiate the discreteness of the OT’s witness? Why?
What is the “plain sense” of the OT and how does it speak in relation to Christian faith?
Does the liturgy serve to impart “tacit knowledge” that makes the plain sense of Scripture available to the church without need of “special hermeneutics from outside”? How? Where do the liturgy and its “basic convictions” come from? Can the text challenge the “plain sense” of the liturgy or the rule of faith? How?
How does the preservation of the discrete witness of the OT to God in Christ address hermeneutical concerns such as the “same-sex crisis”? What does it do for the interpretation of specific texts in tension with other texts and other commitments?
For many years, my belief has been that the only way forward as Churches of Christ, on a very practical level—that of the congregation—is to lean all the way into our historical commitment to Scripture. All the way in, farther than ever before. There is, in my opinion, no other way to proceed with integrity and historical continuity. There are undoubtedly other ways forward, but in my estimation they will probably sacrifice integrity or continuity or both. I admit that as I deploy those two terms, integrity and continuity, they begin to bear considerable weight, but I don’t want to bog down just now in a technical discussion of what I mean by them. Suffice it for now to say, I’m referring to what I understand to be the two major dimensions of identity. While integrity and continuity are distinct in important ways, where they converge is also vital. In our tradition, they converge on interpreting the Bible at the congregational level. Unless we manage to address the hermeneutical problem in our heart, cardiac arrest is inevitable.
Now let me double down on my prior claim: the future of Churches of Christ is a theological question. The Bible is definitely not God, so what do I mean?
I mean that, as we order the issues we face, the first one we must address as a theological question is hermeneutics. Churches of Christ need a theological hermeneutics, just about on the order of a heart transplant. At another level, then, the question becomes: How can an anti-theological tradition develop a theological hermeneutics?
To reiterate, Churches of Christ certainly have theological commitments and affirmations. And this is deeply important because one basic claim of those who advocate theological interpretation is that all interpretation is always already theologically committed. Further, properly Christian readings of the Bible depend on these commitments. There are many ways to read the biblical text. To read it as Scripture is to begin with critical, generative theological presuppositions. To read it as Churches of Christ is to reckon with a particular set of such commitments.
The term theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) refers to a recent development in the interdisciplinary space between biblical studies and systematic theology. This being an academic space, it is inevitably diverse and contested, so TIS does not refer to a single, fixed set of ideas or practices. But it is a singular enough conversation to designate under one heading. To call it a school of thought might be too ambitious for some, but I think it works provisionally. TIS’s typical features include consideration of pre-modern approaches to biblical interpretation (including those in the Bible itself), the role of faith statements such as the ancient Rule of Faith and the Ecumenical Creeds in biblical hermeneutics, readers’ theological influences (tradition, contemporary thought, and so on), the formative effects of church practices such as prayer and worship on Bible readers, and the uses to which the Christian community puts interpretation. [1. For introductory reading, see Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007); Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Cascade Companions (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).]
But our theology in Churches of Christ is, as I’ve said, typically inarticulate—first-order, implicit, and largely incoherent (I’ve contributed to a book that proposes one approach to coherence, more on which anon). If the practices of theological interpretation, insofar as it is a hermeneutical agenda, require explicit theology, then we need to address the theological question. Otherwise we cannot answer others, first and foremost the hermeneutical one.
I should be clear on this point, so I will reiterate it. There is no way to read the Bible apart from theological commitments; they are inevitable. There is no way to read the Bible faithfully apart from faith; it is indispensable. Reading the Bible faithfully calls for a faith that seeks understanding in the most thoroughgoing sense. In other words, we are obliged to articulate the faith by which we read. The attempt to do otherwise is false path, on which Churches of Christ have nonetheless stubbornly persisted many times over.
The quintessential attempt to read without theological lenses was the heart of the American Restoration plea: to unite on a simple, honest reading of the plain meaning of the text, without creeds, theological systems, or denominational biases obscuring the obvious commands examples, and necessary inferences of the New Testament. This conceit has been thoroughly illuminated and critiqued in the last fifty years (bibliography available on request), so I won’t belabor it here. This approach has proven to be naive, mistaken, and counterproductive. Its failure is at the root of the ongoing crisis of identity that dogs Churches of Christ.
Yet, there is another manifestation of the same impulse that deserves urgent attention. It is trickier to critique, because it has been the centerpiece of a legitimate attempt to move beyond the old hermeneutic. I am talking about historical-critical exegesis. As theological education has matured among schools affiliated with Churches of Christ—for which I give continual thanks to God—our inclination to attend to the first-century church has made the dominant approach of biblical studies in the modern academy a seemingly irresistible alternative to early Stone-Campbell hermeneutics. If we care first and foremost about what the biblical texts “meant” in the first century, what better solution than to major in the historical methods that might render our conclusions rigorously defensible? And, as it happens, the same Enlightenment suspicion of theological bias that animated the early Restoration Movement has dominated modern biblical studies from its beginnings. In many ways, it was a match made—well, not in heaven, but in a powerful twist of cultural predilection.
Moreover, I am personally quite proud of this vibrant, albeit recent heritage. My years at Harding University and Harding School of Theology were marked by a voracious thirst for and delight in biblical studies in this mode. I am indebted to teachers who taught and exemplified the highest standards of historical-critical exegesis. My library is full of books that shed light on the biblical text with the very methods I am discussing. Generally speaking, I have no desire to approach the Bible without the tools that historical-critical methods frequently employ. From the lexical and semantic complexities of the original-language documents that underlie our biblical translations to the socio-cultural issues that frame them, the biblical text demands critical examination.
As I watched the church of my youth begin to free itself of patternistic and sectarian uses of Scripture, the alternative at the congregational level seemed to be something between saccharine popular spirituality (it’s all about “love” and “grace”—the scare quotes are doing real work here) and postmodern subjectivism (“what it means to me”), both of which made me feel a bit nauseous. I found solace in the rigor of biblical studies. I felt completely at home with the claim that historical-critical exegesis would anchor us in authorial intent and original meaning. I was happy that the methods of biblical studies would allow us to warrant arguments about the historical boundaries of meaning. Frankly, I still am. Sort of.
The big, hairy problem is that exegesis is not theology. Technically, it does not even amount to hermeneutics (i.e., the full-blown theory of how how readers make meaning of texts). The attempt to figure out what a text meant historically and then, in a second step, apply that meaning is ultimately another iteration of the approach taken by plucking commands, examples, and inferences from the Bible. That is why it is so appealing to Restorationists. And that is why it is, at its very best, inadequate.
Certainly, historical-critical exegesis is more sophisticated than the old approach. It is more scholarly, more demanding, more careful. These are positive attributes. Incidentally, they are also why much of the tradition has kept good exegetical practice at arm’s-length. Our native populism and suspicion of academic convolution has contributed to a major division between the ways that ministers have been trained to interpret the Bible in academic programs and the ways that interpretive discussions proceed in local churches. This is one problem, and it is not minor. But it is only a symptom of our essential dilemma.
Our essential dilemma is shared by many other traditions: the widespread rift between church and academy has left the methods of biblical scholarship bereft of the theological riches (confessional, liturgical, intellectual, and practical) of the church’s faith. This comes to expression in the disciplinary siloing of systematic theology and biblical studies in the theological academy. That is a problem for another discussion, and I mention it only to amplify the point that even in our best programs, there is an institutionalized internal rift between theological reflection and biblical exegesis. (Incidentally, this is why generalist programs of study like the Masters of Divinity are so important for ministerial training. We may often fail at facilitating integration, but at least we expose students to everything at once.)
In the end, exegesis just is theological. Our pretensions of objectivity, our desire to “begin” with the Bible, are powerless to prevent the influence of theological assumptions. That fact, however, does not overcome the deep-rooted tendency to leave “theology” as a second, often optional step. This means that the theology doing de facto work in our interpretive practices is both obscured and anemic. Stated more starkly, bad theology does interpretive work where good theology is absent. The future of Churches of Christ is a theological question because we need theology in order to lean all the way into our historical commitment to Scripture. We need theological interpretation of Scripture.
The hopeful news is that, in the midst of decline, there are signs of life. For example, Brad East, an associate professor at Abilene Christian University, has written “The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation: Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism: Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation,” (International Journal of Systematic Theology 19, no. 1 [January 2017]: 30–52.), in addition to compiling and editing a volume of essays by Robert W. Jenson (The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture [New York: Oxford, 2019]), one of the forerunners of TIS. Keith Stanglin, Professor of Scripture and Historical Theology Austin Graduate School of Theology, recently published The Letter and the Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). For the last two years, the annual Christian Scholars Conference has featured sessions on theological interpretation titled “Sola Scriptura and Prima Scriptura: The Tension and Cohesion of Scripture and Community,” featuring scholars from a variety of Churches of Christ schools. And John Mark Hicks’s volume Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible (n.p.: John Mark Hicks, 2019) is something of a primer in theological interpretation for Churches of Christ. Hicks’s book is especially important because of its accessibility and contextualization in the tradition. The rift between church and academy means that there is no telling whether the influence of most of the work I’ve mentioned (and undoubtedly there are others that merit attention) will make a timely contribution to the urgent state of affairs among Churches of Christ. But I am hopeful that they represent the leading edge of the theological renewal that our hermeneutics badly needs.
What will this look like on the local level? What does taking the theological question seriously mean for congregations? How can a tradition formed around the suspicion of theology make the transition? In my view, that is the ten-million dollar question. I doubt anyone knows the answer. I do see, however, a handful of key issues.
Media. First, we have to reckon with the loss of the media through which theological leadership once brought relative cohesion to Churches of Christ. For more than a century, periodicals played this role, marked through the years by increasingly evident regional predilections. As periodicals declined in influence, university lectureships rose in prominence, their reach and accessibility being even more limited. By the end of the twentieth century, lectureships (and their evangelistic counterpart, gospel meetings) had also proven impotent in the face of the tradition’s powerful sense of local autonomy. The universities themselves, particularly the publications of their Bible faculties and their influence on graduates, have been especially formative on a national scale in the last fifty years, but fragmentation has continued to accelerate. New media is too new to evaluate in retrospect, but I see no evidence that blogs and the like have filled the void. To the contrary, they play into the hyper-personalization and pluralization of perspectives that characterize the market of ideas in 2020. In some respects, this is the realization of a restorationist ideal, namely, the radical democratization of theological discourse. These days, the threat of clerical elitism has been totally overcome by a meritocracy of ideas (or, at least, one could wish that good ideas were the currency in circulation). The letter to the editor has become 280 characters of unmediated assertion. Subscriptions have become the echo chambers of social media algorithms. In some ways, there is nothing new under the sun. In others, we’re off the map, and here there be monsters. The point being, we have to figure out how theological leadership works through twenty-first century media.
Discursive practices. Second, our basic ability to have conversations, even on the local level, is in question. On the one hand, this is a matter of appetite. It is not clear that there is a hunger among most Christians for the kinds of conversations that would foster a robust theological imagination. Perhaps this is a result of training our desire almost exclusively toward the sort of packaged theology that sermons so often deliver. Theology is an endeavor usually relegated to the responsibility of a few who are expected to do the work of reflection individually and, in turn, present their ideas in easily digestible bites. This is evidently related to the cultural trend toward the presentation of smaller and smaller bits of information in the most entertaining or provocative way possible. I do not imagine that our history offers an ideal alternative. Discourse in the Restoration Movement was polemical from the beginning, and the entertainment value of such rhetoric should not be underestimated historically. Public debate has always been a powerful format for quite human reasons. But the demise of such media, arguably for virtuous reasons, did not give rise to alternative forms of attention-sustaining discourse. To the contrary, I see little evidence that Christians are willing to attend to each other long and carefully enough to do theological work together. The emergence of long-form podcasts and conversations in other “alternative” media are a hopeful sign in the wider culture, though it hardly represents a major movement so far. In any case, the question is how to generate a greater appetite for substantial theological reflection among congregations habituated to brevity, simplicity, and delegated responsibility.
C. Christopher Smith of The Englewood Review of Books has been doing important work on this issue for years. His books Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (2016), How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (2019) are key resources [2. It is noteworthy that this work grows out of a Restorationist heritage. See the story of Englewood Christian Church here: http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-3-2/authors/md-3-2-mobley-taylor-bowling.]. Books like David Fitch’s The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies (2019) or, in a sociological vein, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) are also relevant here.
On the other hand, our ability to have conversations is a matter of spiritual formation. This claim aims at two problems. One is the tribalism that runs rampant in the rest of the culture. We are, again, habituated to picking sides and deploying un-nuanced, totalizing rhetoric against one another. Social media is not the scapegoat—indeed, it is more likely that the way we interact in comments and tweets reveals something about who we already are than that we are simply victims of a format. But it is a chicken-egg problem, because practice makes vicious. The openness, humility, and repentance that real dialogue demands is, for Christians, a spiritual matter. The other problem, then, is the widespread failure to make spiritual disciplines and the fruit of the Spirit the indispensable accompaniments of congregational dialogue aimed at meaningful new understanding. I believe this failure is compounded by the history of divisiveness that makes many in Churches of Christ feel that conflict as such is sinful. Rather than leaning into loving, prayerful, generative disagreement, many congregations employ strategies of avoidance that ultimately cripple their theological development. I have great sympathy for leaders who feel this is the only faithful option. The damage we have done to one another is nothing to shrug at. It is, nonetheless, deeply harmful in another way to imagine that either dividing the church or avoiding difficult conversations are the only alternatives. The question here is how to marry spiritual formation and theological discourse programmatically and inextricably in local church practice.
Identity formation. Third, our tradition wants for theological identity in a basic sense. This is, of course, a function of the theological anemia discussed in the previous post. But the identity issue puts us on a specific approach to the problem of theological interpretation of Scripture. It highlights who we are as interpreters—who the “we” is that comes to the text together in congregational interpretation. This is a difficult question to answer from our present moment in history. The book I’ve coauthored with Mark Powell and John Mark Hicks, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future, is aimed at this problem.
The chapter on Scripture addresses my present concern most directly, but it relies on the whole argument of the book, which is that a particular set of theological commitments has characterized and should characterize the theological vision of Churches of Christ. These commitments—Trinity (!), eschatology, Scripture, church, sacraments, and mission—cohere around the central concept and practice of discipleship. Our prayer is that the book serve the many churches in our tradition struggling, consciously or unconsciously, with the question of our identity. In particular, I hope it catalyzes a discussion of the theological identity that must come to shape our communal interpretation of Scripture if we are to move vibrantly into the twenty-first century. Because the question of whether Churches of Christ will outgrow our half-century-long identity crisis is an existential one.
Interpretive practices. Fourth and finally, there is a great deal of work to be done in creating resources that would make TIS understandable and practicable on the local level. I hope to see and perhaps to contribute in coming years to books, websites, or podcasts along the lines of “theological interpretation for everyone” (hats off to the “For Everyone” series of commentaries by John Goldingay and N. T. Wright). In this conversation, such resources are the main bridge that urgently needs to be built across the divide between church and academy. I have in mind especially traditions like Churches of Christ that value (ostensibly) inclusive congregational interpretation, whose strong populism renders reliance on well-trained church leaders less determinative in shaping interpretive habits and sensibilities. For such as these, the fact that TIS literature remains almost entirely academic and high-flown or, at best, written on a level most readily digestible for an MDiv is a major barrier. I wonder, can we make the discussion and practices of TIS as widespread and accessible as those of CEI (command, example, inference) were in the early Restoration Movement?
This video records a long-form conversation in which John King tells his story as the lead developer of the Discovery Bible Study method (see additional resources below), and I air some of my doubts and concerns about DBS, especially in view of hermeneutical issues that face our shared tradition as members of Churches of Christ.
I believe that most worthwhile conversations need time to unfold—time far in excess of what the popular narrative about our short attention spans and hyper-busy schedules would allow. So I am delighted that John gave me two and a half hours of his time to tell the story in detail and dialogue about important issues.
Still, neither of us has an especially brisk style of speech, so make good use of the playback speed controls!
The future of Churches of Christ is a theological question, full stop.
I’m struck anew by how unconventional, even peculiar, this claim is for the tradition. And that is why it is necessary to assert unequivocally that what happens next will be a response to our vision and experience of who God is. It will be nothing else.
Our preoccupation should not be how to stem the flow of membership bleeding away or how to plant enough churches to offset the loss. Our attention should not be set on preserving a historical identity or discovering a new one. Our commitment should not be to the right practices—of interpretation, discipleship, unity, community, or justice. Our interest should not be surviving or thriving or any other version of being.
Before the even-handed purveyor of nuance pipes up: Yes, these are good and important, some more so, some less. No, these are not mutually exclusive with whatever else I will say. Yes, the dichotomy of theology and practice is false. No, we cannot answer the theological question without mission or identity or commitments. Yes, there is room for more than one idea of how to move forward. No, God save us, there is not a final answer. Also, knock it off. I’m talking about the one thing here. Everything else flows from it. Nothing else means anything apart from it. Call it the heart, the womb, the center, the essential truth, the sine qua non, the yes that we must speak before and after all other words—call it what you like. (Well, don’t call it the foundation. For everyone’s sake, let’s just let that one rest a while.)
I am not interested in answering the question here. I do not offer overtures toward an answer. The constructive work is for other times and places.
Instead, I am voicing my perplexity, my incredulity, at the fact that in the midst of our scramble to reckon with the epochal shift that is sifting Churches of Christ (among others) in the US like wheat, I hear our leaders attempting to answer every question except the one by which we live or die: Who is the God we love and serve? This is a confessional question, but more, it is a theological question. It is the theological question.
My belief is that our tradition is so colossally failing to give an answer in our time because, fundamentally, we presume the answer is already given. We presume it is enough to say, “The God of the Bible” or “The God revealed in Jesus” or “The God we worship and pray to and preach about every Sunday.” Simplicity and superficiality are our bane. We presume the other questions are the ones that really need answers. This presumption is a deadly delusion. It is literally killing us.
Churches of Christ are effectively a-theological, historically as a matter of description and presently as a matter of inheritance. We are predisposed to ignore the force of the theological question. We share no coherent vision or experience of God. Our response to God is broadly, typically, inarticulate.
This became clear to me in a new way as I studied and interacted with colleagues of diverse backgrounds in my PhD program at Fuller Theological Seminary. As I participated in theological discussions, my friends would analyze, critique, and make proposals by employing an interconnected set of established theological assumptions. This not only served the coherence of their work but helped others understand what they were up to. In the same way that a theological publication is usually best understood with reference to the author’s tradition and commitments, another student’s theological heritage was a key reference point for understanding her argument. By contrast, I frequently found myself explaining that my church tradition doesn’t have a specific or well-defined understanding of a particular issue. Perhaps a tendency, a position from Campbell or Milligan or Lipscomb or Whiteside, or a common sermonic refrain, but nothing systematic, nothing definitive, especially for twentieth-century Churches of Christ. For example, in my course on the atonement, it was obvious that my background offered only a sketchy point of departure. What one says about atonement is constrained and compelled by other doctrines, such as Christology, anthropology, and eschatology. Ultimately, the interrelatedness of these topics is what constitutes a coherent theological tradition. The minimalism of doctrine among Churches of Christ, which often retreats to the repetition of biblical phrases, erodes such coherence. There are positive aspects of this minimalism, no doubt. I have a greater degree of freedom to appropriate diverse theological perspectives and to undertake more radical systematic revisions than I observed in many of my colleagues with more robust traditions. For example, it was not controversial among my cohort at Harding School of Theology to appreciate the New Perspective on Paul where it challenges substitutionary atonement, Open Theism where it challenges divine omniscience, Moltmann’s theology of the cross where it challenges divine impassibility, or Brueggemann’s biblical theology where it challenges the unity of Scriptural witness. Any of these might have been difficult to understand or unacceptable in the end for a particular student, but none of them was irreconcilable with the theological tradition, because the tradition is so tenuous in the first place. This freedom is rooted in what my teacher John Mark Hicks has called our “wild democracy,” which I cherish [1. See John Mark Hicks, “I Stayed for the Wild Democracy,” in Why We Stayed: Honesty and Hope in Churches of Christ, ed. Benjamin W. Williams (Los Angeles: Keledei, 2018), 103–20.]. It need not, however, lead to the kind of inarticulacy that cripples us presently.
The theological question demands that we articulate not only what we answer but how and why and what it means for everything else.
No doubt, the guardians of fairness and balance will cry “generalization,” even “overstatement.” To these devastating insights I say, of course our congregational life entails properly theological responses. Top to bottom, first-order theology is at work in the tradition. Our practices just are affirmations and confessions. Unequivocally, however, they are incoherent. They are not ours. They are not the entailments of a shared search for understanding. And, most fatally, they are demonstrably failing to determine our answers to the other questions that so absorb us.
Because I am especially interested in a missional theology, one example that merits attention is the argument of another of my teachers, Stan Granberg. No one is taking the rapid decline of Churches of Christ more seriously, and his research is extremely important. Wineskins, which has recently given the situation appropriate attention, featured an abbreviated version of his substantial article published in Great Commission Research Journal [2. See Stanley E. Granberg, “Three Bold Challenges,” Wineskins 22, no. 7 (2019): http://wineskins.org/2019/07/17/three-bold-challenges-for-churches-of-christ; Stanley E. Granberg, “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006-2016,” Great Commission Research Journal 10, no. 1 (2018): 88–111.]. Urging that planting new churches is the solution to what ails us, Granberg quotes Timothy Keller: “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city.” The word “crucial” caught my attention. It comes from the Latin word crux, used originally in the phrase instantia crucis (“instance of the cross” or “crucial situation”). Let me avoid a few misunderstandings. One, I am not making an etymological argument. Two, I am not quibbling about word choice. Three, I am not casting aspersions on Granberg’s theology. Rather, because of the seriousness and merit of his argument, I want to reckon with what it represents: a propensity to reach for practical, strategic solutions that underplay the theological dimensions of the question before us. What does the cross teach us about the way forward? What is truly crucial? What does cruciformity look like as churches close at a rate that can only be called fatal? I’m an advocate of “church planting”; I’ve done some myself. But are we really suffering decline because we’re not planting enough new churches? Is the solution really to reallocate money and plant new churches? Or might it be that the problem and the most important answer has more to do with how existing churches—and, inevitably, any that arise from the same anemic theological tradition—live (and die) in relation to God?
Our theological status quo is anathema. The work of theology is imperative. There is a hopeful future for Churches of Christ that way. But if we refuse to speak of God first, if we keep acting as though we can organize, strategize, and financially manage our way forward, our future is hopeless and pointless. If we keep pretending that old answers and good intentions are enough, the tradition is dead already.
I remain hopeful, because the cross is a sign of hope. It is the power of God for renewal and restoration. We must, in faith, persist in the search for an understanding of the God found there. We must speak and act according to its logic. This is the work of theology to which we are presently called.
My first semester of teaching in the hallowed halls of academe is in the rearview, and I’ve caught my breath enough to begin reflecting. It has been a learning experience for all of us!
As an adjunct professor at Lipscomb University, I taught three courses in the Fall 2019 term—almost a full load for full-time faculty and definitely a full load for an inexperienced professor. Two of those courses were online, so I was figuring out both how to lecture in person and how to facilitate a meaningful online experience. I have no illusions about how much I have to learn in order to become as good as my best teachers were. I have some hope, however, that I did a bit better than my worst teachers! In any case, here’s some of what I’ve begun grappling with in the university environment of our brave (still) new century.
I want to teach! One of the questions that my program at Fuller wisely puts to its PhD students is what they want to do with their degree. Unfortunately, once they have their degree, no few graduates find out that their heart is not really in teaching. Teacher-assistant work and the like is useful for confronting vocational questions early, but the only way to really know whether you want to spend your life in a classroom (and in front of a computer screen!), grading papers and tests, and dealing with student problems is to dive in. After working with college interns in the mission field, I was fairly sure about my direction. This semester has certainly tested my idealism about undergraduate education, but if anything I’m more passionate about teaching my students—or maybe figuring out how to teach my students—than ever. I’m still writing my dissertation, still in the thick of research and writing, and I’m confident that I enjoy that work more than many of my peers. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever stop loving the quest to understand better and articulate more. But I want to teach.
I love the university. My idealism underwent a reality check, but I’m still in love with the ideals of higher education. I do not buy the prominent narrative that every high school graduate should be on a college track, and I believe in the importance of other kinds of vocational training. Still, higher education is a profound good, and its proliferation is one of the great achievements of modernity. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that one of the reasons for contemporary Western social malaise is the failure of the academy to deliver on its promises. Those promises are, nonetheless, the right ones to make. Our culture is overwhelmed by ignorance despite the claim that the problem is too much information, by falsehood despite the fact that we have more widespread access to verifiable data than ever before, and by anti-intellectualism despite (or because of?) the fact that there are more bona fide intellectuals on the planet than ever before. The university is under existential threat for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the unfettered commodification of educational credentials, but I still find great hope in a class full of twenty-somethings who, even at obscene expense, have opted into a years-long process that is ostensibly about learning how to think broadly and deeply.
The university is in massive transition. The situation is complex, but in large part because of the commodification of degree-holding, the American university is undergoing radical upheaval on a cultural level.
On the one hand, it has become a buyer’s market. The typical university’s financial need to recruit and retain paying students weighs against rigorous standards for both acceptance and performance. Anecdotally, this is evident in the unwillingness and/or inability of students to read as much as was once the norm.[1. See the common complaint in, e.g., David Gooblar, “They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again,” Chronicle Vitae, September 24, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/719-they-haven-t-done-the-reading-again; Keith M. Parsons, “When Students Won’t Read,” HuffPost, March 9, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-students-wont-read_b_6334392; John Warner, “When Students Won’t Do the Reading,” Inside Higher Ed, January 18, 2016, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/when-students-wont-do-reading; Charlie Wesley, “Do You Assign Enough Reading? Or Too Much?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Do-You-Assign-Enough-Reading-/237085; Angela Jenks, “Why Don’t Students Read?” Teaching Tools, Fieldsights, August 19, 2016, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/why-dont-students-read.] In conversations with professors at multiple institutions, I’ve heard the same refrain about “heavy” (meaning, more than minimal) reading loads: students simply will not do them. That notion continues to boggle my mind. Certainly, it should mean that they will not complete reading requirements if they are willing to make a grade that reflects the failure. On the contrary, however, the assumption seems to be that reading requirements should be adjusted to the level that students are willing to complete. Further, professors who assign “too much” reading earn reputations that affect enrollment in their classes. (That is a big problem for professors without tenure!) How can this be? What happened to the university student ensconced in the library, tackling a stack of books, exploring textual horizons unknown—becoming, in a word, a well-read person? The answer: that vision belongs to a seller’s market, a time when what the university offered was the privilege of being rigorously vetted as an educated person, and professors spake “go and read” with authority. Of course, that image was never more than a romantic fancy, but it was shared broadly in the culture nonetheless, and it fired the imaginations of generations of students. As far as I can tell, it does so no longer.
Because, on the other hand, many students are simply trying to get done as quickly as possible. Given how much students are paying for education, how much debt encumbers their early adulthood, and how quickly they need to move on to gainful employment, many are more interested in getting a degree than an education—and in this regard, I pass no judgment. Still, I lament the implications. The trajectory of online education is bound to this reality. And the online learning experience, which every career professor I’ve spoken withregarding online modalities discusses with resignation or disgust, so appeals to students because they are far more interested in getting the work done in the most efficient way possible. I do not say that students are generally ignorant of the educational advantages that in-the-flesh courses afford but that many are more motivated by the utility of online courses for checking boxes and jumping through hoops on the way to a career that pays bills. This new reality will only solidify in coming decades, so the work before us must be to align online modalities with the very best of the Western tradition of higher education. I resolve not to complain but to face this work soberly and hopefully, even if nostalgia has a role to play.
Giving bad grades is uncomfortable. My wife, my children, and my close friends might be surprised to hear that I don’t enjoy giving unvarnished critical feedback, but the truth is that, for me, that process depends absolutely on a relational context that is impossible to establish with students in the span of a semester, especially in an online forum. I’m confident that my students would not accuse me of being an easy grader, but grading was not easy. Despite my belief in the importance of critique for growth in any aspect of life and the veritable sanctity of truth in educational assessment, I found it difficult to tell students they had underperformed. I found myself scrutinizing my grading as I entered final grades, asking myself what the low grades really represented. The most important help in this regard is the students who did well in every respect. In the end, I gave a lot of well-earned As. Still, all sorts of questions about systemic disadvantages and particular circumstances inevitably arise. Those other grades made me wonder whether I did everything possible to help students succeed. I doubt that question will go away soon.
Communication is the name of the game. Most of my mistakes this first semester were about communication—not of content but of expectations, of how to succeed, and of what matters most. Of course, communication is a two-way street, but for my part, I learned a lot about how students experience the syllabus and how they hear instructions.
It’s about process more than content. Similarly, it is evident that most undergraduates are still learning how to learn. Perhaps it is strange for someone like me, who feels the reduction of reading standards so keenly, to admit that content is not king. And perhaps, if I’m totally transparent, I actually mean that it’s about process as much as content. My unavoidable conclusion, however, is that the more pressing issue at this level is capacity for content, so it matters little that the reading is carefully curated, the lectures are substantive, and the material is important if students cannot really process it at the pace that a course demands.
There is nothing better than watching students get it. It is the joy of teaching. The light comes on, and there is no way a student will ever see the world the same way again. A piece of the puzzle falls into place, and the picture gets a little easier to glimpse. A pathway into new territory opens up, and the possibilities demand deeper study. An old paradigm breaks, and the need to replace it becomes urgent. Assumptions come into view. Information obtains meaning. Interpretation becomes conscious and then skillful. This is why I love education.