Our Theological Traditions Shape Who We Become: How Do We Evaluate Those Traditions?

All Theological Traditions Have Blind Spots: How Has My Tradition Shaped Me to See God, Self, and Others?

While continuing with Robert Schreiter’s four-step approach to “mapping a local theology” I introduce here the second step. The first step was to open the future where “listening carefully in my neighborhood guides me to discover its principal values, needs, interests, directions, and symbols.”[1] Step one teaches me to observe my community, my neighborhood, and the people I frequently encounter, whereas step two is focused on my presuppositions, and values that have been shaped by family, church, or religious traditions.

Step Two: Opening My Theological Tradition

My theological tradition and culture have shaped my imagination of God, self, and others. As a participant observer and extension of Christ through his church, my role requires I embody a trinitarian imagination as I live in my neighborhood. The distinction offered by Marti, Gerardo in, Ethnographic Theology: Integrating the Social Sciences and Theological Reflection, between “found theologies” and “imposed theologies” serves to remind me that unexamined ideas and prejudices, as well as deeply held values and convictions, can radically direct attention and creatively reshape my perceptions.[2] Found theologies are those that I discover and learn as I grow in my relationship with God and others. Imposed theologies are those that I never fully evaluated. We may too often rely indiscriminately on what our family, church, or peer group values. At some point, I must assess whether those suppositions are true. When found theologies collide with imposed theologies there is tremendous tension. I have discovered prejudices, many of which I am still becoming fully aware.

I was raised Roman Catholic to fifth grade and studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses before placing my faith in Jesus at age 22. For the next three years, I was discipled under Pentecostal theologies within the Assemblies of God denomination. I completed my baccalaureate degree in Bible Theology, a Master’s degree in Biblical and Theological Studies, and another in Christian Leadership from evangelical schools resistant to Pentecostalism. My journey and theological assumptions have been continually challenged. I affirm the historic church's rule of faith as expressed in the Creeds but live as one whose allegiance is to the risen Jesus whose kingdom is a present reality in the world. I seek to focus on core theological commitments rather than denominational distinctives.

My theology had been shaped by Reformed evangelicalism within evangelical institutions but has been disrupted by the influence of Matthew Bates’s[3] language of soteriology, Michael Gorman’s[4] hermeneutics of missiology, and the ecclesiological practices expressed by David Fitch.[5] Matthew Bates Ph.D., a Professor of Theology at Quincy University, helped me to understand faith as allegiance or faithfulness to Jesus. This goes beyond mere acceptance, belief, or knowledge of Bible truth. Instead, it leads me to love God and humanity as one loyal and obedient to his king (Matt 22:34-40). Terms do matter.

Michael Gorman, Ph.D., the Raymond E. Brown Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University places emphasis on vertical and horizontal reconciliation that provides a fresh understanding of the dimensions through which the gospel has an effect. I agree with his admonishment that, “reconciliation is not an addendum to something else, such as salvation; it is salvation, it is the mission of God…and it has two inseparable dimensions, the reconciliation of people to God and the reconciliation of people to one another” (emphasis original).[6]

David Fitch, Ph.D., the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary expresses the practical essentials of the gospel in his book Faithful Presence.[7] He highlights what I describe as the four Ps: Presence, Posture, Practices, and Proclamation. Fitch writes, “faithful presence names the reality that God is present in the world and that he uses people faithful to his presence to make himself concrete and real amid the world’s struggles and pain.”[8] Posture describes how we embody the gospel and live humbly among people as the incarnational presence of God. Practices are those things we do alone such as prayer and reflection, and together in fellowship as members of the kingdom of God, and proclamation—a contextual practice—takes place wherever we find ourselves in this life. We use words and practices to embody and share Christ. As we practice being with people centered around a table where our lives are enjoined, we proclaim the good news. Jesus is Lord in all places. Therefore, I am inclined to see salvation and mission as more socially directed than that espoused by my evangelical tradition. I understand that salvation is to be saved for God and my neighbor (Matt 5:1-16; 22:36-40; Rom 8:28-29).

God is extending his kingdom through the church to the world. God is reconciling people to himself and reconciling people to one another. I believe that the practical implications of my faith have social and theological ramifications. I practice reconciliation each Wednesday. Teenagers and I sit around a table, talk about life, and share pizza. Being present among students has significantly changed our interpersonal relationships and conversations. I am no longer inclined to control outcomes or force my agenda on others but am free to enter into life with teens and listen to their stories. The drive to change them has been replaced with a desire to love them. A space has been opened for genuine dialogue. To evaluate one’s theological tradition should never be worrisome. It may present challenges and that is OK. Most importantly, it allows God to kindle within us a fresh imagination of his goodness and grace.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Marti, Gerardo. “Ethnographic Theology: Integrating the Social Sciences and Theological Reflection. Cuestiones Teológicas 49(111): 1-18. 2022.” Cuestiones Teológicas, 2022. doi:10.18566/cueteo.v49n111.a13. https://www.academia.edu/82075226/Ethnographic_Theology_Integrating_the_Social_Sciences_and_Theological_Reflection_Cuestiones_Teol%C3%B3gicas_49_111_1_18_2022?auto=download&email_work_card=download-paper

[3] Matthew Bates, Salvation By Allegiance Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

[4] Michael Gorman, Becoming the Gospel, Paul, Participation and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[5] David E. Fitch, What Is the Church and Why Does It Exist? (Harrisburg: Herald Press, 2021); David E. Fitch, Faithful Presence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016).

[6] Michael Gorman, 153.

[7] David Fitch, Faithful Presence.

[8] Ibid, 10.

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