Monday, June 1, 2009

Dr. Sviegel's "Case for RetroChristianity"

Dr. Michael Sviegel is a professor at Isaac's seminary that taught the Systematic Theology course that I audited last semester with Isaac. When Isaac started at DTS I was a little cynical because of their reputation for being the bastion of dispensationalism and being rather conservative. Over the past two years my skepticism has been undone by things like auditing Dr. Sviegel's course. I've found great conversations and openness to discussion amidst being very serious about faith, an ability to integrate art and media into theology, and (surprise) a handful of people with bumper stickers for my favored Presidential candidate on their cars. Didn't expect down here in the buckle of the Bible belt! I have really enjoyed following along in Isaac's intellectual journey of grad school.

In any case, Dr. Sviegel is a sci-fi fanatic and a dedicated fan of Bob Dylan and good coffee. It also just so happens that his specialty is Isaac's as well (early-church history), and he is a great teacher. He also has a blog called Sviegland. A month ago he put up a post that I LOVED and have been wanting to write about since then because it sums up Isaac's passion and his vision for his life. It's called "The Case for RetroChristianity." I find it so important and so well-written that I have to do a multi-post discussion of Sviegel's thoughts. I will quote him extensively, in fact you could just go read Sviegel's post and come back in a couple of days to read my second post in response to Sviegel's thoughts.

To start off, he defines his terms, which in this case is crucial. Isaac and I had a forever-long discussion a while ago in which we struggled to define when it was okay to confront someone within the church on a doctrinal point and tell them quite bluntly that they are WRONG, period, no ifs, ands, or buts. Not that you shut out discussion, but on some issues there can be no compromise because it is a fundamental truth to the Christian faith. I am not black and white. I am right-brained (that's the artsy side, right?) I like concepts and emotions and discussion - not categories and numbers and black and white logic. Telling someone they are just WRONG doesn't sit right with me, but I do understand that there are some basic tenants of the Church that if you don't agree with, you simply are not within the boundaries of what is a Christian.

Isaac and I went back and forth trying to define that and figure out a way to explain or describe what that is. The term Isaac and Dr. Sviegel use is 'orthodoxy' and it is just not understood by most people. We tend to think of the broader Christian church as this vast sprawling diverse body (which it is), with a huge variety of beliefs, and of course we all think that our little corner of it happens to be the one that is completely right. Sometimes we forget that there has always been a core belief that defines our faith, and that without that core, a church can no longer be counted as Christian.

So anyways.
Let me quote Sviegel's definitions here, which set up the parameters for his thoughts.

By “Orthodoxy” I signify the correct view on the central truths of the Christian faith and a proper practice of Christian works. As a rule of thumb, orthodoxy is that which has been believed and practiced everywhere, always, and by all. The “all” includes those who people who intend to be counted among orthodox Christians and who have generally been regarded as such by other orthodox Christians. Orthodoxy means holding the right opinion about crucial Christian truths and acts in keeping with what Christianity has always believed about these things. These are the kind of central, crucial doctrines that mark one as “orthodox.”

Heterodox teachings tend toward the margins of the received doctrines of the faith. And they sometimes teeter at the very edge. They still want to be part of the Christian tradition and still acknowledge the central Christian truths, but they also want to be unique, innovative, and clever in their theology and practice. They feel
comfortable recasting traditional truths in nontraditional language. They sometimes want to rearrange, reinvent, reinvigorate, and reformulate the things that had been handed down to them.

Doctrine that challenges and destroys the central core of orthodoxy. As such, heresy
alone is damnable doctrine. It often finds its origins as a radical heterodoxy, but not all heterodoxy ends up in denying basic fundamentals of the Christian faith. Heresy differs from heterodoxy in that the heretic knowingly (not ignorantly), willfully (not accidentally), and persistently (not momentarily) denies a key tenet of historic orthodox Christianity. He or she rejects certain truths that have been believed everywhere, always, and by all.

Sviegel goes into a little more detail than I quote here, but I found those categories to be helpful. Sviegel then throws in two more terms that he's made up that made both Isaac and I laugh because they deal with specific trends in our church setting here in the U.S.

Metrodoxy” is a term I coined to describe trendy, faddish, and “cool” doctrines and practices that tend to take over contemporary churches, especially “megachurches” and megachurch wannabes. If you want your church to have greater cultural “impact,” to draw media attention, and to place itself on the map of evangelical Christianity, you must accept and live by metrodox values... But amidst the excitement, metrodox churches tend to be in a constant state of identity crisis, needing to reinvent or re-brand themselves every few years. After a few phoenix-like rebirths, these churches eventually find themselves adrift, unsure of what they’re supposed to be doing or why... The result of this constant identity crisis is often a failure to identify and pass on what has been believed and practiced everywhere, always, and by all. So, extreme metrodoxy can be treated by intentionally and clearly teaching orthodoxy everywhere, at all times, and to all.

On the other extreme we find what I call “Petridoxy.” If the metrodox are too
progressive and trendy, the petridox are frozen in time, unable and unwilling to
change. They have been petrified. They tend to fear change as a great evil, not
realizing that their own practices were themselves once quite new (and likely
controversial). They often have a very myopic perspective on their own history,
believing their way has stood the test of time. They have no desire to critically examine their narrow perception of so-called “orthodoxy” or to evaluate whether what they’re doing actually does help to preserve and promote central orthodox beliefs and practices. Petridox churches would just as soon die a slow and painful death than make major adjustments. Having lost sight of the fundamental goal of receiving, preserving, and passing on the faith once for all entrusted to the saints,
petridoxy settles on one method of receiving, one manner of preserving, and one means of passing on the faith . . . and then it congeals in that particular form. Petridoxy therefore tends to be primitivistic, reactionary, ultra-conservative, and idealistically nostalgic. However, petridoxy can be softened by refocusing attention on the purpose of the church’s forms and structures: to intentionally and clearly teach orthodoxy everywhere, at all times, and to all.

Fantastic stuff, eh? More thoughts tomorrow or maybe in a couple of days.


Mason said...

Very interesting post Kacie, look forward to hearing more on this.

So far I think Sviegel provides good definitions here.

Ironically some churches that see themselves as ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ could actually be described as meterodox churches that stopped re-branding themselves and decided one particular style was the new orthodoxy.

Case in point, the swaths of independent Bible churches in the Midwest which were primarily dispensational break offs from other denominations, linked that theology with an certian musical style and social conservatism, and now talk like anyone who “just reads the Bible” will of course come to believe just what they do. But I digress...

That example aside, I think there needs to be wariness of both an obsession with the new and a fear of it. Not all developments are progress, but some are and we shouldn’t retreat to traditionalism when those come along.

Togenberg said...

I am really surprised to hear about DTS and your experiences there. In a good way. I had associated with a reactionary, Evangelical milieu and also with the Dispensationalism cranked out by Chafey (sp., the founder). But the DTS that I am thinking of is that of a generation or 2 ago.

And some boundaries or definitions are needed. It's not unhealthy or wrong to want adherants of a faith or congregation to be on board with the essentials. How this is maintained, of course, is ccomplicated but I think I share your postition.