Wednesday, 29 January 2014

What Do I Mean By Pilgrim Theology? Part 1

In the strap-line beneath the blog title above, I have indicated that these posts are intended to be personal reflections on pentecostalism and pilgrim theology. So what do I mean by pilgrim theology?

First of all let me say that I was using this term before I came across a quite new handbook of Christian doctrine called  A Pilgrim Theology by Michael Horton. Although in browsing this book and knowing the 'stable' that Horton comes from, I suspect that I will disagree with him on quite a number of things, I do appreciate two emphases he highlights in his introduction. One is the communal and historically-aware nature of theology:
'To study theology involves entering a long, on-going conversation, one that we did not begin'
The idea of theology being a journey that has gone on for centuries and that must involve engaging with
fellow pilgrims, both historical and contemporary, has become essential for me. The other is the awareness of our own prejudices and limitations. It is theology for:
'...those on the way - Christians who humbly seek to understand God but who are aware of their own biases and sinful tendencies to distort the truth.'
He mentions that the use of the term "pilgrim theology" has a venerable tradition used by older theologians to distinguish our attempts to understand God as those who know in part, from those 'glorified saints' who now know him fully. I had not been aware of this in using the term.

I first came across the term in a book called Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, by Stanley Grenz and John Franke. They used it in the sense of challenging the idea that the aim of theology is 'simply to set forth, amplify, refine, and defend a timelessly fixed orthodoxy' and that all theology took place in a cultural context so that, although the essential message of Christ remains the same, the formulating, articulating and applying of the 'mosaic of beliefs' that connect with that message necessarily take place in specific cultural contexts that are in 'constant flux'. Expressing and working out the implications of those beliefs in shifting contexts must therefore be an on-going task which does not come to an end until the return of Christ.

These writers also referred to a book called Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery by Michael Bauman. Although I have not been able to get a copy, the reviews and content description made me think I'd like it. For example:
'Bauman says that theology should be an exploration and a discovery rather than the provincial holding action it often becomes. he offers a challenge to the fortress mentality that too often prevails in evangelical studies and tells students how to construct a theological method for intellectual pilgrimage. A call to be Biblical, skeptical and tolerant in doing theology.'
I increasingly like and relate to the idea of theology as an on-going journey of discovery rather than just learning, defending and passing on to others - others whom we don't want or expect to ask too many difficult questions but just accept our prevailing orthodoxy!  It does not have to mean that we can just happily make up truth as we waltz along but that we must not think that we have got it all sorted and settled. (I want to explore the difference between theological freedom and anarchy a little more in another post).

I have also just always connected with the idea of the Christian life as pilgrimage ever since I read A Pilgrim's Progress as a young Christian and remembered enjoying singing 'To be a pilgrim' as a child. I also came under the influence of The Pilgrim Church by E.H.Broadbent early in my Christian life. Although I no longer believe in his ideas of a pure, ideal New Testament church, the idea of the church needing to be continually on the move and open to God bringing us into new understanding and experience still strongly appeals. With one of the early pilgrim fathers, I believe 'God has yet more light to break forth from his holy Word'. That means that we must allow the Spirit through Scripture to have final authority over the forming and shaping of our beliefs, and not the prevailing Evangelical orthodoxy.

Bringing all this altogether, I think that I can say that for me doing pilgrim theology includes:
  • engaging in the historical and on-going conversation of Christian pilgrims;
  • being self-aware of our own cultural contexts and our sinful biases and limited perspectives, so that we are always willing to listen and to learn from others and engage in honest critical reflection;
  • recognizing the contextual nature of theology and that it has to be constantly changing in terms of how we formulate, articulate and work out the implications and applications of our beliefs;
  • going on  a journey of discovery, an intellectual pilgrimage, and not just holding on to ground we think we have taken and finally settled once and for all;
  • being open to change, and to God leading us into different understanding of some things and to a fuller and richer understanding of others. 
I am going to try and encapsulate all that a little more clearly and succinctly in my next post but I hope that will do for now.

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