Nyssa: The Recovery Must Fit the Disease: (Or, Not Everyone Is A Youth Group Refugee)

nyssaEarly on in my theological reading, I gained the impression that contextualizing our presentation gospel was a new concept that Lesslie Newbigin came up with in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not. Understanding the unique challenges that each culture, or sub-culture, or philosophic and religious tradition poses to the gospel is a task that has been with the church since its inception.

Case in point: Gregory of Nyssa. Reading in preparation for my courses this week, I ran across this fantastic little passage on contextualizing our presentation of the faith in the prologue to his The Great Catechism.

The presiding ministers of the “mystery of godliness” have need of a system in their instructions, in order that the Church may be replenished by the accession of such as should be saved, through the teaching of the word of Faith being brought home to the hearing of unbelievers. Not that the same method of instruction will be suitable in the case of all who approach the word. The catechism must be adapted to the diversities of their religious worship; with an eye, indeed, to the one aim and end of the system, but not using the same method of preparation in each individual case…The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease. You will not by the same means cure the polytheism of the Greek, and the unbelief of the Jew as to the Only-begotten God: nor as regards those who have wandered into heresy will you, by the same arguments in each case, upset their misleading romances as to the tenets of the Faith. No one could set Sabellius right by the same instruction as would benefit the Anomoean. The controversy with the Manichee is profitless against the Jew. It is necessary, therefore, as I have said, to regard the opinions which the persons have taken up, and to frame your argument in accordance with the error into which each has fallen, by advancing in each discussion certain principles and reasonable propositions, that thus, through what is agreed upon on both sides, the truth may conclusively be brought to light.

Gregory is preparing this catechism to be used widely, so he reminds potential pastors and apologists they need to be flexible in their presentation. In their catechetical classes where inquirers and initiates come to learn about the faith they will be dealing with a wide variety of hearers. Some are traditionalist Jewish monotheists offended at the incarnation. Others are Greek, folk polytheists tempted to chop up God’s unity into a diversity of gods. While still others are semi-Christian heretics of various varieties, many influenced by leading philosophies of the day. Which means you can’t count on the same formula, the same order of presentation to work every time, even if you’re teaching the same truth at the end of it.

It is the same today. For some, you’ll have to tackle philosophical questions about ethics, while others are interested in the Bible and science, and still others care about where the gospel speaks to their deep, existential questions about meaning or the trauma they’ve suffered. Without ultimately surrendering the content, or key principles, we need to learn a certain flexibility as ministers of the gospel in our instruction and proclamation.

I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffles over how to present the gospel raised by the Tim Keller interview with Nick Kristof. There were plenty of complaints coming from all angles. For me, a lot of the complaints seemed variations of a frustration that Keller didn’t present things the way they would have to the particular audience they were concerned with. He’s speaking to progressive New Yorkers and they’re thinking about their friends in the conservative youth group they grew up in.

Pete Enns, for instance, thought Keller’s responses could be seen as dismissive towards questioners or skeptics wrestling with doubt. He thought he didn’t sufficiently empathize with questioners struggling with issues of recurring concern, or acknowledge the tension sufficiently. The kind of blunt, straightforward answers Keller gave seemed clipped, formulaic, and would likely turn off the hearers Enns had in mind.

Now, that may be so for a particular kind of skeptic. But when I read it, I thought of my aggressively skeptical classmates in my philosophy undergrad who probably would have rolled their eyes at a show of empathy. If you didn’t immediately follow it up with a straight answer to a straight question, or a respond to the challenge, they would probably see it as a squishy dodge and walk away convinced Christians really didn’t have anything to say. In which case, it’s precisely the sorts of answers Keller gave which would have at least made them stick around long enough to argue about them and hear more.

My point is not that Keller’s way in the interview is the only possible or right way to respond to skeptical questions. It’s not even a defense of his interview. (Though, I thought Scot McKnight’s response to most of the critics was well-put, and that most didn’t consider the nature of the interview carefully anyways.) My point is simply to highlight the fact that we need to take care to not reduce all those who we’re trying to reach for the gospel to one pure type. Nor should we imagine the apologetic tack you would use for one group is obviously suited for all.

Of course, the key figure giving us warrant for “contextualizing” the gospel in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul. To Jews, he quotes Scripture to prove the Messiah; to Greeks, he engages in a bit of “worldview” evangelism before he comes to the figure of Christ (both in Acts 17). In the freedom of the gospel and under the Lordship of Christ, he makes himself all things to all people for the sake of reaching some (1 Cor. 9). But I would imagine that to those trying to reach Greeks, his approach with the Jews would seem narrowly Biblicistic and dogmatic. While to those concerned with Jewish outreach, his broad philosophical appeal might seem too initially accommodating.

Not every skeptic is a youth-group refugee. Nor are they hard-core atheist apologists. Some are squishy, New-Agers. Others are pragmatic, business-types. Still others are people who already think themselves properly “religious” and chafe at the notion they need an upgrade. And in our post-Christian society, some are just curious inquirers without all the hang-ups about which we might be worried. We need, then, to heed Gregory’s wisdom: “The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease.”

In which case, some of us should be slower to condemn those who are skilled in administering the medicine of the gospel to patients different than those we typically treat.

Soli Deo Gloria

6 thoughts on “Nyssa: The Recovery Must Fit the Disease: (Or, Not Everyone Is A Youth Group Refugee)

  1. Becoming all things to all people while being faithful to the Gospel is a crucial tension the church must learn to always live in. A paradox, for sure, one which I myself find challenging, but absolutely necessary nonetheless. I didn’t hear Keller’s interview, nor have I read any of the responses, but why do you think we Christians struggle with this so much? Thanks for your blog, by the way. I’ve found it helpful, insightful, and faithful. Keep at it man.

  2. I think there’s another issue at play in contextualization and that is between responding to the question people think they are asking and responding to the question that people actually are asking. A good illustration is found in van Inwagen’s The Problem of Evil. He says, “If a grieving mother whose child had just died of leukemia were to say to me ‘How could God do this?’, my first inclination be to to answer her by saying, ‘But you already knew that the children of lots of other mothers have died of leukemia. You were willing to say that he must have had some good reason in those cases. Surely you see that it’s just irrational to have a different response when it’s your own child who dies of leukemia?’ Now I see as clearly as you do that this would bean abysmally stupid and cruel thing to say, and even I wouldn’t in fact say it.” (p. 10)

    So while that might be an instance where the mother knows it’s not a philosophical question, it seems to me that there are often other sorts of questioners that think their questions are philosophical, especially in the area of evil, when they are not. And I think figuring out the balance between the two is important because if some of the popular level responses are actually supposed to be philosophical answers to a philosophical problem, then they fail. So what we can end up doing is perpetuate failed responses as solid and then when the person says it to someone more philosophically inclined, then two things might happen: (1) the person sees it fails and then thinks there is a philosophical problem where originally the problem was an existential and personal one and (2) the philosophically inclined person might get the idea that Christians aren’t very smart. But then again, if we treat a personal problem as a philosophical problem because the questioner thinks it is a philosophical and not a personal problem, then we respond as van Inwagen spoke about and give the wrong answer. The final horn of the trilemma is then trying to convince someone that they are really asking a different question, which probably won’t go over terribly well oftentimes since, of course, we are supremely rational, intelligent beings and that’s why I am having these doubts now.

    So tying this back in, I wonder at what point Enns (and others) are disagreeing. Were they really unaware for the moment that conversations happen in certain contexts and that Keller’s context might be different from theirs? I guess that’s possible. Or are they saying that even in Keller’s context the surface grammar might suggest a certain response is necessary, but when you probe deeper a different one is actually needed.

  3. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging particularly for this part:

    “Pete Enns, for instance, thought Keller’s responses could be seen as dismissive towards questioners or skeptics wrestling with doubt. He thought he didn’t sufficiently empathize with questioners struggling with issues of recurring concern, or acknowledge the tension sufficiently. The kind of blunt, straightforward answers Keller gave seemed clipped, formulaic, and would likely turn off the hearers Enns had in mind.

    “Now, that maybe so for a particular kind of skeptic. But when I read it, I thought of my aggressively skeptical classmates in my philosophy undergrad who probably would have rolled their eyes at a show of empathy. If you didn’t immediately follow it up with a straight answer to a straight question, or a respond to the challenge, they would probably see it as a squishy dodge and walk away convinced Christians really didn’t have anything to say. In which case, it’s precisely the sorts of answers Keller gave which would have at least made them stick around long enough to argue about them and hear more.”

  4. I’m wondering if there might be different kinds of God haters? There are those atheists in Scripture that deny the existence of God: Psalm 14:1 & 53:1 = “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.”
     
    But I note that the persons who are referred to in Psalm 2 are not your practical atheists.  The verbs used to describe them in Psalm 2 are … “they rage, they plot, and they set themselves against and take counsel and band together against the Lord and His anointed one.”

    These are actually misotheists. Strictly speaking, the term misotheism (Gr. miso: hate; theos: god; The misotheist maintains a negative attitude towards god without making a statement about God’s existence or nature.

    Is this is an important distinction in discussing the person of God?  Bernard Schweitzer is an associate professor of English at Long Island University in Brooklyn. His third book is “Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism.” 

    He specializes in the study of controversial public intellectual iconoclasts (those rebels who attack [usually through literature] cherished societal beliefs).  In this book he makes a distinction between two groups of people who hate God:
    Atheists: Those who hate God as an idea, and lack belief in his existence in reality; atheists reason from the arbitrary and cruel acts that they witness that God must not exist. Atheists are non-believers who may say contemptuous things about God, but when they do so, they are simply giving the thumbs-down to what they are certain is a fictional villainous character, a figment of society’s imagination.  Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins highlight this group.

    Misotheists, on the other hand, are those who believe in God but engage in a lifelong struggle with his apparent indifference to the world he has created. Misotheists are those who wrestle with the character of God. Modern day misotheists include such literary lights as Friedrich Nietzsche, Mark Twain, John Milton, Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, and others. These are men and women who do not question God’s existence, but deny that He is merciful, competent, or good.
     
    These people, according to Schweitzer, “make a negative leap of faith, trusting their own judgment, and placing their sense of moral outrage above the fear of God.” They classify Him as malicious. The reason they reject God is because of the amount of injustice, natural catastrophe and suffering that they witness in this world.”  But what they reject is neither the idea of God, nor God himself; they reject the way God rules from a sense of [their own] moral outrage.  They value their own judgment about what is right and wrong over God’s judgment about what is right or wrong.
     
    “Simply put, … Misotheists did not profess atheism in reaction to their sobering understanding of the universe. Instead, their anger at the unabated reign of sickness, poverty, crime, famine, corruption, and war in many parts of God’s own world prompted them to want to shake their fist at the Almighty. Hence, fundamentally the impulse to denounce God is born from an intrinsic moral imperative.”

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