Saturday, January 27, 2007

Have we gotten too sophisticated?

I've complained a bit in the past because I fear that in our reaction to something or another we in the emerging church don't think about or talk about or - most significantly - do as much as we should about sin (including our own - I include myself in this charge). And it bothers me that even writing that sentence makes me feel counter cultural to the emerging church ethos.

"Sin" appears 426 times in the Bible in Today's New International Version (TNIV). The word appears 106 times in the New Testament and 21 times in the Gospels, with Jesus using the word in all but three occurrences. [I did just notice on Bible Gateway that they apparently include Headers in the count, so fyi.]

Here are some incidences of Jesus' use of the term:

The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.

Matthew 13:41 (all citations are TNIV)

Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

John 8:11b

Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

John 8:34

My thoughts were prompted in this direction this morning when I was reading Benjamin Magness. He posted an excerpt from Richard Baxter's 17th century classic The Reformed Pastor (avail online in a variety of formats here) which I'll also post below:

Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest, while you proclaim to the world the neccesity of a Saviour, your own hearts should neglect him…

Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine…

Take heed to yourselves, lest you cry down sin, and yet do not overcome it; lest while you seek to bring it down in others, you bow to it, and become its slaves yourselves… Oh brethren! It is easier to chide at sin, than to overcome it…

O, therefore, brethren, lose no time! Study, and pray, and confer, and practice; for in these four ways your abilities must be increased. Take heed to yourselves, lest you are weak through your own negligence, and lest you mar the work of God by your weakness…

Take heed to yourselves, for you have a heaven to win or lose, and souls that must be happy or miserable for ever; and therefore it concerneth you to begin at home, and to take heed to yourselves as well as to others…

Take heed to yourselves, for you have a depraved nature, and sinful inclinations, as well as others…sin dwelleth in us, when we have preached ever so much against it…

Take heed yourselves, because the tempter will more ply you with his temptations than other men. If you will be the leaders against the prince of darkness, he will spare you no further than God restraineth him…

Take heed, therefore, brethren, for the enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations, and incessant solicitations, and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves, lest he outwit you…

Take heed to yourselves, because there are many eyes upon you, and there will be many to observe your falls…

Take heed to yourselves, for your sins have more heinous aggravations than other men’s…

Take heed to yourselves, because such great works as ours require greater grace than other men’s…

Take heed to yourselves, for the honour of your Lord and Master, and of his holy truth and ways, doth lie more on you than on other men…

O take heed, brethren, of every word you speak, and of every step you tread, for you bear the ark of the Lord,-you are entrusted with his honour!
Of course, there is more to our kingdom life than obsessing with sin. But our kingdom life is something less than it should be if we don't think about sin. The first use of the word "sin" is by God Himself:

"If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it."

Genesis 4:7

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knsheppard said...

Stephen, just a thought here. Is Einstein's theory of relativity to complicated? To bastardize a very complex thing: it's the 'simplest' theory we have as a scientific paradigm to explain all the relevant 'facts' of physical science. It's not simple as it stands, but the simplest that does what an apt description is supposed to do. Can theology be depicted in similar terms? Indeed, I think there are a number of postmodern scholars who adopt Thomas Khun's paradigmatic approach, so that, to read Moltmann on hope (or McKnight on sin and 'cracked eikons'), for example, may not be simple in layman's terms, but perhaps an advance in theological language to help us understand complicated concepts and processes. It's just a thought, but, that's how I often talk about the complexity of theological discourse. (This approach is also the one that Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne uses to defend theism.)

Stephen said...


in years past, I used to feel uncomfortable when matters became too complicated, especially in theological discussion. perhaps there were two reasons: 1) occam's razor - if it seems too complicated, then perhaps it is. 2) sometimes complicated theoretical structures are edifices to the pride of the creator of the concept. More lately, however, I'm come to realize that theology is like playing a guitar. It's not terribly difficult to learn the basics and strum some chords. But the instrument is itself of sufficient complexity that one can go as far as segovia or michael hedges. I think God is like that. I think our limited intelligence means he's far more complicated than we realize and sometimes our complicated theologizing can be acts of worship.

My post is not meant to be a denial that God and theology can be complicated. It's just that sometimes I fear we presume to training for the Olympics when we're eating most of our meals at fast food joints. i.e. a sophisticated approach to theology that does encompass the simplicity of obedience to clear commands is a broken theology.

knsheppard said...


There is an interesting article on the ever-resourceful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on simplicity which makes mention of Ockam's razor, though I understood that principle to mean preference for the simplest theories that account for the data - of course what counts as relevant data might be a matter of dispute (

I agree that our theology shouldn't obfuscate unnecessarily. Though, I suppose some of the 'shoulds', some of the things we are to 'obey', are matters of debate. And here's where theology seems to me to get legitimately 'complicated' or 'thick' (and indeed should be so). Take the relationship between religion and politics, say. Whereas I read 'give the thirsty a drink' and 'be perfect [in love] as your Father in heaven is perfect' to be more or less straightforward. I like the guitar analogy. I'll have to consider that one more!

brad said...


church history often appears to me as the swinging of the pendulum from 'dark ages' and romanism to the protestant swing of Luther... then from the Grace focus of Luther to a sanctification period...and so on and so forth.

and now i see the pendulum moving again in the post-evangelical ec swing from 'mere concern with personal salvation' as so well put in your first piece. but why is it that we must swing so far? is it our nature and tendency towards the extreme? do we need God's grace to find a balance in the swing?

i believe you are right that we would err to 'obsess' over sin. i think the huge err is when we obsess so much that we allow our story to start in Genesis 3, post garden fall, instead of Genesis 1, who we are truly made to be. yet in working out our restoration daily, and the restoration of creation, we must be aware of sin. do you think that we must only see sin in 'personal' ways as opposed to seeing sin and the effects of sin in the created order? i'm working through this one and welcome your thoughts.

dig the guitar metaphor. and i think you're right on in your comment concerning 'complicated theoretical structures are edifices to the pride of the creator of the concept'. isn't this part of Jesus' frustration with the religious leaders of his time?

ken, enjoyed your comments as well.

JourneyWild said...

I really appreciate your insight in this article. You stated, "We in the emerging church don't think about or talk about or... do as much as we should about our own sin."

I would take this one step further, and say that often we don't even define our negative choices as sin. In many cases, I think the idea of 'sin' might be removed from our theology.
I think there are two reasons for this.

First, it is not always easy to determine what is sin, and what is not. The Bible cannot always guide us in this area, as many of the arguments about what is considered to be sin stem from our challenges in determining which Biblical directives are cultural, and which are timeless. For example, women in leadership and tithing.

Second, we have begun to take a more holistic, or ‘whole-person’ approach to sin. For example, homosexuality has traditionally been considered a sin. I’ve also heard it described as an ‘addiction’ by some. But when you get to know someone who is gay, and hear his or her story, it is suddenly very hard to describe that person as a ‘sinner’. If he or she has felt that way their whole life (even before they were sexually active), it can’t truly be called an addiction. And can it really be called a sin, as it seems to be part of their very nature? These are questions that are too complex for me to answer. Suddenly that person is not a sinner, but a friend who faces difficult challenges, just as I do. I believe God sees them that way as well. I think God sees the whole person, just as we are finally beginning to do.

So our very definitions of sin, and interpretations of the Bible, are in flux.

However, there are many things that can more easily be defined as sinful, such as lying, cheating, being spiritually lukewarm, etc. I think you’re right - In being such an accepting movement, we have begun to accept, and even take for granted, our own sins. And we avoid talking about them, perhaps so that everyone will feel accepted. But as you so aptly quoted, “…everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). We need to address the issues of sin, so that we can help each other toward freedom. By ignoring them, our brothers and sisters will likely end up feeling that they are alone in their battles. And they will erroneously think their leaders don’t struggle with the same problems!

Your excerpt from Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor is a powerful reminder of the importance of continually striving to live a pure life. In the emerging church movement, hypocrisy is often considered to be an ‘unforgivable’ sin. So, in a way, Baxter prophesied to us when he wrote, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine…”

Thanks for listening!

brad said...

{forgive me if this posted twice, i am having some difficulty with blogs today, please feel free to remove extra copies}

as i am immersing myself in the scriptures, now more than anytime in my life, i am constantly amazed at how much insight is there;) sounds silly for a pastor to have been out of the living text for so long.

while in the text today, this thought overwhelmed me. it is in my relationship with the person of Jesus Christ that i am being transformed. part of my joy is that i am forgiven for unbelievable things (sin) and am being purified, 1 john 1:9. my response to this personal salvation and restoration is what pulls me deeper into concern for the restoration of all creation. living the 'kingdom' life. if i were to neglect sin and Jesus' response to me and his dealing with my sin by becoming 'too sophisticated', i would no longer be interested, truly compelled, to join Him in the larger story.

i hope this makes some sense to you. i fear my lack of clarity in formulating and communicating my thoughts hinders my ability to converse.