I’ve just started reading Transforming Mission- Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission by David J Bosch and Paradigm Change in Theology by Hans Küng. The two books are somewhat reciprocal, although not directly. Paradigm Change is really a symposium to dig into the meaning and implications of paradigms applied to theology. It’s dense, esoteric, and technical. I plan to just hit the highlights in it. Transforming Mission starts out with Küng’s paradigm analysis of church history and then applies it specifically to the Christian understanding of mission. It is by far a more pleasant reading experience (because it is well written not because it’s simplistic) and is sweeping in its analysis.
What is important to me in however many posts I end up doing in this series is firstly to show that the history of Christianity actually does progress along these lines, that paradigm shifts are real. Secondly, to identify what the macro-paradigms are. Thirdly, to see the process of and resistance to new paradigms. Finally, to prompt you to ask which paradigm you are in and whether it is the most up-to-date, whether it’s, as Peter says, the “present truth” (2 Peter 1:12).
Paradigms and Reality
In popular terms a paradigm might be called a worldview. Each worldview reflects a different basic understanding of reality. And since the major religions of the world all are essentially worldviews, they all embody different paradigms. Attempts to harmonize the world religions run into this fundamental road block or in the last resort, get around it by making gross oversimplifications and reductions so that only the similarities are brought out and not the very different differences.
Anyone who has converted (not just to Christianity) has experienced a paradigm shift. They have moved from one understanding of man, life, reality, God to a qualitatively different understanding. From no God, to God. From many Gods, to one God. From one God, to one Triune God.
A paradigm shift is not a slight tweak in the equation. It is a eureka moment (although one that is reached by a complex and sometimes prolonged process that culminates in a crisis) where one discovers a new equation. It might be accurate to say that a paradigm shift begins as a slight suspicion towards the reliability of the working model.
In a paradigm shift what changes is not reality itself, but our interpretation and understanding of reality and then naturally our response to our interpretation of reality. A paradigm ultimately effects our feet, not just our mind. It leads to critical action. More precisely- reaction.
Life is an endless series of reactions. Our life is more reactive than proactive. We act based on knowledge, mood, others’ reactions. All our reactions however are determined by the paradigm we subscribe to. A nihilist will react to situations very differently than a Christian would. Furthermore, by analyzing someone’s reactions you may be able to determine which paradigm they are operating in. Reactions from within one paradigm may seem odd, against the grain, perplexing to someone in another paradigm. For example, sailing around the globe when the prevailing thought is that the world is flat.
Paradigms in Christianity
Paradigm shifts also occur within religions. The history of Christianity can be viewed as a series of paradigm shifts.
One major difference though with theological paradigm shifts in Christianity is that the shifts are not toward understanding the hitherto unknown, but towards understanding the already revealed eternal God, His purpose, and man’s place in it. It is essentially hermeneutical. While science is working with an essentially unknown reality and discovering truth (aka true things), Christianity is working with an eternally true, valid textual revelation and discovering what it means. What the material universe is to science, the Biblical text is to Christianity.
In this sense, biblical interpretation is Christian history.
Thus despite any upheavals in the paradigm, there is a fundamental preservation and continuity between the old and new model. And yet often the harbinger of change is often initially discredited, silenced, or ostracized.
At all times and in all places, traditional theology has been extremely suspicious of the category of the novum… The attitude has maintained that innovators were heresiarchs, heretics, enemies of the church and often also of the state; seduced by Satan and their own doubts; stubbornly persisting in their pride and rigid outlook. These ‘unbelievers’ who had incurred condemnation were to be persecuted with every available means, to be defamed and liquidated- if not physically, at least morally.
Many people (in the old model) are so used to eating their mushed corn they miss the steak. When they see us eating steak, they start crying “mommy”! – Kerry Robichaux
The trouble with that last quote is that is difficult to discern whether the innovators are in fact progressing the present truth or are simply heretics, lunatics, or insincere. Not all change is “good” and when, over the course of time, Christianity encounters progressivism, it is easier and easier to lump those who may be speaking the truth in with the heretical or delusional, thus depriving Christians to the paradigm shift that is sourced in God. Thats were Hebrews 4:12 comes in, I guess…
Yeah, innovators can be good or bad. The doctrinal development of church history is basically a litany of innovation amiss. But the heretical innovations in most cases prompted the orthodox clarifications and typically resulted in a net gain (at least doctrinally). That’s how the early councils played out. The Greek Fathers gave us a lot of linguistic innovation that helped elucidate the Person of Christ and the Trinity.
But then there’s also the trend of the degraded constituents in the church reacting wrongly to a recovery work of God. Classic examples are people like Martin Luther or William Tyndale. Both were severely persecuted. These are the categories of people I think of in Kung’s quote. Much of this kind of innovation is really just rediscovery and recovery of truths found in situ in the biblical text itself.
How to discern? I think Acts 15 is instructive. There is not only an authoritative text- the Bible- there is also a privileged interpretive community- the Body of Christ. The divine Author indwells this community and is guiding them into all the reality. I think Heb 4:12 does come into play here and also Acts 17:11 – “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”
We have the Spirit in our spirit, we have the word in our hand, and we have the Body of Christ in our community.
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