Dialoguing Backwards

I had a great opportunity in the past week or so to dialogue with a pastor who has been wrestling with the postmodern turn that many young emergent thinkers have been pondering (see emergent village for more on emergent thinking). In truly “McLaren-esque” fashion, I have, with this pastor’s consent of course, posted the diaglogue online much like the closing chapters of A New Kind of Christian.

I invite you to join our conversation, but ask that you not try to find a winner or loser in this. I think that both of us learned a lot and I for one was really stretched and challenged in my thinking. The sermon that got me rolling in this conversation can be found at the FBC web site, the Feb. 20th sermon.

Remember, read from the bottom up.

From: Office [mailto:office@livinghopepa.org]
Sent: Thursday, February 24, 2005 1:54 PM
To: mwilley
Subject: RE: diving in


Great thoughts. I think that is a great note to sort of wrap up this segment on. I’ll have to think on that some more. Would you mind if I posted part of our last two dialogues on the web site that Josh and I started? I think we are wrestling with a tension that a lot of people in my age group are feeling. I think you have given a good message here that I need to hear and others really need as well.
I suspect that you are probably more right that I would let on. Sometimes I get tripped up in language and I may need to just sort some of that out in the days to come.

Thanks for the dialogue.

Ed Cyzewski
Administrative Assistant
Living Hope Community Church

—–Original Message—–
From: Mark Willey
Sent: Thursday, February 24, 2005 1:47 PM
To: ‘Office’
Subject: RE: diving in

I think I pretty much agree. But, I do still think there is more revelation that God has given that is universal and constant in its application (that is my attempt to avoid the “absolute” terminology…. Smile). I don’t see how we usurp God’s place when we declare universally true truths, when God is the One who decreed them to be such. I think the danger of neo-orthodoxy was that they felt the Scripture was God’s Word when it spoke to them. To me, they then determined what was God’s Word on the basis of perceived experience.

I certainly agree that “God knows what the absolutes are”. But, He also reveals some of them. It seems to me that we play God MORE when we deny He has done this, and then let context possibly become the determiner of what is true for that context.

Musing on…………

—–Original Message—–
From: Office [mailto:office@livinghopepa.org]
Sent: Wednesday, February 23, 2005 9:42 AM
To: mwilley
Subject: diving in

Hey Mark,

You’ve raised some good points. I do agree with you that we have a lot of areas in which we are very close in our beliefs. I’m not sure if I can reply over e-mail adequately.

I think a few things come to mind.

I would agree with your statement to a certain point, “Historical context does not change a biblical absolute.” It is true that we cannot simply revise the Bible based on context. Yet I think it is crucial to make a distinction between the words on the page of the Bible and how we interpret and apply them to our lives. The interpretation and application is where things get very complex. So while the Bible is completely trustworthy and central to our Christian faith, we need to proceed with the interpretive task with caution, humility, and sensitivity to our context.

The other thought I have, and this requires a ton of “nuancing”, is that I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the term Biblical “absolute”. The idea of absolutes has emerged from philosophical thinking, not from the Bible. The Bible points to God as supreme. So what we both mean when we say “absolute” can be very important here. To say that there is a completely objective view “from nowhere” that can create one metanarrative (which is my understanding of how philosophy would define it) seems to threaten the place of God in my view. If we have the absolute, objective truths, then it seems to me that humanity is usurping God’s place. God knows what the absolutes are, but in a sense, he is the truth.

So I think that God gave us truth in the Bible, but more than truth, he gave us a true and relevant story with commands, poetry, letters, etc. and that we desperately need his Spirit and an eye to our history in order to interpret them in our context correctly. We have truth in the Bible that requires the guidance of the THE absolute in order to interpret it correctly.

You are probably not comfortable with my articulation of this. And I’m the first to admit that it’s not very well developed at this point. I am very comfortable agreeing to disagree though in this discussion because I do believe that we agree in many areas. We are both sensitive to context and how God is working today. I think there are just some fine points in epistemology where we diverge, not in our views of God, Christ, salvation, etc.

I also recognize that you have the enormous burden of caring for 600+ people! You above all people should be cautious with these issues. The last thing that we both want is for the faith of any to falter due to this discussion.

I just love how a two paragraph e-mail becomes a small article!!!

I sure am looking forward to reading your comments on my manuscript!!!

Thanks for the conversation,

Ed Cyzewski
Administrative Assistant
Living Hope Community Church

—–Original Message—–
From: mwilley
Sent: Tuesday, February 22, 2005 4:41 PM
To: Office
Subject: Re: reply

I will just dive in (smile)

Historical context does not change a biblical absolute. What historical context
changes is one’s culpability (or level of responsibility). Marian’s family have
been missionaries in central Africa for 40 years. I am familiar with the issues
you raise and the struggle to apply biblical absolutes to a particular context.
But, it does not change the fact that adultery is sin. The person may have
done it not knowing God’s standards, and because of that it may certainly
change how the inidividual with 4 wives should be counselled to proceed when he
becomes a Christian. But, it does mean that he will try to teach the next
generation of people the biblical directives regarding marriage, etc. If those
biblical absolutes are not pressed for future generations there will be no long
term change.

I see a parallel in our culture historically. People look back and condemn
anyone (including Lincoln) for not being assertive enough in ridding America of
slavery. It was/is wrong and morally indefensible. But, that does not mean
that there is not wisdom needed in doing away with the evil. But, in the
1850’s it probably needed a progressive series of steps to bring it about, even
for the sake of the slaves themselves. Wisdom, grace, and sensitivity are
needed in applying biblical absolutes in cultural context (whether polygamy in
Africa or slavery in the US). But, that does not change, to me, the fact that
there are clearly defined moral absolutes that we are to aim for and proclaim.

It doesn’t seem to me that we are really saying much different. I agree with
the need for sensitivity and grace in applying biblical absolutes. I am hoping
we are also agreed that we cannot throw out or deny those absolutes, while
acknowledging that the application of them will be different in various
cultural situations.

Wow…. mouthful.


Quoting Office :


I’ve had a rough time with hotmail. I have given up for now and sent it via
my work account. If you can reply to edandjulie02@hotmail.com that would
still probably be best.

I can certainly appreciate the confusion that my comments create. I think
that I can resolve it only because I had the same discussion with another
pastor this morning and he seemed satisfied. It may be more helpful to say
what we “can say”.

First of all, from a postmodern perspective, we can make a lot of statements
about truth that we are very certain about. If someone is out with his
girlfriend while his wife is at home, then he is obviously committing
adultery in our north american culture. In the same sense, someone is not
married in our culture unless they proceed through some kind of ceremony
with witnesses.

Now take Christians living in Africa who evangelize men with multiple
wives (and this has been brought up in several books I have read on 3rd
world theology). Can I hold that culture to the north american standard of
adultery? Would it even be more immoral to force him into divorcing 4 of his
5 wives, leaving the 4 to most likely starve? Or should future generations
be held to our standard, even if the Bible says that our definition of
marriage is the ideal? Perhaps the social structure of the society would
crumble if we press for one woman per man. Suddenly how we define “adultery”
becomes an issue. If we try to impose our view of adultery on another
culture, then we have begun to oppress them with our standards.

So God says adultery is wrong. We know what it is in our context, but we
are not able, from our limited American vantage point, to tell other cultures what exactly the truth is. We can certainly dialogue, but we cannot make absolute statements for other contexts.

Postmodernism does not say “give up the quest for truth.” That’s
nihilism, a direct by-product of the modern quest for absolutes.
Postmodernism recognizes that we can have truth, but we need some
“epistemological humility” along with it.

Adultery is sin, but the issue becomes, “What is adultery?” That’s where the culture and context question emerges.

I hope that helps. Perhaps the greatest issue is that the truth is not
flawed, but our interpretation of it will always be that way.

Let me know if that helps or muddies the water.

Well, I hope it’s clear as mud at least!

thanks for the dialogue,

Ed Cyzewski
Administrative Assistant
Living Hope Community Church

From: mwilley
Sent: Tuesday, February 22, 2005 4:41 PM
To: Office
Subject: Re: reply

One quick thought from your letter…. If God said it as an absolute
statement, why can’t I say it that way. When I say “Adultery is sin”, I
definitely know it is not because I look at it that way (thank God), but
because God says so. I don’t see how that is interpretive or
subjective. In regards to meat offered to idols, there were clearly
cultural issues involved (Paul even says “I am speaking here, not
necessarily the Lord”).
Those scenarios seem different to me.

Glad for the open dialogue of all of this.

Pastor Mark

—–Original Message—–
From: Ed and Julie Cyzewski [mailto:edandjulie02@hotmail.com]
Sent: Monday, February 21, 2005 12:44 PM
Subject: sermon

Hey Pastor Mark,

I listened to a portion of your sermon from yesterday. I think you did a
pretty good job in characterizing postmodern thought. There were
definitely some places that I would have said things a little differently, but I
think you did a great job of sharing the cultural challenge and presenting the
need to “walk” as Jesus did. Great job. You definitely did your

I have given our conversation some more thought and I think our deadlock
on the “absolute” question comes down to the postmodern assertion that
there may be absolute principles/facts out there (there is not a consensus on
that in secular circles of course), but our articulation of truth is always
limited by our situated place in history and the community in which we
construct our values. We can be certain without claiming to have God’s
eye of the matter.

For example, I can claim that adultery is a sin. That statement may be
absolute, but because I am the one saying it, it cannot be absolute. I
just do not have God’s place to make an absolute statement.

I think that Paul’s discourse on meat sacrificed to idols hits on some
of the nuances. Within a more local perspective in mind, he called the
church to consider their context in deciding what a sin would be in the matter.

So the postmodern perspective denies a certain kind of truth, but it is
not relativism. Whereas the modern perpsective sought to have one absolute
handle on truth, the postmodern perspective abvocates multiple truths.
This is not the same as anything goes. The truth just takes on a more local
character. We can only speak as far as our experience and perspective
takes us. yet I find Newbigin helpful here. In the Gospel in a Pluralist
he says that we pursue the truth with universal intent. In other words, i cannot prove the place of Jesus as savior of the world, but I will
pursue him as that.

I think that my manuscript will help illuminate this stuff a bit more.
Sorry this e-mail go to long. there is so much just swimming around in my

I’ll be in touch if you want to talk on the matter further,