Having read Michael Wittmer’s excellent book, “Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters To God”, I was eager to read his latest, “Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough.” While the former title helps us to understand God’s cosmic view of redemption and our place (and responsibility) in this world by emphasizing the continuity of God’s creation (without denying the biblical aspect of discontinuity), the latter helps us to understand God’s redemption and our place (responsibility) in this world by showing us the benefits and deficiencies within the two seemingly opposing strands of theological thought: “Emerging” (Wittmer’s, “postmodern innovators”) and “Conservative” Christianity. These labels, of course, don’t do justice to all the practitioners of either “camp” (what labels ever do?), but Wittmer attempts to show us how the fundamental core beliefs of both groups can contribute to a more well-rounded and biblically accurate understanding of the Gospel by helping us see their strengths and weaknesses.
Wittmer successfully (I believe) accomplishes his task by asking and answering ten important questions (chapter titles) that either are either at the heart of the debate (e.g., “Must You Believe Something to Be Saved? and Is It Possible to Know Anything?), or are lightning rods that fuel the debate (e.g., Which is Worse: Homosexuals or the Bigots Who Persecute Them?, and Is Hell for Real and Forever?). In developing each Chapter/Question, Wittmer favors a more balanced approach between Emergents and Conservatives that seeks to combine right Belief with right Practice.
Of course, it’s easy to simply state that the dichotomy between the two groups is Practice vs. Belief; but nothing is ever really that simple (except the yoke of our Lord) and we can’t pit Emergents against Conservatives in this simplistic way—and, thankfully, Wittmer doesn’t do this. He recognizes that both groups believe something and practice those beliefs in some way. The nature of man is that we always do (practice) what we believe whether or not we are conscious of this relationship or are consistent with it. He recognizes that Belief and Practice go hand in hand and that even the most radical Emergent and Conservative live this way even if their rhetoric sometimes suggests otherwise. But the rhetoric is “out there” and we, as the Church, must deal with it as we seek to live out the reality of who we are as sons and daughters of God.
In fighting the excesses of Conservatism that may imply (or teach outright) that doctrine is the most important (if not only) aspect of our relationship with God, Emergents are in danger of erring in the opposite extreme of denying the necessity of believing anything about God (as some “emergents” have affirmed) as long as we live lives of love as Jesus did and as Scripture instructs. Wittmer is gracious to both sides of this dialogue and shows how a biblically based understanding will not allow this false dichotomy to exist within the mind/heart of the believer. Without the right (true) belief (doctrine), we have no basis for even knowing what we are to practice (live), much less what the best practices actually are! And since we can all agree that the best practice is the life of love (which is to say, the “life of faith”), we must never stop believing because our practice can only be as good as the truth that we believe.
As I’ve said numerous times here, sin is at bottom unbelief. Even as Christians, our sin is fundamentally unbelief that manifests itself in our practice. Now the penalty or guilt of our unbelief has been born by Christ on the Cross and has been taken away from us through His death, resurrection, ascension, presentation (as High Priest) and enthronement. When Christ died, we died. When Christ was raised, we were raised to new life. Christ has brought His own blood into the true Sanctuary where as High Priest He presented Himself as our Propitiation before the Father. And upon the Father’s acceptance of the offering of His Son, Christ sat down on His throne (the throne of David) where He sends the Spirit to indwell His people and to conform them into His likeness.
So, even our practice of Christianity is contingent upon our knowledge and belief of/in God because the Spirit doesn’t work in a vacuum. He takes what is Jesus’ and gives it to us. He makes us partakers in the New Covenant through the knowledge of God (in Christ), as we read in Jeremiah, “I will put my law (teaching) within them, and on their heart I will write it…they shall all know Me…” (emphasis added). You can’t read far in the New Testament without seeing the relationship between Faith/Belief and Practice.
So, the question becomes: “What do we believe?” or “Must we believe certain things?” And to a large extent, Wittmer answers these questions. He reminds us (without necessarily saying outright) that doctrine is a necessity because we must know something about God in order to believe something about Him. And if we must “believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God” and be “born again” by the Spirit in order to be “saved”, then there must be something to know and believe. Practice is all fine and good, but it alone cannot “save” (see Matt. 7:21-24, etc.), and as the author states, even our “best practices can only arise from true beliefs” (back cover). And as I say, for the most part Wittmer answers these questions and shows us the biblical relationship between practice and belief.
My only (minor) issue I have with the book is his lack of development of the Penal Substitution model of atonement in Chapter Six. I know that this book isn’t a treatise on the Doctrine of the Atonement and that this is but one of several issues that he is dealing with. I also understand that he had limited his focus to the deficiency of Penal Substitution as the only legitimate or as the most important aspect of the atonement of Christ. I really appreciate this chapter and I’m in agreement with him that this theory doesn’t cover all the facets of Atonement and we need to have a full-orbed understanding to do justice to all that was accomplished by Christ.
Having said that, I still think he missed a golden opportunity to develop the Atonement of Christ (including Penal Substitution) along Biblical Theological lines. Other than a cursory statement at the beginning of the chapter (confined within one sentence) relating Penal Substitution with the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant, Wittmer doesn’t deal at all with the importance of the type/anti-type paradigm that gives meaning to this crucial doctrine. In my judgment, you can’t do justice to such an important doctrine and the resulting belief without explaining how the sacrificial system portrayed and was fulfilled in Christ…especially as it pertains to the title of the chapter: Is The Cross Divine Child Abuse?
All the talk of what the atonement means is…well…meaningless apart from the type/anti-type paradigm that is so painstakingly developed in Scripture. The sacrificial system, including the role of High Priest as well as the sacrifice itself, paints the portrait of Christ. To understand any aspect of the atonement one must understand the Old Covenant sacrificial system and how it speaks to and of Christ. He must be crucified because He is the Lamb of God of which the sacrifices speak. He must be crucified because He is the High Priest who brings His own blood as the sacrifice before the Father. Before anything else can be said about Penal Substitution or Christus Victor or Moral Influence/Example, etc., we must bring Salvation History to bear in our understanding. Whatever God was communicating in the Old Covenant Sacrificial System is crucial to understand the why of Christ’s atonement and the what that was accomplished in and through it.
As I said, I know that this book wasn’t written to give a full and detailed explanation of the atonement and I’m sure that Wittmer would have devoted much more time to the issue of type/anti-type had this been his purpose; but I simply don’t feel that his explanation for Penal Substitution in the section “Love Hurts” is adequate. I should probably devote an entire post to this particular critique and any other possible minor issues that I may have had upon a first reading. Of course, I’ll want to read it again before I commit to having any other “issues”.
And I do encourage a first and a second reading of “Don’t Stop Believing”. My reservations about Chapter Six aside, this is an important book in our “postmodern” age. Wittmer has written a very thoughtful and gracious book that should help clarify the important contributions of both “Emergents” and “Conservatives” as we continue to work together as His Body to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”