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Fear and Loathing in Las Vagueness

Mike Reeves writes: Fear and Loathing in Las Vagueness. Published in the latest UCCF nb magazine and now at Theology Network.

Five hundred years ago, the church was in much the same state as today: in desperate, desperate need of reform. Then, in to the rescue galloped a posse of the most talented individuals of the day. They had among their number the very finest scholars, they shared a heartfelt passion for the renewing of the church – and they accomplished virtually nothing towards that goal. The rescue failed.

That was the sad story of the sixteenth-century humanists (nothing to do with later atheistic humanists!). But where did it all go wrong? They were absolutely sincere in wanting people to live whole-heartedly for Jesus; they were unstinting in their efforts. The problem was, they never thought they needed to bother with theology.... Continue reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vagueness.


  1. This is a good article. It makes me want to get into my bible and study more theology. And gospel-driven-theology is my greatest love, far beyond apologetics.

    But if confidence in the truth is the heart passion, why is it safe to keep assuming it? In the early Church they didn't assume it. They argued for it. It was what they had seen and heard. They didn't separate apologetics and theology like this.

    If I was a sceptic:
    -Unsure about God
    -Unsure about Jesus
    -Unsure about the Bible

    What does Reeves give me to chew on if I don't find theology fascinating?

  2. Er, he invites you study it... and defends it... and goes for theology of everything. You have something you're into - there is theology of it.

    Who is separating theology and apologetics? I mean you do keep saying that's happening - but I don't see it. Apart from, ok there is bethinking and theology network as two sites but there is overlap... and they're really two sides of the same coin, just in different clothes.

  3. Sure, I realise the main point that the article is making. And I'm not disagreeing with that.

    Here is my point. Theology and apologetics are separated by this article by omission.

    If you keep churning out instructions, and theological papers without offering a justification for them. What does the sceptic see?

    Here's what I would like to see: Mike Reeves linking into apologetics more, taking the church in Acts and their example more seriously. Not just assuming that theology can be taught, as true, without describing a good case for it being true.

    You want to be a movement that stands on truth, if so, don't assume that it is established. Fight for it.

  4. I'm not sure you can make that argument from silence. No crime in writing an article about defending the truth - which is what the current issue of NB is about - the previous one being on the local church...

    I expect evangelism/apologetics to follow.. Do those things overlap - yes. In my view bethinking is inherently theological and does it..

    Likewise this one is written to those who are not so likely to be sceptical about God, Jesus, the Bible... to warn them to be more theological - which has to also mean more persuasive.

    In my experience Mike does give good cases, often, for it being true. And as I've said before - you can write more of this stuff too! Show us how. Show us what it would look like. You're no cloud without rain - pour down on us.

  5. "I expect evangelism/apologetics to follow."

    That wasn't the view of the church in Acts Dave. They brought apologetics/theology/evangelism together in one.

    What I'm saying, is that I like Reeves' article, I 100% agree with what he says, but that it is very weak, on persuasive content. As a mission organisation, not a theology faculty, you can do better.

    You don't need me to tell you how to make something more persuasive. There are loads of people teaching and writing brilliant apologetics material.

    My suspicion is that this is a theological debate, not a problem of information about how to do better apologetics. What we are doing is debating the biblical support, and the practical use, of a neo-Barthian theology of evangelism, which puts apologetics after, rather than before and during proclamation evangelism. If I'm mistaken about that, then I'm ready to be put right. I would love to be wrong about this. Perhaps I am. Perhaps it would be good to get Mike Reeves actual view, rather than guessing what he thinks. I only have the articles he has written and talks recorded to be able to say.

  6. Aha! Now at least Tom we are getting to what your issue seems to be with UCCF at the moment.

    Can you explain what a neo-Barthian view of evangelism is?

  7. By your logic I'd not want to separate out local church and theology and apologetics, but I cannot see how it's particularly unhelpful for our magazine to look at each core value one by one - no-one is saying they're discrete topics, but that it's ok to look at each in turn too.

    Having seen Mike and Richard do evangelism I don't think I'd want to say they really separate out proclamation and apologetics - they're all interleved together. Listen to Mike's Transformission talks. Listen to Richard's recent South West team days. If "neo-barthian" means that Jesus is at the heart of proclamation and apologetics then I'm sold on that... but if you want to say that means I can't use argument and persuasion in the delivery of that then of course I'm not...

    I echo Mo's question. Tell us! :)

  8. Hey Mo, I love UCCF. Do I sound like a hater? I'm definitely not. if I give you the impression that I'm not an enthusiastic supporter of you and your work I would be really sad. I'm just a really analytical person. I think all the time, about everything! I hope you feel like I'm encouraging, rather than pulling stuff down.

    And I'm not going to make the mistake of saying that Mike's contribution isn't helpful and doesn't build the fellowship up. I think it does. I just think it could be more persuasive and tactical for outsiders. I don't think he does a great deal of evangelism, does he?

    First of all. I am not at all sure that Reeves is a neo-Barthian. I'm just asking the question. Is he? Why doesn't he give intellectually persuasive reasons for outsiders more? Is this because he is a theological advisor and he is not meant to? Why? How?

    So, moving into that discussion - you asked for some kind of a definition. I'm sure someone can do a better job than me, at defining neo-Bathian or neo-orthodoxy (I think that they're the same thing) I'm not a theological scholar, but here is my basic definition. If you want more look up Neo-orthodoxy (you could try 'The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology' ed. Elwel (Marshall-Pickering:1984). Which is what I've been looking at among other things.

    True neo-orthodox theology is often very dialectical - using questions to throw paradoxes and mysteries into the air. Tensions between beliefs that seemed unresolvable are resolved through existential commitment after 'anxiety, tension and crisis.' Clearly Reeves isn't offering that. So, is it a neo-neo-orthodoxy?

    The neo-orthodox lot believed that the 19th century protestant Christians had lost the insight and truth of the faith. They had taken the paradoxes and mysteries and dissolved the tensions using rational, logical and coherent explanations. The neo-orthodox believed that the protestants had boiled all the juices out of the theological meat and now it had become tasteless. Sounds like a grim situation - but the question is, did they throw the baby out with the bathwater?

    The key paradoxes that they used were 'Doctrine of God, Christ as God-man, faith as gift and an act, humans as sinful (unable to understand or see truth properly), eternity entering time. How is it possible to have a Trinity? How is it possible to have Jesus as part of the Trinity etc.

    They believed that it is by wrestling with these things, and the ensuing choice between crisis of faith or new confidence and trust in God that brings growth and deeper Christian faith.

    The only release for human beings comes from struggling and wrestling with God's word. Knowledge in the world (eg. philosophical arguments) are going to be fruitless. Neo-orthodoxy is very pessimistic concerning the reliability and validity of human reason. So all that stuff, like apologetics are kicked away. You basically end up with an epistemological fideism. "Leap of faith" "leap into the bible" kind of idea.

    So, evangelistically, and in a very crude description. A neo-neo-Barthian approach like the one I'm worried about is going to look like this: opening the bible and explaining it, starting with doctrine of God, Trinity and Christ (perhaps using paradox to bring humility through contemplation of mystery) and crucially there are going to be very few if any historical, experiential, personal, internal or external reasons to support the argument. The "leap" into the bible is going to be there, explicitly or implicitly.

    So, just to be clear. I don't think Reeves is neo-neo-orthodox. When he doesn't provide more persuasive argumentation and reasons, I think he makes a tactical and biblical error. The church in Acts did theology and persuasion at the same time, and non-Christians don't grant the starting point of the bible being true. In doing so he doesn't open it up to non-Christians so that they can better get their heads around his fantastic and deeply gospel focussed teaching.

    And, can I finish with a big thankyou for all the fantastic blessings and effort that I received at UCCF in many different ways, that includes Reeves teaching.

  9. Mostly I suspect Mike isn't doing that apologetics because primarily he's addressing Christians - I do think he slips in bits and pieces that model how to communicate to those who aren't Christians... like the rest of us perhaps he could do so more!

    Just got him signed up for one of Bath CUs mission weeks in 2009/10.

    I love your interactions Tom. You always make me think harder.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I'll get Mike to look at this and maybe he'll want to say something, but let me add a quick rejoinder if I may.

    Mike does do evangelism, and quite a bit as far as I can see. I'm sure his role as Theological Advisor isn't defined in contrast to this acitivity!

    I think, Tom, you're missing what Mike means by theology. While you're arguing that theology and apologetics shouldn't be separate, I think you're actually separating them in your critique. Mike is saying that the activity of knowing God is THE activity of the Christian, and that this drives everything else that we do. Thus apologetics isn't preceeded by, relegated by, or excluded by 'doing theology'.

    Rather, knowing and loving God is the heartbeat of our life- and that means loving the lost, by definition.

  12. Thanks. I feel slightly nervous that Mike might read through my confused and rambling questions.

    I don't think I'm separating apologetics and theology in a contradictory way in my critique. As I understand them, they are different, but interlocking. So it isn't mistaken to describe them as different things. There isn't really a logical problem in doing that. It's like saying, 'Mix black(A) and (B)white to get (C) grey. (C)Grey is made from (A)black and (B) white. (C)Grey is really good on some walls. (A) is better on others and sometimes (B) really comes into its own.' I can still affirm what (C) is made from (A+B) meaningfully. Even though I say that C is a good mix.

    Having said that theology is like air/oxygen, in a way that apologetics isn't. It should be everywhere and in everything. "All of life is spiritual, except sin" And as you say, "the activity of knowing God is THE activity of the Christian, and that this drives everything else that we do." I agree wholeheartedly.

    I submit that my question remains open.

  13. Tom,

    Man that's a really confusing analogy! But I think I see what you're saying.

    By the way- on my reading (thus far) Barth isn't so much throwing questions and tensions into existential gaps, but in fact affirming totally outrageous things all the time in the strongest language! I'm not sure that your description of a 'neo-orthodoxy' really fits him...

  14. Tom,

    I am quite sure that you are an avid UCCF supporter! But it does seem you are asking us a lot why apologetics isn't mentioned all the time, when I hope you know that we are committed to that.

    In follow up - is it really wrong for a student to, for example, say to a friend "why not read Mark and tell me what you think" hoping that the person of Jesus will convince them. Is that neo-Barthian?

  15. Sorry, I know it's a confusing analogy. Perhaps it's a good illustration of the neo-Barthian in me?

    My description isn't that far off the beaten track Dan. Let me back it up a little:

    "neo-orthodoxy. Early- to mid-twentieth-century theological movement associated with such Protestant theologians as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. Neo-orthodoxy criticized liberalism for diminishing the transcendence of God and the importance of divine revelation. Neo-orthodox theologians frequently argued for a dialectical theology that held contrasting emphases, such as divine sovereignty and human freedom, together in tension."
    (Evans, C. S. (2002). Pocket dictionary of apologetics & philosophy of religion (80). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.)

    "Neo-Orthodoxy. This title is applied to a 20th-century development in theology, which is ‘orthodox’ inasmuch as it emphasizes key themes of Reformed theology, but ‘neo-’, i.e. ‘new’, inasmuch as it has taken serious account of contemporary cultural and theological developments. It originated with continental theologians: Barth, Brunner, Bultmann and Friedrich Gogarten (1887–1967) but others have become associated with it such as Aulén, Nygren, Tillich, C. H. Dodd, Richardson, J. Baillie, D. M. Baillie, Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr. It was in no sense an organized movement, and precise definitions or boundaries are impossible.
    Neo-orthodoxy emerged in reaction against the liberal Protestantism which had dominated the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In particular, it rejected the notion that historical investigation could provide absolute certainty as to the events recorded in Scripture, upon which scholars had hoped to build secure theology. Further, it renounced the attempt to make man’s experience of God a starting-place for theology (cf. Religious Experience). The crisis in human culture epitomized by World War I precipitated a recognition of the bankruptcy of a theology which had been naively optimistic.
    In searching for a new way to do theology, the work of Kierkegaard, the rediscovery of Luther, and the novels of the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky became influential. Driven back to the Bible, and spurred on by the need to be able to engage with contemporary social issues, a new method of theology was developed which nevertheless could not ignore the discoveries which had been made by the application of the historical-critical method to Scripture (see Biblical Criticism; Hermeneutics).
    Neo-orthodoxy affirmed the absolute transcendent ‘otherness’ of God whom man cannot know except God reveal himself. This he has done primarily through Jesus Christ but also in the events of salvation-history to which Scripture bears witness. Neo-orthodoxy accepted the results of historical inquiry showing Scripture to be a human, fallible and errant document, because its certainty was thought to lie in the fact that God has chosen to make himself known through it. It is theologically reliable as a means whereby God in Christ may be encountered.
    This foundation seemed a more secure basis for theology than questionable historical events or religious experience capable of alternative secular explanations.
    On the basis of an encounter with the word of God, incarnate, written and preached, the neo-orthodox theologians affirmed the sinful predicament of humanity redeemed through the grace of God in Christ alone. Receptive faith was the only way to enter a saving relationship with God; indeed only those who believe can know God, or know how to please him. They thus espoused the key Reformation principles of sola gratia and sola Scriptura.
    While some common theological features characterized those dubbed neo-orthodox, sharp disagreements arose as to how to work these out in a systematic theological way. For example Tillich and Bultmann were prepared to be influenced by contemporary philosophy more than Barth thought permissible; and Brunner’s espousal of general revelation (cf. Natural Theology) caused a sharp dispute.
    Classic critiques of this position suggest: 1. Neo-orthodoxy can offer no justification for basing itself on God’s revelation known only by faith (lest faith become sight), since this renders its foundation impervious to verification or falsification. 2. The emphasis on the transcendent ‘otherness’ of God led to extreme scepticism about whether talk about God was possible, and indeed whether such a God any longer existed (cf. Death-of-God Theology). 3. Pannenberg and others challenged its view of secular history as essentially uncertain, susceptible of differing interpretations and separable from God’s activity in the world, for they regarded revelation as history. 4. Neo-orthodoxy can have no reply to those who claim to have encountered God through other religions and would therefore adopt an alternative basis to their theology." (Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. (2000, c1988). New dictionary of theology (electronic ed.) (456). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.)


    I don't think I have asked the question, 'apologetics isn't mentioned all the time'. I think I've asked a similar sounding, but profoundly different question. I've asked, 'In the context of a mission organisation (rather than a theology club) where does your apologetic (or persuasive reasoning) integrate with your theological instruction?'

    In some ways, your last message feels defensive. It's as if you are saying, "Stop getting at me." I don't want to wind you up, but I think that I'm asking an important question. I can't see anyone else asking it. Bish's blog is also quite a fair place for these questions isn't it?

    Your question about suggesting reading Mark, and whether that is neo-Barthian could look like you are trying to ridicule the importance of the question and discussion were having. Since the description of neo-Barthian / neo-orthodoxy that I've offered isn't remotely similar.

    Let's ask this question together. I'm finding it stimulating. It's encouraging to think about evangelism together and this discussion is actually really important.

  16. Tom,

    I honestly waqsn't being defensive, or ridiculing. Promise.

    But I thought you were saying that the neo-Barthian approach means just leaping into the Bible with no apologetic for why we should. I was trying to think of what that would look like practically in evangelism.

    But, in fairness, I probably misunderstood, as I really don't understand terms like epistemological fideism.

  17. Sorry I was too hasty perhaps.

    Opening the bible with people is a good idea.

    Is it neo-Barthian? That depends on what you say, what you think and how you do it.

  18. Tom, what should it look like? Give us a rough sketch.

  19. I think that the first thing, is that it shouldn't look like anything. That doesn't really help me to continue by saying what it should look like.

    One of the things that Michael Green brings out of his exegesis of Acts is the flexibility of the NT evangelists. They were utterly dynamic, able to relate the proclaimed and verbalised gospel, and Christian worldview into every situation, without adopting a one size fits all approach.

    They held together relevance, history, evidence, reason, scripture, art and poetry, prayer, community and life. They were simultaneously apologists and theologians, persuaders and preachers. They talked about what they had seen and heard and brought that to bear alongside the authority and power of scriptural exegesis.

  20. You're the one who said: "depends on what you say, what you think and how you do it."

    I'd agree it's all of those sorts of things, with no-one size fits all approach - as I cited here from Green last month.

    I have to say though, that's kinda what I see in action on the ground. There are obviously times when each of us (yourself included) do a lazy, unthoughtful, unengaging job (for a whole host of reasons) - but generally I see stuff that is creative, persuasive, engaging, dynamic and exegetical. Though we all need to grow in that. That's what I hear from Reeves, from Cunningham, from McCracken and others.

  21. I don't see a contradiction between the two. On one hand saying that neo-orthodoxy depends on how you handle the bible, not whether or not you handle the bible. That makes a lot of sense.

    And then saying that an approach consistent the principles and manner of evangelism in Acts can be varied. What I mean is that it is varied inside of a certain scope. Within that scope there is a variety. There were many different types of cars on the motorway on my way home tonight. Step outside that and you can have either neo-orthodoxy or something worse. In the same way, any one of the different cars could crash off the road.

    Saying that there are different cars, but that there is road and a field isn't a problem.

    I'm contending that a theology of everything should include a biblical view of human rationality. I think we're seeing an anti-rational neo-orthodoxy all over the place, and I think it puts the clamps on effective mission work.

  22. "I'm contending that a theology of everything should include a biblical view of human rationality. I think we're seeing an anti-rational neo-orthodoxy all over the place, and I think it puts the clamps on effective mission work."

    How/where are we seeing that? And what does it look like? I'm still not sure what the problem you're identifying is in practice... You may be entirely correct but please illustrate.

  23. I'd prefer not to put it more directly. Doing as you ask means pointing more directly at someone. I'm not really willing to do that. I've said what neo-orthodoxy is. How it affects evangelism. I've said that it is not about opening the bible but the way that human reason is viewed and used alongside that. If you understood the definition of neo-orthodoxy that I gave, and think that the summary of the evangelistic methodology of the church in Acts is as I describe it, then I don't see how much more direct I can be without stepping over a line, that I'm not ready to step over.

    I'll happily ask Mike Reeves some questions about why there wasn't more persuasive material in his article, and why he doesn't make more use of persuasion, for outsiders. But I'm too aware that I'm able to read into things, and pick up the stick at the wrong end, to go pointing the finger at him, or anyone else. I've probably managed to get completely the wrong idea about his view of persuasion, and how he sees its role in evangelism.

  24. The problem you have is that you're going to potentially sound like critique sounds like you're attacking a strawman unless you can show us what you actually have a problem with. That said, I'm not going to push you beyond where you want to go :)

    I suspect you did get the wrong idea of Mike - though I really, really, really think you should go talk with him. Partly cos he's great fun, and partly because it'd be mutually beneficial - he's not far from Oxford.


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