Adapting to Realities - Acts 17:10-22

Fundamentalism is characterized by a static concept of faith and belief. It is a tightly packaged system of belief more in keeping with a philosophical construct or a time-stamped cultural perspective than with a living faith. The structures and definitions of Fundamentalism make for a secure belief system in the short term. It can be appealing, especially to those who want quick answers to the complex issues of life. It offers hard and fast answers, an enemy to oppose, and the security of belonging to a group with a defined expression of the truth for all time. The problem is that it fails at adapting to the shifting realities of life.
If life requires adaptation, fundamentalism seeks to restore life to a supposed golden age of some idyllic utopia or plan for some new implementation of the same. What it fails to account for is that as life changes around us the answers of another year do not respond appropriately to the struggles and questions of a new age. It also fails to account for the failures of humanity which may have been overcome to some degree since.
We may attempt to glorify a misremembered past. Attempting to recreate it in a new context, however, is not so simple. In terms of faith, the same applies. We consider some aspects of faith, such as church attendance, but divorce them from non-faith factors that were in play. We grasp onto some moral issues while overlooking others. We look at divorce rates, but ignore domestic violence that in earlier years went unreported. We look at church membership, but we ignore the dearth of other social opportunities beyond the church. We look at rates of baptism, but we ignore questions of commitment to the gospel and adopting the priorities or character of Christ Jesus.
For Paul, there were other issues in regard to the more fundamentalist mindset from which he had come. His heritage had very strong ideas of what was right. His traditions were focused on the need to follow God's revealed will within the traditions of the elders in order for the Jewish people to receive the blessings God had in store. There was a reason to enforce their definitions upon others. If the people did not follow their traditions, they believed God would punish the entire nation and keep the Messianic age from becoming reality.
In the process of living out that concept, there were Jews throughout the Roman Empire who were focused on silencing Paul's preaching since it countered their traditions. Accepting the concept of redemption as the product of grace pulled out the major supporting framework for their doctrinal system. If God dealt with people on the basis of grace, they would lose the structure of their faith traditions and any sense of confidence in their religious heritage. To deny observance of the law was in their eyes to deny God and place Judaism as a whole in jeopardy.
Paul knew very well that the message he preached was disconcerting to many. He understood that it was no easy thing for Jews to adopt Paul's preaching without having to let go of the entirety of their faith. Shifting from the priorities of traditional Judaism to accepting what Jesus had taught was a major change not to be taken lightly. It meant moving from a dependence on the quality of one's actions to accepting that God desired reconciliation to the point of overlooking one's failures to measure up. For one to adopt this understanding of the extent of God's grace could mean putting one's life in jeopardy if Paul's gospel proved to be wrong. That was a risky prospect.
Paul had been preaching in Thessalonica. Some of the synagogue members had listened to his preaching and embraced the gospel wholeheartedly. Others had been incensed with Paul, especially when Gentile converts accepted Paul's preaching. Rather than accepting that God might be willing to overlook the failings of Gentiles as well as Jews, they grasped onto their Jewish heritage with greater vigor than before. They stirred up the town to force Paul to be kicked out, hoping to silence him. When they heard he had gone to Berea to continue his preaching, they followed along to stir up the population of Berea, as well.
The example of the Bereans was a very different approach than that of the Jews in Thessalonica. They did indeed embrace Paul's message. Along with that embrace, however, they took the time and effort to test what Paul presented with a fresh review of the Scriptures. They did not simply take Paul at his word. Nor did they simply cling to their received traditions. They listened to both and then went back to the Scriptures to evaluate the positions placed before them.
To do that, they had to be open to hearing new interpretations. They had to be willing to entertain new ideas. They also had to accept their personal responsibility to evaluate what they heard in light of what the Scriptures actually said. They took in Paul's teaching and then went about the process to see if his claims stacked up to God's revelation in the Scriptures.
It is one thing to claim that our doctrinal positions and religious traditions are Biblical. It is quite another to test them with an honest scrutiny of the Scriptures on which they should be based. The strength of our claims must match up with what God has revealed, not with what we want to believe or what we have simply heard over the course of our lives. If our positions do not match up with what God has revealed, our positions are meaningless. They become nothing more than cultural or social norms with a veneer of religious polish to them.
Paul did not stop in Berea, however, he went on to Athens. While the Bereans were occupied with searching the Scriptures to validate Paul's teaching, the Thessalonian Jews followed him to run him out of yet another town. In Athens, however, Paul found people with itching ears, ready to hear anything as long as it was new. This gave Paul a ready platform, but it did not give him the same kind of depth on which to build on the gospel message.
If the Thessalonians were unwilling to accept anything new, the Athenians merely wanted to hear new ideas for the sake of curiosity. They were unwilling to commit to a message, regardless of what it was or how solid it might be. They just wanted something new, something different, something to arouse their curiosity.
Athens displayed something far from the strictures of a closed fundamentalist perspective, but it was just as destructive and unhelpful. New thoughts, new ideas, new perspectives in themselves are not of any benefit. That is how we get a plethora of conspiracy theories, junk science, and baseless truth claims that do nothing more than tear down a society. It is how we engender a myriad of cults and false doctrines. Rather than being completely closed or completely open, we need that discerning spirit of the Bereans who tested what they heard, going back to a firm foundation upon which to base new responses to a changing world.
It is not enough to grasp onto an established faith tradition. God is too big for the restrictions of anyone's box. It is foolish to do away with any foundation of faith. God has been in the business of revealing and reconciling humanity for many generations. We just have to open our hearts and minds to growth, even as we hold fast to what God has revealed in Christ Jesus.
©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin 


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