‘Mystery of integrity’ must propel the church forward, says Moore during Norton Lectures

Communications Staff — March 4, 2019

The church’s integrity, or internal stability, is maintained by holding together and articulating critical paradoxes in the Bible, said Russell Moore in the Norton Lectures at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Feb. 26-27. The lectures were titled “The Mystery of Integrity: The Quest for Congruence in a Culture of Conformity.”

While the word “integrity” is often used regarding moral character, it really represents the “holding together” of something, like a building or institution. This integrity is critical to the church in the 21st century, and it is expressed in Scripture primarily through paradox, said Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and former dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary.

There are numerous paradoxes in Christian theology that have to be held in tension, according to Moore, such as the deity of Christ and the humanity of Christ, or the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of human beings. One important paradox when it comes to Christian ministry is the tension between “personal” and the “communal,” he argued. The personal nature of the Christian life, Moore said, must go hand-in-hand with a desire for growth in community. The two are mutually informing and they remain strong together.  

“The reason that the personal and the communal have to constantly be held together is because you and I are living in a time when both are collapsing,” he said. “And the costs of the collapse of both the individual and community are incredibly high.”

For the church to exist in faithfulness to the New Testament, there must be a balance between individuality and community, Moore said. Christians are brought into the church in order to minister to others with their gifts. They then serve their communities through their individuality, which is rooted in one’s identity in Christ. If the personal and the collective are separated, tribes form within the church and within broader culture, threatening the integrity of both.

“In reality, church splits and Twitter wars are not really different at all,” Moore said. “Joining a cult and spending time wondering what people think about one online are not that different. And the person has not been created for life in a hive or in a pack, but for life within a kingdom; life within a church.”

The mission of the church itself is also fundamentally paradoxical, Moore said. The church is designed to call human beings to individual transformation through the repentance of sins and the subsequent entrance to the community of church. Those who experience regeneration are brought into the community to serve and be formed by it.

But the core paradox in Christian ministry, Moore said, that of “mystery” and “intelligibility” in proclamation of biblical truth. As the apostle John puts it in his Gospel, the abstract and pre-incarnate word (mystery) is made clear to human beings in a narrative as the “Word made flesh” (intelligibility). The balance between these two ideas is key to faithfully explaining the gospel, Moore said.

“If we’re going to be the people who are faithfully carrying [the gospel] message into the 21st century, we must come back to this question of paradox: holding in right tension what the Scripture puts together,” he said. “That means holding together a sense of mystery with a sense of intelligibility.”

Moore expanded upon the idea of integrity and paradox, noting that any person or organization must be paradoxical in some way.

“The institutional and the creative, the predictable and the unpredictable, the regimented and the less regimented have to exist to some degree in the same body, the same organization, and to some degree in the same person,” he said.

According to Moore, this is true in the classic, tripartite division of the offices Christ: prophet, priest, and king. Those categories are usually used in corporate or leadership circles to refer to someone’s unique gifting, but Moore argued their distinctions cannot be taken too far. Christ himself demonstrated all three offices, he said, and Christians called to be like Jesus should exhibit all three giftings: witness, relationship, and leadership.

Similarly, Christian institutions must demonstrate a blend of both priesthood and prophethood, of mystery and intelligibility, Moore said. And this paradox sets the church apart in its mission.

Explaining the gospel is fundamentally about making the mysterious intelligible, Moore said. Most people do not form opinions because of logic or reason, Moore said, but because of intuition, then finding reasons to support those intuitions. This is consistent with a biblical worldview, especially for the Apostle Paul, according to Moore.

In Romans 1-2, Paul argues that God has intuitively revealed himself in every human person made in his image, but that intuition has been twisted by sin. Human beings in a fallen world are not morally neutral creatures who must be reasoned with, but are rather intuitively sinful beings who invent reasons to support their flawed intuitions. The proclamation of the gospel should therefore address those intuitions, Moore said.

“The word that we have been given from God is a word that addresses the rational, but in a way that is able to transcend reason itself,” Moore said. “It is not merely reasonable.”

Christians can communicate this word by being conversant in narrative and literary structures, Moore said. The Bible is not a collection of propositional truth, but a grand narrative. It cannot be preached as a theological or doctrinal treatise, and it cannot be preached without a robust knowledge of the story of Scripture, he said.

“For much of the 20th century, there was a market-driven, mostly atheological character to American evangelicalism,” Moore said. “What I would encounter in students at Southern Seminary and other places was almost never that. What I would often find were people who have very strong convictions about the nature of the atonement as penal and substitutionary, but didn’t know the difference between Jeroboam and Rehoboam. There were theological understandings rooted mostly in controversies — of the Reformation era or the current era — but not a deep familiarity with the narrative of Scripture itself.”

This attention to literary structures is indispensable for teaching the Bible in Christian ministry, according to Moore — not only because Christians need to know how to read texts, but because they need to read people.

“What you’re going to find as you move forward into the mission field is that you are going to encounter people desperately in search of personal narrative,” Moore said. “If you don’t understand how texts work, and if you don’t understand how the Bible as a story and as a text works, the problem is not just that you won’t interpret the Bible rightly, but that you won’t be able to interpret people rightly.”

Moore explained that a “plot” is the telling of a story with the observation of causality. Borrowing an observation from novelist E.M. Forster, “the king died and then the queen died” is a story, but “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. Christians must pay attention to the plot of Scripture so they can explain it to another person who is looking to make sense of their own life’s narrative.

“The central apologetic of the Christian faith is that everyone has to live as though life has a plot in order to find meaning,” Moore said. “And the Scripture tells us why: Life is, in fact, plotted and it only makes sense in light of a coherent story of a life embedded in a coherent story of the universe.

“The human heart has a need for narration, logic, and meaning, but it can only be a meaning that happens within the fabric of what God has given to us in intelligibility and mystery.”

Christians preach a message of mystery, but not a mystery that is entirely unknowable, Moore said. They speak the gospel with intelligible, reasonable words, but in a way that speaks to the deepest longings and desires of the human soul.

“The paradox the church has is to speak a transcendent word of awe, wonder, and mystery along with a word that is able to take a narrated life and to make sense of it in light of a different plot structure.”

The spring Norton Lectures included three sessions spanning two days. Moore also spoke on the topic of integrity in chapel on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Audio and video from the Norton Lectures and of chapel are available at equip.sbts.edu.

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