Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Believe It Or Not

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 3:16-36) transports me to Louisville and the storied halls of my alma mater, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sometime in the mid to late 1950s. It was an era of intense conflict within the faculty and between faculty and administration. Heated arguments over theology and belief and the nature of the seminary were frequent. One story involves New Testament professor J. Estill Jones, a short man, standing just over 5’ tall, nicknamed “Pistol,” ranting to a group of fellow professors over some disagreement he had with Church History professor Theron Price, a tall man, well over 6’. One of Jones’ colleagues, who encouraged him to take the matter up directly with Price, reportedly said, Pistol, why don’t you go and look him right in the navel and tell him what you really think! Their intellectual squabble must have been settled, because toward the end of that decade Pistol and Price would join forces with eleven other faculty members to directly challenge the leadership of the seminary’s President, Duke McCall. The Thirteen, as they came to be known, believed that seminary faculty should be free to pursue the truth wherever it might take them, unfettered from the popular beliefs that carried the day at any given time in Southern Baptist life. The President believed that the seminary served at the pleasure of the denomination, and faculty needed to be more diplomatic and practical in their approach to training clergy. The Thirteen all wound up getting fired by the trustees as a result of their dissent. Interestingly enough, Theron Price’s position in Church History was filled by a young scholar, E. Glenn Hinson, who 25 years later came and gave a series of lectures at my college; his profound presentations on peacemaking were a major reason I went to Southern. Another interesting note, by the time I got to Louisville in 1984, the seminary had succeeded in bringing one of the Thirteen back to campus. Estill Jones, aka Pistol, was our chaplain.

Early on in my life, I, like many, memorized a verse from today’s Passage, John 3:16, with its famous phrase whosoever believeth in him should not perish. The verb believe is the English translation of the Greek word pisteuo, and this word has undoubtedly spurred many of the theological battles in Baptist life. What does it really mean to believe? New Testament scholars, like Pistol Jones, would tell us that pisteuo has two broad meanings – propositional belief, and dispositional belief. I believe the earth revolves around the sun is a propositional belief, something you propose to be true, but it may or may not have a direct bearing on your day to day life. I believe in the power of love is a dispositional belief, something that makes a difference in your life. John’s gospel, which uses the word pisteuo more than any other book of the New Testament (around 100 times), clues us in that Jesus was most interested in dispositional belief. John 3:16 is immediately followed by verses that talk about people who walk in darkness or walk in light, whose deeds are evil or good, and this is all wrapped up in pisteuo, belief. Dispositional belief is an orientation of life, a leaning toward what you believe to be good and redemptive. And here’s the kicker – one can have propositional belief, stating something to be true, without an accompanying disposition. And one can have dispositional belief, basing one’s life on what is true, without even knowing the propositional language. No wonder there are so many battles.

Battles over belief are back in the national news today, as accusations fly over phony theologies and oppressive belief systems. People who share basically the same set of core propositional beliefs (such as Rick Santorum and President Obama) are miles apart on dispositional beliefs. And both of them are miles apart from the dispositional beliefs of my Christian friends in Cuba. The questions of pisteuo call us to task – how do we follow the Way of Jesus? How do we love our enemies? What does it mean to be content, and refrain from storing up treasures here on earth? What does it look like to welcome the stranger and direct our best energies toward the least of these? When I think of how radical and contrary these dispositions are, it leads me to a propositional belief: Jesus is a pistol.

How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.



  • February 27, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    John 3:16 has been a core value of my life from early childhood. Now I , having had it explained to me in depth in this blog, have a deeper understanding of that verse.
    When I attended a CFO camp, I had charge of one of the creative workshops. I had a globe with those very words–God so loved the world.
    When I came to the room the following day, someone had written “DO YOU?” Wow! That really hit home. It is a given that God does indeed love the world, but I, made in God’s image, must live that out all the days of my life.

    Comment by Janet Davies

  • February 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Makes me recall one of my favorite lines from Clarence Jordan: “We’ll worship the hind legs off Jesus, but never do a thing he says.”

    Comment by ken sehested

  • February 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    Ken and Stan: I’ve gotta share that quote with Clarence’s boy Lenny. He lives over here in Franklin and is a great guy.

    Comment by Vic Greene

  • February 28, 2012 at 6:18 am

    Janet – Great story! Ken – love the Jordan quote; you’ve got a good storehouse. Vic – Reall? Clarence Jordan’s son lives in Franklin? Sounds like a road trip is in order.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • February 28, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Would love to see you and Kim! Let us know and we’ll check with Lenny. By the way, my son John will be having a kidney transplant on the day after Easter, April 9. Would welcome your prayers.

    Comment by Vic Greene

  • March 2, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Vic, we’ll sure be praying for John, and I look forward to a road trip to Franklin.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • March 5, 2012 at 11:05 am

    I believe we must have both propositional and dispositional belief. Many Christians today have been so turned off by what is seen as hypocritical evangelics who seem to just focus on the propositional and then live in such a way that is counter to Jesus’ example that they, coupled with not wanting to “offend” or “exclude” those of other faiths, swing the pendulum in the other direction and focus only on the dispositional, ie “social justice,” or “social gospel” and fail to tie in Christ. Faith without works is dead as we are told in James, but we are also told we must believe in Christ and tell others about him, otherwise, if you think about it, there is nothing different between Christianity and your favorite service club or organization that does humanitarian work, or other religions who do good or promote being good people. If we do believe in Christ, we have to profess our faith and tell others as we “walk in the light” ie help them and try to live as Jesus taught….because they won’ t just get the message of Christ through osmosis.

    Comment by Susan Odom Midgett

  • March 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks, Susan, for your thoughtful and insightful comments. I don’t think it’s a dichotomy between propositional beliefs and humanitarian works, or that leaving out a requirement for a particular propositional belief for participation in the kingdom reduces the community of faith to a social club or organization. I believe the kingdom requires a relationship between the person of faith and God, and that God’s grace prompts people to act as the body of Christ in the world. That said, I also believe that the relationship can happen across all sorts of lines of competing and conflicting confessional belief statements, creeds. I have seen people following Christ across many denominations, and no denominations. I also allow room for the Spirit to blow where it will and create opportunities for a heart relationship of grace and attendant fruits of the Spirit among people who have never even heard the language of faith. I also allow room for the Spirit to work among people to create heart relationships even if their propositional language comes from another faith tradition. It’s not that I’m against propositional language, I certainly have confessional beliefs that make sense to me, and inform my faith walk. But I don’t think my participation in the Kingdom is dependent on my having the right language, or any language. I read scripture to say that the relationship, and following the Way, are primary.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

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