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.