2 Foreword to the June 2010 Edition

I have been mightily impressed with the penetrating acumen of Ed Suominen as he has fed me questions for my Bible Geek podcast, so when he approached me to sift the manuscript of the work you are about to read, I welcomed the opportunity. My main task was to scrutinize the accuracy of his many references, making sure nothing was taken out of its biblical context and that none of the literature he was critiquing had been misinterpreted as far as I could tell. I believe I found one single instance in the whole book where I suspected the original author had not intended a theological distinction Ed thought he had found in a quoted passage, and Ed changed it. So I am happy to add whatever credibility I may have to the soundness of Ed’s arguments on theology and scripture.

But the book is much more than a survey of biblical teaching, as if in a vacuum. For one thing, I was delighted to receive a thorough introduction to the social and theological character of a branch of Lutheranism of which I had never heard, that set in motion by the nineteenth-century preacher Laestadius. Ed’s comprehensive grasp of the history, beliefs, and theology of this movement, and of the rival opinions rampant throughout the group and all the documentary sources is just phenomenal. And as soon as one looks through the other end of the scope one sees a whole new work, equally interesting: a testament of tortured faith. Here is the case of a man who loves his religious tradition very much, loves it enough to want to know everything about it (and seemingly does know everything about it!). And such deep inquiry forbids him be satisfied with the apologetical sedatives that satisfy others whose goal is merely to “get along.” No, Ed shows himself to be a prime example of what Paul Tillich calls “The Theologian” in a series of sermons bearing that title. He asks

which one of us can call himself a theologian? Who can decide to become a theologian? And who can dare to remain a theologian? Do we really belong to the assembly of God? Can we seriously accept the paradox upon which the Church is built, the paradox that Jesus is the Christ? Are we grasped by the Divine Spirit, and have we received the word of knowledge as a gift? If somebody were to come and tell us that he certainly belongs to the Church, that he does not doubt that Jesus is the Christ any longer, that he continually experiences the grip of the Divine Spirit and the gift of spiritual knowledge, what should be our answer to him? We certainly should tell him that he does not fulfill even the first condition of theological existence, which is the realization that one does not know whether he has experienced the Divine Spirit, or spirits which are not divine. We would not accept him as a theologian. On the other hand, if someone were to come and tell us that he is estranged from the Christian Church and its foundations, that he does not feel the presence of the power of the Spirit, that he is empty of spiritual knowledge, but that he asks again and again the theological question, the question of an ultimate concern and its manifestations in Jesus as the Christ, we would accept him as a theologian (in The Shaking of the Foundations, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948, 120-21.)

Ed Suominen is such a theologian. He walks the lonely, narrow path of great love for his faith community and simultaneous, painful alienation from it, because he cannot avoid asking the questions that his tradition fears. But so great is his love for Conservative Laestadianism as to cast out all fear. The questions he raises plague him perhaps much more than they would the common faithful (those whom I call generically, “pew potatoes”).1 Pulpit rhetoric easily condemns “doubts,” and pious heads nod “Amen,” but none can really see why anyone would raise the questions unless they were looking for excuses to leave the fold. Ed, by contrast, knows too well that his questions are hands extended for help. He wants to be drawn safely into the boat, not forced out. And the last thing he wants to do is to jump out.

Perhaps the one sin Jesus takes aim at more than any other in the gospels is hypocrisy. And Ed, too, hates this above all. He cannot abide the thought of being a hypocrite. He will not impose himself on a faith community that will not have someone like him, a “doubter,” in its ranks. Thus this book. It is a forthright record of his deep and troubling questions, really a self-examination as much as an examination of his inherited theology. He asks the reader and his church: do you love our tradition, and do you love the Bible, enough to look at them unafraid, let the chips fall where they may? Because if we do not, then our professed loyalty to both Bible and Church will be hollow, pat, superficial, and not nearly so deeply rooted as we claim. If we love our faith we will not hesitate to question it. Otherwise we can never really understand it or appreciate it.

Robert M. Price, June 5, 2010

Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies, Colemon Theological Seminary; Host, Point of Inquiry; Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar; Fellow, The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion; Research Fellow, Center for Inquiry Institute; Host, The Bible Geek Podcast; Author, Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis of Biblical Authority, The Pre-Nicene New Testament, and The Reason-Driven Life, among others.

1 One person who was part of the very limited distribution of my June 2010 edition took offense at the “pew potatoes” label. At least one other reader found it amusing, as did I, so I made no effort to censor it from Price’s foreword. I leave it here with a question for the offended reader and any others having the same reaction. How does the label mischaracterize the vast majority of Conservative Laestadians whose sole exposure to theology and church history is to sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday passively accepting what they are told by preachers who have little to back up their statements except a bald claim of inspiration by the Holy Spirit and dire threats against disbelief or even honest doubts?