Tuesday, April 28, 2009

1.3 The Incarnated Church

This is the third and final second section of Chapter 1: "The Myth of the Ideal Church."

Past posts include:

1.1 The Good Old Days
1.2 The "Platonic" Church

Now for part three, 1.3 The Incarnated Church:

Some might object to using the word incarnated for anything but Jesus Christ. The incarnation of course refers to Jesus becoming "in flesh" and comes from John 1:14, where the Word of God becomes flesh and builds its tent among us in the person of Jesus. Certainly this incarnation is the real deal, the one that really counts! When we use the word here, we do not in any way mean to equate or substitute any other sense of "incarnation" for the true Word made flesh.

There is also a danger in using the word in the way I am about to use it. When we say that the Bible is "incarnated" revelation or that the Baptist church across the street is an "incarnated" church, we run the very risk of giving off exactly the kind of Platonic vibes I warned about in the previous section. We might easily fall back into the old habit of thinking our goal is to make our local church an incarnated version of the ideal, pure church of the New Testament, where the fleshly clothing is irrelevant and what counts is the pure, invisible church inside.

Nevertheless, despite these dangers, I can't think of a better way to conceptualize the idea that each local church, not to mention each denomination and stream of Christian tradition, is an embodied member of the family of God that we call the Church. Each has its own body. Each has its own personality. Our goal should not be to make them all look the same, like some boiled down, generic Christian product. They would not have the strengths they have if they were all a clone of some fictional, proto-church.

Christian groups, like the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, are like the parts of a body. Some are the eyes, some are the ears, some are the feet. And although I'm not sure exactly which denomination might fall into the category of "unpresentable parts" (1 Cor. 12:23), I'm sure there are a few unpresentable members of the Church in every church. The bottom line is that while we tend to think of the diversity of Christendom as a weakness, we can make a good argument that it is at least potentially a great strength.

Reformed churches really get the kingship of God. Arminian churches really get God's love for everyone. Charismatic churches really get the idea of God's power to heal and to change lives today. Orthodox churches really get the mystery of a God who is beyond human understanding. If we tried to boil down all of these churches into one basic set of beliefs and practices, the Church as a whole would be impoverished, just as if all of our children looked exactly the same and had exactly the same personalities. If all churches were generic clones of each other, Christendom would arguably be blander, not more vibrant.

Ironically, the early church was also a somewhat diverse church, probably far more than we usually imagine. It is not bad that we tend to read the New Testament as an integrated text with a single perspective and picture. Indeed, perhaps we are supposed to read it in this way as a text. However, it seems doubtful that the early church looked so monolithic historically. When we look at the early church in this way, we are probably flattening out the rolling landscape of the early church.

Hiding beneath the surface--and sometimes staring at us from the surface--are hints and indications of tensions among various groups in the early church. It too was full of incarnated churches who disagreed on various things and were finding their way with the Holy Spirit's help through a whole set of new issues brought on by the resurrection of Jesus and the commencement of the last days. There may actually be greater unity in the beliefs and practices of the catholic tradition than there was in the early church. Indeed, this diversity in the New Testament helps explain why the Protestant claim to base belief and practice on the Bible "alone" has resulted in tens of thousands of differing denominations.

A great place to start looking at this diversity is Galatians 2. [1] In this chapter, Paul recounts how he consulted privately with Peter, James and John about his mission to non-Jews, the Gentiles. Paul and his fellow missionary, Barnabas, were not requiring Gentile converts to become circumcised or become Jews. He believed they could escape God's coming wrathful judgment without becoming a Jew, and he brought along an uncircumcised young man named Titus as an example.

With two thousand years behind us, it is easy to miss not only how controversial this question must have been at the time. It is also all too easy for us to overplay the agreement between Paul and James. For example, we all too easily miss what Paul means when he says Titus "was not forced" to be circumcised (2:3). The clear implication is that James and Peter would have preferred that Titus become circumcised, even though they allowed as a concession that it was not absolutely necessary.

It is also noticeable--and probably typical--that Acts chooses not to tell us about the subsequent blow up between Paul and Peter at Antioch, where Paul so much as calls Peter a hypocrite for not eating with Gentile believers simply because they are Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14). A careful comparison of Acts with Paul's writings repeatedly gives us the impression that Acts softens such conflicts consistently, especially between Christians and various governmental bodies. For example, Paul himself tells us that a representative of King Aretas, a secular authority, was waiting to arrest Paul (2 Cor. 11:32). Acts only tells us "the Jews" were, a quite different enemy altogether (Acts 9:23).

It is thus unlikely that in Acts we are seeing anything like a videotape of the early church. Indeed, if we had second volumes to Matthew, Mark, and John, they would likely differ as much from Acts as its first volume, Luke, differs from them. We are not in any way finding fault with Acts for the fact that it is artful in its presentation and that it means to portray the early church in a particular way. We rather find fault with those who insist the book of Acts to conform to our standards and expectations. [2]

On the one hand, therefore, we are correct to see the church of Acts as an ideal church. But it is 1) an ideal church in the first century and even then it is 2) only one such ideal church. It does not straightforwardly present us with an ideal church for the twenty-first century. For example, it is unclear that it is ideal for every church in every time and place to advocate its members sell their excess possessions and redistribute them, as in Acts 2:44-45. It is not immediately obvious that the economic practices of an agrarian community that believed itself to be living in the days immediately preceding Messiah Jesus' return would apply directly to a quite different community accustomed to two thousand years of growing old and dying after seeing grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up and grow old themselves.

And even in the first century Acts does not present us with the only ideal church even in its day. It does not, for example, give us Paul's ideal church even back then. We find enough theological differences between Paul and Acts to recognize that Acts is not giving us the ideal church even for its own time. For example, Paul never mentions the letter James sends out to the Gentiles in Acts 15:22-29. Clearly Acts understands this letter to provide the final, unified answer for the church on the matter of requirements for Gentiles. [3] But when the issue of meat sacrificed to idols actually came up at Corinth, Paul never mentions this letter, even though it was a perfect opportunity to give "the ideal" guidelines on the subject.

But Paul never mentions it. Indeed, the "don't ask where the meat came from" policy he sets down (1 Cor. 10:23-30) contradicts James' seeming insistence that a Jew make sure he or she does not inadvertantly eat such meat. Paul apparently continued to disagree with Peter and James on issues of purity just as he did at Antioch in Galatians 2:11-14, long after the "Jerusalem Council" of Acts 15. [4] Given Paul's general style, he would have surely told us if he convinced Peter of his position after calling him out in front of the whole church.

But Paul says nothing of the sort in Galatians and gives us no indication that he ever came to agree with its "ideal" policy. He even indicates that Barnabas took the other side in the debate (Gal. 2:13). It is thus no surprise to find Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways in Acts 15:36-41. Predictably, Acts does not tell about the blow up at Antioch. It only tells us that Paul and Barnabas disagreed about whether John Mark should accompany them. But the coincidence of timing seems too great not to be related. Clear differences continued to exist between the theology and practice of Paul and the core apostles, including on the issue of whether "works of law" played a role in God's acceptance of Jewish Christians. [5]

We not only have a tendency to downplay the differences between Paul's theology and that of the Jerusalem leaders. We also have a tendency to paint Paul's opponents as non-Christians. Paul of course contributes to this tendency by calling them "false brothers" himself (e.g., Gal. 2:4). But Acts seems to disagree with Paul on whether they were "in" or not. Acts calls them "certain from the sect of the Pharisees who had believed" and gives no indication that they were anything but true believers (15:5). [6] Indeed, Acts feels perfectly comfortable with Paul calling himself a Pharisee in the present tense near the end of his ministry (23:6). When James takes Paul aside in Acts 21, James considers these zealots for the Jewish Law to be Christians (21:20), even though they clearly have a much different understanding of the role of the Jewish Law in the life of a believer than Paul did.

This group of Christians thus did not disappear after the Jerusalem Council. We find Paul likely referring to them in Philippians 3 as the "mutilators of the flesh" (3:2). We would follow perhaps the majority of scholars who believe Galatians still addresses this group within the church some time after the Jerusalem Council (e.g., 5:10). Indeed, we would argue that the strong tendency for many evangelical scholars to argue for an early date for Galatians flows in part from the drive to tidy up the diversity of the early church and, indeed, the New Testament itself. Rather, a diversity of opinion on various key issues continued throughout Paul's ministry and beyond. As late as 2 Corinthians 10-13 and Romans we still see Paul dealing with Christian groups that oppose Paul's understanding of the gospel.

So even in this small cadre of texts we find at least three distinct perspectives that in our century might easily be three different denominations. First there is Paul who puts no priority on the Jewish works of law that were the stuff of inter-Jewish debate. [7] Then there are Christian leaders like James, Peter, and to some extent even Barnabas. They agree with Paul that a person does not need to be circumcised to be accepted by God, even though they think it preferable. They thus diagree with another group of Christian Jews who believe Gentiles cannot be sure of salvation unless they become circumcised.

But even if James and Peter agreed with Paul on the Gentiles not being forced into circumcision, they disagreed on what was appropriate for Jewish believers. For them Jews were still fully obligated to keep the particulars of the Jewish Law. Like the author of Acts, they insisted Jews remain in obedience to the Law (Acts 21:24). They did not agree with Paul's sentiment that "to those under the Law I became as those under the Law (though I am not under the Law), that I might win those under the Law" (1 Cor. 9:20). They are perhaps best represented in the New Testament by the Gospel of Matthew (e.g., Matt. 5:19) and the letter of James.

Yet Paul was not the most "liberal" of the early Christians. It is quite possible that some of the teaching he struggles with in the Corinthian church actually came from Apollos. Did Apollos tell some of the Corinthians that it was okay to eat at a pagan temple because "an idol is nothing in the world" (1 Cor. 8:4)? Certainly someone in the Corinthian church thought that this fact made it permissible to eat at such a table if you truly had faith that "there is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4). And Paul does not contradict them completely. He only suggests that to eat at a pagan temple was to eat at the "table of demons" (1 Cor. 10:20-21) and thus was not recommendable.

This segment of the early church does not have a clear voice in the New Testament, unless it would be in the sermon we call Hebrews. Perhaps it found expression in the Gnostic Christianity that would develop in the late first and early second century. The other trajectories also continued. Conservative Jewish Christianity would perhaps continue as the Ebionites and Nazarenes of the second century. Meanwhile, the "catholic" Christianity of Clement of Rome and Ignatius seems somewhat of a mixture of Pauline and Petrine Christianity. History, and presumably the Holy Spirit, would eventually declare this last "denomination" in the early church the one God endorsed for the long haul until Christ's return.

The point of this entire discussion is to show that the early church involved distinct pockets of belief and practice just like the church today. It was a collection of embodied churches, incarnated churches. It did not have everything figured out. The impulse to read Acts as a straightforward picture of the ideal church both ignores the diversity of the New Testament church as it really was and forgets that Acts itself was written for an incarnated church of its own time. It is a very important portrait for the church today for us to engage as Scripture with our eyes wide open. But it is not the only such portrait in the New Testament, and it is an ancient portrait that we must of necessity connect with care to our world in our context with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The chapters that follow try to do exactly that. We consider the diversity of practice in the Church today and connect it to the practice of the early church. But we do not do so with the absolute assumption that we must correct current practice and bring it back into line. God has allowed this diversity to arise. And for Protestants, for whom the drive to "get back" to the early church is strongest, it is important to realize that we are the ones responsible for the current diversity in the first place. The practice of the Church universal was largely the same throughout the world until we came along with our pretenses to get back to the Bible. Our efforts to get back have not come anywhere close to what we thought they would. They have fragmented the Church, rather than giving us a uniform understanding of what Church belief and practice should be.

We are thus arguing in this book for a "generous ecclesiology," one that recognizes that none of us are strictly ordering ourselves according to the practices of the early church and that we should not condemn each other for our differences in these areas. We should not try to follow the early church in every respect since we live in a different time and place. And even the early church itself differed in various key respects.

There should rather be a strong family resemblance between us and the early church, as well as between churches today. We will not all look the same for we are all particular churches, and none of us are the universal or ideal church. None of us can be since such a Platonic ideal does not exist. There are only specific churches living out the gospel under the power of the Spirit in specific times and places. When we recognize that the universal, "invisible" Church must always be a visible, incarnated church, we will be more generous toward Christian groups whose beliefs and practices differ somewhat from ours. And we will not mistake our group for the true Church or for the kingdom of God come to earth.

[1] The four perspectives I lay out in the paragraphs that follow are very similar to those set out by Raymond Brown and John Meier in their, Antioch and Rome: Cradles of Catholic Christianity (Paulist).

[2] A number of comparisons between Luke and the other gospels, as well as between Acts and Paul's writings, make Luke's artistry clear. A good place to start is to compare Luke 24 with Acts 1, where you get two quite different impressions of the time after the resurrection. If all we had were Luke 24, we might very well think that Jesus arose and ascended to heaven on the same day. But in Acts 1 we are looking at a forty day period. We find a similarly striking contrast when we compare Luke 4:14-37 with its likely parallel in Mark 6:1-6. Given these examples, it is very easy to see Acts 15 as Luke's artful presentation of the same basic events in Galatians 2.

[3] We can tell Acts considers it programmatic by the way James brings the list of requirements for Gentiles back up again in Acts 21:25.

[4] Although it is difficult to say, perhaps most New Testament scholars would equate the meeting Paul depicts between him and Peter, James, and John with the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. If so, Acts 15 would once again reflect the kind of artistry with which the book of Acts presents complex sequences of events in simplified and somewhat idealized ways.

[5] It is important to recognize that Paul's detractors both real and imaginary in Galatians, Romans, and 2 Corinthians 10-13 were all Christian Jews, not non-believing Jews. I believe the same is true of those he speaks about in Philippians 3. These disagreements over how to be justified, found acceptable to God, were "in house" disagreements among Christians.

[6] And Acts 8:9-24 shows that a person could even be baptized and not be a true Christian.

[7] There is significant disagreement among scholars as to the precise meaning of "works of law." Suffice it to say, the kinds of works Paul has in mind in Galatians are very likely the things he talks about in the letter, things like circumcision (5:2) and sabbath observance (4:10).

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope ...8

And now, today's part 2, continuing our review of Tom Wright's, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church on this third Sunday of Eastertide.

Previous posts on Wright's book include:

Part 1: Setting the Scene
1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church
3. Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting
4. The Strange Story of Easter

Part 2: God's Future Plan
5-6. The Cosmic Future and The Nature of the World's Hope
7. Jesus, Heaven, and New Creation

Chapter 8: "When He Appears"
I was very appreciative of this chapter because it has helped me understand Wright's position on the second coming much better. First, that in fact Wright does believe in the second coming. His understanding of the New Testament on this subject is quite interesting.

First, he doesn't believe that Jesus ever predicted his return. But he doesn't believe this in the sense that the parables about absent landords and kings aren't historical. Nor does he take predictions such as Mark 13 and others that engage Daniel 7 are unhistorical. Rather, they were about the first coming of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.

But the rest of the New Testament rightly then speaks of Jesus' return once and for all which is yet to come. Very interesting! I'm not convinced, but it is ingenius.

Wright then goes on to discuss what the parousia is for Paul. He mentions two meanings in the background literature: 1) mysterious presence of a god and 2) royal presence. He insists the word does not mean arrival but presence, ironically contradicted by his later comments about a king arriving at a city and being escorted into a town.

Yes, Wright believes that Christ will again be physically present on earth after the general resurrection. He does not, however, take the image of Christ coming on the clouds with the angels literally. He notes the parallels in Colossians of parousia with the word to "appear." He thinks language of clouds and descending is a metaphorical tapestry of 1) Moses coming down from the mountain, 2) Daniel 7, and 3) the visit of an emperor to a colony.

I buy allusions to the second two. I'm unconvinced of the first, where it seems to me Wright is once again smarter than Paul. And once again I would charge Wright with demythologizing Paul in his exegesis rather than in his application.

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope 7...

We continue our review of Tom Wright's, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church on this third Sunday of Eastertide. Sorry for any who were looking for the next installment of Generous Orthodoxy last week. I've done the reading but have been so mentally tired I haven't managed to input it, which in many respects is much harder than reading it in the first place.

Previous posts on Wright's book include:

Part 1: Setting the Scene
1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church
3. Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting
4. The Strange Story of Easter

Part 2: God's Future Plan
5-6. The Cosmic Future and The Nature of the World's Hope

Today my intent is to slip in reviews of chapters 7 and 8 in between finishing up grading for the semester, one at a time (to help me keep going...). So post #1 for today, chapter 7.

Chapter 7: Jesus, Heaven, and New Creation
The first part of the chapter is on the ascension and its importance. "It is impossible to collapse the ascension into the resurrection or vice versa" (109). The Spirit of Jesus may be here, but it is important to recognize at the same time that Jesus is not just here. His body is in heaven as we speak.

Here's an interesting claim: "heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God's good creation" (111). Heaven is tangential t earth so that "the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth." "Second, heaven is the control room for earth."

This is all very smart sounding, and I like it theologically. I doubt very seriously it is what the New Testament or Old Testament authors were thinking. Wright suggests, "The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hel down beneath their feet" (115). But I think Wright so wants the biblical worldview to speak directly on these matters to us today that he is doing something evangelicals are very good at--demythologizing the text via ingenious exegesis rather than recognizing that the Bible is truth incarnated for a different time and place.

Let's give Paul some papyrus and a stylus and ask him to draw the world. I bet it will have three stories, with heaven up and the realm of the dead "under the earth."

The ascension is important to Wright so that the church does not get equated with the kingdom but that we recognize that Jesus has not yet returned to us and thus that the most important part of the church is not fully present even if he is present (my paraphrase). "Jesus is not the church" (113). Understanding this fact rescues us both from "hollow triumphalism" and "shallow despair."

"At no point in the gospels or Acts does anyone say anything remotely like, 'Jesus has gone into heaven, so let's be sure we can follow him" (117).

The last part of the chapter is about the second coming, of which there will be more to come later. Wright wants as usual to avoid to extremes. The first is the end times mania that has typified the American scene off and on for these last 150 years or so. The second is the avoidance of the belief at all. If the earliest Christians thought Christ was coming again and he didn't, shouldn't we be reinterpreting this part of the equation?

He ends this chapter with the clarification that "eschatology" is not just about the second coming. He is after all a student of G. B. Caird and is surely far more correct than wrong. Jewish eschatology was not about the end of the world but about a radical turn in history for the better, God hitting the reset button on history. Eschatology is thus all the end times things but it is more. It is about God radically stepping into history to change its course (some of my paraphrase there I'm sure).

Part the second will hopefully appear before morning...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sermon Starters: 21st Century Evangelism

The lot fell on me to give the brief, 10 minute charge at the Masters in Ministry consecration service today. Here was my outline:

Intro: The two articles, "Collapse" in Christian Science Monitor and the Newsweek article that says the fastest growing religion in America is non-religion, secularism.

Hunch 1: There are some shifts going on, but it's not the end of true "evangelicals," people of God's good news for the world. In the words of Mark Twain, "the rumors of my death are somewhat exaggerated."

Hunch 2: This is in response to the defeat of the older generation of evangelicals in the election. In 2004, they marveled at evangelicalism's power. In 2008, they tell of its destruction.

Moot question: Should we try to force the rest of the world to behave the way we think they should. Moot question. We don't have the power to anymore (secret: we never did in the first place).

Evangelism for the 21st century:

1. evangelism by compassion--others will be attracted to Christianity if we are actually helping them with their worldly needs.

2. evangelism by life change--if I'm no different from anyone else except that I'm forgiven, then Christianity is useless. If Christianity is true, then others should find me someone they want to be like, someone they want to be around, someone they can count on.

3. evangelism by the miraculous--I read from 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5a and mentioned 2 Corinthians and Galatians. Power accompanied the coming of the gospel in the early church.

The fastest growing segment of Christianity is in the southern hemisphere in the 2/3rds world and it is charismatic. I don't speak in tongues, and not everything is genuine, no doubt. But there should be manifestations of God's power in signs and miracles all around us, if this thing we call Christianity is true.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Missional Buzz Books?

Let's say I was going to read a different book every week for the next 20 weeks trying to get an overall and yet balanced sense of a missional church that reaches out, assimilates in, is interested in true conversion and evangelizes, mobilizes for mission, multiplies, does traditional missions, and serves the community and the world...

In short, those of you who are missional experts, what am I missing that is oh so obvious???

1. The Shape of Things to Come, Hirsch, Frost
2. The Missional Church, by Guder and friends
3. Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, Lois Barrett
4. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, Tom Wright
5. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Lesslie Newbigen
6. The Mission of God, Christopher Wright
7. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible, by Glasser, Van Engen, Gilliland
8. Emerging Churches Gibbs, Bolger
9. The Prophetic Imagination, Bruggemann
10. The Politics of Jesus, Yoder
11. Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf
12. They Like Jesus but Not the Church, Dan Kimball
13. Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne
14. Breaking the Missional Code, Stetzer and Putman
15. Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, Thom Rainer
16. The Forgotten Ways, Hirsh
17. The Prodigal God, Keller
18. The Missional Leader, Roxburgh
19. God's Missionary People, Van Engen
20. Generous Orthodoxy, McClaren

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

1.2 The "Platonic" Church

This is the second section of Chapter 1: "The Myth of the Ideal Church."

The first section was "1.1 The Good Old Days."

1.2 The "Platonic" Church
Plato was a philosopher who lived several hundred years before Jesus came to earth. He believed that if you look at a group of things, say a bunch of horses, you could find certain essential or universal characteristics they all had in common. For example, horses have four legs. They have manes and long flowing tails. They neigh and gallop.

Plato suggested that standing behind all these different horses I might encounter was the ideal horse--the boiled down, core idea of a horse. To him, any particular horse you might see with your eyes on earth is simply a copy of this ideal horse that you know with your mind. Plato thought this ideal horse was far more real than any particular horse you might actually see or touch.

It is true that most horses have certain common features--not least the same basic DNA. But most of us today might find it a little strange to suggest that some pruned down idea of a horse is more real than a horse you might see running in a field. A real horse for us has a certain size and a certain color. It might have a particular personality and tend to behave in a certain way. And what if a horse gets in a terrible accident and loses one of its legs entirely? What if it gets a disease that makes all the hair in its mane and tail fall out? Has it stopped being a horse because it has lost one of the key elements of my ideal horse?

The myth of the ideal horse is a bit like the myth of the ideal church, the "Platonic" church, if you would. In practice, we only find particular churches, not the ideal church. Yes, the ideal church is unified. Yes, the people in the ideal church love each other. The ideal church reaches out to the world around it and cares for any it can. It teaches and disciples. It does its best to follow God's will for being and living in this world.

But in the real world, these ideals are played out in specific contexts--in different cultures and different situations. You show love differently in different cultures and in different situations. You will need to reach out to your surrounding context differently in different times and places. You will need to teach to different questions in different cultures and disciple differently.

A particular horse has a specific size, shape, and color. And a particular church, even a particular denomination, will end up having specific teachings and practices that differ from other particular churches. It will baptize or not baptize in certain ways. It will take communion or not take communion in various ways. Throughout church history, groups have tended to tell themselves that the way their group taught or practiced things was the truly biblical way, that they were the church just like the New Testament church. Indeed, today there are over 30,000 such churches who say such things, while differing wildly at times over what they think the New Testament church was like.

I made up a story once to illustrate some of this diversity. Sally was born when her parents were attending a Roman Catholic Church, so she was baptized soon after birth as an infant, by sprinkling. But then her parents switched to a Greek Orthodox church, where she was rebaptized three times by immersion, still as an infant, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Then in high school she started going to a Baptist church, where they insisted her two earlier baptisms did not count. She had not been old enough to know what was going on. So she prayed the sinner's prayer and was baptized again, certainly by immersion.

In college she went to a Lutheran church, where the pastor was horrified to find out she had been baptized not only twice, but three times already. He recalled that the Lutherans had killed re-baptizers back during the Reformation. Finally, as a young woman, she started attending a Friends church, where she was almost afraid to ask what they did. When she mustered up the courage, the soft-spoken, pacificist pastor told her calmly that he did not believe in water baptism.

The conclusion seems inescapable. Any group that claims to be simply the church of Christ, the disciples of Christ, the church of God, a non-denominational church, or even the catholic church is deceiving itself. At best we might speak of an inter-denominational church or a catholic church. An interdenominational church might allow most forms of baptism or might do communion in more than one way. But even to allow such variety is to disagree with those traditions that insist it must be done a particular way. A catholic church might model its practices after the common practices of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which of course then would distinguish it from many practices in Protestant churches.

And what would a church without specific understandings of the Bible and theology actually teach? As soon as it teaches a particular understanding, it has aligned itself with a particular stream of Christianity that differs from the others. What we find in reality is that we can identify the particular tradition of a "non-denominational" church fairly easily, simply by looking at what it teaches, how it structures itself, and what its key practices are.

At this point someone will protest that I am simply laying out the need we have to get back to the early church, to the ideal church of the New Testament. We need to peel off all the additions of tradition that have accrued over the centuries, they might say, and get back to the pristine, pure church of Acts and Paul. But hopefully this is the point where what we are saying will really begin to sink in.

The churches of the New Testament were also particular churches in particular contexts! Yes, they were closer to the fountainheads of the church: Jesus the resurrected Lord and the dispensed Holy Spirit. But they also lived out the ideals of the kingdom in their ancient contexts. They too were horses of a different color, shape, and size. They were not some shapeless, formless, colorless, universal essence of a church. They were the church living out the gospel in their times and places--and those times and places were not our times and places. [1]

If we do the same things they did--say greet our brothers and sisters in Christ with a holy kiss--we often will not be doing the same things they did. We might get a slap today instead of a smile. The meanings of words and actions at a particular point in time is a function of context and culture far more than something that carries over to all times and places. It is foolish to pattern our practices on the early church without due consideration of the difference between their time and our time, without carefully considering what the true family resemblances are.

The problem with the Platonic idea of the church is thus not the hope that all churches will share some common characteristics. The problem is that in the real world we only have particular churches at particular times and places. And do we really want to say that groups like the Quakers are not really part of the church because, like the horse with three legs, they do not normally practice baptism? Does God consider them a part of His kingdom?

The problem with the myth of the ideal church is that it more often than not serves as a way for a group or group of reformers to pretend that they are the ones who know what the ideal church is (and that it is they). The myth manages to say such things to itself because it does not look at the particular churches of the New Testament, which differed even among themselves in various respects. Instead, it looks into the words of the New Testament as into a mirror and, not surprisingly, it sees itself.

Over the centuries, thinkers have improved on Plato's theory of ideas, I believe. For example, how do you recognize a member of my family, the Schenck family? Certainly there is DNA for those in my family who are not spouses or adopted. But is there some essence of a Schenck, an ideal Schenck?

Certainly a number of us Schencks (not me of course) are quite free to share their opinions on things rather outspokenly--and not always with enough prior thought. Certainly many of us like to eat. A good number of Schencks have, shall we say, robust figures that perhaps betray a Dutch heritage filled with lots of bread and mashed potatoes. Some of us have biggish noses and others big ears. Some of my cousins at least seem rather tall to me.

But there is no ideal Schenck. Apart from DNA, there is no common set of characteristics we all share--particularly those who have married into this assortment of Schencks. There is no Platonic Schenck, just a loose set of Schencky characteristics and family resemblances. [2] Some of us have some of them, and some of us have others. But none of us have all of them.

In the same way, God's church has taken on such specific variety in specific contexts over the centuries that we cannot really speak of the ideal church beyond generalities. When it comes to concrete practices, different churches and denominations have their strengths and weaknesses. Infant baptism, for example, captures the fact that God's grace is on a person before they even know it, and God would accept the child if it died in infancy. Nowhere in the Bible is it clearly forbidden and theological arguments can be made to defend it. Believer's baptism captures the importance of an individual confession of faith and the washing of past wrongs knowingly done. The Bible never insists it be done this way, but theological arguments can be made to defend it.

There is thus no definitive voice in Scripture on how or when to baptize. There is no ideal church on this subject. We only find particular churches that either baptize or do not, who baptize infants, believer's, or both. There is no clearly Christian choice here given church history to the present, which includes the Reformation.

What we have instead are family resemblances between churches. Most churches baptize, even though there are a few churches where the horse has lost a leg. But these Christian horses come in different sizes, from the Shetlands who sprinkle to the Clydesdale's who fully immerse. But they are all horses. They are all part of the "invisible" church. But in the real world we only see them "in flesh," incarnated. All real churches are incarnated churches.

[1] This fact also betrays the slight of hand we often perform when we read the Bible as words written to all times and places. Words simply do not mean the same things in all times and places. When we assume that the words of the Bible have always meant the same thing and have always applied in the same way, we are in effect presuming that our way of reading them is the way people in other times and places have always read them. But of course this is not the case.

[2] The idea of family resemblances as a more accurate way of defining a group than a set of universal characteristics largely derives from the early twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Monday, April 20, 2009

1.1 The Myth of the Ideal Church

I was well into the final part of "Getting In" (a section on church membership), when I realized I was reproducing material that would likely appear in the introductory chapter. So here's a slight detour.

The first chapter: "The Myth of the Ideal Church"
1.1 The Good Old Days
We humans tend to idolize the past. The idea of some past "Golden Age" in the history of our particular people is all too common in different cultures. A society remembers the good of that golden day and forgets the bad. It pictures the courageous with more courage than they probably had, the wise with more wisdom than they may have had, and the strong as the likes of an Achilles or Hercules. Oh, if we could only get back to the good old days. [1]

To be sure, there are exceptions. The spirit of the late 1800s was to see human culture at its peak, with visions of utopia dancing in its head. Those were the days of Charles Darwin's evolution and of Karl Marx's classless society. [2] Whatever the value of Darwin's theory might be scientifically, it is no surprise to see it arise when it did, for those were days when progress seemed the way of history. Until 9-11 and the economic crisis this last decade, American society was perhaps on a similar trajectory to see the world only getting better and better as the days go by. Probably still, we expect the cell phones to do more and more things, the internet to replace the need for libraries and books, and robots eventually to be smarter than we are. [3]

It is perhaps sobering to realize that these same dynamics seem to apply all too well to the way Christians look at things. When we perceive ourselves to be in power, we might wield that power to try to force the world to be like us or our Christian group. [4] When we are drastically out of power and we seem on the verge of elimination or destruction, we tend to think apocalyptically, thinking that God will break into the world at any moment and destroy all our enemies in one swoop. But in milder times, we might look back to the good old days, when people were more spiritual, more filled with the Spirit. We yearn for "revival," a re-awakening to life, like the revival we had back at such and such a time.

In such times we might tell ourselves the story of the "dying of the light." We tell of how the first generation of our group was so full of the Spirit that they did all the things we should be doing without anyone needing to urge them to do them. [5] Then the second generation came along and institutionalized the experiences of their parents without experiencing them for themselves. [6] Finally, the third generation went "liberal." Perhaps they abandoned the original vision of the group altogether or watered it down with little personal investment in it. Those who tell this story are often in the fourth generation or later, who are far enough away from the first generation not to remember its faults and yet aware enough of its own failings to yearn for a better day.

There is some truth to this cycle, although we suspect the second and third generation might often tell the story a little differently than the fourth and fifth. The second generation might tell of the excesses of their parents' generation because they remember them. For example, they might remember that the same "hero" who founded that seminary was also a notorious racist or used to beat his children senseless. Or they might remember that the same woman whose writings said such powerful things was quite bizarre in other ways. Or they might remember that the great thinker also had a lifelong affair with his secretary. Similarly, the third generation might say they had enough distance from the the first generation to see where it had gone to extremes. [7]

Our point is not to deny the strengths of founding generations or to claim that no generation is better or worse than any other. The point is to stop and take a look at ourselves as we look back at the early church. It is to realize our human tendencies and the forces at work on our thinking so that we can see the past more clearly. It is no surprise that we hear so much rhetoric about "getting back" to the New Testament church or even "back to the Bible." The tendency is as predictable as it is a warning that we are probably looking at the early church through rose-colored glasses.

When we speak of "the myth of the ideal church," we are talking about this idea we often have of the "pure" church and our tendency to equate it with the early church of Acts and the New Testament. We are calling it a myth not only because it seems to be a skewed sense of the situation but also because it is a typical kind of story a group tells itself to express its sense of identity and its vision of the world. Perhaps in this case the vision is largely correct. But until we recognize how much of it is ours, rather than the Bible's, we run the risk of getting off track without even realizing it.

[1] Perhaps this spirit is most driven in days when one is moderately disatisfied and disempowered with the way things are going. The apocalyptic approach is perhaps more typical of desperate times, where things seem so bad that you look to a sudden judgment or end to history as we have known it.

[2] Not to mention the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose sense of inevitable progress bolstered Marx's sense of societal evolution.

[3] Although this optimism in relation to technology does not seem to apply to our sense of human future. We do not currently have a sense that humanity is getting better and better.

[4] It is no surprise that "post-millennialism," a view that often sees us as Christians preparing the way for the coming kingdom of God, dominated during the centuries when Christianity was largely in control of Western culture.

[5] I take this phrase from James Burtchaell's 1998 book about the seemingly inevitable secularization of American universities over time: The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[6] When we get in this "looking back" mode, institutionalization becomes a dirty word, as it is currently in so many circles.

[7] We are not suggesting that all of our heroes have dirt on them if we dig hard enough. I personally believe that there are genuinely holy Christians who are blameless in God's eyes. Indeed, I would personally affirm that we can all be truly Christ-like through God's power. All we are suggesting here is that our heroes were real people, not demigods.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope 5-6

We continue our review of Tom Wright's, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church on this second Sunday of Eastertide.

Previous posts include:

1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church
3. Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting
4. The Strange Story of Easter

Today we look at chapters 5 and 6:

Chapter 5: "Cosmic Future: Progress or Despair?"
This chapter begins the second section of the book, titled, "God's Future Plan." To balk against the tendency we have to go individualistic on the topic of resurrection, Wright chooses first to talk about what resurrection means for the entire creation.

He discusses two options both of which he sees as wrong. The first is an evolutionary optimism that underplays the need of the creation for redemption. The second is a Gnostic type dualism that so relegates the creation to the realm of evil that it must be dispensed with.

So first he addresses the "myth of progress" (81), which tends toward a pantheistic outlook. Without explicitly denying evolution as a theory of origins, he denies any philosophy such as that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that sees history as an inevitable process of things getting better and better. "The real problem with the myth of progress is... that it cannot deal with evil" (85).

First, it cannot stop evil (86). Second, it does not address the evil that has already taken place in the world. Finally, it underestimates the nature and power of evil itself (87).

The second myth is that the world is so evil that we do best to escape it altogether. He considers Plato the most influential thinker in the history of the Western World (88) and this sense of the body as a prison for the soul our inheritance. Of Gnosticism, Wright says, "In this view creation itself is the fall, producing matter, which is the real evil" (89). He notes that there is a bit of truth in the claim that Christians have contributed to the current ecological situation. "I have heard it seriously argued in North America that since God intends to destroy the present space-time universe, and moreover since he intends to do so quite soon now, it really doesn't matter whether we destroy the rain forests and arctic tundra, whether we fill the skies with acid rain" (90).

Chapter 6: "What the Whole World's Waiting For"
First Wright presents three truths that form the backdrop or "fundamental structures" of hope:

1. The goodness of creation
God and the world are not the same thing, and God designed the world to reflect God's goodness (94).

2. The nature of evil
Evil does not consist in being transcient and subject to decay. The dualism that exists is not ontological--an evil earth and a good heaven. It is eschatological--the present age and the age to come.

"Mysteriously, this out-of-jointness seems to become entangled with the transience and decay necessary within the good-but-incomplete creation so that what we perhaps misleadingly call natural evil can be seen as, among other things, the advance signs of that final 'shaking' of heaven and earth that the prophets understood to be necessary if God's eventual new world was to be born" (95).

3. The plan of redemption
"Redemption doesn't mean scrapping what's there and starting again from a clean slate but rather liberating what has come to be enslaved" (96).

In the remainder of the chapter, Wright explores six New Testament themes relating to the cosmic dimension of Christian hope:

1. seedtime and harvest
(the image of firstfruits now, full harvest later)

2. the victorious battle
(against death as the last enemy)

3. citizens of earth colonizing the earth
(not waiting to get to heaven)

4. God will be all in all
"The world is created good but incomplete" (102). "This is part of an answer to Jürgen Moltmann's proposal... in which God as it were retreats, creates space within himself, so that there is ontological space for there to be something else other than him. If I am right, it works the other way around. God's creative love, precisely by being love, creates new space for there to be things that are genuinely other than God" (101-2).

5. new birth
(birth pains now for what is coming to birth)

6. marriage of heaven and earth
(heaven comes to earth, we don't go there)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Generous Orthodoxy 1-4: Why a Christian?

Let me slip in here a Friday book review. Last week I started reading Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN."

Last week I reviewed John Franke's Foreward, McLaren's Introduction, and his Chapter 0: For Mature Audiences Only.

This week I want to look at chapters 1-4, which form Part I: "Why I Am a Christian."

Chapter 1: "The Seven Jesuses I Have Known
This chapter continues the playful introduction and the fun tone of what has come before. The controversy for me does not come quite yet. The seven are semi-autobiographical and are:

1. The Conservative Protestant Jesus
McLaren grew up with this one. Emphasis on the cross, he says, by which he means penal substitution and an emphasis on God's punishing justice. He accepts this theology as a piece of the puzzle, but you can tell his enthusiasm has dulled for it.

He mentions Joel Green and Mark Baker's book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, in a footnote. This is a book that should be read. My sense is that the emphasis he mentions is more true of Calvinist conservatism than my own.

2. The Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus
Here an emphasis on the dying Jesus, but on the Jesus whose real presence is with us still today through the Holy Spirit.

3. The Roman Catholic Jesus
He pictures Roman Catholicism emphasizing the resurrection, the fact that "Jesus changes forever the whole equation of existence" (53). He mentions the "Christus Victor" approach to atonement, Christ as victor over evil.

Not sure I would have pegged RC as emphasizing the resurrection. After all, the RCC keeps Jesus on the crucifix and my impression is that in third world catholicism, Good Friday is a far more important day than Easter. I see RC emphasizing the life of Jesus more.

4. The Eastern Orthodox Jesus
He sees EO emphasizing the incarnation. God taking up humanity into himself and bringing divinity into humanity.

5. The Liberal Protestant Jesus
He sees the good in liberal Christianity an emphasis on Jesus as a good moral example in his life (minus the miracles). An interesting quote: "Scratch the paint of a liberal and you'll find an alienated fundamentalist underneath" (59).

6. The Anabaptist Jesus
The thing that McLaren likes about the Anabaptists is their pacifism. It is a focus on the life of Jesus, but not like the liberal Protestant. It takes Jesus' ethic (understood in a pacifist way) as the way we should live today. He mentions the influence of John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, again, a book that should be read.

7. The Jesus of the Oppressed
One small step from the Anabaptist is the (non-violent) liberationist. "Jesus works for liberation of all oppressed people" (63).

"I tell the story of my encounters with Jesus to say that now, after many years of following Jesus and learning from many different communities of his followers. I'm just beginning to arrive at a view of Jesus that approaches the simple, integrated richness I knew of him as a little body--picture Bible on my father's lap" (66).

Chapter 2: "Jesus and God B"
The "God B" thing was puzzling to me and McClaren doesn't tell us what it means until the end of the chapter. "... the experience of God in Jesus was so powerful that it forever transformed what followers of Jesus meant when they said the word God... Eventually, after a few centuries of reflecting on God as revealed and experienced through Jesus..., the church began to describe God as Father-Son-Spirit in Tri-unity or the Trinity. For them, God could no longer be conceived of merely as "God A," a single, solitary, dominant Power, Mind, or Will, but as "God B," a unified, eternal, mysterious, relational community/family/society/entity of saving Love" (76).

This was the first chapter where McClaren left me less than enthusiastic. I don't know where he's headed. He takes the titles, "Son of man" and "Son of God" to mean "carrying the essence of humanity" and "carrying the essence of God." These statements are quite possibly true (orthodox) but they could also be something quite different. Of course these phrases more naturally referred originally to Christ's kingship (Son of God) and in some places his role as God's end time king (Son of Man).

However, I was not disturbed by McClaren's observation that "God is not a male" (74). God has no sexual organs. He has revealed himself in history primarily in male categories, but this is only to be expected given the patriarchal orientation of most cultures. "God is not a male or female, whatever pronouns we use" (75). And this is certainly the case.

Chapter 3: "Would Jesus Be a Christian?"
I was somewhat underwhelmed by this chapter as well. It's a great question. I hope McClaren actually addresses it somewhere. He's right that it is a question an aweful lot of people are answering "No" to today.

He gives three nuances of the word Lord in Jesus' day: 1) authority and kingship (but a good king in contrast to the more usual very bad ones). McClaren certainly has no room for Calvinistic determinism. "His kingdom, then, is a kingdom not of oppressive control but of dreamed of freedom, not of coercive dominance but of liberating love" (83).

2) a master in relation to a servant or slave. He has some good things to say here. There's no neutral ground. Not to serve Jesus as Lord "one can actually be serving darkness" (85).

3) a master teacher or rabbi.

One other statement caught my eye, "We retained Jesus as Savior but promoted the apostle Paul (or someone else) to Lord and Teacher" (86).

I guess McClaren's point in this chapter is that many Christians to not have a proper sense of God's Lordship.

Chapter 4: "Jesus: Savior of What"
I liked this chapter better than the previous two.

So if McClaren doesn't think a lot of Christians are properly thinking of Jesus as Lord, McClaren doesn't think they're thinking of him properly as Savior either. Save basically means "rescue" or "heal" (93). OK, he's right here.

1. God saves by judging--that is, he stops people doing injustice to us from doing injustice. That's a nice spin on judging.

2. God saves by judging because He then forgives. So judgment helps us correct course, which is good.

3. God saves by teaching and revealing.

"Jesus enters into the center of the thunderstorm of human evil and takes its full shock on the cross" (97).

There are some great thoughts in this chapter about saving. He has a great story about a turtle that wasn't growing correctly because of something someone had put around its shell when it was little. As it grew, the plastic kept the shell from growing out. When someone snapped the plastic, McClaren notes, the turtle's shell didn't change at all in that moment. But those people had saved the turtle... years later in that moment.

McClaren convincingly argues that to think of salvation mostly in terms of avoiding hell will have a tendency to skew our focus.

I close with one further thing he discusses. At the beginning of the chapter, and I'm not sure it fits in this chapter, he gives an argument that theology should grow "out of the experience" of Christians in a particular culture. "Praxis must be prior to theology" (92). I wouldn't say that this claim is completely false, but it is probably only half of the story. In theory, however, all a culture needs is for the Holy Spirit to fill Christians in it genuinely, and they would be able to say how the gospel plays out there. In practice, however, it is hard to know exactly which people are filled with the Spirit and which aren't.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

2.3 Getting In: Confirmation

Churches that baptize infants usually recognize the need to have some sort of process by which those who were baptized as a baby can “make it their own.” Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists, among others, all practice confirmation. The "confirmand," the person being confirmed, usually goes through a number of lessons in which they learn about the Christian faith. Then they are "confirmed" as a Christian by a priest or minister laying hands on them, and often they are anointed with oil.

It is easy to see the benefit of this tradition for these groups. While they believe an infant should be baptized to be "in" the church (removing any question about the child's salvation), there is also the need for each individual to make it his or her own. Confirmation plays such a role. At the same time, it provides a convenient opportunity to instruct a person in the beliefs and practices of Christianity.

Of course the history of confirmation is more complicated than this sketch. Orthodox churches practice confirmation alongside infant baptism, and this practice is likely older than the way all these other groups practice it. The original logic thus had nothing to do with instruction or individual acceptance of Christianity. The laying of hands on a person originally had to do with receiving the Holy Spirit, as in Acts. Orthodox churches thus understand an infant to receive the Holy Spirit fully not in baptism, but in the laying on of hands immediately following baptism.

This splitting of baptism from laying on hands in confirmation creates somewhat of an ambiguity when it comes to the practice of Roman Catholics and other churches. When exactly does a person receive the Holy Spirit? The answer usually given seems to associate a real fullness of the Holy Spirit with confirmation. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, associates confirmation with the Day of Pentecost and a real impartation of spiritual gifts, even though the grace of the Holy Spirit is on a person from baptism.

For those churches that do not practice infant baptism, these sorts of debates and arguments may seem rather far removed from them. But we can recognize in them the same key elements that should be a part of being "in" the people of God. We have already discussed baptism and the Holy Spirit. Confirmation emphasizes the need for some sort of personal decision and, in most cases, instruction in the faith.

In the history of Christianity, groups have tended to get quite bent out of shape over the details surrounding these sorts of issues. Indeed, sad to say, more than one person has died over these things at the hands of others claiming to be Christians--and claiming to put the other person to death in the name of Christ. "Ana-" baptists were groups that rose in the 1500s who believed infant baptism did not count as a true baptism. You needed to be baptized "again" when you were old enough to confess your own faith. More than one Anabaptist died at the hands of other Protestants in the 1500s. But then again, many Baptists today--some of the descendants of the Anabaptists--will not accept a baptism done in another denomination, even if received it as an adult.

All these debates go well beyond anything the Bible clearly spells out or mandates. And given the diversity of practice among various Christian traditions, we cannot clearly point to a consensus of the Spirit in God's church as a whole. These observations should push us toward a generosity toward the practices of other Christian traditions rather than rigidity in our thinking. Each tradition can practice baptism and confirmation as they wish, but should not castigate those who do it differently as long as the key elements are present.

So does a person need to be rebaptized as an adult if they were baptized as a child? Since it is the Spirit rather than baptism itself that saves, it does not seem necessary. Perhaps this is a good example of the kind of disputable matter Paul discusses in Romans 14. If a person's conscience is "weak," and they cannot trust in the baptism of their childhood, let them be rebaptized. If a person's conscience is "strong," and they are at peace with God and confident that God has accepted them, there's no need. "Let each be fully convinced in his or her own mind" (Rom. 14:5).

But a personal confession of faith would seem to be essential at some point for ultimate salvation, assuming a person has the mental capacity to make it. It is conceivable that a person might be acceptable to God their entire life from birth to death. As a child, a good many of us would believe God accepts you before you are aware of your need to make a decision for God. If a child were to die, God receives them. But many children raised as Christians submit to Christ's kingship as soon as they are aware they need to, and many continue to confess that faith their whole life through. So at what point of their life would this person not have been received by God?

What sort of personal decision are we talking about here? Paul of course famously speaks of a "justification by faith," an acceptability to God on the basis of one's trust in what God has done through Jesus, the Messiah. It is quite possible that his rhetoric of faith has as much to do with the faithfulness of Jesus as it does our faith, Jesus faithful obedience to the point of death on the cross that makes our reconciliation to God possible. But Paul clearly sees individual human faith as key to becoming acceptable to God as well. A possible translation of Philippians 3:8-9 is, "I consider all things loss... so that I might gain Christ and be found in him not having my own right standing based on the [Jewish] Law but [a right standing that comes] through the faithfulness of Christ. It is a right standing [that comes] from God on the basis of [my] faith."

Such faith for Paul is directed, in the first place, toward God the Father, "the One who raised our Lord Jesus from the corpses" (Rom. 4:24). But it is also directed toward Jesus as the one God has appointed as Lord of all things after raising him from the dead. "If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and have faith in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9). Salvation here is escape from God's condemnation on the Day of Judgment.

The confession of Jesus as Lord was no idle mumbling of words. To confess Jesus as master in a day when Caesar was Lord was both massive and subversive. Paul does not shrink from calling himself a slave of Jesus Christ, and faith in Jesus as Lord implies a surrender to God's will that probably does not come naturally to the twenty-first century Western mind. Such a confession is not a hobby or something one does on the side but a central shift in one's identity and priorities.

Many scholars believe that "Jesus is Lord" may have been one of the earliest confessions of faith among Christians, perhaps even one a person said before baptism. Although it was not likely in the original text of Acts, many manuscripts of Acts have the Ethiopian eunuch confessing that "Jesus is the Son of God" right before baptism in Acts 8:37. Paul never says that baptism is essential to being among the elect, but it would seem that faith in Jesus as Lord accompanied by receiving the Holy Spirit were essential ingredients for getting "in" God's people for him.

Repentance is another element that features prominently in the gospels and Acts (though not so much in Paul's writings). One is to repent of their sins, to indicate one's eagerness not to wrong God and others. Baptism then signifies the forgiveness of sins by "washing" them away. Sins here are wrongs done to God and others, judged of course in New Testament times by the Jewish Law. Paul assumes that "all have sinned" and thus that acceptibility by God is ultimately a matter of God's graciousness. From one perspective, Jesus' death on the cross was like a sacrifice that mysteriously effected this reconciliation with God despite any wrongs we have done Him.

So some Christian traditions emphasize the individual decision for faith, accompanied by baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit. Other traditions baptize infants to signify the Holy Spirit's work on them from the beginning in the community of faith and follow with confirmation in association with an individual decision for faith and the full operation of the Spirit in the believer. Either way, the principal elements of conversion are accounted for.

The tradition of confirmation further creates a clear mechanism for instruction in Christian faith and practice. This sort of instruction is also biblical. 2 Timothy exhorts ministers to "proclaim the word. Persist in good and bad times. Convince. Command. Encourage, with all patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound teaching" (2:4-5). From these sorts of precedents Christian traditions have developed the practice of sermons, Sunday schools, small group discipleship, and many other ways to bring about Christian instruction.

The New Testament does not endorse one specific way of accomplishing such instuction. But the need for believers to learn about the basics of Christian faith and practice is fundamental, not least through acquainting them with the Scriptures. Those groups that practice confirmation use the event as an opportunity to provide a critical mass of such knowledge culminating in a personal confession of faith. Those groups that do not practice confirmation should also be intentional about such instruction and indeed about ongoing "discipleship" in faith throughout one's life as a believer. Such instruction is not a prerequisite for getting "in" the church, apart from whatever fundamental knowledge is necessary to make a confession of faith. But it is clearly an important element in the equation of being "in."

Monday, April 13, 2009

First of my explanatory notes now online...

I finally took the time to compile my Explanatory Notes on 1 Thessalonians and put them on my archive site. Hopefully Galatians will be up by the end of the month, Philippians and Hebrews by the end of next month. They're all mostly done. The greatest effort is the last 5%.

Collapsing Evangelicalism Redivivus

There have been some recent prognostications predicting the coming/actual decline of evangelicalism or Christianity in America. One was an article called "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" in the Christian Science Monitor, and then last week there was "The End of Christian America" in Newsweek. A group is getting together at the IWU Indy north campus tonight at 7 to chat a bit about what's up and how Christians might respond. I thought I would jot down some thoughts.

First, what's behind the decline? This is going to hurt, but I'm simply describing the situation in this first part. We can say it shouldn't be so, but this is where we are at.

1. More "bad" is associated with religion and evangelicalism than good.
We can all probably think of a few saints but we remember the slip ups better. And what's worse, we really remember those who are massively hypocritical. What good does Christianity have to show for itself, especially when its prevailing ethos is "I'm not perfect, just forgiven"? And it's most vocal advocates are often perceived to be very negative.

9-11 is just one example of religious zealotry in a climate where skeptics are more than happy to show those instances where religion has bred violence and oppression. These voices are very powerful right now and everywhere. Even among Christians we find a push to distance Jesus from Christianity and religion--a symptom of the broader trend.

2. Evangelical Christianity often looks stupid and wrong.
When the overwhelming and vast majority of those who know the evidence and are qualified to assess it come out with a certain conclusion, and Christians are just as lined up on the opposite side, well, regardless of the truth it doesn't look good. I am not qualified to weigh the evidence on topics like what's causing global warming or macro-evolution, but when the vast majority of those who are qualified don't even think the evidence is open for debate, I'm not going to look very smart to argue against them.

3. Ideas (alone) usually lose any fight with sexuality.
A recent grad student did a study of his former teens. He found that they tended to drop out of church after high school until they got married. The reason, I concluded (I'm not sure he followed his own evidence) was that the church couldn't compete with sexuality. So in the open sexuality of their early 20's, these kids just dropped out of church. Then when they had children and began to think about values, several returned.

Now there's a situation where the sexual conflict wins for a period, but marital faithfulness then can make the issue moot. Now consider those who are attracted to the same sex. Since there usually is never a point of resolution, the younger ones will tend simply to disappear from evangelical churches forever. They might join a church that accepts monogamous homosexuality. Most are currently on a trajectory to disappear from church for good, I suspect, although there may be many from older generations who have been silently among us for decades.

4. No perceived need for God or religion.
If we were in a war that we felt in our every day lives, if we were being invaded, indeed, if the economic crisis gets bad enough, then we might feel a need for a God to save us. When we face the ulimate, are losing a loved one to cancer, are searching for our lost child, then we might feel a need for a God to save us. But things have been going pretty well. Those in their late teens and early 20's were raised on the easy money and stuff that helped cause the economic collapse.

Every middle class kid has a car and a nice one too. Every middle class kid thinks they can be a star of some kind and be rich. Where does God fit into all this? Not needed (at least that's what they increasingly think). The church certainly isn't needed for social networking. I can text several hundred messages a day and do Facebook.

So, assuming that Christianity is still true, what's going to happen and what can/should we do about it?

1. Become very open, honest, and authentic about who we are and the way things are.
Those forms of Christianity that are going to be most successful in the days to come will be those that take an "influence" approach to transforming others rather than the "frontal assault" approach that has so predominated the evangelical scene these last few decades. We're going to have to invite rather than compel. We'll have to trust God to do the rest.

It is of course possible that the form of evangelical Christianity that helped elect Bush will return to power again some day. But most of the signs are that it is decisively disempowered. That doesn't mean its ideas were wrong, although I personally believe much of them were. But it is now disempowered. When you aren't as strong as the person you are arm wrestling, the answer isn't push harder. You have to rethink your strategy. So the days of trying to force Christian values on America are probably over for the foreseeable future. We're going to have to do some wooing now (which I think would have been more effective and less counter-productive in the first place).

This doesn't mean hiding or not sharing what we believe. It means sharing in a way that does not alienate. It means making judgments without being judgmental. It's all about tone. Am I having a reasoned conversation with a smile, disagreeing without a tone of condemnation and rejection? Can I disagree agreeably? Can I model tolerance while affirming conviction? These conversations may take place deeper and deeper in the church, where we have often sequestered ourselves from outsiders who believe outlandish things.

And then I'll have to leave it to God. If I really believe in God, then my goal is not to "win" the debate but to be faithful to the One I believe myself to represent. My goal is to represent my convictions in a spirit of generosity with a warm heart.

2. Be a Christian.
And that means you will do Christian things. While "missional" is all the buzz right now, if by it we mean that we actually take our Christianity into the world for the better, that's what it's always supposed to be about. Are we helping those who need helped? Are our lives changed? Are we better people? Are we nicer people?

If Christianity doesn't actually change people's lives and the lives of those around us, it's worthless. Let it die. The New Testament knows nothing of this kind of "do nothing" Christianity. Good riddance. The NT teaches that the Spirit empowers people to do things they couldn't have done otherwise. That means power over evil. That means miracles. Those forms of Christianity where "stuff's happening" will survive--and I mean authentic stuff, not hype.

3. Reach for the deep.
One failing of evangelical Christianity is that it has done away with symbol and ritual. Ideas really aren't very forceful in themselves. They have to get connected with something else to have any power at all. Teaching of a cognitive sort--which so often seems to be the answer people suggest--is pretty impotent. Expect for the more cognitive and less life oriented forms of Christianity to decline in the days to come.

Values are sub-cognitive--at least the ones that really count, the ones we fight for. Those groups that get people to fight for ideas really aren't getting people to fight for ideas. There are deeper things going on under the surface. That means the best place to instill them is when a person is a child, before they can think. If you've waited till they're in middle school, it's almost too late, really.

So much of Protestantism has impoverished itself by doing away with sacrament and the sacred. A person who has long since stopped believing with their head may still find themselves moved by the symbols of childhood catholicism. The ancient-future movement tries to reach back into the past on its way forward. What is the teaching of a lone, renegade small group against 2000 years of common faith? What is a bunch of words against something I can touch, taste, and smell? Answer: nothing.

We would do well to renew the ancient symbols and rituals, as well as to create new ones that are meaningful to our local congregations and youth groups.

4. Brainstorm with the experts, without necessarily committing to them.
Again, I'm not qualified to evaluate evolution, but it looks like I'm going to have to deal with it. Yes, I can poke a little fun from the sidelines at those who think they have the world all figured out. We know that paradigms can change and change fundamentally. Where today are the ones who mock the thought of splitting an atom? Where are the Newtonian physicists of the late 1800s to tell us how set in stone the laws of physics are?

But those forms of Christianity that will have the most impact will strategize with the scientists. What if they're right? Is evolution so fundamentally opposed to Christianity that the one must be false if the other is true? Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Do I really know for sure? We absolutely do not want to tie the Christian wagon to a cultural trend or a phase of history, but it's hard to see how we can't strategize when a paradigm is so prevailing.

Is God in control or isn't He? I believe we are being forced to let go of certainty on some of these things and hang loose. If you're a Christian biologist and think you can dethrone evolution, go for it. The rest of us who got C's in biology should probably be quiet and let God take care of it. Do we really believe He is in control or not? Why do we behave as if nothing will happen if we don't do it?

5. Christian sexual ethics may change.
This one is hard, but I'm playing the role of prognosticator. I'm not advocating change here. I'm saying that this may be where it is headed no matter what we do or do not do. Our grandchildren, assuming they are still Christian, may have different rules about sexual ethics than we have considered the baseline of Christian practice. There will come a time when we are no longer calling the shots, and then all we'll be able to do is pray for them and leave it in God's hands. Why is God allowing such change? I don't know, but we may have to live with it. We'll see.

The common theme I see running throughout this post is disempowerment. How should we as Christians live, not when our ideas have changed, but when we have no power to change those around us? The ironic answer is that we never really had the power to change those around us where it really counts in the first place. Changes of heart are God's business.

Certainly I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't try to change the world for the better. God changes the world through people. But forcing a person to change outwardly does not at all mean they have changed inwardly, and that's the change God most wants. Indeed, forcing a person to change outwardly often changes them in the wrong direction inwardly.

These are my attempts to come to grips with where we are at in American Christianity, what we can and should do, and what we are forced to do. What I see is that, in some respects, we are being brought to where we should have been all along--needing to influence the world rather than conquer it. In some respects, therefore, we have this coming because we have used our moment of power foolishly.

What do you think?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope 3

He is risen. He is risen indeed! A blessed Easter to all.

Today we look at the fourth chapter of Tom Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Previous posts are:

1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church
3. Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting

Chapter 4 is "The Strange Story of Easter."

A lot of the material in this chapter, again, is familiar from The Resurrection of the Son of God, but in Surprised it is in a very accessible form. He begins with a number of notable features to the gospel resurrection stories that imply that they have a historical basis.

1. They do not quote the Bible much.
If, as some have argued, the early Christians invented these stories because of expectations from the Bible, they have not left a paper trail. Where are the fulfillment quotes, "This happened that it might fulfill..."?

2. Women as the principal witnesses doesn't seem something you would make up.
"Nobody would have made them up" (55) and they are silently dropped from the tradition in Paul.

3. The portrait of the resurrected Jesus isn't what you would have expected them to make up.
He doesn't shine like a star as in Daniel. He has a body, but he passes through locked doors. "No biblical texts predict that the resurrection will involve this kind of body.

4. These texts don't mention the future resurrection.
While this was what it was previously all about. "Easter has a very this worldly present-age meaning" (56).

"I conclude this first section of the chapter with the proposal that it is far, far easier to believe that the stories are essentially very early, pre-Pauline, and have not been substantially altered except for light personal polishing, in subsequent transmission or editing" (57).

Easter and History
This section corresponds to a chapter in Resurrection (a much longer chapter). Wright proposes a two pronged hypothesis: "first, Jesus' tomb really was empty; second, the disciples really did encounter him in ways that convinced them that he was not simply a ghost or hallucination" (58).

Wright dismisses the cognitive dissonance theory, that the disciples so wanted Jesus to be alive that they convinced himself that he really was. The problem, as he explores in much greater detail in Resurrection, is that lots of "messiahs" and military leaders die without their followers thinking they were raised. And they don't end up with religions named after them still 2000 years later (I'm embellishing a little).

He runs through several other alternative explanations and finds them all wanting. He is not suggesting that the math proves the resurrection, only that it is by far the best explanation. He spends a little time talking about the presumption that, because resurrections don't happen, this couldn't have been one. "Worldview issues are at stake here and cannot be dealt with by the old liberal strategy of pretending... that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is impossible for those who accept what one writer as called 'current paradigms of reality'" (69).

I suppose this is the key question from an evaluative standpoint. If resurrections can happen, then this event has all the markings of a true resurrection. If they can't happen, then there must be another explanation. Some of us are reading a book by John Polkinghorne that compares method in quantum physics with method in theology. He finds many parallels (he was a nuclear physicist who turned to the Anglican priesthood I think in his forties--physicists do their most significant work in their twenties, so I guess he retired to theology). He points out that quantum physics defies "common sense" regularly.

"What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science" (71). "The resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world (though it is that as well); it is, principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus" (73).

He ends with a quote from Wittgenstein: "It is love that believes the resurrection" (72). :-)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope 2

Yesterday we began reviewing Tom Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church

Today we look at Chapter 3: "Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting."

In this chapter Wright brings us up to speed on Jewish thinking on the afterlife at the time of Christ. This is a very, very abbreviated of the 78 page chapter 4 dedicated to Jewish "intertestamental" literature in his much longer work, The Resurrection of the Son of God.

He starts with a fun review of a 10 minute argument between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper at Cambridge in 1946 with lots of witnesses. Nevertheless, even to this day it is not completely agreed exactly what happened or was said in those 10 minutes. There is agreement on some basic elements, but disagreement on others. Wright's point seems pretty clear. He wants us to see the diversity of the gospel resurrection accounts as a potential indication of their historicity. The accounts, he suggests, are not developments of each other but are independent accounts that vary accordingly.

The question for him is "What should we believe about Jesus' resurrection and why" (33). On the other hand, "The issue is not whether the Bible is true or not. The issue is not whether miracles occur or not. The issue is not whether we believe in something called the supernatural or not. The issue is not whether Jesus is alive today and we can get to know him for ourselves. If we treat the question of Easter simply as a test case in any of those discussions, we are missing the point" (33-34). For Wright, these are subsidiary issues, not the main issue, which is the fact of the resurrection itself and its implications.

Now he gets into the ideological background. Two types of pagan belief, he says (this is chapter 2 of Resurrection, 52 pages). Some believed we become shades in the underworld who wish they had a body (e.g., Homer, Virgil). Others like Plato were disembodied souls and didn't want another body. In either case, there was no return. I question this sentence, "Most of the ancients believed in life after death" (36). I don't know if the images of mindless shades in the underworld really constitutes any real sense of afterlife, and there is the R.I.P. of the ancient world: non erat, eram, non sum, "I was not, I was, I am not."

Then he dives into Jewish background. "Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense" (36). Yes, there were the Sadducees who didn't believe in any life after death. Yes, there was Philo who believed in diembodied souls after death. But resurrection meant embodiment.

Alas. I did a lot of thinking on these things while I was in Germany in 2004, but I never got it into published form. Argh. I'm open, but I'm not fully convinced that this was the only way the word resurrection could be used. In Resurrection, Wright makes a lot of good points, I think, with the evidence. I think it was he, for example, who convinced me that the book of Wisdom affirms resurrection.

But while I largely agree with him, I do have some questions about the way he argues that resurrection always means embodiment. He has this "every instance" tendency (we've seen it with the phrase, "the righteousness of God," for example). I agree quite a bit with Wright's reading of Acts 23:8 on "angels" and "spirits" being immediate states at death. But the fact that they are in apposition to the word resurrection makes me think we cannot disassociate spirit and angel afterlife forms from the notion of resurrection. I also believe that the Enochic tradition tended toward some sense of spirit resurrection, whatever that might mean (e.g., 1 Enoch 104 and 22).

Wright ends the chapter with 7 indications of how surprising the nature of early Christian resurrection belief is in the light of its background context. And "the early Christian hope centered firmly on resurrection" (41). Then notes these seven things:

1. In early Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of belief about life beyond death. "There is no trace of a Sadducean view or of that of Philo" (42). I think there may be a little more complexity than he allows for, but I substantially agree with him.

2. Resurrection is a far more central belief for the early Christians than it was in second Temple Jewish literature.

3. Early Christianity was far more clear about the transformed body of Jesus than Jews were about what sort of body those resurrected would have.

4. The resurrection event, which was a single event in Judaism, has become a two stage process.

5. Early Christianity is unique in seeing the resurrection as something that believers should participate even now, working with Jesus in the power of the Spirit to implement what Jesus has already achieved.

6. The idea of resurrection as the restoration of Israel has disappeared as a meaning for the word.

7. Resurrection has become associated with the Messiah, which arguably it had never been prior to Christ.

In short, it is impossible "to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection" (48). And "this demands a historical explanation" (51). I completely agree. If I try to get into the mind of an atheist looking at this data, I believe that faith in Jesus' resurrection is absolutely essential to explaining the early Christian movement. No wimpy Q community or Gnostic spirituality will account for the origins of Christianity. Whatever you believe about what really happened, I believe we are compelled to conclude that the early Christians sure thought Jesus had physically risen from the dead.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Piece: Disciples in the Garden

I was asked to give a short thought on "Spiritual Blindness" based on Mark 14:32-41 for the ecumenical Good Friday service yesterday at College Wesleyan Church in Marion. Here was the text:

Most of us here today probably haven’t tried to pull an “all nighter” for a while. I remember once in college trying to pull two all nighters in a row. I wasn’t very successful. At some point in the night, you begin to reassess how important the thing you are doing really is. And if you go long enough without sleep, sometimes you become willing to give up on things that really are important.

When I read about the disciples in the Garden, I feel a little sorry for them. It’s been a pretty tense week. Jesus has said and done some very controversial things. It’s even possible they’ve been hiding out in a cave at night near the garden so that no one could find them when they were most vulnerable. People are out to get Jesus. And at dinner tonight, Jesus announced that he’s about to be killed.

I picture them not only massively confused—didn’t they just shout “Hosanna” and put palm branches down in front of him? But I imagine they were pretty depressed too. I don’t see them just mildly dosing off in the garden. I bet they slept hard, really hard!

Jesus says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Could I have done better? Could any of us done better? I remember something else Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but with God everything is possible.” The disciples should remind us that in our own power, we can’t even do the things we know we should do, things we may even want to do.

Of course the disciples really didn’t get what was going on either. A lot of people have Peter pegged as a coward. I think he was just really confused. I think he was ready to fight for Jesus, even to die for Jesus. He seemed pretty quick with a sword when the people arrived to arrest Jesus.

But he wasn’t ready to watch Jesus go willingly with them. He got the “Jesus is king” part. He didn’t get the “Jesus dies for sins” part. His blindness to what God was up to left him indecisive and weak in the face of temptation.

Jesus had urged them to pray so that they wouldn’t give in to temptation. But in the dead of night, they did give in to sleep rather than prayer. And of course when the temptation came to deny Jesus, Peter did give in, not just once but three times.

The problem with our fleshly weakness and our spiritual ignorance is that, in a very real sense, we can’t do anything about them directly. Our flesh can’t stay up when it should. And if our thinking is wrong about something, chances are we don’t know it. “Try harder” right now is not only the wrong advice to take from this story—it’s useless advice, at least in the moment of need.

What we have to do is to submit to the power and knowledge of God, and we have to do this long before the moment of crisis. If we had started on the assignment earlier, we wouldn’t have to pull an all nighter. If we had been praying for the power of the Spirit all along, maybe He would have given us the strength to stay up and watch with Jesus, as well as to beat the temptation to deny him. Am I training for the race every day? I won’t finish the marathon—I won’t even make it a mile—if I only start running the night before.

In the gospel stories, Jesus has told his disciples several times that he was going to die. Was I not listening? Or was I only hearing what I wanted to hear, the half truth that Jesus is king but not the other half that told of his death. Am I listening to God, not only to the parts I want to hear but to the parts I don’t want to hear as well? I suspect that, if we were all to quiet down for a minute and listen, we would realize that the other half of the story is already there inside our heads. We’ve just been busying ourselves with other things so we wouldn’t hear it.

We don’t know when the moment of truth will come for us. It probably won’t be in a garden. But the time to address our blindness is now and the time to address our indifference is now. And if we begin to allow the Spirit to change us now, then we will be able to stay awake and pray when the moment for obedience comes.