Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Jesus and the Transcendently Immanent God

There is an age old problem for thinking theologically at any level: the tension between the transcendence and immanence of God. Many wish to stress the transcendence of God: that God is above us, different from us, free from us and rules over us. Others wish to stress the immanence of God: that God is with us, like us, available to us and in us. The rest of us try to strike a balance: God is both far and near, over and in, different and alike.

This Christmas season I would like to stake a claim against this talk of balance. I contend that as long as the transcendence and immanence of God are treated as two abstract poles to be navigated by our own intellectual savvy, we will forever be plagued by this problem. Furthermore, this balancing act will necessarily keep us from realizing the full radical significance of either the transcendence or immanence of God. By trying to have both, we end up with neither.

So, what is the alternative?

The way of wisdom is to see where the transcendence and immanence of God intersect: the Incarnation. Here God is thoroughly immanent – Immanuel, God with us, God in the flesh, God working miracles in our midst. And God remains transcendent – the man Jesus prays to God, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, he submits to death on a cross at the Father’s will. In other words, God becomes human without ceasing to be God. Here we see the immanence and transcendence of God intertwined into one concrete story.

And here is where it gets really interesting. Not only do transcendence and immanence intersect in the Incarnation. They also mutually characterize one another.

By becoming permanently linked to this one Jewish man, the transcendence of God takes on the form of the distance between any two creatures. We are distant from God in the way we are distant from one another: he takes up his own space and time as do we. We get to know him by patiently learning his story like we would anyone else. This is a thoroughly creaturely and therefore immanent mode of transcendence.

When God links his presence with the world definitively and fully to the man Jesus, the immanence of God takes on the form of a particular historical personage. We are close to God the way we might be close to any other human being: by a face-to-face encounter. But we can truly encounter another person only by overcoming cultural, spatial and temporal boundaries. In this case, the one person Jesus is able to overcome these boundaries by the divine power of his Spirit. This means that God is not just simply “available” to us in the world, but rather comes to us by his initiative. This is a thoroughly free and therefore transcendent mode of immanence.

So, in the Incarnation, God is immanently transcendent and transcendently immanent.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"I Believe in the Virgin Birth"

"I Believe in ... the Virgin Birth." What a statement of faith! What an incredible miracle! What a strange thing to believe! This little phrase has been the shibboleth of fundamentalists, the scourge of liberals, and the annual fare of doctrinal sermons every Christmas season. Of course, you hear the most about the Virgin Birth on the far left (where it is set aside as a barrier to cosmopolitan believers) and on the far right (where it is defended with gnashing of teeth). But I suspect the cozy middle takes this doctrine for granted. "Of course we believe in the Virgin Birth; we're Christians!"

Well, as one small aspect of our spiritual act of worship this Christmas, let's dare to ask why we believe in the Virgin Birth. Notice, I am not asking whether we should believe it. That's an apologetic question, whereby one takes the objective standpoint outside of faith to prove the basis of the belief (a procedure shared by both the fundamentalist defenders and liberal detractors). That is not the question that interests me here. No, I want us to think about why we believe what we believe.

So, why do we believe in the Virgin Birth?

In the first instance, we might say that we believe in the Virgin Birth because it is in the Bible. That's true. Matthew and Luke both indicate in passing that Mary conceived Jesus without any help from a man. But then again, only Matthew and Luke mention this. It does not become a major theme in the New Testament at any level. It is completely lacking in Paul, and suspiciously absent in John (where it would fit oh so nicely). So one wonders why this one event which appears in only two places has become the standard of orthodoxy. There's a lot of other things mentioned a lot more than two times in the Bible that don't carry the same weight as the Virgin Birth does in the Christian community.

So, in light of this sufficient but minimal Biblical basis, what else might account for our belief? We might quickly appeal to tradition. Yes, the church has traditionally affirmed the Virgin Birth, and has even made it a central tenant of faith. It is part of the faith that has been handed down to us through the ages. But this does not really address the question, because we have not yet answered why the tradition has affirmed this miracle. We are not really learning from the tradition if we merely repeat what it has said. We need to learn to think through the tradition so that it really becomes ours and therefore a living tradition.

So why do we join the tradition in affirming the Virgin Birth? Well, a common answer to this question is because of original sin. The sin of Adam is transmitted sexually to the each member of the human race, and in order to avoid this Spiritual STD, Jesus was born without the taint of sexual procreation. Once you accept this other doctrine, the logical necessity of the Virgin Birth falls right into place. Sinlessness, the prerequisite for Jesus' sacrificial work, is guaranteed by the Virgin Birth. So we believe in the Virgin Birth because we believe original sin and the sinlessness of Jesus.

The problem with this answer, however, is that a robust belief in the Virgin Birth far predates the development of the doctrine of sexually-transmitted original sin. This does not automatically rule out the doctrine of original sin, even in these sexual terms. It merely rules out an appeal to original sin as the basis of belief in the Virgin Birth. There must be something more basic at work propping up this scandalous belief.

So why do we believe in the Virgin Birth? The short answer: because we believe in the incarnation. Christians believe that the God of Israel, who is the Creator of the Universe, became flesh and dwelled among us. This is the deepest miracle of Christmas; in fact, it is the deepest miracle of all! It is easy for Christians to believe in a crazy story about a young girl conceiving without a man because we believe in a God who became human. Once you believe in this miracle of all miracles, the Virgin Birth is easy to affirm. It's just the icing on the cake. More precisely, it is the miraculous sign that points to the miraculous event of the incarnation of God. As a sign, it is intended to point beyond itself to the reality of the incarnation. But precisely as a sign, it has its own significance, for it befits the miraculous nature of the incarnation to be accompanied by an equally miraculous sign attesting it. By showing forth the glory of the incarnation, the Virgin Birth shares its glory. And so the worshipping community affirms the Virgin Birth along with its affirmation of the Incarnation.

So this Christmas, let the sign of the Virgin Birth point to its basis, purpose, and meaning: that God became flesh.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Jewishness of God

This Christmas I have been hearing a lot about the Jewishness of Jesus. Radio Preachers, Seminarians, Bible Scholars, and Rob-Bell-fans have been reminding us that Mary and Joseph were Jews and that the Jewish baby Jesus was wrapped in Jewish swaddling clothes and laid in a Jewish manger. These are not particularly new this year; actually, such ruminations have been around for ages. They just seem to be appearing with greater frequency (according to my anecdotal evidence).

Why all the talk about Jews at Christmas? What is the significance of the Jewishness of Jesus?


I think one reason why we talk about the Jewishness of Jesus is to defend the historicity of the event of Christmas. We want to assert that this is not myth or a legend in the order of Santa Claus. This story is real flesh and blood history that took place in the time and space of the Jewish people. Such an emphasis on historicity is especially important for apologetics, as it serves to shore up a potentially floundering faith in the face of modern skeptics. The Jewishness of Jesus' birth empowers us to say, "No, this is not a myth; it really happened!"


But historicity is not the whole picture. The apologetic concern is not the only concern. We also talk about the Jewishness of Jesus because it helps us understand the story better. Hearing about the complexities of Jewish bethrothal practices helps us to grasp why Mary and Joseph's situation was so harried. Knowing that the shepherds were were the lowest class in Jewish society helps us get the message of Luke's account. The Jewishness of Jesus helps the stories make more sense, therefore making an old story come alive.

... but ...

But I wonder if these two aspects really get at the heart of what it means to say Jesus is Jewish. I wonder what it is like for Jews to overhear Christians talk about this stuff. I wonder if Jews think we don't take the Jewishness of Jesus seriously. Because if we did, we would not just talk about historicity and hermeneutics. Why? Because as long as its just about defending and understanding the story, the Jewishness of Jesus is still just accidental to the story itself. In other words, it is not an essential or necessary aspect of the story. We are interested in Jesus' Jewishness because we are interested in Jesus, and he just happens to be Jewish. If he happened to be Filipino, Belgian, or Kazakh, then we would be studying one of these cultures. But he didn't. So we just happen talk about Jews during Christmas.


What would it mean for the Jewishness of Jesus to be more than accidental to the Christmas story? It would start with remembering that Jesus is a Jew because he is the the fulfiller of God's covenant with Israel. He is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Annointed One of God. These are Jewish titles, which are not just culturally interesting but theologically loaded. They remind us of the history of Israel, and that we are not talking about God-in-general but Yahweh, the God of Israel. Furthermore, Christians confess that this Jewish man Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son of God. To put it more badly: God became a Jew. God is Jewish.

The Jewishness of God should give us pause concerning how we treat our Jewish neighbors this holiday season. More importantly, the Jewishness of God should give us pause concerning how we treat God this year. Do we really beleive that he became this man? Do we take that seriously? Does it bring out awe in our hearts? Does it color everything we do? Does it affect our picture of how God relates to his creation? Does it imply something about what it means to be human? Do we really worship the God of the Jews who became a Jew to save the Gentiles?

In light of the Jewishness of God, Christmas is also about identifying God. It did happen in history (historicity), and its cultural context helps us understand it (hermeneutics). But it also definitively and irreversibly identifies God as the God who became this Jewish man. This God, and this God alone, we celebrate this and every Christmas.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Does the Resurrection of Jesus Really Matter?

If the life and death of Jesus perfected our reconciliation with God (see below), why the resurrection? If the words "it is finished" are an apt description of the cross, why was Jesus raised? If we are saved by the blood of Jesus, who could ask for anything more?

These questions show that the way we talk about the saving significance of Christ's life and death seems to make the resurrection an afterthought. This may explain why so many modern theologians have found it so easy to question the historicity of the resurrection. Certainly they are propelled by the modern suspicion of the miraculous. But modern theologians will stand by a miracle when they feel it is needed for the integrity of the faith. Yet again and again, people have found ways to have faith in Christ without faith in the empty tomb.

And before you swiftly dismiss these modern notions of resurrection-less faith, take note of the fact that the resurrection often plays no explicit role in the faith of those who do defend it as history. Sure, they stick by it as a matter of principle, usually connected to the authority of Scripture. But do they really take seriously the function of resurrection in the economy of salvation? If the best we can do is say "The Bible says...", then we have not yet begun to explore the significance of the resurrection for us.

Well, why does the resurrection matter? I would argue that the resurrection is best understood as the revelation of who Jesus is and what he has done.

Who is Jesus in light of the resurrection? Well, people are not raised into glory just any time. For first century Jews, that's something that happens at the end of time to everyone. But to happen in the middle of time to one man shows that this man is actually the Lord and Judge of the world, seated at the right hand of God himself.

What did Jesus do in the light of the resurrection? Since God has raised him, Jesus' life and death is proven to be vindicated. He lived and died for us, achieving for us forgiveness of sins and new life. God has forgiven us in the death of Christ, and we know this to be the case because he raised him from the dead.

But what if Jesus lived and died and that was it? Would our salvation really be won? Yes! But would it do us any good? No! Upon the completion of his history, Jesus Christ now contains within himself the new life of a redeemed humanity. But how will that new life get to us? He must be raised so that what he has achieved for us may become available to us. He must traverse the barrier of time and space so that we can partake of the goods he has in his possession. It is this transition from him to us that makes the resurrection so important, so essential to the story of our redemption.

Any thoughts?

Is it true that allowing certain beliefs to go un-integrated makes them vulnerable to unbelief?
Does this account of the resurrection's significance help to make it more essential to our faith?
Is there some other way to think about the resurrection that better accounts for its significance?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why Didn't Jesus Just Die Right Away?

If Jesus came to die for our sins, why didn't he just die right away? Why did God not ordain that his son would die under Herod's slaying of the infants? If he was the true incarnation of God in human flesh, why not die as our substitute right off the bat? Certainly he would have already been the spotless sacrifice, for who is more sinless than an innocent child?

Well, we know this is not what happened. It happened that Jesus grew up, called disciples, taught, healed. In other words, he lived before he died. So the biblical history being what it is, I have no interest in challenging its sensibility. But, in order to dive into the sense of the story, we may and even must ask why it happened the way it did. Because there must be some reason why Jesus didn't die for our sins right away.

I would guess that the initial answer to this question is that the time between his birth and death was the time of his teaching. In terms of one classic distinction, Jesus first fulfilled his prophetic office before proceeding to fulfill his priestly office. Certainly there is merit in this retort, especially as it brings to light that Christ came to do more than simply die. However, is this answer really adequate? Can Jesus' teaching and atonement be so separated? Does his life have so little to do with his death? Are his teachings just a "meantime" activity? Such an answer does not do justice to either his life or his death.

A more adequate answer to the question may be found by challenging the assumption beneath the question itself. Could Jesus really have died right away? Is the requisite substitute for our sin only God enfleshed in a sinless human being? Isn't there more to our reconciliation with God than this? Yes! The perfection of Jesus cannot be understood as a static freedom from sin. Rather, the perfection of Jesus is accomplished as a perfecting of our human life extended over history. His whole perfected history stands as a substitute for our failed histories - or, better yet, for the failed history of humanity as a whole. Check out the temptation stories (Mt 4 = Lk 4) in contrast to the Deuteronomy stories which Jesus quotes to catch a glimpse of how Jesus succeeded where we failed.

Thinking about the atonement this way not only answers the question, but avoids splitting Jesus' life and death. For Jesus in his entire history - both life and death - is our substitute. He has re-lived (or "recapitulated") the life that we did not live so that we may live again in him. And Jesus as this perfected one (with his "acquired righteousness" so to speak) has died the death we deserved so that we do not have to die.

Any thoughts?
Does this answer address the concern of the question?
Is the initial answer really as bad as I portrayed it?
How does the resurrection fit in here ... it certainly does - but how?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Creator of the Universe and the God of Israel

Most Christians take for granted that the creator of the universe and the God of Israel are one and the same being. The one who made the heavens and the earth is the one who called Abraham. The one who brought Israel out of Egypt is the one who made man and woman in his own image. Not much debate here, at least within the hermeneutical circle of the Christian community.

But there is a subtle difference of approaching this equation that can have far reaching consequences. The question can be put this way: Is the Creator of the Universe the God of Israel, or is the God of Israel the Creator of the Universe? In other words, which is given priority: the universality of the divine creator or the particularity of the divine covenant? Let's take a look at each view in turn.

The Creator of the Universe is the God of Israel

The point here is that we all know something about the creator of the universe. There is a general human common ground here. Christians come along and say, "Hey, that thing you call 'God,' or 'The Ultimate,' or 'The Supreme Being' happens to be the God who linked himself up with the history of Israel culminating in Jesus Christ."

The advantage to this way of speaking is that the universal scope of God's reign is emphasized. Also, a point of contact is established between people's assumptions about divinity and their fulfillment in Scriptural revelation. The disadvantage is that the particular history of Israel can be construed as a mere "illustration" of what is already true between God and the world, rendering it superfluous. Also, the unique claims of Christ are harder to hold up when the universality of God is already assumed.

The God of Israel is the Creator of the Universe

The point here is that if there is a specific revelation of God we should start there, before moving on to the larger implications of who God is in relation to the world. God has chosen to focus his dealings with creation and humanity on the one little nation of Israel. Through this nation he desires to bless all the nations of the world. But this particular history always remains in the foreground, even as God opens up his covenant to the Gentiles.

The advantage to this way of thinking is that the particular identity of God is emphasized. Thus one is not caught in the forecourt of philosophical questions of whether God exists or what God is like, but rather turns directly to who God is. Also, this view can serve to support claims about the uniqueness of Jesus the Jew. The disadvantage of this approach is that one is always tangled up in questions of the scope of mercy outside the history of covenant (e.g., "what about the man on the desert Island?)". Also, this view has a harder time building bridges across cultural boundaries because the identity of God is so tied to the particularly cultural history of Israel

What do you think?
Is the Creator of the Universe the God of Israel?
Or is the God of Israel the Creator of the Universe?
How do you decide?
In what ways does this distinction play itself out practically?
For instance, do you communicate the Gospel differently in each case?Is there something missing from this discussion?
Is there a way to use both of these approaches?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Mission is the Mother of Theology: Problem, Permanent, or Perpetual?

You may have heard it said, "Christian doctrine is really just baptized Greek philosophy." Let's take a look at this claim and consider how one might respond to it.

In order to curb the pejorative tone of this accusation, it is important to note the motive behind Christian use of Greek philosophy. In an important early twentieth century essay, Martin Kahler declared, "Mission is the mother of theology." What he meant by this is that the early church first began to theologize (explicit reflection on its teaching) in response to the missional encounter of the gospel in new cultures. In other words, the early Christians embedded their claims into the language and mind-set of its pagan mission field in order to bring them into the fold. Such mission-driven theology can be seen at work specifically in the intertwining of Greco-Roman culture and the Hebrew Scriptures, first in an incipient form in the New Testament and later in the full-blown synthesis of Trinitarian and Christological doctrines.

Most people would not quarrel with whether this happened. It is certainly an aspect of the historical development of Christianity. The question is what to do about it now that it is the case. What do we do with all this Greek philosophy commingled with classic Christian doctrine? As I see it, there are three logical options:

(1) Problematic - One view would be that the existence of Greek ideas in Christian doctrine is a problem to be solved. One might be charitable enough to say that this synthesis was innocent in its day, but it must be eradicated now. Greek philosophy is dated at best, and pernicious at worst. We must clear off the husk of cultural expression and get back to the kernel of Gospel truth. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, but theology has grown up and no longer needs its mother.

(2) Permanent - The opposite view would be that the synthesis achieved by the early Christians is the essential form of Christianity. There was no Christianity properly-so-called until this encounter took place. Orthodoxy's dependence on Greek philosophy is therefore not a problem to be solved but a relationship to be explored. To retrieve a robust Christian faith in our day requires a simultaneous retrieval of the insights of Greek philosophy and culture. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and thou shalt honor thy mother.

(3) Perpetual - There is a third view that the cultural embedding of the gospel is a perpetual process that must occur over and over again. On each new mission field, theology once again does its work of reflecting on the gospel and its claims in the new context. This is a hybrid view, for on the one hand it agrees with the first view that past cultural expressions are not normative, while on the other hand it does not disparage those cultural expressions for what they are. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and each new mission is the mother of a new theology.

What do you think?
Would you agree that mission is the mother of theology?
Is this a fair account of the possible responses to this fact?
Is there a possible response not listed?
Toward which approach do you lean? Why?
Should we make use of all of these options in a case-specific manner? If so, which options go with which issues?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Traveling Light

I have been a backpacker since I could walk. One of the most important principles of backpacking is weight. It is not just how fit the hiker is (though that helps), but how light the hiker is. Certainly this applies to the weight of one’s body. But the more relevant variable is the weight of one’s pack. If your pack is heavy, so are you, and every pound – every ounce – slows you down. So when I prep for backpacking, I cut my toothbrush in half, count calories per ounce in my food, and (most importantly) leave behind supposed “necessities.”

Of course, I am not the only one who does this. Traveling light has become a bit of a fad. Not only in backpacking, but life in general – including matters of faith. Christians around the globe are searching for a “churchless Christianity” or “Jesus without the church.” [Note: The fact that this fad is not actually new does not concern me here; I am less interested with the genetics of this pattern and more with its current form].

I think traveling light in matters of faith is a good idea. I have no vested interest in preserving the institutional church as-is. Cutting away excess is the heart of reform in every age, and I willingly and joyfully participate in such a move.

But, traveling light is not an end in itself. What would you say if I packed a 9-pound dry pack, then sat at home and watched a James Bond marathon? You would rightfully jeer, because reaching a light pack is no achievement in and of itself. It is a means to an end. The goal is to hike more miles. I pack light only in order to travel light.

The same applies in matters of faith. Freeing oneself from the shackles of ungenerous orthodoxy or institutional preservation are no accomplishments themselves. It’s actually quite easy and rather unimpressive. I will save my applause for those who develop doctrine and transform institutions in service of the church’s mission. The church is sent to proclaim Christ and do his work to the ends of the earth. As Matthew 10, Acts 15, and the whole Epistle to the Galatians attest, there are doctrines and practices that unnecessarily hinder the mission. A truly missional church will joyfully put itself under this kind of Gospel-centered criticism.

So what does this look like? Well, it starts with not giving up on the church. Then the next step is to follow criticism with construction. Tell us what’s wrong, but tell us more about how to do it right. The path to construction comes by mulling over one’s criticism with these questions in mind: What about this doctrine or practice bothers me? Is the motivation for my criticism truly missional? If so, what does the missional alternative look like? And if you are not willing to enter into these constructive reflections, then maybe you should consider putting your criticisms on the shelf. For goodness sake, if you are not going to hike, stop cutting your toothbrush in half!

What do you think?
Is traveling light a good idea?
Does a missional understanding help?
How can we avoid the twin dangers of institutionalism and spiritualism?
Am I right that criticism without construction is incomplete?
How else might one move from criticism to construction?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Where is Jesus?

A friend of mine was babysitting and asked the kid "Have you asked Jesus into your heart?" He promptly replied, "Yes!" After a pause, the kid got a puzzled look on his face and asked, "Who lives in my ear?"

Although amusing, the innocent literalism of this child challenges our linguistic habits. What do we mean when we say that Jesus lives within us? Do we really take this seriously? And if we do, what happens to our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead? How can an embodied person be present in us?

This puzzle first hit me a few years back, but I have yet to "solve" it. However, I do have a better sense of the options and what is at stake than I used to. So here goes a crash course in the debate surrounding the bodily presence of Jesus.

Either: Jesus is in heaven

After Jesus was raised in bodily form, he ascended to the right hand of God the father, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. Thus Jesus' body is locally present at the right hand of the Father. He has "ascended to the heavenlies." Jesus can be said to be present in us only in the form of his Spirit. Any presence between the believer and Christ is to be understood spiritually. We will only be bodily present to one another at the end of time when he returns.

The advantage of this view is that it holds on dearly to the genuine bodily resurrection of Christ. It also gives a significant place to the Holy Spirit in the relationship between Christ and the Christian. The disadvantage of this view is that Jesus' body appears to be "trapped" in heaven. He lacks the freedom proper to his divinity. He is present only in Spirit, but is that a genuine presence? Is that any different than me being "present" to my friends in California because they are thinking about me? Furthermore, this view merely begs another question: Where is heaven? Is heaven in outer space, tucked behind Saturn? Is heaven even a place at all?

Or: Jesus is everywhere

The alternative view is that Jesus' raised body takes on the properties of divinity, and thus is capable of being omnipresent. Jesus in his glorified form can be bodily present beyond the usual boundaries of space. Thus Jesus really is present to us and in us. This is certainly a mystery, but it is a mystery based on a promise: "lo I will be with you to the very end of the age" and "wherever two or three are gathered, there I will be in the midst of them." So the right hand of God the Father is not some place, but a symbol of the divine power by which Jesus is present.

The advantage of this view is that it can take with radical seriousness the biblical claims to Christ's presence with the believer. It also avoids splitting up the body and spirit of Jesus. The disadvantage is that an omnipresent body is an unthinkable thought. What makes a body a body is that it is bounded by space. A body that is everywhere ceases to be a body. Furthermore, one wonders how the Holy Spirit fits into this equation. Why did Jesus ascend and pour out his Spirit if he is already omnipresent by virtue of his resurrection? On this view, the cosmic narrative of Jesus falls into redundancy.

What do you think?

Is Jesus localized in heaven?
Or is Jesus everywhere?
Which view's advantages outweigh its disadvantages?
Can one view assimilate the concerns of the other?
Is there a third view?
Should the question be reframed? For instance, are these views rigidly spatial and so need to be supplemented by temporal questions?
What else should be taken into account?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Is "God" in the Old Testament the Father or the Trinity?

If the purpose of theology is to make us better readers of Scripture (which I believe), then this is one area where the opposite seems to be the case. The interface between the Trinity and the Old Testament wreaks havoc on the intelligibility of both. The doctrine itself is entirely absent (I'm not one of those who would attempt to "prove" the Trinity from the OT, let alone the New) and hence an imposition on the text. But the OT too loses intelligibility, at least if one is trying to read it in Christian terms (which is not necessarily the only way to read the OT, but must be at least a way).

The nub of the problem is this question: Is "God" in the OT the Father or the whole Trinity?

Option #1: God is the Father

The advantage to this formulation is that it quickly solves the problem by relegating all trinitarian interpretation to the NT. The God of the OT, the one who brought Israel out of Egypt, is the Father of Jesus Christ. The intelligibility of the text is protected against the imposition of later doctrinal developments.

The disadvantage to this formulation is that the doctrine of the Trinity is rendered unintelligible. The whole purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity is to ensure the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, who must be divine in order to bring us salvation and revelation. If the Son is not “there” in the OT, then he is not really “there” in the eternal triune God. Jesus ends up being one historical manifestation of one God, not the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity.

Option #2: God is the Trinity

The advantage to this formulation is that a robust doctrine of the Trinity is maintained. God in the OT is the eternal triune God acting in time with his people Israel. The fatherhood of God is not just a metaphor for the being of God, but is linked to his eternal fathering of the son. The incarnation is not some questionable add-on, but the fulfillment of his eternal design.

The disadvantage to this formulation is obvious: the triune God is nowhere to be found on the pages of the OT text. Only forced exegesis finds the Trinity in the OT. So those who hold this position are cornered into talking about the Trinity being “hidden” during this time. Theological problems abound as well, for the Son becomes detached from his historical incarnation and thus his human particularity can be questioned.

What do you think?

Which one is better?
Which one is worse?
Is there a way to hold on to both?
Is there a third option?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Providence and Predestination

I have noticed a pattern regarding the combination of two complex doctrines: providence and predestination. The two are of course related, providence being the secret divine willing of all events and predestination the eternal election of who will be saved. It is precisely their close proximity that makes the pattern of popular belief so striking. So here's my desciption of how I have observed church folk approach these problems.

Neither Providence nor Predestination - A lot of folks either practically or theoretically reject the two doctrines. Certainly God is not behind everything. Certainly our free will is sufficiently powerful in both mundane and salvific matters. Certainly God's hands are tied by our decisions.

Both Providence and Predestination - Of course, you have the other extreme in what I call "street" calvinists, who piously affirm both the election to salvation and the ordination of all events. Thus you have the legend of the puritan woman who fell down the stars only to say "I'm glad I got that out of the way." There are surely more sophisticated ways of contruing the relationship between these two doctrines. But I am trying to describe common belief and practice here.

Providence without Predestination - Here's where it gets peculiar. The potential extremity of the above views is at least commended for its consistency. But the fact of the matter is a large segment of church folk affirm providence without predestination. So you have folks who firmly believe that God has a particular will for their life and they need to find it. They piously approach suffering and death as "God's will." Yet when it comes to salvation, they are extreme Arminians, proudly claiming free will and a full capacity to accept or reject salvation. They have somehow found a way to separate the pair in their minds, or at least in their lives.

Predestination without Providence - But it gets weirder. You have the opposite combination as well. There are many among us who will go the wall defending God's utter predestination of souls unto salvation, yet affirm complete autonomy in all other matters. These folks might even quote the famous line of Luther's from The Bondage of the Will, wherein he exclaims (in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner) that yes, humans have free will ... to hammer a nail, to go to the market, to get up from bed ... but in matters of salvation we are utterly dependent on God. This can be a very "respectable" position, because one affirms divine sovereignty where it counts for the traditional battle, but can take a world-affirming, humanist viewpoint on all other matters.

The funny thing about this pattern is that it displays our ability to sustain "happy inconsistencies." We have found a way to have our theological cake and eat it too. And maybe I shouldn't spoil the fun, because consistency isn't the only theological virtue. However, one wonders if we have any coherent sense of who God is if we think he works in two completely different ways depending on whether it is a matter of salvation or not. Is this really the God we serve?

Am I on to something here?
Is this pattern descriptively adequate?
Could you think of examples that fit nicely into this pattern?
What am I missing?
Which is the best approach?
Are we doomed to some 'happy inconsistencies' to avoid extremes?
Or is there a way to affirm both without becoming deterministic? If so, how?

Monday, October 10, 2005

New Items Posted Regularly at The Writing of John Drury

Two new items have been posted at The Writing of John Drury, my collected writings page. Just two formal seminar papers on the knowledge of God, one on Calvin and one on Barth. If you are into that sort of thing, check them out here under "hotspot." If you have comments, leave them at this post.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Do Christians make the Church or does the Church make Christians?

Does a gathering of individual Christians make a collective church of Christians? Or is there a realistic entity called “the Church” that makes its participants into Christians? This is the basic theological question that still plagues us today. This perennial tension between individualists and communitarians crops up both between and within the alternative proposals for renewal today. For instance, one can find within the emergent conversation both radical individualists and radical communitarians. Both claim to value community. That is not the issue. This issue is whether the basis of ecclesial community is found in the collective of free individuals or in the community itself as such which then grants communal identity to its members. An arsenal of arguments are assembled, the battle rages on, and yet no victor is in sight.

Part of the problem in the debate between communitarians and individualists is that it remains solely on the sociological plane. The missing piece to the puzzle is the very center of church life itself: Jesus Christ. The debate will go on in perpetuity as long as it remains a struggle between two foci. But when a third point is added, a triangle is formed and a more rich discussion can follow.

So then, how do the Church, the Christian and Christ relate?

The classic way to formulate the basic options was put forth by Schleiermacher (19th Cen). He put it in terms of a contrast between the Protestant and Catholic ecclesiological principles (Christian Faith 103-108):

The Protestant principle is that the relationship between the Christian and the Church depends on the Christian's relationship to Christ.

The Catholic principle is that the relationship between the Christian and Christ depends on the Christian's relationship to Church.

Of course, this leads us into a whole other web of problems. Which principle gives pride of place to Christ? Which principle avoids the perils of the extremes? Are these principles adequate descriptions of the Protestant/Catholic difference? How do we acknowledge both the freedom of Christ and the indispensability of the Church? Is there a way to synthesize the principles? Is there a third option? But at least they are properly theological problems and therefore we might be able to get somewhere. In other words, a good ecclesiology must deal in Christological currency.

Although I enjoy being provocative, it seems appropriate to at least sketch the beginnings of my own solution to this basis ecclesiological problem. I would recommend that we navigate Schleiermacher’s triangle by means of the concept of mission. My inspiration here is von Balthasar, who outlines a missional concept of theological personhood in his Theo-Drama vol. III. Balthasar’s advance is that our personhood is grounded neither in our individual Christianity nor our participation in the community of the Church as such, but rather in the fulfillment of our mission. We are sent by God. This is who we are, both as individual Christians and as a communal Church. Balthasar gives the example of Paul, who as an individual missionary was on the periphery of the church and yet served the church precisely in his peripheral mission. He notes rightly that individualism and communitarianism coincide for Paul, especially when he reflects on his suffering for the church (e.g., Colossians 2).

Here’s how one might render Balthasar’s insight in terms of Schleiermacher’s triangle:

The Missional principle is that the Christian's relationship to both Christ and the Church depends on her participation in the mission to which Christ sends the Church.

My hope is that this way of putting things will keep the Christian and the Church in proper balance as they subsist in the one mission of Christ. This certainly doesn’t solve all the problems, but it may help to reframe it in a fruitful way.

Any thoughts?
Any communitarians or individualists out there who want to take me to task?
Any objections to Schleiermacher’s way of Christologizing the problem?
Any suggestions toward a missional solution to these problems?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Is Jesus God?

Is Jesus God? I would like to answer this baldly stated question in the manner of that great preacher, Reverend Lovejoy: "No with an if; Yes with a but."

The answer to this question must be "no" if we mean that God, simply stated, is the human being named Jesus. Jesus is not God if we understand the identity of God to be exhausted in the history of the human Jesus. Jesus is not God if we mean God has no choice but to become a human being in order to fix his out of control creation. Jesus is not God if we claim to worship and serve a human being as such. Jesus is not God if it is implied that God had become incarnate in order to become that which he is not already in eternity. Jesus is not God if we understand God to already be a creature named Jesus before there even was a created order.

Nevertheless, the answer to the question "Is Jesus God?" must also be "yes." Yes Jesus is God, but as the incarnation of the eternally begotten Son of God. Yes Jesus is God, but on the basis of the fact that there already is in God's eternity a fellowship of persons. Yes Jesus is God, but only if we remember that God becomes human as an outpouring of his divine life as Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Yes Jesus is God, but as the unfolding of a plan set in eternity by the triune God. Yes Jesus is God, but Jesus can pray to the Father without suffering from multiple personality disorder since the Son has been praying to the Father throughout eternity. Yes Jesus is God, because the Trinity logically precedes and therefore grounds the Incarnation.

In other words, the Trinity is the divine line of credit upon which the Incarnation draws. The Triune life of God in eternity is the condition for the actuality of temporal incarnation of God in the man Jesus. This is why, historically speaking, the doctrine of the Trinity had to be established first (4th century: Nicea & Constantinople), before the church turned its face fully to Christological problems (5th century: Ephesus and Chalcedon). This may seem counterintuitive, for as this post shows it is precisely the Christological question which leads one to the Trinitarian formula. Yet the order of discovery does not always correspond to the order of reality. Christology leads to Trinity, but only the Trinity has the resources to ground Christology. The key of course is that they remain inseparable. For the Trinity without Christology is meaningless metaphysical mathematics. But Christology without the Trinity is ungrounded pious assertion.

So what's my point? Certainly we can confess the divinity of Jesus without all this further ado. But it pays to remember the pains with which Christians have always treaded carefully around the topic of the divinity of Jesus. It's not something we just assert and say "love it or leave it." "Jesus is God" is a mystery worthy of manifold adoration -- an act of worship which includes precise theologizing in order to block misleading implications that leave us open to all sorts of attacks. So keep saying 'Jesus is God." Or keeping asking "Is Jesus God?" But whether you confess or ask, accept or reject, give a weighty statement like that the thought it deserves.

Any thoughts?
Is this account with its distinctions accurate?
Is it adequate?
Is it coherent?
Is it useful?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Is it really "not about you"?

You have heard it said, “It’s not about you.” I appreciate this popular attack against anthropocentrism, inasmuch as it goes against the narcissistic individualism of American religion. Since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I should put my weight behind it. But I am reluctant to do so. Why? Because it doesn’t go far enough.

The initial problem is that it is only a negation. Avoiding anthropocentrism doesn’t really accomplish much. Negating the self is easy. There’s nothing peculiarly Christian about that. Thus it tells what the faith is not about. But what is the faith about? It might as well be about a dog, for as long as it is not me, the formula is satisfied.

Of course, one ought to give the benefit of the doubt that the affirmation is implied by the negation. It’s not about you, because it’s all about God. But even as an implication, the formula stills does not succed in centering our faith on God. By focusing on the negation, it remains firmly planted on anthropocentric soil. Theocentrism is here only accomplished by the negation of the human, and thus God is still just an extension of humanity. One still starts with the self and then seeks to reach beyond oneself by negating the self. Such is the same old cul-de-sac of false humility in which we have been caught for years.

The apparent solution is to simply focus on the affirmation: “It’s all about God.” The advantage here is that the negation is implied: if it is all about God, than it can’t be all about me, or you, or anything else. The problem with this solution is that one wonders whether this egotistical God is really the God of Christianity. Does the reality of God by definition overpower the reality of humanity? Does the acknowledgement of God require the disenfranchisement of the human? Are God and humanity really in competition with each other? No! For us and for our salvation, God became human. A phrase like “it’s all about God” veils this act. So just as “it’s not about me” remains stuck in an anthropocentric circle, “it’s all about God” stately baldly leads to a theocentrism that excludes the central humanizing activity of God. It seems in either case we are required to choose between God and humanity.

The real alternative is to proclaim that “It’s all about God, and God is all about us.” A Christian theocentrism that is truly centered on the Christian God must also affirm a modified anthropocentrism. We do not need to help God out by hating humanity. We just need to point to God’s own love for humanity. In light of the incarnation, we can trust that our affirmation of God does not exclude but rather includes an affirmation of humanity. And who better to lift humanity to its intended heights than the very God who created us?

So in a way it is about me, but only because this God is all about us, and that "us" includes "me" in a real and genuine way.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Did Jesus Die and Go to Heaven?

A lot of Christians use the phrase "die and go to heaven." Though it may hold some truth, it is a misleading phrase. Why? Because the only concrete clue we have about our future is the first-fruits of our resurrection: the raised body of Jesus. And Jesus certainly did not “die and go to heaven.” If he didn’t, why should we expect to? The fact of the matter is, Jesus died and went to hell. Now he went to hell for us, but that does not mean we just die and flitter off as disembodied souls. No. We die and are raised like him. So although we may consciously experience our heavenly future immediately, the fact of the matter is that our hope lies in the restoration of our bodies, not just in our souls going to heaven after we die.

If there is one consistent thing across the resurrection accounts, it is that the post-Easter Jesus had a body, and it was his body, the same body that had died. Was it changed? Certainly. It was a transformed and glorified body. That’s what makes it good news for us. But this transformation is a predicate of his same body. The resurrection is not some replacement of our identity or a leaving behind of this life altogether. If so, then it wouldn’t really be us who are experiencing it. The resurrection is the transformation of this life. That’s what makes it good news for us.

Of course, the phrase “die and go to heaven” does not necessarily need to be abandoned. That is the bottom line. But it helps to be complemented by the phrase, “die and yet will be raised like him.” Such speech reminds us that we are not just imprisoned souls awaiting the end of this embodied life. Rather, we are embodied souls awaiting the redemption of all things, including our own bodies.

What implications does this have for how we relate to our bodies?
Once we have retrieved the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, how do we continue to speak coherently about the “soul”?
Am I missing something major in this account?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Was Jesus Tempted?

I get this question a lot:

"The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in the desert, but if He is God, how could He be tempted? If you say that His humanity was tempted, are we saying that Jesus had the "urge" to commit sin? Are we to separate the humanity from the divinity of Christ?"

Here's a recent response to such an email query:

Temptation does not require that Jesus had a sinful inclination - it could simply be an option laid before his will which he rejected. The same applies for us that we can experience temptation without necessarily being culpable. We have a tendency to think that Jesus' humanity had some extra boost of divinity that we do not have and we therefore get ourselves off the hook for the call to become fully human. Note also that all the temptation stories for Jesus are to give up and/or twist his mission (wilderness at beginning of ministry and garden of Gethsemane at the end), so they have a particular focus. Hence Jesus was tempted to contradict the nature of his mission. And once again, this is the more dangerous form of temptation for us - to not fulfill or twist our vocation.

As for the unity of divine and human natures, it is essential that the one person "The Son made Man Jesus" does all and experiences all as a united person with two natures. So when the human flesh undergoes temptation, God is united to the humanity so that God experiences temptation in and through the humanity. God adds (assumes) humanity onto himself so that he can perform this mission, and yet the Trinitarian shape of his eternal life is the condition for this "adding" (hence God is not "changing" into a man). Everything undergone by the humanity God also takes on as his experience. And everything done by the humanity (whether it appears human or divine) is performed by the humanity under girded by the power of God. So the two natures are never separated, yet they are not mixed. The one God-Man is born, eats, sleeps, heals, walks on water, dies, and rises again. There is a long Christian tradition that attributes some things to the humanity and others to the divinity. But this is a dangerous game because the unity of the two natures is broken and we are left with a schizoid Jesus. It’s all the one person: The Logos Incarnate.

Does this old-school Chalcedonian stuff really answer the question?
Or are the problems of Christology unsolvable?
In other words, does the plain sense of Scripture fall apart in the context of a high Christology?
If so, what's the alternative?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Will Heaven Be Boring?

As a kid, heaven always sounded boring to me. Won't we get sick of worshipping God all day? That sounds so repetitive. The only solution I ever came up was that at the eschaton we will be changed into the kind of people that won't get bored of God. Unfortunately, this just means we'll become boring too. Furthermore, this transformation hypothesis doesn't really affect the premise that God is boring. No wonder Christians, who proleptically participate in the eschaton (aka 'foretaste of glory divine'), are so bored and boring!

This week I have been reading J. Warren Smith's Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa, who deals with this problem as it was framed in the Patristic period. Apparently, Origen's teachings on human satiation implied that God was boring (or at least that humans can become bored in their contemplation of God). He believed that human beings had pre-existent souls who used to contemplate God yet as they became too full of God's goodness (aka, satiated) they "fell" into fleshy bodies. Only the soul of Jesus never fell, so he took on a body for our sakes to bring us back into contemplation of God. Despite the wacky primitive Christology, Origen's theory leaves open the problem that we may once again become satiated with God and re-fall. Although he answers such an objection, the idea that we could be satiated with God in the first place raised questions about divine infinity. Though Origen himself may have assumed that God was infinite, he did not think through the implications of this assumption.

Enter Gregory of Nyssa. First of all, Nyssen discarded Origen's idea of a pre-existent soul and the deficient Christology attached to this theory. But more importantly, Nyssen argued that because God is infinite, the human can never become satiated with his goodness. Rather, God is so unbounded that he will by nature remain interesting for eternity. Not only that, but we in our human finitude (which will never pass away even in the eschaton) will remain eternal interested in God. Eternal Life with God will mean dynamically exploring by our finite means of knowledge the infinite dynamic being of God. In other words, we will never get bored of God, because of the radical difference between his infinity and our finitude. Nyssen's term for this is epectasy: continual reaching. C. S. Lewis expresses this idea beautifully when he speaks of the children in New Narnia going "further up and further in" (Harper ed., 203f).

So the bottom line is that the end will not be boring. Actually, it will be eminently more interesting than life is now, for God fully revealed will give us an eternity's worth to think, feel and do.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Cryil of Alexandria & Ecclesial Realpolitik

This week I have been reading Daniel Keating's latest book The Appropriation of the Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril (5th Century) has been my favorite church father for quite some time now, mostly because of his unique willingness among the Greek fathers to speak of the suffering of God (though he always did this in a nuanced paradoxical way, e.g., that the Word of God suffers impassibly, unlike many modern theologians who throw around sloppy rhetoric about the passibility of God without assessing the consequences). On the other hand, Cyril is well known for his political cunning and sagacity. He is often labeled as the most despicable of early church theologians for his alliances with imperial forces in order to triumph over his theological foes, the most famous of which is Nestorius. His large and fascinating body of work is typically overshadowed by his Machiavellian reputation.

The question on my mind is whether Cyril-fans like me need to apologize for his bad behavior, or defend his politicking as doing Christian orthodoxy a great service. If Cyril was right (and I think he is) about Nestorius jeopardizing the reality of salvation with his Christological formulations, then what was the right thing to do? Just speak and write and hope the church would see the truth? Or get up and team up with the powers that be to ensure the victory of his view within the structures of the institutional church?

I am at a loss because I think so much can be at stake in such a foundational theological controversy, and yet I am not inclined to "play dirty" to ensure the right thing gets done. In today's controversies, I often find that those who are willing to politick are those with whom I disagree. So many in my generation are uncomfortable using institutional structures to do anything about it. So we idealistically sit back in the cool assurance that our ideas will win on their own merit. Maybe this ideal is a must, and I am willing to follow it through if it is a matter of obedient discipleship. But is it a higher calling to give up some of my personal piety for the sake of the church as a whole? That is the question.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Parsing Emergent

I was recently commissioned to write an article for Princeton Theological Review on Emergent Ecclesiology. Although I intend to do more than just define emergent (the task having become a bit of a cottage industry), the writing process necessarily begins will some clarification of terms. Over the past year, I have come to see that the emergent conversation can be parsed into three overlapping yet distinguishable categories.

(1) Epistemology:

Emergents have something to say about how we know. Although there are numerous various, the common denominator of emergent epistemology is that of a critical distance from strong truth claims, and hence an aversion to timeless propositions and a preferences for contextual stories. Terms like "postmodern" or "postfoundationalist" or even "narrative" will get thrown around in this regard. This aspect obviously attracts the more philosophically oriented, yet it has practical thrust: one communicates the gospel quite differently if it not a list of propositions to be accepted rationally but rather a story to be "lived into" so to speak.

(2) Cultural Analysis:

Emergents are also making observations about the contemporary culture in which we live. The claim is that we are in the process of a massive shift of the cultural forms and norms resulting in a new emphasis on community, the rise of pop cultural literacy, and a changing role of the church in society. Terms like "globalism" or "pluralism" or even "tribalism" will be used in respect to this aspect of the emergent conversation. Such cultural analysis naturally attracts the more pragmatically oriented as they seek to find new forms, styles and methods to "fit" the current culture. Yet all emergents necessarily have some interest in cultural analysis, for the term "emergent" itself has this cultural valence. "Emergent" in the narrowest sense refers to emerging cultural phenomena: emerging cultures, emerging generations, emerging churches.

(3) Ecclesiology:

Emergents are furthermore saying something about the nature of the church. The dominant theme is that the church's nature subsists in its mission, and that the structures and ministries of the church should reflect its missional nature. This implies both the addition of forgotten aspects of the church's mission in the world as well as the subtraction of those activities in the church which do not serve its mission. Emergents thus speak of "missional" communities or "post-christendom" models or even an "apostolic" ethos. Such ecclesiological discussions draw in the more theologically oriented, who are interested in scriptural exegesis, ecclesiological concepts, polity & denominational structures, the dialogue with missiology, and the understanding of ministry & laity. But of course, all emergents participate in such theological reflection, at least at the motivational level. For the church to be worth changing, it must be worth saving.


Is this parsing helpful?
Is it helpful?
Are you particularly attracted to one of these aspects?
Do any of these aspects turn you off?
Which aspect is the strong suit of the emergent church?
Which is its weak spot?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Two Challenges Collide: Popular vs. Esoteric / Seminal vs. Derivative

Geeks like me are always getting challenged by our colleagues in ministry to communicate in a clear, accessible way. I feel up to the challenge, as I hope my preaching as well as my blogging attest. I also aim to write some popular works in due time. Nevertheless, I do ask for patience while I give time to more "esoteric" matters that serve to sharpen my mind as well as help me jump through a few guild hoops.

This June I heard what seemed to be an unrelated challenge. My brother suggested that I take steps to ensure I do not become merely a derivative theologian but seek to be truly seminal in my thinking. I have been poindering a lot about what this might look like, but I haven't got very far, mostly because graduate studies in theology are designed to teach you that every great thought has already been thought before and you just need to learn how to find it. Yet becoming a seminal theologian is certainly an option, if after learning all this one has enough energy left to pick up the mantel of the masters and develop their ideas beyond what they themselves would have done.

Suddenly this week these two challenges collided with each other. I realized that these two goals may very well be contradictory. How can one be truly seminal without also being a least a little esoteric? How can one be a "popular" theologian without "translating" and thus being derivative? How can one develop the thoughts of the masters without joining in their esoteric conversation? How can one develop original ideas without fashioning an original nomenclature? Can these two challenges be reconciled? Or must I choose?

Of course, I can imagine be able to speak and write in two different styles according to context. But then problems arise of balance, priority, stewardship of time, loss of a distinct voice, and the possibility of leading an intellectual double life. The question remains: how does one forge a simultaneously popular and seminal theological style?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Is Church Discipline Really Possible Anymore?

My thoughts this week have converged on the issue of church discipline. First I had an e-mail conversation about discipline as the third mark of the church. Next the latest Christianity Today came with church discipline as its theme. Then my daily reading for today just happened to be I Corinthians 5, the Pauline locus classicus for church discipline.

As a Wesleyan with both Anabaptist and Catholic influences, I have every reason to emphasize church discipline and have done so for many years. I count myself among those who believe in three marks of the church: word, sacrament, and discipline (roughly corresponding to the prophetic, priestly, and royal offices of the church). The question of the marks of the church was brought to the fore by the Reformation. Without a unified church, the reformers needed a criterion by which to identify the true church. Luther had seven so-called marks, many of which could be combined into larger categories. The preaching of the pure word of God and the right administration of the sacraments were quickly received as the two basic marks. The addition of discipline as a distinct mark comes first from Bucer in Strausborg, but it was quickly dropped by the magisterial reformers (cf. Calvin's Institutes Iv.1.10) in reaction to its perceived over-emphasis in the radical reformation. It was picked back up by the Puritans in their conflict with the Church of England. It was through the Puritans that discipline was passed on to Wesley and the Methodists. The Wesleyan Church mentions it as a mark of the church in its Discipline. Just the distinctive name "Discipline" (as opposed to "Book of Order" or "Canon Law") used in a number of Wesleyan/Methodist/Holiness denominations points to this emphasis.

Enough of the history lesson. The question on my mind is whether church discipline is really possible anymore. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the man who was getting kicked out of the church did not have the option of walking down the street to the next Christian community. There was not the smorgasbord of Christian options now on offer. The same went for the Reformers, who contrary to popular belief were certainly not setting up "Protestant" churches down the street from "Catholic" churches. It was whole duchies and cantons that were reforming, and the formerly catholic parish church became a protestant church, leaving just one church per parish and not the multiplicity we see today, especially in the states. Even as the denominational splitting began centuries later, people were quite troubled over which christian community was the true church. It wasn't always a matter of taste or even needs. For many, eternity was on the line. So church discipline held serious weight for those who took their church membership seriously.

But these days are gone. Nowadays excommunication merely means switching to the church down the road (or to none at all). So the threat of excommunication is rendered empty. Thus all forms of church discipline, which must necessarily have the possibility of excommunication backing them up as their gold standard, have lost their bite. And although I have no desire to reinstate Christendom, I doubt whether the church's mission can be sustained without some kind of formative discipline. Yet it seems like an impossibility.

Now I would love to call for church leaders to reinstill in their people a sense of the cruciality of united christian community. I have done this and I will do this again. But that is for a different setting. Here I simply want to ask whether church discipline has any hope at all. Is it gone for good? Is that a good thing? If not, does it have any chance of return? If so, where is it to be found? Is it found only in visible church unity? Is it found in an increased sectarianism? Is it found through spiritual renewal? Is it found only in missional communities in hostile contexts? Is it a problem with our culture that we have to fix first? Is it merely taking new forms that I am missing?

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Texts and Traditions

While reading Romans 12 recently, I tried to count how many sermons I heard on this Living Sacrifices passage. I lost count pretty quickly. And in the midst of my religious nostalgia I was reminded that many Christian traditions do not have the same fondness for this text as my holiness peeps do. Not that they ignore it. They just emphasize other passages more. Maybe even read a text like Rom 12 through the lens of these other texts. So I started a list of different Christian traditions and their favorite texts. I have some of the easy ones already: Lutherans and Rom 4 / Gal 3; Pentecostals and Acts 2; Mennonites and Matt 5-7.

This little excercise left me with three questions:

(1) Do you have any to add?

(2) Can the so-called "emergent church" be characterized by any particular text?

(3) Can we get any ecumenical use out of these various "faves", a.k.a. are they a good starting point for dialogue?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Maddox Joins Duke Faculty

Big news for Duke fans (academics, not athletics).

Can anyone guess why I'm still happy - even relieved - to be at PTS?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Mystery and Ministry

Clergy burnout is more rampant than ever. The stats bear this out. But pastors are also far better equipped, educated and resourced than ever. Despite the calls for intellectual, psychological or administrative increases in the ever-lengthening list of “ministerial” skills, pastors receive far better practical training than they used to. Yet well-trained clergy are leaving the ministry in droves.

I wonder whether an aspect of the problem lies in the very idea of ministerial training as the acquisition of aggregate skills. “If you have an intermediate skill level in these twelve loosely related areas, you will be qualified for a successful ministry.” Now I certainly want pastors to be good exegetes, good listeners, good preachers, good at running stuff, etc. But there must be something beneath all these skills that ties them together. There must be something that grounds them, motivates them and gives them life.

A clue to this puzzle dawned on me while reading Romans 10. The famous passage of the necessity of preachers for the salvation of the world actually follows directly Paul’s strange interpretation of the ascending and descending mentioned in Deut 30 as the death and resurrection of Christ. It is only on the heels of this elusive exegesis that Paul move into his praise for the necessity of preaching. He moves from the greatest mystery into the need for ministry, without a pause or transition. Mystery (typically reserved for ivory tower theologians) and ministry (the practice of those aggregate skills) stand side by side. And if you think this is just a fluke, then check out Ephesians 4 where Paul moves comfortably from a similar mention of the descent and ascent of Christ to the giving of gifts to the various ministers in the church. Apparently, it is the mysterious cosmic Lordship of Christ that unites, grounds and motivates a minister’s preaching, leading, listening, etc.

In other words, when asked why we do what we do as ministers, the short answer might go something like this: "Jesus is the resurrected Lord of the universe and I am pressed into his service."

Will this simple thought alone prevent clergy burnout? Certainly not. But maybe it can help us begin to think through the unity of theological education (both initial and continuing) that gets beyond the "grab bag of skills" mentality. Because being good-at-stuff won’t get one through a dark night of the soul.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Second Thoughts on “Salvation”

I have tended to use the term "salvation" as an umbrella term for all three tenses of Christ's work (past, present, and future). In other words, salvation is "the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” I.1). Although I still agree with the implications of this broad use, I no longer consider “salvation” to be the best all-encompassing term.


Because of the way Paul uses the term salvation generally in his letters and specifically in Romans 5. In verse 8 he utters that classic insight that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. That’s in the past tense. Then he goes on to say in verse 9 that all the more now we have been justified. That’s a perfect tense, which always has a present effect. Plus there’s the “now”. Finally, Paul goes on to say in verse 9 that we will be saved through Christ from the wrath. There’s the third tense: future.

Will be saved? What? I thought you are supposed to get saved (past tense) or be saved (present tense). Salvation isn’t something we wait for, Paul. Or if it is, that is certainly just one aspect, just one tense of the whole work of God from past through the present into the future, right? It looks like Paul uses the term "salvation" in the narrow sense I’ve been trying to flee: being saved from the wrath of God at the end of time. And he and the rest of the NT authors seem to use it in this sense consistently.

What’s the alternative?

The idea that Christ’s work includes all three tenses is a good idea. I think it is worth keeping. And it seems to be a biblical pattern as the above notes suggest. But if “salvation” is not the big umbrella term for the whole of Christ’s work, what is? I submit that we simply follow Paul’s pattern here too. Throughout this very passage, as well as in the rest of his letters, Paul repeatedly uses a term that is not temporal specified: reconciliation. Reconciliation. Now that’s a term that can hold the weight of “the whole work of God”: atonement, justification, salvation. Reconciliation. That’s a word that can naturally be formed into all three tenses: past, present, future. Reconciliation. That’s Paul’s “big word” for the whole work of God from beginning through the middle to the end.

May I dare suggest we use it too?

Are there reasons not to?
Has it fallen out of common usage for a reason?
Are there reasons I missed for retain the broad sense of “salvation”?
If neither is good as an umbrella term, what other terms could be used?

selling out / buying in

Greetings. Have I sold out or bought in?