Thursday, July 27, 2006

Laying of Hands: Becoming a Link in a Long Chain

This Sunday I got ordained. Beforehand my wife asked me what I was looking forward to the most about the service. I said that I was most looking forward to the laying on of hands by the other ministers. Why is this part of the act so special?

The laying on of hands was not special because I received some kind of special powers. I preached and administered the sacraments before my ordination and I will do so after without any substantive change. The ministry of the church does not require some special mystical power above and beyond the work of the Holy Spirit himself.

The laying on of hands could also be potentially significant as a symbol of the setting apart among the church for the role of equipping the saints. Now this is certainly an aspect of the act. But in my ordination experience, those who laid hands on me were the community of ministers, not the congregation as a whole. So the symbol in this instance is not so much being "set apart" as being "welcomed into." Certainly I am being set apart by the church as a whole, but the laying on of hands symbolizes more.

What hit me at my ordination was that those who layed hands on me had received the laying on of hands from someone else, and so on and so on back through history. Now I do not need to committ myself to some idea of historical succession to be able to affirm the significance of a long chain of ministry that traces back to Jesus himself. The practice of laying on of hands is practiced in the New Testament and has been a consistent part of ordination services throughout Christian history. Whatever else it means, the laying on of hands symbolizes my induction into a historical community of set apart ministers. I became a link in a long chain of ministers.

The resultant attitude from this realization is that I am particularly excited to some day lay my own hands on an ordinand. I do not want my branch of the chain to end with my link. I feel compelled to continue the chain beyond myself.

Any thoughts?
What "happens" at ordination services?
What experiences or reflections have you had on such acts?
What is the meaning of the symbolic act of the laying on of hands?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Specialized Ministry with Eyes Wide Open: A Sermon on Acts 6:1-10

Just this morning I preached the following sermon at Princeton Seminary Chapel.

Scripture Reading: Acts 6:1-10

Apparently this summer is not the first time Hebrews and Greeks have been found in competition with each other. Although this summer’s competition [Ultimate Frisbee tourney between Hebrew and Greek summer class] is significant as a Herculean clash for the honor of victory, the clash in our text is a matter of life and death. As this early chapter in the story of the church shows, cultural favoritism endangered the very livelihood of certain Jewish widows who had the unfortunate position of being Hellenized. And since Luke has an irenic tendency – telling the story of the early church in the best light possible – we can only imagine how bad the conflict got before the apostles stepped in to defend the needy. This is a serious problem that demands a serious solution.

What was their solution? They did what any administrative body would do: delegate. They took the problem seriously yet realized that they could not fix it by themselves. The problem required special attention from specially appointed leaders. So the community elected its first deacons – those set apart for the specialized ministry of helping the poor and needy. Thus begins the great churchly tradition of specialized ministry.

This notion of different ministers being called to different tasks is so often taken for granted by us ministers that we might miss its significance. God has gifted us in different ways. To announce to your family and friends that you are “called to the ministry” and “going to seminary” could mean all sorts of things today. I remember the first time I told an old friend from high school that I was going to seminary. “What? You in seminary? I just don’t see it.” Some of you have received the same reaction from your friends or even your family. We try to explain that we have been called to something specific: youth ministry, pastoral counseling, the mission field, academic research, religious art. But sometimes it is hard to convince them that ministry is more than lofty pulpits, big black bibles, gray hair and dark suits. Today’s text has a liberating message: ministry takes on all kinds of forms, and being called to the ministry looks different for each of us.

But wait. There’s a little twist in the story that we must be careful not to miss. Luke takes great care to list the names of each of the seven deacons chosen by the community and blessed by the apostles. Now, on the surface, Luke wants you to notice their Greeks names. These Hellenized Jews are perfectly fit for the diaconal care of Hellenized widows. But Luke, the master story-teller, is also foreshadowing later events by introducing a number of key characters. Immediately following this story is the story of Stephen. This man, who was called to the specialized ministry of the diaconate so that the apostles can focus on their preaching, is found in the synagogue … preaching. Apparently the Holy Spirit is not constrained by the boundaries of specialized ministries.

This little twist ought to serve as a warning against treating our specialized callings as absolute. The same Holy Spirit who gifts us for our current ministry has the freedom and power to gift us for a radically different form of ministry. Our responsibility is to be open to these other forms while we train for our specialization. What does this look like? Well, it certainly places a moratorium on lines like these: “I don’t need to learn Hebrew verb forms; I’m going to be a chaplain;” “I don’t need systematic theology; I’m going to be a youth pastor;” “I don’t need to pay attention in preaching class; I am going to be a professor.”

I know that I came here with blinders on, trying to turn my M.Div. into an M.A. in Theology. I am so thankful for that lunchtime acquaintance who said to me, “Oh, you will make a great pastor.” Those affirming words late in my Junior year opened my eyes to the pastoral training I was trying to avoid. As it turns out, I am going to be ordained this Sunday. I am still training for my specialized calling; but I am trying to be open to whatever kind of ministry the Spirit may call me.

Many other stories can be added to mine: Ron came here to study Hebrew Bible and is now a pastor in Trenton. Sarah had her sights on an academic career until a CPE transformed her and led her into chaplaincy. Mike came here to train for youth ministry, got a Ph.D. in theology along the way, and is now a full-time youth pastor. So, as we hear the liberating message of specialized ministry from Acts 6, let’s makes sure we keep our eyes and hearts open to wherever the Spirit leads. For “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all.” (I Corinthians 12:4-6). Amen.

Any thoughts?
Do you have any stories of the Spirit's freedom to add?
Any insights on the passage that I've not mentioned?
How can we best hold in tension a confidence in our call and openness to new leadings?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Three Types of "Historical Theology"

I was first introduced to theology by a self-proclaimed "historical theologian." Although he respected other approaches to theology, I have since encountered a number of self-titled "historical theologians" who claim superiority over any other kind of theology (especially "systematic theology"). At first glance, this seems obvious: certainly a theology rooted in history is superior to the speculative construction of systems. But upon further reflection, the term "historical theology" is ambiguous. What exactly does "historical theology" mean? I can think of three possible alternatives, each of which has their past and present practitioners.

1. History of Theology. This is the first and most obvious meaning. Historical theology is a method of inquiry into the development of theology. Another name for this is the history of doctrine. However, comparing this inquiry to systematic theology is like comparing apples and oranges: simply narrating the history of theology is not a normative task in itself. One is not saying what is right or wrong, true of false. One is simply telling the story. Although this is a much needed task, it leaves genuinely theological questions open. Furthermore, one could accurately tell the history of theology without actually believing any of it. So surely this is not what someone means when he or she says historical theology is superior to systematic theology.

2. Theology of History. Another very different approach is to perform a theological interpretation of history. In such an inquiry, theological assumptions serve as a criterion of judgment for "what happened." One would make decisions regarding past events by discerning the hand of providence in history. Although I would not want to rule out the possibility of such an inquiry, it does seem rather dubious. How does one know when and where God was working? On what basis could we make such decisions? What supports the theological assumptions driving the project? How can such a project be kept from becoming a mere ideological power play?

3. Theology out of History. A third option is to not simply narrate the history of theology or use theology to narrate history, but rather to develop one's own theology out of the history of theology. Such a historical theologian would regard "God" and other related topics as emergent concepts. If we want to know who God is, we must reflect upon the history of humanity's reflection upon God. Because it actually seeks to make normative truth statements, this third option comes closer to a genuine alternative to systematic theology. It is most likely that this is the notion that one has in mind when claiming the superiority historical theology over systematic theology. Yet at least one problem remains: how does one decide which parts of history are to be privileged? The history of theology in particular and religion in general is far from uniform. One must make normative decisions about which history ought to be privileged. Is it the most ancient? Or the most recent? Or the middle? Or is it none of the above, but rather some criterion like the Bible or reason or creed? Whatever one decides, he or she is no longer simply drawing theology out of the wells of history, but is making theological judgments. And these judgments have to come from somewhere, as they cannot simply be “read off” history as such.

Of the three, I certainly think that this last one is the most noble. However, even at its height it cannot bear the whole weight of the theological task on its own. As a normative supplement, it requires assistance from the critical study of the Bible and the systematic presentation of Christian doctrine. So, the purpose of this post is not to undermine historical theology. That is surely not my intent. Rather, I simply wish to place a moratorium on any claim that “historical theology” supplants “systematic theology.” We need each other, and it is unwise to make each other into enemies when we could make such great allies.

Any thoughts?
What do you think of when someone says he or she is a “historical theologian”?
Is there another sense to the term “historical theology” that I have missed?
Why do different branches of theological inquiry tend to attack each other?
How can the different branches of theological inquiry work together better?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

"Believing That" and "Believing In"

After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, some believe in him, while others went back to report to the Jewish leaders who were plotting to kill Jesus. This news prompts a discussion of whether they should get rid of Lazarus too (see John 11). This twofold response to the miraculous sign of Jesus' power over death struck me: the divide was not between those who believed that Jesus raised him and those who do not. The dividing line is those who believed in Jesus because of the sign, and those who sought to destroy him because of the sign. In both cases, the respondents believed that the miraculous event took place. The issue at hand was whether or not to believe in the miracle worker himself.

Belief in our world often takes the form of a debate over believing that certain things happened. But the signs in John's gospel make it clear that these things happen so that we might believe in the one who is sent from the father. They are signs, pointing us to him. So just believing that these things happened is not enough. We must also believe in the one to whom they point.

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis shares a story about Old Knock, his rationalistic agnostic tutor, who one day flippantly noted about the resurrection that "it might have happened once." This passing remark about the possibility of resurrection got Lewis asking some serious questions about Christian beliefs, yet it was clear that for Old Knock the obstacle was not believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. What was missing was the next step: believing in the risen Lord Jesus.

Of course, we cannot make the opposite mistake whereby we try to believe in without believing that. This is a common liberal protestant habit of mind: affirming the spiritual significance of the symbols of faith while crossing one's fingers concerning the historical substance of those beliefs. Such attempts to have our cake and eat it too are destined to fail because a castle of faith cannot be built on sand. Our faith must have a genuine object for it to be genuine faith.

But the warning bell I wish to ring this week concerns our tendency to exert a disproportionate amount of energy on matters of "believing that" while neglecting the problem of "believing in." We are deceived if we think that one more argument or one more piece of evidence will make all the difference to turn people's eyes to Jesus. We should not ignore arguments or evidence, but our foremost concern should be to draw people to a faith in this man from Nazareth.

Any thoughts?
Have you ever encountered someone who believed that without believing in?
Have you ever encountered someone who believed in without believing that?
How do we keep these aspects of believe in proper order and balance?