Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Druchesis X: The Ten Commandments

Druchesis X: The Ten Commandments
(Lectures 11-12)

[Note: This material will be divided over two weeks in the course I am preparing for this fall. But in order to finish by the end of summer, I'm lumping my reflections on the Ten Commandments into one big blog post, just as we did with the Lord's Prayer last week. Stay tuned next week for the first installment of a new series on the resurrection, which will include conversations with N. T. Wright's new book, Surprised by Hope]

What do we do now? In light of where we have come from and where we are going, how should we then live? Though we have not ignored matters of practical living in this series, it is now high time to take these questions head on. In order to so, we will keep following the catechetical tradition by reflecting on the Ten Commandments. Memorizing the Ten Commandments is standard catechetical practice in most Christian communities, whether they call it "catechesis" or not. Seeking to understand them and live by them is near the heart of Christian living. So a little reflection on the "ten words" is a worthwhile endeavor.

By choosing to place the Decalogue at the end of our series, we have sided with a particular tradition of catechetical reflection. Not all catechesis moves in the order that we have chosen. Perhaps more famously, Martin Luther's Catechisms (both Large and Small) place the Ten Commandments at the beginning. Now a lot can be said in favor of Luther's ordering, not the least of which is that teaching children to share instead of steal simply comes first as a matter of course. But we have chosen to treat the Decalogue at the end of our reflections in order to locate Christian behavior within its proper context. God's commands are not spoken to us in a vacuum, but within the context of his story with us. God does not say, "If you do these things, then I will be your God and you will be my people." Rather, God says, "I have made myself your God and you my people, therefore do these things." It is significant that the Decalogue is prefaced by God's revealing statement: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex 20:2). This reminds the hearers of God's past acts of covenant faithfulness and gestures at the promise of future acts of deliverance. God's covenant is the context of God's commandment. And so we accordingly began with our faith in God's covenantal history with us and our hope in God's purposive future for us before turning to our love of God and neighbor in obedience to God's concrete command to us.

By so contextualizing the command of God, we immediately run into a problem: if Jesus has fulfilled the covenant, then why do we who have faith in him have to bother with the commandments of the "old" covenant. Now I must concede that the relation between the laws of the nation of Israel and the ethical guidelines of the Christian community is notoriously complex. I cannot pretend to resolve it here. But I can offer this rather simple observation: if God's promises to bless the nations through Israel are not abolished but fulfilled in Jesus Christ, then the gentiles who follow Jesus are invited as guests in the house of Israel to learn from his people how to live. In other words, we may not have to obey the law, but we get to obey the law. What was once far off is now brought close to us in Christ by the Spirit.

The catechetical tradition of the church has concretized this positive relationship between the law and the gospel by coordinating the ten commandments with the so-called greatest commandment. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus gave a twofold answer: love God with your all and love your neighbor as your self. The twofold structure to Jesus's love command corresponds nicely with the apparent twofold structure of the ten commandments, traditionally referred to as the "two tables of the law." According to Exodus, the ten commandments were inscribed by the finger of God on two tablets (cf. Ex 31:38 and pars). Although it is not clear which commands were on which tablet, later tradition identified the first four commands concerning worship of God as the "first table of the law," and the remaining six commands concerning relations with neighbors as the "second table of the law." We will follow the tradition in our division of the material. So, without further ado, let's turn to the first table of the law and so to the first commandment.

The First Table of the Law: Love of God

The First Commandment
You shall have no other gods before me

The first command is the most fundamental of all the commands. One might obey the rest with relative success and still betray God's covenant by having other gods. One might be a virtuous pagan, but at the end of the day a pagan is still a pagan. God requires singular loyalty from his people. God is faithful to his people and expects the same in return. The attribute of divine faithfulness is the theological presupposition of the first commandment. This Hebrew term for this attribute is hesed often translated "mercy" or "loving kindness," both of which are accurate but obscure the covenental connotation of the term. For God to have hesed is for God to be faithful to the covenant he made with his people. The story and promise of God's faithfulness to his people provides the covenantal context of the command to be faithful to him in return.

In that same story, God's people are repeatedly shown to be unfaithful. It should be no surprise, then, this command takes a negative form: "you shall not." In fact, most of the ten commandments are negative in form. There is a reason for this, and it is not just to make us feel bad. God's commands are primarily negative because the positive conditions for following them have already been supplied unilaterally by him. God in his grace has established a covenant with an unlikely people. God is faithful to his people. That is the most important positive fulfillment of the law. His people are simply told not to drop the ball from their side.

However, the fact that God supplies the positive conditions of covenant faithfulness does not mean that there is not a positive form of this command. In Deuteronomy, the centerpiece of the law is God's positive command to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deut 6:5). It is this commandment that Jesus identifies at the greatest. The positive form of the command reminds us that mere avoidance of paganism is not enough. One must also dedicate one's self wholly to God. In fact, it is the positive form of the command that helps us to discern its opposite. What does it mean to have other gods before the Lord your God? As Luther famously put it, to have a god is to have anything on which your heart depends entirely. Whatever you cling to, that is your god. And so we all of us -- pagans, agnostics and believers -- are susceptible to cling to people and things and ideas rather than the one true God. Nobody is free from this temptation, and nothing is free from acting as our god. Clinging to any such gods is ruled out by the first commandment. And, in its positive form, clinging to the one true God is called forth from God's people.

The Second Commandment
You shall not make for yourself an idol

It is arguable that by obeying the first commandment one necessarily obeys the remaining commandments of the first table of the law. Love the Lord your God and thereby fulfill all the law and the prophets. This is certainly true, but it is only true in a certain respect. It is true that genuine love of God seeks to embody its love in proper worship. In that respect, sheer love of God is enough. But we must also consider that love is not just an internal feeling but always takes concrete form in external actions. We rightly doubt the integrity of one who says they love someone whom they treat poorly. To say "I love you" and not show it is meaningless. In a certain respect, love is the actions that communicate love. So to appeal to the certainly true statement that the law of love fulfills the whole law in order to skirt the concrete form of love is to undermine the point of the statement. Just as God's love of us is not just an amorphous feeling but a concrete action of covenant faithfulness, so too our love of God is a concrete action. Our hesed of God must correspond to God's hesed of us.

This is where the next three commandments come in. The first is the command to neither make nor worship idols. Given the necessity of concrete forms of love, it is no wonder that the first and second commandments are sometimes conflated in the Christian tradition. To this day, not all Christian traditions follow the same numbering of the decalogue. Some combine the first two, splitting the last two in half in order to still get the number ten. Some reformation traditions adjusted this numbering, both as a result of a renewed interest in the Hebrew language and in order to support protestant iconoclasm by highlighting the commandment against images. Scholarly consensus confirms the distinction between the command to have no other gods and the command to eschew idolatry, and so we have followed the traditions whose numbering reflects this distinction. This choice is doubly helpful. On the one hand, it frees one to exposit the first commandment in broad terms of covenant faithfulness to God, which can take a myriad of forms. On the other hand, it directs one's attention to the very specific sin of idolatry, which played such an important role in God's story with his people.

Idolatry means worshipping images, substituting a creature for the creator. We can of course speak of idolatry metaphorically, in the sense of anything that competes with the worship of the true God. In fact, we were doing just that in our exposition of the first commandment in terms of singular faithfulness to God. But the metaphorical widening of the concept of idolatry should not obscure its concrete meaning. This is especially important in light of the temptation to use images in the worship of the true God. One might intend to express their obedience to the first commandment through the worship of an image of the true God. Israel's first great sin in the wilderness was the fashioning of a golden calf, which they worshipped as the Lord who brought them out of Egypt. But God requires his people not only to forsake all other gods but also to forsake the use of idols even in their worship of him. Such extremity is not arbitrary but befits the character of God, who, as the commandment says, is a jealous God (vs. 5-6). Jealousy is an appropriate attribute for a God who acts in history by choosing a people. God's jealousy is the burning of his love for his people, the punishing and rewarding activity by which God displays his covenant faithfulness. Just as divine faithfulness is the theological presupposition of the first commandment, so divine jealous is the theological presupposition of the second commandment.

Obedience to this command comes to fullest expression in Israel's Temple: in the central room, precisely where one would expect a sculptured image of a god, there is an empty seat. God is present without the presence of idols. In fact, God is only present in the absence of idols, as the prophets continually remind the people. The prophets were thereby enforcing the bottom line of the second commandment: let nothing stand in the way your worship of the true God.

Now the Christian tradition rightly hits a snag here. Do we not worship Jesus as the only Son of God? And cannot he as the incarnate one be imaged? Debate over the use of images in worship, referred to as the iconoclastic controversy, raged in the early Byzantine period. In fact, the seventh and final ecumenical council was convened to settle this very issue (Nicaea 787). This council should not be perceived as a break from the earlier, more "theological" councils. Rather, the question of icons was a continuation of the Christological debates and developments of the earlier centuries. The defenders of icons appealed to the two natures of Christ: Jesus as God is the proper object of worship; Jesus as human is capable of being imaged; therefore, images of Jesus may be used in worship. By these and other arguments, the defenders of icons won the debate at the council, though the controversy reemerged later both in the East and the West. The Western debate exploded during the reformation, which focused on images of saints. Whatever one's stance on the use of images generally, one ought to seriously consider affirming the Christological insight of the seventh ecumenical council. No one has ever seen God, except the the only begotten son of God, who is the full expression of God, the exact representation of his being. To bow down in worship before Jesus is not idolatry. Whether an image of Jesus is necessary or permissible can be debated in practice, but that Jesus is the image of God must never be denied by Christians. Such a denial would be blasphemous, which brings us to the third commandment.

The Third Commandment
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain

We have already spoken of the name of God when we exposited the first petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Hallowed be thy name." So we need not linger here long. All we need to do here is lift up the scope of the negation and draw out the positive implication.

First, avoidance of curse words is necessary but not sufficient. Now it is true that the later Jewish tradition had chosen to avoid entirely speaking the revealed name of God. This is why YHWH was given alternative vowel points in the Masoretic Text and mispronounced "Jehovah" by English translators. Such absolute prohibition was the better part of wisdom, but as Jesus's teachings on oaths shows, sheer avoidance of the divine name will not do. Obedience to the third commandment requires that we eschew all misuse of the Lord's name. That means we must not appeal to religious language as a means to advance our own ends. Religious justification of back room deals, power grabs, and holy wars is a great affront to God and a bad witness to him before a watching world. But misuse of the name not only applies to the dragging God's name through the mud, but also to the presumption to attach God's name to even our best ideals and practices. Such presumption is essence of vanity. And before you interpret this exposition of the commandment merely in terms of a principled separation of church and state, remember that the Lord's name can be and regularly is misused in a religious context. Nowhere else are we more tempted to take the Lord's name in vain than in the church, where we loosely throw around God's name and hide behind pious reference to the Lord to get what we want.

Does this mean we should avoid God-talk entirely? Absolutely not. The positive implication of the third commandment is not disuse but proper use of the Lord's name. The love the Lord your God with your all means to use the name of the Lord your God with reverence and joy. We must revere the name, not by tip toeing around it but by reserving it for proclamation and prayer, speaking to others about the greatness of God and speaking to God with thanksgiving and petition. In other words, we should tell the story of God instead of co-opting God to advance our own plots. To call on the name of the Lord, both in times of blessing and in times of trouble, is the positive fulfillment of the third commandment. "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will honor me" (Psalm 50:15).

The Fourth Commandment
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy

With the fourth commandment we turn from hallowing God's name to hallowing his day. Interestingly, this is the first of the two commandments that are phrased positively. Although the prohibition against work on the sabbath are also given, they do not get the first word. Rather, the positive imperatives to remember and to sanctify are given prominence. In this case, remembering means being conscientious enough to attend to the temporal rhythms God has given to his people. Sanctifying, as always, means to set apart, to make this day different than the others. Specifically, this day is made different through rest. Work defines the life and times of a community. Regular rest sets concrete limits one's work and its capacity to define the meaning of life. Sabbath-keeping identifies a community as God's people. It is no coincidence that the fourth commandment makes reference to the creation story. Busy people must be reminded that God the creator sustains his creation even when we cease our work. In other words, the world will not fall apart if you take a day off. You are not the creator; God is. Sabbath-keeping is an expression of trust in God and his provision for us beyond the fruit of our labors.

But sabbath-keeping is not only an expression of trust, but also an expression of love. By resting on the sabbath we join God in a shared time of rest. Not only can we rest because God still works, but also we are invited to rest with God. Thus is it not without reason that the Christian tradition connected sabbath-keeping to its own day of worship. The sabbath is the seventh day of the week, whereas Christians worship on the first day of the week to remember the resurrection of Jesus. So there is no strict equivalence between rest on the sabbath and worship on the Lord's Day. But the connection between the two is sensible and appropriate, provided one does not conflate the two and thereby create confusion, as so often happens. I can think of so many times when arguments over what was an appropriate activity on a Sunday afternoon suffered from the confusion of the mandate to rest and the invitation to worship. We may and must heed both, but how they are related and what that looks like can take many forms. So the church must learn to have an openness about the specifics of sabbath-keeping, even as it must re-learn to joyfully obey the fourth commandment.

The Second Table of the Law: Love of Neighbor

With the fifth commandment we come to the second table of the law, and so turn our attention to love of neighbor. This shift in focus is not a separation. Just as love of God and love of neighbor are not separated in the ten commandments, so they remain united in Jesus's teaching. As Jesus puts it, "And the second is like the first..." The two go together. Love of God without love of neighbor is empty; love of neighbor without love of God is blind.

Nevertheless, there is a shift in focus from sustaining a proper covenantal relationship with God to sustaining the moral fabric of the community. God is not left behind, for all of these commands are followed out of obedience to God and for his glory. But explicit reference to God does disappear. In fact, parallels to these sorts of commands can be found in many if not most cultures. They certainly have parallels in the ancient near eastern cultures that surrounded Israel. So the second table of the law cannot be treated as though it contained absolutely unique legal insights.

However, Christian reflection on and obedience to the second table of the law is refracted through the unique lens of Jesus Christ. Although we certainly heed these prohibitions as would anyone who seeks the collective good of a society, we also hear in them the voice of our Lord to go the extra mile. We seek not only to avoid murder, adultery and theft, but seek to cultivate peace, faithfulness and generosity. In other words, we seek to love our neighbor as ourself. One could successfully heed the prohibitions by withdrawing one's self from the community, and thereby fall short of loving one's neighbor, which requires interaction and engagement. One could even heed these prohibitions in community, but limit the scope of application only to my community and therefore obey them only as an expression of self-love. One of the themes of Jesus's teaching is the re-definition of "neighbor" to include outsiders and even enemies. In fact, such inclusion of enemies is at the heart of the gospel, and so it should come as no surprise that the ethical life of the community created by the gospel would be shaped by enemy-love. This ever-widening scope of love comes out clearly by expositing the second table of the law not only in its negative form but also by drawing out the positive implication of each command. Such will be our procedure here.

The Fifth Commandment
Shame vs. Honor

The first commandment of the second table of the law is to honor one's parents. That family comes first should come as no surprise, for the family is the basic unit of society. This does not mean the church ought to sentimentalize the family or that today's "family values" have some kind of revealed status. The very notion of a mobile nuclear family is quite foreign to the ancient tribal culture in which the fifth commandment was first spoken and obeyed. But the fact remains that families -- in the more stripped-down obvious sense of the word -- form the core web of relationships through which first participate in communal life. It is with one's parents, siblings and other household members that one learns to sustain community by eschewing violence, theft, lies, etc. So it fits that the first and most basic form of neighbor-love is to bring honor to one's family.

Now we mentioned earlier that we would exposit both the negative and positive aspects of each command. But unlike the remaining commands, the fifth command is already phrased positively. And also unlike the remaining commands, it is with reference to the negative aspect that consideration of the gospel's ethical demands comes in. We are commanded to honor our parents and by implication we are prohibited from shaming our parents. Yet shame is precisely what Jesus repeatedly brings on his family and repeatedly calls others to do. He places the choice before would-be disciples: either follow him immediately and wholly or take care of your family and its needs and reputation. These are certainly "hard sayings" and ought not be used to abuse people. However, they do display how Christ relativizes family ties. The family is not dismantled by Jesus, but the absoluteness of its demands are. The relative good of sustaining good family relations and reputations can be sought, but to act solely out the interest of my blood relations comes into direct conflict with Jesus's radical redefinition of neighbor. We need not set out to bring shame on our family, but picking up our crosses and following Jesus will often do so. The end game, of course, is not that we would trade our family for him, but that all, including our own family members, would be incorporated into the new family formed in Christ. And so with this end in veiw, we can rest assured that the greatest honor one can give his or her family is to follow Jesus.

The Sixth Commandment
Violence vs. Shalom

Although the family is the basic unit of every society, the prohibition against murder is the basic law of every society. Historically, the move to civil life is signalled by the abandonement of vendetta cycle and the development of public means to settle disputes without recourse to privately executed violence. Only by eschewing murder can we live together, prosper, and grow as a community. Of course, civil societies remain quite violent, as the society itself is invested with the authority to take life. And so the distinction between killing and murder is operative here. The ancient Israelites knew of this distinction and could express it in the Hebrew language. The sixth commandment prohibits murder, not killing. This is not meant to excuse violence but to put it in its place.

The positive form of the sixth commandment is peace, in the full biblical sense of the word. The Hebrew word shalom means much more than the absence of violence. One could avoid armed conflict and still fall short of shalom. Shalom is abundant life, the fulfillment of the blessing promised in God's covenant with his people. Shalom is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and will be revealed when he returns in glory. In the meantime, shalom breaks in from time to time. Christians ought to be on the vanguard of shalom wherever and whenever it breaks in. In concrete terms, that means going the extra mile and turning the other cheek. Whether the non-violent practices Jesus calls from his disciples imply a negative prohibition on all violence is an age-old debate worthy of attention. All that needs to be said here is that God is ushering in a kingdom of peace and life, and so Christian reflection on the just use of force should take into account the where the story is heading, both in choosing whose side to take in a conflict and how one goes about defend their cause.

The Seventh Commandment
Adultery vs. Faithfulness

The prohibition against murder gets a civil society up and running, but the prohibition against adultery is crucial for sustaining economic life. I use the term "economy" both with reference to its root meaning "household" and for it current fiscal connotations. In societies both ancient and modern, adultery is expensive. It costs to much and is a drain on individual families and the society at large. And I'm not just taking about the emotional costs. Adultery adds new relational bonds to already existing ones and therefore drains the resources from a family. Divorce as an apparent alternative to adultery either throws the woman into poverty and prostitution, as in ancient societies, or feeds the blackhole of legal beuaracuries, as in modern societies. Adultery is too expensive to be worth it in the end. Most societies figure this out and prudently prohibit it. The loosening of such restraints is certainly not a sign of progress, but of regress.

The stakes are even higher for the people of God, who are called to be a light to the nations, bearing witness to God's faithfulness. Although the fifth and sixth commandments are basic for community life, the seventh commandment gets to the heart of Christian living before a watching world. The positive form of the seventh commandment is the call to faithfulness, which corresponds to the faithfulness of and to God with which the decalogue begins. A faithful spouse images God's faithfulness to his people. Throughout Scripture, God consistently uses the imagery of spousal faithfulness and adultery to reveal his covenant and character. This pattern is continued in the New Testament in terms of Christ and his church, of which marriage between a man and a woman is a great "mystery" or "sacrament." Christians are positively called to live lives of marital faithfulness as signs of God's faithfulness. And this call is extended to all Christians, as those who do enter into marriage covenant are equally responsible to bear witness to God's faithfulness by their chastity. Again, as with the sixth commandment, the positive form of the command is not necessarily absolute in character. So we can debate the appropriate conditions for separation and divorce. But all such discussion should take place within the context of the call to be faithful to one another as God has been faithful to us.

The Eighth Commandment
Theft vs. Generosity

Obviously, a society cannot function without respect for people's stuff. If you take my stuff, then I won't have what I need and will likely take someone else's stuff, and then before you know it a society spins out of control. From a certain point of view, the prohibition against stealing is just an extention of the logic of the prohibition against murder beyond the body to one's possessions. Although in some sense I am my body, in another sense I have my body. It is my most prized possession, and to murder me is to steal my body from me. This is reflected in our language: "He took her life." The rest of my possessions are extensions of my body: the food by which I sustain my life, the shelter by which I protect my body, etc. To steal my possessions is an afront to my bodily life, my existence in its spatial dimension. Ask anyone who has had their house robbed and they will tell you that they feel violated. Respecting one another's space and stuff is crucial for healthy communal life.

But respecting other's stuff and protecting mine is not enough. In fact, if only the negative aspect of this command is obeyed, one can easily become a vicious person: withdrawn, miserly, and possessive. The positive import of the eighth commandment is not "the right to private property," but the call to generosity. When children grab at other toys, we do not simply tell them to respect other kid's stuff, but to share. Jesus put this call to generosity bluntly. The rich young man who had obeyed all the commandments including this one was told by Jesus to sell all he had and give it to the poor. It is good not to steal; it is better to give. In fact, generosity is the most potent means of preventing theft. If we do all we can to support those in need, then we help to remove the conditions under which theft becomes necessary. These conditions will never be fully remove until the great shalom of the coming kingdom, but that it no reason to be conduits of grace and peace in the meantime. Generosity is the concrete form of that grace and peace which we are called to give our neighbor.

The Ninth Commandment
Falsehood vs. Truthfulness

The civility sustained by the previous prohibitions is quickly undermined without a just public forum for settling disputes. Instead of reclaiming one's honor through revenge, one seeks the mediation of third parties. In the life and times of ancient Isreal, disputes were settled by the elders of the community who sat at the gates of the cities. Hence the prophetic call to "establish justice in the gate." Prophets, priest and kings also participated in the ancient justice system. But the whole process of third-party mediation is spoiled by those who bear false witness. Justice that is bought is not true justice. The original judicial context of the ninth commandment cannot be ignored. Certainly a wider prohibition on lying can be teased out, but the focus here is the strict prohibition of purgery. Those who purger themselves undermine justice, which is the very means by which a civil society is sustained. Falsehood destroys community.

The positive aspect of this commandment is initially quite obvious: tell the truth. Both in the courts and in life in general, bear true witness. Tell the story the way it happened. Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Be forthright with your friends and enemies. Let your yes be yes and your no, no. Cultivating the virtue of truthfulness and the art of speaking the truth in love enables all other communal virtues to flourish. This whole line of thinking is true and good, but this is one more twist that a Christian must introduce here. The language of "witness" in the New Testament and in Christian theology moves beyond the courtroom and becomes a rich metaphor for the word and deed of Chrisitan ministry. "You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth." For Christians, the call to bear true witness brings with it not only the general virtue of truthfulness but also the particular task of telling the gospel story, of sharing one's testimony to the work of God in Christ. Without abandoning one's communal duties and virtues, the ultimate fulfillment of the ninth commandment is evangelism.

The Tenth Commandment
Coventeousness vs. Contentment

With the tenth and final commandment we return to matters of the heart. The concrete forms of the command to love God in the first table of the law were preceded by the general command to have no other gods before him. The concrete forms of the command to love your neighbor in the second table of the law are completed by the general command not to covet. Just as unfaithfulness is the root of all failures to love the Lord your God with your all, so coveteousness is the root of all failures to love your neighbor as yourself. When love of self triumphs over love of neighbor, there you have coveteousness. We do not wish our neighbor well, but want what they have. And so we reach out to grab it, and thereby break one or more of the other commandments of the second table. The decalogue displays its deep wisdom in not only prohibiting violence, adultery, theft and falsehood, but also forbidding the root cause of these violations of community. The tenth commandment explicitly forbids the covetiousness that leads to adultery (by referencing the neighbor's wife) and theft (by referencing the neighbor's house, servants, animals, etc.). But we all no that much murder comes from envious rage and that much false witness is a result of bribery. And so nearly all the commandments of the second table have their root cause in coveteousness.

The focus on root causes is a theme in Jesus's own teaching and commentary on the law. In the so-called antitheses of the sermon on the mount, Jesus contrasts mere avoidance of sin with actively rooting out the causes of sin (Matthew 5). This trajectory within Jesus's teaching can be read as an re-interpretation of the whole law through the lens of the tenth commandmnet. It is not insignificant that the language of "neighbor" so dear to Jesus appears explicitly for the first time in the tenth commandment. For he we get to the heart of neighbor love. It is no coincidence that Jesus's taught more against worrying than any other topic, for contentment is the road to rooting out the destructive forces of coveteousness. The opposite of coveteousness is contentment: taking joy in what I do have rather than keeping up with the Joneses. Just as covetesounss leads to the destruction of community, so contentment leads to the flourishing of community. If I am content and not worried about tomorrow, then I will not only avoid theft but generously give of my resources to others. If I am content with my relationships, then I will not only avoid adultery but also be faithful to my spouse with joy. If I am content with my status, I will not only not be tempted by bribery to perjure myself but also be forthright about who I am and what I have. If I am content with my life, I will not only quell the rage that leads to murder but also begin to experience shalom in my own life. Contentment roots out vice that destroys community and implants virtue that sustains community. And so contentment is the heart of neighbor love.

"And the Greatest of these is Love."

We have chosen to end this series of catechetical reflections with the our love of God and neighbor as it comes to expression in our joyful obedience to the ten commandments. Such a choice is not meant to merely "tack on" some practical, ethical implications onto the work of theology. Rather, we have ended here because we this is the end for which God made us. God made us to love him and love one another. Love is where the whole story is headed. The postive picture of community painted in the ten commandments is a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The coming kingdom will be a time and place of worship, rest, honor, shalom, fellowship, grace, truth and joy. We are called to live in light of where we are going. The just shall live by faith: on the basis of what God has done for us in Christ. And we are justified in hope: praying for and waiting on the hope set before us. Between faith and hope is love, by which we have fellowship with God and each other. Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. For when the kingdom comes, faith will become sight and hope will be satisfied. But love remains. Love never fails. Begin to live a life of love, joyfully obeying the law of law and thereby fulfill all the law and prophets. Become now who you will be revealed to be in Christ when he returns. Love the Lord your God with your all and love your neighbor as yourself, and thereby become a foretaste and sign of the coming kingdom of God.

Any thoughts?
  • What do you think is the proper function of Israelite law within the Christian community?
  • What advantage is there to coordinating the two tables of the law to the twofold love commandment of Jesus? What disadvantages does this traditional procedure bring with it?
  • What sorts of things, people, and ideas function as gods today? What does it look like to turn from them?
  • To what extent does the prohibition against idolatry apply to the use of images in worship? Should there be no images at all? Or just certain ones? Or may they only be used in certain ways? What do you think?
  • What contemporary examples of co-opting the Lord's name come to mind?
  • How do you practice sabbath-keeping in your life? What suggestions do you have for relating worship and rest? What unique challenges to ministers have relating sabbath-keeping to worship responsibilities?
  • What is the relationship between the general laws of a civil society and the particular ethical guidelines of the Christian community?
  • What does it look like to bring honor to your family? In what sense does this entail obedience to parents?
  • How can we spread shalom today? What does that look like?
  • Do you agree that marital faithfulness is a central sign of divine faithfulness? Is this a sufficient theological reason for avoid adultery? What does this imply for divorce?
  • What are some concrete expressions of generosity and truthfulness that going the extra mile beyond avoidance of theft and lying?
  • Although they are matters of the heart, what concrete steps can one take to root out coveteousness and cultivate contentment?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Druchesis IX: The Lord's Prayer

[Note: This material will be divided over two weeks in the course I am preparing for this fall. But since I need to get done by the end of summer, I'm lumping my reflections on the Lord's Prayer into one big blog post. I will do the same for the Ten Commandments next week.]

Over the last eight weeks we have shared reflections on Christian faith as it comes to expression in the Apostles' Creed. This week we turn our attention to Christian hope as it comes to expression in the Lord's Prayer. This not only follows the traditional pattern of catechetical instruction, but also flows from the final words of the creed. The first and second article of the creed have a predominantly backward-looking orientation, as they narrate the mighty acts of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. The third article of the Creed, however, is consumed with the forward-looking works of the Spirit: the life of the church and the life of the world to come -- ecclesiology and eschatology. At the center of the life of the church is the practice of prayer. And the focus of prayer is the future: asking God to act for his ends and for our good. Prayer is hope in practice. So ecclesiology and eschatology pave the way for reflection on prayer.

Prayer is human words addressed to God. There are many kinds of prayer, each of which can take a multitude of forms. The two most basic types of prayer are praise and petition. There are other important types, such as confession, contemplation and lament. But these are two are the most basic. As we say in Sunday School, "Does anyone have any praises or prayer requests?"

The creed is proclamation: human words about God addressed to other humans. But the creed is also praise: human words addressed to God in gratitude for who he is and what he has done. Praise is saying "Thanks" to God. The creed is such a word of thanks and praise. It is a doxology to God. Thus we have been exploring prayer-as-praise all along.

Now we are turning to prayer-as-petition: making requests to God. Petition is saying "Please" to God. The shift from praise to petition brings with it a certain openness, a loosening of restraints. That is not to say the creed is oppressive, for it points to the source of true freedom. But the creed is concerned with ortho-doxy: right praise. We try our best to line up our words of praise to God with the story of God. Such "lining up" is a sign of faithfulness. Accordingly, praise is consumed with its object: God.

When we turn to petition, however, the door is flung wide open for our own subjective needs and desires. Petitionary prayer is open and free. It is far less concerned with rightness and faithfulness. It is far more concerned with honesty and forthrightness. In petitionary prayer, we express to God our hopes and dreams.

However, this does not mean we don't need guidance. For hope too is consumed with its object, though in a different way than faith. Genuine hope in God includes not only the desire for God to meet our needs but also the desire for God to achieve his own ends. By placing our hopes in God we make God our hope, thereby opening ourselves up to his hopes for us. How can we ensure that our petitionary prayer opens us up to God? There are no guarantees, but there is guidance. The Bible not only tells us the story of God, but also tells us how to pray. The Bible is full of stories, poems and teachings related to petitionary prayer. Although we can and should draw on all these, there is no better place to start our search for guidance than with Jesus's teaching on petitionary prayer. The central character in the story of God with us took the time to teach us how to pray. What better place to start than with the Lord's Prayer?

In the Lord's Prayer, we find Jesus's most concise yet comprehensive instructions on prayer. It is therefore worthy of our sustained attention, both to help us understand better what we mean when we recite it and to draw on its guidance as we craft our own words of prayer. The Lord's Prayer appears in both Matthew 6 and Luke 11. In our reflections, we will follow the traditional liturgical form that synthesizes the phrasing of each, though we will attend to matters of difference as needed. The traditional form is structured as follows: an invocation, six petitions, and a doxology. The six petitions can be easily divided into two halves: the first three concerning God ("your"), the second three concerning us ("our"). We will reflect on the invocation and the first three petitions this week, leaving the remaining petitions and the doxology for next week.

Our Father, who art in Heaven

Jesus teaches his disciples to address God as Father. We have already discussed the fatherhood of God, both as an analogy for describing God's character and an identification of the first person of the trinity. Although by the end of the creed we had learned to address our praise to the Father and the Son together with the Holy Spirit, in the Lord's Prayer we are taught to address the Father. This fact ought not be dismissed as sub-trinitarian. For, although we may prayerfully address each and all of the persons of the trinity, we address God primarily as Father. Why? Because the Father is the source of divinity, the one from whom the Son generates and Spirit proceeds, and thus the one from whom we ask for all that we need. Because the incarnate Son is the risen Lord Jesus who as a human being addresses his Father in prayer and invites us to join our voices with his. Because the Spirit is the love who eternally unites Father and Son in their giving and requesting and so in him we are freed to make our requests to God. So, in addressing God as Father, we are caught up in the fellowship of the triune God. In the Lord's Prayer, we address the God who is in heaven.

Hallowed be Your Name

The Lord's Prayer begins its petitions with the holiness of God. Because we address the true God, the God who is in heaven, we are humbled by his holiness: his otherness, his superiority over us and his difference from us. We are like Isaiah before the throne of the Holy One of Israel. We must be cleansed of our unclean lips so that we may hear and perhaps join the angels as they cry, "Holy, Holy, Holy." But the Lord's Prayer does not merely ask us to praise God for his holiness. It also calls us to petition the Lord to hallow his name, to keep and make his name holy. We are asking God to sanctify: to set apart himself as the creator and to set apart his creatures to worship him and him alone as creator. We are asking, "God, please keep being holy and ensure that your world treats you as holy."

Specifically, we are asking God to sanctify his name: the divine name revealed to Moses through the burning bush, the name that the Israelites were commanded not to take in vain, the name that took up residence in the Temple at Jerusalem, the name that God sought to protect through his prophets. God's name is his very own self as he relates to his people. It is God's mode of introduction, by which initiates a relationship with his people, through whom he spreads his reputation to the ends of the earth. So the first petition is not concerned with God's holiness as an abstract attribute, but rather with God's holiness as he enters into relations with his less-than-holy creatures. When we pray "Hallowed by your name," we are asking, "God, please protect your reputation." In so praying, we adopt God's own zeal for his name as our own driving passion. Negatively, that means we submit ourselves to discipline for the ways in which we have undermined his reputation. Positively, that means we begin share God's desire for the world: that it would know and hallow his name.

Your Kingdom Come

The second petition moves from God's name to God's kingdom. We ask, "Your kingdom come." Since it hits on some crucial themes, let's linger here a bit and ask three questions corresponding to the three terms in this petition.

First, whose kingdom are we asking to come? It's God's kingdom! Not the world's kingdom. Not our kingdom. Not some truncated divine kingdom of our imagination. Your kingdom come. It is because of our continuing desire to seek our own kingdoms that we must be taught by Jesus how to pray for God's kingdom. As you ask God for his kingdom to come, ask yourself: "In what ways do I try to seek my own kingdom? In what ways do I co-opt God's kingdom for my own purposes?" These are good diagnostic questions, both to root out distractions and to keep in mind that it God's kingdom, not ours or anyone else's, that we seek.

Secondly, what kind of kingdom are we asking to come? What is the kingdom? The text does not give us much here. We could treat the next line as parallel and thus an indicator of the meaning: God's kingdom is wherever God's will is done. Although not false, such a move too quickly conflates the petitions together, and doesn't yield all too much anyway. Thankfully, the kingdom of God is a big theme in the New Testament, so we are not left to our devices. It is the content of Jesus' preaching, his parables express what it is like, it is present in his person and work, and it is the driving expectation of his apostles and evangelists. We have already addressed the kingdom initially within the context of the eschatological portions of the creed. Here we need only to think through its significance for the life of prayer.

As we survey the Biblical material on the kingdom, certain themes emerge which ought to shape our prayer. Specifically, the kingdom consistently means God vindicating his people and taking the side of the oppressed. God's kingdom turns everything up-side-down. Yet even this consistent vindication of the underdogs of history is consistently full of surprises. How God's justice is achieved and the form it will take is hard to predict and impossible to control. The implication for praying the second petition is that we should consistently cry out to God on behalf of the needy of this world. That means making ourselves aware of who the underdogs are, and taking their side in prayer and therefore also in society. Yet at the same time we must remain open to the surprising means by which God might answer our prayer.

Lastly, we must ask when does the kingdom come? On the one hand, the idea of God's kingdom is spatial. It is the domain or reach of God's reign, where a fallen world operates in conformity with God's character and purpose. On the other hand, the idea of God's kingdom is temporal: it is something future, something which is to come. Thy kingdom come. We wait for it. We look for it. We anticipate it. It comes like a thief in the night, an unannounced apocalyptic event. Yet the timing of the kingdom is not only future. It is also spoken of as a present reality. The kingdom of God is among you. It is advancing. It is here. So the kingdom is both already here and not yet here.

We have already addressed this temporal tension before in relation to eschatology. All we need to do here is think through this already-but-not-yet dynamic of the kingdom from the perspective of prayer. On the one hand, we must not dismiss the kingdom as if it were a distant future reality that has no relevance for today. The kingdom is not just some big divine intervention that we should "leave to God" while we do our own thing now. If so, then we would not be instructed by Jesus to pray for it. We should be passionately looking for signs of the kingdom and waiting on the in-breaking the kingdom. In other words, we should earnestly pray that God's kingdom would come.

On the other hand, we must not try to control the kingdom as if it were already completely here in some manageable form. The kingdom is not the church, the world, the state, the family or another other member of creation as is. The kingdom is new creation, something beyond and above our creaturely control. So we must pray for it. We should be zealously looking through the present signs of the kingdom for the radical transformation to which they point. In other words, we should earnestly pray that God's kingdom would come.

Your Will Be Done

In the third petition, we pray for God's will. Now this is a place where we need guidance even more than with the previous petitions. Just as with God's kingdom, we are told by Jesus to prayer for God's will. Many of us may not struggle with the pretension of making God's kingdom into ours, but certainly all of us struggle with the temptation to bend God's will in service of our own.

But here a difficulty immediately emerges: Are we not also to petition God for our will? Are we not to make our needs and desires known to God? Does not God care about our will too?

In order to address this theological problem head on, let's employ a different interpretive strategy. With the second petition, we follow our common method of meditating on each word in order unpack its significance. With the third petition, let's use a comparative method: bringing in some related texts to see how they bear on the topic. Let's take two texts from the Gospels, each of which point in seemingly opposite directions:

In the all three synoptic gospels, Jesus prays in the garden before his arrest: "Not my will, but yours be done" (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:36; Lk 22:42). In the Gospel of John, Jesus instructions he disciples in his farewell discourse: "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it" and "the Father will give it to you" (John 14:14; 16:23). Here we have set alongside each other two trajectories, both of which appear near the climax of Jesus's mission. On the one hand, we have the resignation of human will to God's will, based on a contrast between divine and human willing. On the other hand, we have the response of God's will to human will, based on a promise of the divine willing to satisfy human willing. How might we reconcile these two trajectories that flow out of the simple prayer for God's will to be done?

Now both of these aspects must be retained within Christian prayer for God's will. On the one hand, the resignation trajectory rightly identifies the element of struggle in prayer. There is a distinct tradition in Scripture of wrestling with God. In fact, this is where the lament and complaint find their place in Christian prayer. Genuine prayer is a struggle. On the other hand, the response trajectory rightly points to the element of blessing in prayer. God really does love us and wishes to shower us with blessings. There is a distinct tradition in Scripture of God giving unmerited rewards to those who ask, seek and knock. Both struggle and blessing are a part of Christian prayer, and to ignore either is a mistake.

However, either trajectory followed exclusively and to the extreme results in a distortion of prayer. The resignation trajectory places God and humanity in a false conflict, portraying God as a capricious God who would never want to give his children what they want. The response trajectory places God at the service of humanity, portraying God as a great Santa Clause in the sky to whom we send our wish-list prayers. Both fail as an exclusive picture of prayer to the extent that both conceive of divine and human willing in competitive terms. Either God or humanity get there way.

The clue to how these trajectories come together in the third petition of the Lord's Prayer is the rhythmic little phrase Jesus adds: "on earth as it is in heaven." How is God's will done in heaven? Simply put, with joyful obedience. The saints in glory do the will of God both out of resignation to his desires and because they want to. Prayer in heaven is neither a demoralizing conflict nor as a presumptive demand, but a free partnership with God. Jesus teaches us to pray like that now! He calls us to pray like God's children. He calls us to pray like saints, for that is who we truly are. To be a saint, to be sanctified, is to not only do the will of God but to want to do the will of God. It is the alignment of our will with God's will. It is this kind of alignment that forms the context in which both the resignation trajectory and the response trajectory must be interpreted. Only a will that submits to God fully can say, not my will but yours be done. Only a will that shares God's desires can pray "in Jesus's name" with integrity. We are called to pray that God's will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Let us joyfully and obediently pray that joyful obedience would be found on God's earth.

Our Daily Bread

With the fourth petition we turn to the second half of the Lord's Prayer. The shift in focus is signaled by the pronouns: after three petitions using the second person singular ("your") referring to God, we encounter a series of petitions using the first person plural ("our" and "us") referring to us. Although we must learn to start our prayer with God purposes, Jesus also invites us to bring our own needs to God in prayer. The first of these needs is the most basic: our daily bread.

Bread is a basic human need. It may not be an exciting food, but it is the dietary staple of many societies, and certainly the near eastern agrarian society in which Jesus taught. The fact that we put things on it or put it with other things just shows how basic it is. Bread goes with everything. Bread is life.

Now we shouldn't obsess to much about bread in particular. It is not as though those who live in agricultural systems without bread as its basic component are left out of this prayer. For, as we all assume without thinking much about it, "bread" is used her to figuratively refer to all sustenance. Bread is a synecdoche for food. Jesus teaches us to ask God for food. Without food, we cannot live. We are asking God for our most fundamental concern: that we would live. We not only thank God for every breath we take, but ask God to keep giving us breath by providing us with the sustenance of survival. To petition for bread is to petition for life. To ask for bread is to ask for freedom from death.

It is therefore not inconsequential that Jesus begins with bread. When it comes to our needs, the most fundamental need is life. All the remaining requests presuppose that we are alive. As we turn to the remaining requests, we move on up Maslov's hierarchy of needs. If we don't get our life-bread, the rest doesn't really apply. Dead people don't ask for forgiveness. Dead people don't ask for deliverance. Surely God can forgive and deliver the dead. But they are not in a position to ask him. So life is humanity's bottom line, and so bread is our first petition.

Before turning to those remaining petitions, we should comment on the adjective "daily" that is attached to the bread for which we ask. Now the Greek word in the original is notoriously difficult to translate. It appears to have been coined by early Christian preachers, perhaps to translate into Greek an Aramaic phrase that went back to Jesus and the early Christian community in Palestine. "Daily" is an appropriate translation, but it obscures the sense of sufficiency implied by the term. We are taught to ask for enough bread: not too little so as to starve, but not too much so as to spoil. It could even be translated "tomorrow," as in "give us today enough bread for tomorrow," which is of course exactly how the daily labor cycle in an agrarian society works. That's the full sense of daily bread.

This theme of just-enough-bread not only reinforces the "means of survival" meaning of the fourth petition sketched above, but also implies an allusion to the manna given in the desert to the people Israel. A strange bread-like substance fell on the wanderers each day, but they were told to only take enough for one day or it would spoil. In other words, they were taught to take only their daily bread. Whether this connection was intended by Jesus, the early Christian preachers, and/or the Gospel-writers is difficult to decide. But there is a long Christian tradition of allegorical interpretation that seeks to make these sorts of connections in Scripture. Contrary to what some suggest, allegory is not just a license to interpret however one desires, though there were certainly abuses in this direction. The point of allegory is to show for the deep unity of Scripture and especially the unity of the Old and New Testaments. The search for allegorical connections does not replace the literal sense, but draws on it to highlight pervasive themes in Scripture.

In the case of the fourth petition, the literal (ad litteratum means "to the letter") sense of bread is food. The allegorical sense is the bread of heaven, a theme which ties together the manna of the Old Testament and Jesus as the bread of life. The fathers of late antiquity added two further "spiritual" senses: the tropological and the anagogical. The tropological sense is the moral sense, the personal virtues called forth from the reader by the text. The tropological sense of bread is the word of God, for man does not live by bread alone. The anagogical sense is the eschatological sense, the ultimate future hope revealed by the text. The tropological sense of bread is the great marriage feast of the Lamb, of which a sign and foretaste comes in the bread and cup of the Lord's Supper.

And so with the bread of the fourth petition we can see exemplified the practice of the "fourfold sense" of Scripture. Now you may or may not be in to this sort of interpretive endeavor. However, an initiation into the Christian tradition without it would pass over a deeply influential practice of the church. This is not to say there are not good reasons to question its value. In the case of the fourth petition, such spiritualizing can easily forget the crucial literal sense of praying for our basic needs and so ignore the many hungry stomachs of this world on whose behalf we must pray. We are taught to pray for our daily bread, not just my daily bread. Perhaps the spiritual senses of Scripture bring a text like this to life for you, but that does mitigate the fact that there are many for whom the literal sense of this petition is a life-or-death request. So even as we explore the rich world of allegorical interpretation, we must never forget the basic needs of ourselves and our near and far neighbors.

Forgive us our Debts

After addressing the most pressing need for today, the Lord's Prayer turns one of the more complex needs of daily life: debt. In today's borrowing and lending economy, we know a lot about debt. And when things goes wrong, we know how oppressive the chains of debt can be. However, most modern societies no longer have debtor's prisons and indentured servitude. So, even though we understand difficulties of debt, it is not nearly a big of a threat as it has been historically. This is important to remember, because Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray for the very concrete complexities of debt. Is there a spiritual sense to this petition? Absolutely. Our debt to God is the one absolute debt we owe. But that does not rule out our shared concern over the relative debts we owe one another. As can be seen from Jesus's numerous teachings on money, debt concerned him. It got to him. And so he taught his disciples to take up that concern and make it theirs.

Of course, all this talk of debts may be throwing some of you off a bit. Isn't it trespasses? Well, that is the language of the traditional Anglican prayer book, and so has become familiar to many English-speaking Christians. But it does not have strong support in the original Lord's Prayer texts, so it is probably better to go with debts. The advantage of debt-language is its wider meaning. The fifth petition is not concerned narrowly with the moral category of trespasses, but includes the concern for financial woes. Furthermore, as we expand to the spiritual sense of debts, we are being taught to ask for forgiveness not only for how we have wronged God and one another but also for what we owe God and one another. Debt-language has a much wider application and so is relevant to all of us, all the time.

What do we owe God? Everything. God the Father Almighty is the creator of heaven and earth. That means everything. So we have God to thank for everything we have, including our own selves. And we have God to ask for everything that we will have. In other words, we owe God everything. In the fifth petition, we come before our heavenly Father and ask, "Please, don't make me pay back so great a debt. I don't have the resources. Let this one slide. Tear up the I.O.U. Forgive us our debts."

Although debt language is wider than the moral category of trespasses, it does not exclude but includes issues of morality. The New Testament and the Christian tradition mix financial and moral metaphors all the time. Just think of phrases like "debt of sin" or concepts such as "imputed righteousness." So in the fifth petition, Jesus teaches us to ask God to cancel the debt of sin we owe to him and one another. And Jesus himself has answered this prayer in his life and death, and as the risen Lord speaks the word of forgiveness to us through his Spirit. In light of this good news, the Christian prays that simply prayer, "Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner" and joins the church in praying, "Forgive us our debts."

Yet the fifth petition does not end there. It adds a subordinate clause signaled by the little word "as." Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debts. This as-clause adds a caveat to the request for forgiveness. The meaning of the word "as" is ambiguous here. Is it a condition: forgive us if we forgive others? Or is it a consequence: forgive us so that we can forgive others? Although one can debate the grammar of the text, I do not think we are forced to choose between the two theologically. The point is the correspondence between God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. The two actions go together. Clearly an ontological priority must be given to the former: God's forgiveness is initiated eternally by his grace and executed in Christ while we were still sinners. But the chronological relation in our own experience is not predictable. Some of us may need to learn to forgive others in order to accept that we too are forgiven by God, while others of us may need to be assured of God's forgiveness before we can be freed to forgive others. The point in either case is that the heart of Christian ethics is that we forgive us others as God forgave us (Col 3:13; Eph 4:23). As the parable of the unmerciful servant illustrates, God's forgiveness is a great unmerited gift to us, which both permits and demands that we forgive the debts of others (Matt 28:21-35). The bumper sticker gets it half-right: "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." It's just missing the as-clause: "as we forgive others." Yes, Christians aren't perfect: they might cut you off. But Christians are called to live a life worthy of the gospel: when you cut them off, they must not hold it against you. Christians are not just forgiven, but also forgiving, for they are the ones who pray "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

Deliver us from the Evil One

Whereas the fifth petition asks for freedom from past obligations of debt, the sixth and final petition asks for freedom from future encounters with the devil. Here the hope-character of the Lord's Prayer returns in full force -- not in the cosmic terms of the coming kingdom of God, but in the personal terms of temptation and deliverance. Jesus teaches us to ask God to please keep us from temptation and deliver us from the tempter.

Now there are a couple of things to notice here. First of all, I have chosen to treat the last two clauses as one petition and not two. Although I am not alone in this, their is no consensus in the catechetical tradition on this matter. Most famously, Luther distinguished these two petitions, so that all tolled there are seven petitions in his exposition of the Lord's Prayer. The reason of have chosen to combine them is not to de-emphasize them or just to have an even number. Rather, it is because the two go so naturally together as contrasting aspects of one request for salvation, signaled by the conjunction "but." The first aspect is preventative: we ask our heavenly father to prevent temptation. Lord, do not lead us into temptation. The second aspects is interventionist: we ask our heavenly father to intervene on our behalf when we do face temptation. Lord, do deliver us from the evil one. Do not lead; but rather, deliver. The two together form one prayer: "Lord, save us!"

The second thing to notice is that from which we are delivered: not evil, but the evil one. The traditional liturgical form of the Lord's Prayer speaks in the abstract terms of "evil." Although a possible translation, the original Matthean text speaks of evil in personal terms: the evil one. The reason to go with the more personal language is to counter the tendency in our time to speak too abstractly and therefore vaguely of evil. Now there are good reasons to not speak in personal terms about evil. Evil is not personal in the same way you and I are, and certainly not in the way that God is personal. Evil is the anti-thesis of true personhood. The evil one is a parody of God's triune personhood, seeking power in a self-aggrandizing rather than self-giving way. The evil one's "personality" is self-enclosed and destructive and therefore falls short of the true personhood of God and the human personhood to which we are called. Evil is the privation of good -- its absence or twisting. And so the evil one is the privation of personhood.

But it is precisely as a parody of the triune God that we can and must speak of evil in personal terms. Evil is not only the sum total of moral wrongness nor even the powerful forces behind all evils, but at bottom is the accuser, the biblical sah-tan, the one who makes the case against us, the one who laughs at us in our misfortune and failure, the one over whom God has triumphed in Jesus Christ. Despite the potential embarrassment and abuse of such "mythological" language, Christians speak of evil in personal terms. When we cry out to God for deliverance, we ask to be delivered from the evil one -- the devil, satan, beelzebub and his demons. Christians take the evil one seriously, precisely because God has taken him seriously -- so seriously that he has faced him off in person and defeated him on his own turf. In light of the death-blow already struck against the evil one in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we pray with confidence and hope to God the Father: deliver us from the evil one!

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Having asked God to feed us, forgive us, and deliver us, the Lord's Prayer turns its attention back on God. The pronouns shift back from "our" to "your," yet not to make one last petition on God's behalf but to speak a word of praise, a doxology. Now it is worth noting that this doxology is not in the original versions of the Lord's Prayer found in the gospels. It did, however, make its way into the church's liturgical use of the prayer very early, as evidenced by its inclusion in the Didache's version of the Lord's Prayer. Although it is not original, it is an unobtrusive addition that employs typical early Christian doxological language and fits the themes of the prayer quite well. It therefore serves as a reminder of where our focus ought to be: on God. By praising God for his kingdom we remind ourselves whose kingdom it is we seek. By acknowledging God's power we remind ourselves to submit to his will. By giving God the glory we remind ourselves to hallow his name. So the emphasis here is not on the three terms but on the pronoun. Next time you pray the Lord's Prayer whether in public or private, try placing the accent on "thine" or "your," just as a reminder of who it is to whom we prayer and in whom we place our hopes. "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."

Any thoughts?

  • Did you follow the transition from faith as expressed in the Apostles' Creed to hope as expressed in the Lord's Prayer? Or were the connections made the beginning of this lecture obscure to you?
  • How do you balance praise and petition in your own prayer life? Is "balance" even a value here? What other types of prayer are there, and how do they relate to these two basic types?
  • What is the best use of Scriptural guidance for prayer? Should we pray the very words of Scripture? Do they only provide principles for prayer? How do you draw on Scripture in your prayer life?
  • Are you more inclined towards prepared prayers or extemporaneous prayer? Can arguments be made for one or the other? Or is it just a matter of preference?
  • Do you consider it appropriate to locate the Lord's Prayer within a trinitarian context as I have done? What benefits does this bring? What drawbacks does it have?
  • What does it look like to hallow God's name?
  • Does our prayer hasten this kingdom's coming? Can we do anything for the kingdom? Do we just ask and wait? Do we even need to ask? What role do we play in the coming of the kingdom?
  • How do you balance praying for your own will and wrestling with God over his? Do find yourself leaning one way or the other? What steps can blessing-seekers take to become God-wrestlers, and vice-versa? In what ways can we learn to pray both joyfully and obediently?
  • What would happen if we not only thanked God for our meals but also asked God for our meals? Would it change the way we look at food?
  • What are the benefits of allegorical interpretation? What are the costs?
  • What sorts of things can be included under the umbrella of "debt?" Is it helpful to use this wider category? Is something lost by abandoning the more strictly moral category of "trespasses?"
  • Do you agree that the last two lines of the Lord's Prayer are really one petition? Can you make a case why or why not? What difference does it make for the interpretation of that portion of the prayer?
  • Ought we to speak of evil in personal terms? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Druchesis VIII: The Kingdom

Introduction: The Kingdom of God

And now we come to the end. Not the end of our series, since we will next discuss the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments in accordance with the catechetical tradition. And not the end of the story, for the good news of the gospel is that the end is just the beginning. Rather, we come to the end of God: the end for which God created the world. At the conclusion of the creed we speak of the fulfillment of God's purposes, God's "end" in the teleological sense of the word. And so we come to eschatology: the doctrine of last things.

The term "eschatology" can be a bit misleading, for talk of "last things" seems to locate these things as merely the last in series of similar things. But nothing could be further from the truth, for these things are not "things" like other things that just happen to come last. These things are final consummation of God's own purposes, the culmination of creation and redemption. These things are the fullness of all things, a fullness initiated and achieved and revealed by God himself. And so eschatology does not engage in "futurology," wherein we predict facts about the future in order to generate beliefs akin to the beliefs so far expresses in the creed. Rather, eschatology is theology, a form of God-talk. Specifically, it is theological teleology: reflection on God's own purposes revealed in Jesus Christ and promised in the Holy Spirit. So it does not speak last things as much as it speaks of the Last One: God himself from the perspective of his final purposes.

The category around which we can best organize reflection on God's purposes is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a (if not the) pervasive theme in Scripture. It is the expectation of Israel, the content of Jesus's preaching and activity, and the driving hope of the Christian community. Kingdom-language has a comprehensiveness to it that avoids exclusively futuristic talk of last things. Kingdom-language teaches us to think eschatologically not only about eschatology itself but also about all theological topics -- seeing all things from the perspective of God's coming reign. In fact, we have been thinking this way all along in this series, for we have spoken of faith in terms of the story of God with us. God's story is not a pointless meandering adventure but a purposeful narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The mission of God with us has a purpose. The Father sends his Son in the power of the Spirit in order that all things might be reconciled to him and in him. So missional narrative theology, at least of the sort exemplified in this series, is eschatological theology. It is theological thinking that takes its bearings from God's kingdom purposes.

So, if the kingdom is the key to theology in general and eschatology in particular, what is it? What is the kingdom of God? Well, there are a lot of ways to define the kingdom of God: it is God's realm, God's effective presence, God's people in submission to him, God's own heavenly space, etc. Although strict definitions are seldom helpful in crucial theological matters, a strict definition of God's kingdom is particular difficult to come by. Why? Because God's kingdom is by definition undefinable. As Jesus's kingdom parables attest, God's kingdom is unpredictable. It is full of surprises. This is precisely because it is God's kingdom: the fulfillment of his work of creation and redemption and therefore the surplus beyond what is inherent in the created order. The kingdom is the transcendent purpose of God for his world. And so it exceeds expectations and detailed descriptions. That is why a strict definition is not the way to go.

Does this mean we have nothing to say about the kingdom? Certainly not! We can still point to the kingdom. We can pick it out. How? Well, instead of a strict definition of what the kingdom is, we can begin to understand the kingdom in terms of what it is not. Now I don't mean just saying a bunch of stuff it isn't. Saying the kingdom of God is not a banana, though accurate, doesn't reveal much. Rather, I am suggesting that we gesture at the kingdom by speaking of in terms of its relations. You may recall this is how we speak of the trinitarian persons: they are identified by their opposing relations. An analogous procedure may be helpful here. In the case of the kingdom, we pick it out by its relation to the church and to the world.

On the one hand, the kingdom is not the church. The kingdom cannot be equated with the church. The church seeks to live in light of the kingdom, but it is not itself God's kingdom. The kingdom is more than the church: God has more in store for the world than it merely joining the church. The kingdom cannot be sacralized. We often forget this, thinking that building the church simply is building the kingdom. But it is never that simple. Remember Alfred Loisy's famous quote from last week : "Jesus preached the kingdom, but the church came instead." We already pointed out one of the layers of irony in this quote. Another of those layers is the blunt reminder for the church to preach not itself but the kingdom of God. In other words, the kingdom is not the church.

On the other hand, the kingdom is not the world. The kingdom cannot be equated with the world as it is, or even the best parts of the world. The world is waiting for the in-breaking of God's kingdom, and there are certainly signs of the kingdom popping up in the world outside the walls of the church. But the kingdom is more than the world: God has more in store for the world than simply sustaining its best features. God's kingdom will transform this world, and so transcends this world. The kingdom cannot be secularized. Even as the church becomes more missional by learning to look beyond its own institutional life for the work of God in this world, it must not become so enamored with the world so as to think that the kingdom is the world. God's hope for the world surpasses even the world's own best hopes. The kingdom is not the world.

Having picked out God's kingdom in relation to the church and the world, we can begin to fill out our picture of God's kingdom. We will draw our content from the promises of God confirmed by and revealed in the resurrection of Jesus. We will structure this content around the language of the classic creeds: the kingdom is "the life of the world to come," "the resurrection of the body," and "the life everlasting." In other words, the kingdom of God is (1) New Creation, (2) Resurrection, and (3) Eternal Life.

(1) New Creation

The kingdom of God is the re-creation of the world. It is thus analogous to the creative work of God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. The kingdom of God is the new heavens and the new earth. It is new creation. Now the language of new creation is unfortunately not found in the Apostles' Creed, but it is implied in the last line of the Nicene Creed: "the life of the world to come." The reference to "world" (Greek: cosmos) gives us a sense of the big picture. We begin with this cosmic dimension in order to place our talk of personal destiny in its proper context. Christian hope is not just about individual life-after-death. Although it is included within eschatology, my individual destiny is not the whole story or even the central point. When personal hope is made the central point, eschatology all too easily becomes escapism. Rather, our personal hope fits within the larger story of God. The kingdom of God is the renewal of all things, the marriage of heaven and earth, the fulfillment of God's creative purposes. The kingdom of God does not replace but transforms God's good creation. This promise of transformation is revealed by Jesus, whose creatureliness is affirmed in his resurrection from the dead. And so here at the end we confirm what we have said from the beginning: that creation and redemption are positively related. Redemption is the fulfillment of creation. Redemption is new creation.

By affirming the positive relationship between creation and redemption, we run immediately into a problem. How does this transformation occur? Is it a gradual sort of thing, or does it happen all at once? Or, to put the question in eschatological terms, when does this transformation occur? Has it already begun, or is it still to come? There is certainly Scriptural evidence in favor of both sides. The kingdom comes like a thief in the knight, yet it also works like yeast in the dough. The kingdom is to come, yet is it already advancing violently.

What shall we do with this temporal tension in the New Testament? Some have tried to resolve it one way or the other. On one end of the spectrum, Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer famously spoke of a thoroughgoing eschatology, found especially in the teachings of the historical Jesus. This meant that the kingdom was for Jesus absolutely future, so that any talk of a present kingdom in the New Testament were later developments designed to deal with the disappointment surrounding Jesus's death and/or his delay in returning. Though Schweitzer considered this feature problematic, some theologians (such as Rudolf Bultmann and the early Karl Barth) attempted to make use of this perspective in their theology. The emphasis here is on the discontinuity between creation and redemption: God will redeem creation by his own radically new act. The advantage here is the critical limit set on all idolatrous claims to build the kingdom today. The disadvantage is that this view tends to empty history of its significance.

On the other end of the spectrum, C. H. Dodd famously spoke of a realized eschatology, in which the kingdom has already come. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, all things are fulfilled, including Jesus's own prophetic predictions. All that is left is the proclamation and expansion of this kingdom. Such an approach is often adopted by theologians to support either a high view of the church or a secularized kingdom-building work in the world. The emphasis is on the continuity between creation and redemption: God is redeeming creation in and through his creatures. The advantage here is the seriousness with which it takes the presence of the kingdom in Jesus Christ the King. The disadvantage is the temptation to co-opt the kingdom for our own ends, as well as the deeply problematic fact that the world remains quite rebellious against God's reign.

An attempt at mediation within this old debate was supplied by Oscar Cullmann. He recommended the notion of an inaugurated eschatology. The kingdom has already but not yet come. It has already burst onto the scene in Jesus Christ, the turning point of history. And yet it awaits its final consummation at the end of all things. Although seemingly obvious, this view provides a conceptuality for keeping alive the temporal tension of Scripture.

This tension is expressed profoundly in Jesus' preaching: "The Kingdom of God is at hand." What does "at hand" mean? Does it mean it's here? Or does it mean it is coming? The answer is, "Yes." It's both here and still to come. This tension is held together in the very person of Jesus Christ, who as the incarnate Son of God fully embodies God's kingdom and invites his human brothers and sisters to participate in his kingdom, an incorporation which awaits its final consummation at the resurrection of the dead.

However, it is worth noting that merely saying "both/and" will not do as a theological procedure. One must think carefully about how to relate both aspects, in this case the presence and the future of the coming kingdom of God, and within that temporal dynamic the continuity and discontinuity between creation and redemption. One should keep alive this Scriptural tension, but do so in a way that upholds the values found in the more extreme positions identified above. Extreme positions uncover deep insights that must be taken on board by any worthwhile mediating position. That's good advice in general, and is particularly important when discussing God's kingdom, for the kingdom is radically new and yet precisely as new it is the very fulfillment of God's creation. Nothing holds this tension of discontinuity and continuity together better than the promise of resurrection, to which we now turn.

(2) Resurrection

The kingdom of God is the resurrection of the dead. It is thus analogous to the Father's raising of his son Jesus from the dead. Easter is the inauguration of the kingdom. In the bodily resurrection of Jesus we have a clear instance both of the surpassing of creation's own possibilities and God's re-affirmation of creation. In the resurrection of Jesus, God confirms his promise to not give up on his creation by giving to it something brand new. And so the continuity and discontinuity of creation and redemption are held together in Christ.

However, the risen Christ is more than an instance of our future hope. He is its basis. Only on the basis of the revelation of the crucified Jesus as the risen Lord do we have hope for our own resurrection from the dead. Following Paul's imagery: the risen Christ is the first-fruits, of which the resurrection of the dead is the harvest. Or, to follow another of Paul's image-sets: Jesus Christ is the firstborn from the dead, so many other sons and daughters will be revealed at the coming of God's kingdom. The bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead fills Christian eschatology with a specific content and secure hope, which far exceed any vague wish for life-after-death.

In fact, as N. T. Wright succinctly puts it, Christian hope in resurrection is decidedly not about life after death, but rather about life after life-after-death. We know this is so because Jesus did not simply "die and go to heaven," but was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead. He then ascended into heaven and has promised to return from there -- not to take us to heaven, but to bring heaven to earth. The king will bring the fullness of his kingdom here. The New Jerusalem will descend to earth, and we will reign with Christ forever. In order to be in such eternal fellowship with the risen son, human beings will be given new, resurrected bodies. These bodies will be different than the ones we are currently used to (discontinuity), yet these bodies will still be bodies (continuity). God in Christ has not given up on space, time and matter. God is so firmly pro-creation that he will not even leave it to its own "natural" end in decay and death. God puts death to death in the death of Christ, so that in him we might be raised from the dead.

All this talk of a future resurrection from the dead raises the question of an intermediate state. What happens in the meantime, between our death and resurrection? Where do we go when we die? This is the place where the immortality of the soul fits in. The belief that humans have a non-material identifying substance called a "soul" that survives one's natural death is not the same as belief in the resurrection of the dead. You can't turn "resurrection" into a code-word for the immorality of the soul. Immortality of the soul is not the centerpiece of Christian hope; resurrection of the body is.

However, theories about the souls can be helpful for imagining the intermediate state between death and resurrection. Such theories are not required by Christian faith, but neither are they strictly ruled out by it. Some suggest that resurrection faith is incompatible with belief in immortality, often in justifiable opposition to the bad habit in the Christian tradition of overplaying immortality at the expense of resurrection. But abuse does not bar use. Many of the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition have displayed the compatibility of resurrection and immortality. The key is to relentlessly subordinate all theoretical talk of an immortal soul to the sure faith in the resurrection of the dead. The idea of the immortality of the soul is only a theory to explain the intermediate state, and that's all it is. As such, immortality is a function of resurrection.

Two implications follow from this. First, immortality is not a natural attribute of the soul. Only God is immortal. Humans may have been created for immortality, but they were not created with immortality. Human immortality is a gift from God, and it ultimately comes in the form of a renewed bodily life at the resurrection. Any "immortality" prior to the resurrection is a temporary holding pattern, the preservation of our identity by God.

Second, whatever the soul is, it must not be thought of in abstraction from the body. The "soul" is simply a way of gesturing at the difference between a living body and a corpse. Soul means life. So we must not think of the intermediate state in terms of souls running around and doing things, as if our story just keeps on rolling. No, our life is hid with Christ in God. Whether God preserves our life-history only in his mind or also by means of a temporary form of bodily existence, we don't really know. The point is that an immortal soul awaiting the resurrection of the dead is not a ghost or an angel who might visit earth or meddle in its affairs. The human person, however preserved by God, awaits the breath of new life into a new bodily existence on the day of the Lord's return. And with the mention of the breath of new life, we come to our final point.

(3) Eternal Life

The kingdom of God is the giving of eternal life. It is thus analogous to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit onto the church at Pentecost. Actually, in light of the forward-looking orientation of the Spirit's work, the analogy runs the other way: the outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples is analogous to the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh. The indwelling of the Spirit is the foretaste and foreshadowing of the Spirit's gift of everlasting life to those risen in Christ. As Paul puts it, the Spirit is the down-payment of things to come. The Spirit fills and guides us now, but he will be the driving principle of our lives in the kingdom. So the resurrection of our bodies will not be just one last miracle to display the omnipotence of God, but is the indispensable means to the end of enjoying eternal fellowship with the risen Christ.

This living fellowship with Christ by the Spirit marks the completion of our sanctification. According to the various Christian traditions, this completion is referred to as glorification, the beatific vision, or deification. Although each term understands eternal life differently, all of them contain the crucial element of seeing. The crucial distinction between now and then is the means by which we are sanctified: it is no longer by faith, but by sight. "We shall be like him because we shall see him as he truly is" (1 Jn 3:2). In the kingdom we will share in God's eternal life because Jesus will be revealed. It is thus no coincidence that the last book of the Bible is called Revelation, for it is by revelation that God achieves the completion of his work in us.

But does completion mean conclusion? Does eternal life mean the story is simply over? Is the coming kingdom a denouement that just goes on and on and on? In other words, will heaven be boring? This is a common question, and one can see why it arises. But it betrays a misunderstanding both of God's future and ours. On the one hand, an eternity spent worshipping God will not be boring because of the inexhaustible riches of God's triune life. Maybe church is boring, but God isn't. God will never run out of aspects of his identity and character to reveal to us in spirit and in truth. On the other hand, worship in the kingdom will be expressed not only in our absolute love of God but also in our relative love of one another. The twofold love command will still apply in the kingdom, the only difference is that it will always be obeyed. So in the kingdom we are not envoloped back into God but rather we have fellowship with God in his outward movement among his people. As the vision of both Ezekiel and John attest, the river in the New Jerusalem flows out of the city. The only difference is that in John's New Jerusalem, the river does not flow out of the temple for there is no temple. "I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Rev 21:22). There is no separate place for worship because in the kingdom we will worship God as we walk outward with him toward our fellow creatures. It is for this kingdom that we pray, "Come, Lord Jesus. Come."

Any thoughts?
  • Do you agree that the kingdom of God is the best category around which to organize eschatological reflection? Why or why not?
  • Is it a good thing to distinguish the kingdom from the church and from the world? What happens when the kingdom is too closely identified with either?
  • When thinking about God's new creation, do you tend to emphasize discontinuity or continuity? Do you have a reason for your tendency? How can these best be held together without making recourse to a simplistic both/and appeal?
  • If Jesus is the basis of our future hope, what other implications does his resurection have for eschatological reflection?
  • Do Christians tend to conflate resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul? What happens when we do this? Do we have to chose between them? Or are they compatible, perhaps in the way I have sketched or in some other way?
  • Have you every asked or been asked to question, "Will heaven be boring?" How have you answered this question? How will you answer this question in the future?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Druchesis VII: The Church

Introduction: The Church as an Object of Belief?

And now we come to the church. The creed has been speaking of the identity and activity of God the Father, his son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and then all of the sudden turns its attention to us. Of course, the church has been the elephant in the room all along, for it is the church who believes, promulgating creeds and developing doctrines in order to regulate its witness in the world and worship of the triune God. The church is the believing subject of the creed. That is why it is so odd to turn our attention to the church, because now we are treating the church an object of belief: I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. Is the church really an object belief alongside the triune God?

The answer to this question as stated is no. The church is not an object of belief in the same way as God is. Here is a good place to recall the three senses of faith outlined in the first week of this series. In terms of faith as trust, we do not put our trust in the church. We do not cling to the church in life and death. Such a posture is reserved for God and God alone. Trusting in the church alongside God is an act of idolatry.

In terms of faith as fidelity, however, we are called to be faithful to the church. The church is precisely the context in which we embody our fidelity to God. But even here there is a distinction, for our faithfulness to the church is a means, albeit a necessary one, toward the end of faithfulness to God. So the church is an object of faithfulness, not alongside but along the way to God.

In terms of faith as belief, assenting to propositions, we certainly do believe certain things about the church. The creed attaches adjectives to the church, which implies we believe these adjectives aptly describe the church. But such beliefs do not have the same status or significance as our beliefs about God. The church is not the central character in the story; God is. This does not mean the church is dispensable. It just means the church is not the same sort of thing as God is. The point is that beliefs about the church do not supply the center of gravity around which all other beliefs are organized. Quite the opposite is true. Beliefs about the triune God condition beliefs about the church.

This broader theological context is crucial not only to block ecclesial arrogance but also to properly uphold the crucial place of the church in the story of God. Too often the church is dismissed as an unnecessary appendage to the gospel. You have heard it said, "I'm spiritual, not religious." Perhaps you have said it yourself. Placing the church in its broader theological context, "putting the church in its place" so to speak, is the best response to this endemic problem. We've been doing this all along in this series, but let's make the connections explicit with three brief statements.

(1) The Father elects the church. The God of the Bible is a God who chooses a people. This doesn't mean God doesn't love all people. But God spreads his universal love through particular communities. God is the God of history and therefore works in and through particularity. This does not cease with Christ, but is intensified in him and then bursts out through the church whom he sends out into the world. Which brings us to the second point

(2) The Son institutes the church. Alfred Loisy once said, "Jesus preached the kingdom, but the church came instead." Now he meant that with several layers of irony, but at least one level the proper response is, "That's exactly what Jesus wanted!" Jesus preached the kingdom and he sent his disciples preach that same kingdom, of which he is the king. The church was not an accident but at the heart of Jesus's own mission. Nothing speaks more to his intention to establish a community than the institution of the Lord's Supper, giving his disciples a concrete practice to continue after his death and resurrection. The many promises giving to the community so gathered points to Jesus's ecclesial intentions. The mention of promise brings us to our last point.

(3) The Spirit constitutes the church. Jesus promised that the Father would send another comforter, who would be poured out on his disciples to equip them for mission. At Pentecost, the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus who had ascended to the right hand of the Father descended upon his disciples. In so doing, the Spirit constituted the church. The church has its being in its act of mission. The church's mission is not a bonus activity appended to its self-enclosed communal being. The church exists as the sent community. So the outpouring of the Spirit is not reserved for a special functions or functionaries of the church, but constitutes the church as the community sent for the sake of the world.

Within this context and under these conditions, we can and should join our voice with the church in proclaiming our beliefs about the church. Theological reflection on these beliefs (called "ecclesiology") traditionally takes its cue from the adjectives attached to the church in the creed. Let's follow the tradition's lead and organize our discussion of the church around the so-called "Notes of the Church."

The Notes of the Church

The "notes" of the church are those attributes that the creed predicates of the church. The Apostles' Creed declares two such notes, "I believe in the Holy Catholic church." The Nicene-Constinopolitan Creed expands this to four: "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." Now the problem we immediate run into is that these notes are often regarded as criteria for finding the true church. They function a checklist for church shopping. But so treating the notes of the church sets one up for disappointment. What church has all these notes? What local church is truly catholic? What denomination is truly one? What tradition is thoroughly apostolic? What community is genuinely holy?

Now there are lots of clever ways of construing these notes to avoid disappointment. For instance, one might say that these are attributes of the invisible church. Now the notion of the invisible church is a necessary one. The true church of Jesus Christ cannot be strictly equated with one or many visible institutions. On the one hand, the church is less than visible church, for ecclesial institutions are mixed bodies, full of those who are not genuine Christians. On the other hand, the church is more than the visible church, for there are genuine disciples of Christ who have been estranged from the institutional church. So there is a place for talk of the "invisible" church.

But we must be very careful here, because such invisibility can be an escape for the very concrete calling to which the church is called. The invisibility of the church can be used to justify schismatic departure from the church or apathetic maintenance of the church's failed institutions. After acknowledging the theological function of the invisible church, we should turn our attention solely to the visible church. In what sense to the notes of the church apply to the visible Christian community?

Since we have already proposed that the Spirit-constituted church has her being in her act of mission, the notes cannot be regarded as static attributes of the church. They cannot describe the being of the church abstracted from here forward-moving activity in the power of the Spirit. The notes do not point up to an invisible church, nor do they point in to self-enclosed well-ordered community, nor do they even point back to some pristine church of the apostles. The notes point forward and outward to the church's mission for the sake of the world in light of the coming kingdom of God. Such a missional account of the church requires that we turn the Nicene notes of the church on their head, beginning with the last one first.

The church is apostolic. Apostolicity should be understood according to its root meaning as “sent-ness" (the Greek word apostello means "to send"). The point is neither apostolic teaching (Protestant) or apostolic succession (Catholic), but the continuity of the apostolic mission to the nations. The true church is the one that is being sent into the world.

The church is catholic. The church is sent to the whole world (kata holos means "according to the whole"). So catholicity should be understood in terms of the global reach of the church. Catholicity should not be seen as some sort of achieved consensus, but rather a sought-after scope. The true church is the church that is spread throughout the world.

The church is holy. In a missional context, holiness must be in terms of hospitality. Just as the heavenly sends the gift of rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous, so the church is also to love both its friends and enemies (Mt 5:43-48). Holiness is not a statically perfect subject, but an outward-motion toward a complete object: the world. Holiness defined as hospitality is the natural result of missional apostolicity and global catholicity. The encounter with the global other in mission leads to hospitable perfect love.

The church is one. The oneness of the church must be located within God's reconciliation of the world to himself through the church’s ministry of reconciliation. Unity is therefore not a given but a gift. Yes, the visible unity of the church is to be desired, and its absence is tragic. But church unity is not an end in itself, but is intended to serve the church’s mission within the context of the ever-increasing unity of all creation. It is no coincidence that the modern ecumenical movement began on the mission field. The early ecumenists saw that unity could serve mission. But just like the previous notes, unity is only found as its flows from the mission of the church. Missional apostolicity leads to global catholicity, which in turn breads hospitable holiness, preparing the way for reconciling unity.

Now, does all this future-oriented talk get the visible churches off the hook? If the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is out in front of us, then can local churches, denominations, and the global Christian community simply rest easy and say, "We're on a journey. God's still working on us." Such an attitude is opposed to the intention of a missional ecclesiology. But to block such an unintended consequence, some kind of standards must be set. Although the notes cannot function as a criterion for finding the true church, there must be some criterion by which communities can be judged to be genuinely ecclesial communities. What makes a church a church? This is where the reformation tradition of the "marks of the church" comes in.

The Marks of the Church

During the ecclesiological revolution that came to be known as the Reformation, the various protestant groups were compelled to defend themselves against the charge of schism. The general response was to develop a doctrine of the marks of the church whereby one can identify the true church from the false church. The marks of the church where not meant as a church-shopping list but a church-staying list, a means of justifying participation in communities estranged from the Roman Catholic Church. The practical function of the marks of the church is not to have impossibly high standards but to have a clear low-water mark: if a community falls below this line, one is free to break fellowship without being a schismatic church-divider or shallow church-hopper.

Now there is no revealed list of marks, but various lists have been proposed. Martin Bucer, the leader of the reformation in the city of Strausbourg, recommended three marks of the church: church is wherever the pure word of God is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is properly executed. Because of the perceived abuses of the radical reformers in their emphasis on and application of church discipline, many magisterial reformers (such as John Calvin) dropped discipline as a mark of the church in favor of the twofold pattern of word and sacrament. The debate concerning two or three marks re-emerged a century later during the Puritan controversy in England. The Puritans pushed for the return of discipline as the third mark of the church, and on its basis began to question the authority of the Anglican Church. Through the influence of his Puritan heritage, John Wesley affirmed the third mark and the churches that developed out of the Methodist revival include the third mark in their constitutional documents, many of which are not inconsequentially named “The Discipline.” Denominations with roots in the Evangelical revivals in which the Methodists took part tend to also affirm this third mark in one way or another.

Now this historical excursus not only helps you see some of the options for constructing the marks of the church, but also encourages you to see the importance of concrete practices for the church. The church is identified by her actions, not by her abstracts ideas or her amorphous feelings. The church has its being in its act of mission to the world, which takes concrete form in her proclamation, worship and discipleship. Just as the triune God is identified by his narrative, so also the church is identified by her narrative. This is so because the church is personal -- not a triune person, but a person created in the image of God. Scripture speaks of the church in personal terms: the church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, etc. These personal categories speaks of the church not only as a community of like minded individuals, but a communion of persons and so a communal person, who communes with the triune God as she participates in God's mission in the world. The mention of communion brings us to the next line in the creed.

The Communion of Saints

The next two lines of the Apostles' Creed is not new topics but further specifications of the work of the Spirit in the church. We not only believe in the holy catholic church, but also in the communion of saints. What does this phrase mean? Well, it initially referred to faithful who have died and are no longer with us. The church believes that it communes with not only with fellow Christians of today but also with fellow Christians of yesterday. As the church proclaims the gospel, she carries forward the mission of the apostles. As the church gathers for worship, she joins the praises of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before her. The communion of saints therefore speaks to the historical continuity of the Christian community throughout time. But this continuity is not conceived in solely institutional terms, but in personal categories. The church is the communion of the faithful with Christ and one another as we walk together as one person with one purpose. In other words, the church is the body of Christ.

The reference to communion rightfully brings with it the connotation of the Lord's Supper, also called communion, eucharist, mass, etc. We have already mentioned the Lord's Supper as a sign of Jesus's institution of the church. The language of "institution" in face comes from the Lord's Supper liturgy, which speaks of the "words of institution." The double meaning of all these words is purposeful, because it points to this meal as the means by which the church is gathered and equipped for her service in the world. It is the practice by which she hears and proclaims the gospel not only with audible words but with visible objects and actions. It is Jesus's own chosen object-lesson, symbolizing his broken body and shed blood. Such visible words in the church are referred to as sacraments. Whether one has or even needs a particular theory for what makes this meal special, the point is that the church is not alone in her mission, but is fed by her Lord and has fellowship at his table with him and with one another. Even as he sends us out into the world, he gives us the promise of his perpetual presence (Mt. 28:20-21). The sign of this presence, the visible pointer to the deep truth of the communion of saints, is the Lord's Supper.

The mention of saints of course brings up the question of sainthood. Is there a special category of Christians called "Saints." One can see how such a category emerged. If we believe that the church here on earth communes with those who have gone before, then it is easy to start thinking about specific dead Christians. The first that comes to mind are the martyrs, those who died for their faith. The martyrs were held in high regard from the very beginning, as can be seen already in the Book of Revelation. Such special regard was then easily transfered to other exemplary Christians. Then distinctions start to be made between "saints" who go directly to "heaven" and those "souls" who must by "purged" of their sinfulness before coming into the presence of God. It is important to see the sensibleness of this train of thought, even if one has good reasons not to go down this road. One need not disparage the many exemplary Christians who have gone before us in order to avoid the abuses that such a train of thought has produced.

At the end of the day, however, one must remember that in the New Testament all Christians are addressed as "saints," even those confused and conflicted Corinthians. Christians are by definition saints because the Holy Spirit sanctifies the church. Here we must make reference to the doctrine of sanctification. God desires a holy people. And so God sets apart a people for his own purposes, God cleanses his people from their sins, and God fills his people with the power to live a new life for him. Sanctification is the work of God. It is a gift -- the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christians together seek to live a holy life, set apart for God's use. They do so not in their own power but by the power of God. God is faithful, and he will do it.

The Forgiveness of Sins

After speaking of the heights of the church's missionary purpose and communal sanctification, the creed reminds of where we come from and where we return again and again: that we were and are sinners in need of forgiveness by a gracious God. We are not only communing saints but forgiven sinners. This is not meant to bring us down a notch, but to call forth our thanks and praise. We must be forever thankful that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us; that God did not hold our sins against us but reconcile us to him in his son; that God had mercy on me, a sinner. With this word of thanks we come to the doctrine of justification.

Now we have already spoke of the basis of God's justification of sinners when we spoke of the cross of Christ. So we need not linger long here. But it is important to not only speak of forgiveness there and then, but also here and now. There is a traditional distinction made between redemption accomplished for us in Christ and redemption applied to us by the Holy Spirit. Whether the distinction itself is helpful or not, I'll let you be the judge. The point is that the forgiveness given in Jesus's death really comes to us by the power of his Spirit. We can be assured of our forgiveness of sins, and walk in the freedom that this brings. This freedom is not to be abused, because it is a freedom with a purpose, freedom for new life in Christ. This is why it helps to speak of our being sanctified for the mission of the church first before turning back to the word of forgiveness. But nevertheless this word of freedom must be spoken and never left behind.

Just as the communion of saints has a visible sign, so too the forgiveness of sinners has a visible sign: baptism. The Nicene Creed makes this connection explicit: "We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sin." Baptism visually portrays the death of the old life and the beginning of the new, the cleansing of the flesh and outpouring of the Spirit. It the rite of initiation into the church and thus a sign of conversion to the gospel and its proclamation. In baptism one both hears the gospel spoken to oneself and is called to speak the gospel to others. As such it is the ordination of all Christians to the ministry of reconciliation. That is not to deny that there may be special functionaries within the church's life and that special rites may be instituted to set apart these people for service. But all such rites are subordinated to the common baptismal calling of all Christians to preach the gospel of forgiveness out of thankfulness that they too are sinners saved by grace.

Any thoughts?
  • To what extent is it apporpriate to develop a doctrine of the church?
  • Does the larger theological context sketched above help address the problem of dismissing the church, at least on an intellectual level? What else can be done to respond to this problem? Is it even a problem?
  • Do you agree that the church has its being in its act of mission? Does such a priveledging of mission in ecclesiology have some drawbacks? What other concepts might function better at the center of ecclesiology?
  • Does my idiosyncratic presentation of the notes of the church connect with you? Why or why not?
  • What kinds of "marks" do people implicit use to evaluate particular Christian communities? How should the marks of the church function? What do you believe are the marks of the church?
  • What does a belief in the communion of saints entail? What does it not entail?
  • What does sanctification in the context of the church look like?
  • Do the Lord's Supper and Baptism succeed as signs of the communion of saints and forgiveness of sins? Should their "success" even be evaluated, and if so, how? If they fail, what other signs are available to point to these truths?