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On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 2

Part 1

Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. – Acts 2:1

In setting the scene for the events of Pentecost, Luke immediately draws our attention to the fact that all of the disciples are assembled together in one place. Remarking on the ‘togetherness’ of the disciples, Richard Thompson observes:

Although Luke does not explicitly state why this corporate quality is important or how these believers concretely demonstrate such a quality, such an emphasis suggests that this characteristic is critical both to the narrative and potentially to what follows.[1]

What are we to make of the corporate character of the events of Pentecost?

A Community of Prophets
Pentecost (re)constitutes the community of the early church in a powerful way, representing an event of decisive importance for its formation and identity. For this reason it is perhaps significant that we find a number of possible echoes of the events of Sinai in the immediate context. Sinai was an event of immense importance for Israel in its life as a nation, being the occasion of a group theophany, their reception of the Torah and their entrance into a covenant with YHWH. Kenneth Litwak writes:

There are several striking elements which suggest that Luke shaped his account on the basis of the Sinai tradition. Acts 2 opens with a theophany, which includes fire and a loud sound (Acts 2.1-4; cf. Exod. 19:16 [sound of a trumpet] and Exod. 19.18 [YHWH descended upon Sinai in fire]). At Sinai God spoke to Moses, and in Acts 2.11 the people hear the disciples speaking of the mighty works of God. On a broader level, the theophanic event in Acts 2.1-4 is formative for the first followers of the Way, just as the Sinai theophany was formative for God’s people in Exodus.[2]

In Exodus 19:1 we read that the children of Israel arrived at Sinai three months after leaving Egypt, where, after a few days of preparation, they received the Law. As the feast of Pentecost occurred 49 days after the Feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:15-16), which took place in the latter half of the first month, the possibility of a chronological connection between Pentecost and the giving of the Law and forming of the covenant in Sinai is raised.[3] This connection did not go unnoticed by the rabbis, who identified Pentecost as the feast celebrating the gift of the Law. Whether such a connection was established by the time that Luke wrote the account of Acts 2 is uncertain and continues to be a matter of debate among scholars.

Taken by itself this connection between Pentecost and Sinai may appear rather slight, but it is given more weight when we consider it alongside the presence of the other echoes of the Sinai account in the early chapters of Acts.[4] At Sinai Israel was set apart as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’, giving the children of Israel a special role to play within God’s purposes for the wider creation. The parallels to the event of Sinai are important chiefly on account of the way in which they frame the event as one through which the disciples are set apart as a people with a new vocation.

In contrast to the examples of prophetic succession that we previously observed, the example of Sinai involves the reconstitution and setting apart of a whole people and not just of one person. The events of Pentecost are not of mere private significance to those involved, but herald the establishing of a new reality in the realm of history. Sinai inaugurates a new era and not merely a period of leadership limited by one man’s lifespan. Consequently, the event of Sinai has much light to shed on Luke’s account of Pentecost. Stronstad writes:

…[W]hat is happening on the day of Pentecost is not only as dramatic as, but also as significant as what happened at Mt Sinai. In other words, the creation of the disciples as a community of prophets is as epochal as the earlier creation of Israel as a kingdom of priests.[5]

The Distribution of the Spirit of Jesus
A number of commentators have argued for some form of connection between the narrative of Numbers 11 and that of Acts 2, a connection that can illuminate certain dimensions of the church’s prophetic character.

In Numbers 11 Moses appeals to YHWH to ease the burden of leadership that he is bearing. Responding to his plea, God instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel and bring them to the tabernacle of meeting. There God will take of the Spirit that is on Moses and give it to the elders, so that they can share the task of leading the people with him.

Following a day of preparation, the elders are gathered together and the Spirit rests on them. They then begin to prophesy, although they never do so again (Numbers 11:25).[6] Two of the seventy elders—Eldad and Medad—were not present at the tabernacle of meeting at the time, but received the Holy Spirit nonetheless and began to prophesy in the middle of the camp. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, concerned by this, asks Moses to instruct them to stop. Moses, however, was unconcerned: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’ (verse 29).

There are a number of echoes of the theophany at Sinai in the account of Numbers 11, including: (1) the granting of a new vocation to a body of people (Exodus 19:5-6; Numbers 11:16-17); (2) the command for the people to sanctify themselves for the coming day when YHWH will act decisively (Number 11:18; cf. Exodus 19:10); (3) the gathering of the people around a particular location, Mt Sinai in the Exodus account and the tabernacle in that of Numbers (Numbers 11:24);[7] (4) a theophany in which God comes down in the cloud and speaks with Moses (Exodus 19:9; Numbers 11:25).

Although some might argue that the ‘spirit’ given to the seventy elders is Moses own spirit, rather than YHWH’s, a reading of Numbers 11 that understands the ‘spirit’ as YHWH’s own Spirit seems far more satisfactory (cf. verse 29). Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize that the Spirit that is given to the seventy elders is spoken of as the Spirit that is upon Moses himself (Numbers 11:17, 25). Although we are not here dealing with a ‘sacramental transfer’ in which Moses is active, Moses is seen as the one who mediates the elders’ reception of the Spirit. The elders do not receive the Spirit as a direct bestowal from God, but with ‘Moses as the intermediary’.[8]

Williams contrasts this with the case of leadership succession that occurs when Joshua receives authority to lead and the ‘spirit of wisdom’ through the imposition of Moses’ hands (Deuteronomy 34:9). In Numbers 11 Moses does not abandon certain aspects of his leadership to others. The elders are rather empowered to help fulfil Moses’ task of leading the people. Their ministry does not displace that of Moses, but involves a partaking in Moses’ ministry.[9]

At Pentecost Jesus mediates the gift of the Spirit to the church (Acts 2:33), and, much as the elders’ reception of the Spirit in Numbers 11 gave them a share in the Spirit of prophetic leadership that belonged to Moses, so Pentecost brings the church to participate in the prophetic authority of Jesus, an authority that never ceases to be the exclusive possession of Jesus himself.

At this juncture a further dimension of the ‘baptism’ imagery (cf. Acts 1:5) may come to the fore: baptism does not merely initiate into office, it can also fulfil an incorporative purpose, bringing people to participate in the life, authority, status or privileges of another (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2; Galatians 3:26-29). Just as Israel was led by Moses prior to being ‘baptized’ into a greater union with him,[10] so the disciples were led by Jesus prior to the baptism of Pentecost. What Pentecost effected was the disciples’ reconstitution as the church—the body of Christ—bringing them into a new relationship with their master. They now shared in the power of his Spirit, being bound to him by a bond of relationship far stronger than any they had previously enjoyed.[11]

The temporary and unrepeated character of the elders’ act of prophesying merits closer examination. While we have good reason to believe that the Spirit remained with the elders, enabling them to fulfil their role, the fact that they did not prophesy again suggests that prophesying was not necessary for this. The initial ecstatic manifestations were not normative for the ongoing performance of their duties. A similar occurrence can be found in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, where the Spirit comes upon Saul, causing him to prophesy. It is through this experience that Saul is set apart and personally prepared for leadership (1 Samuel 10:6). Apart from one other exceptional occasion,[12] we never read of Saul prophesying again. The prophecy was an effect and an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon him; the continuance of the Spirit with him did not necessitate repeated occurrences of prophetic manifestations.

There is a strong analogy to be observed between the prophesying of the elders and the glossolalia of the disciples, and a few writers (Gordon Wenham, for instance) have even suggested that we equate the two. As Dunn observes, Luke does not share Paul’s sharp distinction between speaking in tongues and prophesying. In his use of the passage from Joel in his sermon, Peter appears to equate the tongues-speaking of the disciples with the prophetic speech which the prophecy promises. In light of this OT background, it seems that the purpose of the glossolalia in the context of Acts 2 was primarily that of serving as an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples. There is no reason for us to believe that glossolalia would continue to be practiced by all of the disciples present at Pentecost. Tongues-speaking primarily served as a temporary authenticating sign.

The passage from the prophet Joel that Peter uses in his sermon is strikingly parallel to the wish of Moses that all of the people were prophets (Acts 2:17-18; Numbers 11:29).[13] This connection between the prophecy of Joel and Numbers 11 is also found is rabbinic midrash texts. If, as Litwak maintains, the Joel prophecy provides a ‘programmatic text’ and lens for Luke’s understanding of Pentecost, it is also a lens through which passages such as Numbers 11 illuminate the text. The ‘prophethood of all believers’ that is desired in Numbers, is prophesied in Joel and receives a form of fulfilment in Acts.

Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Eldad and Medad when we read of the Gentiles who received the Spirit in Acts 10. Eldad and Medad were outside of the group of elders at the tabernacle. Nonetheless, they still receive the anointing of the Spirit just as the others. In a similar manner, the Gentiles may have appeared to be outside of the gathering to which the Spirit was specially promised, but they received the Spirit in much the same way, in a sort of aftershock of the original event. By giving Cornelius and his household the Spirit before they had become members of a Jewish church, God demonstrated the freedom of the Spirit and the fact that Jews and Gentiles were accepted on an equal footing.

Endnotes
[1] Richard P. Thompson, Keeping the Church in its Place: The Church as Narrative Character in Acts (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 38
[2] Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 165-166. Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 58-59 highlights a number of further common features of the Sinai and Pentecost narratives, including the days of preparation and the occurrence of the theophany in the morning.
[3] A number of writers reference Jubilees 6:17-21 in this context. Others have observed the connection that Jubilees draws between Pentecost and covenant renewal.
[4] Besides those already mentioned, there are a number of further echoes of Sinai narrative in Acts 2. The ascension of Christ into the cloud (Acts 1:9) might be an echo of the ascension of Moses onto Mount Sinai. The number added to the church (‘cut to the heart’) in Acts 2:41 may also echo the number slain by the sword at Sinai (Exodus 32:28). Wedderburn argues for a connection between the events of Sinai and those of the Day of Pentecost as they are recorded in Acts, but claims that this connection was not made by Luke, but by some of his sources. Hovenden has a very helpful discussion of some further possible literary connections, including that of a Lukan allusion to Psalm 67:19 (LXX) in Acts 2:33, a verse applied to Moses at Mount Sinai by some of the rabbis. Johnson highlights the similarities between the statement concerning Moses in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38 and that of Peter concerning Jesus in Acts 2:33.
[5] The Prophethood of All Believers, 59
[6] The meaning of the phrase ולא יספו is not entirely clear. In light of the similar phrase used in Deuteronomy 5:22, we have opted to understand it as a denial of their continuance in prophesying.
[7] The possibility of the disciples being gathered around the temple on the Day of Pentecost will be discussed in a later post.
[8] David T. Williams, ‘Old Testament Pentecost.’ Old Testament Essays, 16:130-1
[9] Ibid, 132
[10] As we shall later see, one dimension of this ‘baptism into Moses’ was Israel’s entry into Moses’ own experience.
[11] The incorporative purpose of the baptism of the Spirit is explored in such places as 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.
[12] 1 Samuel 19:21-24. This incident occurs after the Spirit has departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
[13] John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 95 relates Joel 2 and Numbers 11 together, claiming that Joel’s prophecy ‘reads almost as a fulfillment of Moses’ hope expressed in Num. 11:29.’

On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 1

The following is the first in a series of several posts, exploring the prophetic role of the church and the meaning of the Baptism of the Spirit.

The first chapter of the book of Acts presents us with both an ending and a beginning. Bringing to a close the period of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ ascent into heaven also marks the beginning of a new act in the drama of the NT, that of the public mission of the church.

The exact nature of the relationship between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of his church is a matter that I will explore in some depth in the posts that will follow this one. In particular, I will be attempting to demonstrate that the events of Pentecost set the church apart as a prophetic community. Bringing the text of the opening chapters of the book of Acts into conversation with particular texts within the OT, I hope to explore the manner in which accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession can provide a helpful lens through which to view the events of Pentecost. In making this case I will be devoting considerable attention to a closer analysis of Acts 2:1-4. Having established this exegetical groundwork, I hope to proceed to make some observations about the way in which I believe that the event of Pentecost should shape the Church’s self-understanding. While my focus will be on constructing a positive account of the significance of this event, I will also be entering into critical dialogue with alternative understandings.

A number of writers have explored the subject of prophetic anointing in Acts 2. In The Prophethood of All Believers, Roger Stronstad devotes a chapter to the event of Pentecost, which he claims inaugurates ‘the prophethood of all believers.’[1] The theme is also highlighted by some commentators in the course of their treatment of the passage, and in wider treatments of Luke-Acts. Within Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts, Kenneth Litwak identifies a number of the OT passages that the narrative of the early chapters of Acts evokes, unearthing some neglected allusions to prophetic call and succession narratives in the process.

Building upon the foundation that these writers have established, and entering into constructive conversation with them, I hope to probe deeper into the OT background for the prophetic themes that surface in Luke’s account of Pentecost. Attempting an intertextual reading of Acts 2, I want to prove the theological and exegetical value of understanding the account in terms of OT accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession.

Jesus and the Church in Luke-Acts
For Luke the ministry of the church is inseparably connected to Jesus’ own ministry, something highlighted by the resumptive character of his introduction to the book of Acts. As Ben Witherington argues, Luke situates his account of Jesus within a ‘wider historical framework’, giving considerable prominence to the events preceding the birth of John the Baptist at the very outset of his narrative and closely following the subsequent growth of the church in the second volume of his work.[2] Remarking on the limited attention that Luke gives to Peter’s confession in his gospel, in contrast to the accent placed on the accounts of the commissioning of the Twelve and the Seventy between which it is sandwiched, Witherington writes:

Nowhere is it made more apparent than in this sequence that Jesus is the initiator of a series of events and proclamations that his disciples undertake during and then after his time. The focus is not just on Jesus but on the historical Jesus movement of which he was the catalyst and focal point.[3]

In adopting a narrow focus on the identity and personal ministry of Jesus we are in danger of failing to appreciate the degree to which the Lukan treatment of the early church is driven by more than a merely biographical or historical interest. For Luke the church plays a key role in the drama of God’s salvation, both as the place where that salvation is realized and as the agency through whom it is borne witness to and spread.

Baptism, Ascension, and Elijah Typology
Immediately prior to his ascension, Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift for which they must wait in Jerusalem. Recalling the contrast drawn by John the Baptist in Luke 3:16, Jesus speaks of the reception of the Spirit in terms of the language of baptism. By describing the church’s forthcoming reception of the Holy Spirit in such a manner, Jesus presents the event that is about to occur to the church as somehow analogous to the type of event that John’s baptism represented. The baptism with water administered by John the Baptist will now be followed by a baptism with the Spirit that Jesus will perform on his disciples.

Within Lukan theology, John’s baptism is presented as playing a preparatory role (cf. Acts 19:1-6). It prepared the people for the coming kingdom of God and also served as the ‘launching-pad’ for Jesus’ own work. In Luke’s gospel we see that Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist marked the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 3:20-22), a detail that is given significance in the first chapter of Acts (Acts 1:21-22). In the narrative of Luke’s gospel, John’s baptism of Jesus also marks the end of John’s place in the foreground of the gospel narrative. Once the ministry of Jesus has got off the ground, the purpose of John’s ministry has more or less been accomplished.[4]

Within the gospels John the Baptist is presented ‘as in some sense Elijah redivivus.’[5] In an allusion to the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6, the angel Gabriel declares to Zecharias that his son John will go before the Lord ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17). Elsewhere, Jesus declares that John was the Elijah that was promised to come (Matthew 17:10-13). The description and narrative of John the Baptist is also replete with allusions to the description and narrative of the prophet Elijah.[6]

Perhaps it is significant that John’s baptism of Jesus takes place on the far side of the Jordan: this was the place where Elisha succeeded Elijah (2 Kings 2) and Joshua took over from Moses (Joshua 1). In all cases the succession involves a crossing or coming out of the river and a reception of the Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9; Joshua 1:10-18; 2 Kings 2:9-15; Luke 3:21-22).

At Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22), fills him and leads him into the wilderness (Luke 4:1). Within Lukan theology, there is a very close connection between filling with the Spirit and prophecy (Luke 1:15, 41-45, 67; Acts 2:4, 17-18; 4:8, 31; 7:55-56; 13:9-11).[7] Jesus’ characterization of himself as a prophet in Luke 4:24, in the context of his reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 is significant. It is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that sets him apart as a prophet. The connection between baptism and investiture is an important one for our purposes:[8] the church’s reception of the Spirit in the ‘baptism’ of Pentecost needs to be understood as an ordination for prophetic ministry.

Luke does not limit his deployment of Elijah imagery to his treatment of John the Baptist. As N.T. Wright observes, there is strong evidence to suggest that the synoptics also understand the work of Jesus in terms of Elijah typology.[9] It is at the point of Jesus’ ascension that this imagery assumes a greater prominence. Commenting on the ascension account in Luke 24:50-53, Kenneth Litwak writes:

If Luke’s audience encountered a story of someone approved by God ‘going up’ to heaven, they would surely have thought of Elijah’s ascension … since his is the only ascension account in the Scriptures of Israel. The statement in Lk. 24.49 that the disciples would be empowered by the Spirit recalls Elijah’s bequest of his ‘spirit’ to Elisha (4 Kgdms 2.9-10). The use of ενδύσησθε in Lk. 24.49 may also be an allusion to Elijah’s mantle which was passed on to Elisha (2 Kgdms 2.13)…[10]

The OT speaks of the future return of the ascended Elijah to restore all things (Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Sirach 48:10), a theme that also appears in the NT (Mark 9:12; Matthew 17:11). Significantly, Luke ascribes to the ascended Jesus that which was traditionally ascribed to Elijah: in Acts 3:21 he speaks of Jesus as the one ‘whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21; cf. Acts 1:11).[11]

Given the dominance of such Elijah imagery in the context of the ascension, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit immediately prior to his rapture must take on an added significance. The Elijah imagery provides the typological adhesive binding together ascension, Pentecost and parousia. Within the frame provided by the Elijah typology, an intimate connection is seen to exist between the ascension and Pentecost narratives. Consequently, any attempt to understand the events of Pentecost must begin by giving attention to the Lukan ascension accounts.[12]

The Ascension and the Prophetic Anointing of the Church
Just as Jesus’ baptism by John marked the beginning of his prophetic ministry and his succession from John’s own ministry, so the ascension and Pentecost mark the time when the church is anointed for its prophetic ministry and the transition from Jesus’ public earthly ministry to that of the church.

The two most important prophetic succession narratives of the OT involve the transition from the leadership of Moses to the leadership of Joshua (Numbers 27:12-23) and the transition from the prophetic ministry of Elijah to that of Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-15).[13] In both of these cases the mission started by the first prophet is completed by his successor.[14] Moses’ mission to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land is only fulfilled in the ministry of his successor Joshua. Similarly, the mission that Elijah is charged with in 1 Kings 19:15-17 is only completed in the ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 8:13; 9:1-3).[15]

Elisha is a new Elijah (2 Kings 2:15), just as Joshua is a new Moses (Numbers 27:20; Joshua 1:5). The parallel between the ministries of Joshua and Elisha and the ministry of Jesus’ disciples is worth highlighting. Both Joshua and Elisha serve as apprentices to prophets, whose ministries they inherit following the time of their masters’ departures. The same pattern holds in the case of Jesus’ disciples: having left their work to follow Jesus as disciples, they receive their master’s Spirit following his departure and continue his mission.

The relationship between the prophet and his apprentice is akin to the relationship between a father and his son. In Numbers 13:16 we see that Joshua’s name was given to him by Moses. Moses also lays his hands on Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9) in a manner reminiscent of the patriarchs’ blessings on their sons (Genesis 48:13-20). A similar relationship exists between Elijah and Elisha. Elisha receives a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit, the inheritance appropriate to the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:17),[16] and, as Elijah is taken into heaven, Elisha addresses him as his ‘father’. Jesus’ farewell discourse and blessing of his disciples (Luke 24:51) belongs within this pattern of prophetic succession.

Zwiep notes the parallel between the stress on the visibility of the master’s departure in both the account of Elijah’s rapture and that of Jesus’ ascension.[17] Seeing Elijah taken up was an indispensable condition for Elisha’s right to succeed him. Moberly explains the logic of the test: ‘…it is the responsibility of the prophet to be able to see God, and if Elisha cannot see God in this critical instance, then he is not able to take on the role of one who sees God in other instances; Elisha cannot be a prophet like Elijah unless he has the requisite spiritual capacity.’[18] The Lukan stress on the disciples’ witnessing of Jesus’ ascension might serve to underline their suitability for prophetic office.[19]

Elijah and Moses typology is multilayered within the Lukan literature. However, in the critical movement in the narrative with which we are concerned, the disciples are typologically related to Joshua and Elisha. As their master departs, they will inherit his Spirit and continue his mission. The Spirit that the disciples will receive is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit that supervised and empowered his own mission.[20]

Endnotes
[1] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 70
[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 21-24
[3] Ibid, 23-24
[4] A point made more explicitly in the fourth gospel (John 1:29-34; 3:27-30).
[5] N.T. Wright,
Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 167
[6] John the Baptist is an ascetic and peripatetic prophet who, like Elijah, calls Israel to repentance in light of coming judgment. He dresses like Elijah (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8) and, like Elijah, is associated with the wilderness. Like Elijah, his ministry is opposed by a tyrant with a manipulative wife (Herod & Herodias / Ahab & Jezebel). Significantly, John the Baptist’s ministry begins at the geographical location where Elijah’s ministry ended (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4-5; cf. 2 Kings 2:4-11).
[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit: Volume 2 – Pneumatology (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 11-12
[8] Although its focus is on the connection between baptism and priestly ordination, much of Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 87ff is relevant to our case.
[9] Jesus and the Victory of God, 167
[10], Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 147
[11] A.W. Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 114-116
[12] There is also a sacrificial pattern to be observed in this movement. Leithart observes [1 & 2 Kings (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible: London: SCM, 2006), 176]:

The story of Elijah’s departure into heaven follows the sequence of a sacrificial rite (Lev. 1). By their mutual journey around the land, Elijah and Elisha form a unit, a “two of them” (2 Kgs. 2:7). They cross the Jordan, as parts of a sacrificial animal will be washed before being place on the altar. Fire descends from heaven, dividing them in two, one ascending in fire to God, as the altar portions of the animal ascend in smoke to heaven. In the ascension (or “wholly burnt”) offering, the skin of the sacrificial animal is given to the priest, and the mantle-skin of Elijah, the hairy garment of the “baal of hair,” is left for Elisha. Through this human “sacrifice,” Elisha becomes a successor to Elijah, and a new phase of prophetic history begins. In this sense too the story is a type of the sacrifice of Jesus, who is washed in the Jordan, gives himself over to be cut in two, ascends into a cloud, and leaves his Spirit and his mantle with his disciples.

[13] Peter Leithart, A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 170-171, and John I. Durham and J.R. Porter, Proclamation and Presence: Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Henton Davies (London: SCM, 1970), 119-121n62 observe some of the parallels between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha.
[14] Joshua’s succession from Moses is presented as a prophetic succession in Sirach 46:1.
[15] 1 & 2 Kings, 213
[16] Elisha is thus given the pre-eminent position among the ‘sons of the prophets’.
[17] The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, 116, 194. Observe the repeated use of verbs of visual perception in Acts 1:9-11.
[18] R.W.L. Moberly,
Prophecy and Discernment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 135
[19] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 31. The encounters with the risen Christ as recorded by the gospels might also be worth considering in this context. Delayed recognition of—or failure to recognize—the risen Christ is a recurring feature in the post-resurrection narratives (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:13-35; John 20:14-18; 21:12; cf. Mark 16:12). The liturgical structure followed by the Emmaus road account of Luke 24:13-35, accompanied by the disciples’ initial failure to recognize their companion on the road, might suggest that, although firmly embodied and visible as such, the identity of the body of the risen Christ is something that can elude mundane perception and is only truly accessible to those granted spiritual vision (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2000), 218-219).
[20] Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 45.

The Primacy of the Imagination

MC Escher - Concave and Convex

Reformed Christians have traditionally tended to operate in terms of the primacy of the intellect. Even when we deny that we are doing so, our worship and the message that we preach are primarily directed at the mind. Much of our teaching and evangelism operates on the assumption that reality is primarily grasped with the mind. I have long regarded such assumptions and the forms of pedagogy that have resulted from it as fundamentally misguided.

If we are going to talk about the ‘primacy’ of anything in man’s grasping of his world, let us speak of the primacy of the imagination. The very act of perceiving our world necessarily involves the imagination. There is no such thing as mere perception. We do not merely ‘see’ our world; every act of perception is an act of ‘seeing as’. The imagination is that which governs our ‘seeing as’. The facts that the mind deals with are never ‘brute facts’, but facts that result from the imagination’s engagement with the world. The ‘reality’ that the mind thinks about is a reality that has already been processed by the imagination in the act of perception. The imagination provides the foundation upon which the mind and will build.

The imagination provides us with the lenses through which we view the world. Whether we are aware of its activity or not, it acts nonetheless. Those who underestimate the role played by the imagination will become its prisoners. People with incredibly sharp minds, trapped within a false picture and story of the world will often never get out, just digging themselves deeper into the hole that they are in. All of their thinking merely tightens their grip on a false perception of reality. There are few people more frustrating to debate with; not only are they often incredibly arrogant in their conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are also unable to understand how anyone could really see things differently.

The great leaps in thought almost always result from the activity of the imagination. Many of us have experienced paradigm shifts in our own thinking. Such shifts are achieved by the imagination, enabling us to see everything in a new way. Our rational faculty then tightens our new grip on our reality. Training the imagination is very important if we are to arrive at a deeper apprehension of God’s truth. A trained imagination is better able to purposefully and consciously attempt to re-imagine the world. Those with a trained imagination will be better equipped to imaginatively see the world through the eyes of others and will be better able to come to an understanding of and overcome the limitations of their own vision. The ability to consciously re-imagine our world, to see things differently, is one of the most important abilities that we can develop.

The lack of an appreciation of the essential role played by the imagination and the lack of any training for the imagination seriously weakens theology. Even the sharpest mind can be of very limited use in the absence of a trained imagination. Mere logical consistency seldom solves much, as logic generally operates within the reality that the imagination grants us. Logic merely strengthens or slightly corrects our grip on a particular way of viewing the world; by itself it does not enable us to do what the imagination permits us to do: change our way of viewing completely.

By working in terms of an anthropology that presumes the primacy of the intellect, Reformed Christians have often failed to develop and harness the power of the imagination. We talk a lot about ‘worldviews’, but worldviews are generally understood in very ideological terms. A ‘worldview’ is seen as a set of propositions or a conceptual construct that shapes the way that we view reality. However, such ideological grids do not play anywhere near as much of a role in our vision of reality as Reformed people generally presume. Mere reflection on our day to day lives should expose the weakness of the notion that our engagement with reality is primarily mediated by ideological systems.

In reality, ideological systems only play a relatively limited role in our engagement with, and way of seeing reality. By thinking that practically everything can be reduced to thinking, we have made a huge error. The way that we see and engage with reality has far more to do with practices that we engage in unreflectively, the stories that we live in terms of, the symbols that are significant to us, the technologies that we use, the cultural artefacts that we produce, the communities that we belong to, the questions that we ask, etc. Our ‘worldview’ is, thus, a matter as broad as culture itself and is quite irreducible to mere ideology.

By failing to appreciate this, Reformed churches have often tended to produce a lot of ideologues with stunted imaginations and little in the way of a distinct culture. In addressing their message to the mind and failing to address the imagination, they have left Christians dangerously ill-equipped to engage with the world as Christians. In other Church traditions a rich liturgy, sacramental form of worship, use of the Church calendar and regular readings from the Gospels and OT narratives powerfully form people’s imaginations. Reformed Christians lack almost all of these things.

The Reformed faith centres on slogans (e.g. justification by faith alone, TULIP, the solas, etc.), rather than stories. We focus on a doctrine of justification, often at expense of a story of justification. Our worship does not convey a vision of the world, or even a powerful narrative so much as a mere disembodied set of ideas. Practically every part of Reformed worship is addressed to the mind. Even the sacraments are treated as if they were pictures of ideas. When the Eucharist is celebrated, great effort is often expended to ensure that people know what the rite means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. In most Reformed churches the congregant doesn’t participate much with their body. There is no kneeling, no kiss of peace, no walking, etc. The body is treated as if it were primarily a mind-container.

There is also little engagement with the narrative of Scripture. Bible readings are frequently subordinated to the sermon. The narrative is there to be analyzed from without. We also tend to downplay the biblical narrative in favour of the doctrines of the epistles, abstracting the latter from the former. Even when we do treat the narrative parts of Scripture we tend to focus on extracting the important ideas or moral lessons from the narrative. Seldom do we really encounter the narrative as narrative. In other parts of the Church the Church calendar, for instance, encourages people to read the story of Scripture from within. The sort of relationship that one develops with the narrative of Scripture in a liturgical church is very different from the sort of relationship that one develops in the ideological church, where everything is subordinated to preaching. In the latter type of church the narrative of Scripture tends to become obscured pretty quickly and the idea that the Scriptures narrate a world for us to inhabit seems quite bizarre.

The reason why all of this is so significant is due to the fact that liturgy, ritual and the narrative of Scripture are primarily directed, not to the mind, but to the imagination. Mark Searle expresses the purpose of liturgy and ritual well:

By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

Kneeling, for example, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter. As Heidegger said in another context: “The point is not to listen to a series of propositions, but to follow the movement of showing.”

So there is a discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating, and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning (the res) which they mediate.

Where such a liturgy is absent, we should not be surprised to find that a Christian imagination is also lacking.

As a result of our neglect of the imagination, when it comes to the arts, I think that Reformed Christians are in real danger of seriously underestimating their significance. The most powerful voices in any society are those prophetic voices that present us with new ways of viewing our world. The prophet or visionary presents people with a vision or picture of the world and people begin to live in terms of this new picture. The prophet tells stories and paints pictures, stories and pictures that reshape people’s ways of seeing their reality. This was one of the purposes of Jesus’ parables, for instance. It is not accidental that movements in philosophy are often deeply born out of movements in the arts. Postmodernism is a wonderful example of this. Movements in art and architecture in many ways prepared the ground for and presaged the later movements in ideas. As the artists developed new ways of seeing the world, the philosophers begin to articulate the inner logic of these new ways of viewing the world.

If I am right in my claim that a true ‘worldview’ is practically identical to ‘culture’, it is worth questioning to what extent we can speak of a Reformed worldview at all. Reformed Christians have an ideological system, but an ideological system is not sufficient to constitute a worldview. If we do have a worldview, it gives us a narrowly intellectual and insubstantial vision of reality. As one poet once claimed, Calvinism takes the Word made flesh and makes it word again. Rather than embodying a new culture, we proclaim a rather abstract doctrinal system. Our message is one of disincarnate ideas and our chief contribution to culture may well be capitalism, which despite all of its benefits, is hardly the product of a particularly rich vision of society.

Largely as a result of its neglect of liturgy, the Reformed faith has not really produced many great artists, poets and writers. Distinctly Reformed contributions to culture are few and far between. The great Christian imaginations tend to arise from Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communities. Those in Reformed circles who do possess deeply Christian imaginations and ways of looking at the world have generally spent formative years in one of these communions, or come from Reformed churches with richer liturgies. Despite the confused character of their faith in many respects, I must acknowledge the strong purchase that Christianity has on the imagination of many of the people I know who have been brought up in churches with rich liturgies. Even many of the great non-Christian writers owe much to the visions of the world given by medieval Christianity, for instance. In the Reformation Reformed Christians corrected dangerous errors in the medieval understanding of Christian truth, but lost much of its imagination and vision.

Not recognizing the full significance of the imagination in shaping us, evangelicals and Reformed Christians are at particular risk when it comes to films and literature. Lacking a deep Christian imagination and intuitive sense of the Christian story we are more vulnerable to being misled by the weak stories and visions that our society presents us with. The right ideas alone cannot protect us from the subtly persuasive power of such visions of reality. On the other hand, we are at risk of failing to appreciate the great benefit that can be gained from reading really good literature. A deep faith needs to draw upon far more than theology volumes and the incarnate truths that we encounter in godly visions of reality in literature and the arts are extremely important for us.

The Christian faith presents us with a beautiful story and a compelling vision of the world. Christianity’s hold on the Western imagination is great, even among those who try to reject the faith. The Christian message appeals to our imagination before it addresses our logic and reason. Unfortunately, the vision of the world that most Christians operate in terms of today is quite anaemic and lacks the fullness of classic Christian thought. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Christianity is becoming less and less of a force within our society. People regard Christians as ideologues rather than as people with a rich cultural vision and grasp of the ‘good life’. Christianity is seen as a set of disincarnate ideas, rather than as a world-encompassing story that we can truly be at home within, a form of renewed life and a fertile vision for culture and society. A Christian recovery of the arts and classic Christian literature is an important step toward reformation in this area.

I am convinced that only Christian faith is capable of sustaining a healthy and robust imagination. Only the Church presents us with a story that is truly big enough to inhabit and a story that fertile enough to enable us to grow. In a society that is losing its imagination, the Church has much to offer as an alternative culture. However, before we seek to reach the world we must first cultivate a new culture and vision of the world within the Church itself. We must recover our own imaginations by re-engaging with the Story of Scripture and immersing ourselves in the liturgy. As our imaginations are reformed and we begin to incarnate a rich vision of life and culture within the Church, people will see Christian faith as God intended it to be seen. In light of all of this proper engagement with the arts and cultivation of the imagination is probably one of the key tasks awaiting any Church concerned about mission. We need to recapture the imagination of our society and to do so we must regain our own and begin to understand the reasons why the imagination of the world around is failing.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

This series of posts follows on from my post entitled ‘The Denominational Church’. My two previous posts can be read here and here. My original post and the two subsequent posts have sparked a number of interesting discussions in various parts of the blogosphere and in the comments. The comments of the posts in question have lengthy discussions of such issues as the content of the gospel, baptismal regeneration, apostolic succession and the primacy of the Roman See.

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In such inter-denominational discussions we should always seek to be humble and patient. We have much left to learn from our siblings. However, there is a danger of a false humility in this area. True humility is not unwilling to rebuke a brother in love. There are occasions on which we must rebuke other denominations, for their compromising of the gospel. To fail to do so would constitute a betrayal of the love that we should have for them.

Furthermore, true humility will not deny the light that God has granted to the denominations that we belong to. We may have much still to learn, but God has taught us a lot already. We should not denigrate the work that God has done in us simply because it is still incomplete. We should keep faith with those who have gone before us and value the insights that they have bequeathed to us.

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When we begin to appreciate that the Church is far broader than our particular denomination we should begin to appreciate that orthodoxy cannot merely be defined in terms of the particular theological tradition that we are heirs to in our small wing of the Church. If that becomes the touchstone of orthodoxy we are well on the way to becoming sectarians and heretics. Orthodoxy is far more catholic than that. Not only must we keep faith with those who went before us in the history of our particular theological tradition, we must also keep faith, in various ways, with the rest of the wider Church.

This involves, among other things, a recognition that the beliefs that distinguish us from all other denominations are probably not as central to the gospel message as we sometimes are tempted to believe. For instance, TULIP is not the gospel, and it never will be. One can strongly reject TULIP and still hold to the central truths of the gospel, albeit perhaps somewhat inconsistently. Keeping faith with the wider Church must also involve an attempt to confess our Christian faith in language that is recognizable to those outside our immediate communion. Ideally, we would like the rest of the Church to be able to join us in confessing our faith. We don’t expect the rest of the Church to agree with everything that we say, but we do want them to see that we are closely related in many ways.

Sadly, for many denominations orthodoxy is merely a matter of conformity with a particular interpretation of confessional documents from their narrow tradition, without any regard for the wider Church. In such cases we must resist the sectarian majority. Though we might be accused of being unorthodox sectarians, we are not, but simply hold to a bigger view of the Church.

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Central to many of the differences between denominations are disagreements about the content of the gospel. In Reformed circles one comes across a number of people, for instance, who insist that those who deny doctrines such as the imputation of Christ’s active obedience are denying the gospel. The gospel is thought to be at stake in debates about such fine details as the correct use of the language of merit or the covenant of works. I humbly submit that these are sure signs that something is seriously wrong.

I believe that a careful examination of the biblical meaning of the term ‘gospel’ can help us considerably here. In the gospels the term ‘gospel’ is used to refer to the message of the coming kingdom. Such a usage is consistent with uses of the language in the LXX (where it is used to refer to the news of victories, or of Messianic restoration and glory) and elsewhere in ancient literature (where, for instance, it refers to the birth of Augustus and the new world order that his birth brought in). This meaning becomes refined as it becomes clear that the kingdom comes in the person of Jesus Christ, through His death, resurrection and ascension as Lord of all. ‘Gospel’ is the narrative of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in history, whether in extended or potted form.

The claim ‘Jesus is Lord/the Christ/the Son of God’ is a claim that sums up the truth that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. This is the central Christian confession; to make this confession is to believe the gospel (Matthew 16:16; Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 5:1). In the OT the gospel message is the awaited message of God’s saving reign (Isaiah 52:7). The NT gospel is the message that this reign has come in Christ.

This claim should not be taken in abstraction from the gospel narrative, but as that which is designed to summarize it as succinctly as possible. It is the gospel narrative that clarifies exactly what is meant by this claim. For instance, it makes clear that the Jesus is always the crucified Lord and declares His rule to us as the forgiving Lord. This is the claim which draws together all of the various threads of the gospel narrative. In this sense this claim can be said to stand at the heart of the gospel.

There are a number of summaries of the gospel in the Scriptures, ranging from brief statements (e.g. Romans 1:1-5), to more lengthy summaries (e.g. Acts 10:36-43), to full length narratives of the Gospels themselves. Sometimes the gospel message focuses on the Lordship of Christ as a message of final judgment (e.g. Romans 2:16), on other occasions on Christ as the risen Davidic Messiah (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:8), on other occasions the death of Christ is central (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). The gospel is for Paul, clearly the gospel ‘of Christ’, even if this is less accented in the Synoptic Gospels.

From the various biblical usages we can see that the gospel message includes a number of regularly recurring elements. F.F. Bruce writes as follows:

The basic elements in the message were these: 1. the prophecies have been fulfilled and the new age inaugurated by the coming of Christ; 2. he was born into the family of David; 3. he died according to the Scriptures, to deliver his people from this evil age; 4. he was buried, and raised again the third day, according to the Scriptures; 5. he is exalted at God’s right hand as Son of God, Lord of living and dead; 6. he will come again, to judge the world and consummate his saving work.

I find this summary helpful. Speaking in terms of ‘deliverance from this evil age’ helps to clarify what is meant by the gospel declaration of the ‘forgiveness of sins’. The ‘forgiveness of sins’ is an eschatological and national blessing (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), without ceasing to be deeply personal. Bruce’s definition is also potentially weakened by failing to mention the Jew-Gentile dimension of the gospel message.

This definition of the gospel is more or less what we find in the ecumenical creeds. When a Roman Catholic believes what the Nicene Creed says, he is believing the gospel, even if nothing is said about imputed righteousness. Such doctrines, important though they are, are not central to what the Scriptures refer to as the ‘gospel’.

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In much post-Reformation debate the word ‘gospel’ has taken on something of a life of its own. The word is used to speak of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (as articulated by the Reformers) and other such truths. The problem here is not that these doctrines are unbiblical, but that this is not what the word ‘gospel’ actually means. In Scripture the gospel is the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God and the gospel is summed up in the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’, the claim that the kingdom has actually come in Christ.

The nature of the kingdom that has come and the character of its Lord is, of course, deeply significant in Scripture. Used in the wrong way, the claim ‘Jesus is Lord’ could be quite misleading. For instance, Jesus is not Lord in the way that many among the Jews would have anticipated Him to be.

All of this said, the gospel is not primarily a message about how individuals can go to heaven when they die, but is the proclamation of the advent of God’s kingdom in history. Sadly many Protestants use the word ‘gospel’ to refer to the way of individual salvation and lose sight of the importance of the word’s connection with the kingdom of God. People are certainly saved within the kingdom of God, but the message that they are saved by believing is the message of the kingdom’s arrival in Christ, not a timeless message of how an individual can get right with a holy God by justification through faith.

Many post-Reformation uses of the word ‘gospel’ have been driven primarily by theological and pastoral concerns and have obscured the biblical usage of the term. While sympathizing with many of these theological and pastoral concerns, I believe that we need to be careful to use the word ‘gospel’ in the manner in which the Scriptures use it. Opposing ‘Gospel’ with ‘Law’, for instance, breeds confusion as the NT does not use the terms ‘Gospel’ and ‘Law’ in the same theological sense that Luther and his heirs do. This is not to deny the great value of Luther’s theological insight. It is simply an expression of my disappointment that he choose to frame many of his insights in the terms that he did. Many Protestant uses of the term ‘Gospel’, for all of their valid theological concerns, have allowed the term to diverge in meaning from that of the Scriptures. The gospel has become closer to a declaration about the ordo salutis than a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in and through Jesus the Messiah.

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A simplistic distinction between believing the gospel and obeying the Law, for instance, can be deeply misleading. One is also called to believe the Law and to obey the Gospel. The gospel message is a message of the Lordship of Christ, which demands obedience (cf. 1 Peter 4:17; Luke 3:18). In proclaiming the Gospel of Christ we must call people to obey everything that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:20).

If the gospel is the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or the message that Christ is Lord and Judge of all, it is a message that calls for obedience, an obedience that we will one day be judged on. John the Baptist, for example, can ‘evangelize’ (Luke 3:18) people by proclaiming the coming kingdom and wrath of God and calling people to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’ if they are going to escape imminent judgment. If the biblical meaning of the term ‘Gospel’ were prominent in our mind this would appear entirely natural to us. However, as we tend to think in terms of categories that have become quite detached from those of Scripture, John’s preaching on such occasions strikes us as ‘Law’.

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After my original post, a discussion arose on the Boar’s Head Tavern, helpfully summarized here. The discussion started with the distinction between a map and a territory as an analogy for the relationship between our theologies and God’s truth. This discussion, in turn, was discussed by Macht, on his blog Prosthesis.

I am not sure that I find the map metaphor the most best, although I think that it is not a bad one. Maps are spatializing and totalizing and the map-reader is not necessarily rooted in the territory. Perhaps it would be better to speak in terms of ‘itineraries’. In theology we don’t hold all of the terrain in our gaze from a great height, but navigate it on the ground, following particular paths and observing the details along the path.

We always follow itineraries, whether we intend to or not, although I for one do not generally travel with much of a map in my head. However, there are many ways of narrating the itinerary that will take us via one path, rather than others.

The gospel is the safe path that we must take. The various itineraries that we narrate must retain the simplicity of this path. Losing the traveller is the worst crime that such an itinerary can commit and, for this reason, nothing should be kept clearer and simpler than the path.

Nevertheless, such an itinerary ought also to draw the traveller’s gaze to the wonderful complexity of his surroundings, without focusing his attention too much on easy to miss or doubtful details that may result in his losing sight of his path. An itinerary should also not make the path any narrower than it needs to be. For instance, provided that you are on the right path, the side of the street on which you are walking is probably not a matter to be that concerned about.

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

Itineraries can become confusing when misleading details are included. In a number of the different narrations of the itinerary that we must follow to remain on the path of the gospel, details are included that are potentially vague or misleading. As these details are emphasized, we are in danger of ending up at a different destination altogether. Even if we remain on the right path we will be unsure of whether we are and will only able to proceed hesitantly.

In following the itinerary of the gospel we are not merely tracing a route on a map of the territory with our finger, but are actually on a journey through the territory, on a pilgrimage towards God. We have many fellow-travellers. Some walk on the other side of the street. Some are looking out for street names, others are counting the number of their steps, still others are paying attention to the names of the different shops along the way. Some look confused and perhaps a little bit lost, failing to see a particular landmark or feature that that they were trying to look for. Some decide to leave the main path to try to find an easier route through the side streets. Others are rejoining the path after having been lost for a while. In such a situation a good itinerary is invaluable if we want to travel confidently towards our destination. However, our particular itinerary is not the path. There are those who find the way to the destination, even though they are using very poor itineraries.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

Following on from my previous post.

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Lesslie Newbigin writes:

The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation of what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as arrabon of that salvation — as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole. It can do so only because it lives by the Word and sacraments of the gospel by which it is again and again brought to judgment at the foot of the cross. And the bearer of that judgment may well be and often is a man or woman of another faith (cf. Luke 11:31-32). The church is in the world as the place where Jesus, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells, is present, but it is not itself that fullness. It is the place where the filling is taking place (Eph. 1:23). It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him. This dialogue, this life of continuous exchange with the world, means that the church itself is changing. It must change if “all that the Father has” is to be given to it as Christ’s own possession (John 16:14-15). It does change. Very obviously the church of the Hellenic world in the fourth century was different from the church that met in the upper room in Jerusalem. It will continue to change as it meets ever new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them.

God shapes and moulds His Church by bringing it into dialogue with the cultures that He places it among. God raises up enemies such as Islam; as the Church engages with such enemies it is matured and comes to a deeper understanding of herself. God also gives His Church the best of the wisdom of the Greeks and the insights of other cultures.

We are living in exciting times today, the gospel is making new breakthroughs in Africa, Asia and South America. Cultures that have been developing for millennia are suddenly brought into dialogue with the gospel for the first time. Who can say what new insights might emerge from the exciting new dialogues that are beginning? Who can say how African readings of the Scriptures might lead us to exciting new readings of Paul? Who can say what light Asian Christianity might be able to shed on the significance of biblical symbolism, for instance?

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When God first created man He placed him in a garden surrounded by lands with great natural riches. Man was called to go out into the wider world and glorify the garden with the riches that he found. In the book of Revelation we see the glorified garden city that results from this process. The city is of pure gold, adorned with precious stones and with gates of pearl. All the riches of the world, the riches of the earth and the riches of the sea, have gone into its construction.

I believe that God is active in history, and that He is active in all of history. In the OT God was not merely providentially shaping Israel, but was providentially shaping tribes in the Amazon rainforest. The various cultures that God has shaped are analogous to the natural riches of the world of the world surrounding the garden of Eden. God has spent centuries or millennia moulding these cultures so that one day they may be glorified and may serve to enrich the great Temple that He is constructing in the Church.

Christ is Lord of all and all of the cultural riches scattered throughout the world belong to Him. He is gathering all of these riches into His Church. When the gospel goes into a new culture, we are not merely bringing God’s riches to a new place, but God is giving us new cultural riches with which to build the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the things that makes missionary work so significant and exciting. Missionary work can be like seeking buried treasure. We really do not know what insights God might have hidden for the building up of Christ’s body in some isolated people group in Polynesia, for instance.

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It is incredibly sad to see the absence of cross-cultural theological dialogue in many parts of the Church when we have so much to gain from such dialogue. There are some who believe that missionary efforts merely involves transplanting our cultural forms of Christianity into foreign settings. The goal of missionary activity, for instance, becomes that of getting African Christians to think in terms of the Westminster Standards. The idea that our form of the Christian faith, deeply culturally conditioned as it is, might have a lot to learn from humble dialogue with more indigenous African forms of Christianity never seems to occur to us.

For instance, the Westminster Standards are the sort of documents that one would expect seventeenth century northern Europeans, trained in Western forms of logic and rhetoric (their Anglo-Saxon background muted by the academy), living in a culture where the Christian faith is pretty well established, to produce. They are deeply culturally conditioned. I imagine that if the Christian Church were faithfully to express its faith in terms of an African tribal culture, it would look surprisingly different, without ceasing to continue significant similarities. I firmly believe that God desires that we encourage the development of such indigenous declarations of faith and that we learn from each other as we engage in cross-cultural dialogue within the new culture that God is creating within the Church.

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The Church does not yet have the fullness of that which God intends for it. The fullness belongs to Christ and He is gradually bringing it into the Church as the Church enters into dialogue with new cultures. However, this dialogue does not merely take place between the Church and the various cultures; it is also a conversation within the Church, between various denominations.

Within the various denominations we see many different perspectives on God’s truth. Different denominations have different emphases and insights on God’s truth. None of this is to suggest that all perspectives are in any way equally valid or significant. Nor is it to deny that there are occasions when certain faulty perspectives need to be opposed in the strongest possible manner. As in the case of dialogue between the Church and the cultures, there is a lot that must be rejected in other denominations, even where hidden treasures exist.

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God is a god who separates in order to prepare the way for a more glorious union. God breaks the union of Adam’s body by removing a rib in order to make possible the union of marriage. God breaks the union between son and parents in order to form the union between man and wife. God breaks the union between the nations at Babel so that He might one day form a more glorious Nation. God separates Jew from Gentile in order that through the Jews He might bring salvation to the Gentiles and of the two form one new people. Christ’s body is broken and given to us so that a new body in which we are united to Him may be formed.

The separation, considered apart from the new union can seem like a loss and a tragedy. However, viewed as the precondition for a future more glorious union, God’s breaking of our premature unions is an act of grace. God takes apart that which is good so that we might one day enjoy that which is better still.

I believe that this is what God has done in His Church. God separated His Church into East and West. He separated His Church again in the Reformation. The rise of many denominations is a further split that He has brought about. This state of division is hardly the end that God intends. God did not take a rib from Adam so that Adam might lack a rib, but so that Adam might have a wife. In the same way, God split His Church so that the Church might one day enjoy a more glorious union. I am firmly convinced that the state of division that the Church currently experiences is not a state that will prevail throughout history.

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In a prematurely united Church, the tendency would be to paper over certain theological cracks. We don’t like to admit that our great theological paradigms are incomplete and have serious problems. There are certain questions that we don’t want to ask ourselves, certain faults that we don’t wish to face. There are deep-rooted problems that have been masked for so long that we lack the power to see them ourselves and need others to identify them for us.

This is one reason why theological dialogue with one’s critics is so important. All of our theological systems are incomplete and faulty. None will endure forever. Our critics are often in a better position to identify the weaknesses of our positions, just as we are often in a better position to identify theirs. In His grace God has given us perceptive critics so that He might mature us and lead us deeper into His truth.

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.

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Some will protest that, in most of the debates between denominations, one party is straightforwardly right and the other party is straightforwardly wrong. For instance they will insist that, in the debates between Baptists and paedobaptists on the question of paedobaptism, both cannot be right and at least one party is quite wrong. Writing as someone who is convinced that the Baptism of infants is supported by Scripture in a number of ways, I think that this would be a good example to deal with. If paedobaptism is justified by Scripture what sort of lessons might God want to teach His Church through the witness of the Baptists within her on this particular issue?

I believe that such a question should not be viewed in abstraction from history. The Baptist position arises within a Church that has undergone a particular historical development and faces particular challenges in the future. The Church’s historical development was far from tidy and in certain areas the Church’s practice and theology developed like a crooked bone growth. In such a situation God breaks the bone in order to reset it. I believe that this might provide a helpful perspective on the development of the paedobaptist position that Baptist theology arose in response to. The following is a sketchy reading of Church history, designed to illustrate the corrective purpose that Baptist theology may be designed to perform in this area.

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In the earliest Church most of the baptisms would be ‘convert’ baptisms of adult individuals and of households (some of which would, I believe, have included infants). However, as the Church became more settled one would expect to have more baptisms of infants by themselves. The book of Acts and the Pauline epistles generally address fairly young communities, where most of the baptisms that would have taken place would have been household or adult individual baptisms. However, later in the second and third centuries, infant baptisms began to become more common. Later in history they were to become the norm.

The shift in emphasis from adult Baptism to infant Baptism in Church history is not primarily a theological shift, but one that results from changing historical circumstances. Such a change is quite significant. In the case of household baptisms and the baptisms of adult individuals, personal faith is quite prominent. The head of the household or adult convert has personally come to faith. In the case of the head of the household, this change of allegiance is one to which his household would generally submit and be included within.

A situation in which each generation has only experienced baptism as infants is quite different and personal faith can often be eclipsed. The same could be said in the case of circumcision to some extent: the strong connection between circumcision and personal faith in the case of Abraham was in danger of being lost where circumcision became something that every Israelite boy received at the age of eight days. Moses and the prophets had to remind the people of this connection on a number of occasions.

In such a changed situation, the understanding of the meaning of Baptism and its connection with faith will most likely change somewhat as well. Root metaphors might shift; for example, Baptism as ‘death and resurrection’ seems a less obvious metaphor for the Baptism of infants.

In the earliest churches most baptisms would be baptisms of converts and their families. Infant baptisms would be less regular. Those baptized as infants in such a situation (second generation Christians) would grow up in a context where adult convert baptisms still predominated. Third, fourth and later generation Christians would begin to face a different situation, however. They would live in a Church where infant baptisms predominated. In the Middle Ages infant baptisms so predominated in some places that adult convert baptisms would have been very rare.

All of this results in a dramatic shift in the Church’s experience of Baptism. The NT and earliest Church texts were written into a context where adult Baptism (not understood as a theological position) predominated. The baptismal liturgies would have been designed for adult converts. When infant baptisms would have occurred they would generally have taken place in the context of adult conversions. As the situation developed, however, infant baptisms would increasingly take place by themselves as discrete events from the baptisms of adult converts. This would begin to raise problems as the Church’s theology of Baptism and baptismal liturgies had to cope with its changing experience of Baptism. Baptismal liturgies originally intended for adults would have to be altered to deal with situations in which no adults were being baptized.

The meaning of infant Baptism (more understandable in the case of household Baptism) would begin to become problematic. A theology of Baptism addressed primarily to a situation in which adult convert baptisms were being practiced would have to negotiate with a Church where such baptisms were uncommon. It seems to me that these problems would become increasingly acute among third and later generation Christians and, for this reason, it does not surprise me that we find the Church of the third and following couple of centuries struggling to marry its theology of Baptism and the predominating practice of infant Baptism.

Infant baptisms would not originally have been treated as a special case demanding particular justification, but would have been understood in relation to the convert baptisms that took place within the Church. As time went on the Church’s experience of Baptism changed as infant baptisms became more common, to the stage that they were the norm. This would exert pressure on the Church’s theology and liturgy, which were designed for a very different situation.

In this new situation, infant baptisms would come to be regarded in abstraction from adult convert baptisms and certain theological themes and liturgical practices that were prominent in the Church’s understanding and administration of Baptism would seem to be less applicable in the case of infants. This would lead to the raising of questions about the theological basis of the practice (not so much in order to justify the practice as in order to understand its necessity, which wasn’t properly illuminated by the Church’s existing theology of Baptism).

I think this is part of the reason why we find the historical record that we do. I also think that this helps us to appreciate that groups like the Anabaptists were largely raising tensions that hadn’t yet been truly resolved by the tradition. The pre-Reformation Church generally celebrated infant Baptism as a form of clinical Baptism and chrismation and first communion came to be deferred. It is hardly a sign of a healthy situation when Baptism is separated from itself and from the Eucharist like this and the baptized are only half initiated into the life of the Church. Whilst I disagree with the Anabaptists’ theology, I think that they helped to highlight problems that had never been completely addressed. The Church had never completely come to terms with the predominance of infant Baptism. I think that the Anabaptist movement, by raising the problem again, challenged the Church to do a better job than it did the first time around.

***

The earliest Jewish Church was also, to some extent, an ecclesiola in ecclesia. It was a new community within the larger community of Israel and for a number of years the ties between the Church and the more general worship of Israel persisted. Whilst the Church was clearly also a distinct community in its own right, this continued connection to the wider worship of Israel would have shaped its self-understanding in various ways. The Church inherited the role of the prophets, forming new communities within the larger community as a testimony to it, preparing the nucleus of the people of God that would be preserved through and established after divine judgment.

Many within the early Church were observant Jews and synagogue-worshippers, who would have continued in these practices as Christians. Their sense of being a community separate from and in opposition to other Jewish communities would have been less pronounced. In such settings the Church would have had a self-understanding of its community that differed somewhat from that which would develop when a complete split with the worship of the Jews had occurred. The Church would primarily be regarded as the nucleus of God’s restored people within the larger body of the people of God, not yet a completely distinct people. In such an understanding of the place and significance of the Church the role of confessing mature believers would be highlighted and infants, though seen as part of the community, would be more secondary, less the nucleus of God’s restored people as those who were being gathered around this new nucleus.

Much of the teaching of the gospel (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) is addressed to such ‘prophetic communities’. These prophetic communities would have been formed of adult, predominantly male, disciples. These prophetic communities existed as the centre around which the new people of God were to be formed, the spearhead of the new movement that God was bringing about. A number of similar movements have developed within Church history. Communities arise, designed to play a prophetic role to the people of God as a whole, modelling a new form of faithful living that has been lacking within the wider Church. Monasticism is a good example of such a movement.

I believe that an ecclesiola in ecclesia can do immense good for the Church. These spearhead movements call the Church to mature forms of faithfulness and conformity to God’s Word. In a Church where everyone has been baptized as an infant, such movements are immensely important, calling for costly discipleship and voluntary personal commitment. Such prophetic communities serve as cities on a hill, modelling heroic faithfulness to the Church as a whole. In so doing they serve a purpose similar to that which the disciples of Jesus and John the Baptist played in relation to Israel.

The spiritual affinity between the Anabaptists and such movements as the Franciscans has been noted by a number of people. I believe that part of God’s purpose in raising up such movements is to ensure that His Church does not forget the message of such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. Whilst the community is larger than the nucleus, having a nucleus of mature and committed disciples in crucial for the health and growth of the Church. Baptists and Anabaptists, in reminding the Church of this fact, have done immense good. I believe that their testimony and example has borne fruit in many parts of the wider Church.

***

Of course, this entire process is not a one-way affair. Paedobaptists are also a means of teaching Baptists that, despite the importance of mature and committed discipleship as that which sets the tone for the rest of the Church, the Church is not merely composed of those who have arrived at a mature profession of faith. In God’s wisdom He has brought infants into His family. Infants remind us of our own impotence and strengthen the Church by means of the common concern that the Church has for their development in the faith. Just as the birth of a child transforms the new mother and father and is a means by which God greatly matures them (in every sense of the word!) and reforms them into a family, so it is with infants in the Church. God gives adult believers weak infants to humble them, remind them of their impotence and encourage them to grow. God gives weak infants strong adult believers in order to ensure that they are raised in the faith and one day become strong adult believers themselves.

A Church in which there are no weak infants and everyone is expected to manifest a heroic personal faith commitment can be unforgiving and tend towards rigorism. A Church in which there are no mature adult believers will soon become compromised in belief and practice and lack direction.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

Following on from my thoughts in the previous post, I have decided to write a few follow-up posts on the subject of denominations, Church union and reunion.

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When Christ founded His Church, He founded it to be a growing and maturing, rather than a static and unchanging entity. Primitivist ecclesiologies are suspect for this reason. The NT pattern of the Church is normative in certain respects, but is designed to be outgrown in others. Christ wants His Church to become more glorious with age and a reversion to the more simple worship and structures of a past age can be a step in the wrong direction.

***

In the OT we see God directing the flow of history for the purpose of maturing His covenant people. He moulds and transforms His people through a number of powerful events and experiences. He builds up His people and then breaks them down, in order that they might be refashioned into something newer and more mature.

In the OT God takes a family group of nomadic shepherds and brings them into Egypt. In Egypt He breaks them down. In the Exodus He reforms the people under the leadership of Moses and elders and then later forms them into a priestly nation around the worship of the tabernacle. He settles them in the land as a group of tribes under the leadership of judges. Later He breaks apart this order in various ways. The tabernacle order is gradually dismantled and a united kingdom is formed under Saul and David. God later causes the kingdom to be split and begins to form new communities around the prophets. He then deconstructs the old order even further when Israel and then Judah are overcome and exiled. The reformed people that we see in Ezra and Nehemiah are no longer split into two groups as the old kingdom was, but have become one whole people.

Through this process the people of God changed radically and became something quite different from what they were at first. While the historical process by which the people were transformed may at first appear to be without specific direction or purpose, closer examination will reveal that God’s hand is within it all. In all of the fine details we can see the hand of a master Potter at work, shaping His creation into something fit for His glory.

***

When we think about God’s formation of His people we are in danger of focusing too much on the agency of direct revelation, particularly in the form of ideas, God moulding His people by revealing new doctrines and truths about Himself to them. However, if we truly believe that God governs the course of history we need to take seriously the fact that God forms, takes apart and reforms His people through His general governance of the flow of history. Our minds and characters are formed just as powerfully — probably far more powerfully — by the experiences and events that we undergo than they are by new ideas that we come in contact with. Certain experiences can attune us and make us receptive to ways of thinking that we would not otherwise have appreciated.

God raises up enemies for His people. God causes old orders to shatter and raises up leaders and visionaries who can bring in new ones. In 1 Kings 12:15 & 24, we see that God’s purpose and agency was behind the split of the kingdom of Israel. The split of the kingdom profoundly shaped the consciousness of the people of God in the years that followed. After this event they had to learn to think of themselves in a very different way. During the time of the united kingdom their identity may have been strongly rooted in having a Davidic king over a union of the twelve tribes. After the split of the kingdom they had to learn to think differently in a situation for which there was no obvious precedent. Such historical events reshape a people far more than mere ideas often can.

***

Within the new order formed by the split of the nation there would probably have been those who would have taken the old order as normative, insisting that only those under the Davidic king were the true people of God, and claiming that the nation would only know true unity when the northern kingdom ceased its rebellion and returned to its God-appointed ruler. The problem with such claims is that they fail to factor in the manner in which God’s agency was at work in the split. God took the kingdom away from the Davidic king because of the rebellion of his house (1 Kings 11:11). The primary rebellion was not the rebellion of the ten northern tribes, but of the Davidic king.

Furthermore, God continued to deal with both the northern and southern kingdoms as His people. In the way that He dealt with the two kingdoms He did not underwrite either of their claims to being His one true people.

***

God’s guidance of history in order to form His people did not cease in the first century AD. The Church has changed considerably since it was first founded and continues to do so. God continues to mature His people and the process is far from complete yet. We will continually face the temptation of regarding one era of history as normative and, in so doing, refuse to mature into the sort of people that God would have us be. Old wineskins that we have become quite attached to will have to be permitted to burst, in order that new wineskins might be given.

For instance, the maturation of the Church did not cease at Westminster in the 1640s. There will come a time (indeed, it may already have come) when we are called to allow the order of the Westminster Standards to break apart, so that something more glorious can come. Like old shoes, such orders in the Church serve well for a time, before they develop holes and start to hinder rather than encourage further growth, causing the Church to hobble in pain, when they should be enabling her to run with ease.

***

The sort of biblical analogies that I have briefly sketched above can help us in thinking about such events in Church history such as the Reformation. If we truly believe that God’s guidance of history hasn’t ceased and that He is still moulding and forming, breaking down and reforming, His people through historical events we will have new perspectives with which to view these sorts of events.

Through the Reformation God created a very new order within the Church. Whatever our convictions regarding the biblical character of the claims made by the Reformers, if we truly believe that God continues to form His people through His providential guidance of the course of history, we must wrestle with the question of why God saw fit to split His Church at the Reformation.

While many Protestants will claim that the split at the Reformation was purely a matter of God separating His true people from a false church and delivering them from a Babylonian captivity, I am not so sure that it is that simple. On the Roman Catholic side there are those who will insist that there has to be only one Church and that Protestants have left this Church by rejecting the authority of the pope over them. Once again, I think that the reality is more complex than this.

***

As in the case of the split of Israel, I don’t think that God straightforwardly supports either side’s ecclesial claims against the other. The subsequent history of Israel and Judah shows that splits in the government of the people of God do not necessarily destroy the oneness of the people of God in other respects. The people of God remain one by virtue of their covenant relationship with Him, even if they are scattered among many different church structures. Against Roman Catholic claims, the unity of the people of God is not ultimately dependent upon being under the Pope. The unity of the Church is found in its relationship to Christ.

None of this is to deny the desideratum of visible and even institutional unity. My point is rather that such institutional and governmental unity is not absolutely essential to the unity of the Church. Just as in the case of Israel and Judah, the essential unity of the people of God is found in their relationship to Him. The two nations continued to be related to each other by virtue of this fact.

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Then John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us.” — Luke 9:49-50

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As Peter Leithart has observed, the root cause of the split in the Church at the time of the Reformation was the Church’s tolerance of idolatrous practices and ways of thinking about salvation. This was also that which led to the split of Israel. God’s judgment upon the Davidic dynasty was not, however, a rejection of the Davidic dynasty from the purpose that God had mapped out for it. In the case of the Reformation, I believe that we can recognize the necessity of the split, without denying that God may have a future planned in which the Bishop of Rome has an important role to play. The Reformation was a judgment of God upon unfaithful Church leaders, but God did not leave the Roman Catholic churches entirely desolate, just as He left two tribes with Rehoboam.

***

The division between Roman Catholics and Protestants is not merely a judgment of God upon unfaithfulness, but also serves the purpose of quarantine. As long as idolatry in its various forms persists, reunion is forbidden as it is dangerous. Righteous kings of the southern kingdom of Judah were forbidden from close alliances with unrighteous kings from the northern kingdom for this reason. However, even though Judah could not reunite with Israel, God’s Spirit was quite active in the land of Israel, breaking apart and reforming a people for God.

Even in our own day and age, God is at work in places where He has forbidden us to go for our own safety. God is working in and with people in heretical churches, in compromised churches, in liberal churches. These are spiritual ‘hard-hat’ areas, which is why God forbids us to go there. However, we ought to recognize and be thankful for what God is doing in such places and pray for its increase.

***

God forms us personally through periods of illness. I grew more as Christian through long-term illness than I did through anything else. Many years of developing theological understanding has affected my faith less than a prolonged period of illness did. God uses such things to cause us to mature and I believe that He does the same in the life of His Church. The Church needs to develop a more robust theological immune system over time. God permits parts of His Church to succumb to the disease of error for a time. Bringing His people through the disease and through the lengthy subsequent convalescence is one of the ways in which God humbles and matures His people.

Not every illness is unto death. There are many of us who are thankful in many respects for having experienced prolonged illness. It alerts us to the value of the health that we had previously taken for granted, it occasions a reassessment of priorities, causes us to be more careful about preserving our health in the future and matures us as persons.

In the pride of our assumed orthodoxy we can rush to the task of writing ungracious obituaries in advance as soon as we see serious error in a church. I suggest that we need to be more cautious. In God’s providence He may choose to permit the errors of liberalism to ravage a denomination, before gradually restoring it to a new health. The disease may be the consequence of sin, but we should not presume that God desires the death of the sufferer.

***

We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.

***

As liberals and Roman Catholics return from the far country, our Father, who has wept over them and long desired their restoration, runs out to meet them with open arms and showers them with His gifts. What will we do? Will we rejoice in their restoration, or will we be more concerned that God acknowledge our superiority over them? Will we find ourselves left outside, while God uses the prodigals to accomplish His great works in the world? Will we be prepared to submit to God’s wisdom if it is through the work of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals and Baptists that He chooses to deepen the Church’s understanding of His Word over the next century and accomplish a new great reformation? For all of our trumpeting about the gospel of grace, are we at risk of forgetting that it has the uncanny habit of bringing unexpected endings to the stories that we find ourselves in?

***

I say then, have the Roman Catholics stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, God’s blessing has come to the Protestants. Now if the fall of the Catholics brings riches for us, and their failure blessings for the Protestants, how much more their fullness!

The Denominational Church

After the passing of the FV/NPP report at the recent PCA GA, Jim Cassidy counsels proponents of the FV:

Is there not, brothers, safety in a multitude of counselors? I’ve read some of the responses already by FVers. And quite frankly, I am surprised. They are disappointed, but there is no sign among them that perhaps they might be wrong. Brothers, the vast majority of the Reformed church in America has said that the FV is out of accord with the Westminster Standards. Does that not at least give you some pause? I mean, if my brothers spoke so loudly and in such unison to me about my views on a given issue, I would be trembling. Maybe I am weak in my nerves, but when the corporate body of Christ speaks with such unison, I am humbled. Yes, assemblies and counsels may err, but this is the Visible Church speaking here! Aren’t we to have a high regard for the Visible Church? Is she not our nursing mother to feed and nourish us spiritually? Has she not spoken a word of admonition to you? Do you not honor her? Do you not heed the voice of your spiritual mother?

The problem with all of this is that the PCA and OPC are not — and I know that some of you might find this hard to believe! — the ‘corporate body of Christ’ speaking in ‘unison’. I am not sure that it is appropriate to accord ecclesial status to such bodies, even on the local level. The same can be said of any denominational organization or local denominational church.

One of the problems that we have to face is that, in the age of denominations, we cannot simply take the ecclesiologies of previous generations and apply them directly to the local denominational congregations that we attend. The problem of denominations is not, as some suggest, something that originated primarily in the Reformation. There were divisions in the larger Church before the Reformation. However, there was not a proliferation of denominational churches on the local level. Even after the Reformation in a number of places this remained largely the case. Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed churches were not originally denominational churches in the quite the same way that Baptist, Methodist and other such churches were.

That situation has long since changed. However, it is important that we appreciate the type of ecclesiastical situation within which people like Calvin formed their ecclesiologies. The Reformed Church of Geneva was not quite the same sort of entity as a local PCA congregation. Its ecclesial status was far less questionable, as it was far closer to the biblical model of a local church. Our world, in which everyone chooses to belong to some denomination or other (where everyone is, technically speaking, a ‘heretic’), is far removed from the sort of world that the early Reformers thought within. Consequently, we must give serious attention to the disanalogy that exists between their situation and our own when reading their ecclesiologies.

The Church that we now belong to has changed radically since the age of the Reformation and we need to think theologically about the situation that now faces us. In particular, we need to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches. This is something that has been argued by a number of people, from the Orthodox John Zizioulas to the Presbyterian John Frame. The Church — whether local or universal — is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The same cannot be said of the local denominational congregation. There are countless denominations, so it is utterly inappropriate to speak of them as ‘one’. As John Frame observes:

The church is holy, not in that all Christians and congregations are morally perfect, but in that God has set his church apart from all other institutions in a special relationship to him. But Scripture gives us no reason to believe that God has placed any human denomination in such a special category, except insofar as it is part of the church as a whole. Among those denominations which are truly parts of the body of Christ, none is in this sense any more holy than the others.

The local denominational church is certainly not ‘catholic’. Even in addition to their exclusion of those of other denominations, local denominational congregations often have an attendance that is weighted strongly in favour of people from particular class, ethnic, linguistic and educational backgrounds. Different denominations tend to attract different kinds of people. For instance, you are often more likely to find the local evangelist attending a non-Reformed evangelical congregation. The local expository preacher and exegete is less likely to be within the charismatic congregation down the road.

The local Church that you belong to is not the local denominational congregation that you attend, important though that congregation is. Biblically speaking, the local Church that you belong to is defined more by geographical than denominational or confessional lines. The local denominational congregation that you attend might be more closely analogous to a Gentile Christian group in Antioch in the first century. Such a group is part of the local Church, but it is not the local Church. The local Church includes Jews and Greeks, male and female, slave and free. In our situations, the local Church will probably include Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.

In light of this, we should beware of giving too much loyalty to denominations. The work of God in our areas far exceeds the work that He is doing through our particular denomination. We need to become more concerned about the progress of this larger work than we are about the progress of the cause of our denominations. We need to become more committed to the larger cause of God in our area than we are to preserving our particular denomination’s identity. We may be a Puritan of the Puritans — concerning the confessions, a Westministerian — but be called to count this identity as loss, so that we might better serve the Church of God in our locality. The fact that we often value such denominational and theological identities more than we value the local Church that God has placed us in is a tragedy.

In the situation of disunity that we find ourselves in, the task of working towards unity between denominations is a difficult one. Unity must always be in the truth. For this reason unity with ungodly groups is very dangerous and sectarian, tending away from the unity that God calls us to strive for. However, this doesn’t mean that we can write off unfaithful denominations altogether. Roman Catholics, for instance, are still Christians, just as the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were still the people of God (and treated as such by the prophets), despite their many idolatries. We should still work towards unity in such cases, even though full institutional unity is impossible as long as things remain as they are.

There are a number of important practical steps that we can take in the direction of unity. One of the things that saddens me is witnessing the manner in which many Reformed people will condemn those who do not hold to precise formulations of doctrines such as the imputation of the active obedience of Christ or the covenant of works. Such doctrines are not the gospel and are not of primary importance. They are ways in which many of our forefathers sought to protect the truth of the gospel, but they are not themselves the gospel. To make such doctrines essential to the gospel is a deeply sectarian move. Those who make such theological moves often see themselves to be protecting the purity of the Church, when they are actually isolating themselves from the rest of the Church.

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

Our theological dialect is merely one expression of the Christian faith (even supposing that it is a better expression than others). Such a degree of dissociation between these two things is important. We must remember that our dialect is not a language in its own right and that we need to ensure that we do not make ourselves incomprehensible to others who share that language with us. Many theologians do not engage with many beyond the small circles of their own theological traditions. Consequently, their regional dialect is very much in evidence. Should a visitor from a different theological land happen upon their writings, they would find it very hard to understand them.

In many of the current theological debates we face problems of dialects vs. the language. For instance, ‘baptismal regeneration’ is well-established language in the Christian tradition. Many Reformed Christians and evangelicals fiercely resist using such language to speak of their theological positions. I believe that in such instances we should go out of our way to try to find appropriate ways to use the common language. The fact that such language has become problematic in our theological dialects is probably a good sign that we need to bring our dialects back into greater conformity with the language of the rest of the Church, lest we become sectarian and incomprehensible to other Christians.

They are few things more frustrating than trying to speak to someone with a very strange dialect, with a very peculiar vocabulary and grammar, who blames you for not being able to understand him. Theological traditions that develop such peculiar vocabularies should do their best to keep them in check. There is nothing wrong with a theological dialect having some words that are peculiar to its vocabulary, provided that these words do not stand in the way of communication with others. Also, if at all possible, we should try to speak in ways that make us more comprehensible to people from other theological backgrounds. Most theological traditions are guilty of confusing others by their specialized vocabularies to some extent or other.

We should particularly beware of accusing people of not speaking the ‘language’, simply because they do not speak our dialect. Our dialect is not the standard of orthodoxy, even though it might be a better way of articulating the faith than others. Someone may resist including such expressions as ‘covenant of works’ and ‘imputation of active obedience’ in their theological vocabulary and still be perfectly orthodox.

Seeking union in the local Church despite the existence of denominations is not easy. There are different levels of unity that we can achieve in different situations. In my experience, it is when we seek to express our deepest convictions in our common language, and downplay our particular dialect’s peculiarities of expression, that we are most likely to begin to find true unity. There are situations where sin and error pose obstacles to unity, but there are numerous other situations where a far greater degree of unity could be enjoyed, if we only had the vision and determination to strive towards it.

What are some concrete ways in which we can work towards a greater degree of unitry between denominations. Here are a few brief suggestions:

1. Recognize the discipline of other congregations in your locality.
2. Recognize the ordination of people from other denominations and don’t force them to jump through too many hoops to serve within your denomination.
3. Recognize the baptisms of people from other denominations, including the infant ones.
4. Admit people from other denominations to the Table.
5. Read widely, beyond your own theological tradition. Seek to learn from other theological traditions and encourage crossfertilization of ideas.
6. Become friends with people from other denominations in your area.
7. Pray for the various churches in your locality and ask them to pray for you.
8. Seek to co-ordinate evangelistic efforts with other churches.
9. Try to get involved in other group projects with other congregations in your locality. Doug Wilson helpfully suggests that we rediscover the idea of ‘parish’. If we really started to think and act in terms of the concept of parish we would soon find ourselves enjoying more fellowship with other Christians in our communities.

As we start to relativize our denominational backgrounds and seek to actively work towards a future in which denominations feature less prominently, we should beware of a number of things. We need to be careful not to use a critique of denominations as a way to devalue Church discipline. We live in a situation where there are many rival courts that people can appeal to. In such a situation Church discipline can seem meaningless. I don’t think that it is, even though no single court has the final word. Seeking unity between congregations in recognizing and respecting each other’s judgments is important here.

I am firmly convinced that one of the reasons why the Church is often so impotent in our societies is our disunity. The disunity of the Church hinders our prayers. We do not pray with one voice and set ourselves up as rivals to each other. The Church’s authority to bind and to loose is thus hindered. Seeking unity in prayer with other denominations is very important if we are to enjoy the authority that Christ has given to His Church.

I do not doubt that the day will come when Christ will reunite the Church. God is in control of history and He has broken up His Church so that He might reunite it in a more glorious form. At the moment we live with denominations, but we look beyond these to the day when there will no longer be Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics, but one glorious united body of Christ. The present denominational stage, despite its problems, is, I believe, a necessary part of the growing process, like teething is for children. It is part of the way in which God is working towards a far better form of unity than we can currently imagine. For this reason we must not be impatient and force unity where it should not yet exist. Rather, we should work in hope, enjoying unity where it can be found, but looking beyond all present structures and organizations to Christ’s great purpose and promise for His Church.

@ 5:24 pm | 61 Comments

Are Protestants Heretics?

I do hereby conclude: When the Western Church fissiparated in the sixteen century, the Reformers took a portion of the essential patrimony of the Church with them, and they thereby left both the Roman Church and themselves the poorer for it.

Read the whole article by Edward T. Oakes, S.J. here. [HT: Michael Spencer

from BHT]

@ 8:37 am | 11 Comments

1 John 2:19 Discussion

James Jordan’s reading of 1 John 2:19:—

“Out from us they went out,” — that is, they set out on teaching missions.

“But they were not out from us,” — that is, they had no valid commission from us.

“For if they were out from us they would have remained with us,” — that is, if they had valid commissions from us, they would have remained with us in our true teaching.

“But [this happened] in order that they might be manifest that none of them are out from us.” — that is, their false teaching shows that they were not sent by us.

This seems to me to make far more sense of 1 John 2:19 in its context than those readings that take the verse as working in terms of a visible/invisible Church distinction. This verse is currently being discussed on Lane Keister’s blog.

Evangelical Narcissism

Ted Haggard

Writing on the subject of the whole Ted Haggard mess, Doug Wilson observes:

The second sign of trouble (evident long before the recent revelations) was the prevalent evangelical marketing of narcissism and celebrity as though it were a reasonable approximation of humility and ministerial service. What’s wrong with this picture? I remember, many years ago, long before the Jimmy Swaggart meltdown, talking to my wife about his record albums in a Christian bookstore. Album after album showed a close-up photo of his face, and nothing was more apparent than that something was seriously disordered about the whole operation. But that disorder was something that the evangelical market was more than willing to support and praise with their dollars. After it happens, the response among Christians was “how could this happen?” Are you serious? The real question should have been “how could it not?” Contemporary evangelicalism is nothing more than institutionalized narcissicism, and if the tree is rotten, it will continue to produce this kind of fruit.

Contemporary evangelicalism as ‘institutionalized narcissism’ is perhaps as good a description of the current state of affairs as any. It is something that I have drawn attention to in the past. For example,

Salvation opens us up to the Other. Only a Trinitarian and ecclesial understanding of salvation can do justice to this. The salvation paradigm of many within evangelicalism is akin to the romantic love paradigm of our society. It has little to say about the manner in which the Church is brought into a Trinitarian fellowship of love, focusing more upon the individual’s relationship with a god who is considered in largely Unitarian terms. You end up having two polarized parties and a love that closes in on itself.

Evangelicalism has little to say about our meeting of God in the commonality of our love for others. The Church as the community of the Spirit is that which frees to enjoy a non-narcissistic relationship with God. Evangelicalism’s failure to really recognize all of this has led, I believe, to its increasing self-obsession and introspectionism. Worship has become about self-stimulation rather than self-gift. There is also a tendency to project a domesticated god created in our own image, a god who reinforces our sense of self and never challenges us by His Otherness. When we worship such a god we are really worshipping ourselves. It should not surprise us that many contemporary worship songs focus more upon our act of worship than upon the object of our worship. The worship wars that rage through evangelicalism are not unrelated to this.

The collective narcissism of much modern evangelicalism (expressed in countless different ways) is perhaps, more than anything else, the thing that makes me want to get as far away from such forms of evangelicalism as I can. The soul of evangelicalism is afflicted by a disordered desire that will destroy it.

This disordered desire has innumerable manifestations. It can be seen in the way in which so many evangelical ministries operate without a regard to the rest of the Church, and particularly to the non-evangelical parts of the Church. It can be seen in the lack of interest in Church history. It can be seen in the insistence on singing modern hymns and choruses that conform to our personal tastes in music. In can be seen in the way that many evangelical churches are populated by clones.

It can also be seen in evangelicalism’s twisted aesthetics. It should be recognized that disordered desire will lead to a disordered aesthetic. It is not an accident that the narcissism and disordered desire of homosexuality is often expressed in a disordered aesthetic (camp, kitsch, self-glorification, etc.). Narcissistic aesthetics can take many different forms. They can consist in a purely ironic posture towards reality, in a playfulness that has no desire for costly engagement in reality, in the production and obsession with art that seeks nothing more than self-expression, in sentimentalism and sickly nostalgia (which almost invariably involves a narcissistic projection onto the past, rather than a genuine reckoning with the alterity of the past), among other things. Narcissistic aesthetics are the aesthetics of decadence and stem from a failure to engage properly with otherness, and from a weakening of faith.

Our aesthetic sensibilities are not morally neutral; they are as depraved and as needful of redemption as any other aspect of our human make-up. The scandal of the evangelical mind is well-known; it is high time that the scandals of the evangelical imagination and of evangelical aesthetics received equal notoriety.

The problem of evangelical narcissism is so huge that I am surprised that it has such a low profile.

D.G. Hart on the Anti-Ecclesial Character of

D G HartWhilst a study of the development of British evangelical identity might look slightly different, I have found D.G. Hart’s (not to be confused with David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox theologian) account of the construction of American evangelical identity quite insightful. The following quote is taken from his book Deconstructing Evangelicalism. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read up on this subject. Evangelical identity has been the theme of a number of the articles, books and booklets that I have read recently in some form or other. Hart’s treatment of the subject is one of the best that I have encountered.

~~*~~

On another level, the history of evangelicalism played precisely to the strength of the new model of religious history. Institutions, formality, official representatives—these phenomena were for many religious historians the antiquated subject matter of church historians. They did not embody America’s genuine religious vitality. So the profession moved from the pew, the pulpit, the church assembly, and the denominational periodical to signs of religious influence on culture, politics, economics—all walks of life where religion made a difference for the way ordinary people lived daily. It would be hard to imagine a recipe easier to follow by students of the new evangelical identity. After all, evangelicalism was a religion not confined to formal and bureaucratic denominational structures. Instead, it was a faith that gave ordinary believers the courage to get things done, whether on the farm, in the gym, in the public square, or on the mission field. In effect, born-again faith typified the mood of the new religious history; it was pluralistic, egalitarian, and utilitarian.

But it may not have been good for the understanding of either America religion or Christianity more generally. As much as Americans may participate in a variety of parachurch activities and support them with their hard-earned dollars, statisticians of United States religious life continue to make claims about American religiosity on the basis of church attendance. America is, according to pollsters, the most religious of Western democracies because roughly 40 percent of its citizens are in church every Sunday. If this is true, and if it is truly as significant as many interpreters suggest, then finding out what these Americans do every Sunday and what goes into that decision to attend or the consequences of such participation might be worthwhile pursuits for religious historians and other religious scholars. But the academic hostility to religious forms and institutions, a sort of scholarly pietism, has left the church out. In turn, the study of evangelicalism has profited from this rejection of denominational and congregational life. The history of evangelicalism has thrived while denominational history has atrophied. Yet if the Christian religion involves rites, offices, and creeds, then saying these things don’t matter does not make it so. Still, the construction of an evangelical identity has yielded the conviction that a faith freed from churchly affairs is the conservative expression of Christianity.

Either way, the expansion of interest in evangelicalism has been a mixed blessing. It has produced scholarship that obscures as much as it brings to light, and its assumptions about Christianity are as novel as the neo-evangelical project itself. Yet whatever one’s judgment about the born-again history of the last twenty-five years, it is reasonable to assert that the neo-evangelical effort to reduce Christianity to bite-size portions in the interest of creating a Protestant party to rival the mainstream looks remarkably similar to the way religious historians have defined evangelicalism and read it back into the American past in order to make larger claims about a bigger constituency than denominational or church history allows, ironically, by conceiving of the Christian religion as a short set of doctrinal truths and devout activities outside the church.

D.G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham, pp.59-61

Children, the Word and the Church

Uriesou Brito links to a brief article from Alexander Schmemann on his new blog. The following is a brief quote from Schmemann’s article:—

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, all of this presupposes the rich liturgy of Orthodox worship. The claim that the worship of the Church is the place where the Word of God is in ‘its own element’ is simple yet profound. The common idea that our encounter with the Word of God is primarily about reading the text of the Bible, enclosed between two covers, falls far short of the reality of Christian engagement with Scripture for so many reasons.

The story of the Scriptures is a story of progressive incarnation. When the Word becomes flesh He does not merely take a body created out nothing, but a body that has been being prepared for Him since the beginning of creation. He does not merely come as a generic individual human being, but as one who takes the flesh of Israel as has own. The Word does not merely take a biological and Adamic body to Himself, but, as the Messiah, He takes a particular body politic also. This body politic had been formed by the spoken Word of God in successive stages, something that Douglas Knight helpfully compares to the gradual assembling of computer circuitry. The rituals and ceremonies of the OT Law, the worship of the psalms, the structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple: all of these are ways in which God prepares a body for His Son.

The Scriptures create a world through story, symbol, ritual and worship, a world that the people of God are called to live out of. God’s world does not come all at once, but is gradually moulded and developed over time. The Word of God in Scripture is a world-creating Word, no less than the Word of God in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, if our encounter with the Word of God is limited to reading a book the idea that the Scripture creates a world (indeed, is a world) seems a bit far-fetched.

Within the new covenant there is a movement beyond inscription of the Word to incarnation of the Word, not just in Christ, but in the Church, which lives out of Christ’s humanity. This should decisively shape our understanding of the relationship between the Scripture and the ethical life of the Christian community. In the various OT prophecies of the new covenant, great emphasis is put on the fact that the Law of God will now be written on the heart, and not merely on tablets of stone. The initially ‘external’ Law will gradually be consumed into the life of the community until there is no remainder.

In the old covenant the people of God had the tablets of stone at their heart. The new covenant people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ—the Heart of Flesh. At Pentecost, with the gift of the Spirit, the Church grows out of the resurrected humanity of the Word, as the totus Christus. The telos of Scripture is such incarnation, making us participants in the life of Christ. The Word now indwells us in a living form, by the Spirit. In the OT the Word of God formed the world that the people of God inhabited; in the NT the Word of God is the world that the people of God embody in Christ.

The fact that the transformed community—the totus Christus—is the telos of the text determines our hermeneutical posture. The text can only be properly understood when it is related to this telos. True interpretation of the text both presupposes and results in moral transformation. There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community. The Scriptures can only be properly understood from within the community of faith, in the context of their public performance; outside of the community of faith the text has a veil over it.

This is one of the reasons why the proper context of Scripture reading and study is the life of the Church. Far too much Protestant worship is even less ‘incarnational’ than OT worship. When we read the Scripture we are giving voice to the life that we embody in Christ. The world and the Word that creates and gives voice to that world are mutually interpretative. Reading the Bible apart from the context of the Church is like reading a book describing an alien world. No matter how wise and learned you are, you will know less of this world than a simple child who has lived in this world for a few years (this illustration originates with T.F. Torrance, if I remember correctly), even if they have no idea of the science of their world.

As people reject the sacramental life and community of discipleship of the Church the Scriptures will become darkened to them, a fog of obscure teachings. This is one of the reasons why I continually stress the importance of encountering the Scriptures, not primarily as ‘the Bible’, but as the texts which form the life of the Church through their performance in the liturgy, sacrament and proclamation and as the Word that we embody in Christ.

Let me give just one small example of how this connection between the Church as world and the Scriptures as the Word of that world can empower the proclamation of the Word to a young child. I still remember from my childhood occasionally attending the local Church of Ireland around Christmas time. The thing that really spoke to me was the Church calendar and Advent in particular. I had heard the story of Christmas many times before, but in the worship of Advent and the various readings running up to Christmas I began to live in the story. I began to hear the story as a story of hope, remembrance and anticipation, a story in which I was personally involved. I was feeling hope and anticipation; I was not merely reading about hope and anticipation. The Christmas story opened up to me as never before. I reread the story from within, as it were. Reading from within: this is what Christian encounter with the Scriptures is all about.

Remember Which Side You Are On

Soldiers in Iraq

We are gradually being wiped out of Iraq. Our people are fleeing. Powerful men who claim to be fighting in the name of our Leader are not terribly interested in protecting us. These men say ‘peace, peace’, but there is no peace for us. They are paying little heed to our continued suffering.

I first mentioned this almost a year ago and the situation, if anything, seems to have gotten worse since then. Read all about it here. [HT: Dr. Jim West]

Is Westboro Baptist Church Calvinist?


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Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?

From the wacky [HT: Chrisendom]…

…to the weird, to the more sinister.

Is there any section of the Church that is more messed up than what passes under the name of Evangelicalism? Like it or not, most people who call themselves evangelicals in the US and the UK today are holding a form of religion that only bears a tenuous relationship to the historic Christian faith. Whilst we would like to quibble about the historic meaning of the term and complain that it has been hijacked by fruitcakes, there comes a time when we simply have to accept the fact that the term ‘evangelical’ now carries a radically different meaning to anything that it ever held in the past. The weird, the heretical, the fad-driven, the fruity, the fanatical, the culturally and intellectually bankrupt has become the mainstream.

People, evangelicalism is a greater threat to Western civilization than Islam is. Islam may oppose the Christian faith, but modern evangelicalism trivializes, parodies and cheapens it to the extent that it is no longer deemed worthy of opposition and cannot be taken seriously. With all of its handwaving emotionalism, kitschy culture, intellectual vacuity, collective narcissism and blinkered politics, modern evangelicalism demands all the respect of a shabby circus freak.

Wright and Infant Baptism

I have been asked on more than one occasion how Wright can hold to his high view of Baptism. What seems to make his view even less tolerable in many people’s eyes is the fact that he is strongly in favour of the practice of infant Baptism. In conversation with some people yesterday the suggestion was made that one can reject Wright’s position on infant Baptism and infant faith and retain the rest of his thought more or less intact. I am not so sure.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Wright only mentions the practice of infant Baptism on a couple of occasions in his writings and may not even have given the issue any focused study, I believe that infant Baptism is strongly implied by a number of different aspects of his thought. A denial of infant Baptism will always risk compromising Wright’s theological project on a number of levels. Whilst I am not suggesting that there is nothing that a convinced Baptist could consistently take from Wright’s project — far from it — I am concerned that Wright’s paedobaptist position is seen by many to be an Anglican appendage. It is not; it is closely related to much of what he has said about Jesus and Paul, even if he has not traced these implications himself in his writings. We should always be wary of identifying appendages in the thought of smart theologians. Generally they are just following theological instincts that we have just not become attuned to.

Within this post I want to briefly list some of the ways in which Wright’s theology might be seen to imply the existence of infant faith and the legitimacy of infant Baptism.

1. His definition of faith. Within Wright’s theology one sees an attempt to broaden our definition of faith. The Protestant tradition has all too easily fallen prey to definitions of faith that work in terms of a dichotomy between inner feeling and outer ritual or between sincerity and outward conformity. Modernism has also affected our definition of faith in a number of other ways. Modernism has sharp dichotomies between internal and external, private and public, individual and communal and religious and political. Christian faith comes to be defined as something that is internal, private, individual and religious as opposed to something external, public, communal and political.

Within the context of modernity it is the concept of the autonomous individual, who is the source of his own values and identity, which holds sway. Faith is understood in the light of this. Baptist thought is very modern in its philosophical impulses. The problem is that Paul did not share our dichotomies. As Wright has often observed, Paul’s gospel obliterates our tidy modern political/religious dichotomy.

Wright broadens the definition of faith. He moves beyond the faith as internal disposition versus works as external action approach. He moves our definition of faith more in the direction of faithfulness, loyalty, fealty and allegiance. One’s loyalties are often public, political and external realities. Infants are not immune from loyalties. Infants are born into settings where strong bonds of loyalty exist. Infants are implicated in the loyalties of their parents.

Evangelicals tend to operate in terms of a private heart faith that demands a greater degree of knowledge and rules out infants. However, loyalty is more of a public reality that needs to become integrated with heart loyalty as one matures over time. It seems to me that the first century Christian would have regarded the modern evangelical understanding of faith as very narrow. It does not include outward faithfulness, allegiance in a more political sense, it rules out the faith of infants and the faith of those who have a loyalty to Christ or to the Church with little or any knowledge to back it up (the sort of faith that most Christians prior to the Reformation had). Clearly the later form of faith is far from ideal, the faith of infants immature, and outward faithfulness and a more political allegiance often insufficient, but that does not mean that they are never genuine forms of faith, even of saving faith.

I don’t see why genuine Christian faith need involve a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. We can relate to people through others and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that God does just that. God regards the children of believers as ‘holy’ (i.e. set apart for divine use, not merely ‘clean’) and the children of unbelievers as ‘unclean’. God is a ‘family friend’, as it were. No infant is neutral.

We can also relate to Christ through His people. Saul persecuted Christ by persecuting His people. In Matthew 25 we see people declared righteous as they show a form of Christian faith by the way that they treat Christ’s people. They relate to Christ in His people, even though they do not know it. I believe that there are many who will be declared righteous on the last day, who knew little about Christ, but were loyal to His Church. The Nicene Creed, one of the basic declarations of Christian faith, has the Church itself as an object of faith, along with the Holy Trinity. Evangelicals, who focus on faith in Christ as distinct from His Church, do not do this enough justice. The infant relates to Christ through its Christian parent, which it relies upon for everything.

I see no reason to presume any knowledge on the part of the Christian infant in order to claim that they have a form of genuine faith. When Paul calls for allegiance to the world’s new Lord, Jesus the Messiah, he is not looking for a faith that is any less of a public reality than that which a new emperor would demand. Only when we have accepted the modernist religion/politics, public/private divide and placed Christian faith firmly on the private religion side of the equation will we have problems with the concept of household Baptism, for example. If the gospel really is as political as Wright is arguing household Baptism is the most natural thing in the world.

The important question that we must ask about infants is the object of their faith. It would be thoroughly inappropriate to baptize a newborn infant whose faith was not in Christ. However, there is no doubt that a child born into a faithful Christian family has genuine Christian faith. This faith may end up proving temporary, but it is still a real form of faith and the infant should not be held back from Baptism.

2. Opposition to gathered church mentality. Wright’s opposition to the gathered church mentality is another issue here. Baptists generally focus on the sort of faith that is mature, visible and obvious. Such faith is to be encouraged, but it is not the only form of faith. The rigorism of Baptist ecclesiology leads to the exclusion of many genuine believers. People like Wright are more prepared to recognize faith where it is found — even when ignorant, immature or compromised — and try to bring it to maturity and purer expression. Rigorism makes the Church into a closed sect, whereas the welcome of Jesus was far wider. In Wright’s mind establishing leaders in the Church that can exercise the authority of Scripture with power is far more important than a rigorism concerning the Church’s membership.

3. Challenging Caesar. Wright holds to a high ecclesiology. He believes that the Church is like the colony of a new empire. Baptists think in terms of a voluntaristic Church. They presume that a ‘voluntaristic’ Church is synonymous with a ‘faithful’ Church. However, Caesar isn’t really challenged by a ‘voluntaristic’ Church. A ‘voluntaristic’ Church is a sect, not a new society.

Oliver O’Donovan, an old friend of Wright, expresses this point very well in criticizing John Howard Yoder:

Finally, does the concept of the church as a voluntary society not commend itself chiefly because it fits late-modern expectations of how civil society will be organized? Is Yoder, in the name of non-conformity, not championing a great conformism, lining the church up with the sports clubs, friendly societies, colleges, symphony subscription-guilds, political parties and so on, just to prove that the church offers late-modern order no serious threat? [The Desire of the Nations, p.223f.]

It seems to me that Wright’s claims about the political character of the Church as a colony of Christ really stand in direct opposition to Baptist ecclesiology. Even the more communitarian understandings of Anabaptism fall short of Wright’s vision. The idea of the Church as a colony has a far thicker sense in Wright’s work than it ever can in the context of a Baptist ecclesiology.

4. Connection between circumcision and Baptism. This is a connection that Wright makes on a number of occasions in his works. Wright has also suggested that this is one of the arguments that he would use to support the practice of infant Baptism. Circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith, but yet it was perfectly appropriate to give it to infants, who were not considered as detached individuals, but as persons implicated in the faith of their parents.

5. Christ’s reconstitution of Israel and humanity. Wright strongly argues that Jesus sought to reconstitute Israel around Himself. The Church is formed through the waters of Baptism. A reconstitution of Israel and a new humanity that excludes infants is a mockery. Wright stresses the ‘peopleness’ of the Church. The Church is an outward and visible family solidarity analogous to Israel. Baptism strips off old solidarities and places us within a new one and changes our sets of allegiances. Baptism forms a new society. We are baptized into one new body. Baptism is like birth into the community of Christ’s faith where we gain a new family; it is not just an expression of our individual faith.

Baptists tend to downplay the significance of Israel in our understanding of the Church. There is a sharp discontinuity between the type of society that Israel was and the type of society that the Church is. Such a sharp discontinuity is very hard to maintain once one has accepted Wright’s reading of Jesus’ ministry. The Church is a reconstitution of Israel around the Messiah, not a different type of society altogether. Baptists can only really speak of the ‘Israelness’ of the Church at a highly metaphorical level.

6. Christ’s Ministry. Following on from the point above, it is worth noticing that Wright points out that miracles occur in the context of faith and also that they are part of the means whereby God reconstitutes His people. Two facts are interesting here: (1) on a number of occasions Jesus heals people on the account of the faith of their parents or masters (e.g. Mark 5:22ff.; Luke 9:38ff.; John 4:47ff.); (2) Children are often the beneficiaries of Christ’s healing (e.g. Mark 7:25ff.). This suggests that the reconstitution of the people of God around Christ is one that includes children and also that they are in some sense included in the faith of their parents.

It is also interesting that Jesus repeatedly speaks of children as the paradigm case of those who receive the kingdom. When we recognize that Jesus was reforming Israel around Himself, His blessing of infants, for example, becomes even more significant (it is worth observing how loaded the concept of blessing is in the gospel; it is no light thing). If we read the gospels through the framework presented by Wright such incidents cannot but be seen as significant.

Dilettantes and the Bible

Jim West is absolutely right, such people have no right to be interpreting the Bible. However, that said, I am not sure that I trust most biblical scholars with the task of interpreting the Bible either. As Stanley Hauerwas observes, biblical scholarship and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin, both assume that the biblical text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation of the Church.

The most essential training in biblical interpretation that we will receive is not that provided by a theological degree, important though that is, but the training provided by belonging to a faithful Christian community under wise and faithful pastors. For this reason I am as suspicious of the assured interpretations of much modern biblical scholarship as I am of the interpretations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others like them. For all of their valuable linguistic gifts and scholarly credentials, biblical scholars outside of the Church are dilettantes who lack the basic training to interpret the Church’s Scriptures aright (this theory that I had to study last semester is a good example). Those who have not undergone and are not undergoing the paideia of the Christian Church, living as a community of discipleship under the Word of God, have no right to interpret the Scriptures. For this reason we should not even enter into debate with them on questions of interpretation.

Incarnational?

I don’t usually read Doug Wilson’s blog, but one of his recent posts — ‘Incarnational Is As Incarnational Does’ — has been quoted in a number of places within the blogosphere, so I took the time to read the full thing. Within it he writes:

But I want to be careful here because in our postmodern times some of our chief offenders in this area are those among the intelligensia who spend a lot of time braying about problematic abstractions. They are intent on overcoming the incipient dualism of the mind/body problem, but little beads of sweat always appear on their foreheads when they try it, and they are not very successful. And then there is this other guy, who has never heard of the mind/body problem; he works down at the feed store, and rides bulls at the rodeo on the weekends. He lives incarnationally, effortlessly, and could not explain any of that egghead stuff to you.

For the academicians, incarnational means being able to talk about incarnational, preferably with words like incarnational. But for the genuinely incarnational, it means being able to laugh at the people who always write big fat books full of words. Faith without works is dead, and this includes the faith of intellectuals. Intellectual faith without incarnational works is dead. But such works would not include poring over one another’s books, handing them back and forth with compliments or critiques, circulating them in a small band of irrelevant smart people. That reminds of the time someone threw a bunch of Scotsmen down into a pit and they all got rich selling rocks to each other.

Contemporary intellectuals tell us all to overcome abstractions, but whenever Joe Somebody in a red state says “Okay!” and heads off to a NASCAR race to eat corn dogs, the intellectual goes white in the face. “When we told you to walk away from the realm of abstractions, we didn’t mean . . . to just walk away.”

I am not sure that this is a very helpful way of expressing things. There is nothing necessarily incarnational about working down at the feed store and riding bulls at the rodeo on the weekends. In fact, the incarnational person is just as likely to be found poring over people’s books and engaging in scholarly dialogue. Wilson’s post might even suggest its own form of the mind/body dualism: ‘incarnational’ is doing things with your body, as opposed to doing things with your mind. Whilst I presume that Wilson does not intend this, I do not find his way of putting the issue very helpful.

For one, I find the thinking/acting (or speaking/acting) split that many people work in terms of (and Wilson’s post suggests) misleading, whilst recognizing the usefulness of the distinction on occasions. There are many people who shrink back from thinking because it takes far more effort than simply acting. If you really want to work to change the world you are probably best advised to spend a lot less time eating corn dogs and watching NASCAR. The people who will change history are more likely to be found poring over books. If you want to be someone who sees the Truth incarnated in your own and other people’s lives you would be well advised to join them.

To be incarnational is to embody the Truth as a whole person. Done properly, thinking is a form of incarnational living. It is a strong testimony to the Truth to be able to keep our heads cool enough to resist the false urgency of our society, its thirst for instant gratification and immediate action and devote time to reflection. Much of the church today is not very incarnational. One of the reasons why is because it has not developed the self-control and patience necessary to stand still long enough to think about what it is doing. The body is controlled by impulses and fleeting fads, rather than by the Truth. It has bought into the false urgency of modern society and flays about seeking to be relevant when it should remain calm and seek to be faithful.

Once we appreciate what it really means to be incarnational we will recognize that it involves having the Truth (the Person of Jesus Christ) permeating every aspect of our lives — heart, soul, mind and strength. Being incarnational involves partaking in a shared life, the life of Christ that we share as His body. For the incarnational Christian the sense of the term ‘Christian life’ is much the same as the sense of the terms ‘married’ or ‘family life’: we are many persons but share one life.

To the extent that our conception of the church has been reduced to one of a group of people who share the same ideas, rather than being regarded as a group of people who share a single life, we have ceased to be incarnational. To the extent that we talk about the Christian faith but fail to allow the Christian faith to permeate all of our actions we are not incarnational. Incarnational people do not regard their thinking as an activity abstracted from their living. When we warn about the danger of abstractions we are warning about thinking that the Object of theology is detached from the common life that we participate in, when in fact the life of the Triune God is the life that we participate in. Theology divorced from the life of the Church deals in abstractions; true Christian theology need not.

There is an important warning to those doing theology here. It is easy to see theology merely as a toying with ideas, rather than as a reflection upon a life that we share in. One of the problems of modern theology is that it has become abstracted. The discipline is not integrated into the life of the Church as it ought to be. It is believed that we can understand the Word of God in abstraction from the interpretative community of the Church. I would love to see a form of theology that is undertaken in service of the people of God, rather than as a merely academic discipline, in isolation from the body. We need theologians who do their theology as churchmen, like the early Church Fathers.

Those who have never heard of the mind/body problem are no less likely to have their thinking and acting governed by it, probably a lot more so. I have encountered plenty of people who have argued that I should stop studying theology and just live the Christian life. This attitude is extremely naïve. Studying theology is a means by which we ensure that it is indeed the Christian life that we are living. Whilst our participation in the Truth is not primarily arrived at through theological reflection, but through the worship of the Church that involves the whole person, theological reflection has the task of informing and correcting the worship of the Church and our lives as Christians. Where people have rejected theology in favour of worship (or in favour of NASCAR and corn dogs), their worship and their lives will very likely embody many things that are quite alien to the Truth.

How Gutenberg Took the Bible from Us: Some thoughts on the Ontology of the Scriptures

Tours Bible

This blog has been pretty quiet over the last couple of months (probably the least constructive months that I have had for well over a year). This is no one’s fault but my own. I lost much of my steam after a tiring January and have taken things very easy as regards my studies recently. Whilst I am keeping up to date with university work, I haven’t devoted much time or effort to anything beyond that which is immediately expected of me. Hopefully the next few months will see more material of substance being posted here.

Over the last day or so I have been thinking a little about the question of the ontology of the ‘Bible’ (or better, ‘Scripture’). This is something that I have pondered a lot in the past, but have never written that much about. All too often we use the word ‘Bible’ as if its meaning were plain, when its meaning is far more ambiguous than we originally might think.

Suppose that you asked different people to define ‘Shakespearian play’. The answer that you would receive from a high school English class might be quite different from the answer given by a troupe of Shakespearian actors. For the English student, the Shakespearian play is a text to be analyzed within the setting of the classroom. It is printed on paper and bound between two covers. For the Shakespearian actor, whilst there is undoubtedly a script, the play is understood primarily in terms of its performance.

The ontology of the play within the two different settings will powerfully inform the manner in which it will be engaged with. For the English student, the interpretation of the play will take the form of literary analysis and criticism. For the Shakespearian actor the interpretation of the play will take the form of a performance. The Shakespearian actor has to ‘inhabit’ the play; he has to live and breathe his character. The English student analyzes the play as an object from outside.

For the actor the Shakespearian play is not a closed text, but is an embodied and animated performance, always open to newer and richer interpretations. Indeed, the play has no existence independent of its many interpretations. These interpretations are not timeless and unchanging. Many possible routes of interpretation may present themselves, by which Shakespeare’s play speaks to people from various cultures and places in history. For the English student, interpretation of Shakespeare will look quite different and will (generally) be far less creative in character. It is far easier for the English student, faced with his Penguin edition of the Shakespearian play, to believe that the play has an existence independent of its interpreters. The play is an independent object to be analyzed and is autonomous in relationship to its interpreters.

Both Shakespearian actors and the English student may claim to love Shakespearian plays. However, we must be aware that they might not mean quite the same thing as each other by such a claim. The ontology of the Shakespearian play differs between their two interpretative communities.

I believe that much the same thing can be observed within the Christian world today. When we speak of the centrality of the ‘Bible’, we do not all mean the same thing. The ‘Bible’ in one community may differ quite significantly from the ‘Bible’ in another community. This is not a matter of the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Apocrypha, or anything like that. Rather it has to do with the manner in which the text is conceived of and engaged with. What many churches identify and seek to defend as the ‘Bible’ bears little relationship to that which Christians throughout most of the Church’s history would have thought of as ‘Scripture’ or the ‘Bible’. Unfortunately, few people seem to pay much attention to this and the profound influence that different conceptions of the Bible have upon the way that we engage with Scripture.

The ‘Bible’ that most Christians think in terms of is a very different kind of entity from the ‘Bible’ that the Church originally received. When one speaks of the ‘Bible’ today, most people have in mind a privately-owned, mass-produced, printed book, which contains 66 smaller books, neatly divided into chapters and verses, with notes and cross-references in the margins, a title page, a contents page and concordance, bound between two covers. Most Christians have more than one copy of this book and are accustomed to relating to it primarily through the act of silent reading off the printed page. Such an entity would have been alien to the experience of most Christians throughout history. A while back Joel Garver wrote a very thought-provoking post on the subject of the Bible in the Middle Ages, which articulated (far more clearly than I ever could) many of issues that I had been thinking about concerning the manner in which we encounter the Scriptures. Within the post he observed just how different the Bible that the Christian in the Middle Ages had was from the Bible as we have it in our churches.

The fact that our ‘Bible’ is the type of entity that it is encourages certain forms of engagement with it. The ease with which our Bibles are produced and transported shapes the manner in which we use them. The fact that our Bibles are privately owned can make the idea that the Bible has been given to the Church, rather than to the world in general, strange to us. A mass-produced printed text simply does not have the same character as a manuscript.

The fact that the text is bound between two covers also seems to establish a greater degree of closure to the text. This closure stands in contrast to the openness of the medieval Bible, which consisted of many volumes or separate books. Complete Bibles were very rare as multi-volume sets, let alone as single volumes.

It also stands in contrast to the openness of the text that is encountered primarily through the ear, as it is read aloud in the liturgy, for example. The heard word involves passage in time, successive sounds dying on the air; the written word is mapped onto unchanging space. The written word has a form of immediacy and presence that is denied to the spoken word. It is already there, rather than something that arrives gradually over the course of time. The written word (and far more so the printed word) lends itself to the downplaying of the significance of time. I wonder how this has played into, for example, understandings of the covenant as an abstract theological construct, rather than as a developing historical entity. Print may have encouraged people’s minds to become primarily spatially organized, leaving far less of a role for temporal categories. The role of anticipation and remembrance in our engagement with Scripture may be downplayed as a result.

It is far easier to treat the printed text as an object than either the written or the spoken word. Each written manuscript is individually produced by a particular agent at a particular moment in history and, as such, is more like an ‘occurrence in the course of conversation’ or an ‘utterance’ (to use Walter Ong’s expressions — in Orality and Literacy) than the printed text is. Ong observes the manner in which print encouraged the idea of the book as an object ‘containing’ information, rather than as a form of utterance. In the age of print title pages for books became more and more common. The fact that every single book in an edition was physically identical to every other invited people to regard them as objects needing labels, rather than as forms of personal utterance. Print encourages us to think in terms of the autonomy of the text. The printed text exists independently of an ongoing conversation.

The idea of the Bible as an impersonal object containing information is encouraged by the printed, bound form in which we encounter it. Were we to encounter the Bible primarily in the context of the heavenly ‘conversation’ of the spoken liturgy the personal character of the Word might be more apparent to us.

The authority of the printed text (thought of as an object ‘containing’ information) will most likely be conceived of very differently from the authority of the written or spoken word. The authority of the printed text is the authority of the rule book, the encyclopaedia or the how-to manual. The authority of the spoken or written word is far more personal in character. I have remarked at length on the contrast between the Word encountered through the eye as printed text and the Word encountered as sound through the ear in the past, so I won’t repeat those thoughts here. I will just remark that the manner in which we understand the authority of the Word will most likely be affected by whether our encounter with the Word is primarily with the Word as spoken in the Church’s liturgy or as printed text.

I could say a lot more regarding the manner in which technology shapes the manner in which we have grown accustomed to engaging with the text. I could comment on the huge effect that chapters and verses, concordances and other Bible helps have on our consciousness. I could also raise concerns about the way in which recent and forthcoming technological developments (electronic books, online Bibles, search functions, etc.) change the character of the biblical text even further. However, a complete analysis of technology’s shaping of the Bible is not the goal of this post.

The primary point of this post is to argue that the ‘Bible’ that we have come to think in terms of has blinded us to a number of important things. The purpose of the above comments is to make the technology that so shapes our engagement with Scripture ‘strange’ to us once again. We need to contemplate what bringing the Bible into a print culture (and also into the ‘information culture’ of the computer age) does to the text and our understanding of it. My intention is to counteract what Neil Postman has termed the tendency for technology to become ‘mythic’. The ‘technology’ of the modern Bible is something that we tend to regard as part of the natural order of things. We need to be alerted to its presence once more. The more that we are alerted to its presence, the more I believe that we will appreciate that it has shaped, and in many respects distorted, our understanding of the Scripture.

There are a few key things that I wish to draw out for particular attention in conclusion.

1. The importance of the relationship between our world and the world of the text. The technology that shapes the Scriptures will powerfully influence our understanding of the relationship between our world and that of the text. It is my firm conviction that the Bible presents us with a narrative that we are called to ‘inhabit’. The narrative of Scripture is not some closed entity. Rather, the narrative of Scripture establishes a world in which we are called to participate. The movement beyond such ‘pre-critical’ exegesis was probably empowered by the invention of the printing press more than anything else. As soon as the Bible comes to be regarded primarily as an object containing true propositions the pre-critical appropriation of the text will seem bizarre. A printed and bound text is far harder to ‘inhabit’ than Scriptures read out in the context of the Church’s ongoing liturgy.

2. Notions of the Bible’s authority. I have already remarked that the technology of our Bible tends to depersonalize the concept of authority. It also tends to make the concept of authority far more static. Rather than the authority of God being dynamically enacted through the Scriptures, the Scriptures come to be regarded as a static repository of timeless truth.

3. The relationship between the Bible and the Church. I have already observed that the modern Bible attenuates the connection between the Bible and the Church. A Bible printed with many thousands of copies in a single edition by a multinational corporation, independent of the authority of the Church, and privately owned by people within and without the Church will not be regarded in the same way as the Bible was prior to the invention of the printing press.

In Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas has argued that no more important task faces the Church than that of taking the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in America. Amidst Hauerwas’ characteristic overstatement, there is a very important point. As Hauerwas points out, the printing press and the mass production of the biblical text has led to the impression that people can interpret the Bible ‘for themselves’ without moral transformation or any need to stand under the authority of a ‘truthful community’ in order to learn how to read (the exaltation of private and individual spirituality over public faith has roots here also).

If the Bible was given to be encountered primarily as a printed or written text the Church is not that necessary. However, I believe that the Bible was given to be ‘performed’ (much as the Shakespearian play). The chief ‘performance’ of the Bible is that which occurs in the Church’s liturgy. It is read aloud in the lectionary. It is prayed, sung, meditated upon, memorized and recited. Its story is retold in various forms. It is our conversation partner and our guide.

Our lives are incorporated into the story of Scripture throughout the liturgy. We are taught to remember the story of God’s saving acts in the old and new testaments as our story. We are taught to speak of and see the world in a Christian way as we learn liturgical responses and are instructed through preaching. Our world is gradually translated into biblical categories. As Peter Leithart has observed, the use of the Bible in worship also trains us psychologically: ‘Singing the Psalms makes the biblical story and biblical language part of us, knits it into the fabric of our flesh.’ The Bible (in stark contrast to contemporary worship choruses) gives us the vocabulary with which to respond to the difficulties and the joys of life.

The narrative of Scripture also serves to structure the Church’s life on a larger scale, through the Church calendar. In A Community of Character, Hauerwas writes:—

…[T]he shape of the liturgy over a whole year prevents any one part of scripture from being given undue emphasis in relation to the narrative line of scripture. The liturgy, in every performance and over a whole year, rightly contextualizes individual passages when we cannot read the whole.

Unfortunately, in many churches that pay little attention to the shape of the liturgy, it is the shape of the confession of faith or the systematic theologians that the pastor read in seminary that are most clearly apparent. Pet doctrines take on a prominence that bears no relationship to the place that they are given in the story of Scripture. I sometimes wonder what the Reformed doctrine of election, for example, would look like had the Church’s reflection on election been more firmly situated within the context of an overarching narrative which structured the Church year. The Reformed tradition has all too often lost sight of the centrality of the Story as people’s encounter with Scripture has increasingly been dominated by a the text understood non-liturgically.

The Bible also gives all sorts of ‘stage directions’. The institution of the various biblical rites (e.g. the Eucharist) can be read as such. Like all stage directions, the point is to be found in their performance. Those who believe that the meaning of the Lord’s Supper can be wholly ascertained from Scripture are like people who believe that the recipe makes the cake superfluous.

Throughout the liturgy the Word is central. However, the Word is never mere letters on a page, which is what it has been reduced to by many Protestants. The Word in the liturgy is living and active. He works upon us and transforms us. He comforts us and rebukes us; He encourages us and exhorts us. The written text is the score from which the symphony of liturgy is performed. The true revelation takes place in the performance, not primarily in the score. This is where I must take my stand with those who refuse to speak of the mass-produced, privately-owned, printed and bound text as the Word of God in an unqualified sense.

4. The impact upon our doctrine of Scripture and the discipline of theology. The set of ‘ideas’ contained in the technology of the modern Bible has profound ramifications for our doctrine of Scripture. I am continually amazed at how little attention theologians give to this issue. It seems to be widely taken for granted that what we call the ‘Bible’ bears a one-to-one relationship with that which Christ originally gave to His Church.

If one believes that the Bible is primarily encountered in the course of the liturgy, a far closer relationship between Bibliology, Theology proper and Ecclesiology begins to emerge. The Bible that most modern Christians think in terms of is an object; what we encounter in the liturgy is nothing less than the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ Himself.

God breathes out His Word in the Spirit into the Church, speaking the Church into existence as the body of Christ. This act occurs chiefly in the context of the liturgy of the Church’s gathered worship. God’s gift of His Word should not be first sought in what we have come to understand as the ‘Bible’. ‘Performing’ the Bible involves learning how to inhabit the Word (which means nothing less than learning how to be ‘in Christ’). The process of ‘learning’ how to be in Christ is not predominantly a matter of cognitive processing. Rather, it is a training of character.

The Word was made flesh and Protestants have all too often tended to make Him mere ‘word’ again. Bibliolatry is perhaps one of the greatest errors within Protestantism today. The Bible has been transformed into an object to be used and the idea that it is primarily designed to do things to us in the course of the liturgy has been forgotten. In the process it has become akin to an idol. The Bible that God gave to the Church is to be understood as something to be incarnated — embodied in the life and worship of the community. We have tended to neglect the performance of the symphony in favour of reflecting on the score. Whilst reflection on the score has its place, it can never take the place of performance.

By ‘embodied’ I am not primarily referring to the need to obey biblical commands. Rather, I am referring to the need to ‘put on’ the narrative of Scripture, to ‘inhabit’ it, to relate to the text more as actors than as academics. Interpretation of the Scripture is not chiefly something that the Church is to do; the Church is called to be the interpretation of Scripture. From a slightly different angle, using N.T. Wright’s classic analogy, we are called to improvise the fifth act of the biblical narrative.

If we were informed by such considerations I believe that our doctrine of Scripture would take a radically different shape.

5. The relationship between the Bible, liturgy and hermeneutics. Unfortunately, the whole theological endeavour has also been shaped by the modern understanding of the Bible. Hauerwas makes an important point when he writes:

It is important not only that theologians know text, but it is equally important how and where they learn the text. It is my hunch that part of the reason for the misuse of the scripture in matters dealing with morality is that the text was isolated from a liturgical context. There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with individuals reading and studying scripture, but such reading must be guided by the use of the scripture through the liturgies of the church… Aidan Kavanagh has recently observed, “the liturgy is scripture’s home rather than its stepchild, and the Hebrew and Christian bibles were the church’s first liturgical books.”

For many theologians, however, the kind of entity that the text is is determined more by the context of the academy than by the context of the Church’s liturgy.

Picking up on some earlier points, the written and the spoken Word partake more of the character of actions than the printed text can. Written and spoken words more clearly do things. Printed words are easier to regard as passive things to be acted upon. The primary engagement with the printed text is one of analysis as we act upon the text using our rational faculties. However, when we are faced with the spoken Word it becomes far more apparent that the purpose of the engagement is primarily for the Word to act upon us, rather than vice versa. A theology that refuses to objectify the Bible will differ markedly from other forms of theology.

Emphasis on the printed word has also encouraged the development of highly rationalistic ways of thinking about Scripture and has deeply infected our theology in the process. The Bible is conceived of as a collection of propositions. However, much of the Bible consists of ‘phatic’ speech. Its purpose is not that of conveying information. Rather, it is designed to strengthen and mould relationship. The Word, considered this way, is more concerned with modifying a life situation than with conveying information in a more detached fashion. Our interaction with the Word in the liturgy brings us to a knowledge of God, not merely a knowledge about God.

Walter Ong writes:—

The condition of words in a text is quite different from their condition in spoken discourse. Although they refer to sounds and are meaningless unless they can be related — externally or in the imagination — to the sounds or, more precisely, the phonemes they encode, written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words.

Yet words are alone in a text…. [Orality and Literacy, 100]

By taking the Bible out of the context of the liturgy, the Bible has been put into a context where its words are alone and detached from a particular life situation. It addresses no one in particular from a position of detachment. The text becomes autonomous in a way that it never could if it were regard as a liturgical text.

It seems to me that the displacing of typological and liturgical ways of reading Scripture and the rise of pure grammatical historical exegesis owes much (for numerous reasons) to the invention of the printing press. Whilst Protestants are used to singing the praises of the printing press as that which led to people having the Bible, I want to argue that, in some very important senses, the printing press led to the people of God being robbed of the Bible.

The ubiquity of the printed text makes it very difficult for us to recover a more Christian engagement with the Scripture. Even within the gathered worship of the people of God, people are incessantly reading their printed Bibles. This is akin to someone attending a production of Hamlet and paying little attention to what is taking place on the stage because he is too busy reading along in the text.

Liturgy provides us with a hermeneutical context for reading the Word of God. The rise of the printed word has led, I believe to a reshaping and restructuring of liturgy. Biblical liturgy has been displaced by liturgical minimalism. Merely grammatical historical exegesis is, I believe, intrinsically bound up with minimalistic forms of liturgy (I have already commented on this). Both are encouraged by an engagement with Scripture that is primarily engagement with a printed text.

The medieval manuscript was far more likely to be physically beautiful than the modern Bible. The printing press brought with it a certain form of austerity. The complex and decorative characters of older scripts were simplified down to basic and constant forms. The colourful illustrations, flourishes and artistic binding of older manuscripts were discarded for functional purposes. The Bible gradually ceased to be regarded as, among other things, a work of art and came to take on the character of a purely functional object.

When your chief contact with the Bible is with printed letters surrounded by white space, you will be far less likely to appreciate the role of incense, symbols, images, song, architecture, bread and wine, posture, gesture and vesture in our relationship with God. Seeing is the sense that makes the least immediate physical impression on us (seeing very bright light being a notable exception). The printed text makes far less demands on the senses than the written text does. Our engagement with God in His Word becomes primarily a matter of the mind, the body being largely bypassed.

To a large measure, the austerity and rationalism of much Reformed worship may grow out of such a typographic consciousness. The unadorned simplicity of the printed page has been imposed as the model for biblical worship, in general disregard of all the traditional and biblical forms of worship (take, for example, the worship of the book of Revelation). When you have been trained in such a consciousness the various elements of high liturgy will tend to be regarded as fripperies that complicate what should be a simple engagement with God’s Word (i.e. engagement with that which is found in the printed text). In a typographic culture it is easily forgotten that engagement with God’s Word is something that involves the whole of our beings, body and mind.

There is a relationship between the way that we worship and the way that we will read God’s Word. Our liturgies are, in many respects, the embodiment of our hermeneutics. Typological readings of God’s Word will be encouraged by those whose form of engagement with God’s Word in worship go far beyond that of reading off a page and instruction directed primarily at the mind. Typological readings of God’s Word are more a matter of a sanctified form of aesthetics than a scientific technique. Austere worship has little place for the development of a Christian aesthetics and will consequently give rise to hermeneutics that consistently fail to grasp the musical, symbolic and literary character of the biblical text.

Richly liturgical worship trains the person at every level of their being. It does not merely consist of truths to be mentally digested. Such training of character is absolutely essential if we are to be the sort of people who read the Bible correctly.

I could say much, much more on these issues but I have rambled on quite long enough. Despite the amount that I have written above, I really haven’t begun to scrape the surface of the matters that could be raised surrounding the question of the ontology of the Bible. I haven’t even addressed many of the issues that I originally intended to (e.g. the relationship between Scripture and tradition). Perhaps I will return to some of the loose threads in the above arguments sometime in the future. In the meantime, please feel welcome to comment.

This Isn’t Very Encouraging



On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 2

Part 1

Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. – Acts 2:1

In setting the scene for the events of Pentecost, Luke immediately draws our attention to the fact that all of the disciples are assembled together in one place. Remarking on the ‘togetherness’ of the disciples, Richard Thompson observes:

Although Luke does not explicitly state why this corporate quality is important or how these believers concretely demonstrate such a quality, such an emphasis suggests that this characteristic is critical both to the narrative and potentially to what follows.[1]

What are we to make of the corporate character of the events of Pentecost?

A Community of Prophets
Pentecost (re)constitutes the community of the early church in a powerful way, representing an event of decisive importance for its formation and identity. For this reason it is perhaps significant that we find a number of possible echoes of the events of Sinai in the immediate context. Sinai was an event of immense importance for Israel in its life as a nation, being the occasion of a group theophany, their reception of the Torah and their entrance into a covenant with YHWH. Kenneth Litwak writes:

There are several striking elements which suggest that Luke shaped his account on the basis of the Sinai tradition. Acts 2 opens with a theophany, which includes fire and a loud sound (Acts 2.1-4; cf. Exod. 19:16 [sound of a trumpet] and Exod. 19.18 [YHWH descended upon Sinai in fire]). At Sinai God spoke to Moses, and in Acts 2.11 the people hear the disciples speaking of the mighty works of God. On a broader level, the theophanic event in Acts 2.1-4 is formative for the first followers of the Way, just as the Sinai theophany was formative for God’s people in Exodus.[2]

In Exodus 19:1 we read that the children of Israel arrived at Sinai three months after leaving Egypt, where, after a few days of preparation, they received the Law. As the feast of Pentecost occurred 49 days after the Feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:15-16), which took place in the latter half of the first month, the possibility of a chronological connection between Pentecost and the giving of the Law and forming of the covenant in Sinai is raised.[3] This connection did not go unnoticed by the rabbis, who identified Pentecost as the feast celebrating the gift of the Law. Whether such a connection was established by the time that Luke wrote the account of Acts 2 is uncertain and continues to be a matter of debate among scholars.

Taken by itself this connection between Pentecost and Sinai may appear rather slight, but it is given more weight when we consider it alongside the presence of the other echoes of the Sinai account in the early chapters of Acts.[4] At Sinai Israel was set apart as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’, giving the children of Israel a special role to play within God’s purposes for the wider creation. The parallels to the event of Sinai are important chiefly on account of the way in which they frame the event as one through which the disciples are set apart as a people with a new vocation.

In contrast to the examples of prophetic succession that we previously observed, the example of Sinai involves the reconstitution and setting apart of a whole people and not just of one person. The events of Pentecost are not of mere private significance to those involved, but herald the establishing of a new reality in the realm of history. Sinai inaugurates a new era and not merely a period of leadership limited by one man’s lifespan. Consequently, the event of Sinai has much light to shed on Luke’s account of Pentecost. Stronstad writes:

…[W]hat is happening on the day of Pentecost is not only as dramatic as, but also as significant as what happened at Mt Sinai. In other words, the creation of the disciples as a community of prophets is as epochal as the earlier creation of Israel as a kingdom of priests.[5]

The Distribution of the Spirit of Jesus
A number of commentators have argued for some form of connection between the narrative of Numbers 11 and that of Acts 2, a connection that can illuminate certain dimensions of the church’s prophetic character.

In Numbers 11 Moses appeals to YHWH to ease the burden of leadership that he is bearing. Responding to his plea, God instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel and bring them to the tabernacle of meeting. There God will take of the Spirit that is on Moses and give it to the elders, so that they can share the task of leading the people with him.

Following a day of preparation, the elders are gathered together and the Spirit rests on them. They then begin to prophesy, although they never do so again (Numbers 11:25).[6] Two of the seventy elders—Eldad and Medad—were not present at the tabernacle of meeting at the time, but received the Holy Spirit nonetheless and began to prophesy in the middle of the camp. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, concerned by this, asks Moses to instruct them to stop. Moses, however, was unconcerned: ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’ (verse 29).

There are a number of echoes of the theophany at Sinai in the account of Numbers 11, including: (1) the granting of a new vocation to a body of people (Exodus 19:5-6; Numbers 11:16-17); (2) the command for the people to sanctify themselves for the coming day when YHWH will act decisively (Number 11:18; cf. Exodus 19:10); (3) the gathering of the people around a particular location, Mt Sinai in the Exodus account and the tabernacle in that of Numbers (Numbers 11:24);[7] (4) a theophany in which God comes down in the cloud and speaks with Moses (Exodus 19:9; Numbers 11:25).

Although some might argue that the ‘spirit’ given to the seventy elders is Moses own spirit, rather than YHWH’s, a reading of Numbers 11 that understands the ‘spirit’ as YHWH’s own Spirit seems far more satisfactory (cf. verse 29). Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize that the Spirit that is given to the seventy elders is spoken of as the Spirit that is upon Moses himself (Numbers 11:17, 25). Although we are not here dealing with a ‘sacramental transfer’ in which Moses is active, Moses is seen as the one who mediates the elders’ reception of the Spirit. The elders do not receive the Spirit as a direct bestowal from God, but with ‘Moses as the intermediary’.[8]

Williams contrasts this with the case of leadership succession that occurs when Joshua receives authority to lead and the ‘spirit of wisdom’ through the imposition of Moses’ hands (Deuteronomy 34:9). In Numbers 11 Moses does not abandon certain aspects of his leadership to others. The elders are rather empowered to help fulfil Moses’ task of leading the people. Their ministry does not displace that of Moses, but involves a partaking in Moses’ ministry.[9]

At Pentecost Jesus mediates the gift of the Spirit to the church (Acts 2:33), and, much as the elders’ reception of the Spirit in Numbers 11 gave them a share in the Spirit of prophetic leadership that belonged to Moses, so Pentecost brings the church to participate in the prophetic authority of Jesus, an authority that never ceases to be the exclusive possession of Jesus himself.

At this juncture a further dimension of the ‘baptism’ imagery (cf. Acts 1:5) may come to the fore: baptism does not merely initiate into office, it can also fulfil an incorporative purpose, bringing people to participate in the life, authority, status or privileges of another (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2; Galatians 3:26-29). Just as Israel was led by Moses prior to being ‘baptized’ into a greater union with him,[10] so the disciples were led by Jesus prior to the baptism of Pentecost. What Pentecost effected was the disciples’ reconstitution as the church—the body of Christ—bringing them into a new relationship with their master. They now shared in the power of his Spirit, being bound to him by a bond of relationship far stronger than any they had previously enjoyed.[11]

The temporary and unrepeated character of the elders’ act of prophesying merits closer examination. While we have good reason to believe that the Spirit remained with the elders, enabling them to fulfil their role, the fact that they did not prophesy again suggests that prophesying was not necessary for this. The initial ecstatic manifestations were not normative for the ongoing performance of their duties. A similar occurrence can be found in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, where the Spirit comes upon Saul, causing him to prophesy. It is through this experience that Saul is set apart and personally prepared for leadership (1 Samuel 10:6). Apart from one other exceptional occasion,[12] we never read of Saul prophesying again. The prophecy was an effect and an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon him; the continuance of the Spirit with him did not necessitate repeated occurrences of prophetic manifestations.

There is a strong analogy to be observed between the prophesying of the elders and the glossolalia of the disciples, and a few writers (Gordon Wenham, for instance) have even suggested that we equate the two. As Dunn observes, Luke does not share Paul’s sharp distinction between speaking in tongues and prophesying. In his use of the passage from Joel in his sermon, Peter appears to equate the tongues-speaking of the disciples with the prophetic speech which the prophecy promises. In light of this OT background, it seems that the purpose of the glossolalia in the context of Acts 2 was primarily that of serving as an authenticating sign of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples. There is no reason for us to believe that glossolalia would continue to be practiced by all of the disciples present at Pentecost. Tongues-speaking primarily served as a temporary authenticating sign.

The passage from the prophet Joel that Peter uses in his sermon is strikingly parallel to the wish of Moses that all of the people were prophets (Acts 2:17-18; Numbers 11:29).[13] This connection between the prophecy of Joel and Numbers 11 is also found is rabbinic midrash texts. If, as Litwak maintains, the Joel prophecy provides a ‘programmatic text’ and lens for Luke’s understanding of Pentecost, it is also a lens through which passages such as Numbers 11 illuminate the text. The ‘prophethood of all believers’ that is desired in Numbers, is prophesied in Joel and receives a form of fulfilment in Acts.

Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Eldad and Medad when we read of the Gentiles who received the Spirit in Acts 10. Eldad and Medad were outside of the group of elders at the tabernacle. Nonetheless, they still receive the anointing of the Spirit just as the others. In a similar manner, the Gentiles may have appeared to be outside of the gathering to which the Spirit was specially promised, but they received the Spirit in much the same way, in a sort of aftershock of the original event. By giving Cornelius and his household the Spirit before they had become members of a Jewish church, God demonstrated the freedom of the Spirit and the fact that Jews and Gentiles were accepted on an equal footing.

Endnotes
[1] Richard P. Thompson, Keeping the Church in its Place: The Church as Narrative Character in Acts (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 38
[2] Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 165-166. Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 58-59 highlights a number of further common features of the Sinai and Pentecost narratives, including the days of preparation and the occurrence of the theophany in the morning.
[3] A number of writers reference Jubilees 6:17-21 in this context. Others have observed the connection that Jubilees draws between Pentecost and covenant renewal.
[4] Besides those already mentioned, there are a number of further echoes of Sinai narrative in Acts 2. The ascension of Christ into the cloud (Acts 1:9) might be an echo of the ascension of Moses onto Mount Sinai. The number added to the church (‘cut to the heart’) in Acts 2:41 may also echo the number slain by the sword at Sinai (Exodus 32:28). Wedderburn argues for a connection between the events of Sinai and those of the Day of Pentecost as they are recorded in Acts, but claims that this connection was not made by Luke, but by some of his sources. Hovenden has a very helpful discussion of some further possible literary connections, including that of a Lukan allusion to Psalm 67:19 (LXX) in Acts 2:33, a verse applied to Moses at Mount Sinai by some of the rabbis. Johnson highlights the similarities between the statement concerning Moses in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38 and that of Peter concerning Jesus in Acts 2:33.
[5] The Prophethood of All Believers, 59
[6] The meaning of the phrase ולא יספו is not entirely clear. In light of the similar phrase used in Deuteronomy 5:22, we have opted to understand it as a denial of their continuance in prophesying.
[7] The possibility of the disciples being gathered around the temple on the Day of Pentecost will be discussed in a later post.
[8] David T. Williams, ‘Old Testament Pentecost.’ Old Testament Essays, 16:130-1
[9] Ibid, 132
[10] As we shall later see, one dimension of this ‘baptism into Moses’ was Israel’s entry into Moses’ own experience.
[11] The incorporative purpose of the baptism of the Spirit is explored in such places as 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.
[12] 1 Samuel 19:21-24. This incident occurs after the Spirit has departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
[13] John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 95 relates Joel 2 and Numbers 11 together, claiming that Joel’s prophecy ‘reads almost as a fulfillment of Moses’ hope expressed in Num. 11:29.’

On Making a Prophet: Pentecost and the Church’s Mission, Part 1

The following is the first in a series of several posts, exploring the prophetic role of the church and the meaning of the Baptism of the Spirit.

The first chapter of the book of Acts presents us with both an ending and a beginning. Bringing to a close the period of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ ascent into heaven also marks the beginning of a new act in the drama of the NT, that of the public mission of the church.

The exact nature of the relationship between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of his church is a matter that I will explore in some depth in the posts that will follow this one. In particular, I will be attempting to demonstrate that the events of Pentecost set the church apart as a prophetic community. Bringing the text of the opening chapters of the book of Acts into conversation with particular texts within the OT, I hope to explore the manner in which accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession can provide a helpful lens through which to view the events of Pentecost. In making this case I will be devoting considerable attention to a closer analysis of Acts 2:1-4. Having established this exegetical groundwork, I hope to proceed to make some observations about the way in which I believe that the event of Pentecost should shape the Church’s self-understanding. While my focus will be on constructing a positive account of the significance of this event, I will also be entering into critical dialogue with alternative understandings.

A number of writers have explored the subject of prophetic anointing in Acts 2. In The Prophethood of All Believers, Roger Stronstad devotes a chapter to the event of Pentecost, which he claims inaugurates ‘the prophethood of all believers.’[1] The theme is also highlighted by some commentators in the course of their treatment of the passage, and in wider treatments of Luke-Acts. Within Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts, Kenneth Litwak identifies a number of the OT passages that the narrative of the early chapters of Acts evokes, unearthing some neglected allusions to prophetic call and succession narratives in the process.

Building upon the foundation that these writers have established, and entering into constructive conversation with them, I hope to probe deeper into the OT background for the prophetic themes that surface in Luke’s account of Pentecost. Attempting an intertextual reading of Acts 2, I want to prove the theological and exegetical value of understanding the account in terms of OT accounts of prophetic call, anointing and succession.

Jesus and the Church in Luke-Acts
For Luke the ministry of the church is inseparably connected to Jesus’ own ministry, something highlighted by the resumptive character of his introduction to the book of Acts. As Ben Witherington argues, Luke situates his account of Jesus within a ‘wider historical framework’, giving considerable prominence to the events preceding the birth of John the Baptist at the very outset of his narrative and closely following the subsequent growth of the church in the second volume of his work.[2] Remarking on the limited attention that Luke gives to Peter’s confession in his gospel, in contrast to the accent placed on the accounts of the commissioning of the Twelve and the Seventy between which it is sandwiched, Witherington writes:

Nowhere is it made more apparent than in this sequence that Jesus is the initiator of a series of events and proclamations that his disciples undertake during and then after his time. The focus is not just on Jesus but on the historical Jesus movement of which he was the catalyst and focal point.[3]

In adopting a narrow focus on the identity and personal ministry of Jesus we are in danger of failing to appreciate the degree to which the Lukan treatment of the early church is driven by more than a merely biographical or historical interest. For Luke the church plays a key role in the drama of God’s salvation, both as the place where that salvation is realized and as the agency through whom it is borne witness to and spread.

Baptism, Ascension, and Elijah Typology
Immediately prior to his ascension, Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift for which they must wait in Jerusalem. Recalling the contrast drawn by John the Baptist in Luke 3:16, Jesus speaks of the reception of the Spirit in terms of the language of baptism. By describing the church’s forthcoming reception of the Holy Spirit in such a manner, Jesus presents the event that is about to occur to the church as somehow analogous to the type of event that John’s baptism represented. The baptism with water administered by John the Baptist will now be followed by a baptism with the Spirit that Jesus will perform on his disciples.

Within Lukan theology, John’s baptism is presented as playing a preparatory role (cf. Acts 19:1-6). It prepared the people for the coming kingdom of God and also served as the ‘launching-pad’ for Jesus’ own work. In Luke’s gospel we see that Jesus’ own baptism by John the Baptist marked the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 3:20-22), a detail that is given significance in the first chapter of Acts (Acts 1:21-22). In the narrative of Luke’s gospel, John’s baptism of Jesus also marks the end of John’s place in the foreground of the gospel narrative. Once the ministry of Jesus has got off the ground, the purpose of John’s ministry has more or less been accomplished.[4]

Within the gospels John the Baptist is presented ‘as in some sense Elijah redivivus.’[5] In an allusion to the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6, the angel Gabriel declares to Zecharias that his son John will go before the Lord ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1:17). Elsewhere, Jesus declares that John was the Elijah that was promised to come (Matthew 17:10-13). The description and narrative of John the Baptist is also replete with allusions to the description and narrative of the prophet Elijah.[6]

Perhaps it is significant that John’s baptism of Jesus takes place on the far side of the Jordan: this was the place where Elisha succeeded Elijah (2 Kings 2) and Joshua took over from Moses (Joshua 1). In all cases the succession involves a crossing or coming out of the river and a reception of the Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9; Joshua 1:10-18; 2 Kings 2:9-15; Luke 3:21-22).

At Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove (Luke 3:22), fills him and leads him into the wilderness (Luke 4:1). Within Lukan theology, there is a very close connection between filling with the Spirit and prophecy (Luke 1:15, 41-45, 67; Acts 2:4, 17-18; 4:8, 31; 7:55-56; 13:9-11).[7] Jesus’ characterization of himself as a prophet in Luke 4:24, in the context of his reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 is significant. It is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that sets him apart as a prophet. The connection between baptism and investiture is an important one for our purposes:[8] the church’s reception of the Spirit in the ‘baptism’ of Pentecost needs to be understood as an ordination for prophetic ministry.

Luke does not limit his deployment of Elijah imagery to his treatment of John the Baptist. As N.T. Wright observes, there is strong evidence to suggest that the synoptics also understand the work of Jesus in terms of Elijah typology.[9] It is at the point of Jesus’ ascension that this imagery assumes a greater prominence. Commenting on the ascension account in Luke 24:50-53, Kenneth Litwak writes:

If Luke’s audience encountered a story of someone approved by God ‘going up’ to heaven, they would surely have thought of Elijah’s ascension … since his is the only ascension account in the Scriptures of Israel. The statement in Lk. 24.49 that the disciples would be empowered by the Spirit recalls Elijah’s bequest of his ‘spirit’ to Elisha (4 Kgdms 2.9-10). The use of ενδύσησθε in Lk. 24.49 may also be an allusion to Elijah’s mantle which was passed on to Elisha (2 Kgdms 2.13)…[10]

The OT speaks of the future return of the ascended Elijah to restore all things (Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Sirach 48:10), a theme that also appears in the NT (Mark 9:12; Matthew 17:11). Significantly, Luke ascribes to the ascended Jesus that which was traditionally ascribed to Elijah: in Acts 3:21 he speaks of Jesus as the one ‘whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21; cf. Acts 1:11).[11]

Given the dominance of such Elijah imagery in the context of the ascension, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit immediately prior to his rapture must take on an added significance. The Elijah imagery provides the typological adhesive binding together ascension, Pentecost and parousia. Within the frame provided by the Elijah typology, an intimate connection is seen to exist between the ascension and Pentecost narratives. Consequently, any attempt to understand the events of Pentecost must begin by giving attention to the Lukan ascension accounts.[12]

The Ascension and the Prophetic Anointing of the Church
Just as Jesus’ baptism by John marked the beginning of his prophetic ministry and his succession from John’s own ministry, so the ascension and Pentecost mark the time when the church is anointed for its prophetic ministry and the transition from Jesus’ public earthly ministry to that of the church.

The two most important prophetic succession narratives of the OT involve the transition from the leadership of Moses to the leadership of Joshua (Numbers 27:12-23) and the transition from the prophetic ministry of Elijah to that of Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-15).[13] In both of these cases the mission started by the first prophet is completed by his successor.[14] Moses’ mission to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land is only fulfilled in the ministry of his successor Joshua. Similarly, the mission that Elijah is charged with in 1 Kings 19:15-17 is only completed in the ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 8:13; 9:1-3).[15]

Elisha is a new Elijah (2 Kings 2:15), just as Joshua is a new Moses (Numbers 27:20; Joshua 1:5). The parallel between the ministries of Joshua and Elisha and the ministry of Jesus’ disciples is worth highlighting. Both Joshua and Elisha serve as apprentices to prophets, whose ministries they inherit following the time of their masters’ departures. The same pattern holds in the case of Jesus’ disciples: having left their work to follow Jesus as disciples, they receive their master’s Spirit following his departure and continue his mission.

The relationship between the prophet and his apprentice is akin to the relationship between a father and his son. In Numbers 13:16 we see that Joshua’s name was given to him by Moses. Moses also lays his hands on Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9) in a manner reminiscent of the patriarchs’ blessings on their sons (Genesis 48:13-20). A similar relationship exists between Elijah and Elisha. Elisha receives a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit, the inheritance appropriate to the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:17),[16] and, as Elijah is taken into heaven, Elisha addresses him as his ‘father’. Jesus’ farewell discourse and blessing of his disciples (Luke 24:51) belongs within this pattern of prophetic succession.

Zwiep notes the parallel between the stress on the visibility of the master’s departure in both the account of Elijah’s rapture and that of Jesus’ ascension.[17] Seeing Elijah taken up was an indispensable condition for Elisha’s right to succeed him. Moberly explains the logic of the test: ‘…it is the responsibility of the prophet to be able to see God, and if Elisha cannot see God in this critical instance, then he is not able to take on the role of one who sees God in other instances; Elisha cannot be a prophet like Elijah unless he has the requisite spiritual capacity.’[18] The Lukan stress on the disciples’ witnessing of Jesus’ ascension might serve to underline their suitability for prophetic office.[19]

Elijah and Moses typology is multilayered within the Lukan literature. However, in the critical movement in the narrative with which we are concerned, the disciples are typologically related to Joshua and Elisha. As their master departs, they will inherit his Spirit and continue his mission. The Spirit that the disciples will receive is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit that supervised and empowered his own mission.[20]

Endnotes
[1] Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 70
[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 21-24
[3] Ibid, 23-24
[4] A point made more explicitly in the fourth gospel (John 1:29-34; 3:27-30).
[5] N.T. Wright,
Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 167
[6] John the Baptist is an ascetic and peripatetic prophet who, like Elijah, calls Israel to repentance in light of coming judgment. He dresses like Elijah (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8) and, like Elijah, is associated with the wilderness. Like Elijah, his ministry is opposed by a tyrant with a manipulative wife (Herod & Herodias / Ahab & Jezebel). Significantly, John the Baptist’s ministry begins at the geographical location where Elijah’s ministry ended (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4-5; cf. 2 Kings 2:4-11).
[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit: Volume 2 – Pneumatology (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1998), 11-12
[8] Although its focus is on the connection between baptism and priestly ordination, much of Peter Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 87ff is relevant to our case.
[9] Jesus and the Victory of God, 167
[10], Kenneth Duncan Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God’s People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 147
[11] A.W. Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 114-116
[12] There is also a sacrificial pattern to be observed in this movement. Leithart observes [1 & 2 Kings (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible: London: SCM, 2006), 176]:

The story of Elijah’s departure into heaven follows the sequence of a sacrificial rite (Lev. 1). By their mutual journey around the land, Elijah and Elisha form a unit, a “two of them” (2 Kgs. 2:7). They cross the Jordan, as parts of a sacrificial animal will be washed before being place on the altar. Fire descends from heaven, dividing them in two, one ascending in fire to God, as the altar portions of the animal ascend in smoke to heaven. In the ascension (or “wholly burnt”) offering, the skin of the sacrificial animal is given to the priest, and the mantle-skin of Elijah, the hairy garment of the “baal of hair,” is left for Elisha. Through this human “sacrifice,” Elisha becomes a successor to Elijah, and a new phase of prophetic history begins. In this sense too the story is a type of the sacrifice of Jesus, who is washed in the Jordan, gives himself over to be cut in two, ascends into a cloud, and leaves his Spirit and his mantle with his disciples.

[13] Peter Leithart, A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 170-171, and John I. Durham and J.R. Porter, Proclamation and Presence: Old Testament Essays in Honour of Gwynne Henton Davies (London: SCM, 1970), 119-121n62 observe some of the parallels between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha.
[14] Joshua’s succession from Moses is presented as a prophetic succession in Sirach 46:1.
[15] 1 & 2 Kings, 213
[16] Elisha is thus given the pre-eminent position among the ‘sons of the prophets’.
[17] The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, 116, 194. Observe the repeated use of verbs of visual perception in Acts 1:9-11.
[18] R.W.L. Moberly,
Prophecy and Discernment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 135
[19] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 31. The encounters with the risen Christ as recorded by the gospels might also be worth considering in this context. Delayed recognition of—or failure to recognize—the risen Christ is a recurring feature in the post-resurrection narratives (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:13-35; John 20:14-18; 21:12; cf. Mark 16:12). The liturgical structure followed by the Emmaus road account of Luke 24:13-35, accompanied by the disciples’ initial failure to recognize their companion on the road, might suggest that, although firmly embodied and visible as such, the identity of the body of the risen Christ is something that can elude mundane perception and is only truly accessible to those granted spiritual vision (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2000), 218-219).
[20] Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 45.

The Primacy of the Imagination

MC Escher - Concave and Convex

Reformed Christians have traditionally tended to operate in terms of the primacy of the intellect. Even when we deny that we are doing so, our worship and the message that we preach are primarily directed at the mind. Much of our teaching and evangelism operates on the assumption that reality is primarily grasped with the mind. I have long regarded such assumptions and the forms of pedagogy that have resulted from it as fundamentally misguided.

If we are going to talk about the ‘primacy’ of anything in man’s grasping of his world, let us speak of the primacy of the imagination. The very act of perceiving our world necessarily involves the imagination. There is no such thing as mere perception. We do not merely ‘see’ our world; every act of perception is an act of ‘seeing as’. The imagination is that which governs our ‘seeing as’. The facts that the mind deals with are never ‘brute facts’, but facts that result from the imagination’s engagement with the world. The ‘reality’ that the mind thinks about is a reality that has already been processed by the imagination in the act of perception. The imagination provides the foundation upon which the mind and will build.

The imagination provides us with the lenses through which we view the world. Whether we are aware of its activity or not, it acts nonetheless. Those who underestimate the role played by the imagination will become its prisoners. People with incredibly sharp minds, trapped within a false picture and story of the world will often never get out, just digging themselves deeper into the hole that they are in. All of their thinking merely tightens their grip on a false perception of reality. There are few people more frustrating to debate with; not only are they often incredibly arrogant in their conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are also unable to understand how anyone could really see things differently.

The great leaps in thought almost always result from the activity of the imagination. Many of us have experienced paradigm shifts in our own thinking. Such shifts are achieved by the imagination, enabling us to see everything in a new way. Our rational faculty then tightens our new grip on our reality. Training the imagination is very important if we are to arrive at a deeper apprehension of God’s truth. A trained imagination is better able to purposefully and consciously attempt to re-imagine the world. Those with a trained imagination will be better equipped to imaginatively see the world through the eyes of others and will be better able to come to an understanding of and overcome the limitations of their own vision. The ability to consciously re-imagine our world, to see things differently, is one of the most important abilities that we can develop.

The lack of an appreciation of the essential role played by the imagination and the lack of any training for the imagination seriously weakens theology. Even the sharpest mind can be of very limited use in the absence of a trained imagination. Mere logical consistency seldom solves much, as logic generally operates within the reality that the imagination grants us. Logic merely strengthens or slightly corrects our grip on a particular way of viewing the world; by itself it does not enable us to do what the imagination permits us to do: change our way of viewing completely.

By working in terms of an anthropology that presumes the primacy of the intellect, Reformed Christians have often failed to develop and harness the power of the imagination. We talk a lot about ‘worldviews’, but worldviews are generally understood in very ideological terms. A ‘worldview’ is seen as a set of propositions or a conceptual construct that shapes the way that we view reality. However, such ideological grids do not play anywhere near as much of a role in our vision of reality as Reformed people generally presume. Mere reflection on our day to day lives should expose the weakness of the notion that our engagement with reality is primarily mediated by ideological systems.

In reality, ideological systems only play a relatively limited role in our engagement with, and way of seeing reality. By thinking that practically everything can be reduced to thinking, we have made a huge error. The way that we see and engage with reality has far more to do with practices that we engage in unreflectively, the stories that we live in terms of, the symbols that are significant to us, the technologies that we use, the cultural artefacts that we produce, the communities that we belong to, the questions that we ask, etc. Our ‘worldview’ is, thus, a matter as broad as culture itself and is quite irreducible to mere ideology.

By failing to appreciate this, Reformed churches have often tended to produce a lot of ideologues with stunted imaginations and little in the way of a distinct culture. In addressing their message to the mind and failing to address the imagination, they have left Christians dangerously ill-equipped to engage with the world as Christians. In other Church traditions a rich liturgy, sacramental form of worship, use of the Church calendar and regular readings from the Gospels and OT narratives powerfully form people’s imaginations. Reformed Christians lack almost all of these things.

The Reformed faith centres on slogans (e.g. justification by faith alone, TULIP, the solas, etc.), rather than stories. We focus on a doctrine of justification, often at expense of a story of justification. Our worship does not convey a vision of the world, or even a powerful narrative so much as a mere disembodied set of ideas. Practically every part of Reformed worship is addressed to the mind. Even the sacraments are treated as if they were pictures of ideas. When the Eucharist is celebrated, great effort is often expended to ensure that people know what the rite means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. In most Reformed churches the congregant doesn’t participate much with their body. There is no kneeling, no kiss of peace, no walking, etc. The body is treated as if it were primarily a mind-container.

There is also little engagement with the narrative of Scripture. Bible readings are frequently subordinated to the sermon. The narrative is there to be analyzed from without. We also tend to downplay the biblical narrative in favour of the doctrines of the epistles, abstracting the latter from the former. Even when we do treat the narrative parts of Scripture we tend to focus on extracting the important ideas or moral lessons from the narrative. Seldom do we really encounter the narrative as narrative. In other parts of the Church the Church calendar, for instance, encourages people to read the story of Scripture from within. The sort of relationship that one develops with the narrative of Scripture in a liturgical church is very different from the sort of relationship that one develops in the ideological church, where everything is subordinated to preaching. In the latter type of church the narrative of Scripture tends to become obscured pretty quickly and the idea that the Scriptures narrate a world for us to inhabit seems quite bizarre.

The reason why all of this is so significant is due to the fact that liturgy, ritual and the narrative of Scripture are primarily directed, not to the mind, but to the imagination. Mark Searle expresses the purpose of liturgy and ritual well:

By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

Kneeling, for example, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter. As Heidegger said in another context: “The point is not to listen to a series of propositions, but to follow the movement of showing.”

So there is a discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating, and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning (the res) which they mediate.

Where such a liturgy is absent, we should not be surprised to find that a Christian imagination is also lacking.

As a result of our neglect of the imagination, when it comes to the arts, I think that Reformed Christians are in real danger of seriously underestimating their significance. The most powerful voices in any society are those prophetic voices that present us with new ways of viewing our world. The prophet or visionary presents people with a vision or picture of the world and people begin to live in terms of this new picture. The prophet tells stories and paints pictures, stories and pictures that reshape people’s ways of seeing their reality. This was one of the purposes of Jesus’ parables, for instance. It is not accidental that movements in philosophy are often deeply born out of movements in the arts. Postmodernism is a wonderful example of this. Movements in art and architecture in many ways prepared the ground for and presaged the later movements in ideas. As the artists developed new ways of seeing the world, the philosophers begin to articulate the inner logic of these new ways of viewing the world.

If I am right in my claim that a true ‘worldview’ is practically identical to ‘culture’, it is worth questioning to what extent we can speak of a Reformed worldview at all. Reformed Christians have an ideological system, but an ideological system is not sufficient to constitute a worldview. If we do have a worldview, it gives us a narrowly intellectual and insubstantial vision of reality. As one poet once claimed, Calvinism takes the Word made flesh and makes it word again. Rather than embodying a new culture, we proclaim a rather abstract doctrinal system. Our message is one of disincarnate ideas and our chief contribution to culture may well be capitalism, which despite all of its benefits, is hardly the product of a particularly rich vision of society.

Largely as a result of its neglect of liturgy, the Reformed faith has not really produced many great artists, poets and writers. Distinctly Reformed contributions to culture are few and far between. The great Christian imaginations tend to arise from Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communities. Those in Reformed circles who do possess deeply Christian imaginations and ways of looking at the world have generally spent formative years in one of these communions, or come from Reformed churches with richer liturgies. Despite the confused character of their faith in many respects, I must acknowledge the strong purchase that Christianity has on the imagination of many of the people I know who have been brought up in churches with rich liturgies. Even many of the great non-Christian writers owe much to the visions of the world given by medieval Christianity, for instance. In the Reformation Reformed Christians corrected dangerous errors in the medieval understanding of Christian truth, but lost much of its imagination and vision.

Not recognizing the full significance of the imagination in shaping us, evangelicals and Reformed Christians are at particular risk when it comes to films and literature. Lacking a deep Christian imagination and intuitive sense of the Christian story we are more vulnerable to being misled by the weak stories and visions that our society presents us with. The right ideas alone cannot protect us from the subtly persuasive power of such visions of reality. On the other hand, we are at risk of failing to appreciate the great benefit that can be gained from reading really good literature. A deep faith needs to draw upon far more than theology volumes and the incarnate truths that we encounter in godly visions of reality in literature and the arts are extremely important for us.

The Christian faith presents us with a beautiful story and a compelling vision of the world. Christianity’s hold on the Western imagination is great, even among those who try to reject the faith. The Christian message appeals to our imagination before it addresses our logic and reason. Unfortunately, the vision of the world that most Christians operate in terms of today is quite anaemic and lacks the fullness of classic Christian thought. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Christianity is becoming less and less of a force within our society. People regard Christians as ideologues rather than as people with a rich cultural vision and grasp of the ‘good life’. Christianity is seen as a set of disincarnate ideas, rather than as a world-encompassing story that we can truly be at home within, a form of renewed life and a fertile vision for culture and society. A Christian recovery of the arts and classic Christian literature is an important step toward reformation in this area.

I am convinced that only Christian faith is capable of sustaining a healthy and robust imagination. Only the Church presents us with a story that is truly big enough to inhabit and a story that fertile enough to enable us to grow. In a society that is losing its imagination, the Church has much to offer as an alternative culture. However, before we seek to reach the world we must first cultivate a new culture and vision of the world within the Church itself. We must recover our own imaginations by re-engaging with the Story of Scripture and immersing ourselves in the liturgy. As our imaginations are reformed and we begin to incarnate a rich vision of life and culture within the Church, people will see Christian faith as God intended it to be seen. In light of all of this proper engagement with the arts and cultivation of the imagination is probably one of the key tasks awaiting any Church concerned about mission. We need to recapture the imagination of our society and to do so we must regain our own and begin to understand the reasons why the imagination of the world around is failing.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

This series of posts follows on from my post entitled ‘The Denominational Church’. My two previous posts can be read here and here. My original post and the two subsequent posts have sparked a number of interesting discussions in various parts of the blogosphere and in the comments. The comments of the posts in question have lengthy discussions of such issues as the content of the gospel, baptismal regeneration, apostolic succession and the primacy of the Roman See.

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In such inter-denominational discussions we should always seek to be humble and patient. We have much left to learn from our siblings. However, there is a danger of a false humility in this area. True humility is not unwilling to rebuke a brother in love. There are occasions on which we must rebuke other denominations, for their compromising of the gospel. To fail to do so would constitute a betrayal of the love that we should have for them.

Furthermore, true humility will not deny the light that God has granted to the denominations that we belong to. We may have much still to learn, but God has taught us a lot already. We should not denigrate the work that God has done in us simply because it is still incomplete. We should keep faith with those who have gone before us and value the insights that they have bequeathed to us.

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When we begin to appreciate that the Church is far broader than our particular denomination we should begin to appreciate that orthodoxy cannot merely be defined in terms of the particular theological tradition that we are heirs to in our small wing of the Church. If that becomes the touchstone of orthodoxy we are well on the way to becoming sectarians and heretics. Orthodoxy is far more catholic than that. Not only must we keep faith with those who went before us in the history of our particular theological tradition, we must also keep faith, in various ways, with the rest of the wider Church.

This involves, among other things, a recognition that the beliefs that distinguish us from all other denominations are probably not as central to the gospel message as we sometimes are tempted to believe. For instance, TULIP is not the gospel, and it never will be. One can strongly reject TULIP and still hold to the central truths of the gospel, albeit perhaps somewhat inconsistently. Keeping faith with the wider Church must also involve an attempt to confess our Christian faith in language that is recognizable to those outside our immediate communion. Ideally, we would like the rest of the Church to be able to join us in confessing our faith. We don’t expect the rest of the Church to agree with everything that we say, but we do want them to see that we are closely related in many ways.

Sadly, for many denominations orthodoxy is merely a matter of conformity with a particular interpretation of confessional documents from their narrow tradition, without any regard for the wider Church. In such cases we must resist the sectarian majority. Though we might be accused of being unorthodox sectarians, we are not, but simply hold to a bigger view of the Church.

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Central to many of the differences between denominations are disagreements about the content of the gospel. In Reformed circles one comes across a number of people, for instance, who insist that those who deny doctrines such as the imputation of Christ’s active obedience are denying the gospel. The gospel is thought to be at stake in debates about such fine details as the correct use of the language of merit or the covenant of works. I humbly submit that these are sure signs that something is seriously wrong.

I believe that a careful examination of the biblical meaning of the term ‘gospel’ can help us considerably here. In the gospels the term ‘gospel’ is used to refer to the message of the coming kingdom. Such a usage is consistent with uses of the language in the LXX (where it is used to refer to the news of victories, or of Messianic restoration and glory) and elsewhere in ancient literature (where, for instance, it refers to the birth of Augustus and the new world order that his birth brought in). This meaning becomes refined as it becomes clear that the kingdom comes in the person of Jesus Christ, through His death, resurrection and ascension as Lord of all. ‘Gospel’ is the narrative of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in history, whether in extended or potted form.

The claim ‘Jesus is Lord/the Christ/the Son of God’ is a claim that sums up the truth that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. This is the central Christian confession; to make this confession is to believe the gospel (Matthew 16:16; Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 5:1). In the OT the gospel message is the awaited message of God’s saving reign (Isaiah 52:7). The NT gospel is the message that this reign has come in Christ.

This claim should not be taken in abstraction from the gospel narrative, but as that which is designed to summarize it as succinctly as possible. It is the gospel narrative that clarifies exactly what is meant by this claim. For instance, it makes clear that the Jesus is always the crucified Lord and declares His rule to us as the forgiving Lord. This is the claim which draws together all of the various threads of the gospel narrative. In this sense this claim can be said to stand at the heart of the gospel.

There are a number of summaries of the gospel in the Scriptures, ranging from brief statements (e.g. Romans 1:1-5), to more lengthy summaries (e.g. Acts 10:36-43), to full length narratives of the Gospels themselves. Sometimes the gospel message focuses on the Lordship of Christ as a message of final judgment (e.g. Romans 2:16), on other occasions on Christ as the risen Davidic Messiah (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:8), on other occasions the death of Christ is central (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). The gospel is for Paul, clearly the gospel ‘of Christ’, even if this is less accented in the Synoptic Gospels.

From the various biblical usages we can see that the gospel message includes a number of regularly recurring elements. F.F. Bruce writes as follows:

The basic elements in the message were these: 1. the prophecies have been fulfilled and the new age inaugurated by the coming of Christ; 2. he was born into the family of David; 3. he died according to the Scriptures, to deliver his people from this evil age; 4. he was buried, and raised again the third day, according to the Scriptures; 5. he is exalted at God’s right hand as Son of God, Lord of living and dead; 6. he will come again, to judge the world and consummate his saving work.

I find this summary helpful. Speaking in terms of ‘deliverance from this evil age’ helps to clarify what is meant by the gospel declaration of the ‘forgiveness of sins’. The ‘forgiveness of sins’ is an eschatological and national blessing (cf. Jeremiah 31:34), without ceasing to be deeply personal. Bruce’s definition is also potentially weakened by failing to mention the Jew-Gentile dimension of the gospel message.

This definition of the gospel is more or less what we find in the ecumenical creeds. When a Roman Catholic believes what the Nicene Creed says, he is believing the gospel, even if nothing is said about imputed righteousness. Such doctrines, important though they are, are not central to what the Scriptures refer to as the ‘gospel’.

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In much post-Reformation debate the word ‘gospel’ has taken on something of a life of its own. The word is used to speak of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (as articulated by the Reformers) and other such truths. The problem here is not that these doctrines are unbiblical, but that this is not what the word ‘gospel’ actually means. In Scripture the gospel is the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God and the gospel is summed up in the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’, the claim that the kingdom has actually come in Christ.

The nature of the kingdom that has come and the character of its Lord is, of course, deeply significant in Scripture. Used in the wrong way, the claim ‘Jesus is Lord’ could be quite misleading. For instance, Jesus is not Lord in the way that many among the Jews would have anticipated Him to be.

All of this said, the gospel is not primarily a message about how individuals can go to heaven when they die, but is the proclamation of the advent of God’s kingdom in history. Sadly many Protestants use the word ‘gospel’ to refer to the way of individual salvation and lose sight of the importance of the word’s connection with the kingdom of God. People are certainly saved within the kingdom of God, but the message that they are saved by believing is the message of the kingdom’s arrival in Christ, not a timeless message of how an individual can get right with a holy God by justification through faith.

Many post-Reformation uses of the word ‘gospel’ have been driven primarily by theological and pastoral concerns and have obscured the biblical usage of the term. While sympathizing with many of these theological and pastoral concerns, I believe that we need to be careful to use the word ‘gospel’ in the manner in which the Scriptures use it. Opposing ‘Gospel’ with ‘Law’, for instance, breeds confusion as the NT does not use the terms ‘Gospel’ and ‘Law’ in the same theological sense that Luther and his heirs do. This is not to deny the great value of Luther’s theological insight. It is simply an expression of my disappointment that he choose to frame many of his insights in the terms that he did. Many Protestant uses of the term ‘Gospel’, for all of their valid theological concerns, have allowed the term to diverge in meaning from that of the Scriptures. The gospel has become closer to a declaration about the ordo salutis than a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in and through Jesus the Messiah.

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A simplistic distinction between believing the gospel and obeying the Law, for instance, can be deeply misleading. One is also called to believe the Law and to obey the Gospel. The gospel message is a message of the Lordship of Christ, which demands obedience (cf. 1 Peter 4:17; Luke 3:18). In proclaiming the Gospel of Christ we must call people to obey everything that He has commanded us (Matthew 28:20).

If the gospel is the message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or the message that Christ is Lord and Judge of all, it is a message that calls for obedience, an obedience that we will one day be judged on. John the Baptist, for example, can ‘evangelize’ (Luke 3:18) people by proclaiming the coming kingdom and wrath of God and calling people to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’ if they are going to escape imminent judgment. If the biblical meaning of the term ‘Gospel’ were prominent in our mind this would appear entirely natural to us. However, as we tend to think in terms of categories that have become quite detached from those of Scripture, John’s preaching on such occasions strikes us as ‘Law’.

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After my original post, a discussion arose on the Boar’s Head Tavern, helpfully summarized here. The discussion started with the distinction between a map and a territory as an analogy for the relationship between our theologies and God’s truth. This discussion, in turn, was discussed by Macht, on his blog Prosthesis.

I am not sure that I find the map metaphor the most best, although I think that it is not a bad one. Maps are spatializing and totalizing and the map-reader is not necessarily rooted in the territory. Perhaps it would be better to speak in terms of ‘itineraries’. In theology we don’t hold all of the terrain in our gaze from a great height, but navigate it on the ground, following particular paths and observing the details along the path.

We always follow itineraries, whether we intend to or not, although I for one do not generally travel with much of a map in my head. However, there are many ways of narrating the itinerary that will take us via one path, rather than others.

The gospel is the safe path that we must take. The various itineraries that we narrate must retain the simplicity of this path. Losing the traveller is the worst crime that such an itinerary can commit and, for this reason, nothing should be kept clearer and simpler than the path.

Nevertheless, such an itinerary ought also to draw the traveller’s gaze to the wonderful complexity of his surroundings, without focusing his attention too much on easy to miss or doubtful details that may result in his losing sight of his path. An itinerary should also not make the path any narrower than it needs to be. For instance, provided that you are on the right path, the side of the street on which you are walking is probably not a matter to be that concerned about.

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

Itineraries can become confusing when misleading details are included. In a number of the different narrations of the itinerary that we must follow to remain on the path of the gospel, details are included that are potentially vague or misleading. As these details are emphasized, we are in danger of ending up at a different destination altogether. Even if we remain on the right path we will be unsure of whether we are and will only able to proceed hesitantly.

In following the itinerary of the gospel we are not merely tracing a route on a map of the territory with our finger, but are actually on a journey through the territory, on a pilgrimage towards God. We have many fellow-travellers. Some walk on the other side of the street. Some are looking out for street names, others are counting the number of their steps, still others are paying attention to the names of the different shops along the way. Some look confused and perhaps a little bit lost, failing to see a particular landmark or feature that that they were trying to look for. Some decide to leave the main path to try to find an easier route through the side streets. Others are rejoining the path after having been lost for a while. In such a situation a good itinerary is invaluable if we want to travel confidently towards our destination. However, our particular itinerary is not the path. There are those who find the way to the destination, even though they are using very poor itineraries.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

Following on from my previous post.

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Lesslie Newbigin writes:

The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation of what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as arrabon of that salvation — as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole. It can do so only because it lives by the Word and sacraments of the gospel by which it is again and again brought to judgment at the foot of the cross. And the bearer of that judgment may well be and often is a man or woman of another faith (cf. Luke 11:31-32). The church is in the world as the place where Jesus, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells, is present, but it is not itself that fullness. It is the place where the filling is taking place (Eph. 1:23). It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him. This dialogue, this life of continuous exchange with the world, means that the church itself is changing. It must change if “all that the Father has” is to be given to it as Christ’s own possession (John 16:14-15). It does change. Very obviously the church of the Hellenic world in the fourth century was different from the church that met in the upper room in Jerusalem. It will continue to change as it meets ever new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them.

God shapes and moulds His Church by bringing it into dialogue with the cultures that He places it among. God raises up enemies such as Islam; as the Church engages with such enemies it is matured and comes to a deeper understanding of herself. God also gives His Church the best of the wisdom of the Greeks and the insights of other cultures.

We are living in exciting times today, the gospel is making new breakthroughs in Africa, Asia and South America. Cultures that have been developing for millennia are suddenly brought into dialogue with the gospel for the first time. Who can say what new insights might emerge from the exciting new dialogues that are beginning? Who can say how African readings of the Scriptures might lead us to exciting new readings of Paul? Who can say what light Asian Christianity might be able to shed on the significance of biblical symbolism, for instance?

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When God first created man He placed him in a garden surrounded by lands with great natural riches. Man was called to go out into the wider world and glorify the garden with the riches that he found. In the book of Revelation we see the glorified garden city that results from this process. The city is of pure gold, adorned with precious stones and with gates of pearl. All the riches of the world, the riches of the earth and the riches of the sea, have gone into its construction.

I believe that God is active in history, and that He is active in all of history. In the OT God was not merely providentially shaping Israel, but was providentially shaping tribes in the Amazon rainforest. The various cultures that God has shaped are analogous to the natural riches of the world of the world surrounding the garden of Eden. God has spent centuries or millennia moulding these cultures so that one day they may be glorified and may serve to enrich the great Temple that He is constructing in the Church.

Christ is Lord of all and all of the cultural riches scattered throughout the world belong to Him. He is gathering all of these riches into His Church. When the gospel goes into a new culture, we are not merely bringing God’s riches to a new place, but God is giving us new cultural riches with which to build the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the things that makes missionary work so significant and exciting. Missionary work can be like seeking buried treasure. We really do not know what insights God might have hidden for the building up of Christ’s body in some isolated people group in Polynesia, for instance.

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It is incredibly sad to see the absence of cross-cultural theological dialogue in many parts of the Church when we have so much to gain from such dialogue. There are some who believe that missionary efforts merely involves transplanting our cultural forms of Christianity into foreign settings. The goal of missionary activity, for instance, becomes that of getting African Christians to think in terms of the Westminster Standards. The idea that our form of the Christian faith, deeply culturally conditioned as it is, might have a lot to learn from humble dialogue with more indigenous African forms of Christianity never seems to occur to us.

For instance, the Westminster Standards are the sort of documents that one would expect seventeenth century northern Europeans, trained in Western forms of logic and rhetoric (their Anglo-Saxon background muted by the academy), living in a culture where the Christian faith is pretty well established, to produce. They are deeply culturally conditioned. I imagine that if the Christian Church were faithfully to express its faith in terms of an African tribal culture, it would look surprisingly different, without ceasing to continue significant similarities. I firmly believe that God desires that we encourage the development of such indigenous declarations of faith and that we learn from each other as we engage in cross-cultural dialogue within the new culture that God is creating within the Church.

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The Church does not yet have the fullness of that which God intends for it. The fullness belongs to Christ and He is gradually bringing it into the Church as the Church enters into dialogue with new cultures. However, this dialogue does not merely take place between the Church and the various cultures; it is also a conversation within the Church, between various denominations.

Within the various denominations we see many different perspectives on God’s truth. Different denominations have different emphases and insights on God’s truth. None of this is to suggest that all perspectives are in any way equally valid or significant. Nor is it to deny that there are occasions when certain faulty perspectives need to be opposed in the strongest possible manner. As in the case of dialogue between the Church and the cultures, there is a lot that must be rejected in other denominations, even where hidden treasures exist.

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God is a god who separates in order to prepare the way for a more glorious union. God breaks the union of Adam’s body by removing a rib in order to make possible the union of marriage. God breaks the union between son and parents in order to form the union between man and wife. God breaks the union between the nations at Babel so that He might one day form a more glorious Nation. God separates Jew from Gentile in order that through the Jews He might bring salvation to the Gentiles and of the two form one new people. Christ’s body is broken and given to us so that a new body in which we are united to Him may be formed.

The separation, considered apart from the new union can seem like a loss and a tragedy. However, viewed as the precondition for a future more glorious union, God’s breaking of our premature unions is an act of grace. God takes apart that which is good so that we might one day enjoy that which is better still.

I believe that this is what God has done in His Church. God separated His Church into East and West. He separated His Church again in the Reformation. The rise of many denominations is a further split that He has brought about. This state of division is hardly the end that God intends. God did not take a rib from Adam so that Adam might lack a rib, but so that Adam might have a wife. In the same way, God split His Church so that the Church might one day enjoy a more glorious union. I am firmly convinced that the state of division that the Church currently experiences is not a state that will prevail throughout history.

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In a prematurely united Church, the tendency would be to paper over certain theological cracks. We don’t like to admit that our great theological paradigms are incomplete and have serious problems. There are certain questions that we don’t want to ask ourselves, certain faults that we don’t wish to face. There are deep-rooted problems that have been masked for so long that we lack the power to see them ourselves and need others to identify them for us.

This is one reason why theological dialogue with one’s critics is so important. All of our theological systems are incomplete and faulty. None will endure forever. Our critics are often in a better position to identify the weaknesses of our positions, just as we are often in a better position to identify theirs. In His grace God has given us perceptive critics so that He might mature us and lead us deeper into His truth.

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.

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Some will protest that, in most of the debates between denominations, one party is straightforwardly right and the other party is straightforwardly wrong. For instance they will insist that, in the debates between Baptists and paedobaptists on the question of paedobaptism, both cannot be right and at least one party is quite wrong. Writing as someone who is convinced that the Baptism of infants is supported by Scripture in a number of ways, I think that this would be a good example to deal with. If paedobaptism is justified by Scripture what sort of lessons might God want to teach His Church through the witness of the Baptists within her on this particular issue?

I believe that such a question should not be viewed in abstraction from history. The Baptist position arises within a Church that has undergone a particular historical development and faces particular challenges in the future. The Church’s historical development was far from tidy and in certain areas the Church’s practice and theology developed like a crooked bone growth. In such a situation God breaks the bone in order to reset it. I believe that this might provide a helpful perspective on the development of the paedobaptist position that Baptist theology arose in response to. The following is a sketchy reading of Church history, designed to illustrate the corrective purpose that Baptist theology may be designed to perform in this area.

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In the earliest Church most of the baptisms would be ‘convert’ baptisms of adult individuals and of households (some of which would, I believe, have included infants). However, as the Church became more settled one would expect to have more baptisms of infants by themselves. The book of Acts and the Pauline epistles generally address fairly young communities, where most of the baptisms that would have taken place would have been household or adult individual baptisms. However, later in the second and third centuries, infant baptisms began to become more common. Later in history they were to become the norm.

The shift in emphasis from adult Baptism to infant Baptism in Church history is not primarily a theological shift, but one that results from changing historical circumstances. Such a change is quite significant. In the case of household baptisms and the baptisms of adult individuals, personal faith is quite prominent. The head of the household or adult convert has personally come to faith. In the case of the head of the household, this change of allegiance is one to which his household would generally submit and be included within.

A situation in which each generation has only experienced baptism as infants is quite different and personal faith can often be eclipsed. The same could be said in the case of circumcision to some extent: the strong connection between circumcision and personal faith in the case of Abraham was in danger of being lost where circumcision became something that every Israelite boy received at the age of eight days. Moses and the prophets had to remind the people of this connection on a number of occasions.

In such a changed situation, the understanding of the meaning of Baptism and its connection with faith will most likely change somewhat as well. Root metaphors might shift; for example, Baptism as ‘death and resurrection’ seems a less obvious metaphor for the Baptism of infants.

In the earliest churches most baptisms would be baptisms of converts and their families. Infant baptisms would be less regular. Those baptized as infants in such a situation (second generation Christians) would grow up in a context where adult convert baptisms still predominated. Third, fourth and later generation Christians would begin to face a different situation, however. They would live in a Church where infant baptisms predominated. In the Middle Ages infant baptisms so predominated in some places that adult convert baptisms would have been very rare.

All of this results in a dramatic shift in the Church’s experience of Baptism. The NT and earliest Church texts were written into a context where adult Baptism (not understood as a theological position) predominated. The baptismal liturgies would have been designed for adult converts. When infant baptisms would have occurred they would generally have taken place in the context of adult conversions. As the situation developed, however, infant baptisms would increasingly take place by themselves as discrete events from the baptisms of adult converts. This would begin to raise problems as the Church’s theology of Baptism and baptismal liturgies had to cope with its changing experience of Baptism. Baptismal liturgies originally intended for adults would have to be altered to deal with situations in which no adults were being baptized.

The meaning of infant Baptism (more understandable in the case of household Baptism) would begin to become problematic. A theology of Baptism addressed primarily to a situation in which adult convert baptisms were being practiced would have to negotiate with a Church where such baptisms were uncommon. It seems to me that these problems would become increasingly acute among third and later generation Christians and, for this reason, it does not surprise me that we find the Church of the third and following couple of centuries struggling to marry its theology of Baptism and the predominating practice of infant Baptism.

Infant baptisms would not originally have been treated as a special case demanding particular justification, but would have been understood in relation to the convert baptisms that took place within the Church. As time went on the Church’s experience of Baptism changed as infant baptisms became more common, to the stage that they were the norm. This would exert pressure on the Church’s theology and liturgy, which were designed for a very different situation.

In this new situation, infant baptisms would come to be regarded in abstraction from adult convert baptisms and certain theological themes and liturgical practices that were prominent in the Church’s understanding and administration of Baptism would seem to be less applicable in the case of infants. This would lead to the raising of questions about the theological basis of the practice (not so much in order to justify the practice as in order to understand its necessity, which wasn’t properly illuminated by the Church’s existing theology of Baptism).

I think this is part of the reason why we find the historical record that we do. I also think that this helps us to appreciate that groups like the Anabaptists were largely raising tensions that hadn’t yet been truly resolved by the tradition. The pre-Reformation Church generally celebrated infant Baptism as a form of clinical Baptism and chrismation and first communion came to be deferred. It is hardly a sign of a healthy situation when Baptism is separated from itself and from the Eucharist like this and the baptized are only half initiated into the life of the Church. Whilst I disagree with the Anabaptists’ theology, I think that they helped to highlight problems that had never been completely addressed. The Church had never completely come to terms with the predominance of infant Baptism. I think that the Anabaptist movement, by raising the problem again, challenged the Church to do a better job than it did the first time around.

***

The earliest Jewish Church was also, to some extent, an ecclesiola in ecclesia. It was a new community within the larger community of Israel and for a number of years the ties between the Church and the more general worship of Israel persisted. Whilst the Church was clearly also a distinct community in its own right, this continued connection to the wider worship of Israel would have shaped its self-understanding in various ways. The Church inherited the role of the prophets, forming new communities within the larger community as a testimony to it, preparing the nucleus of the people of God that would be preserved through and established after divine judgment.

Many within the early Church were observant Jews and synagogue-worshippers, who would have continued in these practices as Christians. Their sense of being a community separate from and in opposition to other Jewish communities would have been less pronounced. In such settings the Church would have had a self-understanding of its community that differed somewhat from that which would develop when a complete split with the worship of the Jews had occurred. The Church would primarily be regarded as the nucleus of God’s restored people within the larger body of the people of God, not yet a completely distinct people. In such an understanding of the place and significance of the Church the role of confessing mature believers would be highlighted and infants, though seen as part of the community, would be more secondary, less the nucleus of God’s restored people as those who were being gathered around this new nucleus.

Much of the teaching of the gospel (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) is addressed to such ‘prophetic communities’. These prophetic communities would have been formed of adult, predominantly male, disciples. These prophetic communities existed as the centre around which the new people of God were to be formed, the spearhead of the new movement that God was bringing about. A number of similar movements have developed within Church history. Communities arise, designed to play a prophetic role to the people of God as a whole, modelling a new form of faithful living that has been lacking within the wider Church. Monasticism is a good example of such a movement.

I believe that an ecclesiola in ecclesia can do immense good for the Church. These spearhead movements call the Church to mature forms of faithfulness and conformity to God’s Word. In a Church where everyone has been baptized as an infant, such movements are immensely important, calling for costly discipleship and voluntary personal commitment. Such prophetic communities serve as cities on a hill, modelling heroic faithfulness to the Church as a whole. In so doing they serve a purpose similar to that which the disciples of Jesus and John the Baptist played in relation to Israel.

The spiritual affinity between the Anabaptists and such movements as the Franciscans has been noted by a number of people. I believe that part of God’s purpose in raising up such movements is to ensure that His Church does not forget the message of such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. Whilst the community is larger than the nucleus, having a nucleus of mature and committed disciples in crucial for the health and growth of the Church. Baptists and Anabaptists, in reminding the Church of this fact, have done immense good. I believe that their testimony and example has borne fruit in many parts of the wider Church.

***

Of course, this entire process is not a one-way affair. Paedobaptists are also a means of teaching Baptists that, despite the importance of mature and committed discipleship as that which sets the tone for the rest of the Church, the Church is not merely composed of those who have arrived at a mature profession of faith. In God’s wisdom He has brought infants into His family. Infants remind us of our own impotence and strengthen the Church by means of the common concern that the Church has for their development in the faith. Just as the birth of a child transforms the new mother and father and is a means by which God greatly matures them (in every sense of the word!) and reforms them into a family, so it is with infants in the Church. God gives adult believers weak infants to humble them, remind them of their impotence and encourage them to grow. God gives weak infants strong adult believers in order to ensure that they are raised in the faith and one day become strong adult believers themselves.

A Church in which there are no weak infants and everyone is expected to manifest a heroic personal faith commitment can be unforgiving and tend towards rigorism. A Church in which there are no mature adult believers will soon become compromised in belief and practice and lack direction.

Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

Following on from my thoughts in the previous post, I have decided to write a few follow-up posts on the subject of denominations, Church union and reunion.

***

When Christ founded His Church, He founded it to be a growing and maturing, rather than a static and unchanging entity. Primitivist ecclesiologies are suspect for this reason. The NT pattern of the Church is normative in certain respects, but is designed to be outgrown in others. Christ wants His Church to become more glorious with age and a reversion to the more simple worship and structures of a past age can be a step in the wrong direction.

***

In the OT we see God directing the flow of history for the purpose of maturing His covenant people. He moulds and transforms His people through a number of powerful events and experiences. He builds up His people and then breaks them down, in order that they might be refashioned into something newer and more mature.

In the OT God takes a family group of nomadic shepherds and brings them into Egypt. In Egypt He breaks them down. In the Exodus He reforms the people under the leadership of Moses and elders and then later forms them into a priestly nation around the worship of the tabernacle. He settles them in the land as a group of tribes under the leadership of judges. Later He breaks apart this order in various ways. The tabernacle order is gradually dismantled and a united kingdom is formed under Saul and David. God later causes the kingdom to be split and begins to form new communities around the prophets. He then deconstructs the old order even further when Israel and then Judah are overcome and exiled. The reformed people that we see in Ezra and Nehemiah are no longer split into two groups as the old kingdom was, but have become one whole people.

Through this process the people of God changed radically and became something quite different from what they were at first. While the historical process by which the people were transformed may at first appear to be without specific direction or purpose, closer examination will reveal that God’s hand is within it all. In all of the fine details we can see the hand of a master Potter at work, shaping His creation into something fit for His glory.

***

When we think about God’s formation of His people we are in danger of focusing too much on the agency of direct revelation, particularly in the form of ideas, God moulding His people by revealing new doctrines and truths about Himself to them. However, if we truly believe that God governs the course of history we need to take seriously the fact that God forms, takes apart and reforms His people through His general governance of the flow of history. Our minds and characters are formed just as powerfully — probably far more powerfully — by the experiences and events that we undergo than they are by new ideas that we come in contact with. Certain experiences can attune us and make us receptive to ways of thinking that we would not otherwise have appreciated.

God raises up enemies for His people. God causes old orders to shatter and raises up leaders and visionaries who can bring in new ones. In 1 Kings 12:15 & 24, we see that God’s purpose and agency was behind the split of the kingdom of Israel. The split of the kingdom profoundly shaped the consciousness of the people of God in the years that followed. After this event they had to learn to think of themselves in a very different way. During the time of the united kingdom their identity may have been strongly rooted in having a Davidic king over a union of the twelve tribes. After the split of the kingdom they had to learn to think differently in a situation for which there was no obvious precedent. Such historical events reshape a people far more than mere ideas often can.

***

Within the new order formed by the split of the nation there would probably have been those who would have taken the old order as normative, insisting that only those under the Davidic king were the true people of God, and claiming that the nation would only know true unity when the northern kingdom ceased its rebellion and returned to its God-appointed ruler. The problem with such claims is that they fail to factor in the manner in which God’s agency was at work in the split. God took the kingdom away from the Davidic king because of the rebellion of his house (1 Kings 11:11). The primary rebellion was not the rebellion of the ten northern tribes, but of the Davidic king.

Furthermore, God continued to deal with both the northern and southern kingdoms as His people. In the way that He dealt with the two kingdoms He did not underwrite either of their claims to being His one true people.

***

God’s guidance of history in order to form His people did not cease in the first century AD. The Church has changed considerably since it was first founded and continues to do so. God continues to mature His people and the process is far from complete yet. We will continually face the temptation of regarding one era of history as normative and, in so doing, refuse to mature into the sort of people that God would have us be. Old wineskins that we have become quite attached to will have to be permitted to burst, in order that new wineskins might be given.

For instance, the maturation of the Church did not cease at Westminster in the 1640s. There will come a time (indeed, it may already have come) when we are called to allow the order of the Westminster Standards to break apart, so that something more glorious can come. Like old shoes, such orders in the Church serve well for a time, before they develop holes and start to hinder rather than encourage further growth, causing the Church to hobble in pain, when they should be enabling her to run with ease.

***

The sort of biblical analogies that I have briefly sketched above can help us in thinking about such events in Church history such as the Reformation. If we truly believe that God’s guidance of history hasn’t ceased and that He is still moulding and forming, breaking down and reforming, His people through historical events we will have new perspectives with which to view these sorts of events.

Through the Reformation God created a very new order within the Church. Whatever our convictions regarding the biblical character of the claims made by the Reformers, if we truly believe that God continues to form His people through His providential guidance of the course of history, we must wrestle with the question of why God saw fit to split His Church at the Reformation.

While many Protestants will claim that the split at the Reformation was purely a matter of God separating His true people from a false church and delivering them from a Babylonian captivity, I am not so sure that it is that simple. On the Roman Catholic side there are those who will insist that there has to be only one Church and that Protestants have left this Church by rejecting the authority of the pope over them. Once again, I think that the reality is more complex than this.

***

As in the case of the split of Israel, I don’t think that God straightforwardly supports either side’s ecclesial claims against the other. The subsequent history of Israel and Judah shows that splits in the government of the people of God do not necessarily destroy the oneness of the people of God in other respects. The people of God remain one by virtue of their covenant relationship with Him, even if they are scattered among many different church structures. Against Roman Catholic claims, the unity of the people of God is not ultimately dependent upon being under the Pope. The unity of the Church is found in its relationship to Christ.

None of this is to deny the desideratum of visible and even institutional unity. My point is rather that such institutional and governmental unity is not absolutely essential to the unity of the Church. Just as in the case of Israel and Judah, the essential unity of the people of God is found in their relationship to Him. The two nations continued to be related to each other by virtue of this fact.

***

Then John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us.” — Luke 9:49-50

***

As Peter Leithart has observed, the root cause of the split in the Church at the time of the Reformation was the Church’s tolerance of idolatrous practices and ways of thinking about salvation. This was also that which led to the split of Israel. God’s judgment upon the Davidic dynasty was not, however, a rejection of the Davidic dynasty from the purpose that God had mapped out for it. In the case of the Reformation, I believe that we can recognize the necessity of the split, without denying that God may have a future planned in which the Bishop of Rome has an important role to play. The Reformation was a judgment of God upon unfaithful Church leaders, but God did not leave the Roman Catholic churches entirely desolate, just as He left two tribes with Rehoboam.

***

The division between Roman Catholics and Protestants is not merely a judgment of God upon unfaithfulness, but also serves the purpose of quarantine. As long as idolatry in its various forms persists, reunion is forbidden as it is dangerous. Righteous kings of the southern kingdom of Judah were forbidden from close alliances with unrighteous kings from the northern kingdom for this reason. However, even though Judah could not reunite with Israel, God’s Spirit was quite active in the land of Israel, breaking apart and reforming a people for God.

Even in our own day and age, God is at work in places where He has forbidden us to go for our own safety. God is working in and with people in heretical churches, in compromised churches, in liberal churches. These are spiritual ‘hard-hat’ areas, which is why God forbids us to go there. However, we ought to recognize and be thankful for what God is doing in such places and pray for its increase.

***

God forms us personally through periods of illness. I grew more as Christian through long-term illness than I did through anything else. Many years of developing theological understanding has affected my faith less than a prolonged period of illness did. God uses such things to cause us to mature and I believe that He does the same in the life of His Church. The Church needs to develop a more robust theological immune system over time. God permits parts of His Church to succumb to the disease of error for a time. Bringing His people through the disease and through the lengthy subsequent convalescence is one of the ways in which God humbles and matures His people.

Not every illness is unto death. There are many of us who are thankful in many respects for having experienced prolonged illness. It alerts us to the value of the health that we had previously taken for granted, it occasions a reassessment of priorities, causes us to be more careful about preserving our health in the future and matures us as persons.

In the pride of our assumed orthodoxy we can rush to the task of writing ungracious obituaries in advance as soon as we see serious error in a church. I suggest that we need to be more cautious. In God’s providence He may choose to permit the errors of liberalism to ravage a denomination, before gradually restoring it to a new health. The disease may be the consequence of sin, but we should not presume that God desires the death of the sufferer.

***

We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.

***

As liberals and Roman Catholics return from the far country, our Father, who has wept over them and long desired their restoration, runs out to meet them with open arms and showers them with His gifts. What will we do? Will we rejoice in their restoration, or will we be more concerned that God acknowledge our superiority over them? Will we find ourselves left outside, while God uses the prodigals to accomplish His great works in the world? Will we be prepared to submit to God’s wisdom if it is through the work of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals and Baptists that He chooses to deepen the Church’s understanding of His Word over the next century and accomplish a new great reformation? For all of our trumpeting about the gospel of grace, are we at risk of forgetting that it has the uncanny habit of bringing unexpected endings to the stories that we find ourselves in?

***

I say then, have the Roman Catholics stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, God’s blessing has come to the Protestants. Now if the fall of the Catholics brings riches for us, and their failure blessings for the Protestants, how much more their fullness!

The Denominational Church

After the passing of the FV/NPP report at the recent PCA GA, Jim Cassidy counsels proponents of the FV:

Is there not, brothers, safety in a multitude of counselors? I’ve read some of the responses already by FVers. And quite frankly, I am surprised. They are disappointed, but there is no sign among them that perhaps they might be wrong. Brothers, the vast majority of the Reformed church in America has said that the FV is out of accord with the Westminster Standards. Does that not at least give you some pause? I mean, if my brothers spoke so loudly and in such unison to me about my views on a given issue, I would be trembling. Maybe I am weak in my nerves, but when the corporate body of Christ speaks with such unison, I am humbled. Yes, assemblies and counsels may err, but this is the Visible Church speaking here! Aren’t we to have a high regard for the Visible Church? Is she not our nursing mother to feed and nourish us spiritually? Has she not spoken a word of admonition to you? Do you not honor her? Do you not heed the voice of your spiritual mother?

The problem with all of this is that the PCA and OPC are not — and I know that some of you might find this hard to believe! — the ‘corporate body of Christ’ speaking in ‘unison’. I am not sure that it is appropriate to accord ecclesial status to such bodies, even on the local level. The same can be said of any denominational organization or local denominational church.

One of the problems that we have to face is that, in the age of denominations, we cannot simply take the ecclesiologies of previous generations and apply them directly to the local denominational congregations that we attend. The problem of denominations is not, as some suggest, something that originated primarily in the Reformation. There were divisions in the larger Church before the Reformation. However, there was not a proliferation of denominational churches on the local level. Even after the Reformation in a number of places this remained largely the case. Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed churches were not originally denominational churches in the quite the same way that Baptist, Methodist and other such churches were.

That situation has long since changed. However, it is important that we appreciate the type of ecclesiastical situation within which people like Calvin formed their ecclesiologies. The Reformed Church of Geneva was not quite the same sort of entity as a local PCA congregation. Its ecclesial status was far less questionable, as it was far closer to the biblical model of a local church. Our world, in which everyone chooses to belong to some denomination or other (where everyone is, technically speaking, a ‘heretic’), is far removed from the sort of world that the early Reformers thought within. Consequently, we must give serious attention to the disanalogy that exists between their situation and our own when reading their ecclesiologies.

The Church that we now belong to has changed radically since the age of the Reformation and we need to think theologically about the situation that now faces us. In particular, we need to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches. This is something that has been argued by a number of people, from the Orthodox John Zizioulas to the Presbyterian John Frame. The Church — whether local or universal — is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The same cannot be said of the local denominational congregation. There are countless denominations, so it is utterly inappropriate to speak of them as ‘one’. As John Frame observes:

The church is holy, not in that all Christians and congregations are morally perfect, but in that God has set his church apart from all other institutions in a special relationship to him. But Scripture gives us no reason to believe that God has placed any human denomination in such a special category, except insofar as it is part of the church as a whole. Among those denominations which are truly parts of the body of Christ, none is in this sense any more holy than the others.

The local denominational church is certainly not ‘catholic’. Even in addition to their exclusion of those of other denominations, local denominational congregations often have an attendance that is weighted strongly in favour of people from particular class, ethnic, linguistic and educational backgrounds. Different denominations tend to attract different kinds of people. For instance, you are often more likely to find the local evangelist attending a non-Reformed evangelical congregation. The local expository preacher and exegete is less likely to be within the charismatic congregation down the road.

The local Church that you belong to is not the local denominational congregation that you attend, important though that congregation is. Biblically speaking, the local Church that you belong to is defined more by geographical than denominational or confessional lines. The local denominational congregation that you attend might be more closely analogous to a Gentile Christian group in Antioch in the first century. Such a group is part of the local Church, but it is not the local Church. The local Church includes Jews and Greeks, male and female, slave and free. In our situations, the local Church will probably include Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.

In light of this, we should beware of giving too much loyalty to denominations. The work of God in our areas far exceeds the work that He is doing through our particular denomination. We need to become more concerned about the progress of this larger work than we are about the progress of the cause of our denominations. We need to become more committed to the larger cause of God in our area than we are to preserving our particular denomination’s identity. We may be a Puritan of the Puritans — concerning the confessions, a Westministerian — but be called to count this identity as loss, so that we might better serve the Church of God in our locality. The fact that we often value such denominational and theological identities more than we value the local Church that God has placed us in is a tragedy.

In the situation of disunity that we find ourselves in, the task of working towards unity between denominations is a difficult one. Unity must always be in the truth. For this reason unity with ungodly groups is very dangerous and sectarian, tending away from the unity that God calls us to strive for. However, this doesn’t mean that we can write off unfaithful denominations altogether. Roman Catholics, for instance, are still Christians, just as the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were still the people of God (and treated as such by the prophets), despite their many idolatries. We should still work towards unity in such cases, even though full institutional unity is impossible as long as things remain as they are.

There are a number of important practical steps that we can take in the direction of unity. One of the things that saddens me is witnessing the manner in which many Reformed people will condemn those who do not hold to precise formulations of doctrines such as the imputation of the active obedience of Christ or the covenant of works. Such doctrines are not the gospel and are not of primary importance. They are ways in which many of our forefathers sought to protect the truth of the gospel, but they are not themselves the gospel. To make such doctrines essential to the gospel is a deeply sectarian move. Those who make such theological moves often see themselves to be protecting the purity of the Church, when they are actually isolating themselves from the rest of the Church.

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

Our theological dialect is merely one expression of the Christian faith (even supposing that it is a better expression than others). Such a degree of dissociation between these two things is important. We must remember that our dialect is not a language in its own right and that we need to ensure that we do not make ourselves incomprehensible to others who share that language with us. Many theologians do not engage with many beyond the small circles of their own theological traditions. Consequently, their regional dialect is very much in evidence. Should a visitor from a different theological land happen upon their writings, they would find it very hard to understand them.

In many of the current theological debates we face problems of dialects vs. the language. For instance, ‘baptismal regeneration’ is well-established language in the Christian tradition. Many Reformed Christians and evangelicals fiercely resist using such language to speak of their theological positions. I believe that in such instances we should go out of our way to try to find appropriate ways to use the common language. The fact that such language has become problematic in our theological dialects is probably a good sign that we need to bring our dialects back into greater conformity with the language of the rest of the Church, lest we become sectarian and incomprehensible to other Christians.

They are few things more frustrating than trying to speak to someone with a very strange dialect, with a very peculiar vocabulary and grammar, who blames you for not being able to understand him. Theological traditions that develop such peculiar vocabularies should do their best to keep them in check. There is nothing wrong with a theological dialect having some words that are peculiar to its vocabulary, provided that these words do not stand in the way of communication with others. Also, if at all possible, we should try to speak in ways that make us more comprehensible to people from other theological backgrounds. Most theological traditions are guilty of confusing others by their specialized vocabularies to some extent or other.

We should particularly beware of accusing people of not speaking the ‘language’, simply because they do not speak our dialect. Our dialect is not the standard of orthodoxy, even though it might be a better way of articulating the faith than others. Someone may resist including such expressions as ‘covenant of works’ and ‘imputation of active obedience’ in their theological vocabulary and still be perfectly orthodox.

Seeking union in the local Church despite the existence of denominations is not easy. There are different levels of unity that we can achieve in different situations. In my experience, it is when we seek to express our deepest convictions in our common language, and downplay our particular dialect’s peculiarities of expression, that we are most likely to begin to find true unity. There are situations where sin and error pose obstacles to unity, but there are numerous other situations where a far greater degree of unity could be enjoyed, if we only had the vision and determination to strive towards it.

What are some concrete ways in which we can work towards a greater degree of unitry between denominations. Here are a few brief suggestions:

1. Recognize the discipline of other congregations in your locality.
2. Recognize the ordination of people from other denominations and don’t force them to jump through too many hoops to serve within your denomination.
3. Recognize the baptisms of people from other denominations, including the infant ones.
4. Admit people from other denominations to the Table.
5. Read widely, beyond your own theological tradition. Seek to learn from other theological traditions and encourage crossfertilization of ideas.
6. Become friends with people from other denominations in your area.
7. Pray for the various churches in your locality and ask them to pray for you.
8. Seek to co-ordinate evangelistic efforts with other churches.
9. Try to get involved in other group projects with other congregations in your locality. Doug Wilson helpfully suggests that we rediscover the idea of ‘parish’. If we really started to think and act in terms of the concept of parish we would soon find ourselves enjoying more fellowship with other Christians in our communities.

As we start to relativize our denominational backgrounds and seek to actively work towards a future in which denominations feature less prominently, we should beware of a number of things. We need to be careful not to use a critique of denominations as a way to devalue Church discipline. We live in a situation where there are many rival courts that people can appeal to. In such a situation Church discipline can seem meaningless. I don’t think that it is, even though no single court has the final word. Seeking unity between congregations in recognizing and respecting each other’s judgments is important here.

I am firmly convinced that one of the reasons why the Church is often so impotent in our societies is our disunity. The disunity of the Church hinders our prayers. We do not pray with one voice and set ourselves up as rivals to each other. The Church’s authority to bind and to loose is thus hindered. Seeking unity in prayer with other denominations is very important if we are to enjoy the authority that Christ has given to His Church.

I do not doubt that the day will come when Christ will reunite the Church. God is in control of history and He has broken up His Church so that He might reunite it in a more glorious form. At the moment we live with denominations, but we look beyond these to the day when there will no longer be Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics, but one glorious united body of Christ. The present denominational stage, despite its problems, is, I believe, a necessary part of the growing process, like teething is for children. It is part of the way in which God is working towards a far better form of unity than we can currently imagine. For this reason we must not be impatient and force unity where it should not yet exist. Rather, we should work in hope, enjoying unity where it can be found, but looking beyond all present structures and organizations to Christ’s great purpose and promise for His Church.

Are Protestants Heretics?

I do hereby conclude: When the Western Church fissiparated in the sixteen century, the Reformers took a portion of the essential patrimony of the Church with them, and they thereby left both the Roman Church and themselves the poorer for it.

Read the whole article by Edward T. Oakes, S.J. here. [HT: Michael Spencer from BHT]

1 John 2:19 Discussion

James Jordan’s reading of 1 John 2:19:—

“Out from us they went out,” — that is, they set out on teaching missions.

“But they were not out from us,” — that is, they had no valid commission from us.

“For if they were out from us they would have remained with us,” — that is, if they had valid commissions from us, they would have remained with us in our true teaching.

“But [this happened] in order that they might be manifest that none of them are out from us.” — that is, their false teaching shows that they were not sent by us.

This seems to me to make far more sense of 1 John 2:19 in its context than those readings that take the verse as working in terms of a visible/invisible Church distinction. This verse is currently being discussed on Lane Keister’s blog.

Evangelical Narcissism

Ted Haggard

Writing on the subject of the whole Ted Haggard mess, Doug Wilson observes:

The second sign of trouble (evident long before the recent revelations) was the prevalent evangelical marketing of narcissism and celebrity as though it were a reasonable approximation of humility and ministerial service. What’s wrong with this picture? I remember, many years ago, long before the Jimmy Swaggart meltdown, talking to my wife about his record albums in a Christian bookstore. Album after album showed a close-up photo of his face, and nothing was more apparent than that something was seriously disordered about the whole operation. But that disorder was something that the evangelical market was more than willing to support and praise with their dollars. After it happens, the response among Christians was “how could this happen?” Are you serious? The real question should have been “how could it not?” Contemporary evangelicalism is nothing more than institutionalized narcissicism, and if the tree is rotten, it will continue to produce this kind of fruit.

Contemporary evangelicalism as ‘institutionalized narcissism’ is perhaps as good a description of the current state of affairs as any. It is something that I have drawn attention to in the past. For example,

Salvation opens us up to the Other. Only a Trinitarian and ecclesial understanding of salvation can do justice to this. The salvation paradigm of many within evangelicalism is akin to the romantic love paradigm of our society. It has little to say about the manner in which the Church is brought into a Trinitarian fellowship of love, focusing more upon the individual’s relationship with a god who is considered in largely Unitarian terms. You end up having two polarized parties and a love that closes in on itself.

Evangelicalism has little to say about our meeting of God in the commonality of our love for others. The Church as the community of the Spirit is that which frees to enjoy a non-narcissistic relationship with God. Evangelicalism’s failure to really recognize all of this has led, I believe, to its increasing self-obsession and introspectionism. Worship has become about self-stimulation rather than self-gift. There is also a tendency to project a domesticated god created in our own image, a god who reinforces our sense of self and never challenges us by His Otherness. When we worship such a god we are really worshipping ourselves. It should not surprise us that many contemporary worship songs focus more upon our act of worship than upon the object of our worship. The worship wars that rage through evangelicalism are not unrelated to this.

The collective narcissism of much modern evangelicalism (expressed in countless different ways) is perhaps, more than anything else, the thing that makes me want to get as far away from such forms of evangelicalism as I can. The soul of evangelicalism is afflicted by a disordered desire that will destroy it.

This disordered desire has innumerable manifestations. It can be seen in the way in which so many evangelical ministries operate without a regard to the rest of the Church, and particularly to the non-evangelical parts of the Church. It can be seen in the lack of interest in Church history. It can be seen in the insistence on singing modern hymns and choruses that conform to our personal tastes in music. In can be seen in the way that many evangelical churches are populated by clones.

It can also be seen in evangelicalism’s twisted aesthetics. It should be recognized that disordered desire will lead to a disordered aesthetic. It is not an accident that the narcissism and disordered desire of homosexuality is often expressed in a disordered aesthetic (camp, kitsch, self-glorification, etc.). Narcissistic aesthetics can take many different forms. They can consist in a purely ironic posture towards reality, in a playfulness that has no desire for costly engagement in reality, in the production and obsession with art that seeks nothing more than self-expression, in sentimentalism and sickly nostalgia (which almost invariably involves a narcissistic projection onto the past, rather than a genuine reckoning with the alterity of the past), among other things. Narcissistic aesthetics are the aesthetics of decadence and stem from a failure to engage properly with otherness, and from a weakening of faith.

Our aesthetic sensibilities are not morally neutral; they are as depraved and as needful of redemption as any other aspect of our human make-up. The scandal of the evangelical mind is well-known; it is high time that the scandals of the evangelical imagination and of evangelical aesthetics received equal notoriety.

The problem of evangelical narcissism is so huge that I am surprised that it has such a low profile.

D.G. Hart on the Anti-Ecclesial Character of

D G HartWhilst a study of the development of British evangelical identity might look slightly different, I have found D.G. Hart’s (not to be confused with David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox theologian) account of the construction of American evangelical identity quite insightful. The following quote is taken from his book Deconstructing Evangelicalism. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read up on this subject. Evangelical identity has been the theme of a number of the articles, books and booklets that I have read recently in some form or other. Hart’s treatment of the subject is one of the best that I have encountered.

~~*~~

On another level, the history of evangelicalism played precisely to the strength of the new model of religious history. Institutions, formality, official representatives—these phenomena were for many religious historians the antiquated subject matter of church historians. They did not embody America’s genuine religious vitality. So the profession moved from the pew, the pulpit, the church assembly, and the denominational periodical to signs of religious influence on culture, politics, economics—all walks of life where religion made a difference for the way ordinary people lived daily. It would be hard to imagine a recipe easier to follow by students of the new evangelical identity. After all, evangelicalism was a religion not confined to formal and bureaucratic denominational structures. Instead, it was a faith that gave ordinary believers the courage to get things done, whether on the farm, in the gym, in the public square, or on the mission field. In effect, born-again faith typified the mood of the new religious history; it was pluralistic, egalitarian, and utilitarian.

But it may not have been good for the understanding of either America religion or Christianity more generally. As much as Americans may participate in a variety of parachurch activities and support them with their hard-earned dollars, statisticians of United States religious life continue to make claims about American religiosity on the basis of church attendance. America is, according to pollsters, the most religious of Western democracies because roughly 40 percent of its citizens are in church every Sunday. If this is true, and if it is truly as significant as many interpreters suggest, then finding out what these Americans do every Sunday and what goes into that decision to attend or the consequences of such participation might be worthwhile pursuits for religious historians and other religious scholars. But the academic hostility to religious forms and institutions, a sort of scholarly pietism, has left the church out. In turn, the study of evangelicalism has profited from this rejection of denominational and congregational life. The history of evangelicalism has thrived while denominational history has atrophied. Yet if the Christian religion involves rites, offices, and creeds, then saying these things don’t matter does not make it so. Still, the construction of an evangelical identity has yielded the conviction that a faith freed from churchly affairs is the conservative expression of Christianity.

Either way, the expansion of interest in evangelicalism has been a mixed blessing. It has produced scholarship that obscures as much as it brings to light, and its assumptions about Christianity are as novel as the neo-evangelical project itself. Yet whatever one’s judgment about the born-again history of the last twenty-five years, it is reasonable to assert that the neo-evangelical effort to reduce Christianity to bite-size portions in the interest of creating a Protestant party to rival the mainstream looks remarkably similar to the way religious historians have defined evangelicalism and read it back into the American past in order to make larger claims about a bigger constituency than denominational or church history allows, ironically, by conceiving of the Christian religion as a short set of doctrinal truths and devout activities outside the church.

D.G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham, pp.59-61

Children, the Word and the Church

Uriesou Brito links to a brief article from Alexander Schmemann on his new blog. The following is a brief quote from Schmemann’s article:—

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, all of this presupposes the rich liturgy of Orthodox worship. The claim that the worship of the Church is the place where the Word of God is in ‘its own element’ is simple yet profound. The common idea that our encounter with the Word of God is primarily about reading the text of the Bible, enclosed between two covers, falls far short of the reality of Christian engagement with Scripture for so many reasons.

The story of the Scriptures is a story of progressive incarnation. When the Word becomes flesh He does not merely take a body created out nothing, but a body that has been being prepared for Him since the beginning of creation. He does not merely come as a generic individual human being, but as one who takes the flesh of Israel as has own. The Word does not merely take a biological and Adamic body to Himself, but, as the Messiah, He takes a particular body politic also. This body politic had been formed by the spoken Word of God in successive stages, something that Douglas Knight helpfully compares to the gradual assembling of computer circuitry. The rituals and ceremonies of the OT Law, the worship of the psalms, the structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple: all of these are ways in which God prepares a body for His Son.

The Scriptures create a world through story, symbol, ritual and worship, a world that the people of God are called to live out of. God’s world does not come all at once, but is gradually moulded and developed over time. The Word of God in Scripture is a world-creating Word, no less than the Word of God in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, if our encounter with the Word of God is limited to reading a book the idea that the Scripture creates a world (indeed, is a world) seems a bit far-fetched.

Within the new covenant there is a movement beyond inscription of the Word to incarnation of the Word, not just in Christ, but in the Church, which lives out of Christ’s humanity. This should decisively shape our understanding of the relationship between the Scripture and the ethical life of the Christian community. In the various OT prophecies of the new covenant, great emphasis is put on the fact that the Law of God will now be written on the heart, and not merely on tablets of stone. The initially ‘external’ Law will gradually be consumed into the life of the community until there is no remainder.

In the old covenant the people of God had the tablets of stone at their heart. The new covenant people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ—the Heart of Flesh. At Pentecost, with the gift of the Spirit, the Church grows out of the resurrected humanity of the Word, as the totus Christus. The telos of Scripture is such incarnation, making us participants in the life of Christ. The Word now indwells us in a living form, by the Spirit. In the OT the Word of God formed the world that the people of God inhabited; in the NT the Word of God is the world that the people of God embody in Christ.

The fact that the transformed community—the totus Christus—is the telos of the text determines our hermeneutical posture. The text can only be properly understood when it is related to this telos. True interpretation of the text both presupposes and results in moral transformation. There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community. The Scriptures can only be properly understood from within the community of faith, in the context of their public performance; outside of the community of faith the text has a veil over it.

This is one of the reasons why the proper context of Scripture reading and study is the life of the Church. Far too much Protestant worship is even less ‘incarnational’ than OT worship. When we read the Scripture we are giving voice to the life that we embody in Christ. The world and the Word that creates and gives voice to that world are mutually interpretative. Reading the Bible apart from the context of the Church is like reading a book describing an alien world. No matter how wise and learned you are, you will know less of this world than a simple child who has lived in this world for a few years (this illustration originates with T.F. Torrance, if I remember correctly), even if they have no idea of the science of their world.

As people reject the sacramental life and community of discipleship of the Church the Scriptures will become darkened to them, a fog of obscure teachings. This is one of the reasons why I continually stress the importance of encountering the Scriptures, not primarily as ‘the Bible’, but as the texts which form the life of the Church through their performance in the liturgy, sacrament and proclamation and as the Word that we embody in Christ.

Let me give just one small example of how this connection between the Church as world and the Scriptures as the Word of that world can empower the proclamation of the Word to a young child. I still remember from my childhood occasionally attending the local Church of Ireland around Christmas time. The thing that really spoke to me was the Church calendar and Advent in particular. I had heard the story of Christmas many times before, but in the worship of Advent and the various readings running up to Christmas I began to live in the story. I began to hear the story as a story of hope, remembrance and anticipation, a story in which I was personally involved. I was feeling hope and anticipation; I was not merely reading about hope and anticipation. The Christmas story opened up to me as never before. I reread the story from within, as it were. Reading from within: this is what Christian encounter with the Scriptures is all about.

Remember Which Side You Are On

Soldiers in Iraq

We are gradually being wiped out of Iraq. Our people are fleeing. Powerful men who claim to be fighting in the name of our Leader are not terribly interested in protecting us. These men say ‘peace, peace’, but there is no peace for us. They are paying little heed to our continued suffering.

I first mentioned this almost a year ago and the situation, if anything, seems to have gotten worse since then. Read all about it here. [HT: Dr. Jim West]

Is Westboro Baptist Church Calvinist?


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Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?

From the wacky [HT: Chrisendom]…

…to the weird, to the more sinister.

Is there any section of the Church that is more messed up than what passes under the name of Evangelicalism? Like it or not, most people who call themselves evangelicals in the US and the UK today are holding a form of religion that only bears a tenuous relationship to the historic Christian faith. Whilst we would like to quibble about the historic meaning of the term and complain that it has been hijacked by fruitcakes, there comes a time when we simply have to accept the fact that the term ‘evangelical’ now carries a radically different meaning to anything that it ever held in the past. The weird, the heretical, the fad-driven, the fruity, the fanatical, the culturally and intellectually bankrupt has become the mainstream.

People, evangelicalism is a greater threat to Western civilization than Islam is. Islam may oppose the Christian faith, but modern evangelicalism trivializes, parodies and cheapens it to the extent that it is no longer deemed worthy of opposition and cannot be taken seriously. With all of its handwaving emotionalism, kitschy culture, intellectual vacuity, collective narcissism and blinkered politics, modern evangelicalism demands all the respect of a shabby circus freak.

Wright and Infant Baptism

I have been asked on more than one occasion how Wright can hold to his high view of Baptism. What seems to make his view even less tolerable in many people’s eyes is the fact that he is strongly in favour of the practice of infant Baptism. In conversation with some people yesterday the suggestion was made that one can reject Wright’s position on infant Baptism and infant faith and retain the rest of his thought more or less intact. I am not so sure.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Wright only mentions the practice of infant Baptism on a couple of occasions in his writings and may not even have given the issue any focused study, I believe that infant Baptism is strongly implied by a number of different aspects of his thought. A denial of infant Baptism will always risk compromising Wright’s theological project on a number of levels. Whilst I am not suggesting that there is nothing that a convinced Baptist could consistently take from Wright’s project — far from it — I am concerned that Wright’s paedobaptist position is seen by many to be an Anglican appendage. It is not; it is closely related to much of what he has said about Jesus and Paul, even if he has not traced these implications himself in his writings. We should always be wary of identifying appendages in the thought of smart theologians. Generally they are just following theological instincts that we have just not become attuned to.

Within this post I want to briefly list some of the ways in which Wright’s theology might be seen to imply the existence of infant faith and the legitimacy of infant Baptism.

1. His definition of faith. Within Wright’s theology one sees an attempt to broaden our definition of faith. The Protestant tradition has all too easily fallen prey to definitions of faith that work in terms of a dichotomy between inner feeling and outer ritual or between sincerity and outward conformity. Modernism has also affected our definition of faith in a number of other ways. Modernism has sharp dichotomies between internal and external, private and public, individual and communal and religious and political. Christian faith comes to be defined as something that is internal, private, individual and religious as opposed to something external, public, communal and political.

Within the context of modernity it is the concept of the autonomous individual, who is the source of his own values and identity, which holds sway. Faith is understood in the light of this. Baptist thought is very modern in its philosophical impulses. The problem is that Paul did not share our dichotomies. As Wright has often observed, Paul’s gospel obliterates our tidy modern political/religious dichotomy.

Wright broadens the definition of faith. He moves beyond the faith as internal disposition versus works as external action approach. He moves our definition of faith more in the direction of faithfulness, loyalty, fealty and allegiance. One’s loyalties are often public, political and external realities. Infants are not immune from loyalties. Infants are born into settings where strong bonds of loyalty exist. Infants are implicated in the loyalties of their parents.

Evangelicals tend to operate in terms of a private heart faith that demands a greater degree of knowledge and rules out infants. However, loyalty is more of a public reality that needs to become integrated with heart loyalty as one matures over time. It seems to me that the first century Christian would have regarded the modern evangelical understanding of faith as very narrow. It does not include outward faithfulness, allegiance in a more political sense, it rules out the faith of infants and the faith of those who have a loyalty to Christ or to the Church with little or any knowledge to back it up (the sort of faith that most Christians prior to the Reformation had). Clearly the later form of faith is far from ideal, the faith of infants immature, and outward faithfulness and a more political allegiance often insufficient, but that does not mean that they are never genuine forms of faith, even of saving faith.

I don’t see why genuine Christian faith need involve a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. We can relate to people through others and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that God does just that. God regards the children of believers as ‘holy’ (i.e. set apart for divine use, not merely ‘clean’) and the children of unbelievers as ‘unclean’. God is a ‘family friend’, as it were. No infant is neutral.

We can also relate to Christ through His people. Saul persecuted Christ by persecuting His people. In Matthew 25 we see people declared righteous as they show a form of Christian faith by the way that they treat Christ’s people. They relate to Christ in His people, even though they do not know it. I believe that there are many who will be declared righteous on the last day, who knew little about Christ, but were loyal to His Church. The Nicene Creed, one of the basic declarations of Christian faith, has the Church itself as an object of faith, along with the Holy Trinity. Evangelicals, who focus on faith in Christ as distinct from His Church, do not do this enough justice. The infant relates to Christ through its Christian parent, which it relies upon for everything.

I see no reason to presume any knowledge on the part of the Christian infant in order to claim that they have a form of genuine faith. When Paul calls for allegiance to the world’s new Lord, Jesus the Messiah, he is not looking for a faith that is any less of a public reality than that which a new emperor would demand. Only when we have accepted the modernist religion/politics, public/private divide and placed Christian faith firmly on the private religion side of the equation will we have problems with the concept of household Baptism, for example. If the gospel really is as political as Wright is arguing household Baptism is the most natural thing in the world.

The important question that we must ask about infants is the object of their faith. It would be thoroughly inappropriate to baptize a newborn infant whose faith was not in Christ. However, there is no doubt that a child born into a faithful Christian family has genuine Christian faith. This faith may end up proving temporary, but it is still a real form of faith and the infant should not be held back from Baptism.

2. Opposition to gathered church mentality. Wright’s opposition to the gathered church mentality is another issue here. Baptists generally focus on the sort of faith that is mature, visible and obvious. Such faith is to be encouraged, but it is not the only form of faith. The rigorism of Baptist ecclesiology leads to the exclusion of many genuine believers. People like Wright are more prepared to recognize faith where it is found — even when ignorant, immature or compromised — and try to bring it to maturity and purer expression. Rigorism makes the Church into a closed sect, whereas the welcome of Jesus was far wider. In Wright’s mind establishing leaders in the Church that can exercise the authority of Scripture with power is far more important than a rigorism concerning the Church’s membership.

3. Challenging Caesar. Wright holds to a high ecclesiology. He believes that the Church is like the colony of a new empire. Baptists think in terms of a voluntaristic Church. They presume that a ‘voluntaristic’ Church is synonymous with a ‘faithful’ Church. However, Caesar isn’t really challenged by a ‘voluntaristic’ Church. A ‘voluntaristic’ Church is a sect, not a new society.

Oliver O’Donovan, an old friend of Wright, expresses this point very well in criticizing John Howard Yoder:

Finally, does the concept of the church as a voluntary society not commend itself chiefly because it fits late-modern expectations of how civil society will be organized? Is Yoder, in the name of non-conformity, not championing a great conformism, lining the church up with the sports clubs, friendly societies, colleges, symphony subscription-guilds, political parties and so on, just to prove that the church offers late-modern order no serious threat? [The Desire of the Nations, p.223f.]

It seems to me that Wright’s claims about the political character of the Church as a colony of Christ really stand in direct opposition to Baptist ecclesiology. Even the more communitarian understandings of Anabaptism fall short of Wright’s vision. The idea of the Church as a colony has a far thicker sense in Wright’s work than it ever can in the context of a Baptist ecclesiology.

4. Connection between circumcision and Baptism. This is a connection that Wright makes on a number of occasions in his works. Wright has also suggested that this is one of the arguments that he would use to support the practice of infant Baptism. Circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith, but yet it was perfectly appropriate to give it to infants, who were not considered as detached individuals, but as persons implicated in the faith of their parents.

5. Christ’s reconstitution of Israel and humanity. Wright strongly argues that Jesus sought to reconstitute Israel around Himself. The Church is formed through the waters of Baptism. A reconstitution of Israel and a new humanity that excludes infants is a mockery. Wright stresses the ‘peopleness’ of the Church. The Church is an outward and visible family solidarity analogous to Israel. Baptism strips off old solidarities and places us within a new one and changes our sets of allegiances. Baptism forms a new society. We are baptized into one new body. Baptism is like birth into the community of Christ’s faith where we gain a new family; it is not just an expression of our individual faith.

Baptists tend to downplay the significance of Israel in our understanding of the Church. There is a sharp discontinuity between the type of society that Israel was and the type of society that the Church is. Such a sharp discontinuity is very hard to maintain once one has accepted Wright’s reading of Jesus’ ministry. The Church is a reconstitution of Israel around the Messiah, not a different type of society altogether. Baptists can only really speak of the ‘Israelness’ of the Church at a highly metaphorical level.

6. Christ’s Ministry. Following on from the point above, it is worth noticing that Wright points out that miracles occur in the context of faith and also that they are part of the means whereby God reconstitutes His people. Two facts are interesting here: (1) on a number of occasions Jesus heals people on the account of the faith of their parents or masters (e.g. Mark 5:22ff.; Luke 9:38ff.; John 4:47ff.); (2) Children are often the beneficiaries of Christ’s healing (e.g. Mark 7:25ff.). This suggests that the reconstitution of the people of God around Christ is one that includes children and also that they are in some sense included in the faith of their parents.

It is also interesting that Jesus repeatedly speaks of children as the paradigm case of those who receive the kingdom. When we recognize that Jesus was reforming Israel around Himself, His blessing of infants, for example, becomes even more significant (it is worth observing how loaded the concept of blessing is in the gospel; it is no light thing). If we read the gospels through the framework presented by Wright such incidents cannot but be seen as significant.

Dilettantes and the Bible

Jim West is absolutely right, such people have no right to be interpreting the Bible. However, that said, I am not sure that I trust most biblical scholars with the task of interpreting the Bible either. As Stanley Hauerwas observes, biblical scholarship and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin, both assume that the biblical text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation of the Church.

The most essential training in biblical interpretation that we will receive is not that provided by a theological degree, important though that is, but the training provided by belonging to a faithful Christian community under wise and faithful pastors. For this reason I am as suspicious of the assured interpretations of much modern biblical scholarship as I am of the interpretations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others like them. For all of their valuable linguistic gifts and scholarly credentials, biblical scholars outside of the Church are dilettantes who lack the basic training to interpret the Church’s Scriptures aright (this theory that I had to study last semester is a good example). Those who have not undergone and are not undergoing the paideia of the Christian Church, living as a community of discipleship under the Word of God, have no right to interpret the Scriptures. For this reason we should not even enter into debate with them on questions of interpretation.

Incarnational?

I don’t usually read Doug Wilson’s blog, but one of his recent posts — ‘Incarnational Is As Incarnational Does’ — has been quoted in a number of places within the blogosphere, so I took the time to read the full thing. Within it he writes:

But I want to be careful here because in our postmodern times some of our chief offenders in this area are those among the intelligensia who spend a lot of time braying about problematic abstractions. They are intent on overcoming the incipient dualism of the mind/body problem, but little beads of sweat always appear on their foreheads when they try it, and they are not very successful. And then there is this other guy, who has never heard of the mind/body problem; he works down at the feed store, and rides bulls at the rodeo on the weekends. He lives incarnationally, effortlessly, and could not explain any of that egghead stuff to you.

For the academicians, incarnational means being able to talk about incarnational, preferably with words like incarnational. But for the genuinely incarnational, it means being able to laugh at the people who always write big fat books full of words. Faith without works is dead, and this includes the faith of intellectuals. Intellectual faith without incarnational works is dead. But such works would not include poring over one another’s books, handing them back and forth with compliments or critiques, circulating them in a small band of irrelevant smart people. That reminds of the time someone threw a bunch of Scotsmen down into a pit and they all got rich selling rocks to each other.

Contemporary intellectuals tell us all to overcome abstractions, but whenever Joe Somebody in a red state says “Okay!” and heads off to a NASCAR race to eat corn dogs, the intellectual goes white in the face. “When we told you to walk away from the realm of abstractions, we didn’t mean . . . to just walk away.”

I am not sure that this is a very helpful way of expressing things. There is nothing necessarily incarnational about working down at the feed store and riding bulls at the rodeo on the weekends. In fact, the incarnational person is just as likely to be found poring over people’s books and engaging in scholarly dialogue. Wilson’s post might even suggest its own form of the mind/body dualism: ‘incarnational’ is doing things with your body, as opposed to doing things with your mind. Whilst I presume that Wilson does not intend this, I do not find his way of putting the issue very helpful.

For one, I find the thinking/acting (or speaking/acting) split that many people work in terms of (and Wilson’s post suggests) misleading, whilst recognizing the usefulness of the distinction on occasions. There are many people who shrink back from thinking because it takes far more effort than simply acting. If you really want to work to change the world you are probably best advised to spend a lot less time eating corn dogs and watching NASCAR. The people who will change history are more likely to be found poring over books. If you want to be someone who sees the Truth incarnated in your own and other people’s lives you would be well advised to join them.

To be incarnational is to embody the Truth as a whole person. Done properly, thinking is a form of incarnational living. It is a strong testimony to the Truth to be able to keep our heads cool enough to resist the false urgency of our society, its thirst for instant gratification and immediate action and devote time to reflection. Much of the church today is not very incarnational. One of the reasons why is because it has not developed the self-control and patience necessary to stand still long enough to think about what it is doing. The body is controlled by impulses and fleeting fads, rather than by the Truth. It has bought into the false urgency of modern society and flays about seeking to be relevant when it should remain calm and seek to be faithful.

Once we appreciate what it really means to be incarnational we will recognize that it involves having the Truth (the Person of Jesus Christ) permeating every aspect of our lives — heart, soul, mind and strength. Being incarnational involves partaking in a shared life, the life of Christ that we share as His body. For the incarnational Christian the sense of the term ‘Christian life’ is much the same as the sense of the terms ‘married’ or ‘family life’: we are many persons but share one life.

To the extent that our conception of the church has been reduced to one of a group of people who share the same ideas, rather than being regarded as a group of people who share a single life, we have ceased to be incarnational. To the extent that we talk about the Christian faith but fail to allow the Christian faith to permeate all of our actions we are not incarnational. Incarnational people do not regard their thinking as an activity abstracted from their living. When we warn about the danger of abstractions we are warning about thinking that the Object of theology is detached from the common life that we participate in, when in fact the life of the Triune God is the life that we participate in. Theology divorced from the life of the Church deals in abstractions; true Christian theology need not.

There is an important warning to those doing theology here. It is easy to see theology merely as a toying with ideas, rather than as a reflection upon a life that we share in. One of the problems of modern theology is that it has become abstracted. The discipline is not integrated into the life of the Church as it ought to be. It is believed that we can understand the Word of God in abstraction from the interpretative community of the Church. I would love to see a form of theology that is undertaken in service of the people of God, rather than as a merely academic discipline, in isolation from the body. We need theologians who do their theology as churchmen, like the early Church Fathers.

Those who have never heard of the mind/body problem are no less likely to have their thinking and acting governed by it, probably a lot more so. I have encountered plenty of people who have argued that I should stop studying theology and just live the Christian life. This attitude is extremely naïve. Studying theology is a means by which we ensure that it is indeed the Christian life that we are living. Whilst our participation in the Truth is not primarily arrived at through theological reflection, but through the worship of the Church that involves the whole person, theological reflection has the task of informing and correcting the worship of the Church and our lives as Christians. Where people have rejected theology in favour of worship (or in favour of NASCAR and corn dogs), their worship and their lives will very likely embody many things that are quite alien to the Truth.

How Gutenberg Took the Bible from Us: Some thoughts on the Ontology of the Scriptures

Tours Bible

This blog has been pretty quiet over the last couple of months (probably the least constructive months that I have had for well over a year). This is no one’s fault but my own. I lost much of my steam after a tiring January and have taken things very easy as regards my studies recently. Whilst I am keeping up to date with university work, I haven’t devoted much time or effort to anything beyond that which is immediately expected of me. Hopefully the next few months will see more material of substance being posted here.

Over the last day or so I have been thinking a little about the question of the ontology of the ‘Bible’ (or better, ‘Scripture’). This is something that I have pondered a lot in the past, but have never written that much about. All too often we use the word ‘Bible’ as if its meaning were plain, when its meaning is far more ambiguous than we originally might think.

Suppose that you asked different people to define ‘Shakespearian play’. The answer that you would receive from a high school English class might be quite different from the answer given by a troupe of Shakespearian actors. For the English student, the Shakespearian play is a text to be analyzed within the setting of the classroom. It is printed on paper and bound between two covers. For the Shakespearian actor, whilst there is undoubtedly a script, the play is understood primarily in terms of its performance.

The ontology of the play within the two different settings will powerfully inform the manner in which it will be engaged with. For the English student, the interpretation of the play will take the form of literary analysis and criticism. For the Shakespearian actor the interpretation of the play will take the form of a performance. The Shakespearian actor has to ‘inhabit’ the play; he has to live and breathe his character. The English student analyzes the play as an object from outside.

For the actor the Shakespearian play is not a closed text, but is an embodied and animated performance, always open to newer and richer interpretations. Indeed, the play has no existence independent of its many interpretations. These interpretations are not timeless and unchanging. Many possible routes of interpretation may present themselves, by which Shakespeare’s play speaks to people from various cultures and places in history. For the English student, interpretation of Shakespeare will look quite different and will (generally) be far less creative in character. It is far easier for the English student, faced with his Penguin edition of the Shakespearian play, to believe that the play has an existence independent of its interpreters. The play is an independent object to be analyzed and is autonomous in relationship to its interpreters.

Both Shakespearian actors and the English student may claim to love Shakespearian plays. However, we must be aware that they might not mean quite the same thing as each other by such a claim. The ontology of the Shakespearian play differs between their two interpretative communities.

I believe that much the same thing can be observed within the Christian world today. When we speak of the centrality of the ‘Bible’, we do not all mean the same thing. The ‘Bible’ in one community may differ quite significantly from the ‘Bible’ in another community. This is not a matter of the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Apocrypha, or anything like that. Rather it has to do with the manner in which the text is conceived of and engaged with. What many churches identify and seek to defend as the ‘Bible’ bears little relationship to that which Christians throughout most of the Church’s history would have thought of as ‘Scripture’ or the ‘Bible’. Unfortunately, few people seem to pay much attention to this and the profound influence that different conceptions of the Bible have upon the way that we engage with Scripture.

The ‘Bible’ that most Christians think in terms of is a very different kind of entity from the ‘Bible’ that the Church originally received. When one speaks of the ‘Bible’ today, most people have in mind a privately-owned, mass-produced, printed book, which contains 66 smaller books, neatly divided into chapters and verses, with notes and cross-references in the margins, a title page, a contents page and concordance, bound between two covers. Most Christians have more than one copy of this book and are accustomed to relating to it primarily through the act of silent reading off the printed page. Such an entity would have been alien to the experience of most Christians throughout history. A while back Joel Garver wrote a very thought-provoking post on the subject of the Bible in the Middle Ages, which articulated (far more clearly than I ever could) many of issues that I had been thinking about concerning the manner in which we encounter the Scriptures. Within the post he observed just how different the Bible that the Christian in the Middle Ages had was from the Bible as we have it in our churches.

The fact that our ‘Bible’ is the type of entity that it is encourages certain forms of engagement with it. The ease with which our Bibles are produced and transported shapes the manner in which we use them. The fact that our Bibles are privately owned can make the idea that the Bible has been given to the Church, rather than to the world in general, strange to us. A mass-produced printed text simply does not have the same character as a manuscript.

The fact that the text is bound between two covers also seems to establish a greater degree of closure to the text. This closure stands in contrast to the openness of the medieval Bible, which consisted of many volumes or separate books. Complete Bibles were very rare as multi-volume sets, let alone as single volumes.

It also stands in contrast to the openness of the text that is encountered primarily through the ear, as it is read aloud in the liturgy, for example. The heard word involves passage in time, successive sounds dying on the air; the written word is mapped onto unchanging space. The written word has a form of immediacy and presence that is denied to the spoken word. It is already there, rather than something that arrives gradually over the course of time. The written word (and far more so the printed word) lends itself to the downplaying of the significance of time. I wonder how this has played into, for example, understandings of the covenant as an abstract theological construct, rather than as a developing historical entity. Print may have encouraged people’s minds to become primarily spatially organized, leaving far less of a role for temporal categories. The role of anticipation and remembrance in our engagement with Scripture may be downplayed as a result.

It is far easier to treat the printed text as an object than either the written or the spoken word. Each written manuscript is individually produced by a particular agent at a particular moment in history and, as such, is more like an ‘occurrence in the course of conversation’ or an ‘utterance’ (to use Walter Ong’s expressions — in Orality and Literacy) than the printed text is. Ong observes the manner in which print encouraged the idea of the book as an object ‘containing’ information, rather than as a form of utterance. In the age of print title pages for books became more and more common. The fact that every single book in an edition was physically identical to every other invited people to regard them as objects needing labels, rather than as forms of personal utterance. Print encourages us to think in terms of the autonomy of the text. The printed text exists independently of an ongoing conversation.

The idea of the Bible as an impersonal object containing information is encouraged by the printed, bound form in which we encounter it. Were we to encounter the Bible primarily in the context of the heavenly ‘conversation’ of the spoken liturgy the personal character of the Word might be more apparent to us.

The authority of the printed text (thought of as an object ‘containing’ information) will most likely be conceived of very differently from the authority of the written or spoken word. The authority of the printed text is the authority of the rule book, the encyclopaedia or the how-to manual. The authority of the spoken or written word is far more personal in character. I have remarked at length on the contrast between the Word encountered through the eye as printed text and the Word encountered as sound through the ear in the past, so I won’t repeat those thoughts here. I will just remark that the manner in which we understand the authority of the Word will most likely be affected by whether our encounter with the Word is primarily with the Word as spoken in the Church’s liturgy or as printed text.

I could say a lot more regarding the manner in which technology shapes the manner in which we have grown accustomed to engaging with the text. I could comment on the huge effect that chapters and verses, concordances and other Bible helps have on our consciousness. I could also raise concerns about the way in which recent and forthcoming technological developments (electronic books, online Bibles, search functions, etc.) change the character of the biblical text even further. However, a complete analysis of technology’s shaping of the Bible is not the goal of this post.

The primary point of this post is to argue that the ‘Bible’ that we have come to think in terms of has blinded us to a number of important things. The purpose of the above comments is to make the technology that so shapes our engagement with Scripture ‘strange’ to us once again. We need to contemplate what bringing the Bible into a print culture (and also into the ‘information culture’ of the computer age) does to the text and our understanding of it. My intention is to counteract what Neil Postman has termed the tendency for technology to become ‘mythic’. The ‘technology’ of the modern Bible is something that we tend to regard as part of the natural order of things. We need to be alerted to its presence once more. The more that we are alerted to its presence, the more I believe that we will appreciate that it has shaped, and in many respects distorted, our understanding of the Scripture.

There are a few key things that I wish to draw out for particular attention in conclusion.

1. The importance of the relationship between our world and the world of the text. The technology that shapes the Scriptures will powerfully influence our understanding of the relationship between our world and that of the text. It is my firm conviction that the Bible presents us with a narrative that we are called to ‘inhabit’. The narrative of Scripture is not some closed entity. Rather, the narrative of Scripture establishes a world in which we are called to participate. The movement beyond such ‘pre-critical’ exegesis was probably empowered by the invention of the printing press more than anything else. As soon as the Bible comes to be regarded primarily as an object containing true propositions the pre-critical appropriation of the text will seem bizarre. A printed and bound text is far harder to ‘inhabit’ than Scriptures read out in the context of the Church’s ongoing liturgy.

2. Notions of the Bible’s authority. I have already remarked that the technology of our Bible tends to depersonalize the concept of authority. It also tends to make the concept of authority far more static. Rather than the authority of God being dynamically enacted through the Scriptures, the Scriptures come to be regarded as a static repository of timeless truth.

3. The relationship between the Bible and the Church. I have already observed that the modern Bible attenuates the connection between the Bible and the Church. A Bible printed with many thousands of copies in a single edition by a multinational corporation, independent of the authority of the Church, and privately owned by people within and without the Church will not be regarded in the same way as the Bible was prior to the invention of the printing press.

In Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas has argued that no more important task faces the Church than that of taking the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in America. Amidst Hauerwas’ characteristic overstatement, there is a very important point. As Hauerwas points out, the printing press and the mass production of the biblical text has led to the impression that people can interpret the Bible ‘for themselves’ without moral transformation or any need to stand under the authority of a ‘truthful community’ in order to learn how to read (the exaltation of private and individual spirituality over public faith has roots here also).

If the Bible was given to be encountered primarily as a printed or written text the Church is not that necessary. However, I believe that the Bible was given to be ‘performed’ (much as the Shakespearian play). The chief ‘performance’ of the Bible is that which occurs in the Church’s liturgy. It is read aloud in the lectionary. It is prayed, sung, meditated upon, memorized and recited. Its story is retold in various forms. It is our conversation partner and our guide.

Our lives are incorporated into the story of Scripture throughout the liturgy. We are taught to remember the story of God’s saving acts in the old and new testaments as our story. We are taught to speak of and see the world in a Christian way as we learn liturgical responses and are instructed through preaching. Our world is gradually translated into biblical categories. As Peter Leithart has observed, the use of the Bible in worship also trains us psychologically: ‘Singing the Psalms makes the biblical story and biblical language part of us, knits it into the fabric of our flesh.’ The Bible (in stark contrast to contemporary worship choruses) gives us the vocabulary with which to respond to the difficulties and the joys of life.

The narrative of Scripture also serves to structure the Church’s life on a larger scale, through the Church calendar. In A Community of Character, Hauerwas writes:—

…[T]he shape of the liturgy over a whole year prevents any one part of scripture from being given undue emphasis in relation to the narrative line of scripture. The liturgy, in every performance and over a whole year, rightly contextualizes individual passages when we cannot read the whole.

Unfortunately, in many churches that pay little attention to the shape of the liturgy, it is the shape of the confession of faith or the systematic theologians that the pastor read in seminary that are most clearly apparent. Pet doctrines take on a prominence that bears no relationship to the place that they are given in the story of Scripture. I sometimes wonder what the Reformed doctrine of election, for example, would look like had the Church’s reflection on election been more firmly situated within the context of an overarching narrative which structured the Church year. The Reformed tradition has all too often lost sight of the centrality of the Story as people’s encounter with Scripture has increasingly been dominated by a the text understood non-liturgically.

The Bible also gives all sorts of ‘stage directions’. The institution of the various biblical rites (e.g. the Eucharist) can be read as such. Like all stage directions, the point is to be found in their performance. Those who believe that the meaning of the Lord’s Supper can be wholly ascertained from Scripture are like people who believe that the recipe makes the cake superfluous.

Throughout the liturgy the Word is central. However, the Word is never mere letters on a page, which is what it has been reduced to by many Protestants. The Word in the liturgy is living and active. He works upon us and transforms us. He comforts us and rebukes us; He encourages us and exhorts us. The written text is the score from which the symphony of liturgy is performed. The true revelation takes place in the performance, not primarily in the score. This is where I must take my stand with those who refuse to speak of the mass-produced, privately-owned, printed and bound text as the Word of God in an unqualified sense.

4. The impact upon our doctrine of Scripture and the discipline of theology. The set of ‘ideas’ contained in the technology of the modern Bible has profound ramifications for our doctrine of Scripture. I am continually amazed at how little attention theologians give to this issue. It seems to be widely taken for granted that what we call the ‘Bible’ bears a one-to-one relationship with that which Christ originally gave to His Church.

If one believes that the Bible is primarily encountered in the course of the liturgy, a far closer relationship between Bibliology, Theology proper and Ecclesiology begins to emerge. The Bible that most modern Christians think in terms of is an object; what we encounter in the liturgy is nothing less than the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ Himself.

God breathes out His Word in the Spirit into the Church, speaking the Church into existence as the body of Christ. This act occurs chiefly in the context of the liturgy of the Church’s gathered worship. God’s gift of His Word should not be first sought in what we have come to understand as the ‘Bible’. ‘Performing’ the Bible involves learning how to inhabit the Word (which means nothing less than learning how to be ‘in Christ’). The process of ‘learning’ how to be in Christ is not predominantly a matter of cognitive processing. Rather, it is a training of character.

The Word was made flesh and Protestants have all too often tended to make Him mere ‘word’ again. Bibliolatry is perhaps one of the greatest errors within Protestantism today. The Bible has been transformed into an object to be used and the idea that it is primarily designed to do things to us in the course of the liturgy has been forgotten. In the process it has become akin to an idol. The Bible that God gave to the Church is to be understood as something to be incarnated — embodied in the life and worship of the community. We have tended to neglect the performance of the symphony in favour of reflecting on the score. Whilst reflection on the score has its place, it can never take the place of performance.

By ‘embodied’ I am not primarily referring to the need to obey biblical commands. Rather, I am referring to the need to ‘put on’ the narrative of Scripture, to ‘inhabit’ it, to relate to the text more as actors than as academics. Interpretation of the Scripture is not chiefly something that the Church is to do; the Church is called to be the interpretation of Scripture. From a slightly different angle, using N.T. Wright’s classic analogy, we are called to improvise the fifth act of the biblical narrative.

If we were informed by such considerations I believe that our doctrine of Scripture would take a radically different shape.

5. The relationship between the Bible, liturgy and hermeneutics. Unfortunately, the whole theological endeavour has also been shaped by the modern understanding of the Bible. Hauerwas makes an important point when he writes:

It is important not only that theologians know text, but it is equally important how and where they learn the text. It is my hunch that part of the reason for the misuse of the scripture in matters dealing with morality is that the text was isolated from a liturgical context. There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with individuals reading and studying scripture, but such reading must be guided by the use of the scripture through the liturgies of the church… Aidan Kavanagh has recently observed, “the liturgy is scripture’s home rather than its stepchild, and the Hebrew and Christian bibles were the church’s first liturgical books.”

For many theologians, however, the kind of entity that the text is is determined more by the context of the academy than by the context of the Church’s liturgy.

Picking up on some earlier points, the written and the spoken Word partake more of the character of actions than the printed text can. Written and spoken words more clearly do things. Printed words are easier to regard as passive things to be acted upon. The primary engagement with the printed text is one of analysis as we act upon the text using our rational faculties. However, when we are faced with the spoken Word it becomes far more apparent that the purpose of the engagement is primarily for the Word to act upon us, rather than vice versa. A theology that refuses to objectify the Bible will differ markedly from other forms of theology.

Emphasis on the printed word has also encouraged the development of highly rationalistic ways of thinking about Scripture and has deeply infected our theology in the process. The Bible is conceived of as a collection of propositions. However, much of the Bible consists of ‘phatic’ speech. Its purpose is not that of conveying information. Rather, it is designed to strengthen and mould relationship. The Word, considered this way, is more concerned with modifying a life situation than with conveying information in a more detached fashion. Our interaction with the Word in the liturgy brings us to a knowledge of God, not merely a knowledge about God.

Walter Ong writes:—

The condition of words in a text is quite different from their condition in spoken discourse. Although they refer to sounds and are meaningless unless they can be related — externally or in the imagination — to the sounds or, more precisely, the phonemes they encode, written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words.

Yet words are alone in a text…. [Orality and Literacy, 100]

By taking the Bible out of the context of the liturgy, the Bible has been put into a context where its words are alone and detached from a particular life situation. It addresses no one in particular from a position of detachment. The text becomes autonomous in a way that it never could if it were regard as a liturgical text.

It seems to me that the displacing of typological and liturgical ways of reading Scripture and the rise of pure grammatical historical exegesis owes much (for numerous reasons) to the invention of the printing press. Whilst Protestants are used to singing the praises of the printing press as that which led to people having the Bible, I want to argue that, in some very important senses, the printing press led to the people of God being robbed of the Bible.

The ubiquity of the printed text makes it very difficult for us to recover a more Christian engagement with the Scripture. Even within the gathered worship of the people of God, people are incessantly reading their printed Bibles. This is akin to someone attending a production of Hamlet and paying little attention to what is taking place on the stage because he is too busy reading along in the text.

Liturgy provides us with a hermeneutical context for reading the Word of God. The rise of the printed word has led, I believe to a reshaping and restructuring of liturgy. Biblical liturgy has been displaced by liturgical minimalism. Merely grammatical historical exegesis is, I believe, intrinsically bound up with minimalistic forms of liturgy (I have already commented on this). Both are encouraged by an engagement with Scripture that is primarily engagement with a printed text.

The medieval manuscript was far more likely to be physically beautiful than the modern Bible. The printing press brought with it a certain form of austerity. The complex and decorative characters of older scripts were simplified down to basic and constant forms. The colourful illustrations, flourishes and artistic binding of older manuscripts were discarded for functional purposes. The Bible gradually ceased to be regarded as, among other things, a work of art and came to take on the character of a purely functional object.

When your chief contact with the Bible is with printed letters surrounded by white space, you will be far less likely to appreciate the role of incense, symbols, images, song, architecture, bread and wine, posture, gesture and vesture in our relationship with God. Seeing is the sense that makes the least immediate physical impression on us (seeing very bright light being a notable exception). The printed text makes far less demands on the senses than the written text does. Our engagement with God in His Word becomes primarily a matter of the mind, the body being largely bypassed.

To a large measure, the austerity and rationalism of much Reformed worship may grow out of such a typographic consciousness. The unadorned simplicity of the printed page has been imposed as the model for biblical worship, in general disregard of all the traditional and biblical forms of worship (take, for example, the worship of the book of Revelation). When you have been trained in such a consciousness the various elements of high liturgy will tend to be regarded as fripperies that complicate what should be a simple engagement with God’s Word (i.e. engagement with that which is found in the printed text). In a typographic culture it is easily forgotten that engagement with God’s Word is something that involves the whole of our beings, body and mind.

There is a relationship between the way that we worship and the way that we will read God’s Word. Our liturgies are, in many respects, the embodiment of our hermeneutics. Typological readings of God’s Word will be encouraged by those whose form of engagement with God’s Word in worship go far beyond that of reading off a page and instruction directed primarily at the mind. Typological readings of God’s Word are more a matter of a sanctified form of aesthetics than a scientific technique. Austere worship has little place for the development of a Christian aesthetics and will consequently give rise to hermeneutics that consistently fail to grasp the musical, symbolic and literary character of the biblical text.

Richly liturgical worship trains the person at every level of their being. It does not merely consist of truths to be mentally digested. Such training of character is absolutely essential if we are to be the sort of people who read the Bible correctly.

I could say much, much more on these issues but I have rambled on quite long enough. Despite the amount that I have written above, I really haven’t begun to scrape the surface of the matters that could be raised surrounding the question of the ontology of the Bible. I haven’t even addressed many of the issues that I originally intended to (e.g. the relationship between Scripture and tradition). Perhaps I will return to some of the loose threads in the above arguments sometime in the future. In the meantime, please feel welcome to comment.

This Isn’t Very Encouraging

The 50 most Influential Christians[/Heretics] in America