Church unity

Keith Dyer on healthy New Testament churches

I am grateful for good teachers, and Keith Dyer was certainly one of mine. He taught me about the centrality of apocalyptic in the New Testament, that the Book of the Revelation is one of the most bold and politically-charged pieces of literature ever penned, and that Rudolf Bultmann is one of the good guys. More importantly, he taught me that you didn’t have to switch off your brain in order to read the Bible and to be a Christian, and that following Jesus is inextricably bound up with the concrete life of communities. It was good to read today a recent piece written by Keith, and to hear again through the words his warm voice, his love for Scripture, and his service with the people of God. Here are the closing words from his reflection on healthy New Testament churches:

Healthy churches are transforming churches, not perfect churches. Transforming churches are both being transformed and also transforming the wider community — they breathe in, and they breathe out. They take note of the various models and arrangements for leadership and governance in the New Testament, and learn from the history of the church since then, to embody ways of being and doing that keep them close to the Way of Jesus.

Healthy churches can continue to thrive when differences are expressed passionately by their members. The whole point of the ‘body of Christ’ image (1 Cor 12-14) is that we are one body, but all different, and each and every one gifted differently for the benefit of the whole.

Healthy churches do not decide things based purely on rule by the majority and formal business procedures. Democracy in itself is not a Christian form of governance. It may be the best we have for our Nation and States, but Christian communities are the body of Christ, and 51% of Christ cannot tell 49% of Christ they are wrong. Rather, we Baptists agree to act on the basis of consensus — by overwhelming, if not 100%, majority. That may take time and a lot of praying and talking to achieve, and so sometimes we use the 67% majority as a guide. So be it.

If in the end a small minority is to be overruled by a large majority, the arguments and objections of the minority should be recorded clearly in the record of meeting. It may well be that the words of such prophets provide the foundation for the subsequent reconstruction of the community after the majority have been proved wrong. Thus it was for Jeremiah, that great prophet in the shalom (= health and wholeness) tradition of Israel, and we should always be ready to acknowledge that possibility when we face stubborn resistance within our own community of faith.

It may even be that we part company on an issue, but hopefully in doing so, we can agree that ‘Paul should go to the Gentiles, and Peter to the Jews’, or ‘Barnabas and Mark to Cyprus, and Paul and Silas to Galatia’, and thereby the transforming mission of God to all humanity can benefit regardless.

You can read the rest here.

Bruce Hamill: ‘Response to Kevin Ward’s Inaugural Lecture’

hamill-1Rev Dr Kevin Ward’s recent lecture – ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ – has sparked a good deal of constructive conversation, a conversation that was kicked off by a brief public response to the lecture by one who had enquired after one of Kevin’s earlier lectures – ‘So where’s the theology in all this? – the Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Here’s Bruce’s gracious and insightful response to Kevin’s paper:


Thanks for the privilege of responding to today very briefly, in just 10 minutes… Kevin, those who know you expect nothing less than a broad-visioned, scholarly, insightful, pastoral, provocative but conciliatory lecture, grounded in your passion for the church and the gospel. You have not disappointed us…

Since I am expected to ask theological questions I will try not to disappoint.

Right Question?

I particularly liked the provocative title… however, as I have thought about the relation between the title and the concluding answer, I reached the conclusion that, for all its provocation this question is not quite right. Not that I want to avoid your question, but perhaps to narrow down the scope of my response…a better question might be: Does this movement within the church (or among the churches) point the way forward for reform of the body of Christ? Does this movement with its 3 foci of (1) alignment with postmodernism (2) relevance (3) incarnationalism have the theological resources for a missional church in our time? Now my suspicion is that your answer to this question would be a nuanced one, but probably, like mine, a ‘no’. Indeed the last half of your paper demonstrates how the emergent church consistently shows a conflict with the classical marks of the church – a strong indicator that its theological principles and direction is fundamentally flawed. In this respect my response is, I suspect in basic agreement with your view (particularly in the latter half of your paper)

Incarnation and Mission

However, if this is the case, then I fear that the framework you inherit from Niebuhr and others in the missiology movement is too close to that used by the emergent church itself, to really expose its flaws. In what remains of my few minutes response I want to indicate some of the tensions within your argument.

To begin with I would note that your adoption of the term incarnation, as an adjective (‘incarnational’) to represent a stance which is neither isolationist nor accomodationist, raises my theological antennae. This appears to me to be a sociologising of the language of theology – of incarnation – which trades on its theological background.

So to a more directly theological question: What is the incarnation? (in just 5 minutes!) And how does it relate to the church’s cultural existence and mission?

David Congdon, a Princeton theologian who has influenced my response to this, says:

‘the incarnation is sui generis, i.e., it is wholly unique and unrepeatable. In short, the incarnation is an event, not an idea that can be applied or a process that can be completed or a reality that can be replicated.’

What I believe lies behind this is the whole doctrine of divine grace emerging from the church’s experience of salvation in the raising of the crucified Jesus. Namely, that the life of Jesus originated unnecessarily (contingently) and freely from God’s transcendent act and being. In the incarnation God’s freedom from us is the basis for God’s freedom for us in the life of Jesus.

hamill-2In this sense Jesus life represents a break in the fabric of culture and tradition and original sin. It introduces a radical newness from the Word of God. In this sense the church came to talk of him as being born of a virgin and also suggest that the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ even the maternal contribution to Jesus existence. God enters into the physical conditions of human life, adopting, as it were, the human condition, however this is not an accommodation to or adaption to culture, but rather human culture is here accommodated to the Word of God.

So as Congdon argues, the incarnation cannot be a model for us. However, it does transform and con-form our life. As already enfleshed and enculturated, fallen human beings, we are, because of the incarnation and the form and history it took, reculturated (that’s my word) by God.

In Christ we are not made ‘incarnational’, but a given a history that conforms to his history culminating in death and resurrection. It is here that we see the weakness of the link so often made between ‘incarnation’ and ‘adaptation to human culture’. ‘As the Father sent me…’ refers not to his incarnation but to the form of his life culminating in crucifixion and resurrection – a transformative, salvific encounter with culture.

Other Missional Language in Tension

Let me mention some further places where I think the language of the earlier half of your paper leads you closer to the framework of the ’emerging church’ than the latter half of your paper should allow. You suggest that the aim of missional thinking is a ‘culturally indigenous church’. According to my dictionary “indigenous” means: “born in or originating from where it is found”. If however, the church is created by the crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate Word it may look like its surrounding culture (like Paul sought to in 1 Cor 9 in order to serve those cultures) but it will not originate from where it is found. The cultural processes that we rely on in the creation of the church are not indigenous processes of human meaning-making. They are the processes whereby God “crunches” from the old order, in all its indigenous and alienated diversity  and constant change, a new social order. Jesus very definitely did take the human context in all its particularity seriously, seriously enough to get crucified by it (as you point out). Seriously enough to spend most of his time with those who functioned as essentially non-representative of the culture – the culturally marginalised. I contend that to take culture seriously as Jesus did, is not to conform to its agenda.

As you say ‘there are limits to how far the culture can set the agenda and determine the shape’. My contention is that the issue is not the presence of a limit, but how that limit is set (and who determines it). I believe it is not by the balancing of principles, especially if one of those principles is Andrew Walls’ rather cosy ‘the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home in the gospel’. Such a principle, even if balanced by the pilgrim principle which says that ‘the gospel is never fully at home’, makes the cross the exception rather than the culmination of Christ’s life. One cannot serve two masters, Christ and Culture (as Walls’s balancing act suggests). Cultural processes must have their limits set for them by Christ in the formation of his body, or our enlightenment culture becomes the default determiner of this process.

Church is not people who ‘have the gospel’ (like some ideal) and then apply it, enlightenment style, to the world’s forms. They are worldly people being re-formed by Spirit and Word and re-culturated into a new creation and an anticipation of the kingdom.

Barth, Form and Content

Which brings me to Karl Barth’s problem. He says that there is no ‘sacred sociology’, however I feel he needs to be challenged, by those like John Milbank, to understand the need of a theological sociology – a fuller ecclesiology.

Quoting Barth you say, “If then the church has been, and indeed should (the should is your addition) have its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are, does that mean that anything goes?” [loaded question!] Barth has no “should”. I suspect he does not see such accomodation as an ecclesiological virtue – just an inevitability. However, I want to go beyond Barth and challenge the easy separation between form and content. Not only is it not true that anything goes (as you also clearly argue), but it is true that the form as well as the content should be subject to Christ and the Spirit (as you hinted at in places in your paper). This claim does not, as many seem to fear, imply that it will be a fixed form, or that to believe this requires identifying the form that Christ gives the church with a human form from the post. On the contrary it simply requires a formative process, by which enculturated people attend to Word and Sacrament, not just in their private spiritualities but also in their social habits and structures. This is in my view what it means to be a Reformed Church – constantly being re-formed socially.

Thanks again for the chance to respond to your stimulating lecture.

Kevin Ward: ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’

kevin-ward-08-2A week or so ago, I posted some reflections on the emerging church. I offered these in anticipation of Rev Dr Kevin Ward‘s then forthcoming inaugural lecture at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership entitled ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ Kevin delivered his lecture on Monday, which was followed by a brief response by Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Bruce’s response can be read here. Here’s Kevin’s paper:

‘IT MIGHT BE EMERGING: BUT IS IT CHURCH?’, a guest post by Kevin Ward

At a recent theological conference I was attending, one of the presenters outlining some of the factors in the changing context for theological education, referred to “fresh expressions” which he said was a more appropriate term than the previously favoured descriptor for experimental faith communities, “emerging church”, since as it turned out most of what they were emerging from was not church. He was Anglican and the term “fresh expressions” is a phrase developed by the C of E for some of its new developments, but the term “emerging church’ is still widespread and gains much attention from younger church leaders in NZ, including many of those accepted for ministry training by the PCANZ and coming to the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. One of our courses here is now titled “Missional and Emerging Churches.” At the VisionNZ Conference last year one of the major presentations was “A Kiwi Emerging Kiwi Church: Yeah Right!” by Steve Taylor, who has emerged as the leading spokesperson for emerging church in NZ, and a significant global voice. Indeed it is interesting in reading on the movement globally how much NZ comes up in the material as being, along with, Australia and the UK initiators in it. Mike Riddel and Mark Pierson from NZ, and Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch from Australia are seen as pioneers. I might add that as well as being from down under, they along with Taylor are Baptists, a heritage of course I share myself, and something I will come back to.

A google search of “emerging church” came up with about 1,530,000 entries. So what are we to make of what Scot McKnight calls “the most controversial and misunderstood movement in the church today”. One article I read was titled “Emerging Churches – Heroes or Heretics.” Clearly unambivalent about the answer a brochure I received at the beginning of the year blazed out. “The last days Apostacy. Coming to a church near you. The emergent church.” It warns that “With the move of the Church back to Rome through organisations like evangelicals and Catholics together, Alpha, Promise Keepers and Interfaith dialogue… Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven and now the postmodern Emergent wave… believe that today’s post modern culture needs a more relevant and experiential approach to God, Church and Worship. Eg. Playing u2 as an expression of worship using multi-sensory stimulation, candles, icons, art, images, stained glass etc.” And it warns “The Emergent Church has taken hold in NZ and its teachings have been aired on Radio Rhema and also being taught in the BCNZ.” I must point out that the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership you’ll be pleased to know was not listed among those who have fallen into “the last days deception.”

We need of course to ask the question why has this movement arisen? The broad answer is fairly simple: it is part of a number of responses over the past half century to the increasingly obvious fact that the church in particular and Christian faith in general has been having a rather difficult time of it in western societies like NZ. I have written in a number of places on this, as have many others, and have no intention of rehearsing that fact. It is simply a given, whatever figures one uses and however positive the spin one tries to put on them. There have been many responses to this post Christian, or perhaps more correctly post Christendom reality, from the God is Dead theologies of the 60s, through the Church Growth movement of the 70s and Cell Churches of the 80s, to the Seeker Sensitive Churches of the 90s. Despite all these grand initiatives the rot continues.

What emerged in the 1990s was the realisation among some that not only were our western societies post Christendom, but they were also postmodern in at least some ways. That term is rather problematic, and again it is not my intention to explore all the issues around it. However in the broadest sense it is helpful to identify the fact that the cultural, social and intellectual world we live in today is very different from that which existed in 1960, even if there may well be more continuities than discontinuities. In this world all sorts of institutions that have existed for centuries have increasingly struggled. A number of Christian thinkers and leaders began arguing that the problem with all the recent efforts to reorganise church for our postChristendom world, was that they were still based on the assumptions and thinking of a modern society and culture. As that was rapidly diminishing and being replaced by postmodern forms so these attempts were simply short term arrangements, much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Something more fundamental was needed.

There are many attempts, some helpful others not, to define the emerging church movement, but perhaps the simplest and most widely used is that by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their study of the phenomenon, which they titled Emerging Churches¸ “communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures.” Brian McLaren, who has emerged as its main spokesperson wrote in 1998 in the first of his many books:

You see, if we have a new world, we will need a new church. We don’t need a new religion per se, but a new framework for out theology. Not a new Spirit, but a new spirituality. Not a new Christ, but a new kind of Christian. Not a new denomination, but a new kind of church… The point is … you have a new world.

Now I want to say at this point that overall I would agree with the broad parameters of this argument. As Randall Prior summarised it at the Presbyterian General Assembly last year, “The form of the church which evolved in the era of Christendom and which served us well in that period is no longer sustainable. It is dying. It will die.” However I do want to add at least one cautionary note. Often the people involved use rather hyperbolic language, as if the church has only ever existed in one form or shape, at least since the inception of Christendom, often referred to as inherited church.  Now that old form needs to be discarded and a brand new form developed. This is of course quite misleading. The form and shape of the church has constantly changed throughout its 2000 years of history. We see this even in the NT, and writers such as Hans Kung, David Bosch and Andrew Walls have provided helpful ways of understanding this.

Andrew Walls invites us to imagine a long living, scholarly visitor from space, a Professor of Comparative Inter Planetary Religions, able to get periodic study grants to visit planet earth every few centuries, to study earth religion, Christianity, on principles of Baconian induction. He visits a group of Jerusalem Jewish Christians about 37 CE; his next visit is in about 325 CE to a Church Council in Nicea; then in about 650 CE he visits a group of monks on a rocky outcrop in Ireland; in the 1840s he visits a Christian assembly in Exeter Hall London promoting mission to Africa; finally in 1980 he visits Lagos Nigeria where a white robed group is dancing and chanting through the streets on the way to church. At first glance they might appear to have nothing in common, or be part of the same religious community at all, but on deeper analysis he finds an essential continuity about the significance of Jesus, the use of scriptures, of bread and wine and water. But writes Walls, he recognises that these continuities are “cloaked with such heavy veils belonging to their environment that Christians of different times and places must often be unrecognizable to others, or even to themselves, as manifestations of a single phenomenon.”

At the heart of this debate about these emerging new forms of church life is the question of just what is the relationship between the historic faith and the environment in which it presently finds itself, between Christ and culture, of theology to context . This question is actually at the heart of many of the disputes that go on in the church, and I am aware were fought with some intensity and lasting consequences around a variety of issues in these hallowed halls for some considerable time.

When it comes to the relationship between the church and the culture that surrounds it there are a number of different models used to explain the various orientations. The classic work, which has formed the basis for all following discussions, is that of Richard Niebuhr, in Christ and Culture. He identifies five basic models: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture. It seems, though, that the alternatives can be more simply discussed by reducing these to three.

(i) An “anticultural” response, “Christ against culture”. The attitude where the church sets itself up in opposition to the prevailing culture. The difficulty with this position is that there is no such thing as a culture free articulation of theology or understanding of the church. Consequently this position while opposing contemporary culture is in fact usually holding on to some culture of the past. The Amish, for example, hold on to the culture of early nineteenth century German settlers in Pennsylvania, traditional Anglicans to 1950s England and many fundamentalists to the pre 1960s American south.

(ii) An “accommodationist” response, “Christ of culture”. This is the opposite, where the church is so anxious to fit into the world that it becomes merely an extension of the culture and has lost any distinguishing particularity as a culture of its own. This response assumes the congruence of church and culture. It is assumed that the primary symbols of the church and of the culture are identical. The church sees itself in some way as representative of the culture at large and prides itself on its shaping, transforming role. Churches in nations where the two grew up together often exhibit the most radical forms of this. This has been a strong tendency in liberalism in western countries and can be seen as a major factor in the decline of mainstream denominations. The view fails to recognise that there is a basic incompatibility between the church and whatever time in which it lives.

(iii) An “incarnational” response. This response recognises some kind of tension between Christ and culture, as is found in all of Niebuhr’s final three categories. There is both continuity and discontinuity. Lesslie Newbigin rightly insists that the gospel only retains “its proper strangeness, its power to question us… when we are faithful to its universal suprarational, supranational, supracultural nature.” Yet the gospel travels through time not in some ideal form, but from one inculturated form to another.  Consequently what missiologists call the “culturally indigenous church” is the aim of the incarnational approach.

A number of different terms are used to describe this approach to culture. The one that I find most helpful is “contextualisation”, although heated debate over its precise meaning continues, with Ecumenical and Evangelical interpretations differing considerably. At the core though is a recognition that many aspects of what humans believe, think, and do are contextually shaped. William Reiser defines it as “the process of a deep, sympathetic adaptation to, and appropriation of, a local culture in which the Church finds itself, in a way that does not compromise its faith.”

At the heart of the process is the model of the incarnation. In Jesus God took the human context in all its particularity seriously. Jesus was a historical person and so he was chronologically, geographically, religiously and culturally a first-century Jew. He neither repudiated his humanity or his Jewishness. The early church continued the principle as the gospel moved out of the language and culture of Jesus and his disciples into that of Graeco-Roman culture. Ever since those most effective in mission have “assumed that any culture can be host to Jesus Christ.”

However the critical point to note in an authentic contextual or incarnational approach is that there are limits to how far culture can set the agenda or determine the shape. Andrew Walls reminds us there are two important principles. On the one hand there is the ‘indigenzing’ principle, which affirms that the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home with the gospel. But then there is the ‘pilgrim’ principle, which warns us that the gospel is never fully at home in any culture and will put us out of step with every society.

So there are two critical dimensions, which Max Stackhouse defines as the “textuality’ of the church – its faithfulness to the gospel – and its “contextuality” – its faithfulness to the world in which it finds itself. Hans Kung contends that we should aim for a “critical correlation” between the biblical message and the paradigm of the culture” and that “the task today is to come to terms with a postmodern paradigm”. The emerging church movement is endeavouring to take that task seriously and is to be commended for that.

If I can engage in a bit of personal narrative at this point, because, in a sense this lecture is part of an ongoing and unfinished conversation with myself. This is the second time I have given the inaugural lecture here. My earlier title was “Is New Zealand’s Future Churchless?” I outlined the paradox of countries like NZ where the data showed an ongoing resilience of relatively high levels of religious, and mainly Christian, believing and relatively low and declining levels of religious belonging. In light of this while it seemed religion was destined to continue rather than die out, as had been previously postulated in various forms of secularisation theory, the church itself may face a somewhat tenuous and uncertain future. I suggested that it would continue but needed to develop many more diverse forms, and these in essence would be “less church” in the sense of being much looser, less institutionalised, more eclectic, fluid rather than solid. Sounds much like emerging church!

After the address, Bruce Hammil, who through fate or destiny has been asked to be the respondent today, came up to me and asked “Where’s the theology in all of this?” A somewhat surprising question from Bruce! It was though a healthy rejoinder to me and a reminder that, central to my own thesis was the proposition that churches which had thrived had not only shown an ability to adapt their life and message to their rapidly changing cultural and social situation, but had also held a strong commitment to the central tenets of orthodox Christian belief. My major focus has been on the first half of that proposition, endeavouring to help churches realise the forms their life and message have taken have been wedded to a cultural and social context that has not existed for some time, and while they continue in their current form they indeed have a rather limited future. They are no longer incarnating the gospel in their context. To quote the new leader of the Labour Party, they have “lost touch with their electorate” and “need to reconnect”. Change is the essential challenge for the church, and I continue to be invited to help a broad range of churches understand the context they are in and how they might change to become culturally connected.

Now this is an essential task. While in some realms of theology we might be able to argue for some pure theology of the word, although I am somewhat sceptical of both the possibility and worth of that, even that great theologian Karl Barth, so often used to buttress the case for disregarding context when it comes to constructing theology, that it must be based solely on the self revelation of God in Christ, argued when it came to the church:

… in every age and place its constitution and order have been broadly determined and conditioned by political, economic, and cultural models more or less imperatively forced on it by its situation in world history… It has had and still has to adapt or approximate itself to these in order to maintain itself… in respect of the form of its existence… there is no sacred sociology [of the church].

There are then no sacred forms of church, however sacrosant these might appear to some. Of course we in the reformed tradition have always held this to be so, holding central to our understanding the reformation principle, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. If then the church has its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are does that mean that anything goes? That the answer to Bruce’s question is that “theology does not have a place in determining the form of church life.” That in fact ecclesiology is a pointless discipline. There is not a theology of the church, merely a praxis.

It is interesting to review literature on the church, from a historical perspective. It used to be for centuries that the basic questions these endeavoured to answer was “What are the marks of a true church?” From the 1970s on the nature of the question most writing was endeavouring to answer had changed, by one word. Instead of “What are the marks of a true church?” it was “What are the marks of a successful church?” – the word ‘successful’ some times being interchanged with the word ‘growing’, since to be successful was equated with growing. Probably two things lay behind this: as the decline of churches in the west became increasingly evident the overwhelming preoccupation became with turning decline into growth; and as the church splintered into greater and greater variety as the culture became more and more diverse, it became seen as a hopeless task to try and presume there was any true form. It was reinforced by a developing culture that became suspicious of any insistence on adherence to one particular form or expression in any area of life. Indeed ideology became the enemy, grammar was fascist, theory was irrelevant, praxis was what mattered. I might add that in NZ, which has always had a bent toward pragmatism and suspicion of intellectualism, all of this found fertile ground.

And so in the emerging church movement there is a sense of anything goes. For those for whom tradition or inherited forms are in fact the obstacle to being effective churches and a barrier to the mission of Jesus, it is a waste of time to listen to what it might have to say us about how the church should form its life. Graham Redding may have asked the question did Calvin have any place in the Café Church? in his 2005 inaugural lecture, but café church is relatively mild fare and rather orthodox when church can apparently be a bunch of kids at a skate board park or bmx track, a group of students gathering in pub or dance club, or some mid life couples sharing a few wines and a movie together.

So when is a gathering of followers of Jesus actually a church?

Many of those engaged in experimental forms of church argue that because Jesus promised that “wherever two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”, any such gathering is church. Within the Baptist tradition this is the primary definition that is used, as in the Pentecostal and Charismatic streams. The presence of Jesus by the Spirit is all that matters. It is thus no coincidence that many of the initiators of the emerging church movement in NZ and Australia have been Baptist. Such a simple definition leaves them much freer to experiment with a diversity of forms. I would hasten to add that for some quite some time I would also have held that as sufficient. It is interesting to observe though that the Baptist movement in NZ, after being driven by sheer pragmatism for the past couple of decades, is now acknowledging it has significant problems and challenges. The current leader of the movement in conversation with me in December said “our first task is to get our ecclesiology sorted out”. Interesting for me in that this drift was a significant factor in my leaving to become Presbyterian.

Further reflection though has made me realise I was still more Baptist than I imagined. As I mentioned one half of my thesis argued that effective churches had  maintained a strong commitment to the central tenets of orthodox Christian beliefs. I identified these as being beliefs about Jesus Christ, about God, about scripture and about conversion, and used the Nicene Creed to define these. Nothing about the church though. No ecclesiology. And of course the Nicene Creed does include among its statements “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”.  So if we use this as a measure how does the emerging movement measure up? Is it in fact church?

1. One. Everybody affirms the unity or the oneness of the church, but ever since the Schism of 1054 that oneness has been somewhat difficult to locate, and since the splintering of the Reformation even more so. Daniel Migliore helpfully defines it as “a distinctive unity rooted in communion with God through Christ in the Spirit. The unity of the church is a fragmentary and provisional participation in the costly love of the triune God.” Recent trinitarian theology with its focus on a plurality within an essential oneness is helpful for us in understanding how the Christian gospel embraces both diversity and unity. Much of the NT is written dealing with this issue. The unity of the church does not lie in either a controlling doctrinal conformity or a formal institutional structure, and I would eschew all endeavours to impose either of those kinds of unity on the church. Within the diversity of our expressions it is in the life we participate in together with the triune God, and as Hans Kung expresses it, “It is one and the same God who gathers the scattered from all places and all ages and makes them into one people of God.”

However ever since the Reformers placed the focus on seeing the unity of the church in the invisible church rather than the visible church, that understanding has been used as a way of enabling churches and their leaders to do nothing about working to see unity as an actual  mark of the church in its present reality. We have continued to be happily schismatic, tearing apart the fabric of church it seems whenever we have something on which we differ. What has been called the “creeping congregationalism”, which afflicts all varieties of church life in contemporary societies, heightens the tendency to focus on the local and the particular, as if that is all there was to being church. Jesus left behind a visible community not an invisible concept. A community he called to be one, and so it is incumbent on we who are the church to continually work hard to find ways to express in our increasingly diverse culture that this is a reality, not merely some ethereal and mystical entity. If the life of the trinity is the model of our unity then it does involved the diverse members working synergistically together for the glory of the one. One of my criticisms of the emerging church movement, is that with its brisk  dismissal of inherited forms of church life, its distancing itself from tradition, its reluctance to work with the church as it is, it magnifies the image of a divided church and fails to put energy into working hard at ways to give expression to and so maintain the unity of the church. While I would admire its willingness to engage with our cultures and seek to find new ways of incarnating gospel and church within those, I believe it would be more true to being the church of Jesus Christ in the world today if it sought to do that working with the church as it already is. Brian McLaren says we need “a new church”. There is only one church, and it already is. The challenge is to continue to work within that church so it might better faithfully be the presence of God in Christ through the Spirit in the diverse communities it inhabits.

2. Holy. The word holy and the concept of holiness is hardly a popular word in our contemporary context, either inside or outside the church. It raises images of a “holier than thou” judgmentalism and an isolationist separatism fearful of contamination by an evil world. A preoccupation with holiness it is suggested has been a major hindrance to the mission of the church in the world. Identification and engagement with the world is what the creator God is about. The word holy is of course the primary word used to name the essence of the nature of God. It is if you like what marks out God as God, as distinctly different from everything else in creation. It is something that belongs essentially to God. For other things or persons to be described as holy therefore is to claim that they also are marked by the essence of the character of God, and in this way are to some extent different from the rest of creation. But how do we know what God is like if we are to share in that character. The central claim of the NT and of Christian thought is that the fullest revelation of God is to be found in the human person Jesus Christ. By looking at the life of Jesus we see what it is like to live a human life marked by the character, or holiness, of God. But more than that the NT claims that by his death, resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit Christ mediates to us the very life of God so we can share in the fellowship of the trinity. Here is the essence of the holiness of the church. It can be identified by the degree to which it lives a life reflecting the glory of God seen in Christ and this is made possible by the presence of the Spirit in its midst. When we do this we will demonstrate a distinctive quality to our life that will indeed mark us out as different, distinct from others, as Peter put it a “peculiar people”. While this quality of holiness will be demonstrated in the church in an imperfect way, as Calvin put it, it is the “measure toward which it is daily advancing”.

grad-1As suggested in my overview of the relationship of church and culture, the church lives in a relationship of some tension with whatever culture it lives in. It needs to both incarnate the gospel into that culture but also allow the gospel to transcend and judge every culture in which it is present. Part of the problem with Christendom and the way of being church that developed in that context, is that it ended up identifying the culture of those societies as being Christian, and simply became a reflection of the societies in which they existed. They no longer were a distinct or holy people. As the society and the culture in which they existed changed rapidly in the post war era they ended up with nothing left to offer the new societies which emerged and were seen as antiquarian reminders of a world that once was. Dean Inge once said that “If you marry the spirit of the age you will find yourself a widow in the next.” Sadly that has come to be true of much of mainline Protestantism in the West, including many of its evangelical expressions, shaped more by the values of the consumer market and business models than the gospel. The emerging church movement has been quite right in much of the critique it has offered of the way in which traditional church life had been simply an expression of modern western life and values.

But while some of its analysis of what has been problematic for the church is invaluable, in its headlong rush to become relevant to the emerging culture of a postmodern world, it runs the risk of making the same mistake and may end up wedding itself to the spirit of this age, just as firmly as the church it critiques may have to a previous age. When the wonders of this age begin to wind down, and I might suggest it might be a phase in history that is much more short lived than the previous, where will it be then? What will it have to offer and to say when all its flaws have been laid bare. The emerging church articulates strongly an incarnational theology and understands Jesus almost solely in these terms. Yet any serious reading of the life and ministry of Jesus will identify that while he did live incarnationally within the culture of first century Judaism, he also lived in considerable tension with most in that culture, at times spoke judgement on it, and ended up being rejected by it. If he was simply concerned with relevance why was he strung up on a cross. At times it is difficult to distinguish an emerging café or night club church from any other café or night club down the street. Postmodern culture is neither any better nor any worse than modern culture. So emerging leaders celebrate the death of modernity and raise three cheers for the arrival of postmodernity, without recognising the need to provide a proper critique of that which is problematic for living a Christ shaped life. On the other hand some critics of the emerging movement such as Don Carson and David Wells see only a culture antithetical to Christ in postmoderrnity, and fail to recognise they are just as closely wedded to the culture of modernity. Whatever culture we happen to be in as the church of Jesus Christ, we need first to allow Christ by the Spirit to form us into a distinctive culture of its own that preaches in the language of the time and place in which it is set the unique holy life of our Trinitarian God.

3. Catholic. The affirmation of the catholicity of the church refers to its universality and inclusivity. It is the church that has existed everywhere, always and for all. It guards the church against parochialism, sectarianism, racism and conceit chronology, among other things. It is clear that both the unity and the catholicity of the church go together, they are two interwoven dimensions of the one church. However as with oneness we need to guard against it being understood merely as an abstract kind of universalism hovering over the particularities of culture and history. Again it is a mark that needs to be demonstrated in the life of the visible church, its expression in the life of local congregations. Avery Dulles claims that catholicity “is not the accomplished fact of having many members or a wide geographical distribution, but rather the dynamic catholicity of a love reaching out to all and excluding no one.” I would agree with Daniel Migliore that the “church today needs to interpret the meaning of catholic as inclusive of all kinds of people”. What might this mean for us today?

One of the major trends of a post 60s world of the global village, has been a growing pluralism of our societies. Not just through the coming to societies such as NZ of markedly different cultural groups from overseas, but also by the breakup of the dominant white European culture into a multiplicity of subcultures. Not only is this across generations, but also within generations, so much so that since the beginning of the 90s it has been pointless to talk even about youth culture. This pluralisation has been heightened by the fact that increasingly people do not live their life in one geographical place where they might mix with people of a wide variety of ages and cultures, but rather are mobile and live their life with communities of choice, usually consisting of people of the same culture as me. Often these subgroups are quite exclusive, having their own distinctive language, symbols and lifestyles. At a time in the past when people in a community lived their lives in that particular community, when generations shared many of the activities of life together, the local church embraced within its community members from every walk and stage of life within that community. It was catholic, inclusive, in that sense. This was the parish or family church, an increasingly rare bird in our pluralistic society. How do we reach people today within all these different cultural subgroups, when the culture of church as it is, represents that culture of a bygone age?

The answer of much of the emerging church is that we need separate churches to incarnate the gospel into all those cultural subgroups. And so we have youth church, student church, young adults church, young marrieds church, breakfast church, café church, biker church – and so on and so on. These churches become quite age or culture specific. One practical question to ponder is what happens to these churches when their particular niche finishes? But there is a bigger issue. Murray Robertson retires this month after 40 years as Pastor of Spreydon Baptist Church during which he has had significant influence on the church in NZ. Last year he served as President of the Baptist Church, and wrote a series of columns in the Baptist Magazine on his observations as he visited churches around NZ. In one of these he noted that churches now “tend to divide along shared interest lines” and there is “an age based apartheid”. He writes “Maybe this is part of the phenomenon of people looking for a church in which they will feel comfortable, but… something quite precious is lost when you only meet and share with people who are pretty much identical to yourself.” Indeed is it a church when its membership is so exclusively limited to some subgroup that others are in fact shut out? The emerging church movement is again to be commended for its recognition that in our multicultural world there is no one expression of the gospel that will incarnate it for “all” those, even within one community in NZ. They draw correctly on the missional principle Paul spells out in 1 Corinthians 9 of becoming “all things to all peoples so that I might by all possible means save some”. But that needs to be balanced by the ecclesial principle he spells out in Ephesians 2, talking about the major cultural divide of his world, that “Christ…. Has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall… to create in himself one new humanity.” Maybe what is a legitimate mission group is not in fact a church. It needs to see itself as part of the church catholic, and commit itself to being part of that church, and share its life with the greater whole in its lived practices, so that in this fractured divided tribalised world people may see that the gospel makes a difference, that estranged groups can be reconciled, that in Christ cultural separation might be transcended and that the new community of God’s people is inclusive of people of every race and every tribe and every tongue, even here now on earth. Might these questions also be asked of ethnic specific churches? To quote David Bosch

The new fellowship transcends every limit imposed by family, class or culture. We are not winning people like ourselves to ourselves but sharing the good news that in Christ God has shattered the barriers that divide the human race and has created a new community. The new people of God has no analogy; it is a “sociological impossibility” that has become possible.

4. Apostolic. Randall Prior at the Presbyterian Assembly defined the Apostolicity of the church as its essential missional nature. That before it is anything else it is missional, a view expressed by the missional church movement. While it is true the word apostle does have in it the idea of one who is sent, and while I agree fully with the sentiment being expressed, I do not believe that interpretation of apostolic as a mark of church is how it was understood by those who created the Nicence Creed or historically within the church. In confessing the apostolicity of the church we are acknowledging that the true church is founded on the apostles. The faith and life of the church must stand in continuity with their enduring witness. This continuity is ensured not by some physical continuity through the sacramental laying on of hands, but by our faithfulness to and reaffirmation of the gospel they gave witness to in the writings of the NT. As Jurgen Moltmann puts it: “The apostolic succession is in fact and in truth the evangelical succession, the continuing and unadulterated proclamation of the gospel of the risen Christ.”

It is of course one thing to affirm that “our supreme rule of faith is the Word of God” as the Presbyterian Church does or that “the Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice”, as a Baptist church might. It is quite another to interpret what those words actually mean for us today. One of the things postmodern hermeneutics has made us aware of is there is no such thing as an un-interpreted word or act. There are two things this raises in relation to our engagement with emerging church. Being faithful to the apostolic witness is not just mere repetition of those words, or repeating the way in which they might have been interpreted as being appropriate to another place and another time. The apostolic word must be interpreted anew for every generation and every context. The emerging church is to be commended for its willingness, by and large, to take scripture seriously, and to seek to interpret afresh what it might mean for us today in our particular context rather than just repeat unthinkingly the formulas and answers of the past.

But secondly how do we know that new appropriation or interpretation is faithful to the witness of the apostles. Calvin argued that interpretation of scripture must take place within the hermeneutical community of the church. Too often in protestant and evangelical circles the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has been understood within the culture of enlightenment individualism, to mean the right of every individual to interpret scripture for them self, a tendency heightened in the radical individualism of late modernity. So much so that Kevin van Hoozer asks in his hermeneutical tour de force, Is there a meaning in this text? or is there in fact just a never ending possibility of meanings. Listening to the voice of the church, the hermeneutical community, is one of the significant factors to take account of in discovering what this text means for us today. And by the church we mean the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church”, the church throughout time historically and throughout the world geographically. This means giving due, but not stifling, weight to the voice of tradition. GK Chesterton wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes – our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to walking around.” With its ditching of traditional church, its giving up on traditions that might have developed and been passed on for centuries, apart from occasionally ransacking them and tearing out of any meaningful context some token that seems cute in the eclecticism of postmodern culture, the emerging church runs the risk of missing the wisdom that has developed over the centuries, of listening to the caution that might come from previous misinterpretations, and thus in the end  run outside the boundaries of where the Spirit might be willing to venture with them. Sadly this is a pattern that has happened all too often in the history of well intentioned new movements. There is a use of scripture which is false teaching. There is heresy that is full of proof texts. Less dramatically there are also representations of the gospel that are unbalanced and therefore unhelpful, and maintaining conversation and community with the whole church so interpretation occurs within the checks and balances of that will help ensure an ongoing yet presently meaningful faithfulness to the gospel within the emerging movement.

Two further marks of the church have also been identified, particularly among Protestants. As Calvin put it, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” Holding this definition central to our understanding of the church, the Presbyterian Church has sent to Knox another group of students this year, to hopefully complete the final stage of their training so they can be ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. So that we will have communities of believers where the “Word of God is purely preached” and as other definitions put it “the sacraments are rightly administered”. The former is in some ways easier to assess than the latter. What does it mean to ensure the sacraments are rightly administered? Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas argued it is the presence of the bishop that makes it so. Obviously a problematic definition for many churches. For Catholics and Anglicans it is someone rightly appointed by the bishop who ensures it is in faithful continuity with the apostolic tradition. We have argued here that being apostolic means faithfulness to the witness of the apostles as contained in the NT. Hence for Calvin, “as instituted by Christ”. Here is why the Reformed tradition has held word and sacrament together, because it is not just receiving the bread and the wine but doing so in the context of hearing the gospel story of what they mean that makes them a sacrament, a means of grace. So a theologically informed and properly recognised ministry is important to ensure that the church remains apostolic, faithful to the scriptures, in all aspects of its life, including the preaching and sacraments.

Parts of emerging church, as well as other experimental forms of church life, have often been critical of and resistant to theological training, often preferring to have leaders and pastors who are more entrepreneurial and creative. Too much theology kills those. Many Baptist churches in NZ have followed this also. And I have to say that at times I have been in churches and listened to sermons or seen communion or baptisms, that at best have not been faithful to the Scriptures and at times even heretical. An entertaining event but scarcely a sacrament. Sometimes they are missing completely. Which of course raises the question, is it church? A central reformation principle is ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, “the church reformed is always being reformed”. This phrase is often quoted by those who want to change and reform and do church in different ways . We are being true to our tradition in doing this. In some senses yes, but it is a misunderstanding of the reformers intent to see it as giving carte blanche to try whatever we want. The reformers reformed the church in the light of the Scriptures. Luther did not just way “Here I stand I can do no other”, but “My conscience is bound to the word of God, here I stand…” It is why ministers were teaching elders, and now ministers of word and sacrament, so that by placing the role of scripture central in life of the church and office of ministry the church will be continually reformed in the light of scripture. As the Church of Scotland statement on ministry in 2000 puts it, they are “to represent Christ in the faithful proclaiming of the Word and right administration of the Sacraments and so ensure the possibility of such reform and renewal.” The emerging church movement would do well to seek to ensure a theologically formed leadership so that it too will experience the renewing presence of Christ that come from faithful preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments.

I want to finish briefly by drawing from a sociological insight. Some of you might be surprised that it has taken me this long to mention one. Many of the grand theories of the earlier sociologists are now viewed with much suspicion. However there is one theory I think continues to provide invaluable insight. Max Weber’s theory of the routinisation of charisma. He argues that what happens in the evolution of religion is that a new group gathers around a charismatic leader and is a dynamic, free, loose charismatic movement. Over time it rationalises, routinises and systemises its life and so looses its charisma. Some people become frustrated with this and break away around the edges to form a new charismatic group with new energy and dynamism. It is this that ensures the ongoing renewal of the religion. Looking at the history of Christianity in the west there is much that can be helpfully explained by Weber. There is no question that much of church life in the west has become routinised and rationalised, there is little dynamism and charisma. The Spirit has been routinised out. I believe the emerging church movement can be understood in these terms, as can the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 70s. What has happened often in the past is that the established religious institution dechurches the new movement and the action is reciprocated by the movement. My hope is that in this instance we can avoid repeating history and that by remaining in communion and continuing in conversation, the emerging church may be part of the movement for renewal and reformation of the church in the west, and that the emerging church movement may gain from the wisdom and catholicity of the church to grow into a more faithful and dynamic communion of the triune God in our challenging western context.

When is a church a church? I would probably in the end agree with Miroslav Volf’s conclusion, that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them, but a Christian church is there as well, perhaps a bad church, a church that may well transgress against love and truth, but a church nonetheless.” Many in the emerging movement prefer to talk about the emerging conversation than emerging church. My plea would be for those within the movement to include in the conversation all of those who with them are members of the “one holy catholic apostolic church”, so they might come to more adequately share those marks.  And to those sure they are members of that church, but  suspicious as to whether these new comers qualify, to reach out in conversation with them and so help us all to more fully demonstrate the transforming presence of the risen Christ in our life together.

Brian McLaren, Reinventing Your Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, 13-14.

Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996, 3-7.

H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: Harper Brothers, 1953.

Lesslie Newbigin, “The Enduring Validity of Cross-Cultural Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 12, 1988 50.

As quoted in L. Sweet, Aquachurch. Loveland: Group Publishing, 1999. 81.

D. R. Jacobs, “Contextualization in Mission.” In Toward the Twenty First Century in Christian Mission, J.M. Phillips and R.T. Coote eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. 236.

Max Stackhouse, “Contextualization, Contextuality and Contextualization.” In One Faith, Many Cultures: Inculturation, Indigenization, and Contextualization, R.O. Costas ed. New York: Orbis Books, 1988, 6.

Hans Kung, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumencial View, New York: Doubleday, 1998, 166, 211.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/ 3/2: The Doctrine of Revelation, transl. G. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1962, 739.

Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, 201.

Hans Kung, The Church, New York: Image Books, 1967, 353.

Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, New York: Doubleday, 1974, 122.

Migliore, 1991, 203.

David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Maryknoll: New York, 1991, 389.

Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit¸ New York: Harper & Row, 177, 359.

Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion,  Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity¸Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 136.

When things fall apart in theology and church practice

‘… we have been given a perennially valid paradigm for theology in our Christ-centered trinitarian confession of faith, expressed in the classic ecumenical creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. When things seem to be falling apart in theology and church practice, then I would propose that we reclaim once again the strong name of the Trinity, because there we find a continuing framework of Christian identity, transcending the discontinuities and oscillations of history and culture’. – Carl E. Braaten, ‘The Cultural Captivity of Theology: An Evangelical Catholic Perspective’ (a paper presented at The Inaugural Margaret McKinnon Memorial Lecture on Christianity and Culture, Nepean Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, Melbourne, 1997), 20.

‘Ecumenical and Eclectic’: A Review

Anna M. Robbins (ed.), Ecumenical and Eclectic: The Unity of the Church in the Contemporary World: Essays in Honour of Alan P. F. Sell (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007). xiv + 313 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227 432 3. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

Anna M. Robbins is a lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at the London School of Theology. She completed her doctoral work under the supervision of Professor Alan Sell, and has continued to benefit from his work and friendship. Thus it is entirely appropriate that she gather together this volume of fifteen essays dedicated to honouring the ministry of Professor Sell. And it is entirely appropriate that this volume be published in this series of Studies in Christian History and Thought, a series to which Sell has been a contributor and of which he is one of the editors. My appreciation for both Professor Sell’s work and for the series in which this particular book belongs has already been noted here and here.

The diversity of essays – their themes and countries of origin – is itself a significant reminder of the testimony to the influence and interests that Alan Sell has so faithfully dedicated his energies towards: Reformed theology, ecumenism, philosophy, nonconformity, church history, mission, ethics and apologetics among them. As the introduction to this volume notes, ‘Throughout [Sell’s] work, he has sought to expose unsatisfactory divisions amongst the people of Christ, to pose necessary challenges to those who hold sectarian attitudes, and offer constructive proposals for ongoing dialogue and other expressions of unity’ (p. 1).

The essays in this volume are organised in three movements. The first, ‘Ecumenical & Eclectic: Roots’, includes essays by Donald McKim, D. O. Thomas, Martin Fitzpatrick and Andrew MacRae. McKim begins his essay as many of the contributors do, by acknowledging his appreciation for Sell’s work and friendship. He writes of Sell, ‘There is no one I respect more as a theologian and whose work I appreciate more as a Reformed theologian’ (p. 7). High praise indeed. The essay proceeds to consider how some Reformed foundations serve the unity of the Church. Specifically, that the unity of the Church is Christ and is from God, that it is a unity of faith, that it is unity that acknowledges diversity, and that it is a unity that is both given and sought as divine gift. Unsurprisingly, and appropriately, McKim draws heavily from Calvin. Thomas’ essay examines the nature of the distinction between abstract and practical virtue in the thinking of Richard Price, again with an eye on the question of Church unity in the context of dissent and divine authority. Fitzpatrick too proffers a number of philosophical reflections on unity and dissent. Surveying the thought of the unitarian Joseph Priestley, and the eighteenth-century Rational Dissenters, Fitzpatrick argues how dissent may actually contribute to the unity of the Church. The final piece in this section is entitles ‘The Power of Christian Unity’. Here, Andrew MacRae, with an eye on both Scripture and more recent ecumenical developments, proposes a theological exposition on the power of Christian unity. His argument is that there can be multiple brands of ecumenical movements, all of which may contribute to the unity of the Church without being intrinsically divisive.

The second section is entitled ‘Ecumenical and Eclectic: Reflections’. With this group of six essays the focus shifts more to analyses historical, biblical and sociological. Clyde Binfield opens the section with one of the densest and heavily-researched pieces of writing on church history that I’ve ever read in a collection of this sort. He examines the sermons of William Page Roberts in order to demonstrate the relationship between change and continuity in the life of the Church. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay, but be warned, it really is one that you need to read when you are completely awake. David Peel invites us to reflect both appreciatively and critically on the legacy of Lesslie Newbigin, and David Cornick considers some of the ecumenical reflections of Olive Wyon. As one who has always wondered who this woman who translated Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics was, I was especially excited to be introduced to her through this essay. Indeed, Brunner once confessed that his theology was better in her English than his German. Cornick writes:

[Wyon] travelled the world, but Geneva made a great impression on her. She was particularly influenced by her contact with the Community of Grandchamp, founded by a group of Reformed women in 1931 as a centre for prayer, silence and meditation, but which developed into a Women’s Religious Order that worshipped according to the Taizé Office. That experience convinced her of the value of Christian community where ‘… men and women find each other in Christ and begin to pray and work as never before for the extension of the spirit of unity.’ She valued her Reformed roots deeply, but they rooted her in Scripture and therefore in the experience of all Christians, and she drank deeply and with delight from other wells. It is that combination of roots and generous openness that make her still a compelling guide to the spiritual life. (p. 150)

Cornick’s essay proceeds to explore her contributions to prayer (principally through her 1943 book, The School of Prayer), vocation and ecumenism. He notes that Wyon begins her exploration of the relationship between prayer and Scripture with the Barmen Declaration: ‘The Bible deals with God, and with nothing apart from God. Whoever seeks God in the Bible will find God there; for God comes to seek and find us in His Word…’. This, Wyon argued, is the core of the relationship between Scripture and prayer. Cornick comments on Wyon’s urging: ‘Being alone with Scripture and taking it seriously is a dangerous business, for we meet with Christ there. In his light we find ourselves judged and can “suddenly … find that Christ steps out of the pages and confronts us with an absolute demand”. Being alone with the Bible means risking a revolution in one’s life. That sounds austere and frightening, but judgement is merely the obverse of salvation; so Scripture also leads us to a knowledge of the trustworthiness of God, of forgiveness and mercy and “infinite support”‘. Citing Wyon, Scripture is the ‘springboard from which we may dive into the fathomless ocean of the love of God’ (p. 151).

The General Secretary of the United Reformed Church then proceeds to note Wyon’s ‘profound sense of the vocation of the church’ (p. 153). He cites Wyon: ‘The world is waiting for a “revelation” of God in community. The church is called to be this living community, in which all barriers between man and man, class and class, race and race, are down for ever’ (pp. 153-4). This is not something that the Church can achieve but is the work of God. Cornick then introduces us to Wyon’s book, The Altar Fire: Reflections on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, wherein she describes Reformed worship thus:

… the service begins with the revealed Word. That is: the first note struck in this rite is not the need of the worshippers, but the fact of revelation. From the very first the Christian Church realised that all worship must begin with God Transcendent. It is from such a God that we receive the revelation of His Being and His purpose. We begin with God, the high and Holy One, ‘who inhabiteth eternity’. We listen, first of all, to His Word (p. 154)

Cornick notes that Wyon was an exceptionally well-read theologian, who gently corrected the tendency towards individualism which is so characteristic of Western Protestantism by stressing the way in which the New Testament always speaks of the priestly activity of the whole church. ‘It is the whole church which is intended in the good purposes of God to bring God to humanity and humanity to God’ (p. 156).

The next essay is from the pen of John Tudno Williams who considers two Welsh New Testament scholars – namely C.H. Dodd and W.D. Davies – and their contribution to thinking on the nature and unity of the Church. Peter Ball, Chair of New Testament Studies at Károli Gáspár Reformed University in Budapest, contributes a paper on whether it is parents or Christ who have the foremost authority in the family and what it means for how children should honour their parents. He asks ‘Did the first Christians fulfil the expectation to honour their parents?’ (p. 175). The final contribution in this second section comes from lrving Hexham, who considers the work of Weber and Troeltsch with respect to the development of the grammar of ‘sect’ and ‘cult’. He concludes that such language is sectarian and ideologically loaded, and so ultimately unhelpful.

The final section is headed ‘Ecumenical and Eclectic: Resonances’ and invites reflection on the future of ecumenism and the practices of church life. It consists of essays by Keith Clements, Alan Falconer, Botond Gaál, Anna Robbins and Gabriel Fackre. Clements reflects on where two decades of intentional ecumenism in Europe has led us, highlighting its future uncertainty. Falconer, Gaál and Robbins also explore this theme in terms of ecumenical dialogue, the latter in light of how the church’s fragmentation weakens its voice to speak on issues that affect the whole world and about which the world is concerned. In the concluding essay, Gabriel Fackre takes on board some of Sell’s own apologetic methodology and explores the question of divine impassibility by reflecting on Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. He argues that ‘the film can be an occasion for confessing and commending the faith if treated as a Reformation-like “teaching moment”, the interpretive Word conjoined to the visible Word’ (p. 270). Fackre proceeds to use the film to talk about ‘the very heart of God’ in the cross. In an interesting turn, Fackre seeks to resurrect the ancient fishhook-bait analogy of the early Fathers. Commenting on the cry from the cross, ‘My Lord’, Fackre writes:

… it means that the knowledge that the effects of our sin reach into the very heart of God overwhelms us. Is that what prompts the tears of worshippers in the theatre pews when they view this film? How else do we know ourselves to be the sinners that we really are unless we see our hand in the very crucifixion of God? And hear from the Victim’s lips, ‘Father, forgive …’? No power in this world can so drive us to our knees. Only this Power of the divine powerlessness, the Christ who reigns from the cross. The fishhook-bait analogy has yet another meaning. The Devilfish did get caught. The power of God in the powerlessness of Jesus accomplished its purpose. So Aulén, interpreting Irenaeus, says: ‘The redemptive work is accomplished by the Logos through the Manhood of His instrument, for it could be accomplished by no power than by God Himself.’ Can we put it this way? God stoops to conquer. God comes into our midst in human form in Galilee and on the road to Calvary in order there to expose us for who we are. We see first-hand One who is as we should be and strike out at this embarrassing Presence. Yet it is, paradoxically, only through our lacerating and crucifying ways that God can disclose as well as expose, disclose the suffering Love that makes reconciliation possible. The proper emphasis on the suffering of Jesus when it excludes the suffering of God constitutes the discontinuity Aulén rightly criticizes. Without making the mistake of this discontinuity, we can yet affirm the concern to preserve the role of the humanity of Christ in the Work of salvation, while knowing that it was the God who was ‘in Christ’ who evokes our repentance and brings forgiveness to the sinner. (pp. 280-1).

He concludes by asserting that defenders of divine impassibility are ‘right in what they affirm – the tearless power of God at the beginning and end of the cosmic drama, and wrong in what they deny – the God who weeps in and for Jesus at the centre of the Story’ (p. 282)

Like most edited volumes, Ecumenical and Eclectic is not immune from its weaker contributions. However, every essay bears witness to something of the work of the one to whom it is meant to honour, and has something important to donate in its particular area of concern. Unfortunately, there is no essay devoted to theological education, an area which Sell has contributed not a little. That said, those interested in many themes that so interest Alan Sell will not be disappointed with many of the papers in this book. It also includes a comprehensive 27-page bibliography of Alan Sell’s work.

The Parable of the Engineers

‘Once a corps of engineers was assigned to continue the building of a magnificent cathedral which had already been under construction many centuries and which had benefited from the devout labor of great engineers of many generations. Some of the new engineers, however, began to question the architectural soundness of the plans. They said that the plans had numerous errors and contradictions in them. When asked for clarification by some of their fellows, they pointed out that architectural styles were changing and that the plans erroneously presented older stylistic characteristics and contradicted current styles. In reply, a few engineers noted that this did not make the plans erroneous or contradictory in themselves, and that it was the architect’s business to draw the plans and the engineers to follow them. The majority did not agree, but they did not want to cast direct aspersions on the architect or abandon the construction. So they had recourse to a number of stratagems.

1. First, they argued that though the plans were erroneous and contradictory this was not the architect’s fault and should be attributed to his draughtsmen. (Intransigent engineers claimed that the architect was always responsible for his draughtsmen, but this argument was brushed aside.) Endeavours were thus made to ignore the “draughtsmen’s errors” while accepting the architect’s “true ideas” as conveyed by the draughtsmen’s plans. But since the only knowledge of the architect’s ideas came by way of the draughtsmen’s plans, this endeavour miserably failed and led to more radical suggestions. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that while these discussions went on, relatively little building was done.)

2. Then the engineers argued that the purpose of the plans had been misunderstood. They were not intended to be followed as such, but contact with them would increase the engineer’s inner sensitivity to true building methods. But one engineer’s inner sensitivity did not produce the same results as another’s, considerable confusion set in, and a tower collapsed.

3. A particularly brilliant engineer now suggested that everything in the plans was symbolic of the architect himself. However, it was soon discovered that if everything was symbolic and nothing literal, no engineer could determine the real meaning of any particular element in the plans. More disputes set in, and another section of the building crumbled.

4. Now the people for whom the cathedral was being built were becoming more and more agitated and many would not enter the half completed edifice at all because of the danger of falling stones, loose mortar, and buckling floors. Some were even crying for a new staff of engineers. This made the engineers terribly nervous and excitable, and finally some of them, to placate the mob, began to claim that there was no architect at all, that the people for whom the cathedral was being built were more important than anything else, and that everyone was in as good a position as the inaccurate draughtsmen to draw up plans. Oddly enough, this seemed to infuriate the people even more, for the latter apparently considered it self-evident that the plans, the great engineers of the past who had faithfully followed them, and the earlier work on the cathedral (the work done before the present confusion) all presupposed an architect. They began to become violent and even claimed that the engineers were destroying their cathedral and making a mockery out of the engineering profession.

5. At this point a very vocal engineer tried to convince the people that such efforts as he and the others were making were really acts of great heroism and that even though the plans of the architect were impossibly naive and had been hopelessly muddled by past draughtsmen and engineers, he himself could lead them through the maze by direct communication with dead engineers of the past, thereby proving the deathless value of engineering science. But instead of being considered a repristination of heroic, reforming engineers of early times, this engineer was regarded as an epitomal fool by virtually all of his colleagues and the great mass of the people. Only the media of communication featured him, for they quickly discovered that people followed his exploits with horror and fascination even as they did the latest scandals of famous entertainers.

Thus did the great cathedral eventually crumble and fall, killing not only the people who had loved it but also the engineers responsible for its loss. Pathetically, there were a few engineers who, right up to the moment of final destruction, still pleaded that the only hope lay in following rigorously the original plans, that the engineers must bring their stylistic ideas into conformity with the architect’s, and that deviations from their notions of style did not constitute genuine errors or contradictions in the plans. But their voices were scarcely heard amid the din of engineering teams working at cross-purposes to each other, and the deafening roar of falling masonry.

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that cathedral; at it fell: and great was the fall of it’.

From John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, 25–27.


Käsemann on the Church

I’ve just been reading Ernst Käsemann’s essay on ‘Unity and multiplicity in the New Testament doctrine of the Church’ in New Testament Questions of Today (trans. W. J. Montague; London: SCM Press, 1969). Discovered a few blogworthy statements:

Theology never grows in the vacuum of abstraction, untouched by contemporary history. While this fact is generally admitted, it is nevertheless frequently deprived of its offending sting.’ (p. 255)

‘… in spite of all its vicissitudes, its tensions and its contradictions, primitive Christianity proclaimed the one Church, not in the sense of a theory of organic development but in the name of the reality and the truth of the Holy Spirit. How was this possible? How can we take up this task in our own day? How can our insight into this diversity of ecclesiologies deepen and clarify our confession of the unity of Christ’s Church rather than destroy it? … I am convinced that the solution of this problem lies neither on the historical plane nor at the level of organizational strategy. The unity of the Church was, is and remains primarily an eschatological property, to be enjoyed only as a gift, never as an assured possession. The unity of the Church cannot be apprehended except by faith which hears the voice of the one Shepherd and obeys his call to form one flock, his flock.’ (p. 257)

Here I am reminded of Forsyth’s insistence that Church unity would not come by working in co-operation, nor by breaking down social barriers among the Churches, nor by agreement of creedal formula (as important as these things are. Church unity, he maintained, would come by thinking, by thinking of the reality that we are already one in Christ and his Gospel. It is finally theological question. It is confessional. (see Theology in Church and State, 23).

‘Is not the supremely important thing that the Lord should remain sovereign over his servants, the head over the members, and that our picture of him and his lordship should not displace, overshadow, seem to correct his own? If this were realized in practice, then the relationship of Christ and his Church would never be reversible and the unity of the Church would then require of us that we should not place ourselves on the same footing with him nor think to complete his work nor make ourselves in any way independent of him. We should have to decrease, in order that he might increase. Christology is the permanent measure of all ecclesiology.’ (pp. 257-8)

‘ … all tradition and all ministerial office within the Church can possess authority only as long and as far as they help us to hear Christ addressing us; as far, that is, as they continue to be servants of the promise of the Gospel and of the means of grace designated in the New Testament.’ (p. 258)

Can [the true being of the community of Jesus] really be a religious association among others, measurable in terms of piety and morality, of cult and organization, of profound speculations and wide influence? Doubtless, this is what it looks like from outside, and this is how its members, corporately and individually, very frequently understand it. But what has all this to do with the Jesus who associated with tax-collectors and sinners and died for the godless. Is not the only relevant criterion here whether or not this community follows him? That would liberate it from staying put in earthly camps and despatch it at once to the far corners of the earth, there to show forth God’s solidarity with his creatures. In following the crucified one, it would have its part in the glory of the Christ. To sum up: the worth of every ecclesiology, even in the New Testament, can be estimated precisely. The criterion is the extent to which it succeeds in declaring the royal freedom and the lordship of Jesus Christ who, according to Eph. 2, is himself alone the unity of his Church. (pp. 258-9)