‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’

The latest issue of the International Journal of Practical Theology includes a little essay I wrote titled ‘Habits as Signs: Some Reflections on the Ethical Shape of Christian Community’.

[Image: ‘Irregularities of Discernment’, by theflickerees. Source]

On being ecclesiastical tourists

Duane-Hansons-TouristsWhile in the mad throes of writing lectures for an upcoming course that I’ll be teaching on the church, I am grateful to be re-reading Michael Jinkins’s very fine book The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. In one little section, subtitled ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Church’, Jinkins offers a great reminder of the challenge and danger that inherently lies in teaching a course on ecclesiology. It begins:

Roland Barthes’s essay “The Blue Guide” is suggestive for those who want to learn to reflect on the speech of the church about itself. His essay considers a popular series of tourist guidebooks (called Guide Bleu in French) to various European destinations. To be precise, his essay considers the presuppositions, one might almost say the prejudices, of the guidebook, which remain unstated by the editors and reduce the particularities of a country and its inhabitants to stereotypes, cliches, and sights (or monuments) to be seen, but not observed. The complex and real “human life of a country disappears,” he writes, “to the exclusive benefit of its monuments.” And the rich diversity of human existence is boiled down to a few picture postcard images. He writes:

In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a lighthearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a sentimental Highlander. We find again here this disease of thinking in essences, which is at the bottom of every bourgeois mythology of man (which is why we come across it so often). The ethnic reality of Spain is thus reduced to a vast classical ballet, a nice neat commedia dell’arte, whose improbable typology serves to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes and professions. For the Blue Guide, men exist as social entities only in trains, where they fill a “very mixed” Third Class. Apart from that, they are a mere introduction, they constitute a charming and fanciful decor, meant to surround the essential part of the country: its collection of monuments.

Is there not a corresponding danger in ecclesiology to reduce the vast diversity of church, the ambiguities of this rich human-divine reality, to a few neat (noncontradictory) patterns, types, models, paradigms, definitions, or descriptions—to notice the monumental remains and to dismiss as irrelevant (and irrelevantly messy) the actual communities of faith that shape these monuments and that move within them and make sense of them? What would it entail, what would it require of us, to notice and take seriously the particularities of church, to go beyond phenomenology to phenomengnosis, to understand the ambiguous flux of existence as itself the sign that demands to be understood in its own terms? Barthes says, later in this essay:

Generally speaking, the Blue Guide testifies to the futility of all analytical descriptions, those which reject both explanations and phenomenology: it answers in fact none of the questions which a modern traveller can ask himself while crossing a countryside which is real and which exists in time. To select only monuments suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing historical, and as a consequence, the monuments themselves become undecipherable, therefore senseless. What is seen is thus constantly in the process of vanishing, and the Guide becomes, through an operation common to all mystifications, the very opposite of what it advertises, an agent of blindness.

Banksy - Tourist InformationA tourist, perhaps on one of those packaged coach tours, can visit a foreign country only to tick off the sights (the monuments): the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey, Edinburgh Castle. She envisions the people of these foreign countries she visits as stereotypes already firmly established in her head: Scot in kilt with bagpipes, Englishman with umbrella and bowler, Frenchman wearing beret, smoking cigarette, drinking wine. The tourist returns home having traveled but having only minimally encountered the countries toured and their inhabitants. The idiosyncratic, the eccentric reality of humanity, the exactness of place and time and circumstance, the life lived in ordinariness is easily ignored in the headlong rush to account for all stereotypes (thus never really knowing the people) and monuments (thus never understanding why the monuments are there or what they signify). One sees here the way in which the yearning for essence can alienate us from history; though this superficial tourist may be surrounded by “historical” monuments, she has little access to their meaning because they have been decontextualized; consequently, she is estranged from her own history of being present in that place. In the worst cases, the tourist takes her “home” on tour with her to the extent that she never enters into the foreign time and place at all—the ultimate jet lag.

The ecclesiastical tourist, likewise, can emerge from a “study of the doctrine of the Church” having never entered into church at all. While giving the impression of sailing to all the great ports of call, he may have only circumnavigated the stereotypes. What is clearly implied in such ecclesiological globetrotting is that the church is an idea, and that paying attention to the actuality of particular human communities of faith only distracts us from some divine ecclesiology, a neat analytical description that is (supposedly) forever and everywhere true.

mission: a statement

Pablo Picasso, 'The dove and its little ones' (Lithograph, 1947)

Pablo Picasso, ‘The dove and its little ones’ (Lithograph, 1947)

As a people claimed by the Spirit of the gospel, we believe that God desires to gather all creation under the reign of Jesus Christ, to bring all creation into unbridled communion with and in God, and with itself. To this end, God – the very One who, in the movement of missionary love, continually broods over creation and initiates a friendship with Abraham pregnant with promise – elects a people called Israel, makes them into a priestly nation to offer worship on behalf of all the world’s nations and peoples with a view to their reconciliation to God; and, in the fulness of time, God, in Jesus of Nazareth, moves anew into the world in order to reconcile all things to God; and God also calls forth a new community who, with Israel and with Jesus, participates in and bears witness (martyria) to God’s own loving and reconciling activities in the world. Born of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this new community is called ‘the Christian community’ (or ‘the church’).

We believe that the Christian community, a creation of God’s Word in election, is a people called by God to participate and share in God’s mission in this world – to be a humble, prophetic and celebratory sign, embodiment and hope-filled foretaste of life in the coming reign of God. It is a people sent by God in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to, and to represent, the liberating, empowering, healing, and reconciling love of God wherever such is identified. It is a people empowered by God to embody in its own life the mystery of salvation and the transfiguration of creation.

Mission, therefore, is not an ‘optional extra’ for the Christian community but is of its essence, finding both its genesis and its telos in the trinitarian relations and in God’s own movement into the world, the object of God’s love. The Christian community cannot be true to itself apart from this action of bearing servant witness (martyria) (i) to God’s will for the salvation and transformation of the world; (ii) to God’s command to maturing discipleship; (iii) to God’s compassion, mercy and advocacy for the poor, the needy and the marginalised; (iv) to God’s vision for the flourishing of societies that reflect the justice of love and seek the end to unjust structures; and (v) to God’s desire for the integrity of a creation liberated from abusive, irresponsible and destructive actions.

Daniel Bell on ‘Just War and Christian Discipleship’

By way of a wee follow up to a recent post on ‘just war’ theory, I wish to draw attention to a talk, which I have only just gotten around to listen to, by Daniel Bell on ‘Just War and Christian Discipleship’, the subject of a book and of this pamphlet also by Bell. It’s a paper presented at Wheaton’s Theology Conference earlier this year on Christian Political Witness, and is available for download in both MP3 and MP4 formats.

Leunig, Hunsinger and Hauerwas on ‘just war’ theory

As the US continues to beat its war drums in the Middle East, it’s a good time to think again about the so-called ‘just war’ theory. So, I draw attention to three pieces – from Michael Leunig, from George Hunsinger and from Stanley Hauerwas.

So, Leunig:

Just war

And in a recent piece published in Commonweal Magazine, Hunsinger argues that ‘a defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified’. In Hunsinger’s view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards.

And here, Hauerwas argues that the real realists are not the just-war advocates anyway, but the pacifists. Moreover, he contends that ‘the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with their being American’. ‘In particular’, he suggests, ‘American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I would argue that democratic society – at least, the American version – is unable to set limits on war because it is democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans war is a necessity to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart’. Such democracies, Hauerwas believes, ‘by their very nature seem to require that wars be fought in the name of ideals that make war self-justifying’. And, characteristically, Hauerwas concludes his piece with a reflection on the relationship between war, christology and ecclesiology:

Pacifists are realists. Indeed, we have no reason to deny that the “realism” associated with Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr has much to teach us about how the world works. But that is why we do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe a sacrifice has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war.

Augustine and Luther thought Christians might go to war because they assumed a church existed that provided an alternative to the sacrificial system war always threatens to become. When Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world, we will find other forms of sacrificial behaviours that are as compelling as they are idolatrous. In the process, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.

If a people does not exist that continually makes Christ present in the world, war will always threaten to become a sacrificial system. War is a counter church. War is the most determinative moral experience many people have.

That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror – or perhaps because it is so horrible – can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war. The church is the alternative to war. When Christians lose that reality – that is, the reality of the church as an alternative to the world’s reality – we abandon the world to the unreality of war.

For what it’s worth, whenever I happen across Christians defending just-war theory to justify their participation in the state’s various machineries of cross-border violence (which, for the record, is not what I think Hunsinger is doing), I’m reminded of another George – George Bernard Shaw – and his challenge to (hypocritical) church leaders:

They have turned their churches into recruiting stations and their vestries into munitions workshops. But it has never occurred to them to take off their black coats and say quite simply, ‘I find in the hour of trial that the Sermon on the Mount is tosh, and that I am not a Christian. I apologise for all the unpatriotic nonsense I have been preaching all the years. Have the goodness to give me a revolver and a commission in a regiment which has for its chaplain a priest of the god Mars: my God.’ Not a bit of it. They have stuck to their livings and served Mars in the name of Christ, to the scandal of all religious mankind.

What is Fresh Expressions and what might we learn from it?

A guest post by Mark Johnston.

For some time now, Fresh Expressions UK has been getting people’s attention as snippets of what the Church of England and other mainline denominations are doing in the UK reaches these shores. This year in July, Bishop Graham Cray, the leader of the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK was in New Zealand at the invitation of a couple of Anglican Diocese and several of us Presbyterians jumped on board to hear Bishop Cray, along with several Methodists and Baptists.

What is Fresh Expressions?

Fresh Expressions is best summed up as a movement in church planting that has taken off since the publication of a Church of England report in 2004 called “Mission Shaped Church[1]. It’s not often that a CofE report releases energy and momentum in the church but this one did. It initially was written to sum up the state of the Church of England in its mission context and clarify its thinking about church planting as a strategy of parish mission. It however became a document that captured something of the challenge to re-think the parish principle and put forward theological and missiological reasons for endorsing and resourcing a whole host of experiments in church life and forming of new communities of faith. These experiments might have previously fallen outside the inherited ecclesial and economic unit definitions of a “church”. Mission Shaped Church reclaimed them as real expressions of church, genuine attempts to embody the life of Christ in new and changing cultural circumstances.

Fresh Expressions emerged out of the coalescing of various interest and energies identified both by the research and writing that went into the report and a desire to work the report’s practical suggestions to the CofE into something tangible on the ground. When Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury made the report a centrepiece of his episcopal leadership, official energies, resources and permission-giving became available to sustain a movement of common interest. It is noteworthy however those leaders in the movement found themselves less propelled by the official endorsement than a sense of the Spirit of God doing something serendipitously and they were caught up in it. Fresh Expressions seemed to emerge and evolve from a collaborative intent and joining of hands rather than driven by top down policy or a strategic plan of any kind. The subsequent addition of Methodist, URC, Congregational and Baptist partners indicated there was more to this movement than a one church’s re-thinking local mission.

What makes Fresh Expressions interesting and more durable than a single church growth strategy or method is its umbrella like nature. Rather than prescribing a particular approach it has welcomed diversity in approach, form and to a certain extent theological colour. For instance there are tales of church planting an Anglo-Catholic expression in a city supermarket, the formation of new social justice communities, new rural faith communities, “goth” church, a church that makes bread, as well as more conventional congregational plants. But this is not without being held together by a central idea and some key theological reference points. The big idea that defines Fresh Expressions is “establishing a form of church for our changing cultures, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church”.

It is church planting in a broad sense. Fresh Expressions defines Church Planting as “the process by which the seed of the life and message of Jesus embodied by a community of Christians is immersed for mission reasons in a particular cultural or geographic context”[2]. It includes the efforts of inherited congregations to plant a new expression alongside the old, intended to engage different cultures, generations and sub-cultures, in other words people “not like them”. It affirms pioneer individual or teams who feel called to start from scratch and establish a new form of witness in marginalised areas of cities often left behind by middle class churches. It provides support for new cultural expressions of church amongst 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants who are seeking to find culturally appropriate ways of engaging “third culture” peers and friends, who shun both traditional immigrant churches and the “white” churches. It also encourages the emerging attempts at new monastic and lifestyle communities to embody Christ in the midst of culture.

Missiologically “Fresh Expressions” arises out of the recognition that the attractional mode the church operates in is flawed and contributes now to a major disconnection between churches and huge sections of society. Society has changed and the church is finding itself stranded. This is exacerbated by operational theologies which make mission a tack on church activity or duty rather than a gift of participating in the mission of God in Christ towards the world. “It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world” [3]. If the church belongs to the mission of God then the church is no longer the centre of mission and has no reason to draw energy towards itself and its own preservation. This frees the church for a more light-footed and responsive form of existence, to become sent, to cross boundaries into new spaces, to be expressed in new shapes and forms suited to the context.

Church planting with a theological underpinning

However “Fresh Expressions” is not interested in reducing church planting to strategy. It is a theological intention after the pattern of Christ. Authentic church planting is shaped by the incarnation. The incarnational principle calls the church to identify with and enter the world as it is, to give up its own power, preferences and likes in order that Christ might be embodied in contexts where people no longer relate to our expressions of church. The issue is not relevance, it is incarnation. Irrelevance is a symptom of churches that have become non-incarnational. The incarnational principle expresses itself as church dies to self (John 12:24) and gives up its preferences and privileges for the sake of being Christ to the other (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). It is not church or worship or community as we would like it. It is not cloning. It is discovering what church could be for and with others who may not be like us. This is difficult DNA for us Presbyterians, since our origins as a colonial settler church were seldom sourced in this way. Fresh Expressions is recalling the church to one of its core DNA.

Fresh Expressions are not immune to the criticism that this call to contextualised mission can lead to a loss of distinctiveness, the message and form of the gospel so accommodated to the language and forms of the hearers that it loses its content and edge. It recognises that planting in the pattern of Christ is also the pattern of the cross, there is a world to counter. There is always a tension between adapting and identifying with context and becoming colonised by that culture. That is the tightrope walked both by inherited forms of church and fresh expressions. Church planting from the incarnational principle begins in a journey of cross shaped sacrifice and planting with this DNA will determine how a fresh expression wrestles with syncretistic temptations in the future.

Lastly the pattern of Christ shapes church planting by the resurrection. There is a world to anticipate and whatever a fresh expression becomes – it is called to become a pointer to God’s future. Fresh Expressions reminds the church that too much attention can be given to the passing on of the inheritance of the past and too little as an anticipation and foretaste of God’s future. What Fresh Expression’s celebrate is the possibility of church as hopeful and expressive of what salvation means in the ordinary and everyday realities of many different kinds of context. For dispirited and disbelieving people in those contexts, Fresh Expressions are attempts to offer another kind of lense to see God and God’s purposes by, a foretaste sufficient for people to say, “whatever eternal life means, if it means life like what I see here then …”.

This does not come about by good intentions or churches with creative ideas. Fresh Expressions is a movement that regards mission as a Spirit event. It requires discerning the Spirit of God and allowing God to bring forth the future in fresh and “ready to be surprised” ways. This does not mean the entire abandonment of inherited church, but rather the intention to take incarnationally motivated risks, to corporately practice deep listening to God, context and one another and to connect this to shapes of common life, activity and obedience. Fresh Expressions challenges the church to begin with “divine listening” in mission and relativise our dominant default practices of strategic analysis and planning. The biblical narrative reminds us that God creates new futures in the most inauspicious of places.

Six years down the track, “Fresh Expressions” has become a large network of support, story sharing and research, intentional collaboration and training that is spread across the major mainline denominations in England. Individual ventures to form and plant a new expression of church can register with the Fresh Expressions network and currently about 2000 Church of England and 1000 Methodist Fresh Expressions are on the books. Figures for other denominations are not available yet. Telling and publicising stories of what ordinary people and churches are doing on the ground is an important vehicle for spreading encouragement and vision. Professionally produced DVD’s of these stories have been released to spread the word. The website acts as a hub. Individual denominations make their own decisions about what funding they will make available to their own fresh expression projects. Ecumenical cooperation takes place at the training, equipping and support level through regional “FEASTS”. Several denominations have now developed ordained pioneer ministry tracks in their theological colleges and selection criteria processes have been modified to take account of and discern “church planting” or pioneer gifting and callings. Resources for church leader and planting teams and short-term course have been developed. Critiques[4] and research of Fresh Expressions has continued to be published and this is regarded as healthy addition to a movement which is evolving as a practice based and learning organisation. Its structures are lightweight, based on high levels of trust and collaborative working.

Benefits of Fresh Expressions in our own situation

So what does Fresh Expressions bring into a local situation where church members or a leader is keen to develop a new way of engaging the community or un-churched people? Fresh Expressions firstly helps to give some language and framework to this desire. It recasts it as matter of embodiment. How is the life of God to be expressed amongst these people in such a way that they might encounter Christ for themselves? Fresh Expressions affirms that one way forward may be to intentionally plant a communal expression of the gospel that is more responsive to their realities and context. Many of our churches planted and grown in one kind of soil find themselves amidst increased cultural and lifestyle diversity, in much changed soil conditions, and limited in their ability to grow an engagement with people unlike themselves. The reality is while some churches adapt, planting the seeds of church into the changed conditions allows for more people in more conditions and cultures to find a welcome and a home.

Secondly Fresh Expressions is positive about the role that inherited and present modes of church have to play. This is not a prescription for ditching the old and embracing only what is new and different. There is an affirmation of the catholicity of the church and the need for new alongside and in relationship with the inherited modes of the church. Churches are encouraged to plant new expressions within “parishes” and to creatively maintain the apostolic link to tradition to fund their imaginations and faithfulness to the Gospel. However at the same time inherited churches are urged to practice cultural hospitality by allowing space and permission for experimentation and radical developments to emerge.

Thirdly Fresh Expressions has developed a sense of “best practice” to aid in the church planting task. Tellingly it urges church planting normally not to begin with corporate worship. Beginning with worship events has tended to perpetuate attractional models of church, often growing by transfer growth from other churches, failing to evolve as contextual rooted expressions and resembling cloning of church than genuine fresh expressions. A process of intense listening to context and God is urged accompanied by loving and serving people in the desired locations or social contexts. This becomes a formative journey for community to emerge, the exploration of what discipleship means and finally the public shaping of church.

Fourthly Fresh Expressions as a movement is developing resources that build capacity in churches concerned for church planting. Their development of “Mission shaped Intro” and “Mission shaped ministry” training materials are designed to introduce people to church planting and equip motivated members of churches who may go on to form a team for church planting. Much of the story-telling material, available in DVD form, offer a catalogue of what God is doing through ordinary people taking risks to innovate and grow new expressions of God’s life in their communities. It is hoped that the production of a New Zealand equivalent will provide a diverse range of stories which can inspire and illuminate the art of the possible.

Fifthly, Fresh Expressions is building up a considerable body of research and reflection upon church planting from a mainline denominational base. It does not claim to have all the answers and is intent on learning from the grass-roots activity of experimentation, theological reflection and a praxis based learning cycle. For instance Graham Cray drew attention to possible sources of failure in church planting due to attempts at cloning, being too event centred and burning people out in resource hungry “attractive” events, lacking long term investment of people and funding, lone ranger, personality centred and CEO type leadership models, and the failure to start with key DNA (expressive of the Trinitarian God, incarnational, transformative, disciple-making and relational).

That is a good place to finish. Fresh Expressions is not a new word for contemporary worship services or community projects. Fresh Expressions in the end is not a focus on “forms” or “expressions” but the kind of intentionality that accompanies church becoming the embodiment of Christ in the world. A church can only grow from the DNA present in the seed. “Unless and until the Kingdom and mission are in the DNA of the seed of the church what is planted will prove to be sterile. If mission is not located in the identity of the church, planting is very unlikely to recover it.”[5]

Some Sat’day morning stuff

  • Ray S. Anderson on God’s Presence in Dying.
  • The ever-engaging Slavoj Žižek on ‘Are we living in the end times?’
  • David Bentley Hart on anarchism and monarchism: ‘The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot’.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi is ‘a new Mandela’.
  • Byron Smith posts 12 responses to a series of converging crises in our economy, energy and ecology.
  • Ben Myers on smiling and sadness.
  • David Congdon negotiates his ecclesial identity.
  • Stanley Hauerwas writes an ‘open letter to young Christians on their way to college’.
  • Tomorrow, I will engage in my first (the first of many, to be sure!) real act of parental irresponsibility for Samuel: he will be placed on the road to (or in the river of) death and made an outlaw; i.e., he will, in Kim Fabricius’ words, ‘enter this strange new household of the church, and this strange new world of being a Christian’. He will enter the castra caelestia. Exhausted by the event, he’ll then come home and sleep, or that’s the plan anyway.
  • BTW: I’m not sure what significance I should attach to it, if any, but this is my 1500th post.

On keeping company with Christ

In a few weeks’ time, on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, one of the lectionary readings that I plan to preach from is Luke 16.19–31. It’s not an easy text to understand or to preach, but I’m thinking that Duncan Forrester might be able to help me out:

‘It is impossible to keep company with Christ if we refuse to accept the company he has chosen to keep. Following the patristic principle ubi Christus ibi ecclesia (where Christ is, there is the Church), it is necessary to go to find Christ and therefore the Church among the poor he loves, to listen to them, and to learn afresh from them how to worship God in Spirit and in truth … Worship separated from the great issues of liberty and justice has become idolatry, an instrument of ideological manipulation, a way of hiding from God rather than encountering Him’. – Duncan B. Forrester, Theological Fragments: Explorations in Unsystematic Theology (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 109, 110.

[Image: Heinrich Aldegrever, ‘Lazarus Begging for Crumbs from Dives’s Table’, 1552]

Eucharist and the politics of power

‘The church expresses a corporate existence where divine agency interacts with human affairs, and such an interaction nurtures, that is to say gives life and shape to, the ecclesial body … [A] theopolitics of Christ’s Body in the Eucharist is rooted not exclusively in power, but, in a more primary sense, in divine caritas, which is expressed with a radical gesture of kenosis, reciprocity, and concrete communal practices. This is not to say that power is herein dismissed, or that the Eucharist is a sign of disempowerment. There is a politics of power here. Yet it is a power that integrates plenitude of desire; it is the paradoxical force of sacrifice on the cross; it is the humble power of bread broken into pieces for the purpose of sharing; it is the washing of feet that means a life of service to one another; it is the power of giving one’s life for the other. In other words, this is the theopolitical power of caritas, where the extraordinary embraces and transfigures the ordinary: God’s “sovereignty disclosed at the breaking of the bread,” as Samuel Wells remarks’. – Angel F. Méndez Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 115–6.

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:

Introduction

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.

Developing a Reading List – 3

Developing a Reading List – 3

So far I have listed books on (1) Theological Method and Prolegomena, (2) Systematics/Dogmatics (3) Biblical Theology, and (4) Theology Proper, (5) Patriology, (6) Christology, (7) Pneumatology and (8) Revelation. Below is a list of books that I’ve found helpful in thinking about Creation, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, Anthropology. Remember, this series of 5 posts is with a view to developing some sort of a reading list for various areas of systematic and pastoral theology, and that the kind of thing I have in mind is a reading list and resource for English-speaking undergraduate theology students. It is to this end that I am inviting your help.


Reading List: 9. Creation:

Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator

Colin E. Gunton, Christ and Creation

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall

Jonathan Edwards, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World

Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning

Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation

Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth


Reading List: 10. Soteriology:

Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation: The Positive Development of the Doctrine

Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement

David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness

Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord

Geoffrey C. Bingham, Christ’s Cross Over Man’s Abyss

Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor

Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition

James Denney, The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation

James Denney, The Death of Christ

John McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ

John Webster, Holiness

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1

Kenneth Grayston, Dying, We Live: A New Enquiry into the Death of Christ in the New Testament

Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross

Michelle A. Gonzalez, Created in God’s Image: An Introduction to Feminist Theological Anthropology

Molly T. Marshall, What It Means to Be Human

Nigel M. de S. Cameron (ed.), Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell

Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement

Peter T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross

Peter T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1: Human Nature

Stephen C. Barton (ed.), Holiness: Past and Present

Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ

Thomas Smail, Once and For All: A Confession of the Cross


Reading List: 11. Ecclesiology:

Colin E. Gunton (ed.), Trinity, Time, and Church: A Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Donald G. Bloesch, The Church

Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Children of Promise

Hans Küng, The Church

John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church

Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit

Donald G. Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry Mission

Miroslav Volf, After Our Image: The Church as the Image of the Trinity

Peter Leithart, Against Christianity

Peter T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments

Peter T. Forsyth, The Church, The Gospel and Society


Reading List: 12. Anthropology:

Alan Torrance, Persons in Communion: an Essay on Trinitarian Description and Human Participation

Christoph Schwobel & Colin Gunton (eds), Persons, Divine and Human

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Harry R. Boer, An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind as the Image of God

Helmut Thielicke, Being Human … Becoming Human

John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church

Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan

Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance Of Faith: Conscience in the Theology Of Martin Luther and John Calvin

Ray S. Anderson, On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology

Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self

Thomas Smail, Like Father, Like Son

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective


Next on the list: Prayer and Meditation, Missiology, Ethics, and Doxology.