‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’

The latest issue of Mission Studies is now available online, and includes a little article I wrote on ‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’. The Abstract reads:

This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.

[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]

A few thoughts on that Hillsong piece …

Sausage & bacon nativity scene… in the previous post:

  1. Yes, the musos are fabulous! While I certainly could do without the singers and the dancers, that music is a gift from a place that is very familiar to God. That it is apparently quite unfamiliar to many who profess to like and practice the kind of stuff that God likes and practices is something very near tragic. A spirit of celebration and praise is near the heart of all worship characterised by the gifts and promises of one literally pushed into the world kicking, farting, and screaming.
  2. Of course, every good thing has its ape, but apes are only apes and it seems only fair that they be allowed to have some fun too.
  3. But I concur with those who note the incongruence between the message and the medium. It’s like seeing an athletic woman selling ‘health drinks’ or muesli bars; you suspect that you’re being sold bullshit. More on this in a moment (see #6).
  4. However, far from seeing this performance as something that I ought to therefore dismiss out of hand, which may be an understandable first reaction, I feel drawn to ask further questions. I want to know, for example, what happens before, and after, this song. How am I to interpret this single performance in the context of a larger event and story and witness, and of a culture largely foreign to me? Maybe it’s simply – whether partly or mostly – a piece of shallow and money-making glitz and that’s all. But I can’t even begin to form that judgement unless I have some broader context – and some other stories – in which to evaluate it, lest my judgement be held hostage to simply another set of cultural manifestations. (Some, of course, might well argue that much of that context is already provided for us in other stories that we have heard and/or experienced first hand about Hillsong’s modus operandi. But I want to know more, and I’ve long learnt that the truth ain’t the facts.)
  5. That the piece doesn’t work in the cultures with which I identify and am most familiar and conversant doesn’t mean that it’s necessary discordant with the actions of God. After all, God isn’t a Christian, let alone a male Aussie with wog parents. Hell, I’m not even sure God speaks English. Indeed, one might make the argument that the stranger and more unfamiliar and more difficult it is to understand and interpret, the closer it may be to the stuff of God. (I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is Hillsong’s motivation here.) Nathanael’s observation about the Caribbean context, and that GQ article too, raise some perennial questions for me about the relationship between gospel and culture, of the temptations to make an ideology out of the former and of making indiscriminate familiarity with the latter the precondition for the gospel’s reception.
  6. Watching the performance of this single song, online, nearly 17,000 kilometres from where it was performed, I have the same kind of confusion I experience whenever I worship in a building with a national flag in it; or an Honour Roll commemorating those who gave their lives in ‘the service of freedom’ and ‘for God, King and Country’, some of whom, it is noted (sometimes with the sign of a little cross!), ‘paid the supreme sacrifice’; or whenever I see a reference, in my ecclesiological territory, to ‘senior pastor’; or when I hear that a qualification for being a bishop (in some other ecclesiological territories) is proof of a penis; or whenever I see an innocent bunch of carnations perched on a baptismal font; or whenever congregations celebrate the Lord’s Supper not with a common cup but with those hideous little shot glasses; or when I see a funeral casket draped with the flag of a football team; or when I see church children get shuffled off out of ‘adult church’ so that they can engage in some more ‘age-appropriate’ activites; or when I visit a church worship centre in rural Thailand that is, visually speaking, entirely indistinguishable from the Buddhist temple down the road save for a presence of a small crucifix. I could go on …
  7. A hearty thank you to all who have taken up my invitation. If to embark on theology is to be unstable bearers of live questions (as Mike Higton puts it), then I welcome the invitations that this clip offers, and the conversations that it has encouraged. May both continue.

[Image: source]

Christianity is Empire

Over at The Jesus Manifesto, Mark Van Steenwyk is beginning a four-part series examining the ‘intrinisically oppressive nature of much of traditional Christianity’. Here’s a snippert from his first post – Christianity is Empire, Part 1:

‘The argument that Christianity is intrinsically oppressive is nothing new, but it persists. That’s because it is true. Christianity, at least as it is understood by the majority of Christians throughout the ages is inherently oppressive and will inevitably lead to Empire. A Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire.

This may not always be the case with all Christians everywhere, and it certainly wasn’t true for the earliest followers of Jesus, but it is such a well-worn pattern of Christian practice that it would be foolish to simply dismiss those who argue that Christianity is inherently oppressive.

Traditional readings of Genesis (about subduing the land) mixed with traditional views of the Lordship of Christ (which gives his followers socio-religious superiority) mixed with the evangelistic impulse of the Great Commission (which gives us a mandate to extend Christ’s rule to the ends of the earth) are problematic enough as they stand. But if you add the willingness to use violence to accomplish these ends, you are creating the perfect empire cocktail.

If we are going to have a faith that resists domination, we need to re-examine our willingness to use the Sword to accomplish any Gospel-inspired goals. If a Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire, we need to put away the sword’.

Material to evoke some good conversation, not least for those in my part of the world thinking about stuff to do with Anzac Day (a subject which birthed this post of mine last year on Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society).

Only in the gospel …

‘[Only] in the gospel do we so behold God as that we may love God. It is there, and there only, where God stands revealed as an object of confidence to sinners — and where our desire after Him is not chilled into apathy by that barrier of human guilt which intercepts every approach that is not made to Him through the appointed Mediator. It is the bringing in of this better hope, whereby we draw nigh unto God — and to live without hope is to live without God, and if the heart be without God the world will then have all the ascendency. It is God apprehended by the believer as God in Christ who alone can dispost it from this ascendency … Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the gospel, and you raise a topic of distrust between man and God. You take away the power of the gospel to melt and to conciliate’. – Thomas Chalmers, ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection’, in The Works of Thomas Chalmers, D.D.: Complete in One Volume (Philadelphia: A. Towar/Hogan and Thompson 1833), 384, 387.

[H/T: Noel Due]

Walter Brueggemann on biblical theology and skillful hermeneutical moves

‘… the discipline of biblical theology needs no “case” to be made for it, and certainly not by me. There is deep and wide ferment in the field, indicating that scholars and interpreters across the theological spectrum are ready to be engaged in work that is fresh and suggestive. It is possible that such an interpretive enterprise may be primarily historical, that is, reading old texts to see what they “meant.”

My own interest is much more “confessional,” as I am a church person who reads for the sake of the faith and life of my community. I suppose, without great intentionality, that I read according to Ricoeur’s nice pairing of “suspicion and retrieval.” The “suspicion” is an awareness that every text and every reading, including my own, is laden with ideological interest. This is true of skeptics, minimalists, and fideists of all kinds. The “retrieval” is to see what may be said after one has done rigorous criticism. What one finds, after criticism, is that there is still this character “God,” who continues to haunt and evoke and summon and address. No sort of criticism, so it seems to me, finally disposes of that character. Now it may be that the character is an act of literary imagination; or it may be that the character is indeed an agent who is in, with, and under the text. Either way, one cannot dispose of that character. I find myself moving back and forth between a literary character and an active agent. Either way, that character haunts and causes everything to be redefined.

But being haunted by this character is not just a confessional act for “believers.” I believe the best exposition of this testimony for “non-believers” is by Terry Eagleton in his Terry Lectures at Yale. Eagleton is not a “believer,” but he takes seriously the claims of this text that are more than “literary.” Eagleton shows that the claims are not merely cognitive and so readily dismissed by “silly atheists.” Rather, Eagleton sees that the claims of the tradition are that this holy character is linked to the valuing of “the scum” of the earth. The point is a practical one, not an intellectual one …

Given the current frailty of the capitalist system and the fact that the “big money” continues to grow while ordinary people increasingly become poor and homeless, I suspect that this character, embedded in this tradition, is a wake-up call for contemporary social-political thought. It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting …

The capacity to find an alternative to biblicism or historical criticism requires skillful hermeneutical moves, whether made intentionally or intuitively. If one begins with the assumption of neighborly covenant—the outcome of Sinai—then neighborliness becomes the test for policy and practice. Such a focus does not resolve all of the complexities of real-life decisions, but it does preclude from consideration some possibilities that are anti-neighborly and anti-covenantal. Such an approach does not just find a specific text, as is so often done, but participates, as we are able, in the “world” that is constructed by the text. It is odd and disappointing that some of the loudest citers of texts love to refer to specific texts but have no interest in or awareness of the broad claims of the text or the way in which the dots are connected to provide an alternative vision of social reality and derivatively, an alternative mandate about social reality. Thus I believe that the clue to fruitful connections is a practice of imagination that is self-aware and well-informed about the complexity of the issues. There is no reason for biblical interpreters to be simplistic or to imagine that easy or ready connections can be made …

As I have gotten older and as our social scene has become more dysfunctional, I have become more aware of the ways in which the central claims of the Bible contradict the practices of our culture. This means, in my judgment, that now as never in my lifetime the full and bold articulation of biblical claims is urgent as a serious offer in our pluralistic society. There are no easy accommodations between those claims and the dominant modes of our culture, even though the old model in which I was nurtured—“Christ transforming culture”—mostly imagined an easier connect. My practical hope is not very great. I do think that the younger generation in our society is not so boxed in on the hard questions as are many older people. I think, moreover, that the growing diversity in our society may offer openness for genuinely human options, as I do not think that our diverse and younger population will settle easily for the old answers of the privileged. After all of that, of course, our hope is not a pragmatic one; it is an evangelical one, that God is faithful and that God’s purposes will out. The wonder of the Biblical tradition is that the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible that the convergence of holy purpose and vulnerable pain may “change the wind,” as Jim Wallis voices it. Since the old resolutions of our problems are clearly now failed, there may be an openness to initiatives that are more humane. That of course depends on courageous, sustained testimony… and it is a fearful time’. – An interview with Walter Brueggemann.

Advent IV: Weighing the virgin conception

Today’s New Zealand Herald ran this image and its accompanying story about an Auckland church’s (St Matthews’) new billboard. I’m not really interested here in engaging with the controversy around the offensiveness or cleverness or otherwise of the image, or about how I feel about its defacement some five hours after it was erected. I am interested, however, in taking up the image’s and St Matthews’ (both St Matthews in fact, the apostle’s and the Auckland church’s) invitation to enquire about the Christmas event of Mary’s virginal conception, and about the Church’s ongoing proclamation of that event as part of the Good News for which it exists to bear witness.

So here’s my response to that invitation: The miracle of the virgin conception is a judgement against the possibility of the creature producing its own word of revelation and reconciliation. It is a judgement against us thinking that we can know God apart from God’s initiative, and that we might save ourselves apart from God’s bloody intrusion into our situation. It is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to be God for us, to unveil for us, to reconcile us. And it is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to save us, and that by becoming personally involved – literally enfleshed – in the deepest depths of creaturely experience. This is why it is Good News. In PT Forsyth’s words, ‘The Virgin birth is not a necessity created by the integrity and infallibility of the Bible; it is a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the Gospel, and by the requirements of grace’. (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 14).

God is for us!

Karl Barth once penned: ‘That man is against God is important and must be taken seriously. But what is far more important and must be taken more seriously is that in Jesus Christ God is for man. And it is only in the light of the second fact that the importance and seriousness of the first can be seen’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 154.

Yes! In Jesus Christ, God has shown not only that God does not want to be God without humanity, but also that God does not want humanity to be humanity without God. God’s will is that God might not be only for himself, but that God might be for humanity all that God is in his eternity. And in the action of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God is present and active among us to hear and answer prayers, to create and sustain life in every minum of creation, to empower human beings to keep saying ‘No’ to sin and ‘Yes’ to God, and to continuously bring home afresh the good news of the Father’s sanctifying action in Jesus Christ, guaranteeing humanity’s inheritance, and empowering us to live in the reality of being ‘holy and blameless’ before God (Eph 1:4). Because God is Holy Love (one of Forsyth’s great themes), humanity’s failure to participate in God’s holiness, is, at core, a denial of God’s love. It is to receive God’s grace in vain. 

Who would have ever thought? God is for us! Hallelujah!

[Image: Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’. Oil on canvas (137 × 116 cm) — ca. 1659/60. Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin]

Sermons are killing the Gospel

‘It is not sermons we need, but a Gospel, which sermons are killing … What we require is not a race of more powerful preachers, but that which makes their capital – a new Gospel which is yet the old, the old moralised, and replaced in the conscience, and in the public conscience, from which it has been removed. We need that the Gospel we offer be moralised at the centre from the Cross, and not rationalised at the surface by thin science. We need that more people should be asking “What must I do to be saved?” rather than “What should I rationally believe?”’ – P.T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1947 [1917]), 20.

NT Wright – ‘Kingdom come: The public meaning of the Gospels’

Kingdom come: The public meaning of the Gospels
by N.T. Wright

In his new book, The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis describes how as a young man growing up in an evangelical church, he never heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. That telling personal observation reflects a phenomenon about which I have been increasingly concerned: that much evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the epistles rather than the Gospels, though often misunderstanding the epistles themselves.

Indeed, in this respect evangelicalism has simply mirrored a much larger problem: the entire Western church, both Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and liberal, charismatic and social activist, has not actually known what the Gospels are there for.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all in their various ways about God in public, about the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven through the public career and the death and resurrection of Jesus. The massive concentration on source and form criticism, the industrial-scale development of criteria for authenticity (or, more often, inauthenticity), and the extraordinary inverted snobbery of preferring gnostic sayings-sources to the canonical documents all stem from, and in turn reinforce, the determination of the Western world and church to make sure that the four Gospels will not be able to say what they want to say, but will be patronized, muzzled, dismembered and eventually eliminated altogether as a force to be reckoned with.

The central message of all four canonical Gospels is that the Creator God, Israel’s God, is at last reclaiming the whole world as his own, in and through Jesus of Nazareth. That, to offer a riskily broad generalization, is the message of the kingdom of God, which is Jesus’ answer to the question, What would it look like if God were running this show?

And at once, in the 21st century as in the first, we are precipitated into asking the vital question, Which God are we talking about, anyway? It is quite clear if one reads Christopher Hitchens or Friedrich Nietzsche that the image of “God running the world” against which they are reacting is the image of a celestial tyrant imposing his will on an unwilling world and unwilling human beings, cramping their style, squashing their individuality and their very humanness, requiring them to conform to arbitrary and hurtful laws and threatening them with dire consequences if they resist. This narrative (which contains a fair amount of secularist projection) serves the Enlightenment’s deist agenda, as well as the power interests of those who would move God to a remote heaven so that they can continue to exploit the world.

But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God-the God recognized in Jesus-who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness. The trouble is that in our flat-Earth political philosophies we know only the spectrum which has tyranny at one end and anarchy at the other, with the present democracies our dangerously fragile way of warding off both extremes. The news of God’s sovereign rule inevitably strikes democrats, not just anarchists, as a worryingly long step toward tyranny as we apply to God and to the Gospels the hermeneutic of suspicion that we rightly apply to those in power who assure us that they have our best interests at heart. But the story that the Gospels tell systematically resists this deconstruction-for three reasons having to do with the integration of the Gospel stories both internally and externally.

First, the narrative told by each Gospel-yes, in different ways, but in this regard the canonical Gospels stand shoulder to shoulder over against the Gospel of Thomas and the rest-presents itself as an integrated whole in a way that scholarship has found almost impossible to reflect. Attention has been divided, focusing either on Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom and the powerful deeds-healings, feastings and so on-in which it is instantiated, or on his death and resurrection. The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions. Thus the Gospels, in both popular and scholarly readings, have been regarded either as grounding a social gospel whose naive optimism has no place for the radical fact of the cross, still less the resurrection-the kind of naïveté that Reinhold Niebuhr regularly attacked-or as merely providing the raw historical background for the developed, and salvific, Pauline gospel of the death of Jesus. If you go the latter route, the only role left for the stories of Jesus’ healings and moral teachings is, as for Rudolf Bultmann, as stories witnessing to the church’s faith, or, for his fundamentalist doppelgängers, stories that proved Jesus’ divinity rather than launching any kind of program (despite Luke 4, despite the Sermon on the Mount, despite the terrifying warnings about the sheep and the goats!).

Appeals for an integrated reading have met stiff opposition from both sides: those who have emphasized Jesus’ social program lash out wildly at any attempt to highlight his death and resurrection, as though that would simply legitimate a fundamentalist program, either Catholic or Protestant, while those who have emphasized his death and resurrection do their best to anathematize any attempt to continue Jesus’ work with and for the poor, as though that might result in justification by works, either actually or at the existentialist meta-level of historical method (Bultmann again, and Gerhard Ebeling and others).

The lesson is twofold: (1) Yes, Jesus did indeed launch God’s saving sovereignty on earth as in heaven; but this could not be accomplished without his death and resurrection. The problem to which God’s kingdom-project was and is the answer is deeper than can be addressed by a social program alone.

(2) Yes, Jesus did, as Paul says, die for our sins, but his whole agenda of dealing with sin and all its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world. “My kingdom is not from this world,” he said to Pilate; had it been, he would have led an armed resistance movement like other worldly kingdom-prophets. But the kingdom he brought was emphatically for this world, which meant and means that God has arrived on the public stage and is not about to leave it again; he has thus defeated the forces both of tyranny and of chaos-both of shrill modernism and of fluffy postmodernism, if you like-and established in their place a rule of restorative, healing justice, which needs translating into scholarly method if the study of the Gospels is to do proper historical, theological and political justice to the subject matter.

It is in the entire Gospel narrative, rather than any of its possible fragmented parts, that we see that complete, many-sided kingdom work taking shape. And this narrative, read this way, resists deconstruction into power games precisely because of its insistence on the cross. The rulers of the world behave one way, declares Jesus, but you are to behave another way, because the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. We discover that so-called atonement theology within that statement of so-called political theology. To state either without the other is to resist the integration, the God-in-public narrative, which the Gospels persist in presenting.

Second, the Gospels demand to be read in deep and radical integration with the Old Testament. Recognition of this point has been obscured by perfectly proper post-Holocaust anxiety about apparently anti-Jewish readings. But we do the Gospels no service by screening out the fact that each of them in its own way (as opposed, again, to the Gospel of Thomas and the rest) affirms the God-givenness and God-directedness of the entire Jewish narrative of creation, fall, Abraham, Moses, David and so on. The Old Testament is the narrative of how the Creator God is rescuing creation from its otherwise inevitable fate, and it was this project, rather than some other, which was brought to successful completion in and through Jesus. The Gospels, like Paul’s gospel, are to that extent folly to pagans, ancient and modern alike, and equally scandalous to Jews. We gain nothing exegetically, historically, theologically or politically by trying to make the Gospels less Jewishly foolish (or vice versa) to paganism and hence less scandalous, in their claim of fulfillment, to Judaism.

Third, the Gospels thus demonstrate a close integration with the genuine early Christian hope, which is precisely not the hope for heaven in the sense of a blissful disembodied life after death in which creation is abandoned to its fate, but rather the hope, as in Ephesians 1, Romans 8 and Revelation 21, for the renewal and final coming together of heaven and earth, the consummation precisely of God’s project to be savingly present in an ultimate public world. And the point of the Gospels is that with the public career of Jesus, and with his death and resurrection, this whole project was decisively inaugurated, never to be abandoned.

From the perspective of these three integrations, we can see how mistaken are the readings of both the neo-Gnostic movement that is so rampant today and the fundamentalism that is its conservative analogue. Indeed, if an outsider may venture a guess, I think the phenomenon of the religious right in the U.S. (we really have no parallel in the United Kingdom) may be construed as a clumsy attempt to recapture the coming together of God and the world, which remains stubbornly in scripture but which the Enlightenment had repudiated, and which fundamentalism itself continues to repudiate with its dualistic theology of rapture and Armageddon.

It is as though the religious right has known in its bones that God belongs in public, but without understanding either why or how that might make sense; while the political left in the U.S., and sometimes the religious left on both sides of the Atlantic, has known in its bones that God would make radical personal moral demands as part of his program of restorative justice, and has caricatured his public presence as a form of tyranny in order to evoke the cheap and gloomy Enlightenment critique as a way of holding that challenge at bay.

The resurrection of Jesus is to be seen not as the proof of Jesus’ uniqueness, let alone his divinity-and certainly not as the proof that there is a life after death, a heaven and a hell (as though Jesus rose again to give prospective validation to Dante or Michelangelo!)-but as the launching within the world of space, time and matter of that God-in-public reality of new creation called God’s kingdom, which, within 30 years, would be announced under Caesar’s nose openly and unhindered. The reason those who made that announcement were persecuted is, of course, that the fact of God acting in public is deeply threatening to the rulers of the world in a way that Gnosticism in all its forms never is. The Enlightenment’s rejection of the bodily resurrection has for too long been allowed to get away with its own rhetoric of historical criticism-as though nobody until Gibbon or Voltaire had realized that dead people always stay dead-when in fact its nonresurrectional narrative clearly served its own claim to power, presented as an alternative eschatology in which world history came to its climax not on Easter Day but with the storming of the Bastille and the American Declaration of Independence.

Near the heart of the early chapters of Acts we find a prayer of the church facing persecution, and the prayer makes decisive use of one of the most obviously political of all the Psalms. Psalm 2 declares that though the nations make a great noise and fuss and try to oppose God’s kingdom, God will enthrone his appointed king in Zion and thus call the rulers of the earth to learn wisdom from him. This point, which brings into focus a good deal of Old Testament political theology, is sharply reinforced in the early chapters of the Wisdom of Solomon.

Psalm 2 also appears at the start of the Gospel narratives, as Jesus is anointed by the Spirit at his baptism. Much exegesis has focused on the christological meaning of “Son of God” here; my proposal is that we should focus equally, without marginalizing that Christology, on the political meaning. The Gospels constitute a call to the rulers of the world to learn wisdom in service to the messianic Son of God, and thus they also provide the impetus for a freshly biblical understanding of the role of the “rulers of the world” and of the tasks of the church in relation to them. I have three points to make in this regard.

First, it is noteworthy that the early church, aware of prevailing tyrannies both Jewish and pagan, and insisting on exalting Jesus as Lord over all, did not reject the God-given rule even of pagans. This is a horrible disappointment, of course, to post-Enlightenment liberals, who would much have preferred the early Christians to have embraced some kind of holy anarchy with no place for any rulers at all. But it is quite simply part of a creational view of the world that God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic, and that human power structures are the God-given means by which that end is to be accomplished-otherwise those with muscle and money will always win, and the poor and the widows will be trampled on afresh. This is the point at which Colossians 1 makes its decisive contribution over against all dualisms which imagine that earthly rulers are a priori a bad thing (the same dualisms that have dominated both the method and the content of much biblical scholarship). This is the point, as well, at which the notion of the common good has its contribution to make. The New Testament does not encourage the idea of a complete disjunction between the political goods to be pursued by the church and the political goods to be pursued by the world outside the church, precisely for the reason that the church is to be seen as the body through whom God is addressing and reclaiming the world.

To put this first point positively, the New Testament reaffirms the God-given place even of secular rulers, even of deeply flawed, sinful, self-serving, corrupt and idolatrous rulers like Pontius Pilate, Felix, Festus and Herod Agrippa. They get it wrong and they will be judged, but God wants them in place because order, even corrupt order, is better than chaos. Here we find, in the Gospels, in Acts and especially in Paul, a tension that cannot be dissolved without great peril. We in the contemporary Western world have all but lost the ability conceptually-never mind practically-to affirm that rulers are corrupt and to be confronted yet are God-given and to be obeyed. That sounds to us as though we are simultaneously to affirm anarchy and tyranny. But this merely shows how far our conceptualities have led us again to muzzle the texts in which both stand together. How can that be?

The answer comes-and this is my second point-in such passages as John 19 on the one hand and 1 Corinthians 2 and Colossians 2 on the other. The rulers of this age inevitably twist their God-given vocation-to bring order to the world-into the satanic possibility of tyranny. But the cross of Jesus, enthroned as the true Son of God as in Psalm 2, constitutes the paradoxical victory by which the rulers’ idolatry and corruption are confronted and overthrown. And the result, as in Colossians 1:18-20, is that the rulers are reconciled, are in some strange sense reinstated as the bringers of God’s wise order to the world, whether or not they would see it that way. This is the point at which Romans 13 comes in, not as the validation of every program that every ruler dreams up, certainly not as the validation of what democratically elected governments of one country decide to do against other countries, but as the strictly limited proposal, in line with Isaiah’s recognition of Cyrus, that the Creator God uses even those rulers who do not know him personally to bring fresh order and even rescue to the world. This lies also behind the narrative of Acts.

This propels us to a third, perhaps unexpected and certainly challenging reflection that the present political situation is to be understood in terms of the paradoxical lordship of Jesus himself. From Matthew to John to Acts, from Colossians to Revelation, with a good deal else in between, Jesus is hailed as already the Lord of both heaven and earth, and in particular as the one through whom the Creator God will at last restore and unite all things in heaven and on earth. And this gives sharp focus to the present task of earthly rulers. Until the achievement of Jesus, a biblical view of pagan rulers might have been that they were charged with keeping God’s creation in order, preventing it from lapsing into chaos. Now, since Jesus’ death and resurrection (though this was of course anticipated in the Psalms and the prophets), their task is to be seen from the other end of the telescope. Instead of moving forward from creation, they are to look forward (however unwillingly or unwittingly) to the ultimate eschaton. In other words, God will one day right all wrongs through Jesus, and earthly rulers, whether or not they acknowledge this Jesus and this coming kingdom, are entrusted with the task of anticipating that final judgment and that final mercy. They are not merely to stop God’s good creation from going utterly to the bad. They are to enact in advance, in a measure, the time when God will make all things new and will once again declare that it is very good.

All this might sound like irrationally idealistic talk-and it is bound to be seen as such by those for whom all human authorities are tyrants by another name-were it not for the fact that along with this vision of God working through earthly rulers comes the church’s vocation to be the people through whom the rulers are to be reminded of their task and called to account. We see this happening throughout the book of Acts and on into the witness of the second-century apologists-and, indeed, the witness of the martyrs as well, because martyrdom (which is what happens when the church bears witness to God’s call to the rulers and the rulers shoot the messenger because they don’t like the message) is an inalienable part of political theology. You can have as high a theology of the God-given calling of rulers as you like, as long as your theology of the church’s witness, and of martyrdom, matches it stride for stride.

This witness comes into sharp focus in John 16:8-11. The Spirit, declares Jesus, will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment-about judgment because the ruler of this world is judged. How is the Spirit to do that? Clearly, within Johannine theology, through the witness of the church, in and through which the Spirit is at work. The church will do to the rulers of the world what Jesus did to Pilate in John 18 and 19, confronting him with the news of the kingdom and of truth, deeply unwelcome and indeed incomprehensible though both of them were. Part of the way in which the church will do this is by getting on with, and setting forward, those works of justice and mercy, of beauty and relationship, that the rulers know ought to be flourishing but which they seem powerless to bring about. But the church, even when faced with overtly pagan and hostile rulers, must continue to believe that Jesus is the Lord before whom they will bow and whose final sovereign judgment they are called to anticipate. Thus the church, in its biblical commitment to “doing God in public,” is called to learn how to collaborate without compromise (hence the vital importance of common-good theory) and to critique without dualism.

In particular, as one sharp focus for all this, it is vital that the church learn to critique the present workings of democracy itself. I don’t simply mean that we should scrutinize voting methods, campaign tactics or the use of big money within the electoral process. I mean that we should take seriously the fact that our present glorification of democracy emerged precisely from Enlightenment dualism-the banishing of God from the public square and the elevation of vox populi to fill the vacuum, which we have seen to be profoundly inadequate when faced with the publicness of the kingdom of God. And we should take very seriously the fact that the early Jews and Christians were not terribly interested in the process by which rulers came to power, but were extremely interested in what rulers did once they had obtained power. The greatest democracies of the ancient world, those of Greece and Rome, had well-developed procedures for assessing their rulers once their term of office was over if not before, and if necessary for putting them on trial. Simply not being reelected (the main threat to politicians in today’s democracies) was nowhere near good enough. When Kofi Annan retired as general secretary of the United Nations, one of the key points he made was that we urgently need to develop ways of holding governments to account. That is a central part of the church’s vocation, which we should never have lost and desperately need to recapture.

All this, of course, demands as well that the church itself be continually called to account, since we in our turn easily get it wrong and become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. That is why the church must be semper reformanda as it reads the Bible, especially the Gospels. Fortunately, that’s what the Gospels are there for, and that’s what they are good at, despite generations of so-called critical methods which sometimes seem to have been designed to prevent the Gospels from being themselves. Part of the underlying aim of this essay is to encourage readings of the Bible which, by highlighting the publicness of God and the gospel, set forward those reforms which will enable the church to play its part in holding the powers to account and thus advancing God’s restorative justice.

This article is adapted from a lecture N.T. Wright gave at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2007.

[Source: The Christian Century]

It’s time to name the gods: some reflections on some reactions to Rowan Williams’ recent lecture

There are a number of really disturbing features about the reaction to Rowan Williams’ recent lecture, Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective. I want to highlight just three:

1. Thus far, by far the loudest responses have come from those who have not even read the lecture. For a clarification of what Rowan did and did not propose see this post on What did the Archbishop actually say?

2. The element of fear (encouraged by fear politics and a lazy and irresponsible and basically unaccountable media) that exists in the community gut; a fear bred and fed from mistrust and ignorance.

3. Most disturbing, however, has been the coming to the surface of some idols – ‘Christian’ and otherwise – that exist in Britain (and in other places too). As I’ve been listening, and reading responses, to the lecture itself – and to many précised distortions of it! – what is becoming most obvious to me is that here we have a battle of cultus’, cultus’ that must be defended at all costs, whether true to the gospel or not. Nothing more informs a community – religious or otherwise – than its allegiance to its particular cultus. In his On Being The Church Of Jesus Christ In Tumultuous Times (reviewed here) Jones makes the timely observation that ‘one symptom of the disarray in the church today is that most of its actual members are more decisively formed and informed by their national identity than by their identity as disciples of Jesus Christ’ (p. xxi). He proceeds to note that all politics are simply the practices, conversations and processes of forming and sustaining particular communities. The question here for Christians therefore is, ‘What politic will inform our life together and our life-in-relation to others?’ This at least means – alongside a host of other questions – asking the question, ‘What does it mean to love our neighbour as ourselves?’

Agree with him or not, Archbishop Williams’ public comments here – as always – are informed by deep and engaging thought with the gospel itself, and with the implications for the Church and her witness in mind. Here, Williams is an exemplary leader. That the volume has been turned down – and that not least by many Church leaders – on the Truth to which Williams seeks to bear witness is, to my mind, a cause of greater concern than anything that he said, or did not say, in this recent lecture. If we’re going to have a public debate on these things – as we ought – let’s make sure we are absolutely clear on what the issues really are, and are not. Anything less is a destructive and painful waste of everyone’s time. Of course, the issues will be different for members who align themselves with different cultus’. That is unavoidable … but it’s time (and it always is) to name the gods.

    Two kinds of preachers

    There are many kinds of preachers, just as there are many kinds of theologians or fishermen … or sausages, for that matter. While it may or may not be helpful to try and distinguish between them, I want to suggest that there are basically two kinds of Christian preachers . There are those who preach the gospel as a thing done, and there are those who preach about the gospel as a thing still to be finished, usually by way of human response other than that offered vicariously by the last Adam. [Of course there are others – many in fact – who preach neither a thing done, nor a thing to do. While some of these may be preaching Christians, they are not Christian preachers in any sense of the word! Some of these even try to hide behind the rhetoric of doing ‘expository’ preaching. Of course, all preaching worthy of the name is expository, but I have in mind here those who think that the preaching task is finished when one has explained what the text means].

    Among the former, that is among those who preach the gospel as a thing done, are people like James Denney. I’ve been reading Denney today, and have been struck afresh at just how different his word is to so much of what passes for evangelical preaching today. Here’s a wee passage that struck a good chord:

    The work of reconciliation, in the sense of the New Testament, is a work which is finished, and which we must conceive to be finished, before the gospel is preached. It is the good tidings of the Gospel, with which the evangelists go forth, that God has wrought in Christ a work of reconciliation which avails for no less than the world, and of which the whole world may have the benefit. The summons of the evangelist is – ‘Receive the reconciliation; consent that it become effective in your case.’ The work of reconciliation is not a work wrought upon the souls of men, though it is a work wrought in their interests, and bearing so directly upon them that we can say God has reconciled the world to Himself; it is a work – as Cromwell said of the covenant – outside of us, in which God so deals in Christ with the sin of the world, that it shall no longer be a barrier between Himself and men … Reconciliation is not something which is doing; it is something which is done. No doubt there is a work of Christ which is in process, but it has as its basis a finished work of Christ; it is in virtue of something already consummated on His cross that Christ is able to make the appeal to us which He does, and to win the response in which we receive the reconciliation. A finished work of Christ and an objective atonement – a katallagh. – in the New Testament sense – are synonymous terms; the one means exactly the same as the other; and it seems to me self-evident, as I think it did to St. Paul, that unless we can preach a finished work of Christ in relation to sin, a katallagh. or reconciliation or peace which has been achieved independently of us, at an infinite cost, and to which we are called in a word or ministry of reconciliation, we have no real gospel for sinful men at all’. – James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909), 144–5, 146.

    To be sure, there is an appropriation that must take place – by both reconciled parties – but it is an appropriation of a finished work, the entering into what is already de facto a reconciled situation, a new creation. God’s reconciliation in Christ was not ‘a tentative, preliminary affair’ (Forsyth) but a finished one. ‘Paul did not preach a gradual reconciliation. He preached what the old divines use to call a finished work’ (Forsyth). We live in a reconciled world.

    Blessed are those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and faith to proclaim …

    On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times: A Review

    Joe R. Jones, ON BEING THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST IN TUMULTUOUS TIMES (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2005). Pp. xxx + 239. $27.00, ISBN: 9781597522762. A review.

    Joe R. Jones, author of the massive The Grammar of Christian Faith and Doctrine, and who Stanley Hauerwas names ‘the best unknown theologian in America’ (how would Hauerwas know?), is well aware of at least two important realities that inform good theology. First, that theology is a discipline not of the academy but of the believing community which is ever to be that ‘sort of community that sustains a vigorous and continuing conversation within itself as to who has called it into being, to whom it is responsible, and what it is called to be and to do’ (p. xiii). Second, that Christian theology has its ground and end in the redeeming economy of the Triune God. These two convictions inform this collection of essays, sermons, and prayers composed over four decades.

    The volume is made up of three sections. In the first, he addresses what it means to be the Church, that ‘broken body [which] must strive, in the midst of its brokenness in tumultuous times, to remember its calling and mission as an alternative community living an alternative way of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ‘ (p. xiv). He repeatedly posits (pp. xvi, 6, 21, 35-6, 51, passim) his working definition of the Church:

    The church is that liberative and redemptive
    community of persons
    called into being
    by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
    through the Holy Spirit
    to witness in word and deed
    to the living triune God
    for the benefit of the world
    to the glory of God.

    Jones, a confessing pacifist ‘with many questions about how to be a pacifist’ (p. xxiv), contends that wherever Jesus’ body lives in the world, there the Church is properly a political entity with a distinct theology and ethic, and whose political witness is never for itself but is for the benefit of the world. Thus with definition above before him, Jones, in the tradition of that prisoner on Patmos, pens ‘A letter to the Churches After 9/11′ in which he reminds the church that it is ‘not called into existence by the American way of life, not called into existence in order to punish evildoers, not called into existence to endorse any given political regime, and not called into existence to protect Christians and wreak vengeance on nonchristians. But it does exist for the “benefit of the world,” though not on the world’s own terms regarding what it finds beneficial as an endorsement of the way it prefers to live’. When the Church, either ecumenically or as a particular congregation, is unclear about how to answer the key questions of its own identity ‘then its life will be a miasma of disarray and confusion’ (p. 6). Jones consistently names nationalism for the destructive and deceitful idol that it is, calling the Church to allegiance to its Lord alone, rather than serve two masters.

    Jones turns in the second, third and fourth essays to a reflection on the Church’s illiteracy wherein he argues that the Christian community whose ‘language of faith has too often become hallow and empty’ has become ‘illiterate’ and ‘uneducated’ (p. 11). The Church needs to recover its ‘distinctive language’ (p. xv), its own voice – or that of her Lord’s – lest it be repeatedly ‘overwhelmed and held hostage by the nation-state and its political discourses and practices’ (p. xxiv), and whose discourse and practice form a necessary purlieus for doing theology. The witnessing Church requires a literacy in the Gospel: ‘The Gospel is not willy-nilly whatever people choose it to be. It is not just any presumably good or comforting news. But to be able to hear well and to witness well, the church must incessantly cultivate an understanding of the Gospel and the light it throws on the world. Whenever the church has neglected this cultivation, this education, it has itself become a wandering nomad, bedeviled by the mirages of passing fancies and fads’ (p. 14). He calls for a recovery of the Church’s educational processes that accentuate learning the Gospel’s content and giving it intelligent expression for the world. This doing of theology is not a luxury (or responsibility) for a few but for all the people of God. That said, the Church also needs to recover, he argues, a sense of the pastor as teacher and theologian for the community, to equip the community of theologians for ek-static movement towards and in the world as witness to God’s loving life (see pp. 21-34).

    In the second of the three sections, ‘Theological Baselines for Doing Church Theology’, Jones explores, among other themes, notions of faith, soteriology, trinity, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. The essay on salvation (chapter 7) outlines the basis upon which believers have good reason to hope in an apokastasis panton. He argues that ‘the logic of a radical incarnation/atonement view centred in Jesus Christ moves resolutely to the final conclusion that all we be ultimately saved by God’s sovereign grace’ (p. 119). It is of little surprise, therefore, to read that Jones lists among his most significant influences and conversation partners, Karl Barth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

    Also, not a few of the essays betray Jones’ indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard and to that Dane’s insistence that ‘to be a Christian is to learn how to be a Christian’ (p. 51). This American nonconformist does not, however, share Kierkegaard’s despairing thoughts on the Church more generally, or the latter’s over-subjectivism. Instead, Jones persuasively posits that learning how to be a Christian ‘involves being a member of a community that has characteristic discourses and practices about the narrative of God’s grace’ (p. 67). Little doubt, if Kierkegaard had a different model of Church in mind when he made his bold criticisms, he would agree with Jones here. Jones’ collection includes two fine chapters on Kierkegaard: one on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on authority and revelation; the other on Kierkegaard as ‘Spy, Judge, and Friend’ in which he outlines the basic life, contributions and contours of Kierkegaard’s thought. He laments that while Kierkegaard ‘was one of the most influential intellectuals for the twentieth century’ today ‘I find few entering divinity students that can spell his name, fewer still who have read anything of his, fewer yet that have benefited from his friendship’. He describes Kierkegaard as ‘a Spy who will push you into inward places of hiddenness you are reluctant to explore, a Judge who will indict your vagaries of life with inescapable and relentless precision and vivacity, but finally a Friend who might spiritually edify you on the multifaceted journey of becoming a Christian‘ (p. 154). He proceeds:

    ‘With uncanny prescience, Kierkegaard knew he would someday be famous but feared and loathed the prospect that he would fall into the hands of the professors, who would analyze and reduce his life and writings to a thumbnail sketch or footnote, or even to a voluminous narrative, but would never realize that the whole of his literature was directed even to the professor as an existing person who still had to exist somehow. He criticized professors, philosophers, and theologians unmercifully for building grand mansions of theory and thought only to live their actual, existing lives in the barnyard, feeding daily out of the pig trough. The point here is this: intellectuals are given to the pursuit and development of thought, concepts, and ideas, and they can easily fool themselves into supposing that if they have thought the thought they have also lived the thought. No, says Kierkegaard; to live the thought means to have one’s living passions and decisions shaped by the thought. Intellectuals are inclined to forget the actual passions and concrete decisions that shape their daily living, and therefore are forgetful of their actual existing. Their theories cannot – of themselves – encompass and shape the theorist’s existential reality without decision and persistence in passions’ (p. 155).

    The final section is made up largely of pastoral prayers and some moving sermons, including those preached by Jones at ordination and funeral services.

    While few will be convinced of all Jones’ claims, this an engaging and at times provocative miscellany properly written with one eye on the Church (and not least his own Disciples of Christ denomination the focus on which, at times, gives the reader a sense that she is reading an in-house review) and one on God as both God and Church direct their engaging gaze to the world. The reader would have been better served with the inclusion of an index and a little more editing out of repetitious material. That said, this book will assist the Church to better understand, celebrate and practice the good and missional news of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times.

    The Great Word of Gospel

    ‘The great Word of Gospel is not God is love. That is too stationary, too little energetic. It produces a religion unable to cope with crises. But the Word is this—Love is omnipotent for ever because it is holy. That is the voice of Christ-raised from the midst of time, and its chaos, and its convulsions, yet coming from the depths of eternity, where the Son dwells in the bosom of the Father, the Son to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth because He overcame the world in a Cross holier than love itself, more tragic, more solemn, more dynamic than all earth’s wars. The key to history is the historic Christ above history and in command of it, and there is no other’. –– Peter T. Forsyth, The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy (London: Independent Press, 1957), 217–8.

    The Parable of the Engineers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Käsemann on the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    On Gospel, Historical Criticism and Faith

    ‘It is the Gospel that must save the Church and its beliefs; it is not the Church that can ever save the Gospel. The historic Gospel saved everything at the Reformation; it saved the Church from itself, and it must go on doing so. We must not come to the Gospel with the permission of the critics, we come to criticism in the power of the Gospel. Faith does not wait upon criticism, but it is an essential condition of it. The complete critic is not a mere inquirer, but a believer. It was to believers, not critics, that the things appealed which are criticised most today. Critical energy is only just and true when it is in the hands of a Church whose heart is full of evangelical faith. The passion of an apostolic missionary faith is an essential condition to a sound criticism and a safe; and by “sound” I don’t merely mean sound to the Confessions, I mean sound to the mind; and by “safe” I do not merely mean safe for the Church, but safe for the soul. I mean that faith in the Gospel, evangelical faith, is essential for that full complete view of the case upon which sound results are based; it is essential in order to be fair to all the facts. It must enter in, not to decide whether we shall expect proved results, but to decide the results which we are to count as proved. Faith is not only an asset which criticism must include in its audit, but it is an organ that criticism must use. The eye cannot say to the ear, “I have no need of thee.”‘ PT Forsyth, ‘An Allegory of the Resurrection’, Christian World Pulpit 61 (14 May 1902): 314.


    ‘Evangelicals are still much divided, it seems to me, on apologetic method. On the one hand, there is a strong theoretical tendency to a quasi-presuppositionalist or even a Bathian position. On the other hand, in action evangelical apologetics evince a practical evidentialism. Appeals to reason and proof are commonplace, despite a very strong account of the noetic effects of sin. One underlying source of the problem is that, in the world of thought, there has been a troublesome period of transition between the older forms of empiricism and positivism and the radical skepticism of the postmoderns about all knowledge. Christians have a confused epistemology: but then, so does everybody else. Sell’s book is an crudite discussion of the major issues for Christian apologetics in the twenty-first century. He offers the work as a ‘prolegomena to Christian apologetics’ (p. 353). In his first section he enquires as to what it is that Christians would like to commend, and distinguishes Christianity’s central piece of good news as ‘in Christ’s death and resurrection God has done for us that which we could never have done for ourselves’ (p. 35). He proposes that buth the confessors of this gospel and those whom they address share the imago dei, and hence an epistemological common ground. As for the presuppositions of Christian apologetics, Sell argues that it is possible to understand Christian language as speaking of God, and that the transcendent God is active to save in human hislory. He then searches for a starling point and proposes that, notwithstanding the necessity of beginning with Christ in the gospel, it is not necessary to be completely skeptical about the role of natural theology and religious experience. Sell calls his approach a ‘reasoned eclecticism’: that which starts ‘from the Cross-resurrection event, and then, having regard to the witnessing context, draws in appropriate ways upon the deliverances of human reasoning and experience, and offers a viable method of commending the faith in an intellectual environment’ (p. 354). This, he claims, renders the articulation of a Christian world-view possible. It is, I agree, a far more plausible approach than both a rigid evidentialism, which is dependent on a particular view of human reason, and the idiosyncratic presuppositionalisrn of the van Tilian school.’

    (Jensen, M. A Review of Confessing and Commending the Faith: Historic Witness and Apologetic Method, by Alan P. F. Sell. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002, in The Reformed Theological Review 64:2 (August, 2005), 96-97.)


    ‘Half-Gospels have no dignity, and no future. Like the famous mule, they have neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity. We must make it clear that Christianity faces the world with terms, and does not simply suffuse it with a glow; that it crucifies the world, and does not merely consecrate it; that it recreates and does not just soothe or cheer it; that it is life from the dead, and not simply bracing for the weak or comfort for the sad.’ Peter T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1947), 18.

    Forsyth on the Bible and authority

    Ben Myers, over at Faith and Theology, has posted a great post by Kim Fabricus on preaching. Well worth checking out. On a related note, here’s a list of points that Forsyth makes about the authority over (or source of) the Bible.

    1. There is something authoritative for the Bible itself.

    2. It is not something which comes up to it from without like the scientific methods of the Higher Criticism. To make that supreme would be rationalism.

    3. It is something which is in the Bible itself, provided by it, and provided nowhere else. We must go back to the Bible with modern scholarship to find what the Bible goes back to.

    4. It is not truths extracted from the Bible and guaranteed by prophecy and miracle. That is the antiquated supernaturalism with its doctrinaire orthodoxy.

    5. In a word, that is over the Bible which is over the Church and the Creeds. It is the Gospel of Grace, which produced Bible, Creed, and Church alike. And by the Gospel is meant primarily God’s act of pure Grace for men, and only secondarily the act of men witnessing it for God in a Bible or a Church.

    6. The Gospel was an experienced fact, a free, living, preached Word long before it was a fixed and written Word – as was the case also with the prophets.

    7. It is not enough to say the authority in the Bible is Christ unless you are clear whether you mean the character of Christ or His Gospel. All admit Christ’s character to be a product of God’s action; is the same true of Christ’s Gospel?

    8. To apply the Gospel of Grace as the standard of the Bible is to go higher than the Higher Criticism. It is the highest. The Gospel is not merely the final test of the Bible, but its supreme source; and the Bible is its humble vassal to be treated in any way that best obeys and serves it. The security of the Gospel gives us our critical freedom.

    9. The Bible is not merely a record of the revelation. It is part of it. It is more true that God’s great Word contains the Bible than that the Bible contains the Word. The Word in Christ needed exposition by the Bible. The Gospels find their only central interpretation in the Epistles.

    10. The Bible is not so much a document as a sacrament. It is not primarily a voucher for the historian but a preacher for the soul. The Christ of the Gospels even is not a biographical

    Christ, so much as a preached Christ. The Bible is not so much a record of Christ as a record and a part of the preaching about Christ, which was the work of the Spirit and the apostles. There is no real collision between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Epistles. The apostles, and especially Paul, moved by the heavenly Christ, form an essential part of Christ’s revelation of God’s grace.

    11. It was a theological Gospel, though not authoritative as dogma but as living, personal revelation. The Christian experience must cast itself more or less in the forms of its historic origin, and not merely in those of human relations and affections. E.g., Christian sonship is not natural, or even spiritual, but evangelical; it is the sonship of adoption. So conversely with the Fatherhood of God.

    12. This subordination of the Bible to the Gospel was the relation felt by Jesus Himself. He used His Bible for its Gospel, not for its information – as a means of grace, and not as a manual of Hebrew history. That is, He read His Bible as a whole. He commits us not to the whole Bible but to the Bible as a whole. The Bible is not a compendium of facts, historic or theological, but the channel of redeeming grace. Faith is something more than the historic sense dealing with documents. It is the moral and spiritual sense dealing with revelation as Redemption.

    13. The appeal of the Bible is not to the faith of the individual but to that of the whole Church, which is the other great product of the Gospel. My dullness or disbelief does not affect the witness of the saints, classic or common, in every Church and age.

    14. In the Church the Bible becomes more than a product of the Word. It is a producer of it in turn. It generates the faith that generated it. As the greatest of preachers it produces preachers. And it is at home only in a Church whose first duty to men is to preach.

    15. The detachment of faith from the Bible and from its daily use marks both Romanism and the religiosity of the modern mind.

    16. The disuse of the Bible by Christians is due to a vague sense of insecurity rising from critical work on it, and to the extravagant claims made for it which criticism prunes.

    17. The Christian creed has really but one article, great with all the rest. It is the Gospel of God’s redeeming Grace in Christ. The charter of the Church is not the Bible, but Redemption. Those words of Christ are prime revelation to us, and of first obligation, which carry home to us the redeeming grace incarnate in His person and mission.

    18. The Higher Criticism has been a great blessing, but it has gone too far alone, i.e., without final reference to the highest, the synthetic standard of the Bible – the Gospel of Grace. What we need, to give us the real historic contents of the Bible, is not a history of the Religion of Israel, but of Redemption – with all the light the Higher Criticism can shed on it, and much more that it cannot.

    19. Christianity will not stand or fall by its attitude to its documents, but by its attitude to its Gospel and to the soul.

    20. The Free Churches have yet to face the spiritual problem created for them by the collapse of an inerrant Bible and the failure of an authoritative Church. And the only key lies in the authority of that grace which called them into being as the true heirs of the Reformation, the trustees of the Evangelical tradition, and the chief witnesses of the Holy Spirit of our Redemption.

    (Taken from PT Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962): 67-70)

    Baptism – an Evangelical Sacrament Part 1

    Over the coming week, I propose to post some thoughts (in 7 sections) on baptism as an evangelical sacrament. I am reminded that in his lectures on Christology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a plea that we, in our theology, would give priority to the question of who over that of how, and that we will always seek to answer the latter in terms of the former. As we shall seek this is crucially important if we are to understand in what sense we can speak of baptism as an ‘evangelical sacrament’, as evangelium sacramentum.

    This is because the sacraments of the Gospel find their ultimate ground in the Incarnation and the vicarious obedience and death of Jesus Christ in the humanity which he took from us and sanctified in and through his self-offering to the Father. This means that they have to be understood in terms of the historical Jesus from his birth to his resurrection and ascension, for their content, reality and power are constituted not simply by the saving act of God upon us in Christ but by the act of God fulfilled in the vicarious humanity of Christ, as he was begotten of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate and resurrected from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This is to say that the primary mysterion or sacramentum is Jesus Christ himself, the incarnate reality of the Son of the Father who has incorporated himself into our humanity and assimilated the people of God, both Jews and Gentiles, into himself as his own Body, so that the sacraments have to be understood as concerned with our koinonia or participation in the mystery of Christ and his Church through the koinonia of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we can only understand baptism as we look through its rite in water, administered in the name of the Triune God, back to the corporate baptism of the Church at Pentecost which itself stands behind the baptism of every individual, and through that baptism in the Spirit back to the one vicarious baptism with which Christ was baptised, not only in water and the Spirit at the Jordan but also his baptism in blood on the Cross, and hold it in steady focus as the primary fact which gives baptism its meaning.

    Thus baptism is to be interpreted similarly to kerygma and yet not so much as to the actual act of proclamation itself, but rather as to what is proclaimed, namely, Jesus Christ himself. Similarly, baptism is to be understood as referring not simply to the baptising of someone in the name of Christ but to the baptism with which Jesus Christ himself was baptised as representative man, as the second, or last, Adam, from his birth to his resurrection, the one baptism which he continues to apply by his Spirit to us in our baptism into him, thereby making himself both its material content and its active agent. So we are baptised into that baptism which itself was Trinitarian.