Miroslav Volf

Holy Spirit in the World Today Conference talks

Most of the talks from the recent Holy Spirit in the World Today Conference, a two day conference jointly sponsored by St Paul’s Theological College and St Mellitus College, are now available for download:

Soup by the path …

  • James Macintyre on the Death of Anglicanism? Want more on this? Ruth Gledhill posts some informative links at Rome parks tanks on Rowan’s lawn
  • Kyle Strobel continues his series on Lash’s Theology on the Way to Emmaus: A Theology of History
  • Rick Floyd posts a great recipe on my favourite soup at When life gives you beets, make borscht!
  • A five-part interview with Miroslav Volf discussing ideas of forgiveness, memory, identity, religion and violence:
  • HegelAnd Peter Leithart reminds us why Hegel still rocks with some Hegel quotes on the Trinity from Anselm Min‘s article on ‘The Trinity and the Incarnation: Hegel and Classical Approaches’, The Journal of Religion 66, no. 2 (1986): 173–193:
    • ‘The three Persons are thus mutually internal in the unity and totality of the divine process, of which the Father is the originating principle, the Son the pluralizing, and the Spirit the reintegrating and unifying principle, and from which none could be separately considered. The distinction of Persons is thoroughly relative to the self-unifying totality of this divine process of which they are moments. This, however, must not be understood in modalistic fashion, in which the three Persons are merely manifestations of and thus subordinate to a more primordial divine nature or divine ground …’.
    • ‘The divine “nature” is not something that exists apart from the divine Persons and that somehow exercises control over them. It is an internal principle of the Persons in their concrete existence and as such not to be reified into an autonomous entity in its own right. The divine nature is precisely the nature of the Father and identical with him, by which he, not the nature, differentiates him-self from himself, returns to himself from that differentiation, and thus exists concretely as one God’.
    • And on the incarnation: ‘Creation is a function of God’s self-differentiation ad extra by virtue of his self-differentiation ad intra. The separation of the finite Other from the infinite is itself posited by God’s separation of himself from himself. By the same token the human need for reconciliation with God is simply the finite side of God’s need for reconciliation with himself through the mediation of the finite, a mediation not imposed on God from without but posited by God himself. The need for the Incarnation is first and foremost a necessity inherent in the immanent Trinity and only secondarily a human need. Hegel’s doctrine of creation and the Incarnation, in this sense, is thoroughly trinitarian’.

Things to read while eating your Saturday toast …

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.

‘We believe in the forgiveness of sins’

Whatever it means for the Church to confess ‘We believe in the forgiveness of sins’ at the same time as it professes belief in ‘life in the world to come’ can mean no less that that the life of the world to come is the life of restored relationships. One implication is, as Volf observes in his essay ‘The Final Reconciliation: Reflections on a Social Dimension of the Eschatological Transition’ (Modern Theology 16/1 (2000)), that ‘the not-loved-ones will have to be transformed into the loved ones and those who do not love will have to begin to do so; enemies will have to become friends … Without such transformation the world to come would not be a world of perfect love but just a repetition of a world in which, at best, the purest of loves falter and, at worst, cold indifference reigns and deadly hatreds easily flare up’ (pp. 91, 92). The weight of this cannot conceivably be carried by traditional notions of the last judgement alone, Volf notes, and would seem to require an ‘ontological novum that a comprehensive transformatio mundi represents’ (p. 92), reconciliation occurring as part of a broader eschatological transition.

Volf on social reconciliation

‘If Cain and Abel were to meet again in the world to come, what will need to have happened between them for Cain not to keep avoiding Abel’s look and for Abel not to want to get out of Cain’s way? … If the world to come is to be a world of love, then the eschatological transition from the present world to that world, which God will accomplish, must have an inter-human side; the work of the Spirit in the consummation includes not only the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment but also the final social reconciliation’. – Miroslav Volf, ‘The Final Reconciliation: Reflections on a Social Dimension of the Eschatological Transition’, Modern Theology 16, no. 1 (2000), 94.

On Forgiveness and Majesty

All human life is constituted by forgiveness. Such forgiveness is both costly and difficult – for both offerer and receiver. Costly, because the telos is not to be drawn into a situation of truce but reconciliation, trust and love. Difficult, because two estranged parties are moved from a place of dissatisfaction and what has often become a strange comfort of calloused survival towards a place of new vulnerability, raw tenderness and tentative hope.

‘If forgiveness lies in the memory of wrongs suffered’, writes Miroslav Volf in The End of Memory, ‘it must lie more in what we do with those memories than in the memories themselves. And what we do with our memories will depend on how we see ourselves in the present and how we project ourselves into the future’. I was reminded afresh today in this podcast of the value for human community of Volf’s theological reflections on remembering rightly, on forgiveness, and on truthfulness as a form of justice.

I was also reminded of those haunting words from Simon Wiesenthal’s pen in his significant essay, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness: It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future’ (pp. 267–8).

One, of course, cannot stop there; but must proceed to inquire after the fountain – or source, or justification itself – of such forgiveness. Such asking will bring us – even if it takes eternity to do it – face to face with the true nature of divine majesty which is neither material vastness nor the majesty of force, neither the majesty of mystery nor the majesty of thought. The true majesty of God is his mercy. The true majesty of God is that he did what we would never have done – he had mercy on all flesh. His greatness is not in his loftiness, but in his nearness. God is great not because he is above feeling, but because he feels as none of us can. The majesty of God is completely saturated through and through with his forgiving love, which comes out most of all in his treatment of sin … his treatment of those who would wish him dead.

On Bastard Philosophies, Stolen Generations, and the Forgiveness of Sins

Writing of Bacon, Locke and Scottish common sense philosophy (uncritically lumped together), Nevin writes: ‘The general character of this bastard philosophy is, that it affects to measure all things, both on earth and in heaven, by the categories of the common abstract understanding, as it stands related to simply to the world of time and sense’. – John W. Nevin, Human Freedom and a Plea for Philosophy: Two Essays (Mercersburg: P. A. Rice, 1850), 42. Cited in Alan P. F. Sell, Testimony and Tradition: Studies in Reformed and Dissenting Thought (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 173.

This leads me to draw attention to a recent reflection by Aussie theologian, Frank Rees, on what it means for the new democratically-elected Australian government to say sorry for past and not-so-past sins, and why ‘sorry is not the hardest word: indeed, it will be a word of life’. Frank’s post is a timely reminder of how ‘bastard philosophies’ don’t bring life, but only death; in this case that death bred of fear, misunderstanding (of the issues, of people, and of the gospel itself) and mistrust, the wounds of which will probably take decades, if not centuries, to heal.

In a related post, Rory suggests that the apology to Australia’s stolen generation should be made on our behalf by the Governor General rather than by the Prime Minister. He writes: ‘He is the head of government in Australia, and he holds a position that is above party politics. Whatever you think about the virtues or otherwise of the current government, surely addressing this part of our history is bigger than who won the last election. I can only think that an apology coming from the GG would better speak for the nation, and it would allow the apology to loose itself from any particular party’.

I think I like this (Are there any good reasons – constitutional or otherwise – for why this cannot, or should not, happen?). But regardless of from whose vicarious lips the apology comes, one hopes that it may also model and encourage the way of life and a softening of heart (and a less bastardly-informed philosophy) for other people, governments and organisations. One hopes … [I confess to having no such confidence in human nature of itself to bring about such a change of heart. This too must be a work of the Spirit].

Frank’s and Rory’s posts reminded me of Stevan Weine’s book, When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a volume which includes some powerful documentary of those closely affected by the tragedies attending the recent conflict in the Balkans. One such testimony witnesses:

I remember Bosnia as a beautiful and peaceful country. We all lived together. Before the war, it was unnecessary to know if your neighbor was Serb, Croat, Muslim or Jew. We looked only at what kind of person you were. We were all friends. But now I think it is like a kind of earthquake. A huge catastrophe. After this war nothing will be the same. People will live, but I think they will not live together. they will not share the same bread like before. Maybe they will be neighbors, but I think the close relationship will not exist any more. Because the Bosnian people, especially the Muslim people, had a bad experience, partly as a result of our attitude. (p. 13)

In his brilliant treatment on forgiveness, The Cleansing of the Memories, Geoffrey Bingham reminds us that ‘memory has always been a problem with mankind. It may seem a curious thing that man can be troubled by his past, as also delighted by it. Some memories bring a renewal of shock and trauma when they come unbidden’. Bingham proceeds to speak of ‘God’s holy amnesia’, of ‘the Divine forgetfulness’ or ‘the Divine non–remembering’. ‘God refuses to remember our sins! If then God refuses to remember our sins, why should we choose remember them?’ While our consciences never let anyone off the hook, Bingham writes, ‘God–through Christ–has so purged our sins, that they have been worked out to exhaustion and extinction, and all their power of guilt, penalty and pollution has been erased. In other words there are–effectively –no sins to remember! God has not simply ignored our sins. He has destroyed them, forever! … Of course–from time to time–we will remember the sins we once did, but we must not make them back into substantial things. God has denuded them of substance, of guilt, power and pollution. If they come to us in memory, then in faith in the Cross we should say, ‘Whilst you represent the sins I committed, you have no substance. God has emptied you, purified you, and taken away the guilt which accompanied you. You are wraiths, ghosts of the past come back to haunt me via the accusations of Satan and his hosts, but you have no substance’. [See The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf, and my post here on Redeeming Bitterness – An Interview with Miroslav Volf].

I have just finished reading Wilhelm Herrmann’s Systematic Theology (Dogmatik), which I recommend. At one point, he notes that ‘It is the realization of the impossibility of friendship with God that creates in us the religious consciousness of guilt. Obviously we cannot be quit of this burden of guilt by any effort for our own betterment; for the sense of guilt before God will paralyse our courage to start a new life’. To all who have tried to be quit of the burden of guilt by their own efforts, Herrmann’s words sound out as a prophetic rebuke and caution against the futility and arrogance of such resolve. This is one of the reasons why in the final chapter of his The Wondrous Cross (reviewed here), Steve Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. He writes:

Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ.

In a recent paper I heard, Alan Torrance bore witness to the truth that it is only by virtue of Christ’s vicarious humanity that we discover the two forms of liberation that are intrinsic to atonement: first, liberation as victimisers for our sin of victimisation; and second, liberation as victims from the bitterness and hatred that attend the sense of irreversible injustice, the hurt of damaged lives, irretrievably lost opportunities, and all the other evils that result from sin. There is liberation here, he said, because precisely at the point where we cannot forgive our enemies the Gospel suggests that our sole representative, the sole priest of our confession, does what we cannot do – he stands in and forgives our victimisers for us and in our place as the One on behalf of the many – and then invites us to participate in the very forgiveness he has realised vicariously on our behalf. On these grounds we are not only permitted to forgive but obliged and indeed commanded to forgive others. Alan said, ‘Where we are not entitled to forgive, the crucified Rabbi is. And where we are unable to forgive, we are given to participate in his once-and-for-all forgiveness and to live our lives in that light and from that centre – not least in the political realm’. He cited his dad (JB Torrance), who defined worship as ‘the gift of participating by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father’. The consequence of any ethic, therefore, that warrants the name ‘Christian’ must be conceived in parallel terms, namely as the gift of participating by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. ‘Forgiveness’, Alan stressed, ‘is the gift of participating in a triune event of forgiveness. In an act of forgiveness, the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives as God but also, by the Spirit, as the eschatos Adam on behalf of humanity. The mandate to forgive must be understood in this light.’

The ‘apology’ that will be made when the federal government next sits is ultimately possible because in Christ, God has already confessed humanity’s sins and forgiven all parties. To say ‘sorry’ is to take up Christ’s invitation to us to ‘participate in that forgiveness that he has realised vicariously on our behalf’. It is, as Alan presses, to participate in a triune event of forgiveness in which the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives. And, it is to participate by the Spirit, in the action of the last Adam on behalf of humanity, to the joy of the Father. Whether or not the Australian Government (or Governor-General), those of the Stolen Generation (and their families/nations), and all Aussies (even Faris QC) know that this is what it means to say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Receive the forgiveness of sins’ does not undermine the reality that the very human actions of confession and forgiveness are at the heart of what it means to be imago dei, and to participate in the ministry of the Triune God in our maimed and besmirched world.

‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14).

‘See to it’, therefore, ‘that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him’. (Col 2:8-15)

Redeeming Bitterness – An Interview with Miroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, recently published The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. As Volf calls Christians to remember with redemptive purpose, he recounts his personal struggle to cope with memories of interrogations by Communist officials in his native Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia.

What makes memory an especially urgent theological topic?

Part of the interest in memory is because we live in such a fast-paced culture, in which we have a hard time remembering what’s transpired only a few days or a month ago. We’re glued to this ever-shifting and changing present, so we feel that memory is slipping away from us. We want to hold onto memories, because we rightly believe that part of our identity is what we remember about ourselves and our interactions with others. Part of our identity as a nation depends on what has happened to us in the past.

Why is this topic especially important to you?
Much of the conflict in the world, whether between individuals or between communities, is fueled by memory of what has happened in the past. So on the one hand, we have to remember to preserve our identity. We have to remember in order not to allow similar violations in the future.

Yet when we remember, our memory is not innocent in our hands. I use the term “shield of memory.” But so quickly, the shield mutates into a sword. Memory played a significant role in the recent conflict in my native Croatia. My interest was to find ways in which we can prevent memory from mutating from a shield into a sword—indeed, finding ways in which memory can become a means of reconciliation. That’s why I’m interested not just in memory, but in remembering rightly.

The book is both theological and personal—why?
The narrative backbone of the book is my interrogations by the secret service of Yugoslavia and the Communist army. Immense suspicion arose from the sheer facts that I was a theologian, I studied abroad, and I was married to an American. They had to find out whether I was a subversive element. I narrate the story of my interrogations and my relationships with my interrogators in order to illustrate what memory does to us, how we can deal with memory, and what the light of Christ’s truth and Christ’s person can do to help us remember and reconcile in healing ways.

What is the biblical purpose of remembering?
God’s purpose with humanity as a whole is reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another in a new heaven and new earth. Given that we have sinned, reconciliation is what needs to happen to get us there. That’s also the goal of remembering rightly. Memory ought to serve that grand vision of reconciliation God is working to create—as Jonathan Edwards has said, the “world of perfect love,” love of God and love of neighbor.

What is Christianity’s unique contribution to remembering rightly?
To remember rightly we need to put on certain glasses. We put on glasses of the memory of the Exodus of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Christians in particular remember the death and the resurrection of Christ. The apostle Paul says one has died for all. Now what does that mean for the wrong that a person has done to me?

Well, I have to remember it as a wrong of a person for whom Christ has died, even if that person isn’t receiving that redemption personally. Then I look at myself. Christ died for my sins, too. I can’t remember transgression against me as one who is purely innocent. It’s not as if I stand in the light and the other person [stands] in the darkness, and he or she has to do all the changing, while I bask in my self-righteousness.

So Christ’s death frames my remembering and reminds me of my own sinfulness and of the love of God toward a person who has injured me.

How do we remember without getting bitter?
In the present discussion about memory, we tend to emphasize remembering what has happened to us, what others have done to us, or if we are more virtuous, what we have done to others. But it’s not about our actions and our sufferings. Now, I don’t want to disregard our deeds and our sufferings, but in Exodus, the Israelites didn’t just remember what they had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. That was the backdrop to remember what God did for them. It’s a hopeful memory of liberation, a memory of salvation. If you emulate that, then you can remember rightly.

How might right remembering affect church practice?
We have a ritual of remembrance, the Lord’s Supper. We break bread and remember Christ’s broken body. We drink from the cup and remember Christ’s suffering and his spilled blood. If we remember Christ’s suffering rightly, that liturgical act also can serve as a means of fostering reconciliation. I will celebrate the Lord’s Supper by remembering myself as a sinner and not as a saint. I will celebrate the Lord’s Supper by remembering my enemy not as this despicable person who has to be thrown into the pit of darkness, but as one for whom Christ has shed his blood. Therefore, I will be taken up into this action of Christ and hopefully emulate Christ in how I remember and treat the other person.

When can we forget the wrongs committed against us?
In a sense, forgetting is given to us as the gift of a healed relationship. It’s a gift of the new world, which God gives us. Then we can not remember. And then our experience is like a person who is sitting in a concert hall and listening to a wonderful piece of music. Even though just two hours ago she was experiencing hell at her job, she’s taken up into that music. It’s not that she tried to forget so that she could be in the music; it’s that the music took her out of the remembrance of the past. God gives us the gift of a healed self, healed relationships, and a reconstituted world, and then we can not remember.

This is taken from an interview by Christianity Today associate editor Collin Hansen posted here.