Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

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New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

We are not the New Testament church, and we aren’t supposed to be

I’ve been awol from the blog this past month, moving house, celebrating the holidays with a huge swath of family, and hunting deer (thank you, my sons, for killing four – the freezer is full!) Now I’m back. Let’s talk theology.

Our job is not to re-create the New Testament church. To do so would be to attempt to recreate the Hellentistic Jewish or Greco-Roman culture of first century Palestine/ Eurasia… which is precisely what the New Testament church chose NOT to do. James’ leadership to the Jerusalem church regarding the cultural practices of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem was precisely not “recreate us” – it was to allow the Gentile churches to evolve within their cultures, not try to recreate the culture of the Jerusalem church.

So when folks often crank up conversations about whether or not a church practice is “biblical,” what you often find when you peel back the layers, is that they are actually talking about if the NT church actually practiced this or that. That’s utterly beside the point. Of course they didn’t drink coffee in foyers – they had neither coffee nor foyers, (but as soon as Christians discovered both, they latched on!) – they were busy eating communal meals in each others’ homes and selling their landed property to provide for the poor.

Their era was not our era, their context was not our context, their issues were not our issues. (Few people in North America are wondering if they should participate in ancestor worship or give homage sacrifice to the Emperor or figure out the relationship of Christian slaves to Christian masters who worship side by side as brothers in Christ). Their practices were a reflection of the era they lived in. Our task is not to recreate a theme park of first century Jewish or Galatian (et al) religious practices that Christians utilized. These were all drenched in their own culture’s practices so as to make sense of their worship of God.

So one church gets accused of not being Bible-believing for not using the term “born again” while another gets accused because they don’t speak in tongues meanwhile the other church is accused of because they do speak in tongues, while another is on the hook because they ordain women. This is all beside the point. I don’t know if I’ve heard of a church that was literally not Bible-believing. (It almost always translates that the other church doesn’t place as much directive value on, or interpret that particular VERSE, the way my church does!) It’s that we have different cultural practices in our worship, just like Ephesus differed from Antioch. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, the diversity is good – it allows people from diverse cultural backgrounds to choose a church that makes sense to them and nurtures their relationship with God. The Jerusalem elders’ letter to the Gentile churches in Acts is clear: we do not need to all practice church culturally the same.

What matters is that our practices –and God help us: our mission! – are theologically in tune with Jesus. You can do that a zillion different ways (and Christians do, all around the world) and the issue is not whether you light candles when you do it, for goodness sake. Whether it’s a “biblical” practice or not is NOT the question (the New Testament didn’t sacrifice bulls on altars anymore – a quintessential “biblical” practice!) The question is: is this practice utilized in such a way to bring glory to God, to advance His work in the world, to carry on the mission of Jesus in ways that God’s Spirit works through. To make it about whether a particular practice has historical or Scriptural precedent, is simply to fall into the argument going on within fundamentalist Islam today. And that’s not our schtick.

Ours… is (faith, hope, and) love.

What have we been told about Pelagius?

My last five posts have been about the Augustinian iteration of Original Sin in Western Christianity and questions surrounding its usefulness in the postmodern world. During the same time, I was perusing a book called Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community, Ireland and to my surprise came upon this write-up about Pelagius, Augustine’s adversary on this subject. I am going to quote it in its entirety. When I was in seminary the ultimate trump-card in a dispute was to call someone ‘Pelagian.’ Once you did that, you won. But is it possible our take on Pelagius has been a bit truncated in the Augustinian-drenched theology we’ve been handed? Is it possible Christian theology needs a better, more fully Biblical doctrine of humanity than the version of Original Sin Augustine taught?

“Pelagius (c.350-418) August 28.   We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian teaching today!

Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer and soul-friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first – even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul-friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’

But soon he was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur.

Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy – on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, and declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 they persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church then was obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgement, and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.

Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view-point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!”*

There are quite a bit of things we could say about all this, concerning the affect of politics, cultural prejudice and personal dislike swirling around this debate between two early theologians. But I will limit myself to saying: we are 15 centuries out from Augustine. Do we really want to allow this one man to dictate directions in Western theology simply because he held sway in majority positions and the Protestant Reformers liked him?

*(Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. HarperOne: 2002. Northumbria Communty Trust Ltd.)

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin

I was going to post a three part series on International Development and Guns: Economics, Violence, and Governance – but I seem to have lost it in my computer somewhere. So let’s talk about Original Sin.

We all prioritize some texts over others in Scripture. Everyone does this, all traditions. I’ve never known any Christian who gave as much weight to the chapters of mildew laws in Leviticus as they do to John chapter 3 or Romans chapters 5-8. When we sideline or ignore substantial passages in order to protect a particular rendition of a doctrine, (what in economics is called an ‘externality’), we end up charge-able with cherry picking our way through the Bible.

Something Christians have always done for 20 centuries is re-work doctrines when it becomes evident that the cherry-picking simply can’t be sustained. Whatever stimulates it in the discoveries or politics of the day, things get to the point where the old iteration of that doctrine can’t stand the weight of the externalities it can’t explain, and Christians go to work again on that doctrine. It seems pretty evident to me that our Augustinian version of “Original Sin” is in need of some serious re-think if a doctrine describing human depravity is going to make much sense to postmodern people. Saying that  everyone should be sent to hell for being born with a condition they had no control over, won’t stand up to moral scrutinizing today. And my problem with Augustine’s version is not that it’s old. I’m all for Paleo-Orthodoxy. Considering how many other doctrines have come under serious re-work, I’m surprised this version of OS (“Original Sin”) survived the Reformation seemingly unscathed.

So my 22 year old son started a facebook discussion due to something he posted from a theology class he’s in at college. I slid into it and it evolved into a detailed discussion concerning what is on the chopping block when it comes to OS. Here’s the quote that started it all off:

“Recent research in molecular biology, primatology, sociobiology, and phylogenetics indicates that the species Homo sapiens cannot be traced back to a single pair of individuals, and that the earliest human beings did not come on the scene in anything like paradisal physical or moral conditions. It is therefore difficult to read Genesis 1–3 as a factual account of human origins. In current Christian thinking about Adam and Eve, several scenarios are on offer. The most compelling one regards Adam and Eve as strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.”- Daniel Harlow “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an age of Evolutionary science.”

I’ll pick up from there next time.

Emerging Churches believe the modern church’s evangelistic success is declining

Over a decade ago, a new kind of church began appearing that was, in many respects, very different than other churches on the landscape. As a catch-all term, I will use the word ’emerging’ to describe them, since they often identified with that term for several years.

Emerging churches observe that the church in the modern era, while it accomplished many wonderful things, has gradually become less and less effective at drawing people in our changing culture to life-changing experiences with Jesus.

Postmodern Christians realize that the cultural matrix that modern churches developed in – has changed dramatically.They believe that, in order to communicate the gospel effectively to a culture that no longer knows it by heart, we need to apply the insights learned by missionaries in other cultures about contextualization. They also believe that failure to do so is one of the chief reasons behind why the modern church’s evangelistic success has been waning.

Dan Kimball says it like this in his excellent book The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations “While many of us have been preparing sermons and keeping busy with the internal affairs of our churches, something alarming has been happening on the outside. What was once a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post-Christian, unchurched, unreached nation…. the fifth largest mission field in the world.” (The Emerging Church, 13-14).

A member of a super-modern church said to me “People who visit church already know what we’re about and what we believe.” I contend nothing could be further from accurate.  Emerging churches realize that the people in our culture do not already know the Bible’s characters nor themes. Doubt it? Remember The Tonight Show’s clips on the streets of New York asking basic bible questions like “Who was bigger, David or Goliath” or “Name one of the 12 disciples”. Or, consider the much-told story of the two young women at a jewelry counter. Do you know that story? They are looking at cross necklaces. One girl says to the other “Are you going to get a cross with the little man on it, or one without the little man?” The other girl responds “What’s with the little man? Why would someone want a little man on their cross?” Emerging churches understand that postmodern people may think ‘Trinity’ refers to Neo’s girlfriend in The Matrix. 

Kimball has said “We start in the middle of a story that they don’t know or that they know very little about mainly through negative experiences. We offer them escape from a peril they don’t know they face, and we use words that either aren’t part of their vocabulary or that they don’t correctly understand.” (Kimball, The Emerging Church, 172).

I start with this point, because it informs so much of what has created the raison d’etre    for emerging churches. Members of emerging churches want the message of Jesus effectively getting to our culture. I stand squarely in the middle of historic and evangelical Christianity in affirming them in this desire.

So, modern church, what’s all that mean? It means this: It’s time we apply missionary science 101 in postmodern culture.

What’s good about this? What’s wonderful about knowing the church is not doing so great in evangelism? Simply this: waking up and smelling the reality is essential to dealing with reality. The first step in addressing an issue, is knowing there is one. Remember the men of the tribe of Issachar:  “…who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”   (1 Chronicles 12: 32).

 

A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.