The Practical and Theological Litmus Test

I have a theological litmus test for any action, whether it is a decision by a church, a development initiative by a NGO, interaction between adherents of different world religions, economic theory, or just about anything else.

And this is it: does the action contribute to human thriving?

I think this covers it.

Throughout Scripture the issue keeps coming back to the Creator’s desire for His creation to thrive. While we have tended to read the (selected) texts since the Reformation to be simply about a contractual agreement to escape punishment for sin, the Scriptures continually draw our attention back to the Creator’s desire for shalom for His world.

The problem in Noah’s generation that brings on the apocalyptic flood?  Human thriving cut off by violence across the earth.

God’s continual concern with the welfare of the unempowered throughout the Torah, the writings  and the prophets; Jesus’ hometown self-definition in Luke 4 (18-21);his ministry of healing the sick; his contention that he came to bring abundant life; Paul’s confidence that in the Son all things are reconciled in heaven and on earth and all things hold together in him – all of these are about God’s desire for His Creation and image-bearers to experience wholeness and well-being.

Recall Irenaeus’ contention that the glory of God is man fully alive.

If for each theological direction we take, each decision we render on an action, be it church or community, this litmus test brings us to the crux: does it advance human and creational thriving?  This cuts past culturally-tied issues in Scripture which no longer obtain, it frees us from a legalism that always devolves into dysfunction, it breaks out of adventures in missing the point that accumulate around nit-picking Scripture battles and brings us to the central question What does God want in His world? We need a litmus test that engages that exact question, and I believe this one does.

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Holiness

Sometimes a word has been firebombed so hard by mis-usage, I wonder if it can even be re-habilitated for usefulness without waiting a generation. I have often wondered this about the word ‘holiness.’ The Church of the Nazarene in the U.S. has wrestled for all of its history with the annoyance that when you define holiness with specific do’s and don’ts, these are tied to specific time-and-culture variations, and so when those two things change, the rules you set up often look petty and/or legalistic. (I don’t’ think all rules are bad, I’d love us to keep some – how about the Ten Commandments for starters!)

When the robust, powerful biblical word ‘holiness’ then gets defined with a strong attraction to specific rules that look largely legalistic to many of your own people, we lose the good things that word can bring to us.

So I was happy when I saw a couple of chapter titles in a recently published book put out by Nazarene Publishing House. One is by Tim Green and called Shalom: The End of Holiness and another is Thy Kingdom Come: Holiness and The New Creation by Carl Leth. Both of these titles make me happy, as I think wholeness, shalom, and God’s intention for humanity are three of our best images for defining holiness.

The book is called The Heart of Holiness: Compassion and the Holy Life.

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.

 

God describes Levi

In Malachi 2: 4-6, God says this about the ancient Israelite Levi:

4  I am telling you this, so I can continue to keep my agreement with your ancestor Levi. 5 I blessed him with a full life, as I had promised, and he kept his part of the agreement by honoring me and respecting my name. 6 He taught the truth and never told lies, and he led a lot of people to turn from sin, because he obeyed me and lived right

Not a bad description, short and succinct, of the kind of life to aim for.