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A Wesleyan Searches the Solas: A Review of Biblical Authority After Babel

Much like Leithart’s The End of Protestantism, I leave Kevin Vanhoozer’s new work Biblical Authority After Babel wondering if Methodists make bad Protestants.  Vanhoozer’s tome is well written, meticulously researched, but it will ultimately be most convincing to those already enamored with Luther and Calvin.  Like Leithart’s Reformed Catholicism (I prefer “Roman Calvinism”), Vanhoozer invents a “Mere Protestant” species in which I, as an orthodox United Methodist with Anglican leanings who was never taught to be enamored with the solas, cannot see myself.  That said, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work is still worth a read.

In many ways, this book is a work of Protestant apologetics; that is, it is not defending Christian faith in general, but rather Protestantism (in the form of the 5 classic solas) against Catholic (but, sadly, not Orthodox) broadsides.  Vanhoozer is sensitive to claims (many of which, he rightly notes, are overblown) that Luther and Calvin opened a Pandora’s Box that ultimately made something like small-c catholic consensus impossible.  He names the driving questions thus: “Should the church repent or retrieve this dangerous Protestant idea? Can the Protestant principle sola scriptura ever produce consensus, or is the result always chaos?[…]Did the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, and, if so, should Christians everywhere file a class-action suit?” (9)  To help answer these questions and defend “Mere Protestantism,” he offers “the solas as seeds for a perennial reformation of the church.” (33)

While I remain unconvinced of Vanhoozer’s overall argument, there is a lot of meat on these bones that is worth pondering, even if one has doubts about his thesis.  This description of the Bible, for instance, is just pure gold: “Scripture is essentially a narrative account of God’s gracious self-communicative activity in the histories of Israel and Jesus Christ whereby the Father adopts a people by uniting them to his Son through his Spirit.” (62)  I also appreciate his definition of systematic theology: “simply the requirement to think biblical things through and to make sure that what one thinks about different biblical themes coheres.” (125)

There are times that Vanhoozer lapses into more Romish sentiments than he would wish.  Thus, in the chapter on “faith alone,” he asks how this “compensate[s] for the loss of external authority (the church magisterium) in biblical interpretation?” (72)  But surely the very solas which form the spine of his entire argument function as a kind of (Mere) Protestant magisterium? His defenders might claim that the solas are merely natural extrapolations of Scripture – but then, Catholics would say the same about the papacy or transubstantiation.

Speaking of Catholics, Vanhoozer leaves many of these centuries-old debates underdeveloped.  There is, of course, a rich literature from the Catholic counter-reformation and a long dialogue with Rome down through the years, and yet on the whole the reader does not get the sense that Vanhoozer is not interested in presenting the opposing view in a sympathetic light, but merely restating the oldest of the Reformers’ arguments.  In this vein, he quotes Ramm’s contention that “the Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete,” which uncritically presumes a Protestant hermeneutic – sans magisterium or catechism.  This, additionally, is the inverse of the caricature that Vanhoozer is so committed to fighting.    For surely we might just as easily say “the Bible treated literally” or “the Bible treated independent of other sources” becomes putty in the exegete’s hand?

The chapter I find most lacking explores sola scriptura.  Vanhoozer here sounds like theologians who collapse all of soteriology into justification, or all of the atonement into subsitutionary, in that he seeks to make “sola scriptura” a catch-all category for a nuanced, broad “Mere” Protestant hermeneutic.  He comes dangerous close to spouting alternative facts when he sums up his view: “it is not that Scripture is alone in the sense that it is the sole source of theology”; rather, “Scripture ‘alone’ is the primary or supreme authority in theology.” (111)  I was taught sola fide for a decade by Southern Baptists who revered Luther, and I promise that for them, “alone” meant just that – not primary.  Primary, in fact, is the language that United Methodists use when describing our unique take on the Anglican three-legged stool unfortunately named the “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral.  It is simply not possible that Sola Scriptura means Lutheran and Calvinist “Mere” Protestants have the same view of Scripture as Anglicans and Wesleyans, which would have to be true if Vanhoozer’s reading is correct.  Methinks the author has stretched the bounds of this particular definition; I’m not a perfect husband but I know that there is a significant difference in saying I love my wife “alone” and that I love my wife just more than other women.  Sola and prima are simply different concepts, and they get conflated by Vanhoozer (and I am unconvinced by his solo/sola distinction).

This is an important work for a particular tribe of Protestants, but alas, not mine.  As an ecclesial descendant of the Anglican via media, Vanhoozer’s thesis is simply too Protestant for this presbyter.  This would’ve been a stronger argument had it included more attempts to narrate Catholic beliefs from a Catholic position, and if it had referenced the East.  Many of Protestantism’s critiques of Rome are shared by the East, and yet the East comes to vastly different conclusions – and has done so for twice the life span of Protestantism.  Sadly, the East is wholly lacking here, including in places where it would have been quite helpful (for instance, on the nature of catholicity and the role of the Pope).

Vanhoozer even manages to offend my delicate Duke sensibilities, referring  to the Yale School of Frei and Lindbeck rather brusquely to the “postliberal cultural-linguistic bandwagon.”  I’m not sure what mainline seminaries Vanhoozer has been spending time in, but if postliberalism is a bandwagon, we will need to invent new terms for extreme popularity to describe how existentialist, liberation, process, and contextual theologies reign practically unchallenged in most denominational schools of theology.

Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s new work will make you think and is worth the time to read.  Even when less than convincing, there is more than enough solid content to keep you interested along the way – even if you are a Wesleyan, like me, whose Protestantism is almost wholly lacking in this account of Protestantism’s view of Scripture as found in the solas.

A Final Note: This work is riddled with side comments that are intended to be humorous but which this reviewer found tedious and irksome.  For instance, “And the evening and the morning were the first day of the hermeneutics of suspicion,” (88) and, “For those who swim in Fish’s school…” (22), or, “…in the Father’s household there are many Protestant mansions…” (103). Additionally, an editor should have caught his reference to Trinitarian relations as “eternal intercourse.” (52)  This is, to say the least, a highly unfortunate turn of phrase.

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William Placher on “Critical Retrieval” in Theology

placher retrievalWhat if there were a way to call on the best resources of the past while avoiding naïveté about their faults and simplistic rejection of all that came later? Enter the task called “critical retrieval.”

In his wonderful tome The Domestication of Transcendence, the late William Placher of Wabash College describes the task this way:

To say this – or to make any other criticism of some turn modernity took – is not to propose a simple return to the premodern. We could not go back to that world if we wanted to, and we would not want to if we could. It was a world of terrible injustice and violence, and some aspects of its theology both reflected and even contributed to these horrors. Christian theologians supported oppressive social structures and all sorts of bigotry; the male bias of the tradition is only one of its most obvious faults. if contemporary theology engages in critical retrievals of insights from premodern theology, then the retrievals must indeed always be critical, keeping in mind that what we retrieve was often embedded in contexts we can no longer accept. To engage in such critical retrievals while acknowledging our debts to modernity is to synthesize something new. As already noted, I am not much interested in whether the results should be labelled postmodernism. What matters is that we find, from whatever sources, ways of speaking about God as faithfully and truthfully as we can. (2)

What might such a ‘critical retrieval’ look like in practice?

The example that comes immediately to my mind is culled from David Steinmetz’s brilliant article “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” one of the most famous of the late Reformation scholar’s works.  He argues, among other points, that the medieval and patristic four-fold sense of Scripture offers more accurate and fruitful exegetical possibilities than the regnant historical-critical method of the 19th-20th century:

His bombshell of an article concludes:

The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.

While asserting the superiority of pre-critical methods, Steinmetz neither denies the usefulness of higher criticism nor desires a simple recovery of 8th century techniques.  This is the essence of ‘critical retrieval,’ reclaiming the best of the past while staying in touch with the insights of the present.  One party at Vatican II, that great Catholic council, was getting at something similar when they encouraged ressourcement, a return to the sources (particularly of the Patristic period).  Wesleyan theology of the last 50 years has been marked by a similar retrieval of Wesley and early Methodism after fruitless detours down avenues like Boston personalism and process theology.

But this is not a longing for the past or a kind of immature nostalgia. On Placher’s reading, critical retrieval acknowledges both the virtues of the present age and the vices of past, while seeking to bring once more to the forefront of the church the greatest gifts from her bygone eras.

And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ (Matthew 13:52, NRSV)

What are some other examples of critical retrieval? What ideas or practices ought we to retrieve today?

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Jesus Was a Refugee From Terrorism

by Drew 5 Comments

Jesus was a refugee from state-sponsored terrorism in Egypt.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

That rings more sharply than I intend. The “Jesus was ____” move is sometimes overplayed and unhelpful (and often not really about Jesus). But in this case, it is simply a fact, not a rhetorical ploy. This insight comes to us straight from Scripture, from the savior’s own story: Jesus and his family found refuge in Egypt:

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
-Matthew 2:13-15 (CEB)

There is a plague of fear in our culture. It is not of God, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and because we are commanded everywhere and always to care for the well-being of others as much or more than our own. This anti-gospel is everywhere. Most of us, though, can’t see it. Like fish swimming in the ocean, we don’t know we are in water.

Everywhere in the Bible, when God appears, the first word is, “Do not be afraid.” Everywhere in our world we are told, “Be afraid, be very afraid, and especially be afraid of ____.” In this case, it is refugees (which is really just an extension of the fear of immigrants as a whole, which itself is just the good ol’ fear of difference that easily morphs into hatred and prejudice).

We have been down this God-forsaking road before. In 1939, the US refused entry to nearly 1000 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Some found refuge in Europe, many later died in the demonic machinery of the Holocaust:

In a highly publicized event in May–June 1939, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis. The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to most of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States. Denied permission to land in the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust. 288 passengers found refuge in Britain. Of the 620 who returned to the continent, 366 (just over 59 percent) are known to have survived the war.

The Good Samaritan was so-named because he helped the man on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, while the good religious people walked on by.

love syriansGod help me – and I mean that literally, because I am not yet perfect – I’d rather be a Good Samaritan than a pious man passing by who is indifferent to suffering out of fear or caution.

Christians are not allowed the luxury of living based on worst-case scenarios and calculations of how many of a given group might wish us harm.

We are called to a holy foolishness that welcomes the stranger in trust and in hope that we may be welcoming an angel unawares. (Heb. 13:2) It was not that long ago that we turned away Jewish refugees from Germany. It is always easier to fear the stranger than it is to welcome them, just as the mire of sin is always more easy and natural than the graced road of sanctification.

American Christians, left and right, are almost to a person slaves to culture; sometimes that culture is all permissiveness and “tolerance,” so-called, and other times it is obsessed with building walls and circling the wagons. By and large Christians reflect these trends rather than offering a gospel-conditioned critique from what is supposed to be an alternative community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, we tend to be thermometers and not thermostats.survey 1938

But Jesus was a refugee, fleeing slaughter in the town of his birth with his family. To reject refugees in our communities and churches now, is nothing less than rejecting Jesus.

As strangers to the world and her ways, Christians should always have a bias towards loving and welcoming the strangers in our midst. This is especially so when those strangers are fleeing violence and chaos. If that bias is not in evidence – and other, less virtuous biases are – the natural question follows: have we even met Jesus?

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Fear of God as the Pathway to the Love of God

love the harbor“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice ithave a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever.” 

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;  for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1)

Are love and fear opposites?  In the popular sentimentality of the 21st century West, fear is on a spectrum “negative” emotions to be avoided at all costs (including sanity, truth, and virtue).  Christians often like to quote 1 John 4:18 as evidence that our faith should have nothing to do with fear. Others seem to base their whole faith on fear, reducing the gospel to fire insurance.  But a more nuanced, canonical approach reveals that the Bible is not as paranoid about fearing God as we modern Christians are.  Taking a more holistic view thus undercuts

  • Fundamentalist Christians, who use texts like Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 to justify a fear-based approach that is both effective and damaging.  I can’t tell you how many times I “got saved” as a youth because a preacher scared the hell out of me (literally) and sent me careening toward the altar convinced that God hated me.  It’s important to remember that the only people Jesus scared were the uptight religious folks and authorities of empire; the fundamentalist wing of Christianity tends to do the opposite: apologize for empire and religious authority while putting fear into the common folks and ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalized.
  • Progressive Christians, who use texts like 1 John 4:18 as proofs against fear having any kind of role in the Christian life.  It’s common to hear progressives talk about their “conversion stories” (meaning their transition out of conservative Christianity) as a move from a “fear-and-law-based” faith to a “love-and-grace-based” faith.  While I am sympathetic to this journey because it is similar to my own, the truth is that too often Christianities that are solely focus on “love” have such a Westernized, emotive view of love that it tends towards cheap grace and even pantheism.  If God is love, and love costs nothing and elicits no response, then discipleship, worship, mission, evangelism matter little.
  • Cultural Christians, who have neither fear nor love for God.  One significant strand of this is described well by Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Cultural Christians are those who identify as Christians but have no active relationship with God and/or a faith community; they may pray when the chips are down and go to church at Christmas, but day-to-day their decisions and actions are governed by something other than the Triune God.  They have neither fear nor love for God, but might occasionally try to use God to get what they want.

But can we get to the love of God and wholly bypass fear? St. Isaac the Syrian suggests this is impossible:staniloae

Just as it isn’t possible…for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear. We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear. If these oarsmen of fear don’t handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love is the divine harbor. So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive. And when we have reached love, we have reached God. And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world.

In his classic work Orthodox SpiritualityDmitru Staniloae expands on this by noting that the fear at issue is chiefly fear of a lower love of God, or fear of remaining egotism which would keep us from reaching the harbor of pure love (Wesleyans would call this Christian Perfection, the East would call it theosis or union with God):

The will for a greater love will keep us on board and help us to steer a straight course. It will keep our heads above the giant waves of evil and the egotism which rises up within us. It will lead us straight ahead. Only in the vessel of repentance do we constantly pass over the sinful waves of egotism, which tend to rise up from deeply within us and beneath us. Only by it are we always above ourselves and moving onward from our present position, moving closer to full love, closer to the paradise where the tree of life is, in other words to Christ, the source of love which feeds our spirit. (2)

I love the vision of the life with God as a journey.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Eastern spirituality reminds us that there are “many danger, toils, and snares” on the way to the full love of God. (3)  A proper and holy fear of failing to reach “perfection in love” and thus the fullness of the life God intends to give us seems, as St. Isaac suggested, a part of our pilgrimage we cannot avoid if we would reach that harbor for which we were made.

What do you think? Does fear have a role to play in our journey towards a full love of God? Are repentance and fear necessarily linked? How would you preach or teach this journey? I’d love to have your feedback below.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; 1 John 4:18.
  2. Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 140-141.
  3. “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.
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“The Spitting Image of God”: Our Life’s Goal and the Lord’s Prayer

smith bookThe world of Christian publishing is rife with material about “purpose.”  Everyone wants to read about their life and someone else’s opinion of what it should be about.  Much of this is based on a misreading of Jeremiah 29:11, which was never a word of the Lord to every individual for all time, but a promise to the exiled Jewish community that the God of the covenant would not abandon them.  So I don’t know that we have much reason to believe that God has a “plan” for each an every one of us; I find little reason Scripturally to believe that God has designed us genetically to be butchers or marketers or writers or actresses or what have you.  The most we can say (and this is enough) about God’s purpose for each of us is that we were designed for fellowship and union with God.

For many Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a regular and powerful part of their spiritual journey.  It is for me and for many of my friends and colleagues.  The prayer that Jesus gave us is not only a pattern for prayer but a  rich prayer in its own right.  Even aspects of the prayer than are often overlooked provide an amazing fount of insight into life with God.

As Warren Smith, who teaches historical theology at Duke Divinity School, suggests, when we pray “hallowed be Thy name,” we are remembering the holiness of God and thus the true purpose for our life:

So the confession “hallowed by thy name” grounds our lives in the knowledge of who God is and what God has done for us. This daily confession focuses our mind upon the end or purpose of our journey – that is, fellowship with God – and the quality of our life – that is, holiness – necessary to attain that God. But when we confess that God is holy we also confess that we cannot become holy on our own. We cannot be holy apart from the Holy Spirit. Our thinking and speaking and acting become holy when we cultivate holy habits by living in the company of the Spirit. By inviting us to share his name, by calling us to be saints, God has set a high bar for his children. But he has given us the Holy Spirit as our companion who helps us gradually replace unholy habits of thought, speech, and action with holy thoughts, holy conversation, and holy actions as we grow into the likeness of our heavenly Father, becoming the spitting image of God. (The Lord’s Prayer: Confessing the New Covenant, 46)

This is a small example of how a deceptively simple line such as “hallowed be thy name” works on us over time.  The Lord’s Prayer is full of such wisdom and beauty – a treasure too often ignored, and too little appreciated.

You want purpose? Pray and work, die to self daily so that you might become “the spitting image of God.”  There’s plenty of room to grow there for several lifetimes.   And thanks be to God, he never stops his gracious, other-regarding, self-giving through the Spirit so that we might become who he made us to be:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

-2 Cor. 3:18 (NRSV)

What role does the Lord’s Prayer have in your spiritual life? How does your faith community make use of it? I’d love to hear about your experience below.

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Thomas Ogletree on Covenant

ogletree book

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

-St. Augustine

With increasing abandon, it is clear that United Methodists at all levels are shaped more by notions of the Enlightenment’s autonomous, free individual than a Biblical notion of persons in covenant community.  Though our constituent bodies have names like church, conference, and connection, these words seem to have little purchase on the decisions made from the local church to the Council of Bishops.

One manifestation of this abandonment of ecclesiology is the liberty taken by clergy and bishops to simply act of their own accord, regardless of personal vows made or communal integrity placed under duress.  In such an environs, it is helpful to remember what covenant is all about.  It is not without irony that I share some reflections on the moral life under Israel’s covenant from Thomas Ogletree, former professor of Christian ethics and Dean at Yale Divinity School and a UM elder.  Ogletree notes,

“…the covenant is broader and deeper than politics as such. it is certainly richer than the modern notion of a social contract among autonomous, self-interested, rational individuals! It embraces the whole complex fabric  of the people’s lives, their shared experiences and interactions over time. The substantive obligations of the people are not simply functions of a formal agreement; they are integral features of their concrete social and historical reality taken in its totality.”

Ogletree elaborates on this considerably; the thrust of this section in his book is that the multi-faceted moral obligations placed upon Israel are in the context of covenant, a relationship which, however difficult, is for the ultimate benefit of of God’s elect.  This moral code, says Oglegtree,

“…can become burdensome and demanding; it often involves suffering and anguish, sometimes even death; it frequently blocks and frustrates immediate wants; it continually puts people to the test, and it certainly stretches them. In its deepest meanings, however, it is wholly congruent with human reality and its potentialities. Moreover, its requirements are in principle within the reach of human powers and capacities. The possibility of infidelity is ever present, and temptations will surely come, but where the people are diligent, they can keep the covenant and its obligations, to their ultimate benefit.”

Covenant obligations as an ultimate benefit? It’s hard to imagine American Mainline Protestants in general, and Methodists in particular, agreeing to such a radically pre-modern notion.  And yet, it is a part of our DNA.  Look at these words from the Covenant Renewal Service, which many UMC congregations celebrated last week, hearkening back to Wesley’s own New Year’s practice:

Christ has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.
But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves.

As best as I can tell, we Methodists have eschewed any sense of self-denial, for Christ or covenant or anything.  The self is what is holy – perhaps the only entity recognized as true, good, and beautiful at all levels of the UMC.  Hosea’s stringent words befit us, though for me Augustine (as quoted at the top) still wins out:

“Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. “ (Hosea 9:1, ESV)

 

[Source: Thomas Ogletree, “Covenant and Commandment: The Old Testament Understandings of the Moral Life,” from The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1983), 50, 52.]

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Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

by Drew 2 Comments
More like your own personal idol.

More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.

An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

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Salvation in Three Tenses

by Drew 0 Comments

classic-christianity

We often speak of salvation as if it is only an event in the past.  A robust, Biblical look at salvation reveals something much more wonderful, though.  Tom Oden points this out in his massive systematic theology Classic Christianity:

“There are three tenses in the vocabulary of salvation: We have been saved from the penalty of sin for our justification.  We are being saved from the power of sin for our sanctification.  We will be saved from the remnants of sin for God’s glorification.  Salvation includes the whole range of divine activity on behalf of humanity in past, present, and future history.” (Oden, 566.)

The Bible speaks of these tenses in many places, of course, but as Oden points out sometimes it speaks of all three at once.  Note, for instance, all three tenses in Titus 2:11-13 (NRSV):

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Salvation is not only something that we once received at the altar years ago, or a hope we can only look forward to.  Salvation is past, it is present, and it is yet to come.  Thanks be to God.

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When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge

by Drew 16 Comments
The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum.  That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have).  But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains.   Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion.  Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism.  It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.

Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”

Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later).  On my reading, these 8 points say:

  • Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
  • There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
  • Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
  • We should all be really, really nice to each other.

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs.  And of course, no mention of the Trinity.  Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity

Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:

“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”

Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on.  Did it take a while to work out? Yes.  The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia.  No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that.  Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course.  But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us.  Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.

There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days.  Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge.  I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”

Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge

I have many friends who are progressive Christians.  By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus.  Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church.  They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.

But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity.  Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin  veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found.  They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.

That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity.  Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union.  Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal.  Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.

So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you.  The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.

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Animate: Bible (Resource Review)

by Drew 1 Comment

animate-bible

 

Introduction

What if I told you there was a resource out there that could help your church or your small group engage the Bible faithfully, critically, deeply – and have fun doing it?  Animate: Bible from Sparkhouse (a Fortress affiliate) is just such a study. I recently completed this curriculum at my church and wanted to offer you a few thoughts, since several colleagues asked for my feedback.

Who are the experts? The leaders for Animate: Bible include a who’s who of evangelical and/or progressive church leaders, pastors, and and thinkers: Nadia-Bolz Weber, Will Willimon, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, and others.

Who can lead it? The scope and sequence gives you a good idea of what to expect in leading or participating in Animate: Bible.  The material is arranged so that someone with little to no knowledge of the subject can facilitate sessions effectively.

Who should participate? I have a feeling that Animate: Bible was especially designed with younger Christians and seekers in mind, but I believe it would be a worthwhile study for Christians of any age and experience.  I had a mix of long-term and newer students of the Bible in my class, and everyone seemed to find the contents interesting and helpful.

What? Animate: Bible is composed of a series of 7 short, engaging videos with a journal for each participant and a leader guide for the facilitator.  The videos (remember the title) are not just “talking heads,” but effectively communicate the points being made by the speaker though drawings and animation that are both informative and whimsical.  The journals include a variety of questions that are very adaptable for the size of your group and the time frame allotted, as well as interesting illustrations and space for notes.

Why? What I appreciated most about Animate: Bible is the chance to discuss questions and topics not covered in the usual Sunday School curriculum or Bible study: How did the canon form? How should we read different kinds of scripture? How do the Old and New Testaments fit together?  Much of this material – the 10,000 foot view questions of Scripture – was new to my participants (as it would have been for me had I not been to seminary).

What worked especially well? The topics are arranged in such a way that they build upon each other quite effectively.  The materials themselves – the journal, video clips, etc. – have a quality look and feel to them that give you a sense this was put together with care.   More to the point, Animate: Bible helps your group approach difficult questions about Scripture (such as: maybe we should read Jonah as allegory more so than history?) in a way that is sensitive to where people come from, but inviting to a new manner of reading. Finally, the leaders were especially engaging; they possessed a variety of backgrounds and approaches to their topics, but on the whole the video components were quite well done.  My favorites were probably Willimon (I know, I am a company man!) and Bolz-Weber.  I even enjoyed the sessions with Rachel Held Evans and Phyllis Tickle, neither of whom I am especially fond of.  (For more on the latter, see here.)

What could have been better?  I’m a preacher, so I am critical by nature about other preachers.  I had some minor quibbles with some of the points made in the curriculum.  The session on canon ends by asking what might be added to the canon, a question which, though sensible in the context of the conversation, I find risible.  The session on grace discusses looking at Scripture with twin lenses: the “love” of Jesus and the “grace” of Paul.  I found that distinction difficult to maintain, however.  Minor points, to be sure.

Concluding Thoughts & Recommendations

Animate: Bible would be especially effective in certain contexts.  For instance, a college or young adult group, a city or suburban church, or a college town.  I believe it would be less effective in a setting where the the majority of participants would be serious inerrantists or otherwise not interested in questioning their understandings of the Bible.  I would also suggest taking the “For Further Study” recommendations seriously, as they are quite good.  I read Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book and Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible is it? in the course of leading and preaching this study. I would also suggest Hays and Davis’ The Art of Reading Scripture, a precis of which you can find here.

Oh yeah, preaching.  I preached this as a series as I led the study.  That is, I took the topics of the study and preached through them as a small group I  led worked through the sessions.  This allowed me to “double down” on learning and teaching the topics, and also allowed me reach more people with material that I believe could transform their reading of Scripture and their walk with God.  If you are the adventurous kind of preacher – and not too tied to the lectionary – I would suggest giving this a shot.  (Side note: the sample clips work great for sermon videos.)

So, if you think your church or small group could benefit from this material, run out and get yourself a copy.  I highly recommend this excellent resource and I am looking forward to checking out other offerings in the Animate series.

Since I am a company man, here’s the sample from Bishop Willimon’s session “Interpretation: Scripture Reads Us.”

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