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Where All Our Thinking Begins and Ends: On the Centrality of Jesus

Where does thinking about God, or people, or the world begin?  For Christians, there is a very particular answer to this question: Jesus.

I was in a discussion with someone recently about the use of the traditional Trinitarian description of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This individual had a dislike for naming the First Person ‘Father,’ and saw little utility in using that language.  When pressed, the argument was that this person had their own individual experience of God, and thus what they decided to call God should be as reflective of their encounter as was Jesus’  relationship with God, which led him to call God Father.  The implication was quite clear: Jesus’ experience of God was but one of many, and his understanding and/or description of God is no more or no less determinative than any other.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument for someone to make who is not committed to the Christian movement.  If one believes, as many faiths and individuals do, that Jesus was only a holy teacher, a wonder-worker, an apocalyptic prophet, or a misunderstood peasant, then of course Jesus’ own narration of the divine-human encounter is just one of many.

Everything changes, though, if we believe Jesus was and is God, and that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the fullest glimpse possible of who and what God is like.

Karl Barth is famous for placing Jesus, the Word of God, at the center of Christian life and thought.  Among his greatest contributions to theology in his famous (and massive!) Church Dogmatics is his re-narration of the Calvinist doctrine of election.  For Barth, election is first about the election of Jesus, not individual Christians or non-Christians, and the election of the rest humanity is only understood secondarily and derivatively from that election.  Thus, on his reading of predestination the church is committed to

…the unsearchable majesty of the good-pleasure with which God has from all eternity and in all eternity both the right and the power to dispose of the world and us, in which as God He has in fact disposed of us and the world, so that His eternal will is the Alpha and Omega with which all our thinking about the world and ourselves must begin and end.

In this emphasis on Jesus, Barth shows himself to be, in some ways, simply a careful reader of Scripture and proclaimer of the Gospel.  (He was, before he was known as a theologian, a Reformed parish preacher.)  After all, the New Testament operates by a similar logic: everything is different because of Jesus. Everything, from the bottom up, including the Torah, economics, ethnicity, holiness – all of it! – must be rethought in and through Jesus.

Here’s one example.  Notice how 1 John 4:8-11 (NRSV) narrates loving others and describes God’s nature as love.  For John, we know what love is not because there is some abstract, ethereal concept (as in a Platonic form) called love that exists “out there,” but rather we know what love is because God sent the Son to be the atonement for our sins:

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

For John, like Barth, we only know what love is because God sent the Son. The truth is known, the deepest reality is apprehensible, not by our individual experience or keen reasoning, but by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, in whom our thinking begins and ends.  Likewise, we know how to live not because of our own ethical imperatives or innate morality, but because we live as a response to the love God has shown us. “Since God loved us so much,” John said, “we also ought to love one another.” (v. 11)

There is popular meme I have on my office door in which Barth says, “The answer is Jesus.”  Like Jeopardy, the answer comes first.  Then, he concludes, “What’s the question?”

I know of no other way to read Scripture or exegete the world around us as Christians except in, by, and through Christ.  If Jesus is who the Church has always said he is – Alpha and Omega, Son of God, Immanuel, Messiah, Christ, Word of God, Second Person of the Trinity – there is no other way to think and live Christianly.

In a Christian grammar, Jesus is not one of many ways to God.  He is not a mere teacher or prophet.  The Word is not one experience of God to be placed side-by-side with others, including my own.  He is not a guide among many other guides.  Jesus is God, while also being fully human.  He is the best window we have, short of the eschaton “when [our] faith shall be sight,” of God.

If our thinking and living bypasses Jesus, or makes him secondary to any other lens, concern, guru, or hermeneutic, we are doing something other than Christian living and thinking.

 

Source: Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Study Edition 10): Volume II, 32-33 (London: T&T Clark, 2010)

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Arminianism & Postmodern Spirituality

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” -Psalm 150:6

During a recent talk at Pfeiffer University, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance and a leader in the missional church movement, discussed the shift in spirituality from Enlightenment modernity to 21st century postmodernity.  In previous generations, when there was a measure of Christian influence in the culture, evangelism could begin with certain premises.  But times have changed.

A case in point is whether or not human beings are, from the outset, separated from God.  Much 20th century evangelism began from the premise that the person on the street who has never heard of Jesus is in a state of sin, totally apart from God and lacking a saving relationship with Christ.  Hence the old revivalist standby question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”  The answer, of course, is that if one has not “received Christ” they will certainly go to hell.  Many an altar call has been successful through this strategy.

But postmodern spirituality no longer makes such a soteriological strategy wise (if indeed it ever was).  As McNeal pointed out – and research from many quarters has borne out – North Americans today are less religious, but more spiritual than ever.  While measures of religiosity such as church attendance, baptism rates, etc. are at historic lows, huge majorities of Americans still express belief in the Divine in various ways.  Thus, beginning a conversation with non-Christians from a premise of a-priori separation is not a fruitful evangelistic strategy.

Enter classical Arminianism.  Arminians affirm that God’s grace is active in all persons, preceding human knowledge of or decision for God.  Unlike the Calvinist conception of grace, which is irresistible, prevenient grace (which “comes before”) is active upon all people but does not overwhelm individual will.  Prevenient, or, as John Wesley called it, “preventing” grace is the common possession of all people, made in the Image of God.  No one is utterly separate from God because God is always drawing us toward Himself by prevenient grace.

This makes for a powerful evangelical message to postmoderns already convinced they have a connection with the Divine.  Arminian spirituality recognizes, in common with many ostensibly secular Western persons, that all people do indeed have a relationship to and knowledge of God, however incomplete.  Thus, the message of a postmodern,  authentically Arminian evangelicalism can, without hesitation, say to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd: You are not fully separate from God, in fact, He’s been working on you all along.  Thus a subtle but powerful shift in evangelical rhetoric occurs, from “come and meet He of whom you are ignorant,” to “come and embrace fully the One whom you know in part.”

So those of an Arminian bent are especially geared, if we own our doctrinal inheritance, to reach the inwardly spiritual but outwardly agnostic masses of the 21st century.  The work of the Society for Evangelical Arminians has been superb in helping Arminians reclaim our voice in the wider Christian conversation.  Such resources aid us in proclaiming, without compromise, that the instincts of an increasing number of youth and young adults are not wrong: they do apprehend the true God, albeit through a glass and darkly.  This is a significantly more hopeful starting point for conversation than the lie – too often told – that anyone could be, even if they so desired, fully apart from God.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

What do you think about the connections between Arminian doctrine and postmodern spirituality? How best to contemporary Christians reach out to the “nones” among us?

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The Wild Truth or Easy Heresy?

chesterton

Even Pharrell couldn’t imagine this much fun: Chesterton thinking about orthodoxy.

Heresy never goes away, it simply returns in various forms.  Whether it is the gnostic escapism of the Heaven is For Real, so popular in our ‘Christian’ bookstores and movies, or 18th century deism that has re-emerged as MTD, heresy (being a parasite) will always be found wherever true belief and practice occur.  The key is not just to be able to identify it, but to recognize now boring it is.  Thus, G.K. Chesterton speaks of “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy:”

“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

Those of us advocating for a third way or via media tend to share an interest in basic orthodoxy, in part because we see doctrinal renewal as a key to the vitality of the church, but also because this gives us something more interesting to do that merely wallow around in progressive and conservative echo chambers.  As Chesterton notes, the church had to constantly juke to avoid heresies from every corner.

“She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth wheeling but erect.” (Orthodoxy [Mineoloa: Dover 1994], 94.)

In my view, the wild truth remains the property neither of the left nor the right in the church.  Orthodoxy is not the possession of any culturally-determined faction or party, but it is the inheritance that the Holy Spirit, the saints, apostles, and martyrs have entrusted to us.  And that millenia-old party is better than all the dull heresies put together.

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A Stirring Ode to Methodism: A Response to Mark Tooley

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Methodist DNA, courtesy of United Methodist Memes

Earlier this month, Mark Tooley of the always-cuddly IRD got a Chris Matthews-style “thrill” up his leg courtesy of John Piper’s poem “The Calvinist,” now set to a dreamlike video complete with cheesy musical score.  This surprisingly apparently moving poem stirred up all kinds of warm fuzzies about Calvinists for Tooley:

“These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama.”

This is in contrast, he says, to the Methodist world. We Methodists are a friendly bunch, with our pot lucks and warm smiles, but we are not particularly inspirational. “Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has,” he laments. Tooley even asks if we would have the moxie to produce something akin to Piper’s bold poem/video.

I’m afraid this confirms a long-held suspicion for me: the leaders of the denominational caucuses, left and right, are not lovers of the Methodist tradition. They look longingly to the progressive utopia of the UCC or Episcopal Church, or enviously to the famous pulpits and lockstep doctrinal enforcement of the Reformed and conservative evangelical communities, and everywhere see greener grass than that of their own ecclesial yard. Yes, they love that John Wesley was inclusive, or read the Bible a lot, but their interest in being United Methodist Christians pales in comparison to their desire to see their ideological agendas win out among competing factions. I am reminded of Solomon deciding the case between two women who both claimed to be an infant’s real mother (1 Kings 3:16-28); the difference here, of course, is that both “mothers” (read: ideological agendas) would sooner see the baby split in two than the other side “win.”

But on to my own Ode. I have no gift for rhyming; I’m no Jay-Z or Charles Wesley, but I do love my church family, warts and all. Yes, there is some truth to Jon Stewart’s charge that we can be the “University of Phoenix” of religions, and we’ve all felt the Methodist Blues. Wesley’s descendants are nice to a fault, which is probably why the LifeWay study showed we have the most positive name recognition of any denomination. We don’t have celebrity pastors like John Piper or Mark Driscoll (for which we thank the Almighty), but we do have some pretty awesome folks like Will Willimon and Adam Hamilton. If the 19th century was the Methodist century, and the 20th century was the Christian Century, then the 21st sometimes looks to be a dystopian spiritual landscape in which only the most shallow or extreme forms of Christianity can survive. What is left for the messy middle, or, more properly, the Extreme Center?

I believe the movement started by the Wesleys still has much to offer. We do not have great systematic theologies from our founders to pore over like the Calvinists do, but we do possess  some excellent sermons and correspondences, and hymnody so fantastic that even stoic Presbyterians can appreciate it. We may not be known for dogmatic rigidity, but we are doctrinal bridge-builders: Wesley’s eclectic approach to soteriology combined the juridical concerns of the Christian West and the therapeutic focus of the East in a unique manner that offers a potential grounds for détente between these two long-separate parts of the Body of Christ.

That is characteristic of Methodism, actually. As my teacher Randy Maddox (see link above) put it, Methodists hold together what other Christians often pull apart. We can boast a love for Scripture & tradition, works of mercy & works of piety, spiritual & intellectual formation, evangelism & sacramental life, grace & works, personal & social holiness.  In other words, we demand to have the cake and devour it, too.

Moreover, we may not have American theologians as renowned as Jonathan Edwards, but we have an impressive network of hospitals, camps, universities, and other mission agencies (in the US and abroad) doing God’s work in diverse ways. Our empire may not have the grandeur of Calvin’s Geneva, but we can boast an early emphasis on abolition and women’s ministry that Calvinism cannot.

Tooley sounds forlorn when stating that Methodism, while quaint, doesn’t “spark the electricity” that Calvinism does. But Jesus never describes the Kingdom like a bolt of lightning (that has a decidedly pagan ring to it). Instead, he says it is like a mustard seed: small, but growing into a giant tree. Or, the Kingdom is like leaven, working slowly and quietly, but with great impact. No, Methodism does not snap and crackle like Calvinism does, but if a little less wattage is the price we pay for not having the horrific imagery of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on our conscience, it is a happy trade in my book.

As for poetry, I’ll see Dr. Piper’s wager (as sexist as it is simple) and raise hymn (ha!) a Charles Wesley tune which, for my money, has more beauty in this single stanza than Piper’s entire poem:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In closing:

For me, being a part of a church is a bit like a marriage. We belong to the church in sickness and in health, for better and for worse. When other suitors begin to look more attractive than our own spouse, it’s not time to wax poetic (and adulterously) about someone who is betrothed to another. Rather, it is time to rekindle that old flame and remember the covenant. That might be my prescription for Tooley and for all in my tribe to who appear to be more about “Right” or “Left” than anything resembling the faith and practice of the Wesleyan movement (or about Jesus, for that matter!): take some time, look at the old photographs, pull out the love letters from the shoe box in the attic, and remember that no relationship grown cold has ever been reignited by singing the beauty of another.

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     If you can’t say anything nice about your own church,
          at least don’t sing the praises of other churches.

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What if God Gets What God Wants? Thoughts on Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’

https://i2.wp.com/jrwoodward.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Love-Wins.png?w=1140

Minus bathroom breaks, I read Love Wins in one sitting.  I wouldn’t say this is because it is engrossing, but rather because the 200 pages is made up of such short, choppy sentences and large print that it reads more like 100 pages.  Compare this, for instance, to the considerably shorter, but much more difficult Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck’s classic was one of the densest tomes I’ve read; Bell, while a good read, feels unnaturally inflated to me.  But I suppose no one would be willing to part with $20+ for a hundred page hardback.

That said, I liked the book.  I didn’t find anything I really disagreed with in the book (it’s hard to disagree with something that is chock-full of questions, though).  A few main points:

1) Bell is not saying anything new.  He’s upfront about this.  These issues have been wrestled with since the origin of the faith.  Why is this book so controversial, then?  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  Resurgent Calvinism, so common in low-church Protestantism today, will despise this book.  Anyone who likes to draw really clear and easy distinctions about the saved and the damned will not be happy with his reflections.  Many of these folks didn’t like Bell to start with, as evidenced by the fact that he was being condemned as a universalist before the book was even released. I find it laughable that churches who subscribe to no official creeds, no Magisterium (an official compendium of teaching, like in the Roman Catholic faith), who lack any formal denomination or structure from which to excommunicate someone have still attempted to erase Bell’s name from the evangelicals’ Book of Life.  Perhaps such folks are not so Protestant as they imagine themselves to be.

2) Bell has an astounding gift for communication.  He is, no doubt, a smart guy, but that’s not what makes his work so impressive.  His gift is communicating complicated ideas in ways that are engaging and attractive.  I got to see him speak at Duke last year and I was floored.  As a pastor, watching him made me feel like I was watching Mickey Mantle while I was still stuck learning t-ball.  This is not a book that should be evaluated as if it were systematic theology; it’s not.  It’s a book of meditations and questions, none of which are original.  He is no Luther or Barth; he’s not dropping a theological bomb.  He’s restating some old questions for a new generation in a way that is profoundly helpful.

3)  This is solid, practical, and whimsical theology.  At various points I laughed out loud and was tempted to cry.  He goes between exegesis, stories, poetry, and theology with the nimbleness of a ballerina.  If you haven’t read much in the areas of soteriology, the question of other religions, or the nature and scope of Christ’s grace, you may find a lot here that is difficult.  For instance, the Bible knows nothing of oft-repeated concepts such as “the age of accountability” and a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Bell may well burst your bubble – but you’ll thank him for it.

A couple of critiques, for good measure:

Given the actual density of the book, I think it’s fair to say it is overpriced (at least if you pay full price for it).  The total page count is, frankly, bloated beyond necessity.

He doesn’t cite his sources.  There is a brief list of acknowledgments at the end, which is helpful.  To his credit, he lists N.T. Wright (probably enough reason, right there, to earn the disdain of the John Piper fanboys).  His view is heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which he does mention.  But there is a lot that isn’t credited.  At one point, for instance, he references “gospels of sin management,” which I’m pretty sure is a direct allusion to a chapter in Dallas Willard’s wonderful The Divine Conspiracy.  But no reference is made of Willard or the book, even in the acknowledgments.  I have heard it said that source citations scare publishers because they scare away potential readers, so perhaps this was not Bell’s choice.

Read this.  Share it with friends, especially friends who have been exposed to a Jesus that doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the gospels.  I wish this book had been available to me when I was journeying from fundamentalism to Jesus; it would have been profoundly helpful.  As is, it was a fun read, something I heartily recommend, and something I will use as a reference and source for inspiration.

If you like it, do yourself a favor: read The Great Divorce.  If you are really feeling froggy, go on to read Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope?, which asked these exact questions, in a more direct and controversial way, decades ago.  I personally found C.S. Lewis and Balthasar much more engaging, but Love Wins is a much easier read than these and a great introduction to the notion that maybe – just maybe – God gets what God wants…everybody.

P.S. I said MAYBE.  Don’t try to burn me at the stake.

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