Tag Archives

3 Articles

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)

171 views

Roman Calvinism: A Review of The End of Protestantism by Leithart

Is there hope for Protestant churches – of a certain kind – to reunite in a visible, meaningful way? Presbyterian pastor, author, and Cambridge Ph.D. Peter Leithart believes this is a possibility, and has written an entire tome – The End of Protestantism – to articulate both the need for unity and a way towards it.  Along the journey, Leithart makes meaningful contributions to ecclesiology and theological exegesis of Scripture, and is quite convincing in his overall project, even if there are some lingering questions that remain.

Leithart offers what he calls an “interim ecclesiology.”  We are in-between the Magisterial Reformers and the united church that Christ intends for the Kingdom, so how might we get from this moment of denominational “defiance of Jesus” (p. 3) to the united church for which Christ died and the Spirit continues to work? His answer is, in short, this project, a defense of what he calls “Reformational Catholicism.”  To his credit, Leithart is very clear up front that he’s no sunny optimist about what it will take to achieve this vision: this is a resurrection that will require, first, a death to our old forms of church.

The author is strongest when building a biblical ecclesiology from Genesis to Revelation, one to which Christians of all stripes would do well to aspire: “Unity in faith includes holding to a unified set of beliefs, a unified confession of truth, but includes a common purpose and intention.” (p. 17) He is emphatic in rejecting any vision of the church which accepts a “spiritual” or invisible unity as a substitute  for the full-orbed unity that is God’s will.

It’s worth noting that the Protestantism in focus for Leithart is a particular brand.  From the title and most of the promotions, you’d be tempted to think his project involved Protestantism as a whole, but that would be a mistake.  His real investment is made clear during occasional lapses of clarity such as noting “the defection of the National and World Council of Churches from faithfulness into trendy leftism.” (p. 22)  In chapter three, he eventually makes explicit that he is proposing “an agenda for conservative Protestant churches.” (p. 26).  It would be more clear to say that his agenda is for conservative Protestant churches with organic ties to Luther and especially Calvin, as other flavors of Protestant faith such as Wesleyan, Quaker, or Mennonite (to name a few) are almost wholly absent from his vision.  Thus, even as a Wesleyan who is quite traditional in doctrine and more moderate in terms of social ethics, I have difficulty seeing a way in which I can contribute to Leithart’s vision.

Even while anticipating that “everyone will accept the whole of the tradition, East and West” (p. 27) Leithart continually narrows his focus, taking potshots at old Reformation arguments (against icons and saints) and making clear that the future of Protestantism is Calvinist (even going so far as to suggest that everyone will accept predestination on p. 29).  That aside, his vision of the future church – sacramental and liturgical, biblical, catholic, disciplined – is quite compelling.  It is compelling enough that even if you aren’t in the (conservative, Calvinist) prime audience, this is worth a read.  The author is certainly correct that denominationalism is an institutionalization of division with which Christians of good will should not make peace, though it is admirable that he takes the time to discuss the (former) benefits of denominationalism.  (It reminds me of the infamous, “What have the Romans ever done for us?!” scene in Life of Brian.)  Just because something has run its course does not mean its erstwhile contributions should be ignored.

My favorite section of Leithart’s new book is chapter 8, an extended ecclessiological look at the Biblical narrative as the story of a God who longs to unite humanity under God in a single family.  This is why “division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church.”  As critical as Leithart is of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the ecclesial lens through which he writes is decidedly un-Protestant.  Both my fundamentalist upbringing and my time in the Mainline have taught me that most Protestants simply don’t care about Christian unity.  It is far more important for the (local) church to be correct in fundamentalist circles, or to influence Caesar in the mainline church, than to care about unity.  Thus, Leithart’s powerful conclusion that “unity is evangelical because it is the evangel” deserves more consideration and development. (p. 115)

If you care about the future of the church – as a pastor, an involved layperson, a theologian – there is much here with which to wrestle, and much that you will no doubt find edifying.  In his insistence on ecclesiology, on liturgy and sacraments, on the debt which Protestants owe the pre-Reformation church, I heartily agree with Leithart.  (This sentence from the last page might be the favorite I’ve read all year: “I long to see churches that neglect the Eucharist blasted from the earth.”) Perhaps where he fails most notably is in describing a post-reunification Protestantism that is “mere”ly protestant; the church of Leithart’s future looks suspiciously like a Calvinist Church with regular eucharist – a church which no doubt appeals to Leithart, but is far from a vision of the church that will draw Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Methodists into a new Protestant ekklesia of the future.

Why not, for instance, a future Protestantism of an Anglo-Methodist/Pentecostal variety?  The Anglican heritage brings in the church of the apostles, the fund of liturgical and creedal riches which Leithart values, and the Methodist DNA broadens the soteriological possibilities from just the Reformation’s justification myopia to include (via Wesley) the sanctificationist note of the East.  Wesleyanism’s ties to the Pentecostal movement make such a church an organic fit (indeed, charistmatic American and African Methodists are already living this out), and would help link this future church to the global renewal movements which Leithart notes.  I humbly offer that the Anglo-Methodist & Pentecostal church of my dreams has the potential to unite more Protestants than Leithart’s Roman Calvinism.  (Call that description unfair if you like, but it’s not far off from his “Reformational Catholicism,” a name which equally offends my Arminian sensibilities.)

In the end, I agree with Leithart’s (unexpected?) ecclesial synergism: Protestant reunion is both “a gift of God” and “a work of the Spirit,” and yet still “we must act.” (p. 165)  Christians who take Jesus seriously in John 17 cannot turn a blind eye to division, for as long as we are divided, our witness is damaged, and we are not the church fit to be the bride of Christ.  I daresay than any follower of Jesus will, having read The End of Protestantism, find themselves recommitted to the Biblical vision of the church as a single family, and work locally and at all other levels toward that end.

282 views

Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be

theodicy cartoon

Would you want to worship a God whose “plan” involved this? Me neither.

I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.*  The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it.   The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising.  I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents.  Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:

“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”

In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation –  is theodicy.

Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism.  We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will.  One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil.   That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.

That leaves us in a difficult spot, though.  Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent.  God can do anything.  That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain.  Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church.  Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship.  But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them?  Yes.  And we will, and should, wrestle with that.

But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important.  In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices.  In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion.  Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No.  It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.

I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast.  But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential.   It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.

At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together.  Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults.  We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.

And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!

_____

*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal.  His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement.  One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement.  Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial.  Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.

37 views
%d bloggers like this: