Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Losing Sight of Salvation

To separate theology and ethics is to understand neither. (I read that in a book somewhere.) The affirmation "Jesus is Lord" is as much ethical as it is theological. Indeed it's ethical because it's theological, and vice versa.

Seeing things this way opens up a whole new world as we read the New Testament. I don't think Paul wrote Romans so that the church in Rome would know his gospel before he came to them. I think he wrote it so that the Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church would just get along. How ironic that we have turned Romans into a theological treatise (I use "theological" in the worst sense of the word) which we then use to cause division rather than unity. If Paul was "doing theology" in his Roman epistle he was doing it in order to form a community characterised by love - love for the God who has manifested his love for us through Jesus and love for each other through the connecting power of the holy spirit. Paul as abstract theologian just doesn't cut it.

I understand that N.T. Wright has used Philemon as the foundation for his forthcoming book on Paul. This is a master stroke. We tend to shy away from Philemon because it isn't happy hunting ground for abstract truths that we can disagree over. In this short letter we can't so easily separate theology and ethics as we think we can in the other epistles, and this makes us uncomfortable. But the letter to Philemon is a beautiful glimpse into the purpose behind Paul's ministry. It was the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation of human beings to God, and human beings to each other. Slave and master become one. Jew and Gentile become one. Man and woman become one. That's a picture of the church right there.

Paul was, after all, a church planter, and he set up churches in order for them to display the power of the gospel through love. He wrote to these churches to remind them of that inextricble connection between gospel and love, or theology and ethics. Irony number two - how many churches today are founded on division? How many are planted in order to be separate from fellow believers? Living in Northern Ireland has been a wonderful experience so far, but it also a reminder of how far we are from that oneness that Jesus so fervently desires for us. We tend to use doctrine to draw distictions, but the best purveyors of doctrine know that it can and should be used to "do" something entirely different. Consider these thoughts from Ellen Charry:

The theologians who shaped the tradition believed that God was working with us to teach us something, to get our attention through the Christian story, including those elements of the story that make the least sense to us. They were interested in forming us as excellent persons. Christian doctrines aim to be good for us by forming or reforming our character; they aim to be salutary. They seek to form excellent persons with God as the model, and this is in a quite literal sense, not as metaphors pointing to universal truths of human experience that lie beyond events themselves. In other words, I came to see that the great theologians of the past were also moralists in the best sense of the term. They were striving not only to articulate the meanings of the doctrines but also their pastoral value or salutarity – how they are good for us.

Doctrine at its best sweep us into a drama where we are called and equiped to play a role not unlike that of Jesus in the Gospels. This is what Paul's life and letters were all about: forming communities of "excellent persons", or as he might say himself, persons who are "mature in Christ". Lose sight of this and we lose sight of salvation.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"It Is All Worship"

Courtesy of Storied Theology I read this article on worship. It's probably nothing you haven't heard before, but it's definitely something you need to hear again and again.

...in the American church we have so equated worship with cultural habits that we fail to see how biblical worship is even worship at all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Risky Preaching

Every imperial agent wants to reduce what is possible to what is available.

- Walter Brueggemann

This happens all the time, both inside and outside the church. We forget that the very world we live in is an unavailable possibility; that something new happened at the moment of creation that couldn't be explained by appeals to the past. 

I think this is one of the most interesting aspects of Jesus's ministry. He takes us to a place where future possibilities are not hindered by present availability. This is the world created by his miracles and by his stories.

"But the miracles can't be true; those kinds of things just don't happen", some might say. Away from me, you imperial agent! You are reducing what is possible to what is available, and by doing so you are questioning, even denying, your own existence.

For Brueggemann, the job of a pastor or preacher is the job of a poet/prophet. It is perhaps the most difficult job in Christian ministry. It is the job of imagining God's good future and calling people to enter into it. This is why Paul could describe his own preaching as foolishness. He imagined a cruciform future and called people to find life through death. This is risky preaching, but as Mr Beaver rhetorically asked, Who said anything about safe?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Praise Us Rising

Roughly half the time Hosanna (Praise Is Rising) is sung during a church service a part of me dies.

Since the first time I heard the song I’ve always loved verse two. It went like this:

Hear the sound of hearts returning to you
We turn to you
In your Kingdom broken lives are made new
You make all things new

Any time I sang the song in my home church, that’s how it was sung. As far as we were concerned, that was the only way to sing it.

How wrong we were.

There is a school of thought that has changed the last line ever so slightly, and by doing so they have ruined everything. Participate in a church service and you may end up singing the following:

In your Kingdom broken lives are made new
You make us new

“All things” I once held dear has been counted as “us” for the sake of…it being slightly easier to sing in time? It’s a disgrace, Bill. Think of what is lost. First and foremost, the Biblical echo has all but disappeared. “Behold, I am making all things new” is blocked from infiltrating our imaginations. As Richard Hays has convincingly shown, an echo of Scripture can merely be the tip of the iceberg, with the surrounding text also making its way into the scenery of our imaginations (and what a surrounding text Revelation 21 is). All of this is evaporated as we sing the true but vague “You make us new”.

Second, the focus has narrowed from “all things” to “us”. God’s plan to redeem the whole of his creation has become God’s plan for our individual salvation. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but the second is best understood in the context of the first, lest we think that the world revolves around “us”. God is not only making the people who sing Hosanna (Praise Is Rising) new. God is not only making Christians new. God is making all things new. God has a stake in the whole of his creation, and in Christ he has acted to reconcile the world to himself. Or as Colossians puts it,

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 
and through him to reconcile to himself all things, 
whether on earth or in heaven, 
making peace by the blood of his cross.

“All things” is the scope of this beautiful hymn in Colossians 1, because it is the scope of God himself. Presently we do not see all things inhabiting his kingdom, but we see Jesus – the one who is “making all things new”.

If you sing or play on a worship team, do not let the “us” people get away with their sabotage! I read recently that words create our worlds, therefore we must endeavour to choose our words carefully.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Psychology 101

Merold Westphal wrote a book that aims to help Christians learn from three of the most influential thinkers in history: Freud, Marx and Nitzsche. I only read the Freud section, but there was enough in that to keep me preoccupied.

One of the areas that Westphal critiqued using some Freudian analysis was our focus on the death of Jesus. Now of course this is sacred ground for Christians, but Westphal wondered if perhaps there is something deeper (and more sinister) going on as we fixate on the crucifixion to the exclusion of almost everything else, including the resurrection.

A dead god is one we can control. A dead Jesus provides a beautiful memory of love and sacrifice, fills an emotional need within us, but does little to shape our present and future. As Westphal highlights, we're quick to "proclaim the Lord's death" but we tend to leave out the "until he comes" part. Of the love that we express toward God, Westphal writes through the mind of Freud:

...where that love is unusually intense, it may very well be the mask behind which our envy of God's privilege and power and our revenge against his authority come to expression.

I think the problem for Christians is that we live in a two-world dichotomy. There is the world of our theology and the world of our experience, and the twain don't often meet. The first world asserts the upside-down character of reality, a reality in which self-giving love makes ultimate sense. The God of this world appeals to us very much. We don't want to live like this reality is true for us, however, so our "lived" world still operates under the old structures, where the strong dominate the weak, where love is taken rather than given, and where the rich and powerful inherit the earth.

Perhaps this is another reason we hold an "unusually intense" love for the cross: It is where we seek the forgiveness we so desperately need for living lives that go against the grain of its world-shattering message.

If some unorthodox Christianity wants the crown without the cross, it might be fair to say that much orthodox Christianity wants the cross without the cross.

There are further arguments and counterarguments aplenty, but that's enough quack psychology for now.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who Will Be Saved?

When a book has blurbs by Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas on the back cover, you know it is doing something right. The first chapter of William Willimon's Who Will Be Saved? is explosive. I can't wait to see what else it has in store.

We must...be suspicious of abstract, impersonal, generic notions of God that make abstract claims that God is omnipotent, utterly free, and transcendent. Abstractions mean nothing apart from the specific narratives of Scripture that tell was what true power, freedom, and transcendence look like now that God looks like a crucified and resurrected Jew from Nazareth.

A devastatingly good case for narrative theology (and narrative preaching), I think.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Did the Bible Really Say...?

In Tom Wright's book on Justification -- a book I imagine him to have written during a lunch break (and I mean that as a compliment) -- he makes the bold statement that you cannot understand Paul if you read the NIV.

There is a school of thought -- one which I admire in some ways -- whose mantra is "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." So simple, so sure. Forget all this fiddlin' about with hermeneutics, forget all of the overly complicated theologizing that seems only to confuse. Let's just put as many Bibles as possible into the hands of Christian lay people and tell them to go nuts. This was one of the tasks of Reformation people (slightly sensationalised, of course) - We need to get everyone a Bible so they can read and understand the Scriptures for themselves.

Now I'm not questioning the value of this task. I'm not about to go around knocking on people's doors saying "Actually, change of plan - can we have those Bible's back, please?" Scripture is not a code book for the initiated. You don't have to have read Anthony Thistelton in order to read the Bible for all its worth. "Simplicity is beautiful", according to philosopher John Giles, and we read the Bible best when it comes to us as something simple.
Now back to that mantra. So what does the Bible actually say? According to Wright, the Bible does not say what the NIV says it says, at least when it comes to sections of Paul's epistles. So we can read our Bible, believe it, and settle the question, but in reality we have believed and settled something that was never intended to be believed and settled. We have fallen at the first hurdle - the Bible doesn't actually say it!

One of the NIV passages Wright laments is Romans 3:21-26. The term dikaiosyne theou is translated in the NIV as "a righteousness from God", when a more faithful translation might read "the righteousness of God" or "God's righteousness". What's the difference? The NIV's translation shoehorns the text into a scheme that goes like this: We lacked a thing, a moral quality called "righteousness", and so the good news is that God gives us his "righteousness" or perhaps the "righteousness of Christ" (a phrase you won't find in the New Testament) to make up for our short-comings. What we need, and what we get, is "a righteousness from God".

Translating dikaiosyne theou as "righteousness of God" or "God's righteousness" leads us to conclude that what we need is for God to reveal his own righteousness. This could mean many things, but God told me that it is closely linked with his will to salvation; his committment to make things right and restore justice to the world (which, lest we forget, was always intended to happen through Israel). Books like Psalms and Isaiah certainly back this up - books that Paul's imagination was steeped in.

If my limited knowledge of Church history is correct, Martin Luther was terrified at the thought of God revealing his righteousness. He wondered how on earth that this could be good news. And so a scheme was formed that the NIV has echoed - a scheme that bent Scripture out of shape in order to make it say things that it didn't actually need to say at all. Because in biblical thought, what could be better news than hearing that God had revealed his righteousness!?

But now, a revised version of the NIV has been revealed apart from the 1984 edition, although the 1984 edition testifies to it. Is this good news? Here is its translation of Romans 3:21-22a:

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in (or "the faithfulness of") Jesus Christ to all who believe.

I think Tom Wright would say amen to verse 21, but that 22 undoes all of its good work. That word "given" is a leftover from the old scheme, with no basis in the actual text. It is a word included because of a misunderstanding of the law.

The law was not given so that people could keep it perfectly and get into heaven when they die. The law was not a series of hoops that need to be jumped through. In short, the law was never intended as a means of our salvation. When we think that it was, then the Lutheran scheme makes sense: What we need to be saved is a perfect moral record. Since we are sinners we can't achieve that, so Jesus has acheived it in our place. This "righteousness" is then given to us when we have faith in Jesus.

The irony of this scheme is that for all its proponents' antagonism for works righteousness, it is an utterly works righteousness scheme. Sure it might not be our works of the law that save us, but we are still saved by the works of the law.

Yet Romans tells us that God's righteousness has been revealed "apart from the law". There must be another means of salvation other than Law, vicariously kept or not. But what?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In The Beginning...

A sentence that sums up a book that sums up the Christian story:

In the beginning God raised Jesus from the dead.

With these nine words strung together Michael Pahl has hit the proverbial nail on the head. We cannot think theologically (in any Christian sense of the word) unless we begin with the resurrection. I'll return to my acquaintance Karl Barth (whose Church Dogmatics will be delivered to my doorstep in a few weeks) for some back up:

[Jesus Christ's] resurrection is the supreme act of God's sovereignty; henceforth we are bound to live and think in its light.