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Monthly Archives: November 2011

In The Crucifixion of Ministry, Andrew Purves writes:

“The defining matter of the church’s life is not to convert and bring people to faith (the evangelical heresy!) or to bring in the ethical commonwealth (the liberal heresy!). The defining matter for the church’s life, for which the church exists, is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. He, not we, converts people and brings in the reign of God,” (p.132).

To some visitors of this blog that may not be anything new but for others it may very well be (particularly depending on what sort of circles you grew up in and spend time in). The “bearing witness to Jesus Christ” bit requires much theological reflection and wrestling and can often be a point of contention.

Anyways, there you have it. Don’t get it twisted!

What say you?

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Most Christians are familiar with the language of “covenant”, particularly with the language of “new covenant”. In this context, covenant language denotes a particular (strong) relation between God and human creatures that carries weight and responsibility on both ends. Throughout the Old Testament we see that despite Israel’s frequent unfaithfulness God remains faithful to his covenant with them and continually renews it on the day of Atonement.

The new covenant, is generally understood by Christians to mean a renewed covenant between God and human creatures which is not based on the law but on the gospel. To remain faithful to this covenant from the human end of the deal means then to accept Jesus and to live accordingly. However, what many of us fail to recognize is that Jesus isn’t simply the mediator of new covenant (although he is that), Jesus is the new covenant, and he is so for us.

In other words, both the promises and the commands of the covenant are fulfilled in Christ. The following quote from T.F. Torrance puts it quite beautifully:

“That covenant is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, for in him God’s faithfulness realizes his will for his people. The promises of the covenant are fulfilled in him, in the ultimate gift of God’s very self to man; the commands of the covenant are fulfilled in him, in the obedience of the son of man. This realization of the covenant will and faithfulness of God in Christ is atonement – atonement in its fullest sense embracing the whole incarnate life and work of Christ. It involves the self-giving of God to man and the assuming of man into union with God, thus restoring the broken communion between man and God. It involves the fulfillment of the divine judgement on the sin of humanity and the removal of that obstacle or barrier of sin between God and humanity, but that barrier is removed precisely by the complete fulfillment of the covenant, in which God kept faith and truth with humanity in its sin by its complete judgement – therefore it is in this complete judgement alone that men and women can be justified before God and have a just and true place in the covenant-communion with God. That whole work of atonement, of establishing covenant communion, Christ fulfilled in himself, by incarnation and atonement. He fulfilled it in himself as mediator, God and man in one person, acting from the side of God as God and from the side of man as man,” (Atonement, 9).

Last night I got to see one of my favourite (is “favourite” a theological category?) living theologians deliver a lecture at Regis College at the Toronto School of Theology on the topic, “Suffering Presence: Twenty-Five Years Later.” The lecture consisted of a number of insights and reflections 25 years after the publications of this book.

As someone who enjoys theology and hopes to be engaged in both pastoral ministry as well as chaplaincy in the medical community I found the lecture really great. I won’t summarize the whole talk for you but below are a few points that stood out to me in particular.

(1) I think the overarching theme that Hauerwas wanted us to wrestle with was how we approach suffering. Hauerwas rightly noted that we live in a culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Heck, we even try to avoid aging at all costs because, well, the older you get the closer you come to death (no offense, mom). Hauerwas mentioned that when he gives these sorts of talks to students and professionals he usually begins by asking people how they want to die (!). The usual response is something along the lines of, “quietly and in my sleep.” “Quietly”, because we don’t want to be a burden to our family and friends and, “in my sleep” because we don’t want to know that we’re dying. What does this tell us about how we view life, death, and humanity?

Hauerwas suggested that we want to die in such a way as to not be a burden to our families and friends because we have a view of the human body that is isolated from others (so, we wouldn’t want the suffering of our bodies to encroach on the lives of other bodies). Part of the reason for this view, argues Hauerwas, is that we lack an understanding of the telos of the human body. This is evident in the fact that for most medical students their first patient (in med school) is a corpse. Literally. This has shaped and is shaped by a particular philosophy of the human body. It is essentially a machine. From examining a corpse we can learn all about the human body, how it functions, what it looks like and so on. But a dead body is very different from a living body. Thus, it is a fundamental mistake of medicine to understand the body as mechanistic. Living bodies are storied bodies. Rooted in a complex web of narratives and experiences. Therefore, a malfunctioning liver isn’t simply a malfunctioning liver and how you treat such a liver may differ based on whether the liver in question belongs to Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith. Why? Because these are storied people and health and medicine fails us if we simply view them as mechanistic and proceed accordingly.

(2) It is possible to be ill and yet healthy. Likewise, one could be free of illness and be unhealthy. For Hauerwas, this is because, “health is membership in a community,” (quoting Wendell Berry). A medical system which understands the human body as fundamentally mechanistic and autonomous is concerned with delivering a product to consumers (Dr.’s want to keep their patients happy, after all) and fails to understand the storied nature of the body. Here, there can be no hard distinction (as often can be in the medical community) between the physical and the spiritual for then we’re back to understanding the body as mechanistic, as a corpse rather than living. We could be deathly ill and at the same time healthy because, as Hauerwas argues, who we are is most determined by the relationships of our bodies to other bodies (I would think here of other human creatures, the non-human creature, and Jesus and his Body). This has obvious implications for the church. One of the implications Hauerwas chose to draw out was the need for morally formed ministers. He said, and I think rightly, that people don’t generally believe that an ill trained priest can damage their eternal salvation but they do believe that an ill trained doctor can damage their health. Here, Hauerwas contrasted seminaries with medical schools arguing the medical schools form more moral people (Dr.’s are trained to offer unconditional care to their patients. Even if the person before them with a heart condition is a scum-of-the-earth child molester the Dr. is obliged to care for them. This, says Hauerwas, is a true moral commitment to the health of the other). Hauerwas argued that the Psalmists plea to be saved from death was because they feared God. They wanted to stand before God as righteous. Contrast this with our plea to be saved from death today, which comes not from a fear of God but from a fear of death. The significance of this shift should not be lost on us.

(3) The body that the church presents to be cared for is not the isolated body but the baptized body. Here is where I thought the real crux of Hauerwas’ argument lay, in the statement: “Suffering can be a gift that makes more intimate our connection with God and one another.” The church presents a body to be cared for that understands suffering in a fundamentally different way than the isolated body. Suffering and death do not need to be avoided at all costs and prolonged so that we can “die without knowing it”. Rather, we can face suffering as a gift that draws us deeper into communion with others and with God. Because it is the baptized body death is no longer feared for our deaths have been united in baptism with Christ’s death. Death has been transformed so that it is no longer to be seen as the end of life but rather entrance in a new, eternal, resurrection life with Christ. Our hope is therefore not to avoid suffering and die in peace but rather our hope is resurrection life.

(4) This view of health (as, “membership in a [Christian] community”) can form patients differently than the dominant understanding of health (as illness free, or health as cure). The Christian view of health forms patients who want to be cured but do not seek the cure at all costs. Quite literally, it forms patients who are patient. The greatest gift that could be given here is not a cure but presence. To be present with someone, to offer them the gift of friendship, in their illness or as they journey through death is a gift that far outweighs a cure. We can offer the gift of friendship when there is no cure to offer. Christian health, thus, means reliance on Christ and his church even in the face of suffering and death. Human finitude can be welcomed as a gift. We must learn, then, to suffer without losing hope. We must learn to sit with one another in the shadow of the valley of death.

(5) The ways that Christians pray (for health, healing etc) reveals how we approach illness and health the same as the world. So often, Christian prayers for health and healing are prayers for a cure, prayers to avoid suffering or even death. Ours prayers, however, are determined not by the valley of the shadow of death but by the presence of the one who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. With Christ we have already died. As noted above, our hope is not to get through life unscathed but the hope of resurrection. To be a Christian is to undergo the training to know how to live out of control. Thus, we need a type of medicine that, “for God’s sake, respects the body that is storied by the cross.”

It really was a fantastic lecture and there is much to dwell on there. If you have not yet read “Suffering Presence” (as I haven’t) you really should!

Now, as an aside, my favourite part of the evening came during the question and answer at the end. The first person to come to the microphone praised Hauerwas as a man of great stature and then proceeded to criticize him by asking something to the extent of, “This all sounds very dualistic, where is the Christianity here?!!” The gentleman wanted a more Christianized version of whatever it was Hauerwas was selling. Hauerwas’ response was, basically, “I hope I didn’t do what you say I did,” (funny!). The second person to ask a question was a very nice and gentle young man from Trinity College (“niceness” is especially prized in certain circles!). This young man proceeded to ask a question that was exactly opposite to the first questioner. His question was basically, “How can we take what you’ve said here and talk about it more rationally?” In other words, he wanted to de-Christianize the talk and make it more palatable for secular professionals. The poor guy. I can only presume that he hadn’t read much Hauerwas prior to coming to the lecture because if he had he would have known that if there is one thing that Hauerwas hates it is liberal Protestantism which does just that, rob Jesus of his particularity and soften the offensive blow of the gospel to make it more palatable. Hauerwas’ response was, in my opinion, an instant classic (and made me literally laugh out loud…sorry questioner): “I have no idea. Run it up the flagpole and see if you can get anyone to salute. The body has a telos, sorry.” Hilarity!

 

***UPDATE – See the video of the full talk here.

Evangelicalism, or at least the sort in which I was formed, has tended to view many important matters of faith in a polarizing manner. I’m thinking here, for example, of things like baptism, the Eucharist, and the Trinity. Generally, we tend to think of these things either moralistically or as optional. I’m more familiar with thinking of them as optional so, for example, baptism is not all that important. It is symbolic of an inner faith so that technically one could function as a Christian without being baptized. Or, the Eucharist is a meal of some importance but it really isn’t that important so we may only celebrate it once a month or so. Or, the Trinity is sort of complex and difficult to understand without falling into some heretical trap so we really won’t talk about it much (in this case we generally end up being functional Modalists, or maybe binitarians). On the other end of the spectrum is the moralizing of these things. Baptism becomes an ought. Without it there is no salvation. Christians should be baptized. The same could be said for other such practices.

I want to look at baptism (again!) here. A church I know of recently had someone leave the church community because when they tried to corner one of the pastors and force him to agree with them that baptism is necessary for salvation he was having none of it. The person figured that if you were not baptized then you were not saved. One of our pastors disagreed. So, they left. On the contrary, many Christians in the circles in which I was raised saw baptism as essentially optional. Sure, Jesus said we should do it and so we really should be baptized but if we’re not then it’s not really the end of the world and we can go on living as good Christians regardless. I think that both of these views are troubling and evidence of a lacking theological understanding of baptism.

I want to look at two passages in particular here. The first is Romans 6:3-6: “(3) Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (4) We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (5) If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (6) For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”

Within the Christian tradition an understanding of the death of Christ arose whereby Jesus’ death is expiatory. In other words, there is a trading of places. In his free and loving obedience to the Father Jesus represents us to God. This should not be understood simply in terms of Jesus taking on God’s wrath for us (there are theological problems with this) but rather that Jesus demonstrated his self-distinction from the Father in full obedience to him even to the point of death. In that Jesus was the man “for God” he was the man “for us” (ht Pannenberg). Without going much further here, the point is that our salvation is linked to Christ’s death. We are saved in that our death is linked to Christ’s death. This is what Paul means when he talks about being united with Jesus’ in his death so that, “we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” For Paul, this takes place in baptism. For Paul, the reconciliation of the world to God is not a closed event which ends with the death/resurrection of Jesus (although for Barth, this is the case, I think). Rather, Paul argues (and this seems to be the NT argument) that the reconciliation of the world to God in the death/resurrection of Christ is open to the world and thus requires some sort of response. So, Paul can argue elsewhere that we ought to “be reconciled” to God (2 Cor 5:20). So then, the linking of the death of the believer to the death of Christ which takes place in baptism is, for Paul, “the transition to the new life of the resurrection of the dead,” (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology vl. 2, 428).

The second passage is also from Paul and found in Colossians 2:11-12: “In [Jesus] you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Here Paul argues much the same thing but extends the argument by saying that baptism replaces circumcision as initiation into the Body of Christ. This “circumcision done by Christ” is to be “buried with him in baptism.” The result is that while we are buried we are also raised with Christ to participate in resurrection life with God in the dawning of the new creation.

So then, to conclude, we cannot say that baptism is simply optional and of no real importance. Paul and the rest of the NT simply argue otherwise, and this is where we must begin. So, there is a sense then in which we must say that there is no salvation outside of baptism (insofar as in baptism our death is linked with Christ’s death and thus we are raised with him). Yet, Paul argues elsewhere that it wasn’t circumcision which made Abraham righteous but rather his faith which preceded circumcision (Rom. 4:10). So, baptism does not generate faith but rather is the response of faith as enabled by the Spirit, and it is a response which has real effects.

The topic of conversation in our small group last week was community. To no surprise, the focus of our discussion became the community of the Spirit, the church. To the question of “what is the church?” I attempted to argue that the church is formed by the gospel and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that we live together in such a way as to anticipate in the present the (eschatological) reconciliation of the world to God. So then, there is a clear distinction here between the church and other communities. The church is not simply “community”, although it most certainly includes this (it is a certain type of community, a community of the Spirit under the headship of Christ Jesus who makes us brothers and sisters). Further, there really is a difference between the church and the world. Thus, we can’t just simply say that the church is “living life”. The world lives life. What distinguishes the church is the living of a different sort of life, one shaped by Jesus (and the community that surrounds him) and thus a life of faith, hope, and love.

Anyways, as usual, I came across a quotation in Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology vl. 2 that talks about the nature of the church in a much better way than I had previously attempted.

“At issue is the kingdom of God among us. Because the kingdom of God has the concrete form of fellowship with God and others, the gospel as the message of reconciliation to God must everywhere lead to the founding of congregations that have among themselves a fellowship that provisionally and symbolically represents the world-embracing fellowship of the kingdom of God that is the goal of reconciliation. The fellowship of the church that the gospel establishes is thus a sign and a provisional form of the humanity that is reconciled in the kingdom of God — the humanity that is the goal of the event of reconciliation in the expiatory death of Jesus Christ. The gospel thus takes precedence over the church…Though the gospel is proclaimed in the church and by its office bearers, it is not a product of the church; rather, the gospel is the source of the church’s existence…The proclamation of the gospel, then, is not merely one thing among others in the church’s life. It is the basis of the church’s life. The church is a creature of the Word,” (462-463).

Amen.

“The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

Glenn Gould.

One of the things that has been a sort of paradigm shift for me over the last 8-12 months has been a deeper understanding of (please don’t read too much into that statement, in know way am I trying to suggest that I’ve once-and-for-all grasped the mystery of the Trinity!) and captivation by the Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit, this is the gospel. There is no other God than this mysterious union of 3-persons who make themselves known as one. If God is not really Father, Son, and Spirit then the gospel is untrue and God is unable to save (and further, a liar!).

I’m reading through the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology for a class and I’ve again been struck by the beauty and wonder of the Trinity. In 10 §2 Pannenberg briefly traces the Christological development of the unity of Jesus with God when he beautifully touches upon the essence of the Son’s self-differentiation from the Father:

“The self-emptying and self-humbling of the Son [see Phil. 2] that found perfect expression in the history of Jesus Christ should not be understood first as an unselfish turning to us, though it is that also. Rather, it is primarily an expression of the self-giving of the Son to the Father in an obedience that desires nothing for self but serves totally the glorifying of God and the coming of his kingdom. Precisely thus the way of the Son is also an expression of the love of God for us. For by the self-distinction of the Son from the Father, God draws near to us. The kenosis of the Son serves the drawing near of the Father. It is thus an expression of the divine love, for we attain to our salvation in the closeness of God to us and in our participation in his life,” (379).

I think when I read that first my heart skipped a beat. Seriously. Read that over and let it sink it a wee bit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the doctrine of the Trinity is (IMO) the most important doctrine and the defining Christian doctrine of God. To speak of God Christianly is to speak of God trinitarianly. This may sound rather bold and harsh and perhaps I’m being a bit presumptuous but can we really say we know God if we think the doctrine of the Trinity is unnecessary and superfluous. To know God is to know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I’d say we often had a concept of God who is essentially some sort of great spirit being who created everything and has something to do with Jesus. Why is this? Have we lost touch with the scriptures? Have we forgotten how to read? Pray? Confess?

OK, perhaps what we need isn’t necessarily teaching about the Trinity (although that couldn’t hurt!) but rather trinitarian preaching (and worship)! I am thoroughly convinced that if we began to read the scriptures, and pray, and worship trinitarianly we may just be overcome with a real sense of awe and wonder at the God who is love and is so pro nobis (for us).