Category Archives: theology

uncomfortable majority

Democracy’s main weakness is that it makes it possible for popular error to hold sway.  Conservative Christians, like me, would say that about this or that popular cultural value that doesn’t align with theirs, and a minority voice within a Christian denomination often says that about the majority denominational view which which they disagree.

There is a conversation happening in my denomination in which I am part of the majority, and it makes me uncomfortable.  I am uncomfortable primarily because I want the minority voice, the very voice I disagree with, to be heard, and heard in its best form.  And too often it is not heard.  And far too often it is not heard in its best form.  Along with all the multitude of biblical passages that I base my majority view upon, there are other passages that make me uncomfortable in the majority camp.

The Gospels (Matthew 18 and Luke 15) have Jesus giving us a principle of leaving the majority of the sheep (99) to seek out the minority (1).  In context this is a picture of God’s reach to those who are socially and spiritually ‘outside’, ‘lost’ and marginalised; but I can’t help but feel the principle also applies to interpretive disputes as well.

Acts 15 recounts the church dealing with a very difficult issue, and they neither appealed to the anointed authoritative leader (my Catholic brothers and sisters may disagree), nor did they ‘vote’ on it as my Baptist tradition would.  Instead they had ‘no small amount of discussion’ before some leaders drew things together into a consensus.  And what is beautiful is that the view that ended up being wrong (the view that Christians must be circumcised) was included in Luke’s account (though it was arguably not kindly represented in the council’s letter!).

Then there’s Philippians 2:3, within a letter which later instructs Euodia and Syntyche to ‘agree with one another’.  This verse is within a context about imitating the humility of Christ, who was divine but became not just a human, but a slave.  The instruction is to not be conceited, but to humbly ‘consider others better than yourself’.  I know this verse is not about aiming for heresy rather than orthodoxy in the name of humility, but could it maybe help the majority hold their majority with a bit less arrogance, over-certainty and impatience (which admittedly can be needed for the minority at times!)?

And 1 Corinthians 13:9 strikes a death blow to any perfected, complete, omniscient majority view.  In the same letter that uses language about having ‘the mind of Christ’ (in a context still about humility! chapter 2), we have Paul saying that ‘we know in part’.  This epistemological qualifier should give us plenty of hermeneutical humility.

And that is why I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable in the majority.

the psalm 8 balance

One of my favourite Psalms is the eighth. I’m using it – very briefly – for a baptism sermon this Sunday, which will have absolutely no room to even begin to extol the kind of technical beauties this gem has.

First of all, there’s the structure.  Check this out:

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth,

B who has set your splendor above the heavens;

C from mouths of babes you ordained strength, to stop the foe & avenger.

D When I consider the works of your hands the stars you’ve ordained,

E what is man that you think of him, or a son of man that you visit him?

E You made him a little lower than angels & crowned him w/ glory & honour

D gave him dominion over the works of your hands & put all under his feet

C all sheep and oxen, yes the beasts of field

B birds of the heavens, fish of sea, all that swim in paths of sea

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!

That’s a bit of chiastic beauty right there.  The widest frame of God’s glory, and within that the contrasts of the heavenly and the earthly ‘works of your hands’; all leading up to and from the middle, the intersection of heaven and earth: humans. Someone once said that, when it comes to what we have capacity to measure, from the estimated ‘size’ of the known universe, to the ‘planck length’, humans are in the direct middle.  True or not, that’s a cool thought.

Like the two triangles in the star of David, this Psalm is about the profound tension of being human.  Long before any old or new atheist ever protested the idea of humans being the centre of the world, we have ‘the baffled king’ David, who is flabbergasted at the thought of God thinking about humans.  And yet.  How inspiring is the irony that humans alone (so far as we know!) have the combination of sapience and science to grasp and be grasped by their small size in relation to ‘the rest’?  Psalm 104, by the way, speaks of purpose in creation beyond the comfort of humans.  Rock badgers, the land, the trees, the sun and moon and others all benefit.  Had David known about bosons, black holes, quarks and dark energy, he’d have found a way to speak of their delight in the provision of the Creator.

Which leads to what I like to call the ‘Psalm 8 balance’.  If to be human is to be “under the creator, and over creation” (as I recall hearing N.T. Wright say), then (as  humans primarily sin when they either fail to live up to their calling of being ‘over’ the works of God’s hands, or when they fail to submit to being ‘a little lower than God. (My understanding is that ‘elohim’ here should, as elsewhere, be translated ‘God’, not ‘angels’)  As Mark Biddle writes in Missing the Mark (p. 75),

“Authentic human existence involves living in and for the image of God while fully aware that one comes from the dust.  When this polarity becomes imbalanced in either direction, one falls into sin.”

Or Bruggemann, on this Psalm, writes,

Human power is always bounded and surrounded by divine praise.  Doxology and dominion its context and legitimacy.

Apathy is the enemy of the wonder that simultaneously makes worship godly and makes our ‘dominion’ humane.  And that is tension indeed.

And finally, there’s the way this Psalm just patient sits and quietly asks to be picked up and used to speak about Christ. The one in whom heaven and earth met.  The ‘man from heaven’ Paul would say.  The one who dared utter the words ‘before Abraham was, I AM’.  The incomparable God-Man.  The Only Begotten son, called both the son of God and son of Man, who didn’t leave his glory ‘set’ above the heavens, or just to the Father and himself ‘before the world began’ (as in John’s gospel), but who took flesh and let that glory be seen.

inclusivism

Attending Catholic Mass, one will hear from time to time a prayer (below) that I think beautifully expresses what is called soteriological inclusivism, a view that I identify broadly within.  Inclusivism lies between exclusivism (which holds that being saved requires (except perhaps in infants or intellectually challenged persons) ‘conscious knowledge’ of Christ as Lord and Saviour) and universalism (which holds that God’s grace is so overwhelmingly powerful that it will win over against the wills and decisions of all people eventually, whether before death, or in some kind of post-mortem scenario).  Inclusivism expresses a hope, or perhaps a conviction, that whilst God will not ‘force’ his grace universally onto all people, it is nonetheless possible for some to, as C.S. Lewis put it somewhere, belong to Christ without themselves knowing it.

God alone may know the faith of some who don’t let others know it, or perhaps cannot even let themselves admit it.  A friend of mine once called this being “a believer who couldn’t believe”.  Here’s how it is expressed in the Catholic liturgy (as found in my copy of the 1982 version of The Sunday Missal; Eucharistic Prayer IV), when the priest offers prayers for the dead:

Remember those who have died in the peace of Christ
and all the dead whose faith is known to you alone.

epiclesis at a free church communion table

After taking bread, and before breaking and giving it to the disciples, Jesus blessed it.  We are given no text for his prayer of blessing, but this simple act is the genesis of what is called ‘epiclesis’; where a priest, minister, pastor (or in some traditions anyone) ‘calls down’ the Holy Spirit on the bread (and also the cup) in preparation for receiving Holy Communion (or ‘Eucharist’ or the ‘Lord’s Supper’).

The Roman Catholic liturgy goes (roughly) like this:

PriestBlessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands.
It will become for us the bread of life.
All
:  Blessed be God for ever.

Priest Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink.
All
Blessed be God for ever.

As a pastor in a Baptist (‘free church’) congregation, there are (at least!) two things that will make a ‘free church epiclesis’ look different.  First, we do not follow a ‘set’ liturgy out of a prayer book (Anglican) or ‘missal’ (Catholic), so Baptist prayer at the table will be less uniform and more extempore, even if (as I strongly prefer) it follows a tradition or pattern.  Second, we do not affirm transubstantiation, so the word ‘become’ will seem inappropriate, even if many Baptists have and do affirm a spiritual presence of Christ the Host, amongst the ‘body’ of people gathered, at the table, and even somehow ‘with’ or ‘through’ the elements.

So here’s how I think a ‘baptist epiclesis’ might look like.

Minister (raising the bread or portion of it):
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to share,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
Through this sign, we eat your flesh.

(raising the cup, or a representative cup)
And through your goodness we have the Cup to share,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
Through this sign, we drink your blood.

mary – channel of salvation?

My recent time at Kopua Monastery and my reading this morning of ‘The Church of Mercy‘ (a lovely collection of addresses and ecclesiastical excerpts from Pope Francis) have me pondering the role and place of Mary in Christian faith.  Given that modern protestants say more about the role Mary does not have, than the role she does have, the question arises: What is the most largest role a Protestant could attribute to Mary?

Theologically, there is a bewildering and striking contrast concerning the role of Mary and God the Father in the Incarnation of God the Son.  It goes like this.  In that the Christ the Son was eternally begotten of the Father, he is fully divine; and in that Jesus of Nazareth was temporally begotten of Mary, he is fully human.  What a contrast this is!  The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is one person with two natures, fundamentally depends on both the willful fathering of his divine Father, and the willful mothering of his human mother.  Here we see up close and in focus the gentle omnipotence of God, who would not force Mary to comply; instead she cooperated with the announcement, saying “Let it be unto me according to Your word.”

So we have Mary’s human willingness as a necessary condition for the Incarnation.  That gives her a historical, past-tense, role in the faith.  Way back when, she was willing.  And so, indeed, she said, “Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.”  But what of an ongoing role in the faith?  And not just in the sense of ongoing acknowledgement of her “blessed” state (though could that acknowledgement be more – pardon the pun – pregnant than we Protestants have admitted?), but is there more to Mary?

Two Johannine scenes from Scripture, one from John’s gospel and the other from John’s apocalypse (or the ‘Revelation’), rise to the fore.  John’s gospel (19:26-27) has Jesus declaring a new state of relationship between his mother and the disciple he loved.  The disciple is the ‘son’ of Mary, and Mary is the ‘mother’ of the disciple.  There is an either-or concerning the interpretation of this declaration.  One sees this new state of relationship as restricted to these two humans; Jesus wants them to have support after he departs.  The other extends this to all disciples being ‘son’ (and daughters) of Mary, and Mary being the ‘mother’ of all disciples.  John’s apocalypse (12:17) speaks of her according to the latter interpretation, identifying “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony of Jesus” as “the rest of her offspring”.  Are we therefore intended, biblically, from the lips of Jesus, to view Mary, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Revelation 12:1), as our mother?

Consideration of Mary’s role as “co-redeemer”, “mediator” or “advocate” will have to wait, and I admit here my skeptical outlook to those considerations.  But for now, it seems, tentatively, that Protestants, theologically and biblically, can see Mary as not only the God-bearer (Theotokos), but also as ‘our mother’.  Thoughts from other Protestants (or Catholics/Orthodox)?

evangelical blessings and curses

David Bebbington described Evangelicalism (as opposed to Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy) as characterised by these four qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.  In this post, I want to reflect on what may be some strengths and weaknesses in these distinctives, as expressed variously throughout Evangelicalism.

Biblicism is a posture that gives priority to Scripture as a guide for Christian faith and practice.  The other sources for theology (from the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’) tend to be Reason, Tradition and Experience.  The central strength of this priority is that without the scriptural story forming our thinking and acting, we can create versions of faith that look suspiciously like us.  The content and themes of the Bible, climaxing in the person of Jesus and his Gospel of the Kingdom of God, keep us from being blown around by current fashions, interests and trends.  The weakness comes when the priority of the Bible is seen to be not only over but against things like Reason, Tradition and Experience.  Systematic theology, for example, uses reason to formulate statements of doctrine that are as logically coherent as possible.  Church tradition keeps us accountable to the insights, interpretations and experience of the past, not so we cannot change, but so that when we do, we are aware of how and how much and in what way we are doing so.  Experience likewise comes to the table, both to call our thinking and acting to be practical and practice-able, but also generates new questions for us to consider.  So the best kind of biblicism is a humble biblicism that is integrated with and draws from Tradition, Reason and Experience.  Evangelicalism can benefit from other traditions here.

Crucicentrism focuces on the Atoning work of Christ on the cross, dying in our place for our sins.  The strength of this is that it prevents Christ from being reduced to a mere moral example.  Luther also saw the cross as normative for all Christian thinking about God, seeing the suffering, forgiving Christ as the perfect revelation of God, as opposed to the high and lofty ‘theologies of glory’ that may be intuitive to reason and imagination, but nonetheless utterly reframed by the Cross.  The weakness comes when the Cross is not only central, but overshadows the birth (Incarnation), ministry, temptation, resurrection, ascension, Spirit and return of Christ.  Overly focusing on the Cross can reduce the gospel to being mainly or only about sin being forgiven, which leaves other themes panned out of frame, such as the cosmic redemption of all creation, Jesus’ identification with our trials and temptations, his wisdom, his victory over death, empowering presence and coming judgment.  So the best kind of crucicentrism will have a Cross that is integrated with the rest of the Gospel story.  Again, other traditions than Evangelicalism have strengths to offer.

Conversionism is characterised by a passion to see as many individuals as possible hear, respond to, and be transformed by the ‘good news’ of Christ.  The strength here is that conversionism guards against Christianity being reduced to effectively a social programme or soup kitchen.  Christians believe that the real way to change society is (as Miroslav Volf has said in sociological language) to create transformed social agents, or (as traditional Christian language would put it) to call people to repent of their sins and join Jesus’ kingdom project to transform the whole world.  The weakness here comes when efforts to convert individuals leads to the neglect of meeting other human needs.  If indeed the kingdom of God is about the healing of the whole creation, then this needs to be an essential part of Christian ‘evangelism’ or ‘mission’.  Once again, evangelicalism will do well to take cues from other traditions here.

Activism is characterised by a passion to bring Christian values and ethics to bear upon actual life.  The strength here is that it guards against Christianity being effectively a set of ideas and beliefs.  Christianity is an active, prophetic faith, that must be courageously acted out in all of life.  The weakness comes when our activism is either impatient or lazy.  Impatiently, we can ‘force’ our views and values upon people, rather than doing the hard intellectual and relational work for our words and actions to be heard or accepted.  Lazily, we can narrowly focus in on or take action about the same issues that we feel most confident or comfortable with.  Evangelicalism has in recent times known for damning, voting, rallying and otherwise acting ‘against’ a few (predictable?) things, and we need the wisdom, passion, breadth, and resources of other traditions to make our activism better.

corporate worship for the catholic corpus

Another way of talking about corporate worship is to say that it is worship that is enacted by the whole body – the catholic (universal) corpus (body).

In an ultimate, truly catholic corporate worship is not possible until the Age to Come, when every tongue, tribe and nation expresses it.  But Jesus’ prayer in John 17 expresses a desire for a kind of catholicity that we should continually strive for.

I’m interested (and just might explore in my Masters Thesis?) in ways that we can express worship that re-unites the Corpus Christi.  I guess that makes me an Ecumenical Baptist.  But isn’t that what Jesus prays for in John 17?  How can the Church worship across all the divides we have?  Across Liturgical and ‘Free’ Church worship frameworks; Across ‘Catholic’, Orthodox and Protestant traditions; Across Episcopal and Congregational (and other) leadership approaches; Across the nasty, embittered Liberal and Conservative ditch; Across painful Charismatic/Pentecostal and Cessationist arguments; Across the separations that split ‘Dying Old Folks Churches’, ‘Family Churches’, ‘Arty-Farty Churches’ and ‘Young Hip Cool Churches’; Across the divisions within a single church that has separate services for Elderly, Families, Singles/Young-Adults, Youth, and Children; and more.

on corporate worship

Two words: corporate and worship.  A few thoughts on each of those words that have been rattling around in my head.

Worship.  Worship is a thoroughly metaphysical and thus qualitative activity – and it is in between the lines of all that we choose to do.  What’s more, what is sometimes called the ‘rule’ of worship, is that “you become like what you worship”.  Keep on worshipping (or ‘giving ultimate worth to’) money (or any idol) and you will become the sort of person who looks at life through the lens of money.  Replace money with ‘x’ – you get the idea.  Worship is formative.  And the more a worship practice ‘seeps into our bones’, the more ‘a part of us’ it becomes, the more formative it is.  Like driving a car or riding a bicycle, you know a practice is ‘a part of you’ when you no longer have to give it much (if any) conscious thought.  The practice becomes automatic.

When it comes to riding bicycles, driving, making coffee or what have you, we appreciate ‘automatic’ practice as a good thing, that shows we have attained a level of maturity, competency or expertise.  You would want at least a few of the operative actions of a doctor to be a least a bit automatic!  (‘Let’s see, do I use the scissors or scalpel here..?’)  For some reason, however, when it comes to ‘worship’, some of us have been conditioned to see  an ‘automatic’ act of worship as being insincere, heartless, ‘dry’, or not genuine.  We call it ‘just going through the motions’ with no emotion.  I certainly do believe that an otherwise good action can be done poorly, and this includes doing it without sincerity.  But I am wondering if we throw out the baby (i.e. a specific type of practice) with the dirty bathwater (i.e. because it can be or has been done with little or no sincerity).

An example may help here.  Just last Sunday, the sermon was on Psalm 116, and after communion we sang a re-metered version of the Psalm to the tune of Amazing Grace.  The tune is so much ‘a part of us’ that we were able to sing the lyrics – which we had never even seen or read! – with a great deal of both heart and mind.  Because the tune (part of the form of the worship in this case) was ‘automatic’, our hearts and minds were more free to engage with the sentiments being felt and thought as we sung.  This is why when we are learning a new song, a new prayer, or any new form of worship, it is more ‘work’.  Naturally, we cannot join in immediately in a new form of worship that we do not (yet) know.  The more practiced we are, the more automatic the participation becomes, the more free we are to participate in the song, prayer, responsive reading, litany or what have you.

Corporate.  Corporate worship has similarities and differences with private worship.  It is the same God worshipped, and the same Gospel and same Faith that both are an expression of.  However, whilst private worship is primarily a personal, ‘you’-and-God expression of faith, corporate worship is about not just ‘you’ or ‘me’, but first God and second ‘us’.  Individual private worshippers will be able to use whatever words and forms (silence, free prayer, free song, etc.) that are helpful and relevant to them. Corporate worship, however, needs forms (songs, prayers, readings, gestures – even sights and smells!?) that everyone can participate in.  Corporate worship celebrates God, the Gospel, concern for the World, and the identity and mission of the Church in ways that are diverse and creative, but always in a form that the whole gathered congregation can share in.

I wonder if there is a tendency for the same forms that are perhaps most appropriate for all to join in, end up being the forms that are suspected to be the most heartless, insincere and dry?  After all, are we really to believe that every single one of these people singing this song all equally and fully ‘mean it’!!??  It is this concern which sometimes leads song leaders to discourage people from singing ‘if you don’t mean it’.  I’m not wanting to encourage hollow or false worship, but there is a rather obvious question lurking just beneath the surface here.  Do we ever ‘mean it’?  How can we tell, and who gets to say who can participate?  (Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for the exact reason – we must be in a ‘right’ standing.  Who, then, can ever take communion?)

In Christian theology, there is a distinction made between ‘over-realised’ and ‘under-realised’ eschatology.  Eschatology is the study of the ‘last things’ or ‘end’, and it is concerned with Heaven, or the “New Heavens and the New Earth”, and the final “Age to Come”.  Those with an ‘over-realised’ eschatological outlook will tend to be ‘idealistic’ and expect heaven to be ‘realised’ and experienced to a large degree now.  Those with an ‘under-realised’ view will tend to be ‘realistic’ and as a result not expect to see much at all of heaven to be seen in this dark world.  Theologians speak of a healthy ‘now-but-not-yet’ tension between the need to anticipate here and now the love and freedom and life of heaven, even though it will not come until it comes.  This distinction is seen in the topic of physical healing, but also in the question of do we ‘mean it’ when we sing or pray.  We will never ‘mean it’ perfectly, but we should anticipate what it would feel like to ‘mean it’.  We don’t have to ‘mean it’ perfectly to sing it – for who could?  But we also don’t want to slide into a lazy ‘it doesn’t matter if I mean it’ attitude.  Like riding a bike, ‘meaning it’ is a matter of practice.  There will be times where ‘meaning it’ might feel natural and effortless; other times it might feel false and laborious.  This too, is why corporate worship is so important.  Some days, ‘I’ may not ‘mean it’ very well.  At no time will ‘I’ ‘mean it’ perfectly.  Which is why ‘I’ need ‘we’ – ‘us’ – to be a community that seeks to ‘mean it’ together.

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

Evolution? Chaplain?

The two word response of my gym trainer at the university gym at which I am a chaplain, in response to an evolution-friendly comment by me. :)