The Goal of Baptismal Instruction (or, Why new Christians need theology)

Let him, therefore, who is to be taught the truth in regard to piety be instructed before his baptism in the knowledge of the Unbegotten God, in the understanding of His Only-begotten Son, in the assured acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit. Let him learn the order of the several parts of the creation, the series of providential acts, the different workings of God’s laws.

Let him be instructed about why the world was made, and why man was appointed to be a citizen in it; let him also know about his own human nature, of what sort of creature he is; let him be taught how God punished the wicked with water and fire, and glorified the saints in every generation, . . . and how God did not reject mankind, but called them from their error and vanity to acknowledge the truth in various stages of history, leading them from bondage and impiety to liberty and piety, from injustice to justice, from death eternal to everlasting life (Apostolic Constitutions, 7.39.1-4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7:475-76, quoted by D.H. Williams in Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation [Baker, 2006], p. 82).

These 4th century instructions for how the church should prepare and instruct those seeking baptism in the basics of the Christian faith—that God is Triune, that he alone made the world, etc.—should challenge or at least cause some pause for churches who send people very quickly from profession of faith into baptism.

Has there been such an underestimation of the radical reversal that attends Christian conversion that we suppose new believers need no instruction or mentoring in their new identity prior to their public declaration of faith? Even with all the evidence to the contrary, do we assume that the average person in the post-Christendom West would have a basic understanding of the Christian faith and would not require instruction? Or, have we too often proclaimed a Gospel of easy-believism that bears little resemblance to the New Testament Gospel—a gospel that inverts my allegiances, re-orients my priorities, and re-narrates my life?

Or (less insidiously and maybe more likely), Continue reading

The creeds in public worship: a call to populist evangelicalism

I have posted comments on the conference in Wheaton I attended last week, and I would like to post one last time specifically on the public use of creeds in noncreedal, evangelical churches. This was a common refrain throughout the conference, and Scot McKnight’s paper made a specific proposal we might consider.

In McKnight’s paper he referred to noncreedal, evangelical churches as “populist evangelicalism,” and most, if not all, evangelical, nondenominational churches would fall within the same category (this is my opinion, not McKnight”s).

He summarized the theological, ecclesiastic function of the earliest Christian creeds as articulations of the gospel (what it is and does) that served to connect newly baptized and mature Christians alike to the gospel and to the church; the creeds were ways of providing “clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory.” For the forms of evangelicalism McKnight has in mind, the absence of any public reading of the creeds “deprives” them of the very same clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory and leads to a “theological superficiality” few of us familiar with populist evangelicalism would deny (I grew up in a noncreedal church and served on the pastoral staffs of several nondenominational churches).

So consider McKnight’s proposal, and let me know whether you think it hits the mark. I will put my cards on the table upfront: I think it does.

I propose that we who believe in the value of creeds become active in getting our churches, especially if we are part of a church tradition that does not recite The Creed publicly, to begin a course of instruction for the elders, deacons and teachers on the history of the creeds. And I don’t mean read a book about them; I mean read them and study them together. Continue reading

“Theologians, write for the church not just the guild

The second day of the conference I attended in Wheaton featured several excellent papers, not the least of which was Scot McKnight’s. I could comment on any number of his points (and I very well might next week), but for now allow me a few remarks on his thoughts regarding the publishing habits of Christian academics and his call for theologians to write for the church and not just for the academic guild.

Most of you write things no one but specialists can understand. Most of the people in your church, and probably more than most, aren’t reading the sorts of things professors write these days. Some professors think they are writing popular theology because they don’t overload their books with footnotes. Instead, they’ve only got about 100 footnotes in a 200 page book. That’s not popular theology. [...]

The need here is so great that one is tempted to call a moratorium on evangelical theologians writing for the guild, or at least reducing their guild writing and require each theologian, each biblical expert and each church historian to write one book for the church – for ordinary lay people with enough snap to it to make it genuinely readable, pleasurable and inspiring – before they can write academic pieces. [...]

Now let me do some fingerpointing: Continue reading

Fundamentalism dressed up in Postmodern clothing?

We have batted around the continuities and discontinuities between contemporary evangelicalism (of the N. American and British varieties) and 20th century fundamentalism, and I am afraid we never get very far. Perhaps it’s the nature of this particular conversation, but I remain interested in the subject. Teaching in an institution of Christian higher education with historical ties to fundamentalist Christianity means the general tendencies are never far off.  So I was intrigued to see a post by Geoffrey Holsclaw on the dynamic between recent postmodern revisions to Christianity and their relationship to the very fundamentalist forms of thought and commitments they try and overcome.

Holsclaw suggests that at least three forms of thought which claim to move beyond fundamentalism under the guise of postmodern re-alignments are simply inversions of fundamentalism all over again: inerrancy to pure errancy, biblical primitivism to rabbinic primitivism, and conservative anti-intellectualism to liberal anti-intellectualism.  Read the entire post here, but let me highlight for discussion his comments on anti-intellectualism  (he has the emergent church crowd in mind):

I’ve become more and more concerned at a creeping anti-intellectualism among some of the loudest voices who rest on rhetorical questions, anecdotal evidence, and communal experiences over philosophical and theological articulation and argument.  This, I believe, follows from the previous inversions because your don’t have to really say anything or land anywhere because we are all merely in an endless conversation.  Essentially, everything is a rhetorical display without any real substance. Continue reading

United Against Theology

I’ve been puzzled a bit about Jamie Smith’s new volume (reviewed in several posts) and its popularity. In one sense, it isn’t surprising – he is a great writer, a deep thinker and he addresses concrete problems in our congregations and lives. But there is another sense where it is downright shocking that his program is so universally well-received by American evangelicals (my focus is on North American evangelicals in this post). First, his conversation partners are not the conversation partners evangelicals typically turn to (e.g., Yoder, Hauerwas and Radical Orthodox). Second, his emphasis on liturgy is not something (sadly) that evangelicals are typically excited about. Third, his exposition of practices, particularly the ex opere operato nature of liturgical practices runs directly against the sensibilities of evangelicals who fear, almost above all else, rote practices. So why such enthusiasm?

I have a theory. Evangelicals hate theology. Continue reading

Rowan Williams on the “accessibility” of the church

Rowan_Williams_1110959cThrough various blog links I stumbled upon an interesting interview with Rowan Williams. If you spend any time on TF you know I am an avid  – though novice – reader of the Archbishop. I wouldn’t call it a scholarly investment; I simply find him provoking and refreshing in equal measure. Williams helps get me excited about theology and the church again when I start losing hope in either (his sermons particularly).

The interview touches on the “accessibility” – or relevance – of the church in our contemporary setting. While there is certainly food for discussion on that topic, his comments are illuminating about the “downward spiral” of having low expectations of young people. I see this in the classroom almost every week: so little has been expected of my students in the past that I fear many of them expect little of themselves.

Ian Hislop: How do you balance that attempt to be of the age, to be accessible, and yet not be banal.

Archbishop of Canterbury: The point is often being confident enough about what you are inviting people into, which is not simply an entertainment but a journey and process of change. Continue reading

“Practical” Theology?

I have been talking with one of my new colleagues at Huntington about the nature and tasks of “Practical Theology” and its relationship with other theological subdisciplines (systematic, biblical, historical, etc.). Steeple_croppedShe teaches in the department of Ministry and Missions and wonders if the theological work she does there is best characterized as “practical theology”. In some sense it boils down to how you define practical theology, and that in turn has implications for how you understand the roles of other modes of theological reasoning.

For sake of clarifying the issue, consider the following definitions and weigh in: Which do you find more satisfactory? And, does either map the relationship between practical and “systematic” theology in a compelling way?

As a theological discipline [Practical Theology's] primary purpose is to ensure that the church’s public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God’s continuing mission to the world and in so doing authentically address the contemporary context into which the church seeks to minister … [Practice theology] extends systematic theology into the life and praxis of the the Christian community (Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology, pp. 22-3).

[Practical theology] begins and ends with inquiries focused on practices. The ground for this focus is an understanding of faith as a lived entity. Our task is to think through faith and “belief” in terms of their embodiment in life. Thus the primary reference of our theologizing is the lived life in all its contemporary forms. This contrasts with biblical studies’ focus on texts, systematics focus on doctrines, church history’s focus on the history of the community of faith, but relies on these forms of inquiry in understanding what it means for faith to be lived (Brock and Swinton, The Aberdeen School of Practical Theology).

Another part of my interest in defining practical theology is my concern that systematic theology not be understood as a practice sequestered from the lived existence of the church Continue reading

Practical Prophetic Ecclesiology: Part 3

After addressing the nature of the practical-prophetic task and blueprint eccleisologies in the first two chapters, this post will look at the remainder of the volume. Building upon the first two chapters, Healy proposes that the way forward in ecclesiology is by way of a “theodramatic horizon.” nicholas-healyBorrowing heavily from Balthasar Healy writes, “Balthasar contends that theological discourse should reflect the true nature of revelation and Christian existence prior to the eschaton. The relations between God, world and church are best conceived, he believes, as something rather like a play. The play can best be described in terms of one or other of two main types of Christian horizons and theological styles, the epic and the dramatic” (53).

This bifurcation allows Healy to shuffle modern blueprint theologies into epic construals, highlighting his critique that ecclesiology has focused primarily on the eschaton rather than as the broken pilgrim church. The dramatic orientation of the church is seen to parallel the scriptures and the movement of God both pro nobis as well as God’s life ad intra: “This in a way analogous to (and dependent upon) the way the Father makes room for the Son within the Godhead, God gives us a place on the stage where we may make our free response in gratitude” (62). But this response, being free, is tainted with sin. The church, as the church in via, is caught in between the times, and therefore ecclesiology must address this specific scenario.

The theodramatic horizon Healy offers, based on following Balthasar’s understanding of divine and human agency, gives a theologically laced reality to the “non-church.” Healy explains, Continue reading

Practical Prophetic Ecclesiology (Part 2)

nicholas-healy1In chapter two, Healy addresses what he calls “blueprint ecclesiologies.” His vision for ecclesiology is that it “can aid the church’s efforts by reflecting theologically upon its concrete identity” (25). Healy moves on to focus on what he considers the ecclesiological styles of the last century: 1) an attempt to encapsulate in a single word or phrase the most essential characteristic of the church; 2) construing the church as having a bipartite structure; 3) these last two elements are combined into a systematic and theoretical form of normative ecclesiology; 4) a tendency to relfect upon the church in abstraction from its concrete identity; and 5) a tendency to present idealized accounts of the church (26).

Healy spends significant time reflecting upon Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church, focusing on number 1 above. The single words or phrases modern theologians have suggested, as mapped by Dulles are: sacrement, herald, institution, mystical communion, servant, and Dulles’ own suggestion, community of disciples (27). One need not reflect long to realize the possible dangers of such approaches – relativizing ecclesiology around a category which certainly will reflect aspects of the church, but probably will certainly fail to encapsulate ecclessiology in its entirety. From here it becomes clear what some of Healy’s presuppositions are: Continue reading

Heresies and How to Avoid Them

Ben Quash is one of my favorite young, British theologians. His study of theodramatic conceptions of history, Theology and the Drama of History, was great; his expositions of Hans Urs von Balthasar are lucid, his judgments judicious, and his prose makes you believe he really does find joy in crafting them. He also contributes the essay on ‘Revelation’ in the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology which is equally good. So I was excited to get hold of his most recent edited volume, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters what Christian’s Believe.

Here is a short excerpt from his essay: “Donatism: Do Christian ministers need to be faultless for their hereisies-and-how-to-avoid-them-2jpg1ministrations to be effective?”

[T]he border between schism and heresy is a blurry one. And in fact, one of the instructive features of the Donatist dispute as a whole is precisely  the way it highlights the artificiality of separating faith (or belief) from love (or practices). Christian practice is a sort of theology, an exposition…And in lots of ways the Donatists (at least those not marauding or supporting the marauders) embodied just that proper emphasis on right practice as inseparable from Christian truth…They wanted at their best, to be disciplined communities of character.

The problem was that their practice betrayed two things at the heart of Christian teaching: the ineradicable fallibility of creation (including the Church) and its consequent unavoidable need of grace on this side of the end of time. It is God’s job to make the Church pure, not ours, and he will do it when he is ready. However morally zealous we are, we will never by our own effort carve out a pure space which we can call the true Church by pointing to the unimpeachable lives of its members. Instead, they will sin, and they will need to be forgiven, and they will do so constantly. The holiness of the Church is precisely that it is a place where this circulation of forgiveness goes on all the time; it is not because forgiveness is never necessary in the first place. A Church which insisted that its members – or even just its clergy – had to be spotless would be an empty Church, or else a dishonest Church (p. 83, 88-89)

A Theology of Disability and Hospitality

Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Brazos Press, 2008), 256pp [Review Copy Courtesy of Brazos Press]

A Guest Review by Elizabeth Lynch

This book sets out to reflect theologically on the kind of place the church should be in the light of the kind of human vulnerability that is manifest in disability.  Reynolds claims, in the introduction, “disability is an often overlooked and contested ‘site'”, and argues that it has the potential to raise

issues of difference, normalcy, embodiment, community, and redemption. For this reason, disability has theological power (p. 13).

Reynolds’ book makes the case that in a context of social injustice and exclusion, God’s (and, by extension, the church’s) response is one of solidarity, characterised as sympathy, compassion, vulnerability, relationality, hospitality and inclusion.

While not wanting to argue against this, my concern is that it only tells part of the story.  Reynolds presents God and the church as absorbing the suffering caused by injustice, but at no point does he discuss God’s (or the church’s) condemning and resisting that injustice.  Is there not very good reason to argue that God is, and the church should be, a protesting presence as well as a sympathetic presence?  And would this not be a more genuine solidarity?

A brief survey of the first four chapters will position us for a closer reading of his theological arguments found later in the book at which time I will expand on my critique. Continue reading

The Joy of Ministry (part 1)

I am seldom eager to read another new book on ministry; thankfully The Joy of Ministry (WJK, 2008) is no ordinary offering (many thanks to WJK for a review copy).

This is not a how-to book on ministry. Nor is it a book that seeks to improve one’s mood or to offer inspirational nuggets of pastoral ministry. Rather, this book seeks to reflect on the beauty of the church’s theological task and the joy of the church’s ministry (p. 1)

Rooted in the writings of Karl Barth and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Thomas Currie III reminds readers that ministry is not properly thought about in terms of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ but in terms of ‘the gift and the task of pointing to Jesus Christ…its sheer existence is a gift of an ongoing miracle whose grace is both relentlessly embarrassing and surprisingly joyful.’

We have forgotten that joy is found not in busyness but in dependence; we do not find joy, but are found by joy in Jesus Christ. ‘We have grown busy but not joyful’, warns Currie, and in the midst of our churchly busyness the joy of the gospel that is ours in Jesus Christ remains ‘frustratingly elusive and oddly inarticulate’.

The joy of the gospel is that ‘deep confidence’, even ‘astonished laughter’, attending the discovery that there is One at work in our world ‘more central to our stories than we are to ourselves’. ‘Joy is the great gift of the gospel’ he urges,

but it is a gift that, like manna, cannot be turned into a commodity, something that can be bought or sold, or stored up for use of our own purposes. It remains ever a gift, Continue reading

Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Daniel Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Baker Academic, 2008), 221pp. [review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

Daniel Treier’s Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice is a timely and largely helpful introduction of the growing, diverse movement to recover a distinctively theological interpretation of Scripture broadly known as ‘theological interpretation’ or ‘theological hermeneutics’.

As a mapping exercise, the book provides a useful orientation to the movement’s dominant trajectories, prominent figures, and to the issues most pressing for evangelicals (e.g. preoccupation with authorial intent).

Because Treier’s primary aims are introduction and mapping, his own constructive proposals for theological interpretation are mostly downplayed. However, in those moments when he transitions from exposition to argument, we get tantalizing glimpses of what will hopefully occupy his full attention in subsequent works. For example, with his evangelical readers in mind, Treier searches for a middle ground between ‘reader-response’ approaches and what sometimes appears to be a complete disregard for the ‘reader’ in evangelical hermeneutics. Following a close reading of Gadamer and some discussion of the appropriateness of the evangelical rejection of relativism, Treier makes a measured argument for ‘interpretive plurality’. ‘One gets the idea’ Treier remarks,

that we would have no need for interpretation in an ideal world. But in some respects diversity is a creational and pentecostal reality: Continue reading

On Theodicy and Practical Theology

How do our ‘answers’ to the questions of evil relate to our ‘practices’, both individually and ecclesially?

John Swinton offers a compelling proposal for a practical theodicy that is able to surmount what he perceives as the severe theological and pastoral limitations of purely philosophical answers to “the problem of evil.” He explains,

I maintain that theodicy should not be understood as a series of disembodied arguments designed to defend God’s love, goodness, and power. We require a different mode of understanding, a mode of theodicy that is embodied within the life and practices of the Christian community. Such a mode of theodicy does not seek primarily to explain evil and suffering, but rather presents ways in which evil and suffering can be resisted and transformed by the Christian community and in so doing, can enable Christians to live faithfully in the midst of unanswered questions as they await God’s redemption of the whole of creation (Raging with Compassion, p. 4).

Our focus shouldn’t rest then on “why” evil exists, instead - relying heavily on Hauerwas here – “how can we build communities that absorb suffering and enable faithful living in the midst of evil.”

Rather than approaching the problem of evil by beginning with the “concept of evil” and the “concept of a loving God”, the proper starting point Continue reading