For the Life of the World

I have been reading through a great little book called For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann, and thought I would post a quote and some questions. Schmemann, in the midst of talking about food (of all things), says this:

We can interupt here for a while this theme of food. We began with it only in order to free the terms ‘sacramental’ and ‘eucharistic’ from the connotations they have acquired in the long history of technical theology, where they are applied almost exclusively within the framwork of ‘natural’ versus ‘supernatural,’ and ‘sacred’ versus ‘profane,’ that is, within the same opposition between religion and life which makes life ultimately unredeemable and religiously meaningless. In our perspective, however, the ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God.

It is this last aspect that I am most interested in, particularly in light of the discussions concerning the “sacred” and “secular” dichtomy. Schmemann goes on to say, Continue reading

Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future

Mark Husbands & Jeffrey Greeman eds. Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future. Downers Grove: IVP, 2008. 271pp., $21.86.

The later years of the twentieth century saw evangelical theology beginning to remember the importance of the church’s tradition and, in doing so, to engage in its own form of ressourcement theology (La nouvelle théologie). As Husbands contends,

[I]t is evident that if contemporary evangelical theology aspires to help the church engage the contemporary world in a faithful and persuasive fashion, it would do well to recover the best conversation partners is can find, even if this means reaching back a thousand years or more…Standing in the shadow of Lubac, we believe that Christianity cannot meet the challenges of modernity and postmodernity without returning to the tradition of the early church (p. 12).

In light of this trend, the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference sought to demonstrate the “viability and promise of engagement with the early church”, and the present volume contains the papers from that meeting.

Rationale and Attendant Challenges

The book is divided into four parts. Part one explores the underlying rationale and attendant challenges of an evangelical ressourcement theology. The essays by Christopher Hall and D.H. Williams are particularly good. Hall’s piece, the keynote address for the conference, argues that the bible must be read with the church fathers based on the substantial difference between the doctrine of sola scriptura and, what he considers, a common “yet confused” appeal to nuda Scriptura,“a view of the Bible in which no ecclesial context is thought to bear on the meaning of the text”. Aware that evangelicals are susceptible to an overly romantic reading of the church fathers, Continue reading

Christianity and the “Removal of God”

Consider Søren Kierkegaard’s reflections on God’s nearness and remoteness and the manner in which the church’s outward “successes” may in fact signal its “removal of God.” What does the church today need to hear from Kierkegaard?

The law for God’s nearness and remoteness is as follows: The more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God cannot possibly be present here, the closer he is. The opposite is also true: the more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God is very near, the farther away he is.

…At the time when there were no churches and the Christians gathered together in catacombs as refugees and lawbreakers, God was close. Then came the churches, so many churches, such great splendid churches and to the same degree God was distanced. For God’s nearness is inversely related to externals, and this ascending scale (churches, many churches, splendid churches) is an increase in the sphere of appearance.

Before Christianity became a doctrine, Continue reading

Violence, Peace, and Judgment (& Gone Baby Gone)

Watching the movie Gone Baby Gone last night spurred my thinking about the complexities of pursuing peace and reconciliation in a world sick with violence. Gone Baby Gone is a brilliant and disturbing film that challenges its viewers to consider the possibility of a moral space between right and wrong.

One question worth pursuing might be this: What would it look like to think well theologically about reconciliation and peace in a world sick with violence? Such thinking would involve, first and foremost, I suggest, consideration of God’s relationship to violence, revenge, and peace. Especially in light of recent attempts to distance God from violence, to conceive of an inherently nonviolent God, this line of thinking is all the more critical for a robust doctrine of God in the church.

Let’s find our way into the discussion by considering Miroslav Volf’s theological exploration of identify, otherness, and reconciliation, Exclusion and Embrace. In the concluding pages he asks a question especially pertinent to our discussion: how do we relate the Crucified Messiah to the Rider of the white horse who seems to deploy violence without any thought of embracing the enemy?

In ways unpopular for many Western theologians, Volf argues Continue reading

Sung Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith

How do hymns display and express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition? And how does this sung theology shape and form our faith (belief, affection, and action)?

For the sake of the discussion, let’s focus on evangelical hymns. In American Evangelical Christianity, Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll, attempts to probe the message of evangelical Christianity through the medium of its hymns. In doing so, he identifies three distinct layers of hymnody that define the modern evangelical movement at its best. For our purposes we will consider just two: Christ-centered picture of redemption and social vision (the other is ecumenism). Even if you don’t identify with the evangelicalism Noll expounds, consider how the sung theology of your tradition shapes your beliefs – your credo.

The Scandal of the Cross Is the Scandal of My Forgiveness

“And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused such pain? For me? Who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be That thou my God, shouldst die for me?” (Charles Wesley)

The first thing to notice about this hymn is its characteristically evangelical focus on the individual person’s salvation. It casts the scandal of the cross primarily in terms of how the love and forgiveness therein could be for “me.” Wesley wonders over the radicality of Christ’s death and asks: “For me?” Continue reading

On Pastoral Eschatology

I vividly remember the first funeral I officiated: A twenty-six year old engaged to be married whose parents were desperate to know his eternal whereabouts. “Was his childhood faith sufficient?” they asked. “Did his lifestyle in the intervening years represent a ‘falling away’ or lack of genuine faith? How do we know?”

In a recent post on Pastoral Eschatology Stephen Holmes registers several of the theological and pastoral issues that attend such questions and offers a few practical suggestions. Rather than appealing to decisions of faith, by moving the issue of eternal fate “back” into the doctrine of God, it seems to me Holmes offers a more productive and theologically secure place from which to minister to grieving families.

I am fully convinced-and became so in pastoral ministry, performing funerals-that we cannot and should not speculate about the eternal fate of any particular person. God will judge, and…when we see God’s judgement we will be astonished by the depths of His mercy, and by the heights of His justice.

…Too many Evangelical accounts of personal eschatology are simply Pelagian: I make decisions, and God responds to them. This has to be wrong. Continue reading

Asking Jesus into your Heart??

Why do many Christians say, “Ask Jesus into your heart”?

I understand what this refers to, a relationship with God through Christ, but find it curious that non-biblical and potentially misleading language is the most important language for evangelism among many evangelical Christians. In a recent blog post, Klyne Snodgrass reminds us that neither Jesus nor the other New Testament writers come even close to saying, “Invite Jesus into your heart so you can go to heaven.” He continues,

Paul rarely speaks of Christ in us-at most six times, but at least 164 times he has the Greek expression en Christō or its equivalent, which can express a variety of ideas. Clearly though, being in Christ is a much more powerful image than Christ being in us. Faith is not merely a mental activity. As Sanday and Headlam’s old ICC commentary on Romans put it, faith involves “enthusiastic adhesion” (p. 34). Faith is that which attaches you to Jesus. Nothing less is saving faith.

John’s language focuses too on attachment to Jesus. While he speaks both of Christ being in us and our being in him, he expresses both ideas with the word menein, “to remain.” Christians are people so attached to Jesus that he remains in them and they remain in him. (emphasis mine)

Assuming Snodgrass is right (and I think he is), how could we speak about life with God in ways more disciplined by the Scriptures – ways other than “Ask Jesus into your heart”? For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus the issue specifically on children for three reasons. Continue reading

Everyday Theology (3) » Reading Church Architecture

What might it look like to read and interpret church architecture theologically? notre-dame.jpg

In “Between City and Steeple” (Chapter 5 of Everyday Theology) Premkumar Williams invites us to pay attention, or read, the messages communicated by our church’s architecture, to engage architecture as a “cultural text” laden with messages.

Buildings introduce themselves by their sheer physical presence. Their size and scale, materials used, and sense of proportion and unity can draw our attention, bore us, or even repel us. Once past the initial ‘introduction,’ interesting buildings invite us to engage in a meaningful ‘conversation,’ holding out the promise of richer experiences embedded in their symbols and spaces (p. 127).

This is not a conversation I hear many people having.

Questioning Architectural Messages

Though Williams focuses here specifically on megachurch buildings, one could presumably apply these tools for theological interpretation to any church structure, no matter the size. Regarding the “how” of reading church structures, consider the following questions for developing an architectural “literacy”:

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Kevin Vanhoozer responds to my implementation query

Kevin Vanhoozer was kind enough to respond to my query regarding the implementation of his vision in actual faith communities (see the previous post for his proposal). Here is my query followed by his response:

What would it look like for a faith community who grasped the importance of cultural exegesis to cultivate these abilities in its people? You assert, “The church should be not only a ’school of faith’ but a ’school of understanding’ that trains the imaginations of its student-saints to see, judge, and act in the world as it really is ‘in Christ’” (p. 58). Could you imagine with us what it might look for a church to take on that calling of training cultural interpreters and live it out? Or for an educational institution like a Christian seminary to do the same?

This is an important discussion. I’m not sure, however, that my special gift lies inasburyseminaryvanhoozer.jpg implementation so much as conception of ideas. However, if I were a pastor I would be sure to have film viewings, book discussions, and youth as well as Adult education classes that would engage past and present culture. As in church, so in seminary: Christian disciples need to learn to read not only the word of God but the world of God through the word of God. It’s all part of Christian world view formation, and of Christian world construction (by which I mean “cultivating Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon”).

If I were a pastor, I would try to exposit biblical passages in such a way that my sermons would illumine not only the text, but the world in which we live. I think such a “transposition” (what I have also called world-for-world translation) is every bit as important as the traditional “individual application.”

Many thanks to Kevin Vanhoozer for his thoughtful reply!

Is there anything else we would want to add or other ways to think about implementation?

Paul’s Theology of Suffering (Part 1 continued)

at-the-heart-of-the-gospel.jpgAs we saw yesterday, Jervis (At the Heart of the Gospel) makes three interwoven claims from 1 Thessalonians. First, she connects Christologically the suffering of Christ to the suffering of believers through Paul’s exhortation to “imitate” Christ in 1:6. In some mysterious way, she urges, God actually uses the suffering of believers toward his redemptive ends (I have some concerns here, see my comments from yesterday).

She follows with two further claims:

(2) A Spiritual-Pneumatological Claim:

Paul understands the threads of holiness, which are faith, hope, and love, to be threaded through the needle of affliction. Living in faith, hope, and love does not mean one is protected from pains…By accepting the word of the gospel (1:6) and determining to lead lives worthy of God (2:12), the Thessalonians became both people who exhibited faith, hope, and love and people who suffered. Their faith, hope, and love are expressed as they suffer (p. 20).

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Rowan Williams and the demands of confession

What kinds of demands are made on us when we we confess: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”?

Rowan Williams helps us explore this in his little book, Tokens of Trust (a collection of ‘talks’ he512cufo-kol__ss500_.jpg gave in Canterbury Cathedral during the week before Easter back in 2005). The importance of this book doesn’t necessarily rest on Williams’ ability to speak to everyone which, if you’ve read Williams when he’s at work, you’ll know this is a completed task in itself; rather, by calling people back to the creeds, to that particular sphere where the gospel is proclaimed, Williams reminds us that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to doing church. Instead, Williams demonstrates that by an attentive listening to the speech of the saints we not only measure what we say against the gospel, testing our speech, holding our words accountable, but as we confess we find ourselves tested by these words, put under the microscope, so to speak. Continue reading

(Saving Power, Ch. 12) How does atonement theology influence the forms of the Church?

steeple_cropped.jpgPeter Schmiechen makes a straight-forward claim in his final chapter of Saving Power: “theories of the atonement do in fact inspire particular forms of the church” (354). In other words, what a particular church believes about the nature of the atonement, and which language it uses to witness to it, influences the way that church does life together and lives for the world around her.

The connection between the two, atonement theology and church life, is formed by the way in which one understands “what God in Christ does and how the benefits of this event are transmitted to us” (355). Because most people think of atonement theories as only dealing with what Christ has done, how the benefits of God’s saving power are communicated to believers is neglected. Theories remain abstract without considering their impact on church life and mission.

Continue reading