‘Jesus Is Lord': A Political Statement?

At the heart of the Christian confession lie a number of claims about the person of Christ, among which is the assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9-10).  N. T. Wright and others in NT scholarship and Christian theology have emphasized that, ‘if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not,’ and that the book of Revelation, for example, is designed partially to subvert the hubris of the Roman Empire.

In the wake of the election here in the US, it’s interesting to ponder whether, or in what sense, the declaration of Christ’s lordship is indeed a political statement.  I’ll share my own (non-partisan) thoughts and would be glad to hear some others’.

Broadly speaking, it clearly can be called a political statement: the triune God reigns over all creation and is executing his purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), according to which all the pomp and machinations of human rulers are relativized.  This undoubtedly affords a precious solace and encouragement in the midst of the difficulties of this life, political or otherwise.

Continue reading

When We Lack Ecclesiological Structures

I read here today that the NAE has developed a code of ethics for pastors.  Certainly there’s nothing wrong with wanting to promote integrity and purity among pastors, but would this be necessary if evangelicals were properly rooted in ecclesial traditions and confessional frameworks that emphasized more than just Bebbington’s big four?

What do you make of the implications of this code?  Is it an important corrective?  A problematic development?

 

The Church and The Arts: Some Queries

It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.).  Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts.  A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,

In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource.  We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts.  We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).

I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art.  None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God.  It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.

Continue reading

Schism and Spiritual Unity

In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity.  As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.

For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith.  However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land.  This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity.  Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this.  Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism.  Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):

Continue reading

Owen on Preaching

For John Owen (who is perhaps the most famous of all my friends on Facebook, though I know not who runs his Facebook page), ‘the first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word’ (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in The Works of John Owen, 16:74).  Throughout The True Nature of a Gospel Church Owen insists that pastoral work is so taxing that God appointed elders who primarily rule in the church in order to enable elders who focus especially on the ministry of the word to keep doing just that.  Owen enumerates five non-negotiables that render someone fit to stand in the pulpit.

First, the preacher needs to have ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel’.  In fact, says Owen, it is vital that the preacher should have ‘some degree of eminency therein’, lest they be unhelpful to those who are already fairly mature in the faith (16:76).  Second, the preacher should have an ‘experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls’.  Put forcefully,

[A] man that preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul.  And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself.  If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us….The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit (ibid.).

Continue reading

Sabbath and Lord’s Day

I’ll extend the Calvin kick for another post, one that centers on his view of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Institutes, one stemming partially from the tension I might experience on Sunday as I both engage in spiritual and ecclesial activities and also head out to the pub to take in a Liverpool match.

For Calvin, the fourth commandment has three main functions: 1) to foreshadow and to promise to Israel spiritual rest which God will bring as the sanctifier of his people; 2) to provide a day for the assembled worship of God’s people; 3) to prevent oppression and overexertion of laborers (2.8.28-9).  In the old dispensation the Sabbath promoted meditation on the forthcoming ‘perpetual repose from our labors’.  However, its figurative and ceremonial aspect is no longer in force after Christ’s resurrection (Col. 2:16-17).  By participating in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14) we begin to participate in that promised rest and ‘[t]his is not confined to a single day but extends throughout the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God.  Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days’ (2.8.31).  In this connection, Calvin also reasons that meditation on that transformation work spills over into the other days of the week (2.8.34).

Continue reading

Rome, Evangelicalism, and the Regulative Principle

In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services  and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old  covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this  side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  With an eye to helping those less  acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,

As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3).  But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it.  Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23).  Indeed, this had always been done.  But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply.  Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).

Continue reading

The Church as an Extension of the Incarnation?

Following on Kent’s reflections about how to approach Barth’s work, I’ve  found myself interested to post on something from Barth’s treatment of  divine omnipresence.  The discussion of omnipresence in Church  Dogmatics is intriguing in its own right (even where one disagrees with  Barth) and exhibits the dialectical tack with which, as Kent mentioned,  Barth often operates.  However, it’s the way in which Barth’s notion of  Christ as the focal point, or ‘basis and constituent centre’, of God’s ‘special presence’ might meet current talk of an ‘incarnational’ view of the church  and its mission that has caught my eye.

In Barth’s discussion of the difference between God’s presence in Christ and God’s presence among his people, Barth remarks that, since in the Son God personally takes upon himself the human nature of Christ, this union is qualitatively different from our adoption.

But God is himself this man Jesus Christ, very God and very man, both of them unconfused and unmixed, but also unseparated and undivided, in the one person of this Messiah and Saviour.  This is what cannot be said about any other creature, even any prophet of apostle.  Jesus Christ alone is very God and very man.  And it is on the basis of this unio, but clearly differentiated from it, that there is an adoptio (CD II/1, p. 486).

Continue reading

Paedobaptism

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on different features of the doctrine of the church and would like to hear some thoughts on Bavinck’s ten propositions concerning ‘the validity of infant baptism’.  As someone reared in a Roman Catholic family but converted in a Baptist setting, I’ve been intrigued for some time by the paedobaptist teaching of the Reformed, whose tradition I find salutary with regard to so many areas of theological enquiry.  Here are Bavinck’s big ten in summary (see Reformed Dogmatics 4:525-32):

1)  At the inception of the church it was natural for baptism to concern primarily adult converts and this is what we see in the New Testament.  However, because valid inferences as well as explicit statements of biblical teaching are binding for the church, the legitimacy of infant baptism doesn’t depend on it being explicitly narrated or commanded in the NT.

2)  Baptism is the new covenant counterpart to circumcision, which was, of course, granted to the infants of Abraham’s family in the Old Testament.  Baptism and circumcision are of the same essence, but the former exceeds the latter in grace, not least because it is given to both male and female.

3)  Covenant and election are two distinct categories and the former (in which sphere the sacraments are administered) concerns persons in their historical existence in communion with one another.  In the OT, children are ‘regarded in connection with [parents]‘ and God ‘established a communion of parents and children in grace and blessing’.  ‘While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations.’

4)  In the NT, children are still regarded as participants in the covenant and this is evidenced as Jews in the Gospels reject Jesus and in response Jesus calls into question their status as God’s people but still in kindness regards Jewish children as ‘children of the covenant’.

5)  The apostolic ministry proceeds along the same lines, with the church taking the place of Israel and households as organic wholes in the book of Acts converting to Christ and sharing in common blessing (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14).  ‘Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age.’

Continue reading

The Latest Affront to Catholicity

In People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, the final book of his four-volume series with Westminster John Knox Press, Michael Horton deals with the concept of catholicity in a particularly poignant manner.  In his mind, the most urgent threat to the catholicity of the church presently is the mindset of consumerism that has pervaded even the gathering of God’s people and given rise to ‘rival catholicities’:

The current phase of ecclesial division is actually welcomed in the name of mission.  It is not the catholicity of ethnic bonds or race.  Though closely related to socioeconomic status, it is not exactly the same.  Rather, it is the catholicity of the market.  Not only separate churches, but also separate ‘churches-within-churches’ are proliferating, each targeting its unique market (p. 206).

Put more sharply, ‘Ecclesial apartheid is expanding, as each generation and demographic market is treated to its own study Bibles and devotional materials, small groups, and ‘worship experiences’ (p. 205).  For Horton, the carving up of the church according to individuals’ cultural preferences, far from affirming diversity, ends up undermining the properly multigenerational and multiethnic character of the church and turning out discrete, homogeneous clusters of persons who operate in their own niches.  Recalling Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthians’ factious approach to the Lord’s Supper (‘For do you not have homes for eating and drinking?  Or do you despise the church of God?’), Horton discerns a parallel in our market-driven strategies: ‘Do we not have our own homes and social networks for pursuing our tastes in music, style, politics, fashion, and hobbies’ (p. 208)?  He is critical of the contemporary ‘incarnational’ ministerial impetus and advocates a recognition of the local church as a ‘strange assembly of spiritual relatives we may never have known, much less chosen, in our ordinary course of life’ (p. 212).

Do you think Horton is on target here?  If so, what are some of your thoughts on moving forward?

Anhypostatic Ecclesiology and the Christian Religion in Barth

Barth has several ways of declaring that divine revelation is the decisive criticism of religion.  One of the most poignant is the statement that revelation is ‘the real crisis of religion’ (CD, I/2, 325, 331).  As he expounds the manner in which revelation confronts human religion, Barth includes the Christian religion as it stands in itself, or ‘abstractly in its human existence’ (ibid., 328): ‘this religion, too, stands under the judgment that religion is unbelief’ (ibid., 327); ‘the judgment of revelation upon religion as such does actually fall upon the religion of revelation’ (ibid., 329).  In light of this, Barth develops an analogy between the doctrine of the anhypostasis of Christ’s human nature (the belief that Christ’s human nature had no personal existence of its own but has personal existence only in the person of God the Son) and the life of the church:

The human nature of Jesus Christ has no hypostasis of its own, we are told.  It has it only in the Logos.  The same is true, therefore, of the earthly-historical life of the Church and the children of God, and therefore of the Christian religion….[The earthly body of Christ and His members] live in him, or they do not live at all (ibid., 348).

The historical existence of the church in the form of the Christian religion, for Barth, has no immanent legitimacy of its own but has its being and validation in its connection with the person of Christ.  Barth reasons also that revelation must justify, sanctify, and adopt Christianity if it is to be the true religion (ibid., 326, 338, 339).

Yet, in spite of its precarious condition in se, Barth still calls the Christian religion the true religion:

There is a true religion: just as there are justified sinners.  If we abide strictly by that analogy – and we are dealing not merely with an analogy, but in a comprehensive sense with the thing itself – we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion (ibid., 326).

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

A Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology

I am going to be spending some time working throughnicholas-healy Nicholas M. Healy’s book, Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (thank you to Cambridge University Press for a review copy). Healy claims that his book focuses more about ecclesiology than being an actual exercise in the discipline of ecclesiology, which, as we will see, ends up being more than just a formal point but a material one as well. In Healy’s own words,

I have been drawn to the present inquiry in part by the impression that while the ecclesiology of the last hundred years or so has been sometimes profound, and its impact upon the church also sometimes profound, it has not been as helpful as it could be for the Christian community…in general ecclesiology in our period has become highly systematic and theoretical, focused more upon discerning the right things to think about the church rather than orientated to the living, rather messy, confused and confusing body that the church actually is” (3).

Healy suggests that a theology which focuses on the pure essence of church will do so to the detriment of the church and its tasks. Continue reading