Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (A Review)

Guest Blogger: Zen Hess

Following the recent release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Lauato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, EvangelicalEcoTheologyvarious republican presidential candidates shared their opinions on the matter. Rick Santorum, for example, said that Pope Francis should “leave science to the scientists.” Many of us may resonate with such a statement — most of our pastors and spiritual leaders probably know very little about science. However, Pope Francis is a trained chemist and, more importantly, confesses that God created all things. Should Christians, and their leaders, who confess God as Creator not have great concern regarding the well being of all the things God created? This is the conviction of Brunner, Butler and Swoboda, who crafted Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker 2015).

The book is a thorough and readable resource for any learner — “whether in undergraduate, graduate, seminary or church settings” (p. 12) — who wants to understand why and how the ecological crisis relates to Christianity.

First, they name some of the problems the book is addressing, such as: “acute ecocrisis” caused by humans, the “church’s own internal strife,” the politicization of the ecocrisis, as well as a number of theological problems (p. 16-18). The authors hypothesize that each of these problems, either directly or indirectly, have hindered the Church from joining the ecological discussion; in addressing these problems, the authors clear the way for further ecclesiological dialogue on ecological matters.

Second, the authors provide an abundance of proofs for why Christians need to be concerned about the ecological crisis. Drawing from Scripture, theological doctrines, church history, sociological and scientific data, the authors make an exceptionally convincing case. At this point, however, one must remember that this is an introduction to ecotheology. I found myself, at times, wanting them to spell their arguments out in more detail. Yet, their goal is to introduce readers to why ecotheology makes sense within evangelical Christian theology — and that they have faithfully done.

Finally, the authors give a great deal of practical advice. Said differently, they tell us what to do with our theological knowledge. Continue reading

An Overtaking of Depth

41mBxWFfxTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have an article in the new volume of the journal American Theological Inquiry. The essay is titled, “‘An Overtaking of Depth’: Theology as Retrieval.” If you’re interested in checking out my recent book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, this article is a great place to start. Parts of the essay are adapted from it and, I hope, it will whet your appetite to read the book!

The essay has three parts. In the first, my coauthor and I ground retrieval in the basic Christian pattern of receiving and transmitting the deposit of faith. Retrieval in this sense is not unique to our time, but basic and fundamental to Christian theology.

The second part introduces six contemporary theologies of retrieval and locates them within the widespread skepticism about the fruits of modernity that characterized much of late twentieth-century theology.

The final section presents a range of possible outcomes of retrieval. We suggest that one outcome best characterizes theology as retrieval: ressourcement. This outcome demonstrates the effective negotiation of the inherent tensions of retrieval: continuity and discontinuity, stability and change, and constraint and freedom. The term “ressourcement” is well-known for its origin in early twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology, but it has broader applicability. The outcome of ressourcement is possible within any Christian community when theological retrieval seeks to receive and transmit the deposit of faith.

Here are the first few paragraphs (read the entire article here):

Like every facet of the church’s life, theology always begins already in the middle. It is caught in the middle of God’s reconciling activity, drawn along by its current, part of its history. In this sense, Christian theology is a normed practice. Its cadence and grammar are given by the revelation of God in Christ received by the apostles and witnessed in Holy Scripture. What was true for the apostles is thus true for the church today: the initial movement of theological reflection is the astonished response of encountering God’s grace. Indeed, theology springs out from worship and, when healthy, turns us back toward it.

There is a second sense in which theology begins already in the middle. The church’s work of sanctified reason takes shape in the middle of particular cultures, times, and communities. The truth of the Gospel is timeless, but it is always known and expressed within an actual place, time, and people. Such particularity includes, perhaps most importantly, the church. In the church, theological reflection is carried out within the fellowship of Christ’s body, located within a tradition characterized by unique emphases and traits, and simultaneously draws on and contributes to the church’s worship. There, in worship, theology is reminded that the risen and exalted Christ is gloriously present in the church through the transforming work of his Spirit. Thus the church, and by extension the theologian, does not merely act but is acted upon. The kinds of theologians who seek to be faithful both to the givenness of Christianity and the present moment require the skill best described as discernment.

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Theology as Retrieval – now available

It is a pleasure to announce that my newest book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, is now available! You can purchase it through your favorite book-sellers. Here is a link to Amazon.Theology as Retrieval

Writing back cover copy is tricky, and I am glad the good folks at IVPAcademic did such a nice job with ours. Here is a quick glimpse of what my coauthor and I seek to do in the book.

In Theology as Retrieval David Buschart and Kent Eilers show that retrieving the Christian past is a mode of theological discernment, a cultivated habit of thought that looks back in order to move forward. Surveying six areas where the impulse and practice of retrieval has been notably fruitful and suggestive, they explore and offer constructive and programmatic proposals for theological reflection, practice and hope.

The six areas are Holy Scripture, theology, worship, spirituality, mission and cosmos (“cosmos” is shorthand for the bold vision of Radical Orthodoxy). Buy the book, and let’s have a conversation about it here on TF!

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert and Milton: a brief review

Crossway are publishing Devo poetryChristian Guides to the Classics, a series of compendia to classic literature by Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College and is known in biblical studies and Christian thought for books like Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (co-ed.) and Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. A number of famous works, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Homer’s The Odyssey, have been treated in the series, and this volume breaks the mold by focusing on three different authors and some of their various lyric poems. As someone who is now ever immersed in analyzing the details of scholastic theology (which can indeed be edifying if done properly!), I find this sort of work a welcome change of pace, a helpful way to counterbalance some of the other reading that occupies my time.

Ryken begins by sketching some fundamental traits of lyric poems, particularly their subjectivity: ‘Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story.’ As to their form, the poems considered here are sonnets in which there is a ‘statement of the controlling theme’, a ‘development of the controlling theme’ and a ‘resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure’ (p. 8). What makes the character of these short works to be ‘devotional’ is that they have ‘Christian experience and doctrine as [their] subject matter’. The effect of devotional poetry is thus ‘to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life’, but with a greater density of content and a higher artistry than our typical devotional reading (p. 13).

As Ryken proceeds through the different sections, he gives a one-page biography of each poet. John Donne was Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism, preaching, in Ryken’s words, ‘ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society’ (p. 15). By contrast, George Herbert was an Anglican minister in a small village. He ‘polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the volume over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar’ (p. 47). Different still was John Milton, a Puritan spokesman and political figure who in his poetry ‘cultivated what is called the high style’. While Donne and Herbert ‘wrote in a middle style…Milton wanted the grand effect’ (p. 75).

For each of these authors’ poems, Ryken provides a short introduction, a lightly annotated text, a commentary and finally a few questions for further discussion. Ryken’s stated goal is not to ‘[tear] the poem apart’ but rather to ‘explicate’ it in such a way that readers ‘are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem’ (p. 9). In other words, one should still be able to derive aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual benefit from these small works in the midst of the analysis. The examination of each poem is brief and doesn’t take the reader into painstaking detail, which certainly helps to keep the problem of ‘tearing apart the poem’ at bay. Because of this, the book can serve to educate readers on literary dynamics of some classic works and also still function as a spiritual resource. In a perfect world, there might have been a way to give the text of each poem its own distinct page so that a reader could more easily contemplate the poem itself without their eyes being drawn up to the introduction or down to the commentary. However, that’s a relatively small issue in the end. On the whole, this is a sharp little book written in a helpfully straightforward style and attentive to both the literary and spiritual dimensions of devotional poetry.

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, here is one sample from Donne:

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doth go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

New creation and ‘Gnosticism’: à Brakel once more

a brakelAside from frustrations experienced when someone advocates a pretribulational rapture, I would consider myself someone who doesn’t get riled up about eschatology very easily. Christ will return, and the dead shall rise (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Christ will judge all, and God will bring creation out of its bondage to decay so that all those whose names are written in the book of life will dwell there with God forever (Rev. 20:11-15; 21-22). These are central to our Christian hope. Yet, there are still interesting questions to be discussed in the ambit of the main concerns.

In reading through à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, I came across his discussion of the nature of the new creation and paused for some reflection. Will this heaven and earth be purged of sin and death and restored by God, or will God annihilate the current creation and start over completely? According to à Brakel, respectable folk can disagree on this one, but he provides some compelling reasons to hold that the ‘structural edifice’ or ‘substance’ of the current heavens and the earth will remain and simply be purged and restored to a right condition.

These reasons include: (1) Peter expects restoration (apokatastasis) in Acts 3:21. (2) Paul’s reference to the ‘whole creation’ in Romans 8:18-25 is broader than the company of Christian believers, and the ‘whole creation’ is to be delivered, not annihilated. (3) The ‘folding up’ and ‘changing’ of creation in Psalm 102 and Hebrews 1 assumes that what is changed ‘continues to exist in essence’. (4) Peter (2 Pet. 3) likens the destruction of creation to the perishing of the old world in the flood of Noah, which was not an annihilation of all things (4:353-5). Because of Revelation 21:1, à Brakel is prepared to allow that the sea may be omitted from the new creation, but even here ‘[w]hether this refers to substance or characteristics, we shall leave unanswered’ (4:355). Indeed, there’s quite a lot that à Brakel is prepared to leave ‘unanswered’: Continue reading

Spiritual darkness and ‘keeping a low profile’

a brakelSpiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.

Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.

He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).

What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:

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Lament as Compassionate Protest

Christians don’t lament well. I am more convinced of this all the time. We know how to complain Printbut not so much how to lament. We lack the training in it for certain, but even when we try we can’t muster any energy for it without guilt. Guilt because we think we should have a cheerier disposition as evidence of our faith. Everything will be okay because God’s “in control”, right? We suspect that lament shows a lack of faith.

Guilt is not our only hang-up. I once spoke to a group of university students about Christian responses to evil, and I suggested that our first response is silence, followed by lament. I couldn’t read everyone’s response, the evening crowd had swelled beyond the capacity of the recital hall, but follow-up conversations showed another hindrance to lament: the perception of inactivity. Lament seemed too inactive, too passive for my advocacy-minded students. Where is the courage in lament? Where is the resistance? Where is the protest?

Todd Billings’ new book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ  (Brazos: 2015) is a desperately-needed primer on the language of lament as a feature of Christian life. It arose from Todd’s journey through his diagnosis and treatment of incurable cancer, and it has much to say to any of us painfully aware that things in our world are not as they should be. If its not cancer, then it is surely something else; none of us are immune from pain. How do we lament without guilt and without passivity?

Other reviewers in this blog tour have overviewed the book (read those here). I will focus more narrowly on Todd’s portrayal of lament as “compassionate protest”.

Lament names the world as it stands: broken, yet in the process of renewal as the kingdom of God expands within it. New Testament lament is found on the lips of Jesus, “May your kingdom come.” It is not a throw-away line. Praying “may your kingdom come” identifies – without flinching or hesitation – how things really are. There are dark, incomplete places in our midst in which your kingdom does not seem present; so we cry for the kingdom and in doing so lament its apparent absence. Children are sold into sex-slavery – “may your Kingdom come.” Totalitarian governments slaughter their own people – “may your kingdom come.” The earth groans under the weight of our misuse of it – “may your kingdom come.” Cancer ravages our bodies – “may your kingdom come.”

Passivity and inactivity could not be farther from such kingdom-oriented lament. It names our broken world in the same breath that it cries out for renewal and liberation. Such lament calls for action, and not only for God’s action but for mine. It calls for leaping into the wake of new creation as participants in Christ’s kingdom drama! “As our lips say, “Thy kingdom come,” Todd explains, “we pray―we act―as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Lament of this sort propels us into the fray even as it calls on God to remain faithful to his promises.

Our restless prayers of lament go hand in hand with compassionate protest until Christ’s kingdom has fully come…Until then, we protest against God’s enemies―death, sin, and the devil―as we bear witness to the present and future King, our God―Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We need to learn this language of lament. We need to learn it for the sake of our wrestles with pain, and for the sake of our companionship with others in pain. We have to learn the ways of unflinchingly naming our brokenness, our groaning, even as we unflinchingly call God to account. “God, remain faithful to your promise of renewal; may your Kingdom come!”

Todd would be the first to say that his language for lament isn’t his own. He learned it in the same place that we can, even if our journey doesn’t include cancer. In the Psalms we find the pattern for lamenting as our true selves. There we find the deep pattern of Jesus’ own prayers. He writes,

In lament we are confused, angry, and grieving people. But we are not just that. We have been given the script of the Psalms for playing our part in the drama: we are confused, angry, and grieving people who have been given the privilege of crying out to the Lord as his covenant people. Indeed, we are actors who have been clothed with Christ by the Spirit in the theater of God’s drama. Because of this, we can openly admit our confusion, anger, and grief without worrying that it will be the last word about who we are.”

Thank you Todd for reminding us, with the vision of this book and the testimony of your life, that lament isn’t cause for guilt, nor is it passive. Your book is a gift to the church. May we, like you, fall in step with the Psalmist: “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8).