29 May 2008

Questions for the Emerging Church

For the sake of the conversation, I would like to pose a few questions to those who consider themselves part of the emerging church/Emergent, without providing (rationalistic, linear, and propositional) answers.

- Is it possible that in our zeal to know and engage our culture, cultural paradigms and ways of thinking gradually, imperceptibly come to dictate our reading of the Bible, rather than biblical paradigms and ways of thinking dictating our reading of culture?

- Is it possible to so concentrate on adapting the method of ministry while retaining the message of ministry that it is the external form rather than the internal substance that is attracting unbelievers?

- Are we paying sufficient attention to the fact that while, in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul deliberately contextualized his message, in 1 Corinthians 2 he deliberately refused to contextualize his message (vv 1-5)? That though he became “a Jew to win Jews” and “a Greek to win Greeks” he never became “worldly to win the wordly”?

- Do we want unbelievers to be attracted to us mainly because we are so like them or mainly because we are so different from them? Is it personal holiness or personal sameness that our unbelieving friends need? Do we want to bring the church down to the culture or the culture up to the church?

- Is it possible that in seeking to reach the culture by distancing ourselves from the evangelical construction of a magisterium of necessary doctrinal knowledge which determines "who's in," we might erect an equally dogmatic magisterium of cultural knowledge which determines "who's in"? Might cultural dogmatism replace doctrinal dogmatism?

- Is it possible to mistake epistemological humility for evangelistic cowardice?

- Is it possible for us to help people on their way to hell while at the same time helping them in practical, material ways?

- Would Jesus, Paul, Peter and John be comfortable with the slogan, “Always preach the gospel, and sometimes use words”?

- Is it possible to forget that while corporate transformation is a necessary and immediate ramification of the Bible and the gospel, a house can never be built without solidly constructed individual bricks?

- Might we so emphasize the need for Christians to redeem culture that we neglect the more fundamental need for Christ to redeem individuals?

- In eschewing the consumerism of so much current evangelicalism, might we create our own, very different, consumeristic culture? Can candles, art, and speaching instead of preaching be a product offered to a customer just as much as corporate smoothness, spectator de-involvement, and stadium seating?

- Is it possible that 200 years from now, the communal discipleship, leadership from the bottom up rather than the top down, and narrative theology of Postmodern Christianity will seem as ridiculous to our great-great-grandchildren as the individualism, hierarchical leadership, and propositional theology of Modernist Christianity does to us?

- Is it possible that in our quest for intimacy with God we might become irreverently casual? That in emphasizing immanence we might neglect transcendence? That while (gloriously) believers are sinners in the hands of a propitiated God, unbelievers (frighteningly) are sinners in the hands of an angry God?

My sisters and brothers who consider yourselves emerging, I have lots to learn from you. Thank you for already teaching me so much. And thank you for your patience with me as I stumble along in this conversation.

P. S. The books that, for me, have prompted the above questions are:

- SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in the New Millennium Culture (Leonard Sweet, 1999)
- Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Donald Miller, 2003)
- The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Dan Kimball, 2003)
- A Generous Orthodoxy (Brian McLaren, 2004)
- Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Rob Bell, 2005)
- Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith (Doug Pagitt, 2005)
- How (Not) to Speak of God (Peter Rollins, 2006)
- The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Brian McLaren, 2006)
- An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (ed. Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, 2007)
- Intuitive Leadership: Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor, and Chaos (Tim Keel, 2007)
- The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Tony Jones, 2008)

Kimball: The Emerging Church

Reading Dan Kimball's The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations and, much to my dismay, loving it. Dan is a pastor in California of this church and this is his blog.

He does not throw the baby of theology out with the bathwater of stagnant orthodoxy and seeker-senstivie superficiality. In fact, one of the surprises in reading this book was realizing that he is reacting much more to the seeker movement than anyone else. He is also more self-critical than some in the conversation.

Here's a particularly encouraging part, putting its finger on one of the very concerns that has come up in my mind recently as I've been reading McLaren, Pagitt, Sweet, and Jones. Kimball writes that at a conference he was at, as he was contributing to a panel discussion,

as I watched the eager pastors and leaders writing down our ideas in their notebooks, I felt unsettled, even a little frightened. I suddenly realized that if we were not careful, we could easily end up creating the very thing we are trying to avoid.

Our hope is that the emerging church will break out of the consumer Christian mentality. Our aim in making a worship gathering more experiential is that people would participate in the service rather than remain spectators. Experiential and interactive worship, in addition to the teaching that occurs, is a refreshing practice that resonates with those being raised in this culture. . . . But if we focus too much on creating cool and creative experiences for our worship gatherings--if most of our time is spent figuring out how interactive art can be incorporated in the service or what dance we can use or what meditative visuals would look good on the screens or what candlelit prayer situations we can design--we may well end up in the same consumer Christian trap. . . .

Woe to us in the emerging church if we do not keep balance and perspective. (112)

28 May 2008

Why Church?

I was just sitting here thinking about why we get together once a week for "church." Isn't it because, while the rest of our week is lived either horizontally (me and others) or vertically (me and God), a weekly gathering is the one (deliberate) experience we can have of both at the same time (us and God)?

24 May 2008

Christianity Is Christ

In a beautiful section at the very end of his Theology of Paul, Dunn provides a majestic, sweeping portrait of the (much disputed) 'center' of Paul's theology as simply Christ. He opens by writing:

Paul's theology is . . . dominated by Christ. Here I prefer the image of fulcrum or pivot point, the point on which a whole larger mass swings round into a new plane or direction. (722-23)

And in closing this section a few pages later:

. . . confronted with one who identified himself as the Christ, Paul found that a flood of light had been poured on the scriptures with which he had engaged himself at such length and so deeply. Here as clearly as anywhere Christ functioned as the fulcrum point on which Paul's whole theology pivoted, the key which unlocked so many of scriptures' conundrums (though setting up others), the light which illumined its dark places (though setting up a fresh pattern of light and shade). (725)

And later:

Christianity is Christ. It is not only in the clarification and sharper definition of his heritage that the centrality of Christ for Paul's theology is evident. Christ is the thread which runs through all, the lend through which all comes into focus, the glue which bonds the parts into a coherent whole. . . . Paul's theology throbs and pulses with the name of Christ and bears throughout the stamp of the impact of his life, death, and resurrection on Paul. (726, italics original)


Paul could even envisage Christ as bracketing the whole sweep of history from beginning to end--Christ as the Wisdom of God's creation and Christ as the final judge of all human works. (727)


In short, for Paul Christianity is Christ. Any restatement of his theology, any theologizing which seeks to sustain a dialogue with Paul will simply have to recognize this. The centrality of Christ, as showing what God is like, as defining God's Spirit, as the channel of Israel's blessing for the nations, as demonstrating what obedience to Torah means, as the light which illumines Israel's scriptures, as embodying the paradigm of creation and consummation, his death and resurrection as the midpoint of time, as the magnet for faith, as the focus of all sacramental significance, as determining the personal and corporate identity of Christians, as the image to which the salvation process conforms, is simply inescapable in the theology of Paul the apostle. (729)

23 May 2008

Three Dimensions of Salvation

Dunn delineates three main aspects of the beginning of salvation:

1) justification by faith
2) participation in Christ
3) the gift of the Spirit

Each corresponds to a member of the Trinity: right with God the Father, united to Christ the Son, indwelt by the Spirit.

I find that helpful. This is pp. 334-441 of The Theology of Paul the Apostle.

Here's a good quote from the participation in Christ section:

Paul's motivation, both in his conversion and missionary work, was not the inspiration of a heroic tale of what Jesus taught or did two decades earlier. He was not involved in a Society to Celebrate the Memory of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, his conception of Christ was of an open channel between God and his people, a living intermediary through whom God acted and through whom his people could approach him. (406)

22 May 2008

Was Judaism Legalistic?

Was ancient Judaism legalistic--degenerate, overly-scrupulous, self-centered, prideful? Yes. Not because it was Jewish. Because it was human.

The way to address what has rightly been seen as quite ugly anti-Semitism in twentieth century Paul studies is not to exculpate Judaism but to thrown in all the other religions, indeed the rest of humanity, with it. Indictment of pride and self-focus in everyone, not exoneration of Judaism, is the way forward in understanding Paul and the New Testament. Don't make Judaism better. Make everyone else worse.

Ancient Judaism is simply a picture of what happens when the utter clarity of divine demand interlocks with human fallenness--fallenness both in its failure to keep the law and its self-reliant success in keeping it (yes I think Bultmann took this too far). Jews are not legalists because they're Jews. Jews are legalists because they're human.

And such legalism is alive and well in Christianity, not least in my own denomination, the PCA (a group which I love dearly and for which I bless God). If I'm honest, I can bring it even closer to home. The worst legalist I've ever known or read of or heard about is the one who stares back at me in the mirror every morning. Which makes grace that much more beautiful.

Anyhow, I'm reading Dunn's Theology of Paul and had to get that off my chest.

The Genius of Luther's Theology

In hopes of gaining readers of a marvelous new book, below are the first and last paragraphs of a review I recently did of The Genius of Luther's Theology: A Wittenburg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church. It was released a few months ago by Baker Academic.

The title of this book is doubly audacious: first, in claiming something ingenious about Luther’s theology (a claim at which many today, especially in Paul studies, would scoff), and, second, in claiming to have unlocked it. As I turned the final page, however, I was convinced that such audacity was vindicated and even called for. In this marvelously accessible volume exegeting the irascible German’s theological core, a pair of Lutheran theologians explore two fundamental presuppositions to Luther’s theology, building bridges along the way into the twenty-first century church. Professors Kolb and Arand both teach systematic theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

All the foregoing strengths make this book worthwhile, but a fifth and final strength contains, to my mind, the key to its significance and timeliness. If hundreds of pastors all over the English-speaking world were to read and digest the message of The Genius of Luther’s Theology, Christianity could, under God, experience a third Great Awakening. With all due gratitude to Professors Kolb and Arand, this is not due to any cleverness of theirs. Rather, they have simply latched onto the gospel itself, in all its counterintuitive, doctrinally-contoured, flesh-defying, conscience-cleansing, wrath-remembering dimensions. In today’s fragmented, atheological evangelical mishmash, nothing could be more important. As pastors and writers have scrambled to delineate the boundaries of evangelicalism, the center, the gospel, has gone neglected. Overly concerned with border patrol, gradual internal meltdown has gone unnoticed. In fact, confusion over the gospel itself is rampant today not only in our pews but in our seminary classrooms. For some, the gospel is “Jesus is Lord.”—for others, the arrival of the Kingdom of God and its ramifications for this life—for still others, a story (not propositions) in which we are invited to participate. Yet as important as Christ’s lordship, the coming of the Kingdom, and the ongoing biblical narrative are, none of them is the gospel. Looking at and reflecting on a single core reality from various angles, Kolb and Arand, through the penetrating mind and prickly temper of Martin Luther, have reminded us that the gospel is simply the counterintuitive announcement that one is put irreversibly right with and perfectly approved before God by looking, in trusting faith, to Christ, against the relentless fallen human instinct to self-earn. Luther came to see that the only thing that qualified him for divine approval was a frank recognition that he did not qualify. Self-despair was the way out of despair. Approaching God not only having emptied his hands of rebellious wickedness but also scrupulously meticulous obedience, Luther clung only to Christ, God’s promise in flesh and blood. Impatient with the domestications of Luther, human sin, and divine holiness so pervasive in various branches of evangelicalism today, Kolb and Arand have, like the reformer, brought us back to the heart of biblical theology—free grace, received open- and empty-handed, by virtue of the ultimate sacrifice. This is, indeed, the genius of Luther’s theology.

The Most Fundamental Transition

James Dunn, commenting rightly on the salvation-historical substructure (he calls it the "epochal character") of Paul's theology:

Human history is familiar with talk of transitions from one age to another. We speak of the stone age, the Middle Ages, the age of empire, the nuclear age, the electronic age, and so on. Paul's claim is much more far-reaching. What he envisaged was a transition not only from BC to AD, but the most fundamental of all transitions, within which all others must be evaluated, a transition capable of affecting every age and transforming each individual existence.

The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 318

21 May 2008

The Glory Of It All - David Crowder

". . . but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men . . ." -Phil 2:7

20 May 2008

Happiness and Holiness

Never knew about this book that I just discovered: Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, Self-Love, and the Dawn of the Beatific (1991). David Brand is the author, and this is his Westminster Seminary Th.M. thesis under Sam Logan.

Brand argues a conclusion I have myself come to in reading Edwards, and has helped my own heart and war against sin:

For Edwards, there was a direct connection between holiness and happiness. One could not have one without the other. . . . Edwards' view of happiness, unlike the view of the secular moral philosophers, was inseparably linked to holiness. The very foundation of God's own happiness, in Edwards' view, was God's own holiness. (pp. 76-77)

19 May 2008

Lunch Dates With Prostitutes

Finishing up Paul Barnett's fresh-off-the-press second volume in his "After Jesus" series, entitled Paul: Missionary of Jesus. It is an argument for continuity between the aims of Jesus and of Paul, centering on the perspective of both to Jew/gentiles relations in the church.

There are many strengths to the book; the main one in my mind was the extremely crisp way Barnett has written, with numerous helpful summaries and clearly drawn conclusions. This could easily have been a 400 page book instead of 200, not by adding content but by writing more poorly. Here's another brief review.

Anyhow, along with the usual observations on how Jesus and Paul are in fundamental continuity of mission (David Wenham at Oxford has given this topic more attention than anyone in our time), including what to me is the key observation (that Jesus looked forward to the cross, Paul back at it; different salvation-historical situatedness), is something I had somehow never noticed:

For both Jesus and Paul, a repeated emphasis of their ministry was: with whom will we eat?

In answering this question the same way ('everyone!') they display a remarkable continuity. Jesus ate with hookers and the IRS (see this book). Paul lambasted the Rock on which Christ was building his Church simply for sitting at another table than the one with the guys with few extra ounces of flesh under their whitey-tighties (Gal 2). For both, your lunch date is a highly telling indication of your spiritual temperature and understanding of the gospel.

Jesus and Paul administer the same gospel.

Seventy Times Seven

In Genesis 3 sin enters the world. In Genesis 4 sin spreads. In the first half of the chapter, Cain sins, and we see that Adam and Eve's sin is not only theirs but their family's. In the second half of the chapter, Lamech sins, and we see that Adam and Eve's sin is not only their family's but their descendants'.

Here's how Lamech describes his sin.

Lamech said to his wives: "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold." (Gen 4:23-24)

According to Lamech, Cain's sinful revenge was sevenfold. Lamech's sinful revenge was not seven but seventy-seven. Where have I heard something like this before . . .

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven (or: seventy-seven). (Matt 18:21-22)

Genesis 3 and 4 and the many chapters following tell the story of sin infecting God's world. The coming of Jesus is the story of what God has done to disinfect the world, to cleanse it, to make it new. Good Jew that he is, Peter covers all his bases and chooses the number of completion, seven, as what is surely going above and beyond the call of duty in forgiving another. And surely Jesus had Gen 4 in mind when he responded to Peter. Vengeance, multiplied sevenfold and then to seventy, has been overturned in Jesus' Kingdom ethic of forgiveness, multiplied sevenfold and then to seventy--no, to seventy times seven.

The way to live in such a radically forgiving way? Jesus himself would provide it. Not in his teaching, but in his blood. Oswald Chambers rightly said that if Jesus came mainly to teach us, then all he did was tantalize us by erecting a standard we cannot come anywhere near. But he did not come only to teach us but to make us what he teaches we should be.

We forgive seventy times seven because God has forgiven us, in Christ, seventy thousand times seven thousand.

16 May 2008

Clarus: Audio

Audio from a New Mexico church-based conference I recently mentioned is now available--the conference with the world's best title: "Galatians and the Problem of Self-Justification," with Drs. Carson and Horton.

"Godliness and Good Learning"

A good word from Mike Ovey, head of Oak Hill Theological College in London, on the very thing driving this blog: the necessary conjunction of head and heart in theology. It comes in a review of Piper's book on justification.

15 May 2008

Our Christian Duty: Happiness

C. S. Lewis, in a letter to a bereaved man:

There is great good in bearing sorrow patiently: I don't know that there is any virtue in sorrow just as such. It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can.

--Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963, 593


In light of just finishing Till We Have Faces (see below), I was interested to read the following in a letter from Lewis, to Katherine Farrar, Feb 1955:

. . . my version of Cupid and Psyche. Apuleius got it all wrong. The elder sister (I reduce her to one) couldn't see Psyche's palace when she visited her. She saw only rock and heather. When P. said she was giving her noble wine, the poor sister saw and tasted only spring water. Hence her dreadful problem: 'is P. mad or am I blind?' As you see, tho' I didn't start from that, it is the story of every nice, affectionate agnostic whose dearest one suddenly 'gets religion'; or even every lukewarm Christian whose dearest gets a Vocation. Never, I think, treated sympathetically by a Christian writer before. I do it all thro' the mouth of the elder sister.

--Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963, 590

(Gav, this would seem to vindicate your comment below...)

13 May 2008

Till We Have Faces

Yesterday I finished C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. I read it eight years ago but all I remembered was that I enjoyed the book - I didn't remember one thing about the story itself.

It is a story, I think, about one very ugly woman's journey of self-discovery that real joy is found not in being loved but in loving. Until she stands before the gods and finally realizes this, however, she is gradually building up a series of complaints in anticipation of unloading on the gods once she has the chance. Yet it is when she stands before the gods - rather, God - that her accusations disappear. (Makes me think of Job 38, when Yahweh appears to Job and answers him out of the whirlwind, and all Job's complaints vanish.) If any of you have read it I'd be curious to know how you would put the point of the book in one sentence.

My two favorite passages are these. The first is that from which the title of the book is drawn.

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (p. 294)

The second is the last page of the book. (Ninety percent of the book is Book I; Book II is the last ten percent, which is an addition in light of new discoveries.)

I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. (p. 308)
In a letter, Lewis later wrote this when describing the significance of the title:

How can they (i.e. the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces? The idea was that a human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman; that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or persona.

--C. S. Lewis in a letter to Dorothea Conybeare (Walter Hooper, Companion, p. 252)

11 May 2008

Wheaton Panel

Fascinating time yesterday with my friend Uche here on campus listening to Mark Noll, John Piper, and Nathan Hatch discuss together how Evangelicalism has changed in the last forty years. They all graduated from Wheaton 40 years ago this weekend.

Their consensus bottom line: Evangelicalism is way worse off and way better off than four decades ago.

Worse: defragmented, "hollowed out," the gospel core of Henry/Schaeffer/Graham has dissolved, entertainment-saturated. Better: lots of fresh energy for a doctrinally robust mission to a fallen world, especially among the younger generation.

08 May 2008

Not Interested in Success

Powerful anecdote from Michael Bird.

07 May 2008

Lewis: The Divine Meridian

Helped when I read this last night in Lewis' Collected Letters, in a note to Walter Hooper, Nov 30, 1954, who would eventually edit this very collection of correspondence:

We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow: similarly when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish.

--Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963, p. 535

01 May 2008

Regeneration in Narnia

From the blog mentioned in the previous post I was reminded of this quote from the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which provides a beautiful picture of the biblical portrait of the new birth:

It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.

The dragon-transformation, with the peeling off of the scales that is so painful yet feels so good, is, of course, another beautiful depiction of the new birth.

The whole post is worth reading.

Clive Staples

I didn't know about this C. S. Lewis Blog.


Five men who make me grateful to be at Wheaton: Gary Lavanchy, small groups coordinator and asst football coach, for his love for discipleship; Steve Kellough, chaplain, for his concern for the spiritual welfare of the students; Doug Moo, NT professor, for his kind friendship and excellent supervision of my research; John Monson, OT professor, for his cheerful and buoyant spirit, so rare; and Dan Block, OT professor, for his indefatigable love for others.

Many more could be mentioned.