Theology and the Laughter of the Angels

Two weeks ago I began teaching Systematic Theology II at Tyndale Seminary.   I suspect that not all of the students in the course are excited to be there, both because the class meets at 8:30 AM on Mondays, and because systematic theology is not everyone’s favourite subject.  Some of the students are probably only taking the class because they have to.  I told them, “That’s fine.  You don’t have to love systematic theology.  You don’t have to be excited about it.  But you do have to know the basics.”

I think anyone who wants to be a leader in the church needs to be familiar with the basics of Christian doctrine – how it has developed and why it is important.  Systematic theology is not idle speculation; it’s not about professors sitting in their offices thinking up topics for papers.  It’s about the gospel and the God of the gospel.  It’s about proclaiming that gospel faithfully and biblically.  It’s about seeing the big picture of how each doctrine relates to the others; and it’s also about learning the lessons of history, so that we are not doomed to repeat the theological mistakes of those who have gone before us.

Stanley Hauerwas makes an interesting observation about the nature of seminary training today.  He’s concerned that many people don’t take seminary training seriously enough, and he makes his point by comparing seminary and medical school.  He asks us to imagine if a future doctor got to medical school and said, “You know, I’m just really not into anatomy.  I’m not going to worry about that subject. I’m going to focus more on my bedside manner.”  What do you think the school administrators would say to that student?  They’d say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested in anatomy.  It’s important.  If you want to be a doctor you’ve got to understand how the human body works!”

Likewise, leaders in the church need to be able to think theologically.  It’s important.   This means they need to know the basic doctrines, historical figures, schools of thought, and so on, but more than that, they need to be able to bring these resources to bear upon the questions they face in their own life and ministry, so that these questions can be thought through theologically, and not simply on the basis of other concerns, be they pragmatic, psychological, financial, etc..

It is often said that everyone is a theologian.  I think this is true.  Theology is, simply put, God-talk. We all talk about God, and in that sense, we are all theologians.  The question is, are we going to be good theologians or are we going to be hacks?  We don’t need everyone to be experts.  But just like we expect that doctors will know the difference between our heart and our stomach, church leaders need to know the difference between Christology and ecclesiology; they need to see how they relate to one another, and both our Christological and ecclesiological assumptions inform our practices.  Just like a doctor needs to be able to tell the difference between a healthy person and a diseased person, church leaders need to be able to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.

Having said all that, it’s important to recognize that theology is not like anatomy.  God is not laid out on a slab for us to poke and prod and test and dissect.  Although God does make himself known to us through Christ and the Spirit, this is always a profound condescension on his part; he comes down to our level so that we can understand him with our limited human minds – but we have to always remind ourselves that God is bigger than any theological system.  He is greater than the greatest thing we can possibly imagine. and so we have to remain humble about our theology.  We can speak truthfully and faithfully about God but we can never speak exhaustively.

I ended my introductory remarks during our first class with this wonderful quote from Karl Barth.  I reminded them that Barth was the greatest theologian of the 20th century – many would say the greatest theologian since the Reformation.  He wrote prolifically.  His Church Dogmatics was up to six million words when he died – and he hadn’t finished it.  In spite of all this, Barth retained a wonderful humility, both regarding himself as a person and about his theological work.  I always try to keep this quote in mind as I think theologically:

“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.”
Quoted in Robert McAfee Brown’s “Introduction” to Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casalis, trns. Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964, p xiii.

Notes on Being “Missional” and the Church’s Particularity

Lately I’ve been thinking about the meaning of being “missional” as it relates to the church’s peculiarity as a community.  Often I hear people portraying the church’s communal life as the enemy of missional living, as if these were polar opposites.   On the other hand, the older evangelical “seeker-sensitive” paradigm was premised on the idea of removing any barriers to “belonging” by avoiding any kind of in-house Christian language.   Both of these trajectories are problematic.

The church is a particular, visible, historically continuous people, and so its mission must include the incorporation of persons into the visible, historical fellowship. It is not simply about “adapting” the gospel (as an idea or principle) in new contexts, though there must be some cultural adaptation as the church moves through time and space. The primary direction is not that of adapting an idea to the culture, but about adopting people into the community of faith, which is the bearer of the apostolic gospel.

Mission therefore is not simply about proclamation, but also about catechesis. Becoming a Christian is about learning a new language and a new way of life. The particularities of Christian practice and the inherited language of the faith cannot be stripped away in the name of cultural relevance.  If, in the effort to be seeker-sensitive, we always seek  to use language and practices that a non-believer would understand,  what kind of formation are the Christians in our own communities receiving?  However, we can assume that speaking in ways that are culturally relevant will be more important in the early days of a person’s “incorporation” into the church.

The church’s corporate life (worship, teaching, fellowship, mutual service) cannot be separated and played off against its missionary character. Sometimes discussions about being “missional” tend to devalue the “internal” life of the church, and emphasize the sending out of the church almost exclusively. The result is that the particularity of the church’s corporate life is watered down.

The church is missional precisely as a distinct people. The church exists for the world precisely as a distinct people. The two are not opposed. A Christian life is an ecclesial life, and this is a distinct, peculiar way of life, embodied in the historical people of God. In other words, the church is a community in mission (see Phil Needham’s book).

The church is both a means and an end (Newbigin, The Household of God). It is not merely a pragmatic instrument, as if the real goal is evangelization (or social transformation or some other goal) and the church is simply the tool for achieving this. Because it is also a foretaste of the coming kingdom, it is an end in its own right.

In short, the gospel is not simply an idea, but a story which must be embodied by a people. This requires that the people of God have a strong community life, complete with a unique language, and unique practices which are not easily disentangled from the gospel itself.  In other words, to take up Barth’s categories, the Spirit’s work includes not only the sending of the Christian community, but also its gathering and upbuilding.

Salvation, Ethics, and Human Freedom

The main source of discomfort with talk of “morality” in protestant theological circles is the issue of faith vs. works.  We are nervous that any talk of morals will lead to moralism, to a reliance on our moral behaviour as the ground of our standing before God.  Of course, the doctrine of justification excludes such a conception of human ethical behaviour.  Salvation is the gift of God, fully and completely, and even the faith by which we acknowledge our salvation must be said to be God’s gift, and not a human work.

So where does this leave the human agent.  Is there nothing for us to do?   I want to argue that the Christian life is an active life of free obedience.  But the key thing to remember is that this activity on the part of the Christian is not the ground of our salvation; rather our salvation, as the gracious gift of God, is the ground for our free obedience.  God’s action always precedes our action, but God’s action does not exclude our action, but rather opens up the space in which we can act as responsible agents, and directs us toward the responsible action which is proper to our existence as human creatures.

We are free to actively obey God precisely because that obedience does not merit our salvation; if it did, we would not be free to actively obey, we would be damned. I’m going to attempt to unpack that statement by way of a positive view of Salvation.  Just as we cannot talk of “freedom” without speaking the goal of human life, so also we cannot talk about “salvation” without speaking of salvation’s goal.  That is, salvation cannot be conceived in purely negative terms, as “salvation from” sin, death and the devil.  It is true that our salvation is a salvation from, but we must also consider salvation in positive terms, as salvation for communion with God and with our fellow human creatrues.

We can be more specific than this, however, because “communion with God and with our fellow human beings” could be seen as somewhat vague.  The direction of our salvation is anything but vague; it is concrete, specific, and particular; it is Jesus Christ himself.   He is “our wisdom, our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” and we are being conformed into his image.  Christ himself is the concrete direction toward which our salvation is oriented.  God has determined that he should have a free, responsible human covenant partner, and in his humanity, Jesus Christ is that true covenant partner. It is in his free obedience that we are enabled and called to respond to God with a free and active obedience of our own.

That is why salvation and ethics are inseparable: human action is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the goal of our salvation.  Salvation has a christologically determined direction; therefore it is ethical. We appropriate this free, active obedience in accordance with the mystery of salvation: it is a gift realized fully in Christ, and yet being realized in history as we are conformed to his likeness.   Thus, if we can speak of “growth in grace” in the sanctification process, we can also speak of “growth in free active obedience,” as we are conformed to Christ, and the Spirit continues to lead us into an ever-greater radical responsiveness corresponding to God’s radically free grace in Christ.

Karl Barth has described God’s freedom and ours in the following terms: “God’s freedom is his very own,” and “Man’s freedom is his as the gift of God.”  The human creature does not possess and inherent, directionless “freedom.” The Christian life is a life of freedom, not because we have an inherent “free will” or capacity for free moral decisions: rather, we are freed to respond freely to God’s grace because God, in his freedom, has chosen that it should be so, and acted to make it so in Jesus Christ. In our own power, we are not free; rather, we are exposed to the tyranny of our own will, with all of its disordered desires.  But God has determined that he would have a free covenant partner, and has acted in electing Jesus Christ as that free human partner.  Our being “in Christ,” our union with him, is the basis of our freedom, a freedom which is an echo and correspondence of his freedom.  This means that we only know what human freedom is by looking to Jesus Christ, as God’s truly free covenant partner.  Our understanding of freedom must be constantly measured against the the freedom of Jesus Christ as the truly free human creature.

This means that a “negative” account of freedom is obviously misguided.  The negative view of freedom posits that freedom is simply freedom from all external constraints and obligations.  To be free is to be an autonomous, unencumbered, self-directed agent, acting in accordance with our own desires.  In this context, any kind of structured moral obligation appears as an impingement on our freedom, and a burden which needs to be thrown off.  Such freedom, however, is illusory because it lacks a goal; it lacks positive content, and direction.  In other words, it is not freedom at all, but a form of slavery to our own misguided desires and impulses.

But this is true not only of supposed accounts of “free will;” it must also be emphasized that the Christian freedom we are discussing here as a freedom which is an effect of God’s grace is not a directionless negative freedom.  That is, human freedom in Christ is not simply a  freedom from negative influences, a freeing of our will which would then lead to a kind of regenerated “free will.”  Christian freedom is not a kind of “second chance” at free will, where God does his part in Christ and now leaves us to do our part with a newfound freedom.

The gift of freedom is directive: its end is conformity to Jesus Christ.  It is a freedom for this goal, a freedom for true humanity, in communion with God and with his creation.  We are therefore being made free human creatures as we are conformed to his image.  Our freedom does not precede God’s work in us and for us in Christ; it is not the ground but the goal of our salvation.

I would argue that this is an authentically Wesleyan position, although Wesleyans are often seen as aligning themselves with accounts of “free will.”   Certainly there are some Wesleyans who have argued in favour of a libertarian concept of free will, but I don’t think that is consistent with Wesley’s own views on the subject.   I’ll have to post separately on this question, to do it justice, but I believe it would be better to describe Wesley’s argument in terms of the freed will of the regenerate, rather than claiming “free will” for all humanity.

Christ as the Good Samaritan

In preparing for a sermon on the Good Samaritan, I came across some classic interpretations which see the parable as pointing to Christ.  Here are selections from three ancient doctors (courtesy of the Ancient Commentary on Scripture), and a 20th century giant:

Ambrose, from his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.73-84:

Jericho is an image of this world. Adam, cast out from Paradise, that heavenly Jerusalem, descended to it by the mistake of his transgression…He was greatly changed from that Adam who enjoyed eternal blessedness.  When he turned aside to worldly sins, Adam fell among thieves, among whom he would not have fallen if he had not strayed from the heavenly command and made himself vulnerable to them…he received a mortal wound by which the whole human race would have fallen if that Samaritan, on his journey, had not tended to his serious injuries. 7.73]

…Here the Samaritan is going down.  Who is he except he who descended from heaven, who also ascended to heaven the Son of Man who is in heaven?  When he sees half-dead him whom none could cure before, like her with an issue of blood who had spend all her inheritance on physicians, he came near him.  He became a neighbour by acceptance of our common feeling and kin by the gift of mercy.

…”And bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine.” That Physician has many remedies with which he is accustomed to cure.  His speech is a remedy.  One of his sayings binds up wounds, another treats with oil, another pours in wine.  He binds wounds with a stricter rule.  He treats with the forgiveness of sins.  He stings with the rebuke of judgment as if with wine.”

Since no one is closer than he who tended to our wounds, let us love him as our neighbour.  Nothing is so close as the head to the members.   Let us also love who is the follower of Christ, let us love him who in unity of body has compassion on another’s need.

Origen, Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, 34.3,9:

One of the elders wanted to interpret the parable as follows.  The man who was going down is Adam.  Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers.  The priest is the law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ.  The wounds are disobedience.  The beast is the Lord’s body.  the pandochium (that is, the stable), which accepts all who wish to enter, is the church.  The two denarii mean the Father and the Son.  The manager of the stable is the head of the church, to whom its care has been entrusted.  The fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Saviour’s second coming…

…the Samaritan, “who took pity on the man who have fallen among thieves, is truly a “guardian,” and a closer neighbour than the Law and the Prophets.  He showed that he was the man’s neighbour more by deed than by word.  According to the passage that says, “Be imitators of me, as I too am of Christ,” it is possible for us to imitate Christ and to pity those who “have fallen among thieves.”  We can go to them, bind their wounds, pour in oil and wine, put them on our own animals, and bear their burdens.  The Son of God encourages us to do things like this.  He is speaking not so much to the teacher of the law as to us and to everyone when he says, “Go and do likewise.” If we do, we will receive eternal life in Christ Jesus, to whom is glory and power for ages and ages.

Augustine, Sermon 179A.7-8:

Robbers left you half-dead on the road, but you have been found lying there by the passing and kindly Samaritan. Wine and oil have been poured on you.  You have received the sacrament of the only-begotten Son. You have been lifted onto his mule.  You have believed that Christ became flesh.  You have been brought to the inn, and you are being cured in the church.”That is where and why I am speaking.

…This is what I too, what all of us are doing. we are performing the duties of the innkeeper.  He was told, “If you spend any more, I will pay you when I return.  “If only we spent at least as much as we have received!  However much we spend, borthers and sisters, it is the Lord’s money.

Augustine, Christian Instruction 33:

God our Lord wished to be called our neighbour. The Lord Jesus Christ meant that he was the one who gave help to the man lying half-dead on the road, beaten and left by the robbers. The prophet said in prayer, “As a neighbour and as one’s own borther, so I did please” [cf 1 Cor 6.15]. Since the divine nature is far superior and above our human nature, the command by which we are to love God is distinct from our love of our neighbour.  He shows mercy to us because of his own goodness, while we show mercy to one another because of God’s goodness.  He has compassion on us so that we may enjoy him completely, while we have compassion on another that we may completely enjoy Him.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, III, §18, pp 418-419.

The question with which Jesus concludes the story is which then of the three (i.e., priest, Levite, and Samaritan) proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves? And the teacher of the Law himself had to reply: “he that showed mercy on him,” i.e., the Samaritan.  This man as such, as the one who showed mercy, is the neighbour about whom the lawyer was asking.  And that is the only point of the story, unequivocally stated by the text.

For the lawyer, who wants to justify himself and therefore does not know who is his neighbour, is confronted not by the poor wounded man with his claim for help, but by the anything but poor Samaritan who makes no claim at all but is simply helpful.

It is the Samaritan who embodies what he wanted to know.  This is the neighbour whom he did not know.   All very unexpected: for the lawyer had first to see that he himself is the man fallen among thieves and lying helpless by the wayside; then he has to note that the others who pass by, the priest and the Levite, the familiar representatives of the dealings of Israel with God, all one after the other do according to the saying of the text: “He saw him and passed by on the other side;” and third, and above all, he has to see that he must be found and treated with compassion by the Samaritan, the foreigner, whom he believes he should hate, as one who hates and is hated by God. He will then know who is his neighbour, and will not ask concerning him as though it were only a matter of the casual clarification of a concept.  He will then know the second commandment, and consequently the first as well.  he will then not wish to justify himself, but will simply love the neighbour, who shows him mercy.  He will then love God, and loving God will inherit eternal life.

…The Good Samaritan, the neighbour who is a helper and will make him a helper, is not far from the lawyer.  The primitive exegesis of the text was fundamentally right.  He stands before him incarnate, although hidden under the form of one whom the lawyer believed he should hate, as the Jews hated the Samaritans.  Jesus does not accuse the man, although judgment obviously hangs over him. Judgment is preceded by grace.  Before this neighbour makes His claim He makes His offer.  Go and do likewise means: Follow thou Me.

Highlights of the Kingdom Economy Conference

I am really glad I got the chance to attend The Evolving Church: Kingdom Economy conference on Saturday at People’s Church.  This is the first time I’ve been able to attend an event put on by Epiphaneia, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.    The strength of the event was definitely the outstanding speakers.   I was drawn in by the chance to hear William Cavanaugh, but went away wanting to hear more from pretty much every one of them.

Maybe the most significant thing about the Evolving Church conferences is the way they bring significant thinkers from the academic world into dialogue with the local church.  This doesn’t happen nearly enough.   I posted some thoughts on this problem in relation to theological education a few weeks ago.    With Karl Barth, I see theology as an activity of the Church.  It could be described as the activity by which “the Church, in accoardance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is, by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its confessions.” [Dogmatics in Outline, p. 1]  If this is true, the mutual isolation that currently exists between the life of the church and theological research is deeply problematic, both for professional theologians and for the Church as a whole.   It would also seem, on the basis of this definition, that events like Kingdom Economy could be considered more theological than many academic conferences, where the topics and papers presented are often very far removed from the life of the Church.

I couldn’t begin to summarize all the things that were said on Saturday, but I thought I’d offer a few quotes that have stuck with me.

“Shakespeare is country music.” David Dark. I could have listened to David Dark all day.  He made me wish I was more familiar with English literature.  But the point of this quote was that “literature” doesn’t mean really intimidating stuff that makes you feel inadequate – it is “the poety of the people,” and “that which expands the talk-aboutable.”  He wanted to focus primarily on “the classics,” works which are called classics precisely because of their enduring popularity, not because of their obscurity.  He painted a picture of our engagement with literature is part of a process of redemptive questioning, testing, and re-appropriating a stock of images and words from our culture.   There are times when an “explanation” could be a form of false witness, an inadequate testimony to God’s truth, which might be better expressed in poetry or narrative – something which, rather than giving a definitive, propositional answer, induces further questioning and searching (we might note here that the form of scripture itself testifies to this need for poetic and narratival witness to divine revelation).  I’m sure I haven’t adequately expressed his perspective, but I was quite moved by what he had to say, and I”m hoping at some point I’ll get a chance to read some of his work.

“Consumerism is not about having more, it is about having something else.” William Cavanaugh.  I read Being Consumed last year and was thoroughly impressed with the way that Cavanaugh used traditional theological voices such as Augustine and Aquinas to critique consumerist culture and economic practices.  His presentation and workshop were based on the book, so I was glad to be reminded of some of the more significant points he made there.  In his workshop he was talking about how we assume that consumerism produces an inordinate attachment to “things,” when really it pushes us to detachment from the material world.  We are detached from products because we are detached from the process of production (we don’t make our own stuff anymore) and from the producers (who are often working under deplorable conditions in far off places).  The result is that we’re not at all attached to the things we buy.  Once we have one thing, we just want other things – consumerism is about shopping not about actually valuing and holding on to the things we buy.   Much more could be said about this book…maybe later.

“To be a Christian is to be drawn into a story you did not want to be a part of…drawn into wanting to be bound to that which you despise.” J. Kameron Carter.   Somehow I came away appreciating Carter’s contrast of Avatar and District 9, even though I’m one of about five people on earth who haven’t seen either of these movies.   His point here had to do with the aesthetics of the two films.  Both make you want to become the “other,” but in Avatar, you are drawn into wanting to be one of the Na’vi because you see them as beautiful.  By contrast, in District 9, you are drawn into wanting to be bound to the “prawns”, which are hideous and revolting.  Carter spun this out as a kind of incarnational aesthetic – redemption coming through being bound to that which you despise.  I wonder where Gran Torino fits on this spectrum?

“Instead of following Jesus Christ you end up buying into certain brands…but they all started out as genuine movements of the Holy Spirit.” Becky Garrison. I found Garrison’s talk really funny, and I thought it shed light on a really problematic aspect of Christian culture.  Garrison is a satirist, and the idea of “Christian satire” certainly raises some interesting questions.  My friend Ian had a discussion with Garrison about this over on his blog.  He raises some really good questions about whether or satire, as a genre, is a helpful way for Christians to speak to one another.   He may be right, but I thought Becky’s talk showed that she is aware of the potential dangers of what she does.  That’s why I included the two quotes above.   I’m not sure how much time passed between her saying those two things, but she did say both.  The problem is not with big-name authors, but with the way that authors are themselves promoted and branded and marketed to the hilt. It’s a question about the system.  Granted, it is hard to separate the system from the people involved.  That’s why, towards the end of her talk, Garrison said,  “Beware of crossing the line from satirizing the subject to slamming the soul…beware of moving from smashing an idol to destroying the Church.”   That’s a difficult line to walk, for sure.

“It’s hard to tell the guy who got a free BMW for Easter that he is called to die.” Chris Seay.  Seay’s talk was mostly about righteousness.  While we tend to think of righteousness as being about upright personal behaviour, he offered the alternative way of thinking about it in terms of “shalom.”  There aren’t good and bad people, he said, there is “shalom” and there is “broken shalom.”  We need to understand righteousness as God bringing his shalom into the world – that will push the Church to rush into the broken places of the world.  It sounds like his church in Houston embodies this idea.  The quote I’ve chosen isn’t so much about that, but I thought it was hilarious.  In critiquing the typical “bait-and-switch” technique of trying to get people to come to church, Seay noted that a church in Houston had offered over $2M in prizes this Easter in order to get people to show up.  The prizes included luxury items like BMWs.  That’s where the above quote came from – we’re not inviting people to follow Christ in bringing God’s shalom into the world if we entice them to come by offering great benefits.   Another gem:  “The evangelion has become an infomercial.”

I’m really thankful to the guys at Epiphaneia for holding these events – and I’m encouraged that so many people show up!

I would definitely be attending the Eighth Letter conference this October, but I’m going to be out of town.   If you are able to go, I’d highly recommend it.