Tag Archives: Christian theology

The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

The Christian church confesses that the eternal Son of God became a human being in Jesus Christ, lived a human life, and died a human death for our salvation. The prologue to the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). In verse 14, we hear that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The man Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Paul speaks about the one who dwelt in the “form of God” emptying himself and humbling himself to take on the “form of a slave” and to die on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). And in Colossians, he speaks of Christ as the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” The writer of Hebrews speaks of one who secured purification from sins as the one “through whom also God made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Hence the New Testament certainly teaches that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed with the Father before he was made flesh. But how did his disciples arrive at this knowledge, and what does it mean to say that the Word became flesh or that the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily? These questions are not easily answered. It seems clear, however, that the doctrine of incarnation was not understood during Jesus’ earthly life. Only after the resurrection did this become clear. What changed?

It seems to me evident from  the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, his post-resurrection appearances, and his close connection to the sending of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus as one whom God had designated from all eternity as Lord, Savior, Revealer, Creator, and Judge. These functions cannot be carried out by a mere human or even an angel. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Jesus Christ could not be thought of as a mere instrument God used or a space in which God dwelt while doing this work. The risen Jesus is one with God in will and action. God acts “through” and “in” Jesus. But Jesus is not the Father. Nevertheless, in calling Jesus Christ the Word of God or the Son of God the apostles view Jesus Christ as some sort of “extension” of God.

The disciples did not realize fully the identity of Jesus as the Son/Word of God incarnate before the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. However, once they knew his true identity they concluded that from the very beginning of his human life he had been the incarnate Son of God. The resurrection revealed the identity of Jesus in glory, but it did not constitute it. The question I raised earlier becomes relevant at this point. What does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? We can readily see that the resurrected and glorified Jesus has been united to God, filled to overflowing with divine life, one in will and action with God. His body was transformed and spiritualized and his consciousness united with the divine mind. But how shall we understand his divinity during his earthly life before his glorification?

The first thing to keep in mind in answering this question is the truth I stated above: the actuality of the incarnation before the resurrection is a deduction concluded from Jesus’ resurrection and his status after that glorious event. It cannot be known from experience of his humanity or from pure speculation. And it could not have been established merely by a claim by Jesus or his followers. However, once that conclusion has been secured by the resurrection we can retrospectively see signs of Jesus’ identity in his earthly life: his miracles, the authority of his teaching, and his claims.

But accepting the resurrection-grounded truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate from conception onward does not grant us understanding of how this is possible or complete insight into the nature of the union between the Son of God and the human life of Jesus. Our expectations of what an incarnate God would be like create difficulties in thinking of Jesus as the Word made flesh. We tend to think that a divine presence in Jesus would necessarily manifest itself in a special divine-like consciousness and action through the agency of the body. But we cannot imagine a human consciousness that includes all knowledge or a human agency that exercises omnipotence. In the same way, we cannot imagine a divine consciousness that is limited to a human mind and bodily senses or a divine power bound by the limits of the body. Hence we get hopelessly entangled in contradictions. Some theologians develop theories of divine self-limitation, wherein the Word gives up or refuses to use some divine attributes and others think up theories that lessen the humanity by replacing the human mind with the divine mind or making the entire humanity a mere appearance.

The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds assert that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man” and that he is “one and the same Christ…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” These statements do not attempt to explain how this is possible or speculate about the psychological experience of the God-Man. Perhaps it is enough simply to confess the biblical and orthodox Christology and refuse to speculate further. I believe this stance is sufficient for the life of faith, and it is the foundation on which I base my thinking about the Incarnation. But we are curious to know the answers to these questions, and we cannot help imagining some sort of answer. And this curiosity can lead us to propose heretical or fanciful theories.

As I hinted above, I do not find it helpful to think about the Incarnation primarily in psychological categories, speculating about the union of divine and human consciousness and self-consciousness. I find it more helpful to think in ontological categories, that is, the being or existence of a thing rather than the self-consciousness of that thing. No right thinking person identifies their humanity fully with their consciousness. We are human even when we are not aware of the fullness of our human nature. Our humanity does not rise and fall with our self-consciousness. Human life is a life-long quest to understand and experience our full humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of all human existence is to become spirit, that is, to achieve identity between what we are in existence and in our self-consciousness.

Clearly, here and now there is a difference between my existing humanity and my ego or any other medium in which I am aware of my existence. Nevertheless, I can truly affirm that my existence is me and mine, even if I am not yet aware of all of it. I do not think or feel this way about the existence of other things, rocks, mice, planets or light beams. Why not? They are within my sphere of possible experiences. Indeed they are, but when I experience for the first time aspects of my existence, I experience them as me and mine, as having been me and mine all along. I do not experience other objects this way. I experience all dimensions of my existence as constituents of myself, and I realize that they were aspects of my constitution even before I knew of them.

Jesus Christ was fully human from conception onward. But like all human beings he grew in consciousness of his human existence and nature. It was not his consciousness and self-consciousness of his humanity that made him human. Jesus shared with other human beings the drive to know the fullness of his human nature and existence. But Jesus was also fully God from conception onward; that is to say, for Jesus the divine nature was a constituent of his existence. (For us, the divine nature is the cause of our existence but not a constituent of our persons.) In the same way that Jesus was not fully conscious of every aspect of his human nature from conception onward, he was not fully conscious of his divine nature always. And just as his lack of complete consciousness of his humanity did not make him less human, lack of full consciousness of his divine nature did not make him less divine. I think we can safely say that Jesus grew both in his awareness of his humanity and his divinity during his earthly life. And even if Jesus did not become fully conscious of the full depths of his humanity or his divinity until his glorification in the resurrection, this in no way diminishes the completeness of his pre-glorification divinity or his humanity!

Note: this is the 151st essay I’ve written and posted on this blog since August 2013.

 

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Baptism as a Prayer

Last week we examined the New Testament’s teaching about baptism “before controversies, speculations, and hypotheticals.” I endeavored to compile the texts that speak about baptism and examine them in their context without detail theological analysis and application. Today I want to present a rather modest theology of baptism in view of the questions and concerns that have arisen in the history of the church. Before I do this, let’s summarize the NT statements on baptism:

  • Jesus was baptized (Mark 1:9-11).
  • Jesus commanded his apostles to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20.
  • Baptism was the universal practice of the church (Ephesians 4:5; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • Baptism is associated with the working of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • We are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27).
  • Baptism brings “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
  • Baptism (with the Spirit) brings new birth (John 3:5-6).
  • Baptism is a washing that removes sin and makes holy (Ephesians 4:25-27; Acts 22:16).
  • Baptism is a burial and resurrection with Christ (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-4).
  • Baptism “saves us” (1 Peter 3:21).

 

Baptism in the Creeds and Confessions of Faith

Given the NT teaching and practice summarized above, it should not be surprising that nearly all the creeds and confessions of faith mention baptism. Below I list representative creedal statements on baptism:

The Niceneo-Constantinopolitan Creed (Ecumenical, 381)

“…and I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.”

The Council of Trent (Roman Catholic, 1563)

“If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation: let him be anathema”

Longer Catechism of the Eastern Church (Moscow, 1839)

Baptism is a Sacrament, in which…[the baptized person] dies to the carnal life of sin, and is born again of the Holy Ghost to a life spiritual and holy.”

The Augsburg Confession of Faith (Lutheran, 1530)

“Of Baptism they [Lutherans] teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that by Baptism the grace of God is offered….”

The Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed, 1563)

Question 69: “How is it signified and sealed unto thee in holy Baptism that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ has appointed this outward washing with water and has joined therewith this promise, that I am washed with his blood and Spirit from… [sin].”

The Scotch Confession of faith (Church of Scotland, [Presbyterian], 1560)

The sacraments are “Baptisme and the Supper or the Table of the Lord Jesus, called the Communion of his Body and Blude….And this we utterlie damne the vanitie of thay that affirme Sacramentes to be nathing ellis bot naked and baire signes. No, wee assuredlie beleeve that be Baptisme we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, be quhilk our sinnes ar covered and remitted.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (English Puritan, 1647)

Baptism is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God….Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect the ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated….The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really conferred by the Holy Ghost….”

The Baptist Confession of 1688; also known as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (Calvinist Baptists)

”Baptism is an ordinance…to be unto the party baptized a sign of his fellowship with Christ…of being engrafted into him; of the remission of sins….”

Confession of Free Will-Baptists (1834, 1868)

“This is the immersion of believers in water…in which are represented the burial and resurrection of Christ, the death of Christian to the world, the washing of their souls from the pollution of sin…”

A Modest Theology of Baptism

I might as well acknowledge that there have been debates and disagreement among believers in Christ about the mode of baptism, its purpose or effect, its proper candidates, who is qualified to administer it, and other aspects of baptismal practice. Today, I shall ignore all of these debates except one: does baptism, properly performed—whatever that means—really effect the gifts and promises to which the New Testament connects it? In answering this question, we need first to be reminded of how strong and realistic the New Testament language about the effect of baptism is. On the face of it, it asserts that God, the Spirit and Christ really act in and through baptism to bestow the gifts associated with it. The Nicene Creed and all Roman Catholic and Orthodox creeds maintain this same realism of divine action through baptism. Among Protestants, Lutherans also continue the realism. But the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation weakened and eventually dropped the realistic language and began to use the language of metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, and seal to describe the connection between the “external” rite of baptism and the “spiritual” promises associated with it.

The reasons why Reformed Protestants and those churches that derive from this tradition shifted from realism to symbolism in their understanding of baptism are more complicated than I can explain in this post. But two reasons stand out as relevant to today. (1) The Roman Catholic Church seemed to Protestants of that era to claim in its view of the sacraments to control where and when God acted for human salvation. And this idea is an offense to the freedom and sovereignty of God. (2) To some Reformed theologians—Zwingli, for example—the realistic view of divine action in the sacraments seemed superstitious and magical. The Reformed solution to these two problems was to shift from a realistic to a symbolic understanding of baptism and the other sacraments. God cannot be manipulated to act simply by our performance of a rite such as baptism. So, the human act of performing and receiving the rite of baptism is dissociated from God’s act of forgiving, giving the Spirit, the new birth, union with Christ, washing away sins, saving, etc. And this view is very popular among contemporary evangelical Christians.

Must we simply choose one side or the other, the purely symbolic or the manipulative and magical view of baptism? I don’t think so. The realistic tone of the New Testament drives me to seek another way to preserve the freedom and sovereignty of God and the realistic connection between the human performance of the rite and God’s action of grace.

Baptism as a Prayer

What if we considered baptism a prayer? Protestants usually believe that Jesus’ commanded us to pray and gave us a model prayer, that we are to pray always, that we are to petition the Father in Jesus’ name, that we are to pray according to the will of God, and that prayer is effective. Perhaps some people treat prayer as manipulative and magical. But most Protestants understand that God invites us to pray and sometimes wishes to give his gifts in response to prayer. I don’t know of a theology of prayer that completely dissociates our prayers from God’s hearing and acting to answer our prayers the way some theologies of baptism dissociate the human act of baptism from God’s action. Not many people refuse to pray for fear of offending divine sovereignty. Few view the connection between a sincere prayer and God’s act in answer to that prayer as “metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, or seal.” Instead, we view prayer as a precious gift God gives to his children that enables us to partner with God in this world.

Why not view baptism in the same way? The church, in performing the rite of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the candidate for baptism, by asking for baptism and submitting to it, offer this act to God as a prayer to God requesting the gifts he has promised to give when we ask. Sincere prayer is not manipulative or magical. It is not a work meriting anything from God. It is an obedient act that appeals to the gracious God for blessings that he has promised to give those who love him. In the same way, baptism is a beautiful prayer embodied in a physical action in response to a divine command and invitation. It seeks the blessings God has promised to those who trust in Jesus Christ. And we know that the prayer of baptism will receive a positive answer because God is faithful to his promises!

 

 

 

Christian Baptism Before Controversies, Speculations, and Hypotheticals

In continuation of the theme of our appropriation of the salvation Jesus brings, today we address the question of how baptism is related to the Spirit’s act of uniting us to Christ and the act of faith? I want to acknowledge at the beginning that the subject of the “sacraments” in general and in particular baptism has occasioned much controversy in Christian history. I am aware that it is not possible for me to state the meaning of baptism in a way that escapes this history completely. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to urge believers of all backgrounds to read the New Testament in as unbiased way as possible. After all, theology is the church’s self-examination in light of the Word of God that we receive through the apostolic teaching. It should be motivated by the desire to be faithful to the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles. No theologian should treat a denominational confession or a private theological opinion as the ultimate norm of Christian truth. So, the first thing to do is to document the NT statements about baptism. Next, we will document what some influential creeds and confessions of faith say about it. Finally, I will attempt to state a modest theology of baptism, a theology that leaves many interesting but speculative and “what if” questions unanswered.

Jesus’ Baptism and Ministry

Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and he commanded his disciples to baptize those who accepted their message. The first three Gospels record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Luke 3: 21, 22). The Gospel of John records the Baptist’s testimony about the Spirit falling on Jesus on the occasion of his baptism (John 1:32-34). Jesus’ earthly ministry included calling on people to repent and be baptized (John 4:1-2) And Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”(John 3:5). In the Great Commission, Mt. 28:18-20 (cf. Mk. 16:16), Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize believers and then begin the process of further teaching:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.…”

Acts of Apostles

Acts of Apostles tells the story of the origin of the church and the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. At the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in response to the audience’s question about what they should do, Peter said,

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

In response to Phillip’s powerful preaching, the Samaritan believers were baptized (8:12,13). Phillip preached “Jesus” to the Ethiopian official who then requested baptism. After Phillip baptized him, the official “went on his way rejoicing.”(8:36-39). Acts 9:17-19 and 22:12-16 tell the story of Saul’s conversion and baptism. The centurion Cornelius, the first gentile convert, and everyone in his household were baptized after Peter preached the gospel to them and the Holy Spirit had filled them:

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:47,48).

Lydia and her household (16:14-15), the Philippian Jailer (16:33), Crispus, the synagogue ruler (18:8), and those disciples who had received only John’s baptism were also baptized (19:2-6).

Paul

Paul never makes an argument that believers ought to be baptized. He assumes it and uses the universal practice to make further theological points. In Romans 6:1-10, Paul assumes without question that all the Roman Christians, whom he had not met, had been baptized. In these verses Paul refutes the ridiculous slander that accused him of teaching that we should sin all the more because the more we sin the more grace we get. He asks the Roman believers to call to mind their baptism as the demarcation between the old life of sin and the new life of righteousness. Their baptism should teach them the absurdity of sinning to get grace:

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul uses the universal practice of baptism to make another point. We are not under the obligation to obey the law to attain right standing with God. We have a right relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. Notice the seamless and natural relationship between faith and baptism in this text:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, Paul makes a very interesting connection between baptism and the Spirit. He reminds the Corinthians that the basis for the harmony of the unity and diversity of the body of Christ is that “we were all baptized by[or “in”] one Spirit” (12:13). Apparently, some early Christians were even having themselves baptized again “for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29). In Ephesians, Paul lists baptism among the seven ones that all Christians share. Again we find baptism assumed as a universal practice.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In another very interesting text in Ephesians, Paul speaks of baptism as something Christ does for us, a washing that purifies and makes holy:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (5:25-27).

In Colossians, Paul argues for the supremacy of Christ over all other powers and supposed saviors. Christ embodies and makes available to us the fullness of the divine nature and all wisdom. And we have been joined with him through baptism:

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:9-12).

In these words, Baptism is compared to the Jewish covenant practice of circumcision. Christ is the one who cuts away the old, sinful flesh. Hence God in Christ is the true actor in baptism. If we also consider the other texts quoted above, we can say that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are the true actors in baptism, though it is a practice to which we submit and the church administers through its duly appointed representatives.

These texts and others (e.g., 1 Peter 3:21) were written before the controversies, speculations, and hypothetical cases that arose in the two millennia since that time. When you listen to them without these distractions, you hear resounding joy and hope. They speak of the promises of God and work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. They draw for us a clear line between the dead past and the living hope of the present and future. They speak of assurance and confidence and certainty. I hope that we will not let any controversy, speculation, or hypothetical case rob us of the mood in which these texts are written. Whatever our speculations, we can receive baptism as a gift administered by the church’s human hands but performed by the Spirit acting in union with the Father and Son. What a wonderful gift! Don’t reject it, delay it, or demean it. Enjoy it.

Next Week: creeds, denominational confessions and a modest theology of baptism.

When Did “Doctrine” Become a Four Letter Word?

Doctrine has fallen on hard times among mainstream Christian churches. Liberal churches have disparaged doctrine for at least a hundred years. By “doctrine” they meant the traditional orthodox doctrines that asserted miracles, original sin, the incarnation and atonement, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and others. According to Liberal churches, modern people schooled in natural science and critical history can no longer believe these teachings, and such controversial teachings distract attention from the liberal agenda of progressive moral advance in society. (For more on the idea of Liberal Christianity, see my essays on Liberal Christianity posted on August 01 and 08, 2015). In the first half of the Twentieth Century Liberalism was opposed by traditional believers who defended the orthodox doctrines mentioned above. But even within conservative Christian circles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries there were revival and evangelistic movements that down played “denominational” doctrines so that they could more effectively evangelize the unchurched. That is to say, the practical concerns of evangelism and church growth nudged evangelists and pastors toward minimizing doctrines that were not directly related to conversion and salvation. Requiring prospective church members to consider and adopt many doctrines would distract them from making a “decision for Christ.” Hence in their own way many conservative opponents of Liberal Christianity down played doctrine.

We can see many of these same forces at work in 2015. Liberal churches still reject orthodoxy and continue to pursue a mission of social change according to progressive philosophy. Many evangelical churches continue to put a high priority on church growth and churching the unchurched. Of course the methods of attracting people into churches have changed. Over the last years I have noticed an increase in two areas: offers of social support and exciting “worship experiences.” Instead of evangelistic “crusades” or revival meetings churches provide a full spectrum of social programs that appeal to young families with children, singles and other affinity groups. And they spend huge amounts of money and energy to provide moving experiences of worship and uplifting messages from the pastor. Doctrine does not fit well into this picture. And it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of years of doctrinal neglect. People may eventually begin asking themselves, “Why are we here?”

So, what is doctrine? The English word “doctrine” derives from a Latin-based word that means “teaching.” Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds. In his “great commission” recorded in Matthew 28, Jesus commanded his disciples to go to the nations, baptizing people and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (v. 20). The apostles remembered Jesus’ teaching and passed it on. They also taught about what happened to Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. They explained how his death and resurrection affect us and how we are to relate to the Lord Jesus Christ. The church “devoted” itself the “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The New Testament is the record of the apostles’ teaching and the apostles’ memories of Jesus’ teaching. Preaching is simply a particular way of teaching. The gospel is not opposed to doctrine. The gospel is the first and the most important thing that must be taught.

Doctrine, that is, Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching, informs us about certain historical events and their meaning, about the right way to live in the world, and about God’s promises. The Bible teaches about God’s nature and identity, about the identity and work of Jesus Christ, about sin and salvation, about the church and her sacraments. Christian doctrine instructs us about whom to trust, for what to hope and how to love. It teaches us how to use our bodies and souls and tongues. The task of the church is to continue to teach and live the full range of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching. We do not have the right to limit teaching only to areas that are consistent with progressive culture, as do Liberal churches. Nor do we have a right to focus only on the “exciting” “affirming” and “uplifting” teachings as do many evangelical churches. To church the unchurched should not mean simply getting them in a worship assembly three or four times a month. It means to work toward re-forming them in the image of Jesus Christ. It means to help them to know and rely on all the promises of God, to engage them in the practices Jesus and the apostles taught us: prayer, the supper of the Lord, baptism, listening to the Word of God and confession.

But doctrine is boring, some say. No! Some teachers of doctrine are boring. But everything Jesus’ and the apostles’ taught is exciting, revolutionary and challenging! When various teachings get separated from the heart of the good news of how much God loves us and has done for us in Jesus Christ, then, yes, they are onerous and boring. But if we keep clearly and steadily in mind that doctrine—every doctrine!—is about who God is or what God has done for us or how God’s love can become a real power in our lives or how we can live in this world in faith and hope and love, then each and every morsel of teaching (doctrine) will be like honey in our mouths, wisdom for our minds, and energy for our souls!

A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture

Happy New Year! Today marks the beginning of the third year of ifaqtheology! And my new theme is announced in the title of today’s post.

I suppose it’s always been a problem, but it seems to me that the average churchgoer in the United States (elsewhere too I am sure) is becoming less and less familiar with the full range of Christian teaching. I don’t intend to quote surveys and studies of this phenomenon. It’s just an impression, and I will work with that. Few observers would question the assertion that denominational loyalties and confessional identities have declined dramatically in recent years. And we see evidence every Sunday that contemporary churches place less emphasis on teaching, learning and remembering than on the “worship experience” in which one expects to feel joy in the presence of the transcendent. Experience has moved from being considered a by-product of the encounter with word and sacrament to the central goal of Christian gatherings. Has thirst for experience replaced desire for understanding or has loss of understanding leading to greater thirst for moving experiences? Is the loss of confessional and denominational loyalties the cause or the effect of the loss of teaching and learning? I suspect they are interrelated in ways too complicated to describe.

At least since the early 19th century, American Christianity has been expressed, lived, taught and learned in a denominational form. Denominational bodies competed for the minds and hearts of people by touting the strengths of their particular package of teaching and church life. (Undoubtedly, social location also has a huge impact on which denomination one chooses.) Denominations for the most part are confessional bodies and have an interest in teaching the full range of their doctrine to prospective converts, new converts and children. As long as denominational or confessional consciousness is strong the task of teaching doctrine will be high on the agenda of a church’s priorities. The disadvantages of denominationalism—as opposed to an established, territorial church—are the presence of multiple contradictory voices all claiming to represent Christianity and the animosity created by such division and competition. But one positive thing that derives from the denominational and confessional form of Christianity is that most members of such Christian bodies receive the full range of doctrinal instruction; doctrinal teaching is important to these bodies, if for no other reason than to reinforce denominational loyalty.

In the present environment, with denominational loyalties at historic lows and confessions of faith gathering dust on the pastors’ shelves, churches have lost a major incentive to teach the full range of doctrine. To the contrary, church leaders deemphasize doctrine to broaden their appeal to prospective members. Taking the most generous interpretation of this practice, the goal is more effective evangelism. A less generous interpreter might conclude that growing a big church has become an end in itself. The consequence of this development is disturbing: the people don’t get taught at all! Hence the appalling ignorance of churchgoers, lay church leaders and even clergy in contemporary churches. Surely ignorance cannot be a means to any good end! But many evils befall the untaught.

We need a catechism of mere Christianity for a post-denominational church living in a post-Christian culture. And my goal for this year is to work on developing this catechism. So, what is a catechism? It is a summary of a church’s teaching prepared for the instruction of children and new converts. The printed version of the Roman Catholic Catechism is 800 pages long and covers a huge range of topics. Perhaps the most famous Protestant catechisms are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The word “catechism” derives from the Greek word katecheo, which is used in Acts 21:21; Gal 6:6; and 1 Cor 14:19. It means to teach, inform or instruct. In time, it came to mean specifically the process of instruction in the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism in the case of adult converts or instruction of children in case of those born to Christian parents and baptized as infants. Its goal is not preaching the gospel to prospective converts. It is not an exercise in theology seeking deeper meaning and connections within the Christian faith. Nor does it aim to provide evidence for the truth of the faith or to defend it from attack. It aims to teach the full range of the faith at a basic level.

What is mere Christianity? And what kind of catechism can serve the needs of a post-denominational church? And why do we need to take into account the post-Christian environment within which the church lives today? Next week we will address these questions.

In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 1)?

Perhaps it has always been so, but I see lots of short-term, consumer-driven thinking among Christian people and their leaders; and it has weighed on my mind lately. The questions to which we give our attention seem to be: “How can we meet our budgets for this fiscal year?” “How can we attract young people to our churches?”  “How can we keep our worship or preaching or children’s program or youth ministry relevant to contemporary audiences?” Or, “How can we make our services guest friendly?” I would not say that such questions ought never to enter our minds or ever receive any consideration. But shouldn’t we take a broader and longer-term view of our mission? What if we ask a different question: “How would we understand, study, live, teach and practice our faith if we wanted to do all we could to make sure that our church is authentically Christian 100 years from today?”

Okay, I admit it: We can’t control what future generations believe and do. It may be that, despite our best efforts, our great, great grand Children will not profess Christian faith. Still, that is no excuse for not thinking about the task and giving it our best efforts.

The first step is to raise the issue of the long-term sustainability of the form of faith we teach and practice. Let me explain what I mean by the term “form of faith.” Each Christian community by tradition or by circumstance selects certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize while it leaves others in the background as assumed or otherwise neglected. Your church may place justification by faith, good works, evangelism, church order, social justice, election, experience of the Spirit or some other teaching or practice at the center of church life. This specialization of teaching makes sense in many ways. You can’t teach everything at once. The needs of every age and context demand more instruction in certain areas than in others. Churches tend to perpetuate their founding and traditional insights. However, if the form of faith we teach does not contain the whole range of Christian teaching held in proper balance, it becomes vulnerable to two common forms of change that can lead it astray over time.

Allow me call the first “the law of logical progression” and the second “the law of dialectical change.” The law of logical progression comes into effect when for whatever reason one truth is emphasized to the near exclusion of others and becomes a sort of master concept by which others are judged. This truth—a particular understanding of church order or charismatic gifts or any another—is treated as if it were clear, precise and absolutely true apart from its relationship to other Christian truths. Hence other truths are interpreted by and forced into consistency with this truth.

Already, we have surfaced a serious misunderstanding about how the faith is communicated. In my view, no single proposition of Christian doctrine can in isolation from other statements of faith communicate its full truth and only that. (I hope to defend this statement in greater depth in a later post.) A fine example of this can be found in Romans 6. The statement “we are saved by grace” communicates an important truth as long as it is understood in relation to other teaching. But apart from its relation to the whole faith, it is ambiguous. And bad things happen when you treat an ambiguous statement as if it were clear. Once an isolated statement of doctrine is assumed to possess its truth in itself apart from any modifying relations to other teaching, our minds cannot resist drawing out all the implications of that statement almost to absurdity. Paul reacts severely to those who would isolate grace from righteousness and extend its meaning so that it actually contradicts other teachings: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). As an isolated statement the assertion of salvation of grace may plausibly be interpreted to imply that sin is permitted. But given the whole context within which the doctrine of grace is nested, the implication that sin is a good thing appears not only unwarranted but ridiculous.

The law of dialectical change becomes operative when one party makes a strong affirmation (or negation) that evokes an opposing negation. In the previous paragraph, I asserted that no proposition of Christian doctrine can communicate its full truth and only that truth when asserted in isolation from the full range of doctrine. So when someone asserts an isolated proposition of doctrine as if it were unambiguous and absolutely true in isolation, our minds automatically begin the process of negation; we immediately see that this strong claim cannot be true. This mental process is both logical and psychological. It’s logical in that the very form of the words of an assertion of truth requires that the negation of that truth be false. An assertion always carries its negation along with it and smuggles it into our minds even against the speaker’s and the hearer’s intention. It is psychological in that strong assertions call up resistance to any person claiming such absolute and unambiguous knowledge. It seems a bit arrogant, and we can’t resist enjoying the humiliation of the arrogant.

Again, consider the proposition “We are saved by divine grace.” If this truth is asserted in isolation from other doctrine—because in isolation the statement is ambiguous, containing falsehood as well as truth— it could be taken to mean something like, “We will be saved by grace regardless of any other factor. Hence whether we sin much or little, intentionally or inadvertently, it matters not.” Suppose that we like Paul recoil against this permissive conclusion, but unlike Paul respond to the misuse of the doctrine simply by negating the proposition that we are saved by divine grace. In this case the law of dialectical change would become operative with a vengeance. A simple dialectical negation would also negate the truth that the statement “we are saved by grace” is intended to teach when set in its relation to the whole Christian faith. The simple negation would assert: “It is not the case that we are saved by grace.” In attempting to correct one distortion simple dialectical negation produces another, its mirror image.

A hundred years of logical progression and dialectical negation could move a church very far from where it is today. So I believe becoming aware of these processes is a first step toward preserving the continuity of faith between year 2013 and year 2113. Next time we will reflect on some positive strategies for preserving authentic Christian faith for our great, great grandchildren. To be continued…

Questions and Answers on Fear and Freedom, God and Providence, Faith and Scholarship: A Written Interview

For this week’s entry I’ve reprinted a written interview just posted on Pepperdine University’s “Research News” page. You can see the original interview by following the link pasted below:

http://www.pepperdine.edu/research/news/2013/ron_highfield.htm

In your book, you address big themes and fears that have haunted the human psyche for quite some time.  What inspired or motivated you to write this book?  Has it been something you have been thinking about or planning for a long time?

Ron Highfield: This book [God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (IVP, 2013)] finds its origin in my two teaching/research interests, (1) the intersection between Christianity and secular culture, and (2) theological reflection on issues facing the church today. As I wrote my previous book, Great is the Lord (Eerdmans, 2008; 467 pages), which falls into category (2), I kept thinking about the problem of the relationship between God and human freedom and dignity. This issue has been discussed by theologians and philosophers for 2,500 years. I began to see that this problem makes itself felt in popular culture as unspoken fear that the existence and activity of God may pose a threat to our freedom and dignity. I wrote this book to show the ways in which this fear shapes how secular culture views God and to show how the Christian view of God overcomes these fears. I argue that instead of being a threat to human freedom and dignity God is their securest foundation and the greatest hope of their glorious fulfillment.

How does this book differ from your past scholarship?

RH: In many ways God, Freedom & Human Dignity continues my theological research program of the last fifteen years. It addresses a significant theological problem at a high level in dialogue with the best theologians and philosophers, ancient and modern. It differs in at least three ways: (1) I address the problem of the way secular culture (rather than the church) thinks of God and humanity, (2) the target audience is those influenced by this secular vision and the theological students and practicing ministers who minister to them, and (3) these limitations influence the smaller size of the book (227 pages) and the less ponderous and less argumentative style of the book.

Modernity and its psychological influences are central to your argument about the internal struggle humans face in confronting and accepting God today. The crux of this struggle lies in the human need for (and even exaltation of) autonomy when it is juxtaposed with or seemingly undermined by a belief in God.  Could you discuss your concept of a “me-centered culture” and how you see people grappling with religion in a different way now than in past decades?

RH: By designating our culture is “me-centered” I don’t mean that it is especially selfishness or narcissistic; rather, I mean that it teaches us that we should look exclusively within the human self for our dignity, for guidance in our pursuit of happiness and for how to treat others. It views self-expression and authenticity as sacred rights. The “me-centered” culture instinctively recoils at the idea that we need guidance in these areas from external authority. It views calls for adherence to moral law and obedience to God as threats to autonomy, dignity and freedom. It reacts to restrictions on our search for happiness as the worst sort of hatred and cruelty. Clearly, presenting the Christian message to our contemporaries confronts us with challenges not faced by Christian thinkers even fifty years ago. In part, I wrote this book to explore ways of communicating the meaning of Christianity in this new context.

What kind of research are you currently working on?

RH: I am currently working on a book on the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. This book will continue the trajectory began in Great is the Lord. Having treated the Christian doctrine of God, I am now thinking about what it means to call God “the Creator” of the world and “Lord and Governor” of history. In dealing with the idea of creation I want to take the focus off the “science and the Bible” debate and replace it with thorough reflection on what I call the “God-creature” relation: what does it mean to say that God gives being and form to the world? What does it mean to say that creatures depend on God for their existence, form and life? These profound questions have not received the attention in recent theology and popular religion that they deserve. In this book I want to show the intimate connection between the ideas of creation and providence. The concept that ties the two together is the “God-creature” relation. Providence is a kind of continuing creation that aims at bringing the world to its appointed end. In one sense the divine act of creation includes all time and not merely a timeless beginning of time. In the course of this book I will deal with the relationship between divine providence and human freedom and with the problem of evil.

What is the proper end of an academic vocation? Or how do you understand your research?

RH: Contemporary higher education (“the academy”) seems to be very confused about why it exists and what end it should pursue. The standard rhetoric (usually directed at threats from outside the academy) argues that the academy should pursue “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” This ideal sees the scholar as an objective and disinterested servant of truth who should receive complete academic freedom in the sacred name of truth. On the other hand, as a matter of practice, scholars adopt many other ends: political agendas, battles for cultural dominance, career advancement, reputation, money and other private goals. In my opinion the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” view is at best a methodological guide to keep us honest and fair in our research. Understood in this sense I honor it. But scholars are human beings and all human beings serve ends beyond mere exercises in method. “Knowledge is power,” said Francis Bacon truly. And good people should direct power toward good ends. No human activity deserves to be exempt from ethical scrutiny. Hence scholars are obligated to direct their research toward good ends. Every scholar, whatever his or her religious stance, should direct scholarship toward the good of humanity. As a Christian scholar I have a particular understanding of human good, and all my theological research is directed toward that good: that human beings should come to love God and their neighbors. For me, keeping this end in mind unifies my role as a teacher of the young with my role as a researcher in search of truth. End of interview.

How would it affect the way we approach theology and church life if, instead of thinking exclusively about pressing issues and short-term goals, we extended our horizon a hundred years to 2113? Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Are we pursuing practical goals and working on theological issues now in ways that will contribute to the preservation of faith for our great, great grand children? Or will the trajectories we are following in the present make it less likely that 2113 will greet future generations with the word of faith? Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth in 2113?

Until next week…