Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

The Church’s Christology Or The Real Jesus?

In the previous post we began a study of the identity of Jesus Christ. We looked at many New Testament texts that speak about Jesus’ identity. We spent most of the time examining the Gospel of Mark. We saw there and in the rest of the New Testament a very important distinction being made between the offices and functions that Jesus is said to have held and performed and his person, that is, the personal characteristics that qualified him to perform these functions. Perhaps divinely chosen and empowered human beings could hold some of these offices and perform some of these functions, for example, prophet, priest, and king. There were other lawgivers, exorcists, and miracle workers. But the New Testament makes clear that Jesus performs many of these functions by his own authority and some of the titles given to him clearly refer to his person as well as his offices. This is clearly true of the title “Lord” and “Savior” and “Word” and “Son of God.” It is impossible to imagine designating a mere human being by these titles.

Jesus’ Authority Over Kosher Laws

Before I move on to the question of the validity of the New Testament’s Christology, I want to consider one other text in the Gospel of Mark. Mark gives 23 verses to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law over the disciples’ eating without observing the traditions about ritual cleansing before eating (Mark 7). Let’s take up the story at verse 14:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Notice Mark’s extension and application of Jesus’ statement in verses 18 and 19. “Jesus declared all foods clean.” Compare Mark’s observation with the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10. Peter sees a sheet full of clean and unclean animals being lowered from heaven. A voice from heaven tells Peter to “kill and eat” (10:13). Peter protests. But the heavenly voice, whom Peter addresses as “Lord” (Jesus?) rebukes Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). Because of this encounter with the Lord, Peter understands that God has opened the door of the kingdom to gentiles. Mark contends that even during his earthly ministry Jesus had implicitly declared all foods clean. Mark clearly views Jesus as having the authority to change the Old Testament kosher laws. Jesus does not need a vision and a voice heaven to give him the right to make this declaration. He already has that right because of who he is.

The Origin of Christology

The New Testament views Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, the Word of God who has taken on human nature for our sakes. The wording of the Nicene Creed (381) in reference to Christ does not differ in content to the New Testament teaching:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.

But were the first disciples, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews making legitimate inferences from their knowledge of what Jesus actually said, did, and what happened to him to their high Christology? Can the church’s Christology be justified by the facts about Jesus? I dealt with this question from the angle of apologetics in the January 2015 posts on the resurrection. I shall address it here briefly as the question of the origin of Christology.

Apart from their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the apostles’ embrace of such an exalted view of Jesus Christ as we find in the New Testament is inconceivable. [Note: the term “bodily resurrection” is redundant, but I use it anyway since Liberal Christianity claims Jesus was “raised” only in a spiritual or metaphorical sense, a use of the term resurrection I consider duplicitous.] It would never have occurred to anyone to see in the crucified, dead Jesus God’s triumph over sin and death. No one would have dreamed of preaching that Jesus’ death on the cross was the turning point of the history of salvation. Pursuing the question of the identity of Jesus would not have been worth the effort. Only the bodily resurrection could have provided justification for developing Christology. This much is certain.

The question I am asking, however, is not whether the bodily resurrection of Jesus provoked the origin of some type of Christology but whether or not it justifies the exalted Christology of Paul, John, Hebrews, and the Nicene Creed. For it is (superficially) conceivable that God could raise a human being from the dead for a reason other than declaring him to be the eternal Son of God. In the case of Jesus no such ambiguity was possible for at least three reasons:

(1) clearly the resurrection would be understood as God’s validation of Jesus’ teaching and activity and a declaration of his innocence of the charges that lead to his death. But as we have seen, Jesus taught and acted with unprecedented authority and his claims about his relationship with God were considered blasphemous by the Jewish rulers. By rescuing Jesus from the dead God declared Jesus’ claims to be true. Hence Jesus claims, his teaching, and his actions—as the disciples remembered them—became significant for the development of Christology.

(2) Jesus’ resurrection was not merely a return to his former life. It was the definitive salvation into eternal life promised for the end of the age. Jesus is the bringer of salvation. In him the end of all things has appeared and the meaning of creation has been completed. Christology seeks to understand the connection between the one through whom God brings salvation to the world and the God to whom Jesus prayed.

(3) Paul and the original apostles experienced Jesus alive after the resurrection in a way that convinced them not only that Jesus was alive but also that he was united to God, permeated with the Holy Spirit, and endowed with divine authority. Hence they called him “Lord,” worshiped him, prayed to him, obeyed him, and expected salvation from him. Their experience of the resurrected Jesus made necessary the development of an account of his person and his relationship to the God of Israel and the Spirit of God.

Taking all three of these aspects into account, we begin to understand why the apostles and Paul developed the very exalted Christology we find in the New Testament. Nothing less could do justice to the facts of their experience of Jesus.


Who is Jesus?

The first generation of Christians was occupied with grasping for themselves and explaining to others the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  One of the earliest identifiers is expressed in the confession, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9). His original disciples also designated Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the world, Word of God, and many more titles. Jesus saves and judges the world. He is the one through whom God created the universe (Hebrews 1:1-3) and the one in whom the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

He existed in the “form of God” but took on the “form of a servant” (Philippians 2). The eternal Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). He is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Jesus is not identified in a one-to-one correspondence with the God of Israel to whom Jesus prayed as “Father.” He is distinct from but in the closest and most intimate relationship with the God the Father.

Though Jesus is called a prophet, lawgiver, messenger and teacher, he is more, much more. The Gospel of Mark begins with the affirmation that this is the story of “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Mark’s gospel tells the story of how Jesus came to be recognized as “Messiah” and “Son of God.” John baptized with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. What a contrast! Jesus speaks with authority and casts out demons, which recognize him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24). He heals the sick and raises the dead with a simple command and in complete confidence.

In Mark 8, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say that I am?” At this point in the narrative, Jesus’ actions and words have asserted such unprecedented authority and provoked such wonder that none of the usual labels can do him justice. Peter replies to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (8:28). But not even that label says all that needs to be said about Jesus. For “messiah” means one anointed to be “king,” and Jesus, we discover, is more than a king.

In the next chapter (Mark 9), Jesus is transfigured and meets with Moses and Elijah. The three disciples wish to honor Jesus as the equal of Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the greatest of the prophets. But God, speaking from heaven declares, “This is my Son listen to him.” Jesus is greater than the law and the prophets! He is God’s “Son.” Mark wants us to view Jesus’ messiahship or kingship—which could be viewed simply as an office like those of prophet and priest—in light of his “Sonship.” When the human beings in Mark’s gospel speak about Jesus’ identity, they speak of him as the bearer of an office such as king or prophet, but when God or demons speak, they speak about Jesus’ person, that is, the inherent personal qualities that make him qualified for the work he does and the offices he holds.

In Mark, as well as the rest of the New Testament, the title “Son of God” means more than an office; it means an intimate relationship with the Father based not simply on a divine choice but on something analogous to natural kinship. John calls Jesus “the only-begotten” Son of God, emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus relationship to the Father (John 1:15), and Paul contrasts Jesus the Son of God with “the sons of God” who are adopted into “sonship,” in an obvious contrast between natural born and adopted children (Romans 8:15). Jesus is “Son of God” by nature. There never was a time when he was not God’s Son.

 Israel’s lawgivers, prophets, judges and priests were chosen by God from among the people and endowed with the authority of the office. Whatever authority they exercised or wisdom they displayed derived not from their own persons but from their divine appointment. Apart from that divine choice, they are just like their brother and sister Israelites. But Jesus was not only chosen and appointed for his work in this world. He was sent from the Father. He is not qualified because he was appointed but he was appointed because he was qualified. And this fact distinguishes Jesus Christ from all prior and succeeding prophets, priests and lawgivers. Jesus is Lord.

To be continued…


A Time for Decision: Is Christianity True? (Part 11)

For the past three weeks we have been standing before first decision point on path from nonbelief to Christian faith. We must decide whether mind or matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. Belief in God presupposes the background belief that mind is at least as fundamental as matter, and atheism presupposes that matter alone is fundamental and explains everything else. If it could be shown that matter is the final explanation for mind and all mind-like features of the universe, belief in God would be defeated. If, on the other hand, mind could be shown to be at least as ultimate as matter, atheism would be defeated.

I argued from three different experiences that it is eminently reasonable to belief that mind is as necessary to explain the world of our experience as matter is. We examined our experience of the intelligibility of the external order of nature. In our analysis we found no way to reduce the intelligible order of nature to pure, unordered matter, and we rejected chance as the explanation for that order. Afterward, we considered our experience of ourselves as initiating causes and creators of information. We argued from this experience that it is reasonable to believe that an active universal mind gives the world its intelligible order. Finally, we argued that our experience of other minds “strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial, active mind orders the world.”

We could dwell here forever endlessly debating the many issues involved in the choice between mind and matter as the ultimate reality: How could mind emerge from pure matter? How can immaterial mind exercise causality on a material world? But now it is time to decide. I am convinced that further discussions would not settled the issue definitively. There is no hope that further investigation would bring forward indubitable proof one way or another and remove the necessity for a fallible decision. The best we can hope for is a decision based on reasonable and responsible judgments. And I believe the three arguments we have considered make reasonable our belief that mind is at least as ultimate as matter and make responsible our decision to act on that belief.

Since there are no definitive arguments for either side, some would argue that a stance of agnosticism and indecision is the most rational position. This argument contends that agnosticism’s subjective uncertainty and indecision corresponds to the objective situation of our lack of absolute knowledge whereas a decision to build one’s life and worldview on either alternative goes beyond the evidence. And cultivating certainty and plunging into action beyond the reach of the evidence is abandoning reason in favor of irrational impulse.

I don’t think I need to enter an extended discussion of agnosticism at this point, but I’d like to make two points in response to the argument in the previous paragraph. First, one cannot be agnostic about everything. In the argument above the agnostic makes the judgment that both the evidence for and the evidence against materialism are inadequate to justify knowledge claims and decisive actions. Now either this agnostic judgment is fallible or infallible. If the agnostic judgment rises to the level of genuine knowledge, the agnostic must abandon agnosticism at least on this issue. If the judgment in question is fallible, the agnostic loses the right to criticize atheism or theism for going beyond the evidence; for the agnostic also acts on the basis of fallible judgments. Second, some decisions are so fundamental to the act of living that they cannot be avoided or postponed. Perhaps, I need never form a definitive judgment about whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. I can think of no practical difference my opinion on the subject would make. But we cannot avoid the decision between atheism and belief in God. If we live at all or do anything at all, we must live and act on one belief or another. For these beliefs define the origin and destiny and the meaning and purpose of human life. And these limits determine everything in between, defining the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, and the worthwhile and the useless. The rationality of every human act or decision not to act will be judged by its consistency with these ideas. In the case of agnosticism, refusing to decide is to decide to act as if we could live without acting, a huge self-deception.

But I have argued that the decision to reject materialism in favor of belief is quite rational. Once we make this decision–especially since we see that further discussion would not change the necessity of making a fallible decision–we need not look back in doubt. We can move forward to build our thoughts on the foundation of reasonable judgments and responsible decisions made at the first decision point. We can now presuppose the existence of a universal mind that manifests itself in the intelligible order of the world. This forward-looking boldness will characterize each of the decision point decisions we make on the way to Christian faith. These points are watershed moments where one must take risks to move forward into decisive action. We are being prepared for the most demanding decision of all, the move into faith in Jesus Christ.

Heaven and Earth Reconciled: God and the Modern Self #16

This installment completes this series. So, perhaps now would be a good time to let you in on a theological assumption I have made throughout this series: We can arrive at a Christian understanding of God only by viewing everything in the Bible and everything reason may tell us about God through the prism of Jesus Christ. For Christianity, God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit, everlasting self-giving love. There is no other God. Every divine attribute and action, every biblical narrative and assertion, before it can be legitimately incorporated into the Christian doctrine of God, must be harmonized with the vision of God that has come to light in Jesus Christ. The event of Jesus Christ is not merely a revelation of God; it is the revelation of God. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul tells us that it was always God’s secret plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” And this text also sets the agenda for theology. All ideas about God must be brought to unity under Christ.

Operating on this theological assumption, I examined the ideas of divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in view of the vision of God that was brought into view by event of Jesus Christ. What seemed so menacing when contemplated in isolation appears as such good news when seen light of Jesus. God’s power can no longer be understood as the arbitrary will for domination. Now we know that it is the life-giving Life that appeared in Christ. The true character of God’s omnipresence is revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God. God can be with us, in us and united to us without displacing us. We no longer fear God’s absolute knowledge of us because now we understand this knowledge as the wisdom of his love. God knows how to love us, care for us and save us.

I also applied this theological assumption in our quest to understand who we are in relation to God. We cannot see ourselves as God sees us by studying history or reflecting on our feelings, thoughts and experiences. Nor can we understand ourselves by collecting biblical texts about human nature, sinfulness or destiny, unless those texts are brought to unity “under Christ.” For Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the revelation human nature and destiny. The event of Jesus Christ is the event of God uniting humanity to himself and bring it to its definitive perfection and its final destiny. In Christ we find no conflict between God and the full flowering of human perfection and happiness. Jesus Christ is God and humanity united in perfect harmony. To do the will of God and to seek our greatest good are one and the same endeavor. For God to work his sovereign will and to love the world in Christ through the Spirit are one and the same project. Just as we learn from Christ that God is self-giving love, we also learn that the perfection of human nature is self-giving love. And “self-giving love cannot compete with self-giving love” (p. 213).

To close this series I will quote the last paragraph of the book God, Freedom & Human Dignity:

“At the beginning of this book I expressed concern that we may hold back part of ourselves from God because we fear that God is in some way our competitor, that we might lose something if we give ourselves to God and that God may not be wholly for us. I hope by now we can see that there is not the slightest ground for such fears. The very opposite is true. God is so much for us and we are made so much for God that only by returning ourselves to God utterly may we become truly ourselves and live life to the full. In loving God for God’s sake alone we will find genuine freedom and in allowing ourselves to be loved by God we will discover our true dignity” (p. 217).

Next week I will begin a series that deals with the creeping moral crisis that is engulfing modern western culture and the challenge the culture’s moral nihilism poses to the Christian vision of human life. In my experience, contemporary discussions of morality consist of incoherent assertions of prejudice and outbursts of emotional anguish, mixed with rude protests and not so veiled threats of violence. Hence my approach will be to search for what went wrong and to clarify the alternatives that reveal themselves in that search. I think we will discover that the loss of robust Christian doctrines God, creation, sin and salvation preceded and facilitated the loss of a coherent moral vision. And only by regaining a deep understanding and belief in these Christian teachings can we successfully weather the storm about to break on the gates of the church.

A New Series Begins: God and the Modern Self

With this week’s entry I begin a series of posts dealing with issues I addressed in my recent book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2013). I will not write the series as a book review but as a study guide. The complete series, at least 16 entries, can serve as a study guide to the book for individuals, Sunday school classes, sermon series, college or seminary teachers or students, campus ministers, and youth workers to use their respective settings. But I also intend the posts to make sense even apart from the book; so, you can be stimulated and edified even if you are not reading the book.

The series will follow the book’s outline. The first half will deal with “The Me-Centered Self” and the second half with “The God-Centered Self.” The first part contains seven chapters and the second nine. Each week I will deal with a different chapter.

Introduction: Life in Two Worlds

Christians live in two worlds, the world of Scripture and the world of contemporary culture. Scripture embodies divine wisdom and revelation and a history of the prophets and saints and apostles. It preserves the words and deeds, suffering and triumph of Jesus Christ. The church has preserved Scripture, reflected continuously on its meaning and attempted to embody its truth for nearly 2000 years. Christian identity is shaped by 3500 years of history and tradition. Unlike many of our contemporaries we have (or should have) long memories.

From the world of Scripture and tradition we learn to see ourselves as God’s creatures, dependent on God for all good things, as sinners in need of forgiveness and renewal, as God’s beloved children, chosen for greatness, as mortals eagerly anticipating the advent of eternal life. We learn to value such moral and religious attitudes as trust, obedience, self-control, humility, love, reverence and hope. We see our lives as directed to accomplishing the will of God, to bringing glory to him and sharing in that glory. This shared, long-term and God-centered memory gives us stability of identity and clarity of character as individuals and as a community; and it protects us from the ever-changing winds of fad and fashion.

But we also live in the world of contemporary culture. And, just as we need to practice remembering that long story to keep alive our Christian identity, we need to observe, analyze and evaluate contemporary culture as a part of our own faithful self-examination. We face the double danger of forgetting the past and becoming enchanted by surrounding culture. That double danger can be overcome only by forming habits of remembering and by thoughtful engagement with culture. Attempting to preserve memory without thoughtful examination of culture will render us unable to communicate the Christian message to our contemporaries and, paradoxically, it may make us even more vulnerable to adapting to secular culture in substance while maintaining orthodoxy in words. But attempting to stay in tune with contemporary culture without constantly remembering our story in Scripture and tradition will lead to loss of God-centered identity.

My book and this series address this double danger by analyzing and evaluating contemporary culture and bringing to remembrance the Christian message of divine and human identity as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The first installment, “God and The Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 1)”, will be posted immediately.



Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part Three)

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith is belief that God is, was and always will be alive, that God is, was and always will be the source of life for all living things. Faith is conviction that God is the giver of every good thing we now have or can hope to have. Faith clings to God as the ever-present, always-attentive sustainer of our lives, as the unchanging beginning of temporal movement, as the end toward which all things strive. Faith understands God as the eternal unity that embraces all creation and every moment, every feeling and thought, every act and all our sufferings into a meaningful whole. It looks to God as that transcendent still point that imparts peace to our fragmented and chaotic lives.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith does not view God as an anonymous, purely transcendent Good; it sees the character and plan of this transcendent Good in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the transcendent source, the centering still point, the eternal unity has united creation to himself in the most intimate way possible. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth—and in him human nature and all creation—has been so united to God that human nature partakes in divine qualities without ceasing to be human; indeed, it becomes truly and fully human for the first time. In Jesus Christ, creation has reached its glorious fulfillment and God has achieved his eternal purpose. In faith, Christians look to Jesus Christ as the trustworthy basis of hope that we too will share in the glory of God.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Augustine said truly, “The happy life is joy based on truth.” But everyone knows the difference between holding a statement to be true and experiencing the reality that makes the statement true. Only in living by faith, that is, by acting on faith, facing suffering in faith and even suffering for faith, may we experience the truth on which joy is based. When all other supports have failed, all other helpers have fled and the last human hope has faded into darkness, we find that God is there. God is there, has been there and will always be there. When God is all you’ve got you realize that God is all you’ve ever had.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. But how can we keep this realization alive? We are forgetful creatures, creatures of habit; and most of our habits pull us into the mesmerizing flow of ordinary life. The sights and sounds, the worries and responsibilities, and the desires and ambitions of life in the world distract us from our true joy. Because we are forgetful, habit-forming, and distractible beings our strategy for maintaining awareness must counteract these tendencies. We need to form habits and practices that remind us that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness.

I would like to suggest some ways we can keep vividly aware that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness. These are suggestions only, designed to provoke thought; you may find other ways: (1) Since you will not always be consciously focused on God, surround yourself with reminders, with symbols and words. You might place the words I have been repeating in this essay (You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.) where you are sure to see them every day. Make connections between everyday activities and the memory of God. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said, “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe; indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing besides” (Or. 27.4). What if every time we noticed our breathing we remembered that God alone breathes into us the breath of life? (2) Make the unbreakable habit of meeting frequently with fellow believers to remind each other of who we are, on whom we depend and in whom we find our joy. Remember in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of the Lord. Remember your baptism.

(3) In your solitude, practice stripping away every finite good and every temporal joy. Be alone, be still and let it wash over you that you exist and are alive through no effort of your own. We are so busy in our striving to get ahead, make a living, make the grade or gain approval, that we become anxious and unhappy. We begin mistakenly to think that our existence and meaning and value depend on us; and, despairing of our strength to carry such a burden, we add unhappiness to our load, making it even heavier. Stop. Ask yourself this: what if I were dying alone in a ditch in a thunderstorm? In what could I find comfort and hope and joy?  In God alone. Even there you would have what you have always had: You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

If we know this and can keep constantly aware of it, we can return to ordinary life with a new freedom and joy. We can enjoy and use the good things of this beautiful world as they were meant to be enjoyed and used. We can take joy in them as divine gifts that evoke gratitude and remind us of the goodness and joy of God. In these gifts we enjoy the Giver. If we know that God alone is our joy, we will be freed to use the good things of creation properly, that is, to sustain our lives and to share with others the bounty of creation so that they too may rejoice in God and that we may enjoy their joy in God. The circle of joy begun by the Creator spirals upward forever!

Remember! Burn it into your memory. Never forget it:

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 2)

The most effective natural ways of stirring people’s emotions directly are stories, images and music. (We could also add other sensuous experiences, such as smells and movements of the body like dancing. Some religions even use drugs to induce the experience.) A story paints a mental picture that doesn’t need explaining. Hearing a good story affects the emotions directly, and different stories move us in different ways. Images can also move us directly and almost instantaneously. Images can excite humor, horror, sadness, wonder and other feelings. But music is the primary way “experience churches” do this today. Perhaps more than any other means used in churches music can bypass the mind and will and affect the emotions directly. I don’t know how it works, but we all know it does.

By music I mean a system of sounds of different qualities, frequencies, durations and order that can be represented by musical notation exclusive of words. Music without words is often called “absolute” music. Music can be joined to words to make a song or it can be played without words. When music and words are combined each affects the other. Words are cognitive, directed to the understanding, so in a song words can guide the emotions stirred by the music toward a particular end, good or ill, secular or religious.

However, if in the “performance” of the song the words are overpowered by the music, the words lose their cognitive and directive power and simply become another aspect of the music; that is, they convey no more conceptual content than la, la, la. On paper or spoken in a common voice, a well-phrased series of words directs the mind to think in a certain way about something, but in a song designed and performed primarily to create a certain feeling in the participants these words can no longer do this. When this happens, a song (music and words) functionally becomes absolute music, music without words.

There is something very appealing about absolute music. Stirring or tender music without words moves our emotions but leaves our minds free to attach those emotions to whatever object or activity we wish. But words exercise a directive force that we may resent or resist. A musical composition that evokes in me memories of my beloved father may remind you of your dog or someone else of a recent romantic moment. Absolute music makes fewer demands of its listeners and allows each member of a large audience to enjoy a private experience. The unity we feel with the audience—which is undeniable—is not created by believing or thinking or willing the same thing but by feeling in general and endures only as long as the performance endures. We enjoy absolute music’s power to get us in touch with our emotions “on demand” in a way that allows us freedom to channel those emotions in any direction we choose.

Here is my concern with experience-oriented churches: if we employ means—stories, images but especially music—to move people’s emotions directly, it is very tempting, even intuitive and natural, to allow the music to dominate the words. This can be done by making the music louder or more elaborate than the words. Or it can be done by limiting the range of ideas expressed in the words. If every song the church sings expresses the greatness of God simply by saying over and over again “God is great,” it won’t take very long for us to forget who and what God is and what it means to praise God.

Unless we continually explain who God and repeat the full story of God’s work in Christ we will begin to hear “la, la, la” instead of “praise God, praise God, praise God.” Hence “experience churches” may unintentionally neglect the church’s mission to direct its members’ emotions and actions to the right ends and their minds to full truth. Such churches run the risk of making emotional experiences ends in themselves, unrelated to the truth of faith or an authentic vision of the Christian life. Unless the church teaches the whole range of the faith even in its music (music and words), each person will be left to substitute their own content—their own version of God, Christ, Spirit, moral life—into the experience of religious emotion. Such an approach to church life may also undermine genuine community. Authentic Christian community is created and held together by the “one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…” (Eph 4:4); and these principles of unity must be taught. The church cannot be held in unity by a common feeling of transcendence or awe or celebration alone. It also requires common belief, commitment and practice.

Is your church a “teaching” or an “experiencing” church? Think about it. I hope your church will resist the current trend toward making experience the prime goal of its assemblies. Instead, I hope it will renew its teaching mission and trust the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to move people to faith, love, hope and good works…and, yes, to vibrant experience of the power and presence of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.