Archive for September, 2008

Out on a Limb

September 15, 2008

Did you hear the one about the Catholic, the Presbyterian, the Greek Orthodox, the Anglican, the Pentecostal, the Methodist, and the Anabaptist?
Sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, doesn’t it?
Imagine for a moment that these seven folks walked into the same room to be confronted with a series of questions:
“Do you believe that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God?
“YES!” they all reply in unison.
“Do you believe that he died on a cross for the sins of humanity?”
“YES!” they all shout together again.
“Do you believe that he rose again on the third day and ascended to the right hand of the Father?”
“YES!” they shout, with at least one pump of the fist and a “Hallelujah!”
Then the inquistor asks, “What do you believe about church government?”
A brief silence, followed by a passionate shouting match.
What’s the moral to this story?
There are things that the church universal has affirmed for centuries, things about the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, and the supremacy of the name of Jesus above all other names, on heaven and on earth.  This is the “mere christanity” of C.S. Lewis, Richard Baxter, and St. Vincent of Lerins.  These are central tenets of our faith.
But matters of praxis, like church goverment, ministry models, and worship style do NOT fall into that category.  Those are matters on which the historical church has held widely varying views. I am not comfortable straying from the majority of the Christian community when it comes to those things about which there has been essential agreement.  But matters of practice are a different story.  
Liturgy vs. Open, participatory meetings.  Episcopal government vs. Congregational.  Guitars vs. Organs.  House church vs. Steeple-topped sanctuary.  For these things, there is no clear and authoritative consensus.
So here will be, out on this limb, along with possibly millions of Anabaptists, Baptists, Waldensians, Moravians, Priscillianists, Bogomils, Cathars, Albigensians, and who knows how many others across the centuries.  With (seriously) all due respect for the faith of our fathers, I’m pretty comfortable out on this limb.  It’s a big, strong Tree.

Reimagining the Trinity

September 12, 2008

In my last blog I commented, “Sadly, my experience tells me that intellect and education often displace that simplicity in Christ which characterized His [Jesus’] earliest followers.” I must second that emotion one more time here, because so many of the disagreements I’m reading between Ben Witherington and Frank Viola remind me of old battles I fought in seminary. No one ever won those battles, and each party always went away convinced that its own view was the correct one at every turn.

One caveat for this current online conversation: I have to agree with Frank that Ben waaaay too often “uses the rhetoric of absolute certainty” when he offers his views on even the most non-settled interpretational issue. A scholar of his caliber should know better.
IMHO, I think Frank did a good job of responding to most of the key sticking points in Witherington’s review of Reimagining Church. I saw one or two smaller points where Frank and Ben were speaking such different languages, and using such different sources, that I don’t think the dialogue really moved one direction or the other. I’ll name them later. But first, I gotta agree with Frank on some things.
Hierarchy and the Trinity. I distinctly remember completing an assignment about this while I was at Reformed Theological Seminary. I was to read and critique an article by a Greek Orthodox theologian, demonstrating how the traditional Protestant and Reformed concept of God is the right one. But a funny thing happened on the way to the word processor–I decided that the Greek guy’s view made more sense. I don’t think my professor liked my conclusion.
His basic premise was that personhood is best defined by communion–being with another. It initially sounded to me like modern existentialism, but he demonstrated how Eastern theologians thought that way a very long time ago. Interacting with someone outside of my own theological world made me realize just how much my “Western” categories of thought are just that–Western. We think about everything–our selves, even God– ultimately in terms of substances. But even a brief glance into the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit will make us realize that our categories have their limitations.
Witherington has been teaching Methodists for the past 13 years, and has been an ordained minister for much longer than that. Frank is right in observing that Witherington peers into the New Testament through “clerical glasses” which cause him to see hierarchy everywhere. He sees it in every facet of the early Church’s story. He even sees hierarchy in the Trinity. But there’s another way of looking at the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Greeks called it perichoresis, or mutual enfolding. They spoke about it as a dance. I’ve written on that before, and I think it’s beautiful. Not only beautiful, but true to the tenor of Jesus’ words in the gospels.
I didn’t really mean to get off on this for very long… so I’ll move on to one other related thing, then close for today.
Union with Christ. Witherington’s comments about our union with Christ sound like echoes of what one of my professors at Reformed always said. My professor explained that our union with Christ is a spiritual union, and not a real union.
I thought he was smoking something. A couple of us raised our hands and asked him to explain what he meant by that. How could spiritual and real mean different things? He used a pretty lame river illustration, and then an even lamer Batman’s-grappling-hook simile to illustrate how we don’t really become one with Christ, we just become connected to Him in some vague way. Somehow all those arresting statements in the NT are meant to be read, he said, in a “sermonic genre.” We wondered if he made that phrase up on the spot. Frankly, it sounded like baloney. Still does.
Witherington actually says, “The body of Christ is not Christ.” He says that twice. Then again he says, “The body belongs to the Lord, but it is not the Lord.” If you’ll go ready 1 Corinthinans 12:12 you’ll see that Witherington has just dismissed one of the most important, fundamental truths of the New Testament: The church’s oneness with Christ.
If you punched me on the shoulder, would you think me strange for saying “Why did you punch me?” Would you reply that my body is not the same thing as me? Talk about being soaked in Western philosophy! This kind of dualism fits well within Platonism. But it’s pretty foreign to the Christian faith. This goes to show you how hard it is for “the wise and prudent” to grasp things that God seems to enjoy showing to “babes.”
Being truly ONE with Christ, so that He is both IN you and you are IN Him, certainly doesn’t make any rational sense. Heck, claiming that God is three and yet one doesn’t make sense either! But we believe it just the same. We can’t always explain it to everyone’s satisfaction. But that’s why they’re called mysteries. We won’t get very far trying to hammer out an intellectually satisfying vocabulary around these matters. We confess them along with the same Spirit who inspired their declaration in the first place. But no number of graduate degrees will make this stuff any easier to comprehend.
Brother Ben, it’s time to become like a little child again. It’s a freeing place to be 🙂

Reimagining Church

September 10, 2008

Ben Witherington has posted a robust critique of Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church on his blog, and it is voluminous to say the least. Seminary professors astound me with their ability to write quickly and substantively. The same goes for professors at other levels, like Scot McKnight. Four blog posts a day is really impressive, Scot.

Despite feeling in way over my head, I’m going to wade into the pool and post a few responses to Witherington’s blog. I do this because Frank’s basic premises and mine are essentially the same on more things than I can enumerate. Critiques of his views are critiques of my own. And Witherington (henceforth BW3) has levelled some strong points in that direction. So here goes.

1. Anti-intellectualism. For obvious reasons, BW3 holds to a high view of education. It comes as no surprise to hear him say “the better Biblically equipped the person, the more the Spirit can do with them… it makes a person far more useful to the Lord…” Sadly, my experience tells me that intellect and education often displace that simplicity in Christ which characterized His earliest followers. It was the well-educated, religious professionals who found it the most difficult to receive Jesus’ instruction. As a seminary grad myself, I see the dilemma we’re in: We need to see beyond our own contexts into the contexts that birthed the Scriptures. But we must then work all the more to combat the subtle influence of pride that seeps into us after we have gained all our knowledge. I’m not much for anti-intellectualism myself. But there’s a balance that needs to be found here.

2. Arguments from Silence. BW3 concedes, sort of, that Paul’s letters to churches don’t explicitly spell out how local leaders are to deal with the problems that they are facing. Many would argue that this shows that entire churches, not merely special individuals, dealt with crises as they came up. But BW3 asserts:”It is far more likely that Paul addressed church leaders in a separate letter.” Can you name a single one? The inappropriately named “pastorals” don’t count, because Timothy and Titus were not pastors (i.e. they weren’t local leadership). They were apostolic workers responsible for the oversight of local leaders. And the letter to Philemon related to a specific issue in Philemon’s hosehold, not to a churchwide issue. What do we have left, then? Only letters to churches. The evidence we actually have (rather than the evidence we may have expected to find) demonstrates Paul appealing to whole churches in order to deal with their issues.

3. Description vs. Prescription. BW3 warns of “mistaking description for prescription especially on the basis of Acts.” He then does that very thing by citing the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 in order to model NT leadership by apostles and elders rather than the congregation as a whole. Apparently the church in Jerusalem was pretty comfortable with decision making by decree. But should that be normative for us? Couldn’t we just as easily argue that a Jewish church born into a Second Temple context came by heavy-handed eldership naturally? Must we today adopt such a culturally-conditioned methodology for our own time and place?

Did even Paul agree with that? After reading Galatians 1-2, I’d say his posture towards Jerusalem’s authority was far less accommodating than we might be led to believe after reading Acts. Even if you hold to the view that the letter to the Galatians predates the council meeting, Paul’s atittude towards Jeusalem is clear. After clarifying how infrequently he felt the need to consult with “those who were of high reputation,” he asserts that they “contributed nothing to me” (2:6) Does that sound like someone who likes top-down authority? I would argue that Paul and James represent two very different approaches to authority. That very diversity prefigures the confict of viewpoints represented by Witherington and Viola.

BW3 frequently argues that the early church met in homes strictly because of widespread persecution. (Incidentally, my reading of history has not validated the claim that Roman persecution was universal across the empire. There were periods of time and large pockets of peace which could have given early believers opportunity to build special buildings, but they didn’t.) He asserts that we must not lift what was normal for their context and drop it into our own in an uncritical manner. I would argue the same thing about the hierarchical nature of the Jewish churches in the first (and perhaps even) second centuries.

Two more things for now:

4. Everybody’s not the Same. BW3 reads into Frank’s viewpoint the presupposition that “all Christians can assume all leadership functions at one time or another.” I don’t think this accurately reflects Frank’s actual view. This is essentially a straw man, right Frank?

5. It’s the System, Stupid. Another straw man is the assumption that “pastors behaving badly” are primarily to blame for people like us holding our viewpoints. But the problem is the system itself. Like Frank says on his blog, “it’s the system, stupid” (I’m sure he’s not impugning Witherington, of course. It’s just a Clintonism).

I didn’t leave because the system was being operated by the wrong people. I left because it occurred to me that the system itself actually discourages the kind of inverted pyramid that BW3 so eloquently champions. In my experience, when good people with good hearts weekly ascend the pulpit, they don’t realize how inevitably they are perpetuating a passivity in their congregations.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

September 3, 2008

Okay. I’m officially on the bandwagon now. As much as I hate bangwagons, I must confess:

I loved The Shack.

It’s rare thing for me to experience a book, rather than simply read it. But that’s what happened for me. Driving 1800 miles down and back on I-20 this Labor Day weekend gave me lots of time to listen to a book on CD. It was a fantastic way to enter into a story, and enter I did.

The struggles and questions of the main character became mine, at least on some level, and the face-to-face fellowship with God became mine in the process. I find myself, after hearing this story, envisioning God in the daily details of my life in a way that I haven’t done in a long, long time.

I got to hear the author, Paul Young, speak this weekend at a conference on house church-ing. It turns out that his closest church affiliation falls into that not-so-big category. His perspective on things was refreshing, to say the least. And his talk on the meaning of the story of Eden was second to none. I want a copy of that recording as soon as I can get it.

But most of all, I’m thankful for this book. It has the ability to usher the reader into the presence of God in a way that I’ve never found in a book before. It may go up there with The Pursuit of God in my list of all-time favorites.

Check it out, if you haven’t yet.