Blog Archives

Our Gospel Problem

According to Scot McKnight, younger evangelicals are leaving the church in droves because we’re not teaching the Gospel well. According to him, 90% of evangelical children decide to follow Jesus. But, of those, only 22% will still be following Jesus when they’re 35. And, from McKnight’s perspective, the problem is how we present the Gospel.

McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel has been getting a lot of attention lately. And, now they’ve produced a very interesting promo video. I don’t usually link to these marketing videos, but this one seemed particularly intriguing. I may see if I can get my hand on a copy of the book to see where he goes anywhere unexpected with the argument (other than just pointing out the importance of “kingdom” in the NT gospel, of course).

A prayer for Sunday (Bernard of Clairvaux)

[Bernard of Clairvaux died on Aug 20, 1153. Bernard was a famous medieval monk best known for leading the Cistercian reform movement, his theological writings with their emphasis on divine love, and his involvement with the Second Crusade. Today’s prayer is taken from the beginning and ending of a prayer hymn commonly attributed to Bernard.]

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.

Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest Name,
O Savior of mankind!

O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah, this
Nor tongue nor pen can show;
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but His loved ones know.

Jesus, our only joy be Thou,
As Thou our prize will be;
Jesus be Thou our glory now,
And through eternity.

O Jesus, King most wonderful
Thou Conqueror renowned,
Thou sweetness most ineffable
In Whom all joys are found!

When once Thou visitest the heart,
Then truth begins to shine,
Then earthly vanities depart,
Then kindles love divine.

O Jesus, light of all below,
Thou fount of living fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know,
And all we can desire.

…..

Jesus, our love and joy to Thee,
The virgin’s holy Son,
All might and praise and glory be,
While endless ages run.

Stop Blaming the Seminaries

There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But, seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.

I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what they do best.

This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So, pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.

I have at least three problems with that argument.

1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them, but the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.

2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And, they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So, why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?

3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.

Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But, simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.

A prayer for Sunday (John Chrysostom)

I’m cheating a little with today’s prayer, since it isn’t actually a prayer. But, the end of Chrysostom’s Easter homily (ca. AD 400) is so powerful that I thought it worth posting this morning. Have a blessed Easter!

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Discipleship test – Can your church produce apostates?

Could apostasy actually be a sign of a healthy church?

Lauren Winner of Duke Divinity School recently considered the situation of writer/director Paul Haggis’ defection from his faith. Haggis bitterly – and publicly – left the Church of Scientology because of his disagreement with them over gay marriage (turns out Scientology is not a fan).  Haggis now counts as an “apostate” from Scientology because he has renounced them and their teachings.  So why does Winner care at all about any of this?  Because it helps her think about her own church (Episcopalian) and the rigor (or lack, thereof) it takes to be a part of it.  She writes,

So while I appreciate that my church makes room for patchwork, for doubt, for moving in and out, some days I think: Would that America’s Protestant mainline could produce an apostate. For one might say that a group that lacks the necessary preconditions for making apostates can’t make disciples either.

Now this is a fascinating angle to get at thinking about discipleship – a group isn’t really much good, or good for you spiritually unless it is demanding enough of you that you might leave (or even be pushed out).  So…is she on to something?  Or is she really romanticizing a certain “rugged” view of Christian community that in fact is coercive and harmful?  What do you think?

Flotsam and jetsam (9/29)

Conserve water, or this fish dies!

 

How’s your religious knowledge (aka Are you smarter than an atheist?)

By now you’ve probably heard about the survey that recently demonstrated that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religious people do. (If not, you can read the full report here. NPR also discusses it here.) Now, you can take the quiz for yourself. Answer this brief 15-question survey and see how your religious knowledge compares to the population as a whole.

Shouldn’t Christian spirituality have something to do with the Gospel?

In a post over at Patheos today, Bruce Epperly suggests that the movie Eat, Pray, Love should serve as an invitation for moderate and progressive Christians to take the spiritual journeys of people more serious. (By the way, is there a more obnoxious label for any group than “progressive”? Is everyone else “regressive”?)

I believe the film and book upon which it is based present an invitation to moderate and progressive Christians to take the spiritual journeys of people more seriously in preaching, program, and outreach. We have not highlighted either our spirituality or theology in ways broadly accessible to the public.

Although I very much disagree that “the quest for self-awareness” depicted in this movie is the quest that “is at the heart of the human adventure,” I actually want to focus on the conclusions that he draws in the second half of the article. Contending that we need to make Christian spirituality more “broadly accessible,” he suggests that moderate and progressive Christians should do three things:

  1. Present a a vision of God that is more accessible. Apparently we’re only supposed to highlight the aspects of God’s character that people will like.
  2. Provide practices that that deepen people’s spirituality. And he leads off here with “easy-to-learn meditative techniques.” Really? Is what you want to highlight in fostering deeper Christian spirituality? No worship, sacraments, Word, Spirit, community, or any of the other things so important to Christian spirituality?
  3. Awaken persons to the connection between heart, hands, and mind. Apparently fluffy spirituality works as long as you help people at the same time.

Maybe I’m being a little too harsh. It was, after all, a very brief article. But I’m picky. If you’re going to talk about how to deepen the spiritual life of God’s people, how to communicate the wonderful “adventure” that is the Christian life, how to communicate to the world what Christian spirituality is all about, you must begin with the Gospel. Apart from the Gospel, spirituality becomes just another “technique” for achieving “self-discovery.” Fortunately, there’s much more to being a Christian than that.

I really like a lot of what’s going on over at Patheos. They’ve had some great discussions recently on a number of interesting issues. This one, unfortunately, was not one of the highlights.

Eccentric Existence 11 (Sin)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

For Kelsey, living faithfully before God in the quotidian is “dying life.” As finite beings, we are constantly poised on the edge of death, constantly dependent upon God, the source of life. As we respond faithfully to God in our context, we flourish. But, if we respond unfaithfully before God, “dying life” turns into “living death” (402).

The Nature of Evil

Kelsey makes a very helpful distinction here between “sin” and “evil.” For Kelsey, evil is anything that violates the integrity of God’s creatures:

Evil may be understood as a violation of creatures….It is a violation of what the violated ones are, either as instances of some natural kind or as individuals in their particularity. (403)

It is, therefore, anything that hinders the “well being” of God’s creatures and prevents them from being and doing everything that God created them to be and do. But, it’s important for Kelsey that evil does cause creatures to become any less creaturely. That is, we are still God’s creatures, possessing dignity and (potentially) serving to manifest his glory in the world. Thus, he critiques the Augustinian notion that sin should be understood as a “privation of being” because he thinks it suggests a diminution of our creaturehood. Instead, he argues that we should see evil as distortion rather than privation. (I’m not entirely certain that this is as different from the Augustinian notion as he suggests, but the distinction is still helpful.) And, since we remain God’s creatures, we retain our dignity and purpose despite the ravages of evil:

evil may be said to damage their well-being but not to damage their flourishing as God’s glory….Consequently, violation of their creaturely integrities in no way undercuts human cretures’ dignity and their inherent claim on their neighbors for unconditional respect. On the other hand, the fact that who they are and how they are able to be is also the glory of God becomes very ambiguous and obscure when they are violated by evil. (407)

And, Kelsey rightly points out that when our existence has been distorted by evil (either our own or others’) it often takes on a life of its own, resisting efforts at amelioration and spreading to those around us. So, the violated becomes violator and the death spiral continues.

The Nature of Sin

Sin, on the other hand, is best defined as “living foolishly in distorted faith” (408). Thus, “Sin is folly – that is, an inappropriate response to the triune God relating to us creatively” (408). Unlike evil, then, which primarily has to do with the impact that we have on our fellow creatures, sin is theocentric; it refers exclusively to our faith response to God.

In one of my favorite sections, Kelsey addresses the origin of sin in the world. He adopts the Kierkegaardian notion that “sin posits itself” and argues that we cannot “explain” why sin entered the world.

Every theological explanation of how sin entered creation either turns out to be circular, presupposing the very thing it sets out to explain, or explains it away by reclassifying it as another type of evil. (410)

Thus, the origin of sin is a “mystery.”

Sin is a type of negative mystery. It is not mystery in the sense of something in principle explicable but about which we present have insufficient information for an explanation. Nor is it mystery in the sense of something too richly complex for our finite minds to be able to grasp its rationale. Rather it is mystery in the sense of something undeniable real but a-rational, without cause or reason. (411)

The Origin of Sin

Although the entrance of sin into the world is a mystery, Kelsey affirms that human existence as we now have it is sinful. He agrees that we all act in sinfully distorted ways that renders us guilty before God. But, he goes further and affirms that there is a deeper sense in which we are all sinful before God. And, Kelsey rejects any suggestion that our sinfulness comes through some kind of genetic connection to Adam and Eve. Instead, he seems to argue that we are born into a sinful state because we are born into quotidian relationships that are already sinfully distorted. Thus, our own existential “how” is distorted from the very beginning.

every personal body is born into an everyday world that is already constituted by exchanges of giving and receiving among personal bodies whose existential hows and personal identities are sinful. (435)

So, we enter the world sinful because we are always already in sinfully distorted relationships. But, Kelsey argues that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are “guilty” (i.e. morally culpable) from the beginning. Instead, he argues that impurity and shame are much better descriptions of our sinful state at birth:

However, I suggest, the objective status one enters by violating relationship with God by responding inappropriately to God’s creative relating might better be designated by impurity before God than by guilt before God. Subjective awareness of this status might better be described as feeling shame rather than feeling (subjective) guilt. (436)

Thus, we have the status of being “sinful” at birth and are always-already subject to the dynamics of a sinful world, but we don’t become morally culpable until we begin to express our own existential hows in sinfully distorted ways.

Sins vs. Sin

That gets us to Kelsey’s explanation of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” For Kelsey, sin in the plural refers to the “distortions of faith’s existential hows” (412). In the previous post, we discussed the ways in which we are to respond faithfully to God in our everyday context (existential hows). Now, Kelsey argues that “sins” are the myriad (infinite?) ways in which those faith responses can be distorted. So, practices of delight become sentimental practices; practices of wonder become exploitative practices; and practices of perseverance become practices of self-abegnation. For each, Kelsey offers insightful discussions of the ways in which sinful practices actually mirror faithful practices.

Sin in the singular, on the other hand, is “best understood as a living human body’s personal identity distorted in an inappropriate trusting response to God relating to her creatively” (422). Thus, for Kelsey, sin (in the singular) is more about one’s identity than one’s practices (though the two are ultimately inseparable).

When their quotidian personal identities are defined by acknowledgement of some aspect of their quotidian proximate contexts as the basis of their reality and value, their personal identities are distorted in a bondage of limitless dependence on that by which they consider their identities to be defined, whatever it may be. (424)

The key here is that when we allow our identities to be fundamentally grounded in creaturely realities, as opposed to the Creator, we get involved in relationships of “limitless dependence” (427). Since neither party is capable of fully meeting the needs of the other, the relationship lapses into a never-ending spiral of dependency, ultimately undermining the true existence of both.  Thus, instead of being eccentric beings, fully and fundamentally defined by our relationship to the Creator, we become “deficiently eccentric” (426), locked into our finite and sinfully distorted relationships.

Moises Silva on “the faith of Christ” (pistis Christou)

Thanks to Rod Decker for pointing out Moises Silva’s review of The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies edited by Michael Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle. As Decker notes, the most interesting part of the review is Silva’s own conclusion:

If some scholars are to be believed, Paul did not have enough sense to realize that the phrase pistis Christou is ambiguous. And to make matters worse, he unwittingly misled his readers by using the verb pisteuō with Christos as direct object again and again in the very same passages that have the ambiguous phrase! His bungling proved spectacularly successful, for in the course of nearly two millennia, virtually every reader—including ancient scholars for whom Greek was their native language—understood the phrase to mean “faith in Christ” and gave no hint that it might mean something else.

I haven’t been following this debate as closely as I should, but this sounds like a great, concise summary of the objective genitive view. If anyone knows of a similarly concise summary of the opposing view, let me know.