...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Wed, 30 Jul 2014 06:11:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer no The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer) 2006-2009 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Completing the King’s Afflictions Wed, 30 Jul 2014 05:31:03 +0000 Martyrdom of st-stephen

The Martyrdom of Stephen, Lotto

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

• Colossians 1:24, NRSV

• • •

1. This week, we are focusing on what I guess might be called, “the quandary of the church age.” On Monday, I suggested that one of the most vexing questions for those who read the New Testament has to do with the expectations one might develop when reading the NT, about how history would work out once Jesus launched “the last days.”

The NT presents Christ’s death and resurrection as historically and soteriologically decisive, his ascension as the event by which he took his throne, putting his enemies under his feet, and the descent of the Spirit as the long-awaited gift forming a community of transformed people whose powerful witness would announce the rule of Jesus as Lord over the entire world. Furthermore, it is promised that Jesus would return, the dead would be raised, and all creation renewed — and it appears that the early Christians expected this to happen sooner rather than later.

And here we are two thousand years later, looking back on a tumultuous history and wondering why sin still abounds and the church so often appears at best incompetent at being a sign of Jesus’ reign and a new creation.

• • •

2. Yesterday, we took some instruction from Alan E. Lewis’s book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Lewis suggests that the central narrative of Christian faith, which is reflected in the high point of the liturgical year, should form our perspective on the way we view our lives and history itself, as well as the mission of the church.

Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday form the triduan pattern of this narrative and show how God in Jesus loved the world “to the uttermost” (John 13:1) and defeated the powers of sin, death, and evil in the world. The three-fold pattern describes how God’s victory only came as Jesus and his disciples first walked through two days through death, defeat, and despair.

This helps us define the nature of the Christian “hope.” It is truly hope, and not mere optimism. Optimism sees things getting better and better, moving from victory to victory, a more or less consistent upward trajectory of progress. Hope, on the other hand, acknowledges the roller coaster and clings to the fact that love will ultimately triumph in the long term even when it appears too weak in the short and medium term to stand up to the power of evil.

Whatever we expect, then, from the fact that Jesus is Lord, has won the decisive victory, and has promised that the world will be put to rights in the end, we shouldn’t expect that the journey there will be one of quick and unambiguous progress. For God has shown us that the way he wins is not by winning, and that love must risk being rejected or worse in order to transform life.

• • •

3. Today we look at an intriguing statement by the Apostle Paul that gives us further insight into how he saw his own life and mission in the context of the turning of the ages. In Colossians 1:24, he tells the believers in Colossae that his afflictions as an apostle are part of a much bigger picture. This involves the story of Messiah’s sufferings (the triduan pattern) and how that story continues in the church as it participates in the Missio Dei.

Here is N.T. Wright’s translation of the verse and his commentary on it:

Right now I’m having a celebration — a celebration of my sufferings, which are for your benefit! And I’m steadily completing, in my own flesh, what remains of the king’s afflictions on behalf of his body, which is the church.

First, in verses 24 and 25, Paul sees his own sufferings as part of what he calls “the king’s afflictions.” He is drawing on an ancient Jewish belief according to which a time of great suffering would form the dark valley through which Israel and the world must pass to reach the age to come. This suffering would be the prelude to the age of the Messiah, the age of the king. For Paul, the Messiah himself had already passed through the suffering, and had brought the age to come into being. But because this new age is still struggling in tension with the “present age,” there is still suffering to be undergone. This is not to be seen as an addition to the king’s own suffering; rather it is to be seen as an extension of it. Paul is thus content to take his share of suffering, in prison for the sake of the gospel. It will help to complete the afflictions through which the new age will emerge in its full and final form.

Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters

Here we have confirmation of one way the church should look at its life and mission in these “last days” and why it might not always appear to be as “triumphant” as one might expect from a cursory reading of the N.T. The church (exemplified by Paul) exists to “fill up the afflictions of Christ,” that is, to “complete the afflictions through which the new age will emerge in its full and final form.”

Some folks in the comments yesterday expressed concern that such an emphasis might promote exalting victimization and a kind of religious masochism. The church has not been immune to this, as in early centuries when it seems some actually courted martyrdom as the path to glory.

However, let it be said that Paul is speaking after the fact. He is reflecting on his sufferings, which he did not seek. What he sought was to follow Jesus and love people, forming them into communities of faith, hope, and love. Paul was about trusting Christ and living a risky life of love for others. This led to him having to endure suffering from those who misunderstood, misrepresented, feared and resented the love he gave. But out of that love and out of those trials, new life was born.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

• 2 Corinthians 4:8-12

Of course, none of this actually explains why it is taking so long to “complete what remains of the king’s afflictions” or why it often appears that such little progress has been made.

Perhaps too few of us have embraced the risky path of love.

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The Triduan Shape of History Tue, 29 Jul 2014 04:01:36 +0000 Entombment of Christ, Raphael (detail)

Entombment of Christ, Raphael (detail)

Today, we follow up yesterday’s post on The Most Vexing Question. To me, the fundamental quandaries raised in the piece were:

Who would have thought that the life of Jesus’ church in “the last days” would span a history as long as Israel’s before Christ? And that our history would be as checkered under the risen and reigning Christ? Is there any indication of this in the New Testament?

Perhaps one way of coming to grips with this conundrum is to reimagine the shape of history and the mission of the church and to distinguish “hope” from “optimism.”

That is what Alan E. Lewis has done in his monumental study, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. In brief, Lewis suggests that our perspective on history and the future should be shaped by the church’s experience of the Great Three Days: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This is our core narrative and it lays down the pattern by which we live and view life. It is a cruciform perspective in which resurrection follows death and despair and recognizes the place of all three as essential movements in the way God (and therefore, history) works.

However, the church has not always recognized this. Lewis writes, “Much has happened since the first Easter Saturday to dull the keenness of the questions facing Christian faith and life concerning history and its future” (p. 262).

He notes that the early Christians, living as they did in the midst of trials, persecution, and social exile, had a vision of the end and their own resurrection that would be attained only through sharing in Christ’s sufferings (see, for example Philippians 3:10-11). However, Lewis continues, once the Empire was Christianized and the church became more comfortable and optimistic about its own future, apocalypticism with its dark shadows was largely jettisoned, replaced by sunnier, more linear theologies of progressive victory until the glorious end. Lament was transformed into complacency; the cross into a symbol of triumphalism.

Nevertheless, not even the best-informed, most responsible reading of Revelation, or the most Christocentric and trinitarian discussion of the “end days” can evade the haunting implications of the church’s identifying three-day narrative, centered upon Easter Saturday. For that insists — and nothing in our contemporary experience contradicts its awful truthfulness — that the God of Jesus Christ does not intervene to prevent catastrophe and rupture. As grace abounds only beyond sin’s great magnitude and increase, so resurrection and consummation do not cancel or impede but strictly follow after termination and annihilation, for God and humanity alike. The very promise of the eschaton confirms rather than refutes God’s freedom to be death’s victim, the defenseless quarry of predatory evil; and the only hope and power for a divine redeeming of humanity and history rest in a Lamb who has pathetically been slaughtered: the embodiment of hopelessness and helplessness. (p. 282)

In Revelation, remember, the Lamb on the throne is bloody.

In other words, Lewis says, we must conceive God’s creative and re-creative power “from the standpoint of the grave, as dynamic surrender to suffering and restriction” (p. 297). If God exposed himself to destruction by abandoning his beloved Son to death, the One in whom all creation holds together, in order to save that creation, it gives us a much different view of how the people who follow the Son shall attain to perfection. We take up our cross, and follow him.

To see God self-exposed thus to destruction between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, for the sake of history’s deliverance from destruction, is to recognize that the creative and redemptive omnipotence of God, far from invulnerable and impervious to opposition is in fact an exquisitely perilous power which does not protect itself against the catastrophe and boundless sorrow which would be creation’s devastation and time’s annihilation. (p. 298)

In other words, God only exercises his rule in a context where evil triumphs (if only for a season).

Here is an extended quote, summarizing Alan Lewis’s perceptive thoughts.

41DWSpywoPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Not the least sobering implication of the triduan story we have now both heard and thought is that the Christian gospel requires of those who live by it unflinching discrimination between hope and optimism. For if our narrative encouragingly promises that at work within us and around us are energies greater than the powers of death and evil which menace and destroy life and empty it of meaning, purpose, and justice, still the story gravely identifies those energies with the wispy, intangible defenselessness of love. And love’s power is actually powerless to impede huge triumphs of egregious evil and unrighteousness in the world. Only through vulnerable victimization at the hands of sin and death, and not by blocking, crushing, or annihilating those agents of destruction, does the triune God of righteous love flourish yet more abundantly than the luxurious barrenness of hate and wickedness.

To hope, therefore, in love as tomorrow’s guarantor, as even more creative and enduring than the great destructiveness of lovelessness, is itself to banish shallow optimism for the future of the world. Hope itself embraces the proposition that evil may increase, death have its day of triumph, and history be terminated. Certainly any sunny supposition that the world cannot be lost, nor death be finally victorious, that evil at worst is inept and its success provisional and passing, is cancelled by a darker hope, grounded in Easter Saturday, which confesses that the only victory in life is won by going beyond, not by thwarting or reducing, the expansive magnitude of death and the surd reality of its ascendancy. Faith’s assurance of the final consummation of the cosmos does not preclude but makes space of fearsome amplitude for the future loss of history, just as the Son of God’s third-day resurrection did not forestall ahead of time, nor cancel retroactively, the end of himself and of the world on the second day.

Between Cross and Resurrection, p. 261f

In other words, God did not and does not win by winning. Neither will the church. We attain to Easter only through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. There will be no resurrection, no consummation, without intervening death and despair. “. . . if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).

The cry “How long?” will continue to the very last day.

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The Most Vexing Question Mon, 28 Jul 2014 04:01:13 +0000 Sea of Faces, Evelyn Williams (info below)

Sea of Faces, Evelyn Williams (info below)

We do not see our signs;
There is no longer any prophet,
Nor is there any among us who knows how long.
How long, O God . . .

• Psalm 74:9-10

• • •

What is (or should be) the most troublesome matter in theology for Christian people?

It is the fact that we are still here as we’ve always been, and that the world has not been transformed under the rule of Christ.

We read words in the New Testament like this:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

• Romans 8:18-25

Yes, the text speaks of “waiting with patience” for the hope promised to Jesus’ followers. However, remember, those words were written to believers nearly 2,000 years ago! At that time, the apostle says, creation was waiting “with eager longing” for its final redemption. Haven’t creation’s “labor pains” continued past the point that anyone would expect? Didn’t Paul go on to say, “the night is far gone, the day is near”? (13:12).

“Quite clearly, whatever Paul expected, he expected it to happen soon, and no doubt within his own lifetime” (Stephen S. Smalley).

Doesn’t the New Testament lead us to believe that Jesus ushered in “the last days,” the days when God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven?

The book of Hebrews says:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (1:1-2)

It also gives perspective on the relationship of Jesus’ followers to the saints that came before:

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect. (11:39-40)

The author’s point is that, before Jesus came, people were waiting, looking, longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises. They were people of faith and hope, trusting in God’s word that one day he would act, that the “city” he was “preparing” would become their home. Throughout their lives and throughout the long history of Israel, they wandered and struggled and hoped toward that future pledge.

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (11:13-16)

But now, the author of Hebrews proclaims, we have received it!

Of course, that didn’t imply an immediate consummation, for the author then goes on to talk about a race that his readers must run with perseverance (12:1-13). But a 2,000 year race is one whale of a marathon, and there appears to be no finish line in sight.

Who would have thought that the life of Jesus’ church in “the last days” would span a history as long as Israel’s before Christ? And that our history would be as checkered under the risen and reigning Christ? Is there any indication of this in the New Testament?

It was common in 20th century N.T. studies to talk about how the “delay of the parousia” became a problem in the early church and is reflected in the development of teaching in the N.T. itself. Some scholars tried to show how the authors transitioned to a “realized eschatology,” redefining what it means to say that “Jesus will return.” Others tried to more carefully define the tension between “already” and “not yet” in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Still others deny a “development” in the N.T. texts, but rather see different emphases based on the needs of the communities which were being addressed.

The focus of all these studies had to do with the nature of future hope in the early days of the Jesus movement and how that is reflected in the writings of that period. But I don’t think “the delay of the parousia” posed as much of a problem for the believers in N.T. times as it does for us at this stage in church history.

I’ve been reading more of Andrew Perriman’s “narrative-historical” views on his blog P.OST and in his book, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

Perriman interprets the vast majority of New Testament teachings about “the end” to refer to historical judgments that were in close proximity to the days of Jesus and the apostles and intimately related to the world in which they lived. In the Gospels, Jesus’ teachings about “the end” pointed to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and apostolic warnings about “the wrath to come” and “Jesus’ return” pointed to the triumph of Christ over the pagan Greco-Roman empire, which eventually came to pass through the establishment of Christendom. Perriman also holds that there is a “final” eschatology that looks beyond these to the new creation.

But that still leaves a large, unexplained (unforeseen?) gap in history. Various eschatological systems have tried to explain how the “end times” will work and what will happen when Jesus returns. But to my knowledge, this problem of an extended interval that lasts thousands of years has been and remains largely ignored, even though I think it raises profound and perplexing questions for our faith.

The cry, “How long?” is starting to wear thin.

• • •

Header Art: Sea of Faces by Evelyn Williams.

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A Jesus-Shaped Response to Israel and Gaza Sun, 27 Jul 2014 04:01:42 +0000 politics-3

I’m sure many of us as individuals and churches will be praying for the situation in Israel and Gaza this weekend.

It is one thing to express my opinions, “Christian” or otherwise, as I sit in my living room safely, thousands of miles away from a crisis situation in another part of the world. I don’t deny that people in my circumstances might have something worthwhile to say, but my ability to contribute to the conversation with the kind of insight that comes from being intimately involved in the situation will be limited.

On the other hand, the following statement from Bethlehem Bible College in Israel contains an clear sense of credibility. You may or may not agree with its precise wording, but it would be hard to argue that you or I have a better view of the circumstances upon which the statement comments.

First, a little information about Bethlehem Bible College. This is from their website:

Bethlehem Bible College is a Christian college located in Bethlehem, the very site where Jesus was born. Located within the territory of the West Bank, the local community is highly impacted by today’s political unrest and conflict.

It is from the very epicenter of Christianity, that the Christian community is slowly decreasing. Before 1948 the Christian community was roughly 8% of the community in the Holy Land.  Today, the Christian population is a less than 1.5% of the Palestinian community, as many Christians are emigrating from the difficult political situation to better opportunities for education, work, and their families abroad.

Bethlehem Bible College was founded in 1979 by local Arabs, to offer high-quality theological education and train Christian leaders for service in the local church and the local community.  It aims to strengthen and revive the Christian church and support the local Christians in the Holy land, in order to combat this growing Christian exodus.

And now here is their perspective on the current situation in Israel and Gaza, entitled, “A statement by Bethlehem Bible College regarding the current crisis in Gaza,” issued July 25, 2014.

gaza-articleLarge-v2Today God weeps over the situation in Palestine and Israel. Today God weeps over Gaza.  With God, our hearts are broken when we see the carnage in Gaza and in Israel.

We at Bethlehem Bible College consistently called for a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. We always sought a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. “All forms of violence must be refuted unequivocally”, stated the Christ at the Checkpoint manifesto. We also believe that as long as the occupation of Palestinian territory and the siege of Gaza remain, the conflict will continue to escalate. To quote the manifesto again, “for Palestinian Christians, the occupation is the core issue of the conflict”.

As Christians committed to nonviolence, we do not and cannot endorse Hamas’ ideology. However, we believe that the people of Gaza have the right to live in freedom and dignity. This means that the siege over Gaza should be lifted and the borders should be open. The people of Gaza need a chance to live.

We oppose Hamas launching rockets at Israeli town and cities. At the same time, we are shocked by the unproportional and inhuman response by the Israeli military and the disregard of civilian life and specially innocent women and children.

We are grieved by the mounting hate, bigotry and racism in our communities today, and the consequent violence. We are specially grieved when Christians are contributing to the culture of hatred and division, rather than allowing Christ to use them as instruments of peace and reconciliation.

In the face of this, we affirm – using the words of our own Dr. Yohanna Katanacho:

We are against killing children and innocent people. We support love not hatred, justice not oppression, equality not bigotry, peaceful solutions not military solutions. Violence will only beget wars, it will bring more pain and destruction for all the nations of the region. Peacemaking rooted in justice is the best path forward. Therefore, we commit ourselves to spread a culture of love, peace, and justice in the face of violence, hatred, and oppression.

We call on all the friends of Bethlehem Bible College to pray for an immediate ceasefire, followed by serious efforts to address the root of the problem not the symptoms. We pray comfort for the bereaved families. We specially pray for the Christians of Gaza, who although are currently under bombardment, yet they are offering shelter and support for the displaced and wounded. We finally call for you to pray for all those – Palestinians, Israelis and internationals – who are committed to spreading a culture of love, peace, and justice in the face of violence, hatred, and oppression.

• • •

Note: Pray for the Shepherd Society – a ministry of Bethlehem Bible College – as we contemplate practical ways to minister and walk along the destitute and displaced in Gaza. We will soon share with you how you can help us respond to the huge needs.

A statement by Bethlehem Bible College’s board of directors, president, deans, faculty, staff and students – and the local committee of Christ at the Checkpoint.

The statement is co-authored by members of a local committee in partnership with BBC, called Christ at the Checkpoint. This is a biennial conference held in the Holy Land that brings together Christians from around the world “to pray, worship, learn and discuss together the responsibility and role of the church in helping resolve the conflict and bringing peace, justice and equality to the Holy Land through following the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.” The most recent conference was held in March.

gaza-israel_2406235bHere is their ten-point Manifesto:

  1. The Kingdom of God has come. Evangelicals must reclaim the prophetic role in bringing peace, justice and reconciliation in Palestine and Israel.
  2. Reconciliation recognizes God’s image in one another.
  3. Racial ethnicity alone does not guarantee the benefits of the Abrahamic Covenant.
  4. The Church in the land of the Holy One, has born witness to Christ since the days of Pentecost. It must be empowered to continue to be light and salt in the region, if there is to be hope in the midst of conflict.
  5. Any exclusive claim to land of the Bible in the name of God is not in line with the teaching of Scripture.
  6. All forms of violence must be refuted unequivocally.
  7. Palestinian Christians must not lose the capacity to self-criticism if they wish to remain prophetic.
  8. There are real injustices taking place in the Palestinian territories and the suffering of the Palestinian people can no longer be ignored. Any solution must respect the equity and rights of Israel and Palestinian communities.
  9. For Palestinian Christians, the occupation is the core issue of the conflict.
  10. Any challenge of the injustices taking place in the Holy Land must be done in Christian love. Criticism of Israel and the occupation cannot be confused with anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel.
  11. Respectful dialogue between Palestinian and Messianic believers must continue. Though we may disagree on secondary matters of theology, the Gospel of Jesus and his ethical teaching take precedence.
  12. Christians must understand the global context for the rise of extremist Islam. We challenge stereotyping of all faith forms that betray God’s commandment to love our neighbors and enemies.

This is obviously a complex and controversial situation. In my own personal political views, I stand with Israel in this battle and think Hamas has acted provocatively and shamefully, as the terrorist organization it is. Both the people of Gaza and Israel have suffered greatly as a result. However, I detest violence and take my stand ultimately as a follower of Jesus in refuting violent means as a long term solution. I find the statement and manifesto above to be clear in stating a Jesus-shaped way. If they could be combined with sustained, creative, and imaginative leadership and action in working for peace and justice, perhaps we could find hope.

As I write this, I read that Israel agreed to extend the truce another 24 hours, but Hamas is not agreeing. Kyrie eleison.

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Saturday Ramblings — July 26, 2014 Sat, 26 Jul 2014 04:01:28 +0000 14721504225_426c7d2a0d_z

Pastor Dan is taking a little break from Sat. Ramblings to focus on some other responsibilities for awhile, so at least for today, you’re stuck with me.

We did plenty of rambling the past couple of weeks, through Vermont and New Hampshire and down the coast of Maine, plus all the driving from the Midwest and back home again. You might think this old wanderer would want to sit a spell and put his feet up for awhile. However, as we all know, Saturday comes around every week, and here at Internet Monk we are contractually bound to take a weekly ramble, so here we go . . .

A ChairLet me get this out of the way first. I’m sorry to use such unkind language, but Ken Ham is an idiot. End of story.

In a related article, Salon lists what they think are the Christian right’s 5 worst scientific claims.

A ChairIt won’t be released until next Valentine’s Day, but a trailer for the 50 Shades of Grey movie has been released. I haven’t read the book (and have no interest in the movie either), but Dave Barry has, and he says it contains an exciting and encouraging message from women to men everywhere: “We are interested in sex! We’re just not interested in sex with you unless you’re a superhot billionaire. . . . OK, so this is not a totally positive message for us men.”

A ChairIrreverence, of course, is stock-in-trade for a humorist like Dave Barry, but Cindy Brandt thinks the church is missing out on this powerful way of speaking the truth to the world. In her piece, “Irreverence Is the New Reverence,” she says:

emperorIt is this fear of irreverence that I believe deprives the Christian community from learning what it really means to be faithful. Irreverence shows the world how to be real, prophetic and passionate.

Irreverence says it like it is. It’s the child who calls out the emperor has no clothes. It’s the uncouth teenager who wears his boredom on the outside. It’s the hippie activist who won’t shower until world peace reigns. Irreverence gives the Church permission to engage in full-blown lament amidst the hardships of life. As I have written elsewhere, learning from the popular and unabashedly irreverent comedian, Louis C.K., we cannot shut down feelings of true sadness with reverent calls to thanksgiving and praise. In order to enter true covenantal relationship with God, we must have the freedom to use the wide range of emotion given to us in our humanity to express what is real to our human experience. Instead of flinching from irreverent curses directed at God, let’s listen closely to the deeper pain of struggle, because that which is real, even when delivered in coarse language, is human, and therefore deserves to be heard.

Frankly, I’ve grown kind of tired of the constant barrage of sacrcasm, irony, irreverence, crude language, and innuendo that fills all forms of media these days. While I accept that these are acceptable tools of language, discourse, and even prophetic proclamation, it seems to me that they are better used like salt, sprinkled to enhance the flavor of our debates, presentations, and conversations rather than overwhelming them.

What do you think?

A ChairOn the social media awareness front, RNS reports that:

BtZp2ynCMAAwJRZ#WeAreN is sweeping the Christian Twittersphere as churches, organizations and individuals change their avatars to the Arabic letter “Nun.”

‘It’s the symbol for “Nazarene,” or Christian, used by Islamic State militants in Iraq to brand Christian properties in Iraq as part of their effort to drive out an ancient Christian community with threats to convert or die.

‘. . . Switching to the Nun avatar is a gesture reminiscent of the long-standing (although factually debunked) legend that Danish Christians adopted Jewish star armbands during World War II in solidarity with Danish Jews.’

As noble as this sounds, Jeremy Courtney, who originated the #WeAreN awareness campaign, was not persuaded it would have any actual impact, saying, “I don’t know that it has done anything except make people feel like they are doing something when they are doing nothing at all.”

Do you think such gestures have any real significance?

A ChairAs of yesterday, the Chicago Cubs have the second worst record in Major League Baseball (42-59). On my bedroom dresser sits a figurine of Charlie Brown in baseball gear. It belonged to my friend Michael Spencer, and Denise thought I would like to have it after he passed. Michael and I were both devoted baseball fans. He loved the Reds, while I have always followed the Cubs. He had several experiences of triumph as the Reds celebrated championships. I have had a few close calls with happiness in a wilderness of heartbreak.

Though Michael loved Charlie Brown as much or more than I, it seems to me that I have more in common with the Peanuts character than he did. Take yesterday’s daily strip for example:

Peanuts - pe_c140725.tif


A ChairWikipedia has blocked a certain IP address at the U.S. House of Representatives from editing for 10 days because of “persistent disruptive editing.” The ban comes after anonymous changes were made to entries on politicians and businesses, as well as events like the Kennedy assassination. The BBC piece on the matter reports:

rumsfeld.040504-fc53730b4db7394b4ca6994add697a18675178d7-s6-c30One of the acts highlighted was an alteration to the page on the assassination of John F Kennedy, which was changed to say that Lee Harvey Oswald was acting “on behalf of the regime of Fidel Castro”.

An entry on the moon landing conspiracy theories was changed to say they were “promoted by the Cuban government”.

Another entry, on the Ukrainian politician Nataliya Vitrenko, was edited to claim that she was a “Russian puppet”.

The biography of former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was revised, describing him as an “alien lizard who eats Mexican babies”.

I guess they were upset by the implicit racism in the Rumsfeld edit. He actually eats all kinds of babies, not just Mexican ones. (My contribution to irreverence today.)

A ChairFinally, a movie I will recommend. I’ve been waiting for a long time now for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, The Master, to come to streaming, and Netflix premiered it this past week. A.O. Scott of the NY Times called it an “imposing, confounding and altogether amazing new film” when it came out. The Master is dominated by the remarkable performances of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the L. Ron Hubbard-esque cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, and his “protégé and guinea pig,” Freddie Quell, played with manic intensity by Joaquin Phoenix.

Scott’s review catches the power of this film when he puts it in the context of Anderson’s other movies, such as There Will Be Blood:

In all of those places, and at every point in history, Mr. Anderson discovers the perpetual promise of new beginnings and a poisonous backwash of anomie, violence and greed. In his world fortunes are constantly being made and squandered. New religions are springing to life. Gamblers, pornographers, hustlers and drunks are plumbing the mysteries of existence. Fathers are at war with their biological and symbolic sons. Husbands are at war with wives. Men are at war with the universe, perversely convinced that they have a chance of winning.

To whet your appetite, here is the final theatrical trailer:

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Thoughts on Hitchhiking Fri, 25 Jul 2014 03:59:14 +0000 hitchhikeWe rented a cottage this week, and for the first time in quite a while were able to get our whole family together for a holiday. We have no Wifi and as a result monitoring of comments will be spotty, so play nice! We have been staying at Sauble Beach, a beautiful sandy beach, seven miles long, on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. My son Josh was only able to join us for three days, and so I offered to take the five hour return trip to drive him back to the town where he was working. The plan was that I would arrive back at the cottage at about midnight. Traffic was very light, and I was making good time. It was just after 11:00 p.m., and in the middle of nowhere, when my headlights illuminated a couple at the side of the road, their arms out stretched, and thumbs out. I had to make a split decision, and I decided to stop.

It might help to know a bit of back ground that went into my decision.

I can remember the first time I hitchhiked. I was fourteen years old and living in Africa. My parents had sent me away to camp for a week in the neighboring country. Now, who knows what goes on in teenage brains, but for some inexplicable reason a few of us decided to use our free time to swim the half mile across the lake. Once across, and having garnered wisdom from actually swimming half a mile, none of us wanted to swim back. The problem was that it was seven mile back to the camp, and so we decided to hitchhike. We walked and put out our thumbs, walked some more and put out our thumbs some more. It was almost two hours after we started, before a vehicle pulled over to give us a lift.

“You do know it is is illegal to hitchhike here, don’t you?”

We didn’t. But that did explain the long wait to get a ride.

When I was fifteen, our family moved back to Canada. At High School I became involved in a lot of clubs, and would often miss the last school bus home. We lived outside of the city, about three miles from the school, and so, on a very frequent basis I would stick out my thumb and catch a ride home. Often it would be neighbor, driving home from work, but just as often it would be a stranger who would give me a lift. It was the late seventies, and it was still quite common to see hitchhikers on a regular basis.

A couple of years later and I was off to University. It was a four hour trip from my home to the university I attended. Bus fair was expensive, and we didn’t have a lot of money. Plus, if going by car took four hours, the bus took over five, and I found I could hitchhike the distance in about six hours. My dad would drop me at the south end of the city, and usually within fifteen minutes I would have my first ride. I don’t think my parents worried to much about me, I had trained in the Armed Forces Reserves, and they thought I could take care of myself.

My parents moved half way through university and my six hour hike became a nine hour adventure. I didn’t do the trip as often, as the train became a viable, albeit costly, alternative.

I did however have hitchhiking down to a science. I dressed in a suit and a tie, and carried a sign with my destination in large letters. I knew which highway on ramps worked and which didn’t. I learned from experience that if you got stuck on the highway half way through Toronto that your best bet was to find public transit to the other end of town. I also learned that once darkness hit, you could forget it. No one would pick you up.

Most of my experiences were good. Some were a little comical. A little old lady once stopped and rolled down her window. “You aren’t going to beat me up are you?” she asked. “No, Ma’am”, I replied. “Okay, you can get it then.”

I did have three bad experiences. One pervert, one drunk, and one person who kept driving past my stop. In all three cases I asked them in no uncertain terms to stop the car and let me out, and in all three cases they did.

A brother of a family friend was not so lucky. Twelve year old Robbie Brown was walking home from the beach as he had a newspaper route to deliver. It is believed someone offered him a ride. He was never seen again. You can read about his story at

Now that I have a vehicle, I feel quite compassionate towards hitchhikers, and tend to pick up most hitchhikers. Most have no other transportation options. If they did, they wouldn’t be sticking out there thumbs. I don’t think I have ever felt unsafe when picking up a hitchhiker, though I am sure that there are stories out there. Probably my strangest experience was being propositioned by a pair of drag queens!

So, getting back to my story of the couple at the side of the road. I honked to let them know I was stopping, and then pulled off to the side of the road. They couple introduced themselves as Craig and Cindy. They had been hitchhiking for seven hours and had only made it about fifteen miles. They had another thirty miles to go. Craig was going to help his brother-in-law fix his car, and then together they were going to go on to visit his mother in another town. Where they were headed was only ten minutes out of my way, so I was happy to drop them at their destination.

People, including my wife, look askance at me when I say I pick up hitchhikers. To them it is like a game of Russian Roulette. You never know who you might pick up. I would agree, but to the hitchhiker it is a game of Russian Roulette as well, and by picking them up I am ensuring that at least one ride is safe.

I think however, that a lot of my motivation comes from the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the Good Samaritan is taking a real risk in stopping to help. It is known that there are bandits in the area. But stop he does. Like the Good Samaritan, I will also sometimes give money to help the hitchhiker along their way. Loving your neighbor means going beyond what is easy, or comfortable, or even safe. For me, among other things, it means picking up hitchhikers. What does it mean for you?

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Fr. Ernesto: Biting My Lip Hard Thu, 24 Jul 2014 04:01:47 +0000 crobh040701

Biting My Lip Hard
by Father Ernesto Obregon

The cartoon above makes me bite my lip real hard. The cartoonist caught just what some people think about the trend in some churches to turn the worship service into a coffee shop atmosphere with some talking. While the term “seeker sensitive” is not as much of a buzz-word as it used to be, the concept is still around.

But, there is a root that goes all the way back to the Jesus People of the 1970’s. The Jesus People were the parallel cultural reaction to the “hippies.” In both cases, there was a legitimate and merited rejection of the cookie cutter mentality of the 1950’s. They were not the only groups that pointed out the nominalism and cookie cutter attitude of the 1950’s. For instance, in 1956 the book “Peyton Place,” a book which tore into small town hypocrisy in the North, was released. In 1968, the country song “Harper Valley PTA” was released, pointing out hypocrisy in the South. George Orwell’s book 1984 points to a post-nuclear world in which the prevalent security and Cold War culture of the 1950’s is severely criticized.

Both the hippies and the Jesus People challenged the prevalent culture by dressing in ways that challenged the culture and behaving in ways that shocked prevalent culture. In the case of the hippies, events such as those chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was one example. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were chronicled as they made their way around the country in their brightly painted bus, using LSD and generally shocking people. The Beatles write the song “Magical Mystery Tour” about that type of trip:

Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up (And that’s an invitation), roll up for the mystery tour
Roll up (To make a reservation), roll up for the mystery tour
The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away
Waiting to take you away.

The Jesus People were something different, however. I am fully convinced that this was a true movement of the Holy Spirit. To this day, I still believe that God could not get into the churches of that time. After all, as chronicled by Martin Luther King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, many of the churches either openly supported both the segregation and miscegenation laws, or were cowed into total silence. Their stand was so antithetical to Christianity that God decided to raise praised to himself from even among the stones. Many youth with a “stone” heart, many a youth who was rejecting the culture and acting out by taking drugs and joining other religions, had their heart touched by the Holy Spirit and a revival broke out.

As with many a move of the Holy Spirit, people with free will took that move one way or the other. To the good, many churches were renewed, many people were touched for God, many people became life-long Christians. Twenty years after the beginning of the Jesus People movement, a group of those people entered the Antiochian Archdiocese, changing the face of Orthodoxy in America. That very move of the Holy Spirit in the 1960’s has today resulted in an openness to converts that was simply not present in American Orthodoxy of the early 1960’s.

On the other hand, it is also true that some have slowly taken the Jesus People movement in a different direction. For them, the message of what they experienced was misheard. Over the decades since then, the message that they took from it is that the Church must be a counter-cultural entity, meaning that it must always be doing things that are on the “cutting-edge” of culture. Any “rules” about what should happen in a worship service were slowly relaxed, and then dismissed. Nowadays, one can indeed find churches like those mocked in the comic above, where one comes in with their coffee, sits on a couch, has a sermon/discussion, etc. When multiple tattoos were still cutting-edge, many in these churches jumped into tattoos, piercings, etc. [Note: my purpose is not to criticize tattoos and piercings.] What I am trying to point out is that Christian slowly became defined as one who is always adopting the latest cutting-edge cultural trend and bringing it into the Church.

I look back with both nostalgia and horror. I was part of the events back then. I have a deep nostalgia for singers such as Keith Green, who truly called us to live out what it means to follow Jesus. I have a deep nostalgia for a faith tinged with wonder and discovery, and strong church growth. At the same time, I look back with horror over some of the other events from back then and how they led us into some of the craziness we see today in the cutting-edge congregations. And, yet, I would welcome another move of the Holy Spirit, a move so strong that Orthodoxy is again touched with the wonder that Metropolitan Philip of blessed memory expressed when he welcomed home the Evangelicals who flocked in back in the late 1980’s and continuing on for many years after that.

• • •

Thanks to Fr. Ernesto for permission to re-post this piece. I resonate with much that he says.

He blogs regularly at OrthoCuban.

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iMonk Classic: Letters to a Friend (parts 2-3) Wed, 23 Jul 2014 04:01:47 +0000 iStock_000014882479Small-634x252

Note from CM: Letters to a Friend was a series of posts Michael Spencer wrote in July 2007, responding to some comments from a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates. Today we look at parts two and three of this series.

• • •

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”


Dear Friend,

One word that stood out to me in your talk was the word “infallible.” I found myself in considerable disagreement with what it appears you meant when you assigned this word to persons like myself and others who promote theology. Perhaps you can clarify and we will be in more agreement.

I understand the term “infallible” to mean “unable to be wrong.” If something or someone is infallible, it is not possible for error to originate with them.

A person may claim to be right, but the claim of infallibility is something quite separate. I’m not surprised when anyone claims they are right. Your own words indicate you believe, on the basis of logic, that you are right. But you would not make a claim to infallibility.

Infallibility is considerably different from saying that someone believes they are right and not wrong. I believe I am right in saying I am 50 years old, but I do not claim to be infallible. I could be wrong. Error in knowing my age could originate with me. Many circumstances could cause me to be in error, but I am reasonably sure of this fact and would defend that conclusion.

The word “infallible” commonly occurs in two contexts among Christians. First, the Roman Catholic church claims that when the pope is functioning as the head of the church in an official teaching capacity, he is infallible. This produces a chain of tradition from the church that is infallible tradition.

This is a real advantage to the RCC. They use it, for example, to say only an infallible church could canonize scripture. I would disagree strongly, but the advantage of that approach is obvious. The problems are also obvious.

This is not saying the pope or the church cannot be wrong or do anything wrong. Some Catholic teachings, and many claims and practices, are not promoted infallibly. “Infallibility” is applied to very specific situations.

For example, in Galatians, Peter is confronted by Paul for his hypocrisy. This does not bother Roman Catholics in regard to Peter’s infallibility as the first pope, because all popes are sinners and make mistakes. Only in an official teaching capacity can he claim to be infallible. Bad people can be infallible popes in the RCC.

This does mean that the Roman Catholic church makes a kind of claim to infallibility that is different from the way other churches use the term. Since I disagree with it, I will gladly point out that when the RCC argues its case for doctrine, it does claim infallibility on a human level.

The second common use of “infallible” is among most Protestant evangelicals, who apply it to the Bible and the Bible only. They believe the Bible is inspired, infallible, authoritative and inerrant. (Not all evangelicals use all of these words or use them all in the same way, but that is another discussion.)

This means that no pastor, no church leader, no teacher and no denomination are infallible. The Bible only is infallible. The infallible Bible produces authoritative tradition through the infallible Holy Spirit and very fallible people.

Does that mean that, if the Bible is used to make a case, then infallibility is transfered to what is said or believed? The answer is “no.” While we believe the Bible is infallible, my version of what the Bible teaches about baptism is not infallible in the same way. My version of this doctrine may be in error, may be revised and may be improved. While I am reasonably certain I understand the Bible on this topic and I would have no problem saying I am convinced my view is right, I would never claim anything like infallibility.

I’m sure that the energy of many Christian debates seems to indicate that someone believes they cannot be wrong. I certainly know Christians who believe they, their pastor, their doctrine and their “team” are infallible, but if pressed they would admit that the only thing that actually can have the characteristic of infallibility is the Bible.

You were particularly bothered that I said I was certain enough of some doctrines that I would rather die than renounce them. This isn’t a claim to infallibility. It is a claim that I am convinced, as much as I can judge the subject, that I am correct. Being convinced doesn’t mean I am closed to the possibility of correction or change.

For example, I would die for certain aspects of my country, but I do not claim that America or myself are beyond error or absolutely right in an “infallible” sense. In a fallible, comparative sense, that response of loyalty is the right one.

I ask my children to obey me, but I would not claim infallibility in any aspect of parenting. Infallibility isn’t necessary to believe something is right enough to take a strong, sacrificial stand.

I have to disagree with you that contentious Christians are claiming infallibility. They may lack the humility and graciousness that should accompany any discussion. They may defend their position in a way that says they believe they cannot be wrong or less than perfectly right. They may demonstrate extreme stubbornness. But unless they are departing from their own Protestantism, all they can do is claim to be presenting the infallible claims of scripture fallibly.

Your answer to what you perceive as the dilemma of everyone claiming to be infallibility is to say that “God is beyond theology.” I’ll comment on that very postmodern assertion in another post.

So let me summarize where we are so far: I am not convinced that the kind of division or claims of infallibility you are reacting against actually exist. You may be “standing” in a place where these divisions seem to fill your screen, so to speak. I would suggest you take a more measured and less emotional look at the issue of Christian unity and doctrinal division. While there is much to lament, there is also much to celebrate, particularly among Christians who work, witness and minister together.



iStock_000014882479Small-634x252ON “GOD ABOVE THEOLOGY”

Dear Friend,

Probably the most provocative comment in your talk was the statement that “God is above theology.” If I remember correctly, you said this several times and it was obviously very crucial to your statement. I’d like to respond to this statement, because I believe it is the heart of the issue.

If God is not above theology, a number of things must change in your position.

For example, if God reveals or gives theology to human beings in a way they can understand, then we should not be surprised that there is a certain amount of contention and division among Christians. The Bible itself shows us conflict and division occurring among the churches and leaders in the New Testament over the issues of circumcision and inclusion of the Gentiles. Serious divisions are the reasons for some entire letters, such as the First Corinthian letter and the “Letters to the Seven Churches” in Revelation.

Theology has many definitions. I’ll assume that you are using theology in the sense of “human thoughts about God,” and that God has said “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” therefore our thoughts about God are not identical to God’s thoughts and ways.

No Christian that I am aware of believes there is complete identification between our thoughts and God’s mind. Every serious theologian wrestles with the issue of how we can say anything true about God since he is, as you say, “above” us and “other than us” in every way. The entire idea of divine revelation starts with the incomprehensibility of God.

To say that God is “above our theology” seems to indicate some despair on your part about theology, and this despair is your response to the arguments and disagreements you have observed. It is a position that would make some churches very attractive because they either reject all theology in favor or experience or they refuse to participate in most theological debates out of a certainty they have the truth.

Some despair about theology may result in the decision that all churches are equally “in the dark” in regard to truth, and therefore any church is equal to any other church, since doctrine is meaningless and practice/experience is all that matters. I would be cautious about taking these basically postmodern, relativistic positions that arise from a strong emotional reaction. The absence of conflict is hardly the proof that God is being honored rightly.

The important question here seems obvious: Is our theology completely our own creation, or does God reveal “theology” to us so that we can have “true truth” about him and respond accordingly?

The answer to that question seems simple, and I am sure that you appreciate it, even if you say God is “beyond” theology. God has revealed himself in creation, in Jesus and in scripture. I would say it more like this: God is revealed in general revelation, in Christ, in the scripture, through reason and in experience. All of these things are judged and regulated by scripture. I believe that there are several ways that God has given us theology and that he expects us to pay attention to what he has revealed.

For example, we have been studying Genesis 1-11 recently. You will recall that I said I have often asked students to do an assignment where they write down 50 things we can know about God from these early chapters of Genesis. This assignment typically yields statements like this:

“God exists.”
“God is creator.”
“God is creative.”
“God made human beings in his image.”
“God gave commands to Adam.”
“God is merciful and patient.”
“God punishes sin.”
“God chooses to remain involved in a rebellious world.”

All of these are theological statements, and I would have a hard time seeing that God is “beyond theology” when he has inspired these chapters with the obvious purpose of teaching these truths in language and example that anyone can understand. It actually seems that God is speaking, as Calvin said, “baby talk” so we can understand.

In John 1, John says that no one knew the Father until the Son made him known. The role of the Son in revealing what the Father is like, what the Father is doing, and so on is a major theme of the Gospel of John. This doesn’t seem to comport well with the idea that God is remaining above theology. It appears that the incarnation makes theology possible.

The inspiration of scripture rests upon the belief that God has expressed in human language what he wants us to know about Christ and salvation. If God is above our theology, then we should abandon any belief in the divine side of inspiration.

These various examples, however, are probably not what you intended by this statement. I believe you are looking at particular theological debates, such as the Lord’s Supper debate, and asserting that God is above this debate. Your statement that God’s view of the Lord’s Supper may differ from all of our views is the heart of what you mean. If this is true, then I must ask why God has revealed enough to start the theological discussion, but then made the solution inaccessible to anyone?

The problem is that all Christians are working with the same material: the incarnation, the salvation story and the Biblical text. These are revelatory. God has “come down” to us in ways that create faith, but that also create theology…and some conflict in interpretation.

So while I can agree that God is far “above” our confident efforts to say all there is to say, I do not believe God is above theology. I would agree with you that theology should be far more cautious and humble than many traditions attempt to make it. That is why I appreciate the minimal confessionalism of my own tradition and have some confusion at the attraction someone would feel for traditions that require complete confessional agreement with volumes and volumes of church teaching.

The Nicene Creed summarizes the theology that ought to bind the church together. A thousand page tome on the inner working of the Lord’s Supper is another attitude entirely. But that God does give us revelation in a way that causes theology to think some of God’s thoughts after him is undeniable.



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iMonk Classic: Letters to a Friend (part 1) Tue, 22 Jul 2014 04:01:02 +0000 iStock_000014882479Small-634x252

Note from CM: Letters to a Friend is a series of posts from 2007 that Michael Spencer wrote, responding to some comments of a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates. This is part one.

• • •

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”


Dear Friend: Some of the general sense of what you say strikes me as true in a way that I can affirm. I believe it is important to do what Thomas Merton suggested: attempt to create in ourselves the kind of unity that will heal divisions in the body of Christ.

I am also often deeply disturbed by the doctrinal divisions among Christians. Because I work with many non-Christians, I am aware of how these divisions discredit the gospel, and it is a matter of shame.

I also believe we need a broad view of how every Christian tradition is right and wrong in various ways. I believe we need a large “humility” zone in our theological teaching, writing and, most certainly, debate.

When I look at the specifics of what you are saying, however, I find myself wanting to respond in some detail. I hope you’ll bear with me as I look at parts of what you are saying and give some alternative points of view.

It has always seemed to me that Christians disagreeing with other Christians about doctrine was a subject that resisted generalizations. We should be careful and cautious about exactly what we’re saying. For example, we want scientists and politicians to debate. We assume it’s good for the process, but when Christians debate, we have some guilt and discomfort, as if it’s always wrong.

Certainly we fall tremendously short of what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and the various kinds of division among Christians have made a mockery of Jesus’ words, especially those over race, nationality, between rich and poor and other ridiculous divisions. Though I can’t think of many instances of Christians committing acts of violence against other Christians these days for doctrinal reasons (political reasons are a different story,) it has occurred in history.

I think, however, if we compared Christian unity with, for example, what we see among Muslims or New Agers, we would have to admit that Christians have actually achieved a remarkable amount of unity on various levels, even though they still fall short of Christ’s command. Muslims are car bombing each other over doctrine, and the New Age movement is so individualistic that each person is almost their own religion.

Christians have an entire heritage of “ecumenical theology” that we can read in the early creeds of the churches, such as the Nicene Creed. Virtually all Christians are united in the foundational beliefs of Christianity. Even churches who don’t know these creeds exist generally assume the kind of beliefs those creeds proclaim. I would urge you to not overlook all the work of the early centuries of the church in achieving confessional unity at the most basic levels.

I hate to use percentages, but I’d say that out of a total collection of Christian beliefs, at least 75% of those beliefs are affirmed by the vast majority of Christians. This is no small thing. In fact, there is so much unity at the level of essential Christian beliefs, that you could not distinguish one Christian from another if you asked a group of them foundational questions.

This amount of unity is such a given that it’s easy to overlook. For example, the debates we have about the nature of the Lord’s Supper can make it appear that Christians are in complete disagreement when, in fact, all of us agree about many- most?- things related to the Lord’s Supper. Our disagreements are severe and painful, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that if you took the essential elements of the Supper and the words of scripture about the Supper, we’d have tremendous common ground. Our disagreements begin when other issues and more theologizing takes place.

The “other 25%” of total Christian beliefs are full of the conflicts and controversies you are disturbed by, but I want to make some points about these as well. Let’s use the believer’s baptism versus infant baptism debate as the example to keep in mind.

For example, being aware of these controversies depends on where you are “standing.” In many contexts, Christians can work together, worship together and minister together with no conflict over the baptism issue at all. But if you went to the right places on the internet, or to the right seminary classroom or into the right fundamentalist church at the right time, the issue would be real and alive.

Because the baptism issue is “raging” on an internet discussion board may be a problem if atheists or unbelievers go to that board and read the discussion. But I’m pretty skeptical of the motives of someone who goes right to the place where conflict is happening. It’s not hard to find Christians standing together against abortion, feeding the hungry, providing charity to the poor or teaching kids in a mountain school. Ignoring those examples of unity and focusing on how a few Lutherans and a few Baptists argue on the internet is simply being microscopic.

In fact, those same Lutherans and Baptists, placed in churches in the same community, will not have a war or a public argument. Whatever conflict they have will be virtually invisible unless you go looking for it. They may cooperate and affirm one another far more than they disagree.

So, without disagreeing with your observation that Christian doctrinal conflict is a serious failure, I do want to say that I’m more impressed with the remarkable unity and cooperation that happens among Christians who differ doctrinally. Mark Noll has observed that there is more Catholic-Protestant unity today than there was 30 years ago because of common ground on social, political and cultural issues. Doctrine hasn’t kept Catholics and Protestants apart when it comes to working for causes they both affirm, such as pro-life.

I can’t keep from thinking about Pope Benedict’s recent statements that the Catholic church is the true church and all Protestants are part of deficient churches. While many Protestant bloggers noted the significance of the statement, its safe to say that the reaction of the average Catholic and Protestant in the average workplace or community was a big yawn. Such statements, which emphasize division, are largely irrelevant “on the ground.”

I’ll close with a wonderful discovery I made a few weeks ago. While reading David Wright on Baptism, I discovered that an ecumenical group of Christians had produced a document on Baptism and the Eucharist that demonstrates the remarkable unity that is possible among Christians when they sit down, talk, listen and work to articulate themselves clearly and generously. Without watering down differences, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry is a remarkable expression of unity at the level of serious scholarship. Not everyone is demonstrating the kind of contentious spirit you’ve seen and find distasteful and discouraging.

Next time I write, I’d like to talk about the concept of “infallibility,” and how it is used by various groups of Christians. It’s a place where I think we have to be very clear what the term means and how it is used. I think if we understand this term, we can correct the impression you have that all Christian groups are claiming to be infallibly right.



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The Spirit of Knowing Mon, 21 Jul 2014 04:01:31 +0000 toddler-asleep-on-dads-chest

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.

• Romans 8:15-16, NLT

• • •

Sunday morning we had the privilege of going to our friend Randy Thompson’s church in Concord, NH to worship, meet his congregation, and hear him proclaim God’s Word. It was a good one, too. He spoke on a portion of Romans, chapter 8.

Romans 8 is the Mt. Everest of Scripture and I never tire of coming back to it for the profound encouragement it gives. From the declaration of “no condemnation” of 8:1 to the “no separation” of 8:35-39, this chapter provides vista after vista of breathtaking, Christ-centered gospel truth.

Randy made an important distinction for those of us in the congregation on Sunday. He, like I and so many others, have studied and learned parts of the Bible like Romans 8 as the high grounds of Christian doctrine. These texts thrill our minds, expand our intellectual horizons, and test those of us who preach and teach with the immense challenge of expounding hearty, nutritious theological content.

But read the text above once more.

The Apostle is speaking to friends, and he is encouraging them to not live fearfully in the presence of the God who loves them.

He reminds them that Jesus didn’t die and rise again in order to make us slaves. That is not our identity and it is not the way we ought to go about thinking of ourselves before God.

He calls them to remember that God adopted us to be his own beloved children, his heirs, those who receive his closest attention and dearest treasures.

God’s very Spirit has come to indwell us.

And the Spirit causes a profound sense of filial endearment to well up from our innermost being. This overflows from our lips as we cry out to God in prayer — child to Parent — exhibiting a deep reflex that reflects our living bond and the affection which accompanies it.

This is no mere “doctrine,” this is love.

• • •

Such teaching is true evangelical encouragement at its best.

Certain Christian traditions try hard to “safeguard the doctrine” and emphasize the objective truths of the gospel that come to us from God, from outside of us, so as not to give any place whatsoever to works-righteousness or human contribution in the process of salvation.

Other Christian traditions promote feelings and experience in a way that emphasizes having immediate, ecstatic encounters with God that instantly transform a person, raising him or her up to a new level of spiritual progress.

Paul’s teaching here counters both with something much more organic. God makes us his beloved children. God’s life is within us and our life is in God. We bond through a shared Spirit. We are not slaves, attached to the household, treated as servants and judged according to how well we perform our functions. We are God’s own flesh and blood, connected personally to him via a living connection of love.

This is something we feel and know by family instinct, not just because the pastor has preached on it, or because we passed our confirmation exam or went to seminary. It is not first of all a matter of intellectual understanding, any more than a baby’s response to her mother is rooted in having been taught.

I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

• Psalm 131:2, NRSV

Such language describes “knowing” in the deepest sense, the kind of personal knowing that includes certain facts and propositions that may be stated, but which ultimately transcends them with an embrace.

With this kind of knowing, Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord . . .” (Hosea 6:3, NRSV)

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