Archive for March, 2012

Cheap Love

Posted: March 29, 2012 by J in Church, Mission

One thing my co-leader Christian is always exhorting us about is that our calling as a church is to love our neighbours.

I continue to find that radically challenging, having grown up as a Christian in the evangelical scene, where I learnt that the main responsibility we have towards our neighbours is to evangelise them.

Evangelism is good. But that doesn’t mean it’s identical to love. If evangelising our neighbours is a part of our calling but we’ve made it the whole, or the main thing, then we’re being unfaithful to God’s command.

The thing about evangelism is you can do it without really caring that much about the person you’re speaking to. They could be anyone, you can still tell them about Jesus. When we reduce the command ‘love your neighbour’ to mere evangelism, the result is cheap love.

Love that speaks but does not act. That’s cheap love. It’s exactly the sort of love the apostles warn us against:

1John 3:18   Little children, we must not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth; that is how we will know we are of the truth

James 2:15   If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food,  16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 

Evangelism-alone has this problem: it doesn’t cost us enough. It’s too cheap. Love is supposed to be costly – like Jesus’ love for us, right? Evangelism can be done from a safe distance: we can hand them a bible or a tract, or invite them to a meeting or a course. We don’t have to get involved in the sordid mess of their life.

When we substitute the part for the whole like this, doing evangelism as though it were our whole duty to people – when we do that, then evangelism becomes our excuse for not investing in people’s lives. Evangelism becomes cheap love. We use evangelism to fool ourselves that we are being faithful and caring for our neighbour, when really our hearts are dry toward them and we’re keeping a safe distance. Evangelism allows us to continue a lifestyle where we please ourselves.

And people notice. Evangelism in the context of costly, self-giving love will be interpreted as an act of love from a friend. Evangelism-alone will be seen as what it is: a fairly cold pursuing of our own agenda to get converts. People notice. They sense that we are not true friends, and they stay away. They don’t want to hear. Why would they? Who likes having someone else’s agenda pushed on them?

Here’s the challenge we’re getting from Christian’s exhortation, then. At our church we’re trying to:

REPENT of cheap love, and stop doing evangelism that costs us nothing.

LEARN to love our neighbour with costly, servant-hearted friendship, in the name of Jesus.

SPEAK the good news of God’s grace in a context where people have already had a taste of it from our church-life.

We’re not very good at this yet. But I reckon as we do it, we might start to look like Jesus. We might gain some credibility. And maybe needy people will even start responding to us the way they so often did to Jesus.

What do you think?

We often hear about conflicts going on in the church, either local, regional or international. Most times the conflicts we hear about are the obvious, visible ones: womens’ ordination, worship styles, music, use of money, etc. These are the troubles that break the surface of our peaceful fellowship.

But what about the conflicts going on down below the surface, deep in the church’s soul? The sources of all those apparently disconnected surface troubles – what are they? At the core of the church’s soul is the gospel of Jesus – or else something else where it should be! So our deepest conflicts and tensions are theological ones. These often unseen troubles drive everything else that we do see.

So what are the conflicts in our faith that threaten or hamstring us as we settle into the 21st century? Here’s my top 9, presented as a series of questions. And then one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them…

1. Can we reconcile our concern to preserve Jesus’ uniqueness (‘there’s no one remotely like him’) with our concern to see people become like Jesus and share in his works (‘you will do greater works than these that I have done’)? As long as the two are felt to be in tension or competition, one will prosper at the expense of the other, and our own achievements will seem like a threat to Jesus’s.

2. Can we stop treating Jesus’ humanity and divinity as rivals? Liberalism and the historical Jesus guys treat Jesus as largely human and not much divine.  We are tricked into reacting, making Jesus out to be about 90% divine and only 10% human. Can we get up the confidence to explore fully the blessing of his incarnation without feeling that this threatens his divinity?

3. Can we deal with the tension between our proclamation that Jesus is now Lord over creation, and our dismissive attitude to that creation? When we talk as though the creation is worthless and soon to be thrown in the cosmic incinerator, surely that seriously undermines Jesus Lordship?

4. Can we develop an atonement theology that facilitates and does not hinder our mission aspirations? I.e. one that works with our desire to connect with the ordinary lives of ordinary people? Our current emphases in this area seem to have little to say into the life experiences of our neighbours. The result is that on the one hand what we do find to say into their lives is often not a word of gospel, and is not felt (by them) to be good news. And on the other, the atonement we proclaim as gospel just doesn’t seem to get much traction.

5. Can we reduce the rivalry between our doctrine of personal, free salvation in Christ and our belief in the church, so that emphasis on one doesn’t detract from the other? If our gospel preaching leaves people uninterested in church, then those who push church are suspected of undermining the gospel of justification by faith alone. The horizontal and the vertical become rivals for our loyalty. The result is a lack of attention to developing real living Christian communities that function like bodies.

6. Can we reduce the tension between faith in the Jesus of history and faith in the Jesus who is present and active with us here and now? At present it feels like we have to choose: either we know and experience God’s presence in Christ amongst us, or we trust in his finished work for us 2000 years ago. Is there some way  that both of these can grow?

7. Can we deal with the conflict between our emphasis on a holiness that means separateness and distance, and our mission calling to be like Jesus and come near to the lost? As long as godliness and mission are in competition, one will prosper at the expense of the other.

8. Can we integrate our thinking about works ministry and word ministry so that they are not felt to be competing alternatives? Our evangelical abandonment of compassionate works is currently an open disgrace. But we’ve done it in the name of gospel loyalty.

9. Can we somehow reduce the distance between Jesus’ insistence that his kingdom is for the poor and the weak, and our own vision of the Christian life, in which addiction to wealth, lifestyle and power is normal? Because at present this disparity creates a credibility gap so wide, our churches are left open to public ridicule.

What have I missed?

That’s a lot of conflict. I can’t help wondering if we will make it through this century with so much baggage, whether we will survive the damage caused by so much internal tension. I know we’ve coped with much of it for a long time, but we’re not as strong as we used to be.

BELOW the THINGS LYING BELOW THE SURFACE

I suspect that there’s a conflict or two that are driving all these tensions, also. I don’t think it’s an endless regression. I think this one is bedrock:

Can we make some serious inroads into identifying and rooting out the Platonism from our faith tradition? We probably can’t lay it to rest totally in one generation, but it would be good if we could move forward decisively on this.

(continuing on Barth’s Evangelical Theology)

I love this chapter.

Barth begins by admitting that he can’t justify any of the claims he’s made about the importance of this thing, theology.

How does theology come to take and hold the place [we have claimed] – a place which seems to the onlooker to be situated in mid-air?

The science of theology has no outside supports – nothing, that is, outside the story to which it is summoned to bear witness. Nothing outside the incarnate Word, the apostles and the community that learns from them. Theology cannot justify its existence or task by reference to any pre-existing discipline or idea or presupposition. It cannot construct any supports to ground it:

Theology can only do its work… Its work can be well done only when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within.

What power or authority, then drives and enlightens theology, and indeed this whole story of God’s revelation?

The real power that is present and active in theology is not to be harnessed or controlled by the theologian for his purposes. For that power is superior to theology and to the community itself. It renders logical foundations unnecessary,

since it is a productive power which replaces all safeguards stemming from other sources.

So, the appearance that theology hovers in mid-air is more than just an appearance! But what if the air in which it hovers is

flowing, fresh, healthy air in contrast to all motionless or stagnant office air [?] And to ‘hover’ in mid-air could also mean to be moved, borne and driven by this flowing air.

In fact, the whole community exists in ‘such free mobility and movement’. And so does the entire story of God’s Word, through Jesus and the apostles, which creates the church.

All this takes place in the realm of that freely moved and moving air, the gentle or stormy wind, the divine spiratio and inspiratio.

This air is the ruach or pneuma spoken of in Scripture. Both words mean moving air. ‘Ghost’ is a bad translation! The characteristic of God’s ruach  or Spirit is ‘freedom’: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” The Spirit acts in complete freedom or sovereignty, and creates freedom among men.

It is clear that evangelical theology itself can only be pneumatic, spiritual theology.

The Spirit can however depart from theology in two ways, rendering it lifeless:

1. When theology ‘refuses to permit itself to be led by him into all truth’ – through fear of the power, or through prior commitment to another power or ideology.

2. When we imagine we have some control over the Spirit’s actions, to dispense or harness his power like electricity.

All true theology, then, is the outworking of the prayer, ‘Come, Spirit of life!’

___________________________

Evaluation

This is my favourite chapter of the book. There’s a bit of magic in it, which stands out all the more against the stodgy german style of the rest. Actually, it’s one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever read. I think here Barth manages to express the awe and glory of being involved in theology, and of being the church. It leaves me worshipping.

Two things here are important, I feel. One is Barth’s complete rejection of external presuppositions or foundations for the theological task. What a refreshing change from the foundationalist approach of so many modern systematic theology books! We don’t do this stuff because something outside the faith is allowing us to, or because we believe something else that can justify the whole project. No, we do theology as God’s people summoned to listen, believe and speak by the overwhelming power of the Spirit.  In other words, theology is relational from start to finish. We dispense with the question of justification, we make no apology for our activity, feeling ourselves caught up in the moving wind of something far beyond ourselves, not initiated or controlled by us – content to simply obey the summons! Somehow I feel released just reading it!

The other thing is that in Barth’s account, theology has a direction: it moves towards freedom. Indeed he says that our attempts at theology can be judged by this: do they produce freedom? I love this vision of the goal of theology! It resonates, because I’ve found that as I’ve come to understand better the Scriptural account of God and his ways, I have found myself delivered and released from many imprisoning and paralysing forces that had plagued me. This is one reason why I believe in doing theology – because of the liberation I’ve found it to bring.

How would it be if we assessed all theology be this standard in future: does it bring freedom?

What do you think?

[The community is] the confederation of the witnesses who may and must speak because they believe.

The community does not speak by words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; and, moreover and especialy, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world.

It does all this because this is the purpose of its summons [into existence] by the Word of God. It cannot avoid doing these things, since it believes…

(p.38 Evangelical Theology: an introduction)

I would like this framed and hung on my wall, it moves me so deeply.

(continuing Barth on the place of theology)

The community (Barth doesn’t like the word ‘church’!) represents the secondary witnesses to the Word, after the apostles. It is the “society of men called to believe in and simultaneously to testify to, the Word in the world.”

But being a true witness is not easy! The believing community faces a challenge: how to speak rightly about the Word it has come to believe in? It faces the questions: “does the community reflect on the Word painstakingly and speak of it in clear concepts?” Can the community also function as secondary witnesses with credibility and integrity? The work to achieve and maintain these things is theological work.

Every believer is called to this work, and especially leaders:

A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community.

Theology is also for the community: its job to confront them afresh with the reality of the Word of God. Any theology that is not directed towards the community, is a waste of time.

“Faith seeking understanding” sums up this community activity of seeking to speak truthfully. The community must seek to understand better the things it has believed.

This search will also include past generations of believers in its discussions. Theology will learn carefully from them. But it will not submit to their judgement, but rather re-examine everything in the light of the gospel.

No dogma or article of the creed can simply be taken over untested by theology from ecclesiastical antiquity. Each must be measured…by the Holy Scripture and the Word of God.

Here at The Grit we like this approach to tradition. “Question everything” – I seem to have heard that before somewhere…  But that means listening to everything also. Including tradition. We are so painfully ignorant of what believers were thinking and saying in other ages. C.S. Lewis’s dictum was a good one: for every new book, read two old ones – or something like that. And by ‘old’ he didn’t mean the 1970s!

I also like this emphasis on learning in community and for community. So much of our scholarship is done in academies and for other academics. But in Barth’s view this sort of theology is an irrelevance. Wouldn’t it be great if theology were restored to the church, to be undertaken by the body, with the assistance of pastor-theologian leaders, and for the benefit of the body.

How can we get our people doing theology with us?

Continued HERE

(continued from previous post)

In his 2nd chapter, The Witnesses, Barth considers the biblical writers as witnesses to God’s revelation, culminating in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ:

their theme was God’s mighty Word spoken in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which imparted to his life and death power and control over all creatures of all times.

The early church communities then accepted this witness as ‘canonical’:

they were the first to acknowledge this collection as genuine and authoritative testimony to the one Word of God.

But the witnesses were also theologians, doing theology, i.e. they shared “a common concern for human response to the divine Word”.  So as students of theology we can also learn good theological method from them, learn “the method of a human thought and speech as they are oriented to the Word of God.”

But the apostolic witness should always be given a norming or testing role in our theology. Our work is subject to correction by them! Also, theology has no other source material to turn to for the Word of God: only Scripture.

This witness is not uniform but very varied and ‘polyphonic’, reflecting the richness of God himself. The Word of God is not revealed or witnessed to equally in all parts of Scripture. Theology’s primary task is to search the Scriptures for their witness to the Word of God.

Evaluation

Barth in some ways comes across as a very conservative Protestant. Not much time for church traditions of the gospel here: Scripture alone! Theology to submit to Scripture, etc. He of course sees God revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ.

But here is where he makes his contribution. If God is revealed in history and in a man then the book is not the primary revelation. If it were it would detract from the uniqueness of Jesus and his resurrection. To whatever extent the book is revelatory, that revelation is of a second-order or derivative sort. The book is revelatory in the sense that it contains faithful testimony to God’s revelation in Christ.

BUT that testimony is not equally present throughout Scripture. It is much more clearly present in the Gospels than in Esther, for example. Or to put in in Barth’s terms, it is an open question to what extent any given Scripture contains the Word of God.

What Barth has done is to open a gap or distance between Word of God and Scripture. Now before you have a cow and cry ‘liberal!’, he’s not doing that so as to wriggle out of obeying Scriptures he doesn’t like. He sees Scripture as authoritative anyway: just not all in a Word of God, revelation of God way.

What that gap does is allow Barth to take account of the progressive and historical nature of revelation. God revealed himself differently at different times (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). If you close the gap and identify Scripture with Word of God, it’s pretty difficult to maintain progressive revelation: Genesis and John are then equally Word of God.

The gap also allows Barth to recognise that the witnesses were doing other things besides witness to the Word. They were also doing theology. The human response stuff. Like Paul explaining to churches what it means to trust Jesus in their situation – that sort of stuff.

What the gap between Word of God and Bible prevents him from doing is treating any Scripture as Word of God, as revelatory, apart from the way it witnesses to Christ. In other words it pushes him to an extremely Christo-centric approach to the whole Bible. And that makes him do a lot of work. There is always a big question to be asked of any Scripture: which he calls ‘the question about the Word.’ He can’t just read Genesis and say ‘this is the Word of God’. He has to ask, ‘how and to what extent is this pointing to and revealing the Word of God?’ As Barth puts it,

Just how far [the Word] stands there [in a text] is a fact that demands unceasing discovery, interpretation, and recognition. It demands untiring effort…blood and tears.

Barth’s view of what to do with the Bible is much more active and dynamic than the one I was taught. It’s much less cut and dried, more engaged and demanding. We can just lazily read out the text and say ‘this is the Word of God’ and sit down thinking God’s Word has been announced and heard, whether or not anyone thought about Jesus. Barth can’t do that – he has to start investigating!

I’m not sure if I like this! But one thing I do like: for Barth the Bible doesn’t function as a rival locus of revelation, competing with Jesus Christ. For us in my tradition, it does.

What are the down sides of Barth’s view?

Continued HERE

I’ve just finished reading this, and I have good news. You can just read the first 57 pages! As far as I’m concerned that’s where the gold is. That makes it a beautifully short read.

This book is NOT an abridgement of the content of Barth’s Dogmatics. It is rather a discussion of the business of doing theology. I’m up for that: every Christian (and this is one of Barth’s points) should be into this, as we all do theology (God-talk) in one way or another, well or badly!

The book has four sections: The place of theology, the experience of doing it, threats to it, and finally the work of doing theology. For my money section 1, on the place of theology, was the part worth reading. Perhaps I just didn’t understand the other sections. So I’ll leave those to someone smarter to comment on.

Section 1, the place of theology, has 4 chapters.

In ch.1, The Word, Barth describes the object of all theology, the thing that theology is responding to: God’s active powerful, communicative Word.  Theology is our human response or answer to that Word.

Because the Word of God is heard and answered by theology, it is a modest and at the same time, a free science. Theology is modest because its entire logic can only be a human ana-logy [speaking in return] to that Word.

Barth is very clear that theology is a human business, and so neither authoritative nor final. The Word is authoritative, not our response to it. Theology is instead humble and provisional in its statements.

There are two things, then: the Word of God, which theology must acknowledge and speak, and then theology proper, which is our human response.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to describing the Word. This is brilliant: we get a three page summary of the gospel as Barth sees it. Barth describes the gospel in terms of God’s covenant with man. And this covenant unfolds in human history.

Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ, which fulfils the history of Israel. To reverse the statement, theology responds to that Word spoken in the history of Israel which reaches its culmination in the history of Jesus Christ.

Barth insists that the two phases of this Word in history can be separated: Israel and Christ. The tendency to speak of Christ in terms of universal truths only is a distortion. He is historically particular. “In the Christ of Israel this Word has become particular, that is, Jewish flesh.” But also to speak of God’s Word in the history apart from Christ is misleading: “There is no history of Israel in itself and for its own sake… It hastens toward the history of Jesus Christ.”

The gospel, then is first particular (Israel) and only then universal (Christ). It is “the accomplishment of the reconciliation of Israel” and through Israel the world.

Barth’s program for theology then, pushes towards biblical theology. He wants to talk about the Word revealed in the story of salvation history. Nice. Tom Wright’s work, for example, could be seen as following Barth’s program.

One question: how would Barth clarify where ‘confirming and announcing’ the Word stops, and where responding starts. I.e. which part of theology’s talk is relaying the authoritative, divine Word, and which part is responding to it in humility and openness to correction? I think the distinction is important, but how does it work in practice? Because of the difference in status between the two kinds of speech, it matters!

Continued HERE