Archive for February, 2014

Evangelical Catholics

Posted: February 28, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Theology

I always laugh when I hear Protestants reacting against new ideas or interpretations of Scripture by saying, “So the whole church had it wrong all these thousands of years!” or “Lucky us to live just at the time the real truth was discovered.” It happens pretty often here at The Grit!

These sort of cynical reactions are ridiculous because they are impossible to justify. From us that is. Isn’t it the very essence of Protestantism to think that the whole church had it wrong for thousands of years?

That’s why we exist, right? Why we’re not ‘Catholic’? We had to break away from the church because it had things badly wrong. No?

Friends, we can’t have our cake and eat it. Either it’s ridiculous for us to think we can stand over against the ancient Catholic church and its centuries-old traditions, and its ridiculous for the latest scholar to suggest a new understanding of atonement – OR they’re both OK.  Both versions can’t be true.

The reality is, we prefer to switch between the two positions as suits us. When it’s a favourite doctrine or practice of ours being questioned or revised, we reach for the protection of ‘centuries of Christian belief and tradition’. Surely God would not let his people go astray on this for so many centuries. Scandalous hubris for some young punk to think he knows better than anyone else.

But when someone else’s tradition is on the chopping block, that young punk is suddenly transformed into a champion of Sola Scriptura, bravely standing against a sea of religiosity and man-made religion. We love to watch, as the young Reformer does his godly best. We love to watch it happen to the Vatican in particular. Or to Arminians. Or Pentecostals.

In other words, we are Protestants with regard to other traditions. But when it comes to the doctrines of the Reformation, the common practices and emphases of evangelical ministry etc -when it comes to our own tradition, we are firm Catholics. We will tolerate no dissent. We certainly don’t welcome any theses nailed to our church door. There can be no further Reformation.

So I suggest we embrace this about ourselves. Let’s get honest about who we now are. Over the centuries we have settled down. We have institutionalised. We have encrusted around us a tradition that by now is non-negotiable. We need a new name. I don’t like Protholic or Cathestant. From now on why shouldn’t we call ourselves Evangelical Catholics?

Sound OK?

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You’ve heard us tar all evangelicals with the same brush, that we are pre-programmed to misread and distort the Scriptures.

The Grit retracts. We fall on our oyster-shell-edge. We are chastened.

I’ve just read an example of some very careful reading and reflection and synthesis of the Scriptures’ teaching, in the light of the theology of the whole Bible, with accurate pastoral application. Stunning.

It was by Dr John Woodhouse. Topic was Divorce and Remarriage.

It’s the best thing I’ve read on this topic. And it’s short.

But more to the point, Woodie’s paper is a model of how to approach the Scriptures. Calm, level-headed, and questioning everything. Everything we are supposed to believe on this topic, that is. A true piece of independent thinking.

I would recommend this article to you, not just for the content, but for its value as a model of reading Scripture well.

Which is more important, even, than right thinking on divorce and remarriage. IMHO.

CLICK HERE  to read the article.

 

Andrew Cameron to head St Marks Canberra

Posted: February 22, 2014 by J in Church

YESTERDAY: The Right Reverend Trevor Edwards, President of St Mark’s Council, announced today the appointment of The Reverend Dr Andrew Cameron as Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre.

Wow. Learning under Andrew Cameron was one of the best parts of my college experience at Moore. He headed up the Christian Thought faculty, and brought to it some serious theological chops. He may look at bit like Yoda, but under Cameron, students were challenged and stretched to think in new ways and to question comfortable and narrow approaches to life issues. He was well known for promoting an approach to ethics that let gospel theology drive the thing, rather than favourite proof texts from Scripture.

Cameron avoided easy answers to complex issues, and was always happy to rethink and discuss if challenged.

Andrew Cameron has functioned as a statesman, ambassador and peace-maker within the Sydney Diocese, encouraging warring parties to dialogue. He has modelled an approach of respectfully listening to those who disagree with him, both inside and outside the Christian community. In doing so he has challenged the more aggressive approach which has so long been characteristic of the Sydney Anglican tradition.

It is a testimony to the respect which Cameron has earned outside his own team, that he has been appointed to head up in institution like St Marks Theological Centre, Canberra – a college which has not generally looked to Sydney Diocese when recruiting new staff!

Andrew Cameron’s departure from Moore is a sad loss for the college, a loss it can ill afford. Cameron would have made a good principal here. There is no one of comparable stature on hand to step in and fill the gap he leaves.

We wish Andrew Cameron well in his new role, and hope he finds a few nice beanies to wear.

It may have come as a bit of a shock, through these articles, to realise that our modern Lord’s supper practices are so out of step with those of Jesus and the apostles. How has this happened?

In trying to answer this, let’s start by imagining a typical scene from a Reformed Presbyterian church (my background). It’s communion Sunday. It’s a big deal, everyone has been preparing themselves – everyone, that is, who is planning to take part.

At a certain point in the church service that day, the minister calls the faithful to come and gather round the table of the Lord out the front. He explains who is invited to eat – members of protestant churches in good standing – and issues a warning about the dangers of anyone else taking part.

Those who are permitted move to the front, and gather at the table. Around the church building are dotted individuals and pockets of people who are not welcome to partake. They remain as witnesses to the celebration which is denied them. This, it is thought, may stir them up to consider their own stated before God. After all, why are they barred?

I don’t know how you feel about that scene. I experienced it many times. I am adducing it now as a kind of very clear expression of protestant Lord’s Supper practices. Other churches soften the blow, minimise the feeling of exclusion, etc. But the underlying theology, I think, the same, and is enacted in that Reformed Pressy church very accurately.

What can we say about this communion service? How can we understand what is going on here.

1. Firstly, it’s worth noticing that one of the motivations at work is the concern to protect the integrity and purity of the table. The practice of exclusion is not a goal in itself, but partly a by-product of this overriding concern.

2. It’s also important to add that this church believes it would be bad for outsiders of uncertain status to take part in the meal. It would, in some way, be bad for their souls. From that point of view excluding them is an act of kindness.

3. We do however need to compare this meal, and the motivations that shape it, with those described in the NT. On the surface of it, it appears that the ‘faithful’ believers in this Reformed church are playing out the role of the Pharisees and priests, carefully guarding against the sort of loose table fellowship that Jesus practiced habitually. I.e. they have slid back to the traditional, conservative, ‘safe’ approach, and lost the radical imperatives that were driving Jesus’ ministry.

4. It might be helpful then to imagine this Reformed Lord’s Supper transplanted back into first century Palestine, in the time of Jesus. Let us imagine that Jesus was physically present. Based on his behaviour as recorded in the Gospel accounts, which part of the room would Jesus be in during that table celebration? Would he be up the front at the table with the approved – or in the pews with the excluded? To me the answer is bleedin’ obvious. I reckon, based on his outrageous record, he might well have brought a packet of crackers and started handing them around in the pews during the communion!

5. We need to understand how our churches came to take this stance, which appears to be so different to Jesus’ own. Much of the drift has probably only been possible because the Lord’s Supper at some stage ceased to be a meal, was abstracted from the household setting, divorced from the realm of hospitality, and ceremonialised into a public ritual.

In a public ritual, anything goes, the priests can make their own rules. But in hospitality, this is not the case. In every culture there are strict rules about how to treat guests, which demand obedience.

Had the communion remained a meal, such a gross offence against hospitality as I have described above could hardly have occurred. Who would ever serve a meal in their home and deliberately exclude certain of the guests, making them look on while the others ate? Who would ever imagine that this could be a blessing or anything but a grave stumbling block, to the excluded?

As it is, our Lord’s Supper is not really celebrated as a meal at all – it is something more abstract and ‘religious’. This allows for all sorts of distortions to creep in: the priests have gained control. As a result, the theological heart of the thing has been obscured or lost – namely, the idea that we are sharing a sacrificial passover meal together around Christ, like his disciples at the Last Supper.

___________

The last observation above suggests a way back. A Presbyterian church I know accidentally started on this path. They decided to incorporate the Lord’s Supper celebration into a church lunch held after the morning service. It just so happened that on that day some Muslim friends came to church. Once they had come, everything else followed necessarily. They were naturally included in the general invitation to lunch. They said they would stay. The elders then began to panic, realising what they had got themselves into.

They held a brief crisis meeting. What to do? Should they do their warning and exclusion thing? It had always seemed like a good practice in the church service, but now that the setting was a lunch, it seemed impossibly rude. It would certainly offend their lunch guests.

They decided that the offence would be too great, and the visitors should be allowed and invited to share in the celebration. This is what then occurred. The Muslim friends share in the table of Jesus.

In moving the communion back into a meal setting, these elders immediately found they had to break with hundreds of years of church tradition. Their own views of what was right for the Lord’s Supper were stretched way outside the comfort zone. It all got very messy very quickly.

I’m guessing they might not try the meal thing again any time soon! 🙂

A reformation of communion practice is hardly possible until we restore the heart of the celebration – it’s status as a shared meal. Any right theology about the Lord’s Supper is going to flow out of that starting point. Any other starting point will leave us once again bogged down in distortions,  asking the wrong questions, and subjected to the pious intentions of the priests.

(continued from previous post)

1 Corinthians 11 should be easy. The apostle Paul goes to some trouble to explain the situation into which he is speaking, the problem in the Corinthian church which needs addressing. This explicit context is a great help in rightly interpreting Paul’s teaching. Sad then that the context is routinely ignored in most evangelical discussion of this passage.

So what was going on at Corinth?

There is a problem: “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (v.17)

Their gatherings have become unhealthy and unhelpful. How so?

To begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you;   v.18

The place where these divisions are really apparent is in the church community’s shared meal, when they gather to celebrate the ‘Lord’s Supper’ and remember Christ crucified together.

When you come together, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper.  (v.20)

What is happening that spoils the Lord’s Supper?

For at the meal time, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, so one goes hungry while another is revelling.   (v.21)

This behaviour is no small failing: in Paul’s view it is a weighty sin:

Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? (v.22)

The holy meal is the place where the cracks in the community are becoming apparent. And great offence is being caused there – an offence that pollutes or destroys the Lord’s table.

How this destruction happens is clear from what Paul has already said about the Lord’s Supper, back in ch.10.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?   Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.  (10:16-17)

The Lord’s Supper is all about us sharing in Christ’s body, expressing our unity together through a common loaf. So Paul here in ch.11 reminds the Corinthians that the Supper centres around the shared loaf, the body of Christ in which we participate:

The Lord Jesus…took a loaf of bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (11:23-24)

Now comes the punchline: the Corinthians’ behaviour tramples on this sacred meal and makes it a mockery:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  (v.27)

Here the ‘unworthy manner’ is understood to be the divisive behaviour which Paul has been at pains to expose, above. But in case anyone didn’t get it, Paul spells this out once again:

Those who eat and drink without showing consideration to the body [which they are participating in], eat and drink judgment against themselves.  (v.29)

Lack of consideration (me diakrinon) for the body, for the sacred identity of this gathering as the body of Christ – that is the ‘unworthy manner’ which brings judgement down on them.

What sort of judgement is this that comes from the Lord’s Supper?

For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (v.30)

It is affliction in the here and now, bodily illness: a fitting punishment for those who make the body of Christ unsound! Have these people been rejected by God for their sin?

when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.  (v.32)

God has not abandoned them: this is loving fatherly discipline of his children to rescue them from a destructive path. The afflictions are meant to prompt them to repent.

What would that repentance involve? What should the Corinthians do to heal their Lord’s Supper celebration and avoid bringing God’s judgement on themselves?

Check yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  (v.28)

They must make sure they do not eat thoughtlessly. They’ve got into unhealthy habits: they need to pull themselves up and stop it.

In particular they must start noticing the people around them at the meal, and caring for their brothers and sisters who have less than they do:

But if we considered each other, we would not be judged. (v.31)

The common translation, “If we judged ourselves…” is really not defensible here. Paul uses two different words in the sentence: diakrino and krino.  The repetition of the sound krino creates an epigrammatic, or catchy, slogan-like effect – but the two words have distinct meanings and need to be translated differently. What God does is krino – judge their divisive behaviour. What they must do is diakrino – consider each other during the meal. It’s the same word from v.29, above, about considering the body.

And it is not ourself we need to consider: it is all the others! ‘Each other‘ is a common enough way to translate heautous (cf. Ephesians 4:32) and is far preferable to ‘ourselves‘ in this context. In view is how they treat the others in the group.

In case Paul hadn’t made it absolutely clear, he now repeats his main message at the end:

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. (v.33)

   – it could also be translated ‘welcome one another‘. The effect is the same: pay attention to the needs of the others and make sure they are included.

Inclusion is the key idea for the whole passage, and the heart of the Corinthian’s sin. They are excluding people from the meal that proclaims the unifying power of Christ’s death. Paul hammers home this theme relentlessly, so there can be no misunderstanding!

Now that we’ve done the hard work of exegeting the passage, let’s compare our findings with the standard evangelical reading we outlined yesterday. Does Paul really say any of those things we normally read in this passage? We summarised it as:

1. only insiders and ‘approved people’ may participate’ – Nope. Not seeking to limit participation.

2. outsiders or unapproved people who participate are doing themselves harm and incurring God’s anger. Nope. Outsiders are not mentioned at all. They are not the issue in this chapter.

3. it is therefore the duty of the church to warn off unapproved people or outsiders.  Nope. See on 2.

4. every participant is in danger of accidentally eating in an unworthy manner. This would bring down God’s judgement on them. Kind of. It is Fatherly discipline for believers that Paul has in mind. So this danger really only applies to backsliding believers.

5. unconfessed sin would lead to an unworthy participation. But unconfessed sin is often invisible and may not even be recognised by the guilty person.   Nope. The offensive behaviour is not secret but public and obvious. Everyone can see it. 

6. So each participant should spend time in self-examination before the communion, in case there are any sins they have overlooked.  Nope. There’s no thought here of searching for a backlog of overlooked sins. There is just one sin in question: divisive behaviour at the meal. No lengthy self-examination required. No monasteries needed!

Major emphasis: excluding outsiders and unbelievers from the table.  Nope. The major emphasis is about the necessity of inclusion.

If the above exegesis is even half right, then our traditional reading of 1 Corinthians 11 is very nearly the reverse of what Paul was actually saying. We turn everything on its head and derive a policy of exclusion from Paul’s words about inclusion. Astounding!

If ever proof was needed that we are pre-programmed to distort and misread Scripture, this passage is surely that proof.

As a school teacher and later as a parent I have been witness to many attempts at reading, and I’m quite conscious of how difficult it can be to read and understand a written text. There are so many ways to misunderstand writing.

But I have to admit, of all the bad reading and failed reading attempts I have encountered over the years, the worst of all has been that of evangelical Christians when attempting to read the Bible. We evangelicals seem to be pre-programmed to misread Scripture. We do it habitually.

I won’t attempt here to go into the reasons for this, but one of the most spectacular examples (out of a pretty strong field of contenders) is what we have done with 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul writes about the Lord’s Supper.

This is the one and only Scripture we have relied on to construct our evangelical Lord’s Supper practice, with its emphasis on protecting the table from outsiders. Paul writes:

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 

To take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner is to ‘eat and drink judgment against themselves.’ (v.30).

Reading this passage we have traditionally heard St Paul saying:

1. only insiders and ‘approved people’ may participate’

2. outsiders or unapproved people who participate are doing themselves harm and incurring God’s anger.

3. it is therefore the duty of the church to warn off unapproved people or outsiders.

4. every participant is in danger of accidentally eating in an unworthy manner. This would bring down God’s judgement on them.

5. unconfessed sin would lead to an unworthy participation. But unconfessed sin is often invisible and may not even be recognised by the guilty person. Thus:

6. each participant should spend time in self-examination before the communion, in case there are any sins they have overlooked and not repented of.

Major emphasis: excluding outsiders and unbelievers from the table.

The main problem with this construction, however, is that almost none of it can be found in 1 Corinthians 11, the one and only proof text for our evangelical practice.

It is not that hard to find out what the apostle was actually trying to say – he’s clearer than usual in this chapter.

TomorrowWhat St Paul really said – about communion

Ben Meyer comments on how radical Jesus’ table practice was in a Judaism where rule-keeping and cleanness were a prerequisite and a condition for table fellowship:

“The innovation in the act of Jesus was to reverse this structure: communion first, conversion second. His table fellowship with sinners implied no acquiescence in their sins, for the gratuity of the reign of God cancelled none of its demands. But in a world in which sinners stood inescapably condemned, Jesus’ openness to them was irresistible. Contact triggered repentance; conversion flowered from communion. In the tense little world of ancient Palestine, where religious meanings were the warp and woof of the social order, this openness was a potent phenomenon.”

Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus. SCM, 1979, 161.

If this was so, if Jesus was an innovator at this point, then we have to ask: what happened to his innovation? How did we get to be back in the old Jewish structure: conversion first, and only then communion – as it is in our evangelical churches today? Perhaps it was the early church. Did the apostles abandon Jesus’ radical approach?

In Acts, the early chapters contain no controversy regarding meal-sharing. But the theme enters in dramatically in chapter 10, with Peter’s vision and mission to Cornelius. The burden of the vision is, that foods are no longer unclean, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.’ The direct payoff of this vision is that Peter is able to go and offer inclusion in the community of Jesus to the Roman Cornelius and his people. In Peter’s vision, then, food functions symbolically, standing for the ‘unclean’ Gentile world (Acts 10:28), which God is now making clean through Christ.

The instruction, ‘sacrifice and eat’ (Acts 10:13) makes it clear that the context in which this revolution is to be enacted is that of the table of Yahweh. We have seen that for Israel meals were intrinsically sacrificial: this is not changing. What is changing is that Israel’s sacrificial meal practices are no longer restricted to Jews. For in Christ God has called all foods and all peoples clean, and welcomed them all to his table. The barrier that keeps Gentiles out has been swept away in Christ. Now Gentiles can share at the table with Israel – the table of Yahweh, which has for the Christians become the ‘table of the Lord’.

This new reality is played out immediately: Peter enters the Gentile Cornelius’s house and stays with him several days (10:48). This would certainly have included sharing Cornelius’s table and eating his food, in effect extending the table fellowship of Israel to these Gentiles. Because of the ritual considerations involved, visits like this were traditionally forbidden to Jews: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” (10:28). But Peter is breaking new ground, guided by the vision. The MO is the same as that of Jesus, reconciling people to God through the meal table – but now the scope of the mission has expanded massively, from ‘the unclean in Israel’ to ‘the whole unclean world’.

It is vital to notice that Peter enters into this fellowship before these people have been converted to Christ. Once again the pattern identified by Meyers (above) is at work: communion first, conversion second.

This breakthrough is the logical extension of Jesus’ own practice, welcoming the outsider and the sinner to his table, not protecting against uncleanness. Now the practice is seen to be a more universal principle of the kingdom, and is expanded to include all who have been labelled unclean: i.e. the whole Pagan world.

This inclusion of Gentiles at the Lord’s table dominates the entire rest of Acts. The story of Paul’s missionary journeys is the story of how Gentiles come in to share the ‘kingdom feast’ while Jews are left out. Controversy over Gentile inclusion dogs Paul’s every step from here on. It is the reason for the Jerusalem council. It is the cause of Paul’s unpopularity, and eventually of his arrest and subsequent trials.

It can be seen that, far from betraying Jesus’ radical missionary table practices, the apostles actually extended them, under the guidance of the Spirit, beyond the border of Judaism and out to the nations. In the apostolic ministry, all people everywhere were welcomed in to share in the meal. For, as Peter said, through Jesus “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

There can be no possible justification for Jesus’ disgusting and treacherous behaviour at the meal table. He does what no Jew could in good conscience do.

At least, that’s how it appeared to the religious authorities in Israel.

What was it Jesus did that so upset them?

Mark and especially Luke present Jesus as not only welcoming but also eating with outcasts. Jesus extends table fellowship to these people. In doing so, he busts through and busts up the borders that protected Israel and the table of Yahweh at which Israel sat. He admits the unclean to the holy meal. You can see why the scribes etc were so incensed. This must have seemed like a gross betrayal of Israel and a pollution of the purity of her worship.

For the ‘sinners’ themselves, inclusion in the meal implies much more than just social contact: it speaks of restored participation in the community of salvation. In breaking through the borders around Israel’s table, Jesus ‘re-enfranchises’ these outcasts, drawing them back to belong once again to Israel – and to Israel’s God.

Jesus’ behaviour is all the more reprehensible because of his status as a famous Rabbi. The religious significance of his practice could not be hidden. In fact we can go further: when Jesus extends table fellowship to sinners, he does so not just as a member of Israel, but as Messiah, as the leader of the nation which he himself is regathering. These outcasts are welcomed into direct fellowship with the king, invited in to take part in renewed Israel – an Israel from which many well-respected people remain excluded.

And it is important to notice what Jesus does not do as part of this table fellowship. He does not lay down conditions: ‘you may join in but you’ll need to…’

For the Jewish authorities, it must have seemed like their worst nightmare: Jesus seems determined to trample on everything sacred and create mayhem wherever he goes. He appears to be set on a program to break down the very identity of God’s people Israel: an identity up till now preserved by rigorous border protection. If Jesus destroys the borders how will Israel hang together any longer? It’s as though he is turning the nation inside out: the unclean are welcomed at the table of Jesus, while the authorities and the well-respected are kept at arm’s length.

Messy, confusing, careless, dangerous, reckless, blasphemous, polluting, treacherous: these words would have sprung to mind for traditional Jews seeing Jesus’ table practices.

Jesus is not interested to defend his table-fellowship practice nor all the messiness and confusion it must have caused. But he is interested to explain what sort of table he was sharing.  The end-times wedding day has arrived, when feasting and not fasting is in order (cf. Luke 5:34). The table is a banquet table.  Jesus himself plays the role of the bridegroom, at the centre of festivities. And he is re-organising the whole table. From now on membership of Israel will be defined solely by connection to him (cf. 6:46-49; 8:21).  It will be a new identity dependent on the centre, not on the borders.

Thus there is a call inherent in Jesus’ table-fellowship: a call with a decisively eschatological edge to it. Outcasts are not merely invited back to something they once had. The reason they are now welcome is because something new is happening. The day of restoration has arrived, and Jesus through table fellowship calls sinners to participate in the end-times banquet that his kingdom is bringing. Though they may not release this at first, the outcasts are being welcomed in to join in celebrating Jesus’ glorious reign.

Is Jesus not worried about protecting the purity of the table? Not at all, it seems. What happens at Jesus’ table is far more powerful than that. Rather than the table becoming polluted, the holiness of the table seems likely to infect those who come to it. Think 0f Zacchaeus.

One exception to this tendency is Judas Iscariot. He took part in all the meals, including the last one which had such overt sacrificial significance. And yet Judas’s heart was never won for Jesus. Jesus knew this, yet still did not feel it was a problem to eat the meal with Judas. There was still no need to protect the table or its holiness: it just doesn’t seem to have been the sort of thing that needed protection.

Tomorrow: how the Lord’s table explodes across the world.

In our Protestant tradition, we say the Lord’s Supper is only for those who can make a clear and credible profession of faith in Christ. Some churches even go so far as to threaten damnation for those who take the meal without faith. Other traditions encourage everyone to participate. But not us.

We thought we might take another look at that tradition. Are we Proddies on the right track?

Fortunately there’s a stack of material about this in the NT, especially in the Gospels.

The first thing we should notice from the Scriptures is that eating meals was a big deal for first century Jews. Table-fellowship was an essential element of temple-worship – it was Israel’s way of having fellowship with God. Faithful Jews would sit and share in Yahweh’s table. In fact – and this is the biggy that we need to get our heads around – all meals in Israel, whether at the temple or not, had a sacrificial dimension. All meat slaughtered had a ceremonial significance. All the blood belonged to Yahweh and was offered to him. The table at which God’s people ate was always, by extension, holy. It remained the table of Yahweh. This one fact has the potential in it to turn our view of the Lord’s supper upside-down. So let it sink in. Eating was a sacred act.

And therefore the table of Israel was to be kept pure and unpolluted. And there was the rub. On this point turned much of the social life and cross-cultural relations of the Jewish people.

For if you were not a faithful Israelite, you were barred from the table. And there were many ways to land in that category.

Israel, like all societies, was stratified. At the bottom of the pile were the untouchables, the unclean ones, often called ‘sinners’. Whether through disease or through a shameful occupation, or some disgrace, these ones were put outside the community of God’s people. Others would not eat with them. But this table-fellowship was an essential element of temple-worship – it was Israel’s way of having fellowship with God. Barred from the temple and it’s table fellowship, sinners were cut off from their birthright of participation in the covenant. And it was in this covenant that all Israel’s hopes of salvation lay. So ‘sinners’ exclusion from the table was not merely social: they were effectively excluded from salvation.

Foreigners were automatically excluded. A good Jew would not eat with a Gentile, for Gentiles were unclean. So eat with them would be to admit them to the table of Israel, Yahweh’s table. And they would pollute it: it would be blasphemy.

Insular, insecure, anxious, protective, exclusive: these are words that describe the mentality of first century Jews towards meals. Eating was a highly charged business. It was the place where Israel’s border protection happened.

Our Protestant approach to the Lord’s table mirrors this tradition closely.

Tomorrow: Jesus the national traitor

THEOLOGICAL AND PRACTICAL YIELD

What have we done? We’ve reconnected the doctrine of justification with the gospel story. Simple as that. Where does that leave us, theologically and practically? What have we gained? A few suggestions.

Seen in this light, justification becomes a thoroughly Trinitarian act. One of the disturbing things about the classic evangelical exposition of ‘justfication’ is the relative absence of the Holy Spirit in the whole matter. Justification is seen as an act of God the Father, imputing righteousness to us for the sake of his Son. But where is the Spirit in all this? And since this is ‘the doctrine on which the church stands or falls’[1], ‘the hinge on which the whole faith turns,’[2] the result is a dangerously non-Trinitarian centre to modern evangelicalism. Once the doctrine of justification is restored to its proper place as an explanation of Jesus’ resurrection, however, all this changes. Justification is clearly seen as the work of the Father by his Spirit towards his Son, proclaiming over him the verdict of ‘life’. ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit’ (1 Peter 3:18). Our justification is likewise understood to be our sharing in this positive verdict, when we are united to Christ by faith and receive the new life of the Spirit in him.

Once the Spirit is reintroduced into justification, it becomes obvious that justification is an eschatological reality. For most evangelicals, justification is earned by Jesus, happens when you believe, and then is ratified or confirmed at the final judgement. But in light of what we have seen, this view needs serious restructuring. The justification we receive is that of Jesus, which he received 2000 years ago. And that was the final judgement. The last judgement was brought forward in time and occurred in the mid-flow of history, at the cross – complete with accompanying resurrection of the dead. In fact, the resurrection was the sign that the final judgement had come. Now we take part in that eschatological event. The final judgement becomes a living reality in our lives – both in condemnation and justification. With Jesus we die, and with Jesus we are raised to live anew in the Spirit. In justification we take part in the life of the age to come – now.

The apostolic view of justification cuts through our evangelical debates about imputation. We need to remember that the imputing of righteousness is the act of a judge when he declares one party to be in the right; so then this imputation is equivalent to justification, simply another way of saying the same thing (Rom. 4:5-7). Every judge imputes righteousness (and guilt): that is his job. Everyone who believes that God is the judge, believes in imputation by definition. So much of our confusion over imputation comes because we lose sight of the meaning of the concept, and overplay the idea of abstract accounts into which ‘righteousness credit’ is placed by God. The forensic setting of the term is easily obscured in much of our justification talk.

But once it is grasped that imputing righteousness is a declarative act of the court, the question, whose righteousness is imputed, becomes a strange one. It is difficult to give the question any clear meaning in a judicial context. Righteousness is a status created by the court, it is the court’s righteousness if it is anyone’s. A more natural and helpful question, the one frequently asked in the New Testament, is whose justification? Who is the object of God’s justifying verdict? The apostles’ answer is, Christ. It is to Christ that God imputes righteousness. God declared him righteous because of his righteous life. Our justification is not a separate verdict given to us on the basis of some transfer of merit. It is simply our sharing in the one verdict given to Jesus at his resurrection. Righteousness is imputed to us because it was imputed to him. To put it another way, the only person justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness was Christ himself. The apostles do not teach that we share his righteousness: they teach that we share his justification.

This Gospel-based view of justification also helps reveal the essential unity between Paul and Jesus on a central gospel issue. Paul’s teaching at this point is in no way a departure from that of the Gospels. Much modern scholarship is on entirely the wrong track here. On the contrary, Paul’s doctrine of justification, like all his teachings, is nothing but an explanation of the meaning of the gospel events – or, if you like, it is his working-out of the significance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road.[3]

In other words, we are left with one gospel, not two. For a long time we’ve put up with two gospels. One is a story about Jesus, including past, present and future elements. The other is a set of ideas, teachings, or propositions about salvation, which we derive from Paul’s epistles. The two have seemed to have little overlap: they are different sorts of thing. As believers we’ve moved between the two, trying to keep a grip on both: an uncomfortable business. A narrative view of justification reunites these two, so we have just one gospel again. That’s enough gospels, don’t you think?
One last suggestion, just to annoy my evangelical brothers and sisters. 🙂
This study of justification calls into question the differences between protestant and ‘catholic’ on the issue. Once the doctrine is reconnected to the gospel and grounded where it belongs, in Jesus resurrection, how many of the traditional disagreements can stand up or remain relevant or even meaningful? It would be interesting to try and restate the points of contention in terms of resurrection, and see whether it can be done, or whether the whole thing simply – evaporates?
But that is for another post, another time.  🙂
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[1] Luther

[2] Calvin

[3] on which see Pannenburg, Jesus, God and Man