Proof that the USA is a very religious place

It is routinely said that the States bucks the trend when it comes to secularization of religion. Here’s proof that it is indeed a very religious place .. the focus of worship of course being sport: dominant denomination football.

And behind the massive popularity of football – the power of money. Lots of it.


Christianity as eschatology

Section 3 of Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology is Gospel and Kingdom.

The kingdom of God for Bird is ‘divine dominion’ – an inaugurated eschatology where kingdom is both present now and not yet fully arrived – here he is following Ladd, Jeremias, G R Beasley-Murray etc.  Scot McKnight has posted more on this section and has commented before on the limits of Ladd’s rather idealised and abstracted idea of the kingdom – Scot wants to link it more ‘earthily’ with the story of Israel and the people of God.

But here are some broad questions:

Where does eschatology ‘fit’ in your everyday faith? What difference does it make in church life – how much does the local church see itself as an eschatological pilgrim community? What difference in your work?  In your motives, priorities and hopes?

How future oriented do Christians in the West tend to be? Or do we tend to be so tied to this life with all its comforts and pleasures that we have little desire, thought or need for the next?

Bird rightly wants to push eschatology up to the top of the list. Christian faith is eschatological from first to last. He concurs with Moltmann (Christianity is eschatology) but more importantly with the entire thrust of the New Testament.

He sees kingdom as God’s reign over God’s people in God’s place – the entire biblical story is framed eschatologically as it moves towards God’s redemption of creation from evil, sin and death. Jesus’ teaching is kingdom centered – the now and the not yet of the kingdom of God. Paul’s theology is thoroughly eschatological – as Peter, as Revelation. The church is an eschatological community, or as Bird puts it, a community of exiles journeying towards a heavenly Jerusalem.

It is this future-orientated story that marks out Christianity out from other world views – past and present.

– Contra the story of the eternal and glorious advance of Roman civilization.

– Contra Enlightenment optimism.

– Contra postmodernity’s pluralism and fragmentation.

– And, contra I would add, capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit.

He says that “eschatology …. is not just about the final chapter of the book of history. No, eschatology is an invasive story, about how God’s promises to bring justice, reconciliation, and peace to earth have already invaded this age …”

The end result is that God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

The future hope of Jesus’ return  has 3 implications for Bird:

  1. Evangelize: tell the good news of the gospel. Eschatology as the engine for mission.
  2. Endure: hope in suffering.
  3. Encourage: spur one another on in light of the future (Heb 10:24-5).

He also lists 7 excellent reasons of Richard Hays on why the church needs apocalyptic eschatology:

  1. To carry Israel’s story forward – the whole story of Scripture and God’s promises to Israel find fulfilment in the eschatological people of God.
  2. To see the cross as a saving event for the world – the victory won at the cross has cosmic implications; it destroys the power of the old order and inaugurates new creation.
  3. To provide critique of pagan culture – Jesus is Lord over all powers, authorities, ideologies, politics and truth claims.
  4. To resist complacency and triumphalism – the church is a servant of God on a journey.
  5. To affirm the body – eschatology is not anti-creation. It is for new creation and that includes resurrection bodies. God creates the world good.
  6. To ground its mission – future hope shapes mission.
  7. To speak with integrity about suffering and death – Christians are to be realistic about the evil of grief and death and injustice – but grieve with hope and compassion (and work for justice now).

In the rest of the section Bird unpacks his views for historic premillennialism (like Blomberg et al) and is post-tribulation, intermediate state and heaven (like N T Wright, a waiting place prior to new creation), hell (as eternal punishment) and new creation.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Hope in the Community

Last night RTE Nationwide TV did a feature on Joe Donnolly and the Anchorage Project in Ringsend.

Joe’s a friend and did his Masters on Hope at IBI. Themes of justice, children, community and beauty developed there inform the work of the Anchorage in Ringsend.

Have a listen from 13.20 – it’s an inspiring and great story of service, creativity, hope and a ton of hard work, done out of a real love for an inner-city community and a passion to help those in need in the developing world.

What I love about this is how it shows the gospel is not only a message of good news,  it results in people of good news doing works of service.

The Gospel of God: is God good?

Probably one of the biggest questions circulating around the interface between Christianity and contemporary (western) culture concerns the goodness (or not) of God.

The (not very) new atheists take the line that the hypothetical idea of ‘god’ (which lazily tends to mean the Christian God lumped within an ill-defined and ultimately nonsensical notion of ‘religion’) is a decidedly unpleasant character – perhaps indeed the greatest villain ever to be invented by the human mind.

Hence Christopher Hitchen’s polemic that God is not great or good and Richard Dawkins’ famous adjective-laden description of the God of the OT – you know, that petty, unjust, unforgiving, vindictive control-freak who is at the same time a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Yes, that one.

Yet the ultimate foundation to sustain a living Christian faith is a belief in the absolute goodness of God. For if God is not good he can’t be trusted, loved, worshipped and followed with any solid sense of joy and hope. And the consistent witness of Scripture is to the utter goodness of God.

So it is a significant theme that Michael Bird turns to in Part 2 of his Evangelical Theology – the gospel of God (e.g., Romans 1:1). This means not only that the gospel is of God (he is the origin of good news), he himself is good news.

Bird argues that it is in the gospel that God is most truly revealed. The doctrine of God is best seen through the lens of gospel. This works out in 4 ways:

Trinity: the gospel is a window into the triune nature of God. The gospel is our closest point of contact for understanding the triune God – Father Son and Spirit who act together in salvation. Each person of the Godhead ‘perform’ distinct roles in the economy of salvation (eg the Father chooses, the Son redeems, the Spirit sanctifies]. Without the Trinity the gospel loses coherence [I’d have expected some engagement with Rahner’s view that ‘the economic trinity is the immanent trinity’ and vice versa since it ties in so closely with what is being argued here].

Character: the gospel reveals what God is like; it shows us his self-giving nature; his infinite love, his justice and judgement and his grace.

Story: if the gospel is a narrative of Jesus, this narrative is set within the wider story of creation, redemption and new creation. So the gospel of Jesus Christ points us to the revelation of God as creator and redeemer.

[Observation: here I think was a possible departure point to write a very differently structured ‘evangelical theology’. While Bird is using ‘gospel’ as the key to unlock systematic discussion of the traditional foci of theology, it would have been a more radical move to structure the book around the gospel narrative rather than fitting gospel into systematic structure.]

The ultimate aim or telos of the gospel also reveals God’s final objective. God is the giver and gift. His goal is ‘bring glory to himself by the effusion of his holy love in uniting the world with the Logos.’ (91).

The next few chapters unpack this in detail. I like the emphasis on gospel and it feels fresh as an interpretative lens by which to look at the doctrine of God. This is a very readable theology textbook.

Evangelical sausage-maker theology

Step 1: insert the Bible

Step 2: crank the handle, and grind the Bible into a series of propositions.

Step 3: arrange the propositions into nice neat pristine doctrine.

This ‘sausage maker’ approach to theology is, laments Michael Bird, the theological method of ‘most evangelicals’ and it amounts to little more than a ‘naive biblicism’.

This was certainly a ‘default’ perspective that I held for years. I subconsciously assumed this rationalistic dissection of the Bible was the way to do theology and didn’t really know any differently.

I guess you could say I’m a recovering biblicist. How about you? 😉

There are a couple of assumptions floating around such a theological methodology:

– the Bible is all you really need to do theology

– the main purpose of theology is to distil propositional truth to be believed

– the actual form of Scripture is a bit like a complex riddle to be un-coded and sorted out into neat logical categories

The problem is that this sort of theology ‘de-stories’ the Bible. It detaches it from an overarching narrative and flattens its variegated genres and sub-plots into a uni-dimensional source book of truth. It gets pretty sterile pretty quickly.

Bird mentions Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology as an example of such biblicism – a sort of theology, despite some strengths, that is ‘derived from a concordance’. Gotta admit it is not one of my favourite theology books.

Vanhoozer gets quoted

“Scripture is not simply a propositional shaft to be exegetically mined and theologically refined like so much textual dross to be purified into systems of philosophy or morality. On the contrary, both the form and content of the New Testament are elements in the divine drama of revelation and redemption.”

And Bird puts it this way in arguing against naive evangelical biblicism:

“We take Scripture with the utmost seriousness, but we do Scripture a disservice if we attend only to it. It is Scripture understood in the light of the regula fidei that will enable us to bring together the Christian canon and the Christian community in a fruitful exchange. Similarly, we need to believe propositions about God, but our theology is about more than propositions, for it encompasses our relationship with God, our mission in the world, and our performance of the drama that we find ourselves in as Christians.” (80)

Bird’s method in constructing an evangelical theology is to;

  1. Define the evangel
  2. Relate the gospel to the main foci if Christian theology (God, person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, humanity, church, last things etc)
  3. Embark on a creative dialogue between the sources of theology (the primary authority of Scripture, but also tradition, natural revelation, engagement with cultural context and so on)
  4. Describe what the loci look like when applied and appropriated in light of the gospel – when theology is not only believed cognitively but lived.
  5. Engage in a continuing spiral between theology and practice: learning is applied, but in the application new things are learnt and more questions arise. So we do more theology by listening to Scripture, traditions and teachers and so on.

So Bird says he is offering ‘simply the first steps toward thinking aloud about how we perform the divine drama in the communities of faith we find ourselves in.’

My comment, theology in this sense is not ‘fixed’ but ‘alive’. It is developing, growing, questioning, exploring and learning because this is what life is like.