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.

Pentecostals, gifts and the Spirit

What has been your experience of the charismata? In church practice? Personal experience?

A comment of my own upfront before sketching Anthony Thiselton’s exegesis of key ‘gift lists’. I don’t think it is so much exegesis as the hermeneutical interpretation of that exegesis that lies at the heart of confusion, disagreement, unease and uncertainty around how to ‘put gifts into practice’ in a lot of modern church life.

For many non-charismatic / Pentecostal churches, these gift lists are given lip-service (they are in the Bible after all) but in practice are ignored. Sometimes out of fear of mis-use, spiritual elitism and subjectivity? In effect, the feeling is, that it’s not worth going there …

However, if you follow Thiselton’s exegesis below, I think it’s fair to say that the gifts under discussion are already very much in practice in all churches, whether explicitly acknowledged or not. This might be pushing what he says too far, but see what you think:

Thiselton begins discussion of most of the gifts (charismata, ‘free gifts’) listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10; 12:28-30; Romans 12:6-8 and Eph 4:11-12.  He leaves remaining gifts in 1 Cor 12:9-10 (stuff like deeds of power, prophets, tongues, healing) to later because they involve he says not only exegesis but hermeneutics and radically different contemporary interpretations.

The interesting thing below is how the gift lists counter any sense of dualism between ‘supernatural’ and natural. Many of the gifts are not ecstatic or spontaneous but work through character, personality, mind and spiritual and emotional maturity.

The other thing to note is how both Corinthians and Romans are located within the necessity of love. ‘Let love be genuine’ The gifts are for the good of others not the self.  In Ephesians they build up the body.

(1) Logos sophias: words or utterances of wisdom 1 Cor 12:8

Thiselton critiques the usage here in ‘Third Wave’ Wimber type events where ‘words of wisdom’ are relayed from the front stage to 1000s of people – perhaps about medical or psychological conditions. In the whole context of Corinthians, sophia is a loaded term, with a profound contrast to human and divine wisdom. Many scholars link ‘utterances of wisdom’ here to be words about the saving work of the crucified Christ.

Thiselton further argues ‘wisdom’ in the OT and NT is NOT some spontaneous insight but much more is about character, insight, discernment, trained judgement. This is hard learned practical wisdom of faith (a la James) in contrast to the wisdom of the world.

Here’s a question – is a word of wisdom less ‘inspired’ if it involves reflection and thoughtful judgement?

(2) Logos gnoseos : words or utterance of knowledge 1 Cor 12:8

Hard to distinguish from words of wisdom. But again a loaded word (gnosis) in Corinthians.  A gift (charisma) that involves a right use of knowledge; Thiselton suggests a type of creedal affirmation in line with basic Christian truths. There is no incompatibility between the hard work of knowledge and a gift of the Spirit.  And by the date of Ephesians the list of ‘offices’ in 1 Cor 12:28 has given rise to more formally distinct offices – apostles, evangelists, pastors, teachers … He suggests that

We can imagine Paul bewailing that in the future some churches would only listen to an ordained ministry, while other churches would invite the less ordered swing to constant “spontaneous” speeches from an assembled congregation. 89

(3) The gift of ‘faith’ 1 Cor 12:9

Most are agreed that this is distinct in some way from saving or justifying faith. This is a sort of faith that is not granted to everyone. But ‘faith’ can mean different things in different contexts. This context seems to be some sort  of ‘special’ faith.

Given that none of the nine gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12:8-10 are given just to the individual, Thiselton proposes that ‘faith’ here is a display of ‘glad, even daring, confidence in God’s sovereignty, mercy and leading’ that encourages and inspires others. Such robust faith reanimates the faith of others.

I can sure think of examples of such faith, maybe you can too.

(4) Apostles; teachers; forms of help / assistance (antilempseis); kyberneseis (forms of leadership)  1 Cor 12:28

Apostle: one whom God has sent, but more for Paul one who has been called and being a witness of the resurrection.  Called to found churches with no hint of institutional or apostolic succession. Rather than tie apostle to authority, Thiselton follows those who link it with humility – a pointing of others away from self to Christ.

Teacher: an easier match to today. Both prophets and teachers are needed and inspired by the Spirit. There is no suggestion that teaching works best when it is unprepared and spontaneous.

antilempseis  ‘forms of assistance’ / helps / helpful deed / administrative support:   kyberneseis : which can be translated ‘forms of leadership’ (NRSV) but Thiselton goes for ‘church strategist’.

Romans 12:6-8, where charisma occurs 6 times of prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, being a generous donor (or perhaps distributor of monies like a church treasurer), and a ‘cheerful disposition.’ All spring, says Thiselton, perhaps excepting prophecy, from a ‘settled disposition or habits of character’.

Ephesians 4:11: new terms here of ‘evangelists (proclaimer of the good news) and pastors (guardian, protector, shepherd).

Bird on what is the gospel (2)

Since Michael Bird is aiming to construct an ‘evangelical theology’ (just set Dec’s teeth on edge there, sorry about that) one of the first tasks he has is to answer the question ‘What is the gospel?’ A question that has come up on this blog rather a fair bit.  And what Bird says here is solidly in line with  N T Wright, Scot McKnight, John Dickson and many others …

The gospel has six themes within it. He unpacks each of these succinctly and persuasively:

1. The gospel is the message of the kingdom of God

2. The gospel includes the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and exaltation

3. The gospel announces the status of Jesus as the Son of David, Son of God, and Lord

4. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles is intimated in the Old Testament

5. The response that the gospel calls for is faith and repentance

6. Salvation is the chief benefit of the gospel

And so Bird’s summary definition:

The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah in fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit

Couple of comments.

This is a very helpful summative discussion.

Bird doesn’t really get into the context of intra-evangelical debates and how this definition sits in considerable tension with popular traditional evangelical perceptions of ‘the gospel – where it is (to caricature a bit) ‘You are a sinner under God’s wrath and judgement. Jesus died for you. Believe in Jesus and your sins are forgiven and you will go to heaven when you die’. Or maybe ‘The bad news is that you are sinner. The good news is that Jesus died in your place; believe in him and you will be justified by faith’.

Bird’s scheme does not begin with sin / wrath or equate the gospel with justification by faith. Sin gets a mention in point 2 and point 5 where repentance is a changing one’s view of Jesus and expressing contrition for sin against God. He does say that the gospel is not simply an atonement theology, a system of salvation, it is news of events.

This is right but remains I think counter-intuitive for many evangelicals. I would have thought he’d discuss this gap between NT gospel and popular evangelicalism more in a book on evangelical theology. He does set this gospel up in contrast to the social gospel (and he includes McLaren in this along with Rauschenbusch).

I’d also want to push for more discussion on the evangelical tendency to individualism in contrast to the corporate nature of God’s saving work. The gospel brings the believer into a new community of the King by the Spirit.

And, perhaps unintentionally, the chapter shows how thoroughly N T Wright has blazed the trail on gospel. I can remember not so long ago his summary gospel of ‘Jesus is Lord’ had people scratching their heads thinking he’d made a category mistake.  Bird quotes Wright’s summary at the beginning of the chapter before developing his own later. But compare Wright’s with Bird’s and you see that the former’s is so good that there isn’t a lot new to say …

‘The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus as the risen Lord.’

Comments, as ever, welcome

Pentecostals, the Spirit and Paul

Anthony Thiselton outlines 8 basic themes related to the Spirit in Paul in dialogue with contemporary Christianity, esp Pentecostalism.

1. The work of the Spirit is Christ-centered (1 Cor 12:3; Gal 4:6: Jn 16:13-14). ‘Christ was experienced through the Spirit’ says Jimmy Dunn. Pentecostalism at its best holds to this Christ centeredness (Fee, Frank Macchia), though the charge is regularly made that they can be unbalanced in terms of being Spirit centered. The gifts of the Spirit properly understood point to Christ and the upbuilding of his body, the church.

2. Every Christian receives the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ.  See Gal 4:6; 1 Cor 12:13, and all through Paul. This seems to me uncontestable. And this Christocentric focus is increasingly the default position among Pentecostals too – following Fee, Machia, Karkkainen, Amos Yong et al. Historically some in the revivalist and holiness movement have disputed this with their (over) emphasis on what Macchia calls a ‘high-voltage’ crisis experience rather than an ongoing transformative process of sanctification.

3. The Holy Spirit is a special gift to chosen individuals for particular tasks, AND a gift poured out to the whole community.

4. The Spirit is given in a ‘fresh way’ after Christ’s resurrection. There is an eschatological turning point at Pentecost, which for Paul is a new era of the Spirit.

5. The preaching of the gospel comes with the power of the Spirit (1 Thes 1:5).

6. The Spirit is ‘Holy’ in the sense of being the holy presence of God himself.

7. The eschatological Spirit points to the sense of what Thiselton calls ‘futurity and purpose’. (2 Cor 1:22; 2 Cor 5:5). Where in both texts arrabon is used (deposit guaranteeing the future).

8. The Spirit is prophetic and revelatory. But Thiselton urges caution here. The NT sense of prophecy is wider / broader than the OT

Thiselton proposes that much of Paul’s language and framework is drawn from OT and Rabbinic Judaism but reconfigured (my word) with a Christ-focus. Take 1 Cor 2:16 for how wisdom and revelation of the Spirit is defined as ‘the mind of Christ’.

He also proposes that such themes can, in broad terms, be found in John, the synoptic gospels and in Acts.

So, tying back to the first post on this book – it is NOT here in these 8 themes that you might see a ‘chasm’ between Pentecostals and others. No, the real areas of controversy and difference come elsewhere (and in another post 🙂 )

Comments, as ever, welcome.