ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (6): the Church as a Community of Life

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

This is the final post in a series on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

This post will focus on the practical implications of the theology outlined in the previous posts.

What does it look like for the church to be a ‘community of life’ within a ‘culture of death’?

Hays argues that if the biblical paradigms (post 4) were put into practice within the church, then abortion would hardly ever be necessary within the Christian community.

There could be some exceptions. Can the Church act ‘in fear and trembling under the guidance of the Spirit’ to identify those extreme exceptions? Hays suggests such cases: pregnancy as a result of rape or incest [not allowed under Irish law]; and abortions performed to save the life of the mother [are allowed under current Irish legislation].

He also raises the issue of disability. Advances in prenatal testing have been significant since Hays wrote (1996). In the UK, non-invasive screening for Down Syndrome and other genetic conditions is becoming standard.

His position is that

the New Testament summons the community to eschew abortion and thus undertake the burden of assisting the parents raise the handicapped child.

Where abortion is practiced, he argues that

The tragedy is primarily the tragedy of a church that has abdicated its call to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Testament envisions a more excellent way.”

The Church in the World

But how then is this community of life to live and witness within the world?

This is a question that tends not to get asked when it comes to Christian campaigns against abortion.

I may be wrong and am happy to be corrected, but it seems as if there is little reflection on the distinction between the church and the world. This suggests to me that there are deep unexamined Christendom assumptions at play like Ireland is, or should be, a ‘Christian country’. This leads towards urgent calls to action that I saw somewhere recently that Christians have a few weeks to ‘save’ Irish society.

Hays calls for Christians to recognise some realities. He writes in an American context.

How does what he writes apply to contemporary Ireland do you think? What are your reactions to these points?

1) Christians “cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture.”

2) Christians should “recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.”

3) This is not to advocate withdrawal from society or to propose some sort of dualistic spirituality of the sacred and secular. It is to recognise that Christian rejection of abortion is dependent on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Word – and that the world will never share that rationale for terminating abortion.

4) Christians in post-Christian Ireland need to recognise that we stand as outsiders to our culture. Our primary task is to be a counter-cultural witness. In other words, a community of compassion and love that acts as a neighbour to the desperate, weak and vulnerable; which bears the burdens of others and imitates Jesus in his inclusion of the marginalised.

5) This means that the calling of the church in regard to abortion in Ireland is to show the world an alternative way of life to one in which abortion seems an ‘obvious’ choice. Hays proposes that

“The world needs to be shown another way, not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”

I think this is relevant when it comes to the 8th Amendment. From its inception it has been a controversial piece of legislation designed to enforce and copper-fasten Catholic morality on abortion on Irish society in perpetuity. That was the whole reason to add it to the Constitution. I’m not at all questioning the sincerity of those who supported that move – their motive was to protect the unborn from abortion ever arriving in Ireland. But I suspect part of the groundswell of opposition to the 8th today comes from its ethos of legal imposition on what is now a post-Catholic / post-Christian culture.

In contrast to using the power of the law, Hays proposes that the

“The first and most basic task is for the community to act in ways that embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.”

And he closes the chapter giving several examples of the deep cost such a commitment would entail. Here is one, written by William Durland

We should not look to the state to compel women to complete, nor allow them to terminate, a pregnancy. Rather, God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long-range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children and families struggling with poverty, mental illness and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.

Young Irish Christians I talk to have been profoundly alienated from both pro-life and pro-choice politics. It is precisely this sort of voice that they say they have not heard in the Irish abortion debate. As a result, I suspect a surprising number of young Irish Christians may vote ‘Yes’ on 25 May. If so, I think this represents a tragic failure of the church to articulate – and embody – a loving and theologically informed response to the challenge of abortion.

The commitment Durland calls for cannot be made lightly. It calls Christians to inconvenient self-sacrifice, generosity and willingness to open up their lives and communities to those in need. As Hays says

“In other words, it would find itself living as the church envisioned by the New Testament.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (4): biblical paradigms

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

If the Bible says little or nothing directly about abortion, then we need to reflect theologically on the issue, using the wider framework of the Bible’s rich teaching on God as the creator and author of life.

Hundreds of texts proclaim God as one from whom all life comes into being. For example, this is true of the beginnings of both Testaments: Genesis 1-2 in the Old and John 1 in the New (where the ‘In the beginning’ of John 1:1 echoes Genesis 1:1).

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:3-4).

Similarly, in Colossians 1:15-16

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

For Richard Hays this means

“Wherever new life begins to develop in any pregnancy, the creative power of God is at work, and Jesus Christ, who was the original agent of creation, has already died for the redemption of the incipient life in utero. That is why Barth can say, “The true light of the world shines already in the darkness of the mother’s womb.” We are privileged to participate in the creative work of God through begetting and bearing and birthing children, but there can be no new life without the generative power of God.” (450)

This means that life is not ours to do with as we will. Intentionally to end a pregnancy “is not only to commit an act of violence but also to assume responsibility for destroying a work of God” (450).

(The abortion debate directly relates to other life and death questions around euthanasia, suicide as well as war and non-violence. To be consistent, Christians who are against abortion should I think also be committed to not taking life in those circumstances as well).

In this framework, it is a distraction to get into arguments of when a foetus becomes a ‘person’ – he or she is a manifestation of the creative life-giving power of God.

If all life is a gift and does not belong to us, this means that to end life is an extreme act. As Hays says, there might be extreme circumstances in which it may be warranted (I assume he has in mind here examples like fatal foetal abnormality or a major medical risk of the life of the mother) but such action would be very rare and require compelling evidence.

Three lines of metaphorical reasoning

To develop his argument, Hays gives three lines of metaphorical reasoning – three ways the theological world of the New Testament overlaps with the contemporary practice of abortion.

1. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

The subversive double point of the parable is that (1) to love your neighbour means loving your enemy (2) it is the hated Samaritan who shows rather than receives mercy.

In relating this to abortion, Hays argues that the point is not that the foetus is somehow a ‘neighbour’. Rather, it is that we are called to become neighbours to the weak, powerless and helpless. Like the Good Samaritan, to go beyond boundaries to offer life-sustaining care to those whom we naturally would not consider worthy of our compassion.

Such life-giving care would go out to the mother in a ‘crisis pregnancy’ as well as the unborn child.

Such an approach subverts legalistic questions such ‘Is the foetus a person?’ Hays is compelling here – such a question is like the lawyer’s to Jesus: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He wanted to know so he could limit his obligation of care. Questions about the personhood of an unborn child have behind them a desire to limit obligation and care – ultimately by killing the life it represents if it is not ‘defined’ as a ‘person’.

Instead, Jesus widens the scope of those to whom we have moral obligation. He tells us at the end of the story to “Go and do likewise.”

2. The Jerusalem Community (Acts 4:32-35)

Let’s remind ourselves of Hay’s approach to thinking ethically about abortion.

“The first task of normative reflection about New Testament ethics is to form the thought and practice of the Christian community.” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 445.)

Hays is doing that here. This text is well-known. ‘There was not a needy person among them’.  His point is that within the church there can be no grounds for abortion on economic grounds or on the incapacity for the mother to look after the child. Within the community of the people of God, sharing and love are the answer, not abortion. For the church to acquiesce in abortion on pragmatic grounds is to fail in its vocation to be a radical community that bears one another’s burdens.

Church discipline is also relevant. Men need to be held responsible for children they father: by supporting the woman emotionally and financially; and by being there for the child as it grows up. Within the community of faith they do not do this alone – it can take a community to raise a child and support a family through love, support, prayer and encouragement.

3. The Imitation of Christ

Hay’s third paradigm is the imitation of Christ (Rom 15:1-7; 1 Cor 11:1; Gal 6:2; Phil 2:1-11). The Christian life is cross-shaped. It means giving up rights for the sake of others just as Jesus did.t is a life lived in relationship with others, often at significant cost and inconvenience.

Hays applies this to abortion this way. The pregnant woman cannot just be told ‘You must have the baby, abortion is wrong’ or some such moral imperative. Or the example Hays gives of ‘You must imitate Christ by suffering for the sake of this child.’ Rather, if one part of the body is in difficulty the whole body experiences the trial. While only the woman carries the baby, the church community as a whole can assume the responsibility of caring for the mother and the child when it is born. This is what it means to be a community of welcome. Hays remarks that

“If this proposal sounds impractical, that is merely a measure of how far the church has drifted from its foundation in the New Testament.”

Abortion as a test of authentic Christian community

Examples like these begin to shape imagination, thinking and behaviours that inform an authentically Christian response to the question of abortion.

  • God the life giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

This is why the question of abortion for Christians is one that first challenges the church and its radical practice of welcome, care, generosity, community and love.

For those in Ireland, how much have you heard this perspective articulated and discussed amongst Christians and churches in the Referendum debate?

How would it change the debate?

If it has been pretty well absent, why is this do you think?

Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (1) – or ‘An investigation into the legacy of Irish Christendom’

Barna Finding Faith in IrelandFor a blog called FaithinIreland, Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland is a publication that invites some comment.

It is a Barna Report produced in partnership with Youth in Christ. Both are American organisations and the researchers, coming mostly from outside Ireland and working with people here, have done a very good job getting to grips with the complexities of the Irish religious landscape. It is a thoughtful, careful and objective summary and analysis.

A summary of the main findings is highlighted on the Barna website here. (I won’t repeat that much here but will just comment on some things that stood out to me).

It is well worth reading and for people in ministry to reflect on their implications.

The methodology is important to know – this is what was done (from the Barna website)

To understand the state of faith among Irish youth, Barna conducted a study that approached the question from several angles. In the first phase, Barna and Christ in Youth gathered youth workers from a variety of denominations for focus groups. In the second phase, four Irish interviewers spoke to young people and their youth leaders. Youth leaders who weren’t interviewed in person also had the opportunity to respond to the same survey online. The online youth study was distributed to young people in the Republic of Ireland, ages 14–25. A total of 790 youth participated in this research study. Based on this sample size, the sampling error for this study is 3.5 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

Some of the key groupings for data purposes included:

  • Practising Christians (with those identified as Christians, sometimes broken down between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians).
  • Non-Practising Christians
  • Non-Christians
  • With many of the findings divided between 14-18 yrs old and 19-25 yrs old groups.

A critical issue in interpreting the data (for me anyway) is what these terms actually mean. In the report a ‘practising Christian’ is defined by Barna as

those who identify as Christian, say their faith is very important to their life and have attended a religious service in the past month (p. 8)

Which, of  course, is a very broad category, especially in a culture where ‘going to church’ now and then is still part and parcel of Irish culture. But you have to start from somewhere.

I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find definitions of what a ‘non-practicing Christian’ was. I assume someone who self-identifies as a Christian but does not tick necessary boxes to show visible sign of actual Christian practice? (To me, in effect this equals non-Christian. Christianity is not a non-practising faith).

Non-believers are identified, I assume, via self-identification.

Having two daughters in the age bracket born and raised here and educated in a local secondary school (not a private Protestant one which a sub-culture of its own), it’s interesting talking over findings with them. Their sense is that the broadness of the categories masks a much lower engagement with even basic Christian claims, let alone a personal response of faith, repentance and living a Christian life.

This report could be called: ‘An Investigation into the Legacy of Irish Christendom’.

Some years ago I did a couple of posts on comments from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on the devastating failures of Catholic Christendom – here and here.

It’s worth repeating some of what he said then on the disaster of Christendom assumptions.

If faith centres on a personal relationship with Jesus, this will have radical implications for the rule-bound approach of traditional Catholic  catechesis.

If a mature faith in Jesus requires knowledge of the Scriptures, this will have revolutionary consequences within Irish Catholicism where most families do not possess a Bible.

If young people are going to develop in a personal authentic faith there will mean “revolutionising all our structures” including a fundamental reordering of the reliance on school-based religious instruction in Ireland to a rediscovery of the role of the local parish and of parents.

This will need “a new group of lay people” to be voluntary catechists in their parishes.

All this is needed because “we can no longer assume faith on the part of young people who have attended Catholic schools” or who come from Catholic families.

Ireland is today undergoing a further phase in a veritable revolution of its religious culture. Many outside of Ireland still believe that Ireland is a bastion of traditional Catholicism. They are surprised to discover that there are parishes in Dublin where the presence at Sunday Mass is some 5% of the Catholic population and, in some cases, even below 2%. On any particular Sunday about 18% of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Dublin attends Mass.  That is considerably lower than in any other part of Ireland ….

… That the conformist Ireland of the Archbishop McQuaid era changed so rapidly and with few tears was read as an indication of a desire for change, but perhaps it was also an indication that the conformism was covering an emptiness and a faith built on a faulty structure to which people no longer really ascribed.   The good-old-days of traditional mid-twentieth century Irish Catholicism may in reality not have so good and healthy after all

… The change that has taken place in Irish culture requires radical change in the life of the Church of such an extent that in the face of it even experts in change management would feel daunted …

So the report is effectively putting flesh on the bones of the Archbishop’s words. It does not paint a pretty picture.

Nor are the findings surprising to anyone living here. After decades of being one of the most Christendom countries on earth, the findings show deep confusion over the even the most basic ideas of Christianity, let alone the shape and basis of the Christian life.

The 19-25 age group will be more significant and realistic because the 14-18 yr olds’ attendance at church events will be influenced by parental practice and how religion is still embedded in the school system.

I’ll focus on actual practices because they are somewhat more telling than abstract questions about belief in this or that doctrine which may or may not be understood.

  • 80% of 19-25 yr olds are non Christian / non-practicing. (And that remaining 20% merely represents those whose faith is important to them and have been to church in the last month)
  • Yet 70% of the sample of 14-25 yr olds identify as Christian.
  • Traditional Catholic practice is in deep trouble – only 13% and 14% of 14-25 yrs olds have prayed the rosary or go to Confession in the last 6 months. This will be lower again for 19-25 yr olds. This represents virtual abandonment of Catholic piety.
  • 11% of 14-25 yr olds have read the Bible on their own in the last 6 months (again this will be lower for 19-25 yr olds). (The Bible is pretty well a closed book to the vast majority of young Irish people. Virtually nothing can be assumed about the basic outline of the gospel story or the storyline of Scripture).
  • 8% of 14-25 yr olds have attended a Bible study in the last 6 months (again will be lower for 19-25 yr olds).
  • Even for Communion – only 42% of 14-25 yr olds have participated in the last 6 months. For many this will be have been in school or at events like Easter of Christmas. For 19-25% it will be much lower I guess. Since the vast majority of these figures are for Catholic youth, even Mass attendance, the core of Catholicism’s sacramental theology, is in crisis.

Overall there is a strong sense of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a term coined by Christian Smith and Melina Denton in the USA which goes something like this:

1) God created the world and watches over humans. 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. 4) God doesn’t need to be involved in one’s life except when there’s a problem 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

The Barna Report calls this a “morality of self-fulfillment” (p. 33). This is not surprising – after all we are all Americans now are we not? 😉

In terms of moral values, the report asked a couple of questions:

“I personally can’t live by the Church’s teaching on sexuality”

Which is a question that raises more questions than answers: What Church? What aspect of its teaching on sexuality? (e.g. if Church = RCC [as it would for most] then I would be in the 31%). That only 31% of those identifying as Christians could endorse Church teaching fully does say a lot – but it would need teased out more specifically.

“I think the Church’s teachings on sexuality and homosexuality are wrong”

A slightly less broad question. Throwing in ‘sexuality’ in again muddys the waters a bit. I suspect most answered on the issue of homosexuality.

  • ‘Christians’: only 20% said this was ‘not at all true’. 37% ‘completely true’
  • ‘Non-Christians’: 16% ‘not at all true’. 65% ‘completely true’.

This is as expected: – it is in the areas of sexual ethics, individual choice, liberation from oppressive religion, and that ‘nothing should stand in the way of love’ that contemporary Western culture is coming into sharpest conflict with historic Christian sexual morality. [For more on the beliefs behind these developments see this post]

There’s lots more in the report. And, just to be clear, I’m not at all ‘throwing hands up in despair at the youth of today’. I have a vested interest in at least two 🙂 – and admire them and their friends as they navigate life with love and courage in a very different Ireland.

Christendom in many ways was far more corrosive in its enforced hypocrisy and fusion of politics, identity and religion in an all-embracing package deal.

Again and again in this report, the sense comes over of how ‘Christianity’ is little more than external behaviour, arbitrary morality and irrelevant beliefs. I wouldn’t believe in that sort of religion either.

There is a lot more clarity and honesty being expressed as the fog of Christendom lifts. Post-Christendom is in many ways good news for Christians and Christian mission. Increasingly there is no comforting social and political bulwark for churches to rely on, let alone control.

And that is not a bad place for the church to be – a place of weakness and humility and having to think anew about its mission within a culture that has less and less connection with its Christendom past.

In the final section there are some suggestions around the need for spiritual guides and mentors.

I’ll come back with some thoughts on responses to the findings in the next post …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Have we lost touch with the foolishness of Christianity?

Last weekend I had the privilege of being the speaker at a Christian Universities of Ireland (CUI) weekend down in Castledaly Manor, near Athlone. A great bunch to work with – thanks Louise, Peter, Helen, Neus and Grace and the rest of the team – and students!

The theme was ‘Fools Talk’ and there were 4 talks:

  1. God’s Foolish Choices
  2. God’s Foolish Method
  3. The foolishness of the Christian Life
  4. The foolishness of Christian Hope.

Preparing and delivering these talks was hugely enjoyable – and in doing so it hit afresh just how ‘other’ and unexpectedly strange the story of the Christian faith is.

Put another way, the shift from OT to NT, from old covenant to new covenant, from John the Baptist and the preceding OT prophetic tradition to Jesus the crucified Messiah represents a profound and radical disruption within the biblical narrative.

Or yet another way – there are a variety of helpful diagrams that outline the entire biblical narrative. Take this one, adapted from Tim Chester’s little book Creation to New Creation:

story

I developed my own diagram of Paul’s narrative thought in a chapter within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life. It tried to capture both continuity and discontinuity between Saul and Paul, between Judaism and Christianity.

Such diagrams are great at showing how there is one unfolding, coherent narrative – and how crucial it is for any authentically Christian theology and Christian ethics to work out from that overarching narrative.

But here’s the thing that struck me with new force last weekend. They make it appear that the narrative is ‘easy’ and obvious, flowing in one smooth direction – the story unfolding in a logical sequence that participants would have recognised.

Far from it.

At just about EVERY point, the disruption or ‘plot twist’ caused by Jesus is so unexpected and radical, that the story takes an almost unrecognizable new direction. It is only with a lot of re-reading of the original narrative (OT) that you can begin to see the links. They are there, but it took extraordinary events for the first Christians to have their eyes opened to those links (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2 for example).

In saying this, I am shifting from a strong emphasis on ‘one unfolding narrative’ to at least somewhat towards a more apocalyptic reading of the NT as a shocking divine incursion into human history.

For example, just consider the depth of the disjunctures below:

Picture2However, you understand the reconfiguring of ISRAEL, the inclusion of Gentile sinners is no small plot development in the story; it is a paradigm shift of mind-numbing proportions.

So too is the relativisation of the TEMPLE in the NT to where Jew & Gentile believers form the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.

As is the fulfilment of the TORAH through life in the Spirit and the irrelevance of covenant markers like circumcision.

All this even before we begin considering the deepest disjunctures in the story so far – a theology of atonement centered on a CRUCIFIED MESSIAH.

And, most remarkable of all, the story now brings into focus a new understanding of GOD himself – the eternal Son of God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the risen Lord who takes on YHWH’s titles and roles; and the Spirit of God now given as a gift to all who have faith in the Son.

What other major disjunctures would you add?

Here are some more.

LAND – the story of the promised land hits another radical disjuncture in the NT. Most Christians see the narrative trajectory of land coming to an end with the global constitution of the people of God by the Spirit.

Then there is the small matter of the RESURRECTION of the Messiah – an utterly unexpected event, on top of his utterly unexpected crucifixion.

And to this we could add ESCHATOLOGY – the surprise new ending to the narrative of the parousia of the Messiah and Lord, who will act as judge and dwell with God in the new creation (Rev 21-22).

And then you have completely foolish stuff like loving your enemies and following Jesus AND Paul’s gospel of non-violence.

It is no wonder, is it not, that one of Paul’s favourite words for what God had done in Christ was MYSTERY that had been hidden from everyone?  Consider these verses:

… we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. (1 Cor 2: 7)

All this raises a challenge for being Christian today does it not?:

– if Christianity is pervasively and shockingly ‘Other’

– if the gospel is a Mystery that was completely hidden from view

– if God is the author of that mystery who does things no-one sees coming

Then how is it that so much of our Western Christianity seems well – so unmysterious? Unsurprising? Un-shocking? 

Where much church life is pretty conventional, predictable, ‘normal’ and fairly easily adapted to 21st Western culture?

Where ‘being Christian’ tends not to involve that radical a disjuncture with the dominant values of the Western world?

And does ‘renewal’ then involve recapturing something of the ‘Otherness’ and surprising power of the Christian story in a way that disrupts comfortable assumptions?

Any suggestions or resources for going about this welcome!

 

Desiring more of God (1) are you a restorationist?

In IBI, we had a good discussion today in a class I’m teaching on different views of baptism in the Holy Spirit. The framework for the course is this:

The Spirit and the Christian Life

  1. Introduction: the neglected Spirit?
  2. The promise of the Spirit: The Spirit in the Old Testament
  3. The Person of the Spirit
  4. Jesus, the Kingdom of God and the Spirit 
  5. The Spirit and Mission
  6. The Eschatological Spirit
  7. The Spirit and the new covenant community (Baptism in the Spirit 1 Cor 12:12-27)
  8. The Spirit and the Christian life 1: beginnings
  9. The Spirit and the Christian life 2: the Spirit versus the Flesh
  10. The Spirit and the Christian life 3: Fruit
  11. The Gifts of the Spirit
  12. The Holy Spirit and modern church life: issues; challenges; hopes; conclusions

We were at no.7 today. We aim to make links to ‘head, heart and hands’ in reading, lectures and discussion. A couple of key question that cropped up today – and will again I am sure – are along these lines:

What experience of the Spirit should Christians ‘expect’ or ‘seek’ as possible / normal?

 What is our ‘role’ in seeking more of the Spirit?

I’ll take the first question as the focus for this post and come to the second one in the next post.

What would be your answer to the first question? What are the signs of the presence of the Spirit in a church? How would you describe the out working of the Spirit’s presence in your church experience? Is there a desire for more of God or is the Spirit rarely talked about or taught about?

How the first question has been answered historically has been critical in multiple spiritual reform movements within Christianity – whether Montanism in the 2nd Century AD or Charles Wesley’s doctrine of perfection or Pentecostalism’s search for NT restorationism, or Keswick ‘Higher Life’ theology or varieties of Charismatic renewal and so on.

And, of course, Reformed theology has its own answer to that question as to what a spiritually mature and healthy church looks like. It tends not to be radical or subversive to a long-established post-Reformation status quo – indeed it tends to be extremely cautious about such questions because they can be destabilising and divisive. It also tends to develop reasons for why it is unrealistic or undesirable to desire or wish to imitate the charismatic experience of the first Christians.

Those that answer question 1 with a sense of dissatisfaction in the current status quo will begin to pray, search and long for some form of spiritual renewal. They will want to see reform of current attitudes and practices that seem spiritually anaemic and lifeless. (I’m not saying such desires are not present in more established Reformed communities).

This is a restorationist impulse – a desire to have more of God’s Spirit. It’s typically born from a desire to recapture something of the life of the Spirit within the NT Church as described particularly by Luke (in Acts especially) and by Paul.

While at times an unholy mess, for example, the Corinthian church still exudes a vibrant presence of the Spirit. This is not just about the presence of charismata such as tongues and prophecy but by Paul’s pervasive assumption that the church will know and experience the visible tangible empowering presence of God among his (often sinful and divided) people.

Nor is a restorationist impulse limited to just desiring particular gifts of the Spirit. It is much more a search for an experience of and an empowering by the Spirit for all of life.

In this sense I am a restorationist – because it seems clear that it is this sort of experience that Paul (and Luke and John) take to be the Christian ‘norm’. And it is not clear (to me) that this ‘norm’ should not be expected or hoped for or prayed for today.

We might summarise the role of the Spirit in the NT along these (brief) lines: In the NT it is the one Spirit received by any believer at conversion who:

  • Empowers for mission
  • Grants wisdom and reveals God’s will
  • Reveals the cross and leads to conversion
  • Who communicates the power and presence of God
  • Who leads people to new life of sonship and faith
  • Who gives gifts as he wills

9780801047923Or as Max Turner puts in his terrific book The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts the Christian life in the NT is characterised by an encounter with the dynamic and transforming presence of God himself.

I love his phrase that the Christian life is ‘essentially charismatic in nature’. How often do you hear that in your church?

“We conclude that for each of our three major witnesses, [Luke, Paul and John] the gift of the Spirit to believers affords the whole experiential dimension of the Christian life, which is essentially charismatic in nature. The gift is granted in the complex of conversion-initiation. The prototypical activities of the “Spirit of Prophecy” which believers receive – revelation, wisdom and understanding, and invasive speech – together enable the dynamic and transforming presence of God in and through the community. These charismata operate at individual and corporate levels, enabling a life-giving, joyful, understanding of (and ability to apply) the gospel, impelling and enabling different services to others in the church, and driving and empowering the mission to proclaim the good news.” 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

Comments, as ever, welcome.