Musings on beauty, Barth, buildings and blessed hope

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Had a wonderful hike up Slieve Donard over the bank holiday weekend. Can’t say it was easy (getting on you know) – after rather a lot of huffing and puffing there were fantastic views to enjoy – including the best golf course in the world (last photo).

When have you last heard a sermon on beauty? Or read something on the relationship of beauty and theology? There were a lot of people on pilgrimage up Donard – all doings something physically demanding in order to experience beauty. There is something compelling about beauty – humans are drawn to it and go to literally great lengths to see a beautiful place.

Within the evangelical Christian tradition in which I grew up, live and work, beauty has tended to be neglected. There are probably a few reasons for this. Four come to mind, and these are simply musings, feel free to add your own reasons.

And if it is the case that beauty is marginalised within our lives, our theology, our churches – what might be some ways to recover an appreciation and experience of beauty? Beauty can be found in many places, not just a mountain top experience. Where do you find, and take time to appreciate and perhaps create, God-given beauty?

1) The Revealed Word versus Natural Theology

Christianity is a religion of the Book. Christians believe God has revealed himself in his written Word which therefore has authority above any other source of revelation.

No-one was a fiercer opponent of any form of natural theology (the idea that God can be in some way known outside his self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Word of God) than Karl Barth. His great ‘NO!’ to natural theology insisted that there could be no such thing as ‘theology from below’. Its fatal weakness is to open the door for human hubris to reinvent God in our own image.

Barth was in the midst of a fight against classic liberalism and its utter failure to speak out against the rise of national socialism. I am no Barth scholar but he may have softened his views towards the end of his life. But the point is Barth was essentially right. No natural theology can ‘reach God’. Without revelation we end up turning ‘God made beauty’ into ‘beauty is God’.

The Christian gospel is essentially mysterious, surprising, scandalous and apocalyptic. It can only be revealed by God in his Word and through his Spirit, never discovered in and through human reason – whether through the physical creation or beauty of mathematics (I’m told maths is beautiful and wondrous but have to take others’ word for it!) or whatever other forms of natural theology.

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2) Suspicion of beauty: musings on church architecture

But, I wonder, has the flip side of the supreme authority of the revealed Word been an overly suspicious attitude to beauty within much post-Reformation Protestantism?

As if beauty is, at best, a secondary distraction and, at worst, a pathway to idolatry and worship of the created world rather than its creator?

Take the Reformed Tradition of which I am also a part (Presbyterian). The theology of the Word is reflected in the architecture of its churches. The early Presbyterian churches in Ireland were stark ‘meeting houses’ – and most churches today remain plain and simple. The pulpit and the Word is what matters. There is, I think it fair to say, deliberately not much a tradition of the beautiful in the design of Irish Presbyterian churches.

Or take another strand within evangelicalism – that of culturally adaptable communities who deliberately eschew ‘churchy’ buildings, imagery and symbolism in favour of modern pragmatic facilities which, with the best will in the world, are hardly ever beautiful.  Beauty, within such pragmatic utilitarian theology, is simply not ‘useful’ and therefore effectively unimportant.

As I’ve gone on as a Christian I find I desire and appreciate beauty more than I used to. Beauty has the power to draw us into the presence of God beyond the world which we can control and manipulate. Dismissing beauty, or seeing it as an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters, seems to me to deny something essential about God, the creator of beauty. And, as a result, such spaces fail to inspire or draw our hearts towards him in wonder and praise. Rather, they can merely echo the narrative of our pragmatic, utilitarian and relentlessly ‘this worldly’ capitalist culture.

3) Dualism

A third reason for the marginalisation of beauty is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Descartes’ dictum, ‘I think therefore I am’, unfolded historically, the elevation of reason promoted a type of dualism between the ‘higher’ mind (reason) and the created order. This sort of Cartesian dichotomy impacted Christian theology in spirituality that neglected the physical world – including the body and the affections.

To be fair, such dualism has a much longer legacy than the Enlightenment – one of Augustine’s negative legacies is still felt in his neo-platonic linking together of sex and sin for example.

Regardless of how exactly these influences developed, my point is that Christianity has a long and an ongoing struggle with dualism. Deliberate focus on and integration of beauty within Christian theology and practice can act to overcome such dualism. God has created us with minds, hearts and bodies and calls us to worship him holistically using all our God-given senses.

4) Sin and the Fall

A fourth possible reason for Christian ambivalence towards beauty is the doctrine of the fall. This world is broken. Sin, death and injustice stalk creation, which itself, Paul tells us, groans for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Wrongly understood, the brokenness of creation can lead to an anti-worldly theology of escapism – where there is little of value to be redeemed here. Our main task is to ‘get the hell out of here’ and not get too entangled with temporary marginal distractions like pleasure, beauty and the joys offered by the material world.

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Towards a Christian integration of Word and Beauty

God is an artist.

The fact that we live in a wondrously beautiful world tells us that beauty is a creation of God. All beauty derives from him. The universal human desire for beauty points us to how we are created with a sense of wonder to appreciate, enjoy and create beauty. The Psalms are full of this link between appreciating the beauty of creation and the worship of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

Yet the next verse of the Psalm continues

The law of the  Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The beautiful world is never detached from the beautiful Word.

As someone who ‘deals with’ the Bible every day, the more I study it the more I am struck by its beauty. It is a magnificent work of art as well as God’s inspired Word. Each book is a remarkable literary work in its own right. Overall, at heart it is a story that overflows with images, symbols and themes that draws readers into a magnificent drama of divine goodness, beauty and love versus all that would corrupt and destroy.

In the New Testament we are even told that it is in and through Jesus Christ that ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is this beautiful creation that is in the process of being redeemed by its triune creator.

The new creation will be a place of unimaginable beauty (Rev 21-22). What is the image of the new Jerusalem but a vision of perfect beauty in which God dwells with his people? The future outcome of this drama is a restored creation in which love, beauty, worship and goodness flourish in all their all fullness.

All this means, I suggest, is that Christians should be people above all others who love and appreciate beauty.  A Christian theology of beauty integrates Word and world, creator and created with hope. Beauty points us to God himself in thankfulness and praise.

Not saying you have to climb a mountain to experience beauty! But why not take time out to search out, experience, create, appreciate and share beauty wherever you are.

Thus endeth the sermon

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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St Patrick on love and obedience

On this St Patrick’s day a quote from Patrick’s Confession:

I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.

It is hard not to read Patrick and think of Paul. His passion for the people he was called to serve. His single-minded focus on mission. His Christ-centered preaching. His self-distrust – in terms of a deep awareness of God’s grace and his unworthiness.

In this quote some of those themes emerge. He faces both internal and external opposition.

The internal is both physical and spiritual. Physically he is mortal and faces death. He is weak and finite. He faces temptations to act in ways that likely pursue short-term ‘this worldly’ pleasures that will lead him astray.

He also faces external opposition of some sort – those who attempt to destroy his faith – in the next paragraph he talks of those who laugh and insult him.

He knows he is far from perfect. He has failed. Others lead more Christ-like lives. But his understanding of grace means that this is not a cause for shame or pretence – he comes honestly before God without blushes, dependent on his mercy and forgiveness. He knows he needs the Lord’s help.

And, like Paul, he sees that the heart of living a life pleasing to God is not merit, or pay back or external behaviour motivated by fear or a pursuit of self-righteousness.

No.

Rather the heart of being a Christian is love. If is from love that obedience flows. It is out of love that he is willing to suffer. It is love which orientates his heart towards God and away from that which would lead him astray.

In other words, we might say that the core of discipleship, according to Patrick, is a deep love for God that issues in a faithful life of joy and gratitude.

Or, to put it in reverse, unfaithfulness, a pursuit of ‘worldly pleasures’ (money, sex, power), a lack of thankfulness, an arrogant self-defensiveness coupled with a lack of passion to share the good news of the Gospel are all merely symptoms of a life where love for God has either evaporated or never existed.

So a good question to ask ourselves this St Patrick’s Day – is ‘how is my love life?’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Gospel and Capitalism – Daniel Bell

What do you think of this quote from Daniel Bell, Divinations: theo-politics in an age of terror (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017) on how the gospel confronts and overcomes capitalism?

 

Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.

This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.

An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.

A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A Christmas 2017 reflection: four stories

The Gospels are richly theological accounts of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. They are, in other words, not only telling us ‘what happened’ but also why it happened.

Think of it this way:

The Gospels tell us all about ‘the story of Jesus’. That story, of course, begins with the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas.

But the story of Jesus only makes sense if set within 3 other broader stories that, together, frame the story of the Bible.

The story of Jesus is the innermost or climatic story of the 4.  We need to appreciate how it fits within the wider framework if we are to understand the ‘why’ of the incarnation.

  1. THE STORY OF GOD

At the broadest level, there is the ‘Story of God’ himself. This story encompasses all the others for the Bible is, in effect, the story of God ‘s redemptive action in the world in response to sin, death and rebellion.

That response is trinitarian: Father, Son and Spirit, working in love to bring life, forgiveness, restoration – to form a covenant people bearing his image and to redeem all of creation.

2. THE STORY OF THE WORLD 

The second story is of the world we live in – a world of beauty and of ugliness; of hope and despair; of love and of hate. A wonderful, awe-inspiring creation disfigured by sin, death, grief and injustice. It is God’s love for this world that is the divine motive for the incarnation.

3. THE STORY OF ISRAEL

But before the incarnation of the Son, we must not skip the third story – the story of God’s elect people through whom salvation comes. So much Christian theology tends to do this – to jump from creation and fall to the coming of the Christ. The Old Testament takes up most of the story for a purpose! The story of Christmas only makes sense within the story of Israel. Jesus is first Israel’s Messiah – who is also the saviour of the world.

4. THE STORY OF JESUS

This is the story that, in effect, is the focus of the entire New Testament. The Gospels and the rest of the NT is a theological explanation of the story of Jesus (Christology) in light of the story of Israel, the story of the world gone wrong and the story of God. Pretty well every page of the NT is this sort of dialogue being worked out in hundreds of different ways. Jesus fulfils the Story of Israel. Father, Son and Spirit together work to effect salvation.

It is the story of Jesus and the Spirit that broadens the story of Israel to welcome in the Gentiles. It is in Jesus’ death that victory is won over all forces that oppose God’s good purposes – sin, death, the Devil and the powers.

THIS CHRISTMAS

But, most relevantly for this Christmas week, it is in the story of Jesus that we see who God is most clearly revealed. See how the four stories are interwoven in Colossians 1. 1-15 and especially its focus on the unique identity and authority of the Son.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 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. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

So, this Christmas we celebrate the Lord of creation, in whom dwells all the fullness of God himself, come to earth as a real man who can shed real blood. No greater act of self-giving love is possible to conceive.

And in doing so, we look forward to Easter, for it is this God-man who dies on the cruel wood of a Roman cross to bring reconciliation and peace to this world and all of creation.

So, whatever your circumstances this Christmas, may these four inter-connected stories give you joy, thankfulness and hope. For being a Christian, is to join our own story in with the story of God (by God’s grace), the story of the world gone wrong (owning our own sin), the story of Israel (a Christian becomes a member of the new covenant people of God) and the story of Jesus (by turning to him in faith and repentance).

Best wishes for a joyful and peaceful Christmas!

 

 

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!

 

Musings on mere Christianity and ‘A Reforming Catholic Confession’

My Christian identity, from school days onwards (that’s quite a while now!) has been shaped by a commitment to a broad, inclusive evangelicalism.

There are other ways to say this (and I know these phrases can mean different things to different people):

  • an ecumenical evangelicalism
  • generous orthodoxy
  • non or inter-denominational Christianity
  • mere Christianity
  • catholic Christianity

I guess that commitment was shaped early on by mentors and leaders who led me to faith and discipled me. Northern Irish Christianity gets a lot of bad press, but my experience was of a warm hearted faith fostered in local church and para-church organisations.

That instinct for holding to the centre has been reinforced over the years in at least three ways – two positive and one negative:

i. Experience

Some have questioned whether such a thing as evangelicalism even exists … Friendships forged with Christians from many traditions and backgrounds – in work, in ministry, in different churches, in travel – is evidence that it does. Evangelicalism is an ethos as well as a commitment to core Christian doctrines. Seeing the reality of others’ love for God, love for the gospel, love for each other and love for the world among Christians of many different hues is a powerful testimony to the lived reality of that evangelical ethos. The Christian faith is more than knowing truth; it is coming to know God through faith in his Son and by being made alive by his Spirit. Those ‘in Christ’ are united in him and thus to each other. That unity finds expression on common concerns –  in prayer, in study, in worship and in mission together. I work in a place where this unity around common priorities is visible every day –  and it is good. It speaks of the unifying work of the Spirit and the universal application of the gospel to all people.

ii. Theology

That instinct has also been interrogated and analysed theologically – in a PhD on evangelicalism, in writing, research, reading and teaching. The more I go on as a Christian, the more I am convinced that the Scriptures tell a theological story that is coherent, understandable, powerful and true. It is the core story, with the person and work of Jesus at the centre, that we need to focus on and unite around in dialogue with the Great Tradition of the Church catholic.

iii. Schism

Another thing I am more convinced by as I go on as a Christian, is how scandalous division is among Christians who claim to be committed to the evangel. By division I do not mean only where churches divide and split, but where Christians who manifestly agree on the important stuff choose not to work together, not to speak well of each other, to ignore each other and sometimes directly to compete with each other.

I can understand this at an intellectual level – it is usually around what I call an ‘affinity issue’ rather than a core doctrine of faith. An affinity issue is one which marks out a particular sub-grouping of evangelicals. For example, it might be a particular view of the gifts of the Spirit, or of the structure of church leadership, or a stress on a particular aspect of the atonement, or mode of baptism and so on. Commitment to affinity then trumps commitment to a broader unity. Working with those most like you is most comfortable and ‘safe’ after all. You create and forge your own alliances and tend to circle in the wagons tighter than the broad circumference of mere evangelicalism.

But, to be honest, I don’t understand this mentality at a theological and experiential level. Theologically it seems to question the sufficiency of the gospel. Experientially it seems to question the work of the Spirit.

All this leads in to a REFORMING CATHOLIC CONFESSION just published as part of the 500 year commemoration of the Reformation and signed by a wide spectrum of well-known (mostly American) evangelicals. For a quick glance at the signatories, that spectrum embraces Reformed, Arminian, Pentecostal and others .. If I was to make a critical comment, it would be the overwhelmingly American and Western and male make up of those involved in its drafting. A commitment to global evangelical unity needs to reflect that breadth in its formation.

But it is well worth reading and I’d be happy to sign it. It leaves affinity issues to one side as much as  possible in articulating the core implications of the Reformation Solas.

Their motive is given thus:

One of the best ways to commemorate the Reformation is to remember the Reformers’s original vision for Catholic unity under canonical authority. This original vision has sometimes been forgotten not only by the heirs of the Reformation, but also by its critics, who often fixate on the divisions within Protestantism. Thus, a number of leaders from across the Protestant spectrum have come together to honor the original vision of the Reformers by demonstrating that, despite our genuine differences, there is a significant and substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as “mere Protestants.”

Point 9 of ‘The Explanation’ expands on this motivation:

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

In Point 10 it states

… in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

Point 22 expands on this pursuit of a generous broad evangelical ethos

We recall and commend John Wesley’s plea that Protestants display a catholic spirit, a call for right-hearted believers to give up their prideful insistence on their right opinions in order to establish right relations with others whose hearts and minds are set on following Jesus according to the Scriptures. We resolve to rededicate ourselves to dialogue in, with, and for the communion of saints, and not to settle for thinking and doing things separately that we can in good conscience think and do together, for the sake of our common witness to the one church of Jesus Christ.

Amen to that.

Musings on Discipleship

Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:

1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.

2. Reading Matthew Bates’ outstanding book Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

For various posts on Bates’ important book see:

Nijay Gupta has a fair and warm review here :

Michael Bird has two interviews here and here :

Scot McKnight did a series starting here:

The Gospel Coalition did an unsurprisingly critical review here

The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.

This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.

It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.

Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!

  1. THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.

Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.

  1. Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem

We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.

Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.

  1. That fundamental problem is theological

We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).

For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.

  1. The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)

What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?

These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?

Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:

“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”

“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’

“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”

Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.

In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:

  • Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
  • Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
  • Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
  • Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
  • Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
  1. Faith tends to be set against works

Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:

  • Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
  • Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
  • Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
  • Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
  • But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
  • Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
  1. Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it

No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?

Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.

If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.

In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.

In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty

Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.

  1. Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
  2. Confession of loyalty to the risen King
  3. Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom

John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.

He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.

This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.

  1. How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship

How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.

However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.

How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …

What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?

Comments, as ever, welcome.