Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (5)

Chapter 4 of Mark Clavier’s book is on Augustine’s Rhetoric of Delight

Clavier explores Augustine’s eloquent God – by that he means it is God’s power alone which has the power to transform and liberate. We need liberation because knowledge of the good is not enough – there is an (humanly) unbridgeable gap between what we know we should do and what we do.

That gap is caused by the fact that we are not merely rational beings – which is why, Clavier says, Paul in Romans 7 talks about failure to do the good in terms of desire.

Clavier takes Romans 7 to be autobiographical – Paul talking of his struggle with sin. This is debateable but the point is that Romans 7 spoke powerfully to Augustine. Not only did it describe his own inner moral conflict captured in the Confessions, it

… gave him a way of explaining theologically how sinners escape bondage to sin and achieve salvation. The answer is delight: the heart must delight in righteousness before it can choose it. However, this isn’t just any delight. It is a divine delight that originates in God, is woven into creation, and enters the human heart through the reception of the Holy Spirit … to be saved is to be drawn to God not by tyrannical force but by the persuasive force of God’s eloquence: the Holy Spirit. Augustine famously claimed “Love God and do as you want” (HEJ 7.8 ) For Augustine to be free we must be swept up into God’s love, experienced as a ‘victorious delight’ that frees our wills not only to know righteousness but to desire it as well. (64)

Again, Augustine’s own experience is significant here – he talked of his former life as a rhetician and master of logic as being ‘puffed up with knowledge.’ The trap – or irony – that Augustine came to see was how pursuing higher wisdom leads to pride.

The revolution in his thinking was to see that it is only God’s eloquence, God’s delight, God’s love that can set people free. Clavier puts it this way

God doesn’t require people to ascend to him because in his humble love he came down to them in order to raise them up. Human weakness is no longer the barrier to salvation, but the means for it. Christians gain wisdom through the humility of Christ – indeed Christ the Word is the wisdom of God. (66)

But how is this divine wisdom received? How do people have their hearts transformed so that they desire true delight – which is God himself?

The answer for Augustine is the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured into believers’ hearts (Rom. 5:5 – an important verse for Augustine, appearing over 200 times in his writings). Clavier quotes Augustine’s Morals of the Catholic Church (1.17.32),

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, this love leads us to the Son, that is, to the wisdom of God through him the Father himself is known. If wisdom or truth is not desired with all the powers of the soul, it shall not be found at all, but if it is sought after as it deserves to be, it cannot withhold itself nor hide from those who love it … It is love that asks, love that seeks, love that knocks, love that discloses, and love, too, which abides in that which has been disclosed (74)

So the Christian life is NOT a matter of choice – of the head – the arena of Christian discipleship, ethics and virtue is the heart – it is what we delight in, what we love, that will dictate how we live. Clavier summarises it this way

Augustine give experiential depth to the Pauline theology of bondage to sin and death. By locating the key moment with delight rather than choice, he shifted the emphasis from the mind to the heart, thereby explaining why embracing virtue and shunning sin is so hard. In order to be saved, people must be inflamed with a desire to love God, and that only happens if they are first overwhelmed with by the presence of God experienced as delight, which is none other than the Holy Spirit. (81)  

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Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (31) Christus Victor

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor’

In this post and the next one we are focusing on the victory of God in Christ at the cross.

This is perhaps the most important chapter in the book and this is therefore a longer than usual post. Hope you can bear with me!

How much does ‘battle’ and ‘conflict’ frame your understanding of the cross and the Christian life? Does this all sound a bit extreme? Why are we uncomfortable with these biblical themes today do you think?

Rutledge argues that the apocalyptic ‘war’ against God’s enemies is decisively won at the cross and this atonement theme embraces all others which represent, in different ways, aspects of that victory.

It was Gustav Aulén in 1931 who first coined the Latin phrase Christus Victor. His book is famous, although probably one of those people know about rather than have read.

Rutledge takes us on a quick recap of Aulén’s argument. She proposes that his definition is close to the apocalyptic perspective rearticulated recently by Beker and Martyn and Ziegler et al.

“The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory of Christ over the Powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death and the Devil … the victory of Christ creates a new situation bring their rule to an end and setting men free from their dominion.” (Aulén, quoted 361.)

Aulén’s argument was in part polemical; he saw victory rightly emphasised in the Fathers, eclipsed in the Middle Ages, partly recovered, particularly in Luther, and then effectively suppressed again.

Luther in WormsIn terms of Luther, it is his sharp awareness of the dramatic invasion of God’s power in and through the death and resurrection of Christ, that leads him to celebrate the decisive defeat of his enemies – sin, death and the curse. This is very close to apocalyptic in its focus on God’s supreme power, human inability, comprehensive victory and the incursion into human history of something decisively new.

Rutledge comments

This underscores the nature of the apocalyptic gospel as a drama encompassing all the other themes in various ways. (363)

Rutledge gives some examples of what we could call ‘battle scenes’ from the New Testament. These are everywhere.

A personal comment here

In the tradition I grew up in – middle of the road, softly Reformed, middle-class Irish Presbyterianism – generally has little place for drama. In this it probably echoes much evangelicalism. There are lots of strengths, I’m not ‘having a go’ here. But Aulén was right in how the mute button has been firmly pressed on the Bible’s apocalyptic framework.

There would be a book or two in this for someone I suspect – but Reformed theology’s main emphasis is on continuity, most obviously in covenant theology. The theology of infant baptism and its link to circumcision is another example. Its ‘heart’ is a reading of justification in forensic legal terms that tends to dominate understanding of ‘the gospel’ and interpret the cross primarily as effecting righteousness in the believer.

The work of the Spirit, within a new age that has broken into the ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4) tends to be subordinated and / or somewhat detached from the primary focus on justification.

And so it is perhaps other Christian movements like the Charismatic churches and Pentecostalism which are closer to the radical apocalyptic ‘feel’ of the spiritual conflict that pervades the New Testament.

Back to Rutledge and scenes from the apocalyptic battlefield

Romans 5-6

Paul’s thought is thoroughly eschatological. Try reading Romans afresh with an eye for just how much talk there is of ‘powers’ reigning – Sin, Death, the Law.

People are enslaved under them – they are almost personified in how they imprison people. Paul’s radical point is that BOTH Jews AND Gentiles alike are under their destructive power.  His shocking conclusion is that

The righteousness of God is made known apart from the law (Rom 3:21)

In Romans 5-6, the imagery is of the whole human race under the power of Sin and Death (in Adam). Sin reigns in death. Its ‘weapon’ is the Law – but the good news is that deliverance is possible.

‘Grace can reign through righteousness to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5:20-21)

“Paul clearly envisions hostile, active Powers that must be dethroned to make room for the new Adam and the sphere of power that is ruled by the Spirit of righteousness and life.” (365)

This is a battle between two reigning powers. But they are unequal powers – look for how the gift of God in Christ is NOT like the trespass of Adam.

“… Death is a great power, but dikaiosyne (the righteousness of God) is an even greater Power – “all the more” so – and it is actively at work, in tandem with God’s grace, to overturn the rule of Sin and Death, recapturing the creation and inaugurating a new rule of righteousness and eternal life. This is what has happened in the cross and resurrection. (366)

Jesus is the risen Lord (kurios) – he rules over the new dominion of righteousness.

“To this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Kurios both of the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:9, quoted 367)

An Aside on N T Wright

In a footnote Rutledge strongly criticises N T Wright and his resistance to apocalyptic interpretations of Paul. First time I have heard Wright judged as lacking in imagination!

I do not wish to devalue Wright’s work and influence … However, he does not work in the dimension of imagination that has enabled apocalyptic theologians (whose work he greatly dislikes) to give us a vastly expanded understanding of the cosmic vision of Paul. (367, n. 43)

Other examples of the apocalyptic battlefield

This is a brief list

  • Slavery and Freedom – huge themes in Romans and Galatians
  • The Garden in Gethsemane – a classic example of an apocalyptic confrontation between Jesus and the forces of darkness. This is why it depicts such an intense struggle prior to the Messiah’s arrest, trial and execution.
  • Luke 21:12-19: “… some of you will be put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
  • 1 Peter 4:12-17: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you ..”
  • Col 2:13-15 “He disarmed the powers and principalities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in him.”
  • Heb 2:14-17: “… through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and deliver all those who through the fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage …”

The Powers

Whether modern rationalist and secularised Christians ‘see’ it or not, the New Testament is NOT simply a story about God and fallen humanity and how their broken relationship is restored. In the ‘middle’ of that relationship are the ‘Powers’

Ephesians 6:10-12: 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Romans 8:38: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[ neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Mark 5:9 – “Satan and his legions”

1 Cor 2:6-8: We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Paul names Satan ten times – usually in association with Sin, Death and the Law, or linked with principalities and powers – thrones, lords and other authorities.

Volf EandERutledge has sustained interaction here with one of the best theological books written in the last 50 years, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (1996).

[This book inspired me to pursue a PhD related to Christian identity and reconciliation in a context of violence and division (Northern Ireland). [You can buy the published version here for a mere snip of £160. Bargain !!]

Volf brilliantly saw how Jesus’ death was far more than a mere injustice of an innocent man being found guilty and experiencing horrible violence as a result. No, the cross is God’s invasion of enemy territory through non-violence.

It is, paradoxically, a powerful ‘weapon’ that leads to victory through suffering and self-giving death.

ALL of us are under the influence of the Powers, yet are loved by God. The powers are the real enemy to be overcome and destroyed so humans can be set free. This is why God’s wrath represents him beiing “actively engaged in warfare” (381).

Rutledge quotes Volf and with this we had better bring this post to an end.

Without an eschatological [apocalyptic] dimension, the talk of God’s wrath degenerates into a naïve and woefully inadequate ideology … Outside the world of wishful thinking, evildoers all too often thrive, and when they are overthrown, the victors are not much better than the defeated. God’s eschatological anger is the obverse of the impotence of God’s love … A ‘nice’ God is a figment of liberal imagination, a projection onto the sky of the inability to give up cherished illusions about goodness, freedom, and the rationality of social actors. (Volf, quoted 381)

It is because God is a God of judgement that we are to leave judgement to God and not engage in violent retribution ourselves. {For me this is one reason why support of the death penalty is not a Christian option]

In the next post we continue within chapter 9 and especially what it means to live today in light of the victory of God through Christ’s death on the cross.

How Important is Love? (4) lovelessness as heresy

This is Calvin and Hobbesa fourth of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the third post we looked at one verse, Galatians 5:6 where ‘faith working love’ is the only thing that counts.

Staying with Paul, below is just a snapshot of other texts that, together, show how love is absolutely core to his theology and experience, and that the whole fabric of the Christian life is made up of love.

A couple of comments before those texts. In the New Testament, perhaps even more than today in the West, new communities of believers in Jesus were socially revolutionary. No-where else in the ancient world would you have Jews and Gentiles, slave owners and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, not only mixing together but worshiping together on a ‘level playing field’ where all were one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

Love is the only thing that could hold such communities together then, and it is the only thing that can hold diverse communities together today.

A question: are Christians known, first and foremost as people of radical, other-focused love? Are churches known for being communities of love? Is love the first thing that people associate with followers of Jesus? With you and with me?

If not, why not? And what can be done about it?

Given the importance of love (see below), ‘lovelessness’ is not just an ‘unfortunate reality’ of church life, it is actually heresy in action. It is a denial of the very purpose of salvation and the work of the Spirit. It is a sign of counterfeit faith that is worth nothing at all.

Love in Paul

Love is the goal or purpose of the new covenant ministry of the Spirit

  • The purpose of Christian freedom from the flesh is to ‘serve one another in love’ (Gal.5:13).
  • The ‘entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Gal.5:14, cf Rom.13:8-10).
  • The Spirit ‘produces’ love in believers’ lives as they keep in step with him (Gal 5:22-26)
  • It is through the Spirit that believers experience God’s love (Rom.5:5).

The love of God has been most supremely demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross (Rom.5:8).

God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes.1:4; 2 Thes.2:13, 16; Rom.1:7; 2 Cor.13:11, 14; Eph.1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2; Col.3:12).

Nothing in all creation will be able to separate them from his love expressed in Jesus (Rom.8:37-9).

Believers are to act in love for each other (1 Thes.4:9; Rom.14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph.4:2, 15-16; Phil.2:1-2; Col.2:2).

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Paul teaches that all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.

At the close of 1 Corinthians he simply commands ‘Do everything in love’ (1 Cor.16:14).

In Ephesians 5:2 Christians are commanded to ‘walk in the way of love’

In Colossians 3:14 they are to ‘put on love’ on top of a list of other virtues.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 Paul includes himself in the exhortation to ‘put on faith and love’.

Paul often expresses his deep love for his communities (e.g., 1 Thes.2:8; 1 Cor.16:24; 2 Cor.2:4, 11:11; Phil.4:1).

Husbands are to love their wives (Eph.5:25; Col.3:19).

Paul prays that believers’ love would grow (1 Thes.3:12; Phil.1:9)

He is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes.3:6; 2 Thes.1:3).

He is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil.1:16).

He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col.1:4, Philem.1:5, 7)

He prays that the Lord would direct their ‘hearts into God’s love’ (2 Thes.3:5).

Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).

All this is why I like to call Paul ‘the apostle of love’.

 

 

Love not necessary for marriage?

ephesusReturning to Ephesians in this post – love and marriage in 5:21-33 to be more precise.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Subversive Then

Such a famous passage needs no introduction and I am not here going to get into ‘complementarian’ versus ‘egalitarian’ interpretations of the ‘roles’ of husband and wife.

Far more interesting is how, in these verses and throughout the letter in general, Paul (and I do think Paul wrote Ephesians) is engaged in an audacious act of subversion.

Basically he is instructing believers in the Ephesus region to live to a different story to that of their world. That sounds all very nice but what does it mean? Very briefly, at least this:

live by a different power. They are filled with the Spirit, not the powers of this dark world (6:12)

to a different ethic, as children of light not of darkness (5:3-14)

walking in love (5:2), not in futility and greed (4:17-19) as the surrounding pagan world walks

in eschatological hope: putting off the old and putting on the new (4:22-23)

imitating their Lord, showing forgiveness and compassion and so building unity rather than division (4:29-32); self-sacrifically serving each other as their Lord gave himself up for them (5:2)

And this theme radical counter-cultural living continues right on into the famous ‘household code’ of 5:22-6:9.

We get so distracted with our modern obsessions about ‘individual roles’ that we can miss the wider story of what is going on here in the apostle’s instructions to 6 groups of believers: wives/husbands, children/parents and slaves/masters.

The reality of the culture is assumed – this is the world they lived in. A world of hierarchy, power and status. A culture of patrons and clients, of rulers and ruled. But that world, so apparently ‘given’ and ‘normal’ and powerful, is being shaken to the core.

Do you see how?

It is Paul’s very act of writing that puts the ‘writing on the wall’ for the power structures of the Greco-Roman world. He addresses personally every one of those 6 categories on the same basis. Whether a wife or husband, child or parent, slave or master, they are to live primarily as disciples of the risen Christ – ‘as to the Lord’.

Do you see the implications?

Now, their primary identity is not the social group in which they happen to find themselves. It is in their joint union of being in Christ. They belong to Christ and to each other in a revolutionised set of relationships that we call the Church.

for we are members of his body

Power, status, hierarchy, patronage, honour and birthrights are radically relativised. A new world has arrived. The old world would eventually crumble, as the social and political implications of the gospel eroded it from within.

This new community is to be marked by virtues and attitudes common to every member.

All are to walk in love and imitate their Lord (5:2)

All are to live pure lives (5:3ff)

All are to live to please their Lord (5:10)

All are to submit to each other (5:21)

Subversive Now – the example of love and marriage

If to be a Christian is to live in community with others ‘as to the Lord’ before all else, this has deeply radical implications today just as much as it did in the first century.

Where the Ephesians lived within a world of highly stratified boundaries that were rarely crossed, we live in a world where the individual is king or queen.

And perhaps nowhere is the ‘freedom’ of the autonomous individual challenged more than in being accountable first and foremost to others in that community of the church.

Take the example of love and marriage today. In our culture there are few things more private that our love lives. Romantic love is idolised. The two lovers find themselves in each other. Nothing should stand in their way of true happiness. Love trumps all.

Their primary identity is in their relationship. Other things like church involvement may follow, but is secondary to their love and to any children that follow along. It is family first.

But this is a modern example of living to the story of our culture rather than to the story of the gospel. Rather, Christians are ‘members of his body’. No identity, even marriage, comes first.

Even more subversive, this means that marriage is not private but public – it belongs to and within the community of faith. It is within the body that husband and wife learn to live out their marriage and their faith.

And even more heretical yet, this means that privatised individual love between a couple is not the primary ‘location’ for Christian love to flourish. Love between the couple sure helps, but the primary location for Christian love is the community of the church. Whoever we are, – whether we are in positions of weakness or privilege: wives or husbands, young or old, slaves or masters – we are all commanded to ‘walk in love’.

And this is why the paterfamilias, the husband with all the authority and power within Greco-Roman culture, is commanded four times to love his wife. It is his status within the culture that is being most subverted by the radical social implications of the gospel. He is being told to live to a different story – not one of assumed rights to be served but one marked by self-giving love for others supposedly less ‘worthy’ then he – like his wife.

The ever quotable Stanley Hauerwas puts it like this,

The church makes possible a context where people love one another. Love is not necessary to marriage, and the only reason why Christians love one another – even in marriage – is because Christians are obligated to love one another. Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se. You don’t learn about the kind of love that Christians are called to in the family and then apply it to the church. You learn about that kind of love from the church and then try to find out how it may be applied in the family.

Comments, as ever, welcome

 

Ephesians: a love letter

Working through Ephesians at the moment when time allows. It is an immensely rich letter and it is a privilege and pleasure to spend time in it. I know it’s a question of ‘Well you would say that wouldn’t you?’ but the Bible is really rather amazing. Here’s this ancient text, getting on for 2000 years old, written to an obscure minority within a great Empire and it is just bursting with power, creativity, freshness and compelling good news.

It is also beautifully written, with layer after layer of careful thought and structured chiastic patterns, all arranged to draw the reader into the compelling argument of the letter.

There are lots of excellent commentaries on Ephesians. Some of the ones that I have found most helpful are:

John Stott. The Message of Ephesians. 1991. A classic Stottian masterpiece.

Clinton Arnold. Ephesians. 2010. ZECNT. Very good.

Frank Thielman. Ephesians. 2010. BECNT. Excellent.

Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians. NIV Application Commentary. 1996. Extremely readable and well researched. Gotta admire the name.

Harold W. Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. 2002. Baker Academic.. Heavyweight and more technical.

Heil EphesiansBut for sheer originality and freshness, nothing has surpassed John Paul Heil, Ephesians: Empowerment to Walk in Love for the Unity of All in Christ. (SBL. 2007).

The title says it all. What Heil does so persuasively is to argue that the essential theme of Ephesians is love. But on either ‘side’ of that core theme are ‘power’ and ‘unity’.

POWER

Heil argues that the Epistle not only talks about power a lot, but as it was read orally, the reading in itself would be powerfully transformative.

God demonstrated his great power in raising Christ from the dead, a power now available to believers (1:19-20).

Heil puts it this way,

The very experience of listening to the Letter’s elaborate and ornate language of power and grace communicated by the way of the oral patterns of its chiastically arranged units not only persuades but empowers the audience to the conduct envisioned for it by Paul. (p.2)

Here’s an idea – why not try reading the letter out loud to yourself or a group and see how that goes …

TO WALK IN LOVE

‘Walk’ appears at critical junctures in the letter (2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15). Like modern English, it carries a sense of a ‘way of life’. We talk of ‘walking the walk’. A key command, which shapes all that comes after it is 5:2.

Walk in love, as also Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

‘In love’ (en agapē) is a recurrent phrase – see 1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2. It carries the sense of a dynamic domain of love, a sort of fusion of God’s love poured out for us in Christ which empowers believers’ love for God and for one another. The verb ‘love’ (agapaō) occurs even more often. Love is beginning, middle and end in Ephesians.

Just consider the closing verses of the letter to see the overwhelming emphasis on love.

Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. 6:23-24

UNITY

The empowering by God (and the Spirit is a major theme here), associated with ‘walking in love’, leads to a profound and deep unity in Christ.

There is the cosmic unity of all things being united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10). This finds its fulfillment in the marvellous verses of 4:15-16 where believers are united together in Christ and with each other.

… speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. 4:15-16.

Power, Love, Unity – Ephesians in a nutshell.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS Update. I meant to say that the NIV, in my humble opinion, does a poor job in communicating the importance of  walk (peripateō) in the letter. For example, 5:2 is translated ‘and live a life of love’. This is a real loss. It loses the contrast between the Christian walk of 5:2 and the command in 4:17 not to walk as the Gentiles do (the NIV translates this ‘that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do’). Commands to ‘walk’ are significant in the letter but you would not know it reading the NIV. The ESV is actually much better here.

 

 

Desiring more of God (2) Musings on the Spirit, humility and pride in an age of social media

narcissus-and-echo

In the last post we talked about the restorationist impulse that arises from a theological belief that the description of the first Christian’s experience of the Spirit in the NT is, by and large, a ‘norm’ that believers in all ages should long to see in their own lives and churches.

I say ‘by and large’ because some experiences are historically unique – Pentecost and the sending of the Spirit by the risen Christ and the missionary advance of the gospel in Acts for example.

That ‘norm’ includes the following:

  • being united to Christ by the Spirit
  • being given ‘life’ by the life-giver himself (regeneration)
  • a new status as a child of God (adoption by the Spirit by which we can call God abba Father)
  • empowering to live a life pleasing to God.
  • For Paul that ‘norm’ for Paul means living kata pneuma (according to the Spirit) rather than kata sarxa (according to the old age of the flesh that is passing away – see Romans 8:5

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

  • It means ‘walking’ or ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit and life rather than the powerless realm of the flesh and death (Gal 5).

In other words, the NT norm is thoroughly eschatological.

I’d go as far as to say that Christianity cannot be understood unless as an eschatological faith. The new age of the Spirit has dawned with the coming, death and resurrection of the Messiah, King of Israel and Lord of all. A Christian is someone who belongs, by God’s generous grace through faith in Christ, to the new age of the Spirit. He or she is a citizen of the kingdom of God here in the nitty gritty world of family, work, friendships and whatever else makes up your life.

That new life takes concrete shape in a person bearing the hallmarks of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We may say, in other words, that a Christian is to be shaped by the Spirit into a person of virtue. Their character is, through the work of the Spirit, to reflect that of their Lord.

While many Christians stop at this individual ethical transformation through the Spirit, there is no hint in the NT that the presence of the Spirit is not also associated with charismata – spiritual gifts.

The term ‘spiritual gifts’ is actually quite unhelpful. It implies that there are ‘higher’ more ‘spiritual’ gifts (perhaps healing, prophecy, tongues etc) and then other more ‘ordinary’ and less ‘spiritual’ gifts (administration, hospitality, leadership).  Yet all ‘charismata‘ means is ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – they are all ‘spiritual’.  They are NOT just natural abilities, they are visible and tangible evidence of the empowering presence of God who gives good gifts to the people of God so that they may serve others within the body of Christ.

So, to come back to the question in the title of this post – what is our ‘role’ in experiencing more of God’s Spirit?

Well, at one level, the answer is none at all. A gift is a gift. The recipient does not ‘earn’ a gift, it is only received by faith. This is true of the initial reception of the Spirit – it is God’s gracious gift of life, inseparable from repentance and faith in Christ. All believers are given the Spirit to ‘drink’, all are baptised in the Spirit – it is a generous gift of God.

For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13).

This is ALSO true of the gifts of the Spirit – the Spirit gives to whomsoever he wills. Again, a gift is a gift, it can only be received in faith with thanks and used well.

But, at another level, there IS a role for the Christian to grow and develop in his or her experience of the Spirit. Paul’s numerous ethical commands only make sense of the believer has real moral agency. We are not to quench the Spirit or treat prophecies with contempt (1 Thes 5:19-20). We are actively to walk and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5) – which implies that we can choose not to walk where the Spirit leads – to go our own way and act in ways opposed to the Spirit.

To walk on the path of the Spirit requires profoundly Christian way of looking at the self. By that I mean an awareness of the self’s desperate need for forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

What would you put top of the list?

For me, one word comes to mind:

HUMILITY

For it is only from a place of realistic humility and that there can develop a subsequent desire for God’s Spirit to renew, cleanse and empower.

That desire will lead to a prayer like that of David – acutely aware of the depths of his own sin

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51

And a similar theme is taken up by Peter in the NT:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

As Peter says, the opposite of humility is pride.

It’s always been the case in every culture, but I think it is here that the Christian faith becomes profoundly, and perhaps increasingly, paradoxical in an age of technological know how, qualifications and expertise. A world where money, power, status, connections, networking, business plans, personality tests and the necessity of an impressive CV dominate the job market.

A culture increasingly shaped by the narcissistic world of social media.

Now, I am not against social media – this blog is a form of it. I’ve learnt lots from other blogs and enjoy processing thoughts in writing – it helps me think for one.

But it also inevitably presents opportunity to present a certain ‘face’ to the world. There is also a certain arrogance, is there not, about anyone writing for an audience? There is an assumption that ‘I’ have something to say that I think is worth listening to.

But we live in an age, unheralded in human history, where the individual has the ability to project him or herself, in an unmediated fashion, to much of the rest of the world. The subject matter on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is overwhelmingly ME.

In the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and dies alone since he could not obtain the object of his love (so much for sologamy!). The Nymph Echo, looking on here, is heartbroken as his rejection.

Narcissism has been defined as

Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.

And in psychological terms as

Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.

Where admiration of the self and a craving for the admiration of others dominates,  the call of the gospel to decenter the self, follow Jesus as Lord, honestly ‘own’ (repent of) the self’s failings and deep brokenness, and walk a life of humility in the Spirit will seem to be utter ‘foolishness to the world.

If you accept the broad outline of what I am describing, what are the implications for evangelism, for discipleship and for teaching about spiritual growth and transformation in the church?

Comments, as ever, 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.