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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A tribute to carers

My mother died recently after some years of gradual decline due to dementia, hastened by a bout of pneumonia. She was 92. I happened to be the family member with her in hospital in the early hours of the morning when her life ended. The nurse on night duty was wonderful. She had supplied a mattress, sheets and pillows for me to stay the night. When I told her what had happened, she was kind and compassionate well beyond mere efficiency. Her care that night has prompted these musings.

Over the last few years as a family we have met countless health care professionals – carers, nurses and doctors – the vast majority of them women. I am beyond admiration for every one of them. Carers visiting at home do so under poor rates of pay, working unsocial hours, doing often extremely difficult work under unrealistic time pressures. Yet, they not only do their job but forge genuine relationships of care and love with elderly and often helpless people.

Nothing speaks to me more of the distorted priorities of Western culture than how poorly funded and valued are carers and nurses. They work at the sharp edge of human mortality. While capitalism appeals to self-interest and pursues accumulation of wealth, my mum’s carers do their job out of a sense of vocation. Of course they work for pay, but to a woman, they give of themselves far beyond any contract of employment in order to maintain human dignity and care to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

We are embodied beings and our bodies wear out and die. I’m musing here, but it seems to me that much of our culture is effectively gnostic. By that I mean it values the abstract above the physical. We fear death and prize fickle and transient things like respect, image, status, power, beauty and success. Money itself is simply a means to such ends and it is pursued relentlessly. When the capitalist system fails, no price is too high to fix it, regardless of the cost to ‘less important’ and ‘soft’ professions like caring and nursing, mental health provision or disability services.

In saying this, some may retort ‘What’s your alternative?’ Hospitals need funding. Funding comes from taxes. Taxes come from those who work and create wealth. If everyone was a carer the system would collapse. Yes, but I’m pushing back against distorted priorities within recent neo-liberalism (or ‘turbo-capitalism’) and the damage it is wrought globally – and in Ireland particularly. See this excellent article on ‘financialisation’ for more detailed discussion of what has happened.

Nor does a rampant capitalist culture contain any logical impulse towards doing justice, righting wrongs or, dare I say, loving others. It prizes individual happiness, comfort and pleasure, but is largely indifferent to those that fall by the wayside of the capitalist dream.

At the risk of massive generalisation, I wonder if women tend to be less seduced by such gnostic dualisms than men? Is that why it is overwhelmingly women who get their hands dirty in the mess of sacrificially tending and respecting ageing bodies? I honestly do not know the answers to those questions, save to say I want here to pay tribute to all those wonderful carers who contributed to looking after my mum in the last years of her life.

But I do know that the Christian faith is anything but gnostic. The entire Bible values the earthly, physical and material aspects of life. It begins with God willing a good creation into being. It climaxes with the incarnation of God’s Son. He enters human history, born of Mary and is Israel’s promised Messiah. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He is crucified under Pontius Pilate. He sheds real blood and suffers real death. His resurrection means that all in him have hope of a resurrection body in a renewed creation.

You can’t get more committed to the pain, complexity and physicality of the world than that. The cross reveals the true nature of our God. As one theologian puts it, ‘The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord.’

And that is very good news indeed.

Mostly serious musings on humour

This blog can be a rather earnest place. Like any social media it presents a particular face to the world – in this case mostly theological ideas and issues discussed through a critical lens. By their nature, the subject nature is on the serious side. And fair enough too – the Christian faith deals with big questions of identity, purpose, injustice, hope, sin, forgiveness, judgement, suffering, reconciliation, death and new creation (for a start).

Larsen GBut life is also absurd, ironic, poetic and funny. This world is bursting with beauty.  Each day is an opportunity to learn, to love, to laugh and praise God for his goodness.

On laughter – has anyone written a good theology of humour? If so, I’d like to read it. Stanley Hauerwas has spent a life doing serious theology in an entertaining way.

I do think, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, that theology can and should be, in some of its modes, funny. Theology done right should make you laugh. It should be done in an entertaining manner. Humor is not the only mode of entertainment the discourse of theology can take, but it is surely the case that we are often attracted to speech and writing that is funny. This calls into question the presumption by some that if you want what you have to say to be entertaining, then what you have to say cannot be serious. I have tried to defy that presumption by attempting to do theology in a manner that “tickles” the imagination.  (The Work of Theology)

I think it’s harder to write such theology than speak it. In teaching and speaking there are so many more possibilities for bringing in irony and humour – a facial expression, a tone of voice, a throwaway remark, an off the cuff joke, a witty response to a question. But those are not to hand as easily in writing. Just think how many smiley emojis are needed not to cause insult and offence with an email joke.

I’m a writer. I love writing. If there is one thing I’d like to do better, it is to write serious theology entertainingly and imaginatively. I’m trying to do this in what I am writing at the moment and find it a huge challenge.

Seems to me that humour has multiple facets theologically speaking. I’m sure you can think of more than these three for starters …

Humour as gracious invitation

Po-faced Christians who never smile are somehow life-denying. They tend to take themselves so seriously that they can become inhospitable to others. Only those who share their serious God-given mission are accepted. Humour is hospitable – it invites others to a share in a mini-experience of joy. It is a gift of relationship offered to the other. So one way of looking at the overly serious Christian is someone who is ungenerous and stingy when it comes to blessing others through humour.

This is why a preacher who is deadly-earnest all the time had better be a brilliant communicator to hold people’s attention. He or she is not ‘giving’ people much in terms of generously drawing them in to the sermon.

Humour as humility

At its best, humour helps us to laugh at ourselves. That’s why self-depreciating humour, done honestly, humanises us. (Humour that humiliates the other isn’t funny – it’s just an aggressive power play. Dishonest self-depreciation merely tries to draw attention to the self). We are finite beings, full of desires, hopes, fears, mixed motives and plans. Life is transitory. We are here today and gone tomorrow. All our grand ambitions and projects will be forgotten sooner than we like to think.

I was clearing out some books recently. One was by an author I knew. He’d signed the front page for me. He seemed to have a long life ahead of him but a few years later he was dead. Now here was his book – all but forgotten and now out of date.

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like  a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and it is gone (Ps 103:15-16).

This means that, while we take faith and discipleship seriously, we need to have a healthy scepticism about ourselves.

Humour as weightlessness

Yet humour can be double-edged. There are few things worse (in my humble objective, unbiased and completely reasonable opinion) than a lame joke thrown in to a sermon ‘to lighten up’ all this ‘heavy’ theological talk. Give me the serious preacher any day.

Such humour can point to a lack of faith in the power of God’s Word and the power of the Spirit to speak into people’s lives, bringing transformation and renewal. It can be a rather desperate attempt to make following Jesus a comfortable and essentially unchallenging calling. Such humour can trivialize the gospel and the cost of Christian discipleship. Such preaching lacks ‘weight’.

Which all sounds very heavy theological talk but there you go. I’m back in earnest mode again …

So, to finish on a hilarious note (which makes my German wife roll about in mirth every time):

Question: ‘Where would you be without a sense of humour?’

Answer: Germany.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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?

The lost New Testament norm of empowering by the Spirit

A zinger of a comment about Calvinism versus Arminianism by Gordon Fee in a 1985 article, ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit: The issue of Separability and Subsequence’ in Pneuma: The Journal for the Society for Pentecostal Studies 7:2 (Fall, 1985), pp. 87-99.

In Church history it can scarcely be denied that

Christian life came to consist of conversion without empowering, baptism without obedience, grace without love. Indeed the whole Calvinist-Arminian debate is predicated on this reality, that people can be in the church, but evidence little or nothing of the work of the Spirit in their lives.

This critique applied to Calvinist-Arminian debates seems to me to be spot on, even if the word ‘whole’ pushes towards overstatement. So much of the C vs A debate is wrestling with the lived reality of nominal faith within the Church. Calvin’s theologising about the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ Church is an example. Who is ‘elect’ and who is not tends to be answered, especially within Calvinism, with more regard for abstract theological systems of thought (like TULIP) than by the lived evidence of the Spirit’s empowering presence within the Christian believer.

In the NT, while election is important, it is not developed into an abstract theory that somehow provides rational ‘proof’ of God being at work in someone’s life. No, it is the visible, empowering for life and ministry by the personal presence of God that shows God has accepted someone into his saving purposes.

It is the Spirit who is proof enough for Peter when confronted by what God was doing with Cornelius and the Gentiles ..

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”  [Acts 10:44-47]

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.