The uncomfortable particularity of biblical love

I’m doing some reading and writing on love and have been reflecting on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

I don’t know about you, but pretty well no-one that I know or have talked to is against the idea of love.  I mean who wants to be seen as a cynical old curmudgeon or a psycho like Billy Bob Thornton’s violent predator Lorne Malvo in the series Fargo?

But push a wee bit further and questions start to emerge:

What is love?

Who or what is it that we are loving? (love always has a focus, we have to love something)

What is the outcome or consequences of our love? How is love made visible in practice?

How have ideas of love developed and changed in history?

What are the dominant popular notions of love in our contemporary western culture?

Are all religions essentially about love? Are they simply different expressions of a universal human impulse to love?

This post isn’t going to answer any of those questions! It is going to link to that last one though.

Here’s a fact about love in the Old Testament – and the Bible in general.

If love always has to have a focus, in the Shema, Israel’s love is directed at a very particular person – YHWH – not an ill defined divine reality or some sort of faceless god.

A religious pluralism that suggests that an abstract form of love lies at the core of all (or most) religions,  reduces love to a de-personalised philosophical idea.

This is very far cry from the Shema. Love for God in the Bible is love for a very specific Lord who has revealed himself in history, has chosen Israel as his people, given them the Law and the Land, and is redeeming the world through the continuing story of that nation and its Messiah.

I came across this quote by Chris Wright

.. the sharp precision of the Shema cannot be evaporated into a philosophical abstraction or relegated to a penultimate level of truth. Its majestic declaration of a monotheism defined by the history-laden, character-rich, covenant-related, dynamic personhood of “Yahweh our God”, shows that the abstract and definitionally undefinable “being” of religious pluralism is really a monism without meaning or message.[1]

[1] Chris Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary. p.98

 

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Chris Wright on the Great Commission

At Belfast Bible College, we had the pleasure and privilege of having Chris Wright speak at our Celebration of Studies last Friday and then at a half day conference on “The GREAT COMMISSION: what does it really include?”

 

Chris Wright @ BBCChris was exploring a biblical theology of mission, engaging along the way with contested ideas of mission, and criticisms of his own approach as outlined most fully of course in his magnum opus The Mission of God.

Some notes and observations of the half-day conference: – and these do not therefore represent exactly what Chris said but one person’s interpretation ..

Both terms ‘holistic mission’ and ‘missional’ are useful but both can easily become too anthropocentric – they revolve around ‘us’ and what we must do. They do not in and of themselves resolve the question of what ‘holistic’ and ‘missional’ actually mean – they mean different things to different people.

Based on the Great Commission of Mt 28, Chris unpacked some key themes. The Great Commission if framed within the lordship and presence of God. It is both cosmic (all of creation – See Eph 1:9-10 etc) and  Christocentric (based on the Messiah’s saving work).

Mission is God’s activity, not primarily ours. It has both a global scope and cosmic scope. The mission of the church needs to reflect the scope and size of God’s mission.

As a foundation for understanding mission, Chris went to the 5 marks of mission first articulated by the Anglican Communion in the 1980s / 90s. In brief they are:

  1. Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
  2. Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
  3. Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
  4. Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
  5. Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)

All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ

Chris broke these down into 3 themes that he unpacked in turn:

A. BUILDING THE CHURCH

Including 1 and 2: evangelism and teaching

1. Evangelism

Is a call for people to submit to the lordship of jesus. Gospelizing is proclamation of the good news. Mission work is telling the story of Jesus and its call for response of repentance and faith. Christians are to be baptised in the name of Jesus and are to follow him as Lord, not other gods or idols. The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian mission.

This is in contrast to some understandings of ‘holistic mission’ where it means everything else apart from evangelism. (see photo). Holistic mission should never be shorthand for social justice or other activity divorced from evangelism.

Neither should it be the case where “mission” becomes just one option in the buffet bar of Christian activity: some are into evangelism, others not .. Rather Chris was arguing for the centrality of the gospel as an integrating centre.

2. Teaching

A big obvious reality from Scripture is that teaching is part of the mission of God: Jesus is the Rabbi. Paul the teacher / missionary. The OT is one huge story of theological education (after Andrew Walls). A unravelling teaching programme about God, ethics, identity, holiness, faith, covenant, creation and so on that forms an indispensable platform for understanding the significance of the NT.

[I like to see the whole NT as theological reflection on the OT in light of Jesus]

Chris linked to Paul and Apollos: BOTH were vital in the mission of God. Paul is the evangelist / church planter, Apollos is the teacher. Both are about mission work and extending the lordship of Christ in the world. Therefore both evangelism and teaching are part of the Great Commission

(including theological education – the challenge for theological education is to ask how much is it intrinsically missional?;  how are teaching and modules serving God’s mission in the world?)

For Pastors, weekly preaching is part of the Great Commission. It is not some sort of ‘secondary’ task to mission / evangelism.

This does NOT diminish the necessity of global cross cultural mission .. but traditional ‘mission work’ does not summarise or represent the true scope of the Great Commission.

B. SERVING SOCIETY: COMPASSION AND JUSTICE

Chris put compassion and justice under the heading of ‘Serving Society’.

To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” he argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.

Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)

Chris made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.

And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.

C. CARING FOR CREATION

The third theme of the Great Commission from Mt 28, Chris proposed, is that Jesus is Lord of heaven on earth. This global / cosmic reign of Christ is seen in Colossians 1 where the death of Christ on the cross has a cosmic dimension:

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.

It’s here, Chris said, that evangelicals above all people should be able to integrate things. They are by definition people passionate about Jesus,  the cross and the atonement – and should be able to affirm how this saving work of God has universal dimensions. Put another way, discipleship talked about in the Great Commission has the context of being worked out within a creation that God is going to redeem. This has implications for how discipleship is understood.

Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future ..

This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.

CONCLUSION

‘Mission’ is not done only by missionaries. All of God’s people are to be involved in the mission of God. There is a profound and damaging dualism in much traditional evangelical theology of mission where there is a dichotomy between those who do mission and those who do not. A better way to see things is the church as a body of people who are all on mission, with some at work overseas.

Just as the mission of God is broad in scope, so not everyone can do everything. Some will be missionaries and evangelists, some in creation care, some teachers and preachers, some working for justice and serving those in need.This is not to revert to the ‘buffet bar’ or ‘bag or marbles’ approach to mission where only some do evangelism and others do justice – the lordship of Jesus must be at the centre of all Christian life and witness.

Chris linked to Lesslie Newbigin here in mission best being understood as dimension of the church not as a specific task of the church. In other words, the church exists in mission; and within that existence are many expressions of mission. Just like within Science there are many expressions of the scientific enterprise; or similarly within the Arts.

So, how does this broad framework for understanding the mission of God help you think about your life and work – whatever it is that you do?

Do you find this liberating from old-style dualisms between the sacred and secular?

What do you see as potential weaknesses or dangers of this broad understanding of the Mission of God?

And, reflecting on this more, I wonder if certain jobs ‘fit’ more easily within the 5 marks of mission than others? Chris argued that those at all sorts of work are routinely engaged in ethics and issues that call for justice, truth and rightness and their calling needs to be seen as vocational within the mission of God, just as much as any missionary or pastor involved in ‘spiritual’ work. I agree with this – but do the 5 marks of mission [summarised under ‘Church work’, ‘serving society’ and ‘caring for creation’] still leave out most types of work that most people do day to day?

Yes, if you are a teacher, nurse, counsellor, carer, religious worker, environmental consultant – your work can fairly easily fit in the 3 themes. But I am not sure they really make space for someone working in IT, or accountancy, or business who are not doing church related stuff, nor caring for others pastorally or focused on looking after creation.  I guess I wonder if ‘serving society’ needs to move beyond a pastoral focus, to include bringing positive benefit to society – like creating jobs, giving the opportunity for the dignity of work, training people to develop in life skills and experience and so on.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Hermeneutics of the New Creation

Today, Kieron Lynch, a recent IBI MA graduate, gave a paper at our IBI ‘research group’ on ‘The Hermeneutics of the New Creation’ specifically addressing the question of what happens to the earth in the future new creation.

Before getting into it, a question linked to what was said the other day in this post:

How does your eschatology (belief about the future Christian hope) shape your life, your conduct, your mission here and now?

This is one of the biggest questions lying behind the New Testament and huge theological ramifications flow from how it is answered.

Some answer it emphasising radical discontinuity – the earth will be destroyed and remade. Everything will be utterly new. And this can impact how we look at things like environmental concern, social action, the scope of the gospel and so on. The purpose of the gospel can be taken to mean ‘a ticket to get the hell out of here’ …

Others answer emphasising continuity – the future new heavens and new earth are this creation made perfect. And then argue out the implications of this theology for environmental concern, social action, the scope of the gospel as including the redemption of this earth and all creation. The gospel is presented more in terms of holistic mission.

Kieron examined three key texts and focused on the future of this earth:

2 Peter 3:10-14: the classic discontinuity text talking about the annihilation of this earth? But rather than interpreting it as destruction and remaking of the earth, it is better understood as a purging fire that will purify this earth.

Romans 8:18-23: the classic continuity text – this creation will be liberated. It makes no sense at all for the creation to be liberated and then destroyed!

Revelation 21:1-5: a discontinuity and continuity text. The old does pass away, the new does come. A transition from one to the other (rather than annihilation).

There are parallels to the great resurrection passage in 1 Cor 15: the continuity between the old and new body, yet discontinuity that ‘flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God’.

And the big issue so often reversed in popular understandings of heaven is that the final destiny is God descending to the new earth to be with his people. The future is not some sort of ‘uncreation’ of disembodied souls floating around in the clouds.

Creation is good.

‘Man’s ultimate destiny is an earthly one’ George Eldon Ladd

So what are the implications?

Kieron followed people like Stephen Williams and Tim Chester who, while agreeing with some form of continuity rather than annihilation, caution against continuity as the main basis for social action, environmentalism and mission. In this they are pushing back against what they see as an over-continuity seen in Miroslav Volf and to a lesser degree in Chris Wright [and Rob Bell]

Rather our main basis for such action is LOVE.

Love for God. Love of others. Love for God’s creation.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A Wright on ‘World’ (3)

In a couple of previous posts I’ve been musing about continuity in the Bible between this world and the one to next.

And let me say these are musings – thought sketches and very much an ongoing conversation!

In this one the question in mind is what continuity might there be in terms of human culture between this world and the new creation?

Remember Chris Wright saying a text like Rev 21 was ‘more than metaphorical’ – the very best of human culture, purged of sin or imperfection will take its joyous place in the renewed new heavens and earth.

That’s a wonderful image with good textual support. What is the new Jerusalem but a fantastic image of a human cultural creation (the city) now perfected and renewed, beautiful and glorious in a new world where God once more dwells with man and man with God?

Here’s the ‘but’ – while agreeing with the idea of some sort of continuity and rejecting any form of world-denying pessimistic eschatology, there is also mind-bending discontinuity. This tension comes out well in Paul’s comparison of the ‘spiritual’ body versus the ‘natural’ body in 1 Corinthians 15. There is some form of continuity (the body) but flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom: the resurrection body is fitted for a different dimension of existence.

I’m questioning I guess some who seem to me to make a leap from ‘there is continuity between this world and the next’ to making this a central theological motivation for how we are to live in the here and now.

For example, some urban ministries make a big play of continuity in terms of the heavenly city being used to provide motivation, inspiration and theological underpinning for urban ministry in the here and now.

Or others do a similar thing with a strong continuity theology being used to underpin environmental action and concern.

But when you start asking any detailed questions it immediately becomes apparent that we don’t have much clue what we’re talking about.

‘What sort of purified and redeemed human achievements and culture will be in the new creation?’

– Buildings? What sort? What era? Just posh ones? Or mud huts?

– Art? I hope not just the endless religious Renaissance art of the Uffizi!

– Roads? Cars? What make, what period?

– Literature – where to begin? How can ‘this world’ literature with all its struggle with moral ambiguity, pain and sorrow ‘continue’ or ‘fit’ in a new creation?

– Music? Presumably – but Bach or Mumford & Sons or saint Bob or all of the above?

When someone says that the work we do now really matters in that it will ‘continue’ into the redeemed world to come, I’m not sure what that means.

I’m not for a moment denying the huge implications of the world to come in the ethical framework of the NT. I’m just pointing out the impossibility of seriously trying to detail how exactly continuity between this world and the one to come actually might look like.

I guest posted on this sort of thing a while ago on Jesus Creed and there was a good discussion. Scot also has a beautiful reflection on ‘Leaf by Niggle’ as a parable of the relationship between this world and the next and how what we do in ‘this world’ really matters and will be perfected in the next.

But that’s my point – that’s the best we can do. Tell parables, dream images, think in pictures, be inspired to live now with the hope of glory in our hearts.

As I think on this I’m not actually that convinced that you need the continuity argument to provide a basis for environmental concern – it is there in Genesis.

I’m not convinced you need a continuity theology to provide a foundation for urban ministry. Paul sure didn’t do that. His motive was maximising missionary effectiveness.

I’m not too convinced that you need a continuity argument for holistic mission – it is there in Jesus and his preaching on the kingdom of God: it’s there in Genesis and men and women made in the image of God.

I’m not too convinced you need a continuity argument to provide massive inspiration for living ‘the life of the future’ in ‘the here and now’ in a way that is pleasing and honouring to God.

As Stephen Williams argues, the greatest motive for all Christian service ‘now’ is built not so much a strong continuity between this world and the new creation, but on a passionate love for God and love for neighbour.

Comments and push backs, as ever, welcome!

A Wright on ‘World’ (2)

In a previous post I commented on Chris Wright’s article on ‘world’ in the Bible in the July edition of Evangelical Review of Theology and his argument for strong continuity between ‘this world’ and the ‘world to come’.

In another previous post I mentioned that we’re back from seeing some fantastic scenery in the west coast of the USA.  In this post I want to try to connect the two a wee bit.

One of the great secrets of America is that vast tracts of it are wilderness. We were numbed with scenery overload – hard to take more in. The grandeur of Yosemite, the awe inspiring Crater Lake [with less than awe inspiring clouds of mosquitoes], the daunting power of the Pacific Ocean, the imperious beauty of a bald eagle, the imposing grandeur of Mt Rainier, the raw violence of Mt St Helens, the humbling presence of the great Sequoias …

I found it a deeply spiritual experience – simplicity of camping, of hikes, of spending time in the outdoor world away from intense human presence (although of course never too far from its civilising comforts!). The beauty of creation, perhaps more clearly than any other thing, speaks of a world as it could be, as it should be … in harmony, in equilibrium, where every thing has its place.

This I find easy enough to connect with the world to come – a very recognisable, renewed creation – presumably with trees, and flowers, and grass, and mountains and rivers and lake and animals and so on. At the level of beauty I find little problem identifying with ‘all that is good in creation’ being part of the renewed new heavens and earth.

But of course this is simplistic. It is a sort of sterile ‘scenery picture postcard’ view of creation. The natural world is full of death hidden not far behind the beauty. A small example: in Yosemite, a raven snatched a baby squirrel from its mother on the roof of the visitor centre and pecked it to death for dinner in front of crowds of horrified adults and children. They all wanted to stop it but couldn’t. Such brutality and the desperate attempts of the mother to save her offspring jarred horribly with the whole image of unspoilt beauty towering around us on all sides. Nature red in tooth and claw gatecrashed the party.

OK you may say, in the new creation there will be no more death. Yes – but here immediately we cannot begin to conceive of life without death. The more specific sorts of questions you ask about continuity between this world and the one to come the more difficulty you have in coming up with any sort of coherent answers.

Don’t get me wrong – as I said last time, there is a strong case for continuity. But I wonder how much can be made of this given how absolutely little we can begin to guess about the world to come and how little specifics there are in Scripture which is necessarily metaphorical.

And if this is the case for the natural world, I would suggest it is even more impossible to say anything much about what sort of continuity there will be in terms of human culture – but I’ll come back to that in a final post on ‘A Wright on World’ [get it? :)]

A Wright on ‘World’ (1)

In the July edition of Evangelical Review of Theology, Chris Wright, who is chairman of the Lausanne Theology Working Group reflects on the word ‘World’ in the Bible.

This is part of an ongoing conversation about the contemporary meaning of three phrases in the Lausanne Covenant ‘The whole church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world’ for the upcoming Lausanne III Congress in Capetown 2010.

With typical lucidity, Wright unpacks five meanings of ‘world’ in the Bible.

  1. The world of God’s creation
  2. The world of humanity
  3. The world of sin and judgement
  4. The world of God’s salvation
  5. The world to come

The bit I want to talk about in a couple of posts is the link between 1-4 and 5.

Chris Wright is strong on arguing for continuity between this world and the new heavens and new earth.

He argues that it is NOT God’s plan to obliterate this created world, but to ‘purge, purify and renew all of creation’ (Is 65:17-25; Rom 8:18-25 and 2 Peter  3:10-13; Rev 21:1-4).

‘The world to come’ will not be a blank sheet … with all that humanity has accomplished in fulfilment of the creation mandate simply crumpled up and tossed in the incinerator.’

No, this continuity, argues Chris, is more than metaphorical. He suggests that all that a passage like Rev 21:24-7 is best read as saying that the citizens of the new creation will bring with them ‘the accumulated treasures of their civilisations and cultures’. He says

‘I think they {these texts} mean what they say.  The world of humanity, of nations and civilisations – so shot through with sin and pride, with violence and greed … will be purged of all of those things so that that which truly reflects the image of God will remain, for the glory of God and for our everlasting enrichment.’

There sure is strong biblical support for some sort of continuity between ‘this world’ and the ‘world to come’ and I want to do another post reflecting on how far this can be pushed. But certainly, obliteration, incineration or annihilation of this world does not make sense of those texts or of God’s declaration that the creation is ‘good’. Creation is to be redeemed, not destroyed.

So is this how you think of the world to come – a rather physical, recognisable sort of place filled with the best of human culture? And what difference does it make in the here and now how we understand the relationship between ‘this world’ and the ‘world to come’?

The God I Don’t Understand 15: End Times

The final chapter (and our final post) of Chris Wright’s book is on ‘The New Beginning’

He begins by saying that heaven is NOT home, it is a stop en route to a resurrection body and life in a renewed earth. The new creation (Rev 21:1) will be a different reality with both continuity and discontinuity (and its pretty hard to press the details too far here)

Discontinuity includes:

– no more sea (Rev 21:1)

– no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Rev 21:4)

– no more sin (Rev 21:7-8)

– no more curse (Rev 22:3)

But there is also continuity with the present order. The place is described as a GARDEN CITY:

Wright brings out the strong parallels here between Genesis and Revelation. The latter fulfils and completes the former.

– Gold and precious stones are in both places: Gen 2:12 – Rev 21:11, 19-21

– Eden is watered by 4 rivers: the city by the river of life

– Eden’s tree of life now reappears, spanning the river of life, and all now have access to it

The location is a city, the new Jerusalem – and we get into some theology of the city here. The heavenly city is a picture of the earthly city redeemed. This city has security, space and beauty. It is rich in all the things we long for in city life.

What is going to be in the city? Here Wright argues for a biblical holism instead of Greek dualism. In the biblical worldview everything is sacred. There is no ‘spiritual’ versus ‘earthly’ dualism. The new creation is much more concrete and earthy than many imagine.

But what about 2 Peter 3:10 and the obliteration of the earth by fire? He argues the best manuscripts point to the fire ‘exposing’ or ‘laying bare’ the earth, not burning it up (as in the KJV – which is not based on the best Greek texts). So this fire is more one of revealing all before the judgement of God, not a literal destruction of earth.

What actually ‘continues’ into the new creation? The best of human culture (see Is 60:5-11; Rev 21:24-27). A human world cleansed of all sin and imperfection and one that will develop and grow in ways that cannot be imagined as human life proceeds honouring and glorifying God.

The creation itself will no longer ‘groan’ (Rom 8:22) but will be liberated and at peace.

Who will be there? People from all the nations, reconciled through the cross. A redeemed and renewed humanity. Enjoying resurrection life (and resurrection bodies); the perfect presence of God; and the blessing of creative work in the service and worship of God.

Of course all this is in vision and symbolism. It is beyond our grasp fully to comprehend. The picture is one to inspire and encourage. Wright says it sets his pulse racing and imagination soaring. This is Christian hope. And this hope has profound implications for the present. He concludes saying that:

i. All our work now contributes to the content of the new creation. Work matters, society matters, justice matters .. this world is not just an arena for evangelising souls, all we do has eternal significance.

I agree with this – but when you start pushing, it actually is very difficult to say ‘how’ life in the here and now impacts the future. Stephen Williams has argued that the strongest biblical motive for Christian life in the present is simply love: love of God and of neighbour.

ii. All our behaviour here must be governed by the standards of the new creation. God’s people are called to be signs and witnesses of the glorious life to come in the here and now.

The book closes with a question about the new creation:

‘Are you investing your life and work in it and living now by its standards as a citizen of the city of God?’