The Age of Disappointment

There is much excellent writing by talented authors on the cultural, social and political challenges of our times. This is one of the best.

David Brooks in The Atlantic on ‘America is Having a Moral Convulsion’

It could also be called ‘The Age of Disappointment’ or ‘What Happens When Trust Disappears’ or ‘Why Trump is in power’ or even ‘The Disintegration of America’.

Some clips below – but well worth a read in full.

And for followers of Jesus, Brooks’ forensic analysis raises all sorts of questions. And not only in the USA – many of the trends he talks about are present throughout the West, and are certainly here in Ireland.

Christians are to be people of the gospel – of good news. The story Brooks tells is an unremitting tale of bad news. Societal fragmentation, injustice, fear, despair, depression, insecurity, anxiety, familial breakdown, rage, violence, selfishness, individualism, the collapse of a civic commons and institutional decay.

A tragedy for the church, it seems to me, is when it mirrors the distrust, fears and hopelessness of the world. Brooks’ comment about (some) American evangelicals is telling

Evangelicalism has gone from the open evangelism of Billy Graham to the siege mentality of Franklin Graham.

Any Christian leader reading this article and especially Brooks’ final paragraph, should, I think, be asking ‘How can I, how can our church, embody Christian virtues of trust, faithfulness, kindness, justice, love of God, neighbour and even enemy?

Not in order to ‘save’ America, but to fulfil the Christian calling of being people of the gospel, people of hope, faith and love.

From David Brooks

Trump is the final instrument of this crisis, but the conditions that brought him to power and make him so dangerous at this moment were decades in the making, and those conditions will not disappear if he is defeated.

… The emerging generations today … grew up in a world in which institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile. Children can now expect to have a lower quality of life than their parents, the pandemic rages, climate change looms, and social media is vicious. Their worldview is predicated on threat, not safety.

Unsurprisingly, the groups with the lowest social trust in America are among the most marginalized …

Black Americans have been one of the most ill-treated groups in American history; their distrust is earned distrust …

The second disenfranchised low-trust group includes the lower-middle class and the working poor…

This brings us to the third marginalized group that scores extremely high on social distrust: young adults. These are people who grew up in the age of disappointment. It’s the only world they know … In the age of disappointment, our sense of safety went away. Some of this is physical insecurity: school shootings, terrorist attacks, police brutality, and overprotective parenting at home that leaves young people incapable of handling real-world stress. But the true insecurity is financial, social, and emotional.

… In this world, nothing seems safe; everything feels like chaos.

… When people feel naked and alone, they revert to tribe. Their radius of trust shrinks, and they only trust their own kind. Donald Trump is the great emblem of an age of distrust—a man unable to love, unable to trust.

… By 2020, people had stopped seeing institutions as places they entered to be morally formed, Levin argued. Instead, they see institutions as stages on which they can perform, can display their splendid selves. People run for Congress not so they can legislate, but so they can get on TV. People work in companies so they can build their personal brand. The result is a world in which institutions not only fail to serve their social function and keep us safe, they also fail to form trustworthy people. The rot in our structures spreads to a rot in ourselves.

The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat … We’re seeing a few key shifts.

From risk to security

From achievement to equality

From self to society

From global to local

From liberalism to activism

For centuries, America was the greatest success story on earth, a nation of steady progress, dazzling achievement, and growing international power. That story threatens to end on our watch, crushed by the collapse of our institutions and the implosion of social trust. But trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts—by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned. Sometimes trust blooms when somebody holds you against all logic, when you expected to be dropped. It ripples across society as multiplying moments of beauty in a storm.

What have evangelicals to learn from Catholics?


vaticanI’ve been working my way through a very thorough book by an evangelical scholar on Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in order to write a review of the book for a journal.

This post isn’t primarily about that book, but it did raise a question. The structure of the book was a point by point assessment of official Catholic doctrine. It was fairly done. The author brought out commonalities as well as differences. There were substantial numbers of both.

Overall, the approach was to analyse and assess RC doctrine from a particular (Reformed) evangelical perspective. The thrust of the book was to conclude that despite many areas of agreement, there are multiple substantial areas of disagreement that should preclude any notion that the Reformation is over or that evangelicals and Catholics should cooperate in mission and witness.

Again, that conclusion is not what this post is about. It is more about a lingering question I was left with. It wasn’t asked in the book because it tended to be assumed that evangelical doctrine and practice is the yardstick by which to evaluate other systems. The critique was all flowing one way.

What has evangelical faith and practice got to learn from Roman Catholic faith and practice?

This is a self-critical question. It assumes that ‘we’ haven’t got it all right. It is open to learn from others. It implies a certain humility as we look at ourselves, our level of Christ-likeness, our churches, and our often disunited factions.

Despite that last sentence, this is not asking for a long list of the failures or weakness of evangelical faith and practice, nor is it asking for a similiar list of Catholic weaknesses. It’s framed postively …  So another way of asking this is

What for you are the ‘best’ aspects of Catholicism from which evangelicals can learn and be reformed by?

Comments, as ever, welcome.


You are what you love 7: an elegant, attractive polemical post-evangelical-low-church manifesto that doesn’t persuade

9781587433801We left Jamie Smith last time delivering a rocket at contemporary American youth ministry.  His alternative to expressivist extrovert entertainment is to go back to the future – to formative practices rooted in the historic worship of the church. Namely:

  1. Enfold youth within a congregation committed to historic Christian worship and multigenerational gathering. There is no difference, young and old are formed by “the ordinary means of grace offered in the Word and at the Table” (152). He quotes Christian Smith’s 2005 study of how critical it is for discipleship of young people to have a network of non-parental adults who know and care about them.
  2. Invite young people into formative disciplines “as rhythms of the Spirit”. To see formative worship practices as the heart of discipleship.
  3. To reject entertainment for service – that unites all in a common outward focused service of others. (He rightly comments how the entertainment model, often at high level and high cost provision of services to young people – are actually often segregationist, dividing people across socio-economic, class and even race lines.

We’re not at the end of the book – and there is one more post on great stuff about teaching – but I’m going to jump ahead with some overall critique.

I find myself with complex reactions to this book.

One the one hand …

First, I’ve loved and find myself drawn to and in very substantial agreement with most of what he is saying. It is largely ‘where I am at’. He says it elegantly and persuasively. Again and again what he says rings true to life. Such as :

that discipleship is about the heart first; about the richness and freedom of the liturgy; the need for formative worship; that so much of our teaching remains abstract and rational; embedding ourselves daily in the Great Tradition of the church; being part of the church catholic; intentionally building in habits that run counter to the secular liturgies of pervasive consumerism; of the immeasurable value of multi-generational worship; of the thinness and superficiality of evangelical entertainment ministries; that we are formed primarily by habits and spirituality at home; that there is a hunger and thirst among many evangelicals I know (and I include myself) for a deeper, historically and theologically shaped spirituality than they currently experience …..

Second, he has rightly identified a very real problem. I remember posting a good while ago about the documented struggles of people to maintain spiritual growth within evangelical churches. This book is very much in that territory. Smith is right to point to a crisis in evangelical spirituality. His argument that such evangelicals desperately need to find real sustaining depth within ancient liturgical traditions is I think persuasive.

BUT on the other hand ..

Even as I have enjoyed the book, learnt lots, will continue to value much of what is in it (especially about us being affective worshippers) … I have three major problems with the book.

First, I am afraid  it is effectively sectarian in a reverse sort of way. By this I mean that Jamie Smith’s disenchantment with much of low church non-liturgical non-denominational evangelicals results in a very erudite, imaginative and heartfelt manifesto to leave that world behind. He’s effectively writing that sector of the church off.

More than once he states that if you want formative worship find a liturgical community. It is basically a call to leave low-church worship and find a community that is practicing the historic Christian liturgy and the church calendar; ideally in a building that is in keeping with ancient Christian tradition.

In other words, this is a polemical “post-evangelical-low-church” manifesto.

Within our context in Ireland it would take the form of a call to Anglicanism or Catholicism. Methodism perhaps? But Presbyterians don’t do liturgy much if at all, independent evangelicals neither, nor Baptists nor charismatics nor Pentecostals. Most in fact, rightly or wrongly, are intentionally never going to go there …

It brings to mind John Stott and Martyn Lloyd Jones’ head-to-head back in the late 1960s (I’ve read about this in books I hasten to add) … L-Jones was all for evangelical purity and leave the ‘compromised’ historic denominations behind if you want to be a ‘true’ evangelical. Stott, the Anglican, rejected this saying evangelical teaching and worship can be found within and without the historic churches. They parted ways on that one.

Smith, for me, is taking the Lloyd-Jones line in reverse. Now this is a very interesting reflection of where evangelicalism is at, but it is still a sectarian move. Just as ‘pure’ low-church worship has run away from ‘dead liturgy’, here is Smith extolling liturgy and criticising the dead-end of non-liturgical worship.

Second, the book is not attempting to build bridges, or to suggest reform of low-church worship. His “all or nothing” approach is unfortunate.

Third, there is something unconvincing about the appeal to the power of liturgy within a historically embedded community. Too much weight is put on it here. It simply has not sustained authentic Christian discipleship within many historic churches. They sadly have often been lacking life, love, passion, heart, mission, and concern for the poor. There is more at play here than Smith allows.

Theologically – and ironically for a book on love – I think he does not give the presence of love within the community in the power of the Spirit a prominent enough role. In other words, where there is the Spirit at work, love will be evident. A church may have hit-or-miss worship, flimsy teaching, haphazard discipleship etc … but if there is a deep love for God, an outward focused love for others – the poor, the wider community, love across boundaries – then there is life, mission, and an embodied witness to the presence of God

Does not love cover a multitude  of sins?

So, for all my personal attraction to the forms of Christian life that Smith espouses (I guess I’m a closet Anglican charismatic anabaptist if there can be such a thing), I’d take that flawed Christian community over one that has all the liturgical depth you like but little heart-love for God and others …

Comments, as ever, welcome.



The Bible in Irish memory (2) and contemporary mission

Miriam Moffitt has written two major books on 19th Century Protestant missions – mainly those in Connemara done by The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (ICM).

soupers and jumpersThe first is Soupers and Jumpers: The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937 (2008)

ICMThe second is The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics 1849-1950 (2010)

They tell the remarkable, contentious, important and sometimes wild story of the what Desmond Bowen called the ‘Protestant Crusade’: full of larger than life characters like Alexander Dallas, riots, violence; public debates; incredible mobilisation of resources and people; the desperate tragedy of the Famine; courageous and passionate conviction; outrageous rhetoric and the increasing politicisation of religious identity throughout the century.

What follows are some observations and questions not a summary of her arguments and conclusions.

When we look back into the past, we often tend to assume that ‘today’ is normal and those guys back then sure did believe some strange stuff. This is what C S Lewis delightfully called Chronological Snobbery.

Of course in a few decades some folks yet to be born may well be thinking the same about us. I wonder what they will point out? Any suggestions?

In other words, it’s tempting to look at the work of ICM and other evangelical Protestant missionaries of those days wonder how could they have been so wildly over-confident and naive to think something like the following (and this is a very broad sketch full of generalisations – remember blog posts are discussion starters not carefully worded essays! I know these events are still contentious.)

Being taught to read the Bible alone will lead to the Catholic poor being set free from their ignorance and the control of their clergy in order to convert to true vital religion [conversion is generally a lot more complex than this]

The desperate tragedy of the Famine was an opportunity to give alleviate starvation and at the same time encourage the missionary development of Bible education and schooling among the Irish peasantry [such actions then, and even more in subsequent folk memory, opened up their missionary activity to the charge of Souperism – conversion through a combination of bribery and desperation. Moffitt wonders if social action had been less obviously and aggressively linked to missionary agendas would results have been much more positive in the long term?]

With enough missionary effort the vast majority of the Irish Catholic population will see the error of their ways and turn to biblical Christianity [this led to exaggerated claims of success that failed to stand up to scrutiny. Evangelism was done by negatively pointing to the errors of Rome]

These new converts will become loyal citizens of the British Empire whose greatness and moral strength is derived from its Christian foundation. Thus the fate of Ireland will be secured and solidified within the Empire in the face of the threat of Catholic Emancipation [a false hope – Emancipation led to disestablishment and ultimately to Irish independence]

If all of Ireland were Protestant, most of society’s ills would be healed. A quote from a Presbyterian Church in Ireland mission report from the late 19th Century said if “Ireland were Presbyterian, instead of Romanist, oh what an Ireland that would be!” [I wonder who would say this with such confidence today with our awareness of the brokenness and fallibility of religious institutions]

The imminent return of Christ and the conflict with the Antichrist (papal power) is unfolding now in the crisis facing Ireland and compels true Christians to urgent missionary zeal to save lost Roman Catholics, even in remote places like Achill Island (Edward Nangle). [Is it just my perception or is very little said about eschatology and the return of Christ these days? Maybe in response to such confident schemes such as Nangle’s that don’t seem to have panned out? Apparently he said that Christ would return by 2016 at the latest!!]

Social, political and cultural factors in mission are virtually irrelevant: once Catholics understand the truth of the gospel as revealed in the Bible they will willingly and automatically leave their culture, community, and identity behind to become Anglican Protestants. [Moffitt makes a couple of points here: The ICM seemed to have given little thought on how an Established Church with many landed gentry could assimilate and embrace thousands of new poor Catholic converts. The missionaries also seem to have largely discounted the impact of Protestant missions being funded from British sources. This was naive at best, arrogant at worst].

And here’s a final point which Moffitt makes that, if true, is the most telling one:

The ICM missionary campaign of the 19th century was more answering the religious, social, cultural and political needs of Protestants than the needs of Catholics. [In other words, while done out of a sincere religious desire to see Catholics saved from apostasy, the wider context of increasing threat to Protestant hegemony posed by a revitalised Catholic church and the rise of organised Catholic political consciousness meant that a subtext of Protestant mission was self-preservation.]

The story Moffitt tells, whether you agree with all the details or not, raises searching questions for anyone involved in contemporary mission [and I believe in the continuing legitimacy of Christian mission!]:

– what are our motives in mission? What domestic agendas might lie behind engagement in mission? Can these honestly be identified and acknowledged? 

– how can the temptation to exaggerate missionary success and significance to funders be restrained? What does integrity in mission look like?

– how can mission be done with ‘no strings attached’ for the blessing and benefit of the ‘recipient’ (both physical and spiritual)?

– has some hard thinking been done about the cultural context of mission and significant potential barriers to mission identified and action taken?

– do we think ‘we’ have all the truth and all the answers as we engage in mission? Is our vision of mission a one-way street? What is our ‘posture’ in mission? 

– has thought and prayer gone into how to ’embrace’ and welcome and disciple potential new believers within a community of faith?

– How can mission be ‘led’ by the good news of the gospel rather than attacking the beliefs of others? Where and when is there a need for confrontation in mission?

What do you think? Are these useful questions for a church or organisation to be thinking about in light of Irish history? What might you add or change?

Christianity as life-lite and other defeater beliefs

In Northern Ireland there is a phrase that someone is ‘good livin‘. I don’t think it exists south of the border* (I’m not sure if it exists anywhere else actually).

There’s a lot of meaning and history in that wee saying.

It’s shorthand to describe someone who is ‘born again’ or ‘religious’. What that means in practice is rather vague, God doesn’t really come into it – he is only there in the background. The good living person is perceived not to be into certain behaviour as they try to live a good life.

Some guys I spend time with sometimes apologise to me when they swear more profusely than usual because I am perceived to be ‘good livin’. It’s sort of assumed ‘good livin’ people are different in that they don’t swear, tell dirty jokes, sleep around, drink too much etc and might get offended or shocked by such behaviour.

This is Christianity as vaguely moralistic, mildly negative and mostly inoffensive. A bit of a boring normal life. Life-lite if you like.

And at the same time the good livin person is trying to be better than others who are aren’t good livin.

The motive to be ‘good livin’ is left unexamined. Being Northern Ireland, with its embedded evangelical history, there is enough familiarity with born again salvation stories to know that some people, for whatever reason,  ‘get religion’ and are not the same again.

Seeing Christianity as merely an attempt at ‘good livin’ is a peculiar Northern Irish version of what Tim Keller would call a ‘Defeater Belief’. A belief, once held, that means those who hold it are innoculated against authentic New Testament Christianity. There is an inbuilt resistance to the gospel because it has already been dismissed as implausible before being seriously considered.

For Christianity as merely a mixture of being nice, bland, yet vaguely superior to those who aren’t good livin, isn’t exactly very compelling or attractive is it?

 What are some defeater beliefs that you encounter?

* I guess there is a parallel to Catholic culture and talk of ‘the Religious’ – which refers to nuns and priests; the religious professionals in it for life at the expense of all worldly distractions like sex and marriage and making money. Religion here is for the really serious types who are willing to sacrifice all to God. Normal people are only religious amateurs who need to (or at least should) turn up to Mass on a reasonably regular basis. The phrase ‘the Religious’ reveals the gulf between laity and clergy in Irish (Catholic) Christendom. In the past of course this calling was admired and venerated. There was nothing more to be proud of than a son going into the priesthood. Now a religious life is (for most?) an incomprehensible waste of a life.

Evangelical sausage-maker theology

Step 1: insert the Bible

Step 2: crank the handle, and grind the Bible into a series of propositions.

Step 3: arrange the propositions into nice neat pristine doctrine.

This ‘sausage maker’ approach to theology is, laments Michael Bird, the theological method of ‘most evangelicals’ and it amounts to little more than a ‘naive biblicism’.

This was certainly a ‘default’ perspective that I held for years. I subconsciously assumed this rationalistic dissection of the Bible was the way to do theology and didn’t really know any differently.

I guess you could say I’m a recovering biblicist. How about you? 😉

There are a couple of assumptions floating around such a theological methodology:

– the Bible is all you really need to do theology

– the main purpose of theology is to distil propositional truth to be believed

– the actual form of Scripture is a bit like a complex riddle to be un-coded and sorted out into neat logical categories

The problem is that this sort of theology ‘de-stories’ the Bible. It detaches it from an overarching narrative and flattens its variegated genres and sub-plots into a uni-dimensional source book of truth. It gets pretty sterile pretty quickly.

Bird mentions Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology as an example of such biblicism – a sort of theology, despite some strengths, that is ‘derived from a concordance’. Gotta admit it is not one of my favourite theology books.

Vanhoozer gets quoted

“Scripture is not simply a propositional shaft to be exegetically mined and theologically refined like so much textual dross to be purified into systems of philosophy or morality. On the contrary, both the form and content of the New Testament are elements in the divine drama of revelation and redemption.”

And Bird puts it this way in arguing against naive evangelical biblicism:

“We take Scripture with the utmost seriousness, but we do Scripture a disservice if we attend only to it. It is Scripture understood in the light of the regula fidei that will enable us to bring together the Christian canon and the Christian community in a fruitful exchange. Similarly, we need to believe propositions about God, but our theology is about more than propositions, for it encompasses our relationship with God, our mission in the world, and our performance of the drama that we find ourselves in as Christians.” (80)

Bird’s method in constructing an evangelical theology is to;

  1. Define the evangel
  2. Relate the gospel to the main foci if Christian theology (God, person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, humanity, church, last things etc)
  3. Embark on a creative dialogue between the sources of theology (the primary authority of Scripture, but also tradition, natural revelation, engagement with cultural context and so on)
  4. Describe what the loci look like when applied and appropriated in light of the gospel – when theology is not only believed cognitively but lived.
  5. Engage in a continuing spiral between theology and practice: learning is applied, but in the application new things are learnt and more questions arise. So we do more theology by listening to Scripture, traditions and teachers and so on.

So Bird says he is offering ‘simply the first steps toward thinking aloud about how we perform the divine drama in the communities of faith we find ourselves in.’

My comment, theology in this sense is not ‘fixed’ but ‘alive’. It is developing, growing, questioning, exploring and learning because this is what life is like.

Bird on gospel

Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: a biblical and systematic introduction arrived on my desk this morning.

His project is to construct an authentically evangelical theology shaped around the gospel (=evangel). In his prolegomena he argues the following – and how persuaded are you by what he says here?:

1. A theology which begins with the gospel will be defined and shaped by the gospel

2. The gospel possesses an experiential and logical priority over all other doctrines – the gospel is where we first experience the salvific benefits of a redemptive relationship with God.

3. A gospel focussed theology will help us to stay centered, navigating for example between liberalism and fundamentalism

4. The gospel is a natural integrative motif for Christian theology  and Bird is well aware that many others have been tried: Barth (self-disclosure of the Triune God); Grenz (the community of God); Calvin (the glory of God); Reformed systems (covenant); Dispensationalists (kingdom); Erickson (magnificence of God); Luther (justification by faith).

5. The shape and content of the NT itself points to the gospel as the integrative core of Christian faith (the gospel of God in Rom 1:1 and elsewhere).

6. The new birth by the regenerating power of the Spirit is a fulfilment of the promise of the gospel. Missiology is gossiping the gospel. Apologetics is defending the gospel. Ecclesiology is study of the gospelized community and so on

7. The Christian canon is gospel shaped. Genesis to Revelation; the gospels as the foundation of the NT; the gospel of Rom 1:1-4 at the beginning of Romans. This is what Bird calls ‘gospelesque architecture’.

8. The gospel is the hermeneutical lens through which we read Scripture. The Bible is read in light of the euangelion that lies at its heart (Francis Watson). The gospel is the interpretative grid for Scripture. Irenaeus called it ‘the ground and pillar of our faith’. It is, says Bird, ‘the lens through which we understand the mission of the Triune God and his work for us in salvation.’ (45)

A closing quote

It is, dare I say, the beauty of the gospel that matures our theological reflection on who God is toward us in Jesus Christ. (41)

Irish Inter-Church Meeting and post-Vatican II Catholicism

Not much time to blog recently. Last Thursday I was invited to speak at the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM) in the beautiful Dromantine demesne near Newry.

The IICM began in 1973 during some of the darkest days of violence in the North and also a time of new openness to ecumenical dialogue in the post Vatican II era.

The IICM is a place where the Roman Catholic Church and members of the longer established Irish Council of Churches (ICC) meet. There are about 14 member churches of the ICC. The IICM is made up 50% representatives of the Irish Episcopal Conference and 50% representatives from the ICC (various non-Catholic churches).

So it was a novel experience to address a group including a Cardinal, Catholic and Anglican archbishops & bishops and representatives from many other churches. I wore a purple shirt to try to fit in 😉

The theme was Vatican II fifty years on. In the morning, Jim Corkery, a Jesuit scholar, gave an excellent talk on ‘Vatican II and its reception in Ireland’, focusing on Vatican II’s ‘continuity and discontinuity’ with what preceded it and how this has led to ongoing struggles and tensions between progressive and conservative strands of post Vatican II Catholicism. A response was given by Archbishop Richard Clarke, the new Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

In the afternoon I was up on ‘Vatican II in Contemporary Ireland: a Protestant Perspective’ and a response was given by Brendan Leahy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Galway.

I nicked the idea of structuring the talk around a number of ‘theses’ from my ex-Prof of Christian Doctrine, Tony Lane (who is celebrating 40 years at London School of Theology formerly London Bible College) from when I heard him give a talk on RC-evangelical relationships a few years ago. Here are the nine (not 95) I used:


The point here is that no-one can speak for Protestantism. I could only speak from a personal perspective as a Christian, a Presbyterian, an evangelical.


Protestants have a unique theological and historical relationship with ‘mother church’.


Protestants and evangelicals have lots to be self-critical of (and there is a lot of critical self-reflection going on)


While the Catholic Church may not disown the past (Trent for example) it has reinterpreted the past quite radically in Vatican II


Contemporary Roman Catholicism has multiple strands, some in tension with each other; for example an inclusivity that tends to universalism alongside an exclusive claim to be the one true Church.


Especially in the USA, but increasingly elsewhere including Ireland, there are all sorts of overlap, dialogues, partnerships, use of common resources etc.


Other factors are changes in society, increased personal choice, changes in global Christianity, changes in evangelicalism.


i.                   Narratives of rejection

ii.                 Narratives of irrelevance

iii.               Narratives of constructive critical partnership

iv.               Narratives of Conversion (the Reformation is over)


Christendom assumptions for Protestants or Catholics just won’t cut it in a post-Christendom context. What’s needed is emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ, Scriptures, personal faith and a willingness to engage in a radical rethink around church and mission.

Some comments:

Thanks to the IICM committee and esp Mervyn McCullough for the invite and warm welcome.

Some evangelicals get nervous about engaging in ecumencial discussions with the Catholic Church in particular. Some I guess for theological reasons – a refusal to dialogue and so somehow ‘legitimise error’? Some I guess for practical reasons – the ‘gap’ is too large to bridge and there are more pressing priorities? Some I guess over concerns about a (hidden?) goal of visible structural unity? Some I guess over a worry that truth is sidelined at the expense of a superficial unity?

All I can say is that there isn’t any great reason to fear ‘being ourselves’ and being open to listen and learn in robust discussion with others different from us.

Truth and grace are not mutually incompatible!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Keller, gospel, and Center Church 2

In chapter 2 of Center Church Tim Keller cautions that ‘The Gospel is Not A Simple Thing’.

He warns against a one-size-fits-all gospel presentation that serves as a test of orthodoxy. There is clearly an agreed gospel content in the NT, yet the gospel writers present the gospel in a number of ways. The chapter has strong echoes of Keller’s article ‘The Gospel in all its forms’ available online here.

Complementary ways the NT talks about the one gospel

Gospels: the synoptics talk of the kingdom. Keller says this is more corporate and future. The kingdom has come and takes shape in social and behavioural ways (no mention of healings and spiritual conflict that are so evident in the Synoptics). John – talks of eternal life; inward and personal aspects of the kingdom.  Eternal life and kingdom are not synonyms, but they both talk of entering (kingdom / eternal life) and this involves faith and new life. Entering the kingdom / eternal life ‘are basically the same move’.

Paul: Keller says when Paul presents the gospel he does so in terms of justification / law court / penalty for sin (well he does in two of his letters, Romans and Galatians but it is one of several ways Paul explains the atonement). Keller says this is not a different gospel, but a complementary way to communicate it.

“At the heart of all the biblical writers’ theology is redemption through substitution.”

(He must mean NT  writers here? Yes substitution is important but I’m not so sure that atonement in the NT can be reduced down this one theme. Jesus is also our representative and example to name two others.)

Connecting the gospel to the Bible’s themes

What I like so much about Keller is his evangelistic heart, his focus on grace, his non-polemical approach to those he disagrees with (contra some others I can think of), and his thoughtful and fruitful theology. In short, Keller has something often overlooked and rarely talked about in evangelical spirituality – wisdom.

You see a wise approach in how he is sensitive to the need to read the Bible through both systematic and redemptive-historical lenses rather than set up one up in conflict to the other. Indeed, it seems to me that a lot of the sharpness in contemporary debates over ‘gospel’ are to do with these two ways of reading the Bible being set over against each other. (You see it in John Piper’s systematic response to NT Wright’s more narrative approach in his [Piper’s] book on justification for example).

So while Keller sees the gospel in primarily soteriological terms (God, sin, Christ, faith) that focus on what I must do to be saved, he sees all too clearly that this, on its own, can end up detached from the context and story of the Bible and the biblical books, and end up with reductionistic and individualistic gospel formulas. This is the approach that has dominated evangelicalism.

Therefore Keller says it is a ‘both and’ situation. We also need to read the Bible through a narrative lens (redemptive-historical): the Bible as a story, creation, fall, Israel, her Messiah, Spirit, God’s people, new creation. The gospel is presented as creation, fall, promise and prefigurement, Israel, Christ’s redemption and restoration. It brings out, Keller says, the purpose of salvation, namely new creation.

But read on its own, Keller warns, it can emphasise narrative and community, but downplay the need for personal faith and blunt the sharp edge between law and grace.

[I’m not so sure of his argument here. Personal salvation is an intrinsic part of the story. A redemptive-historical approach is much closer to the actual form of the Bible as given to us. It gives a much needed corrective to the overwhelming dominance of systematic categories within evangelical soteriology.]

So Keller wants to connect the Bible’s multiple story lines with more systematic gospel questions. The Bible’s story lines (themes) are to be read through key gospel questions. These questions are soteriological: (my words here) – ‘what is wrong?’, ‘how has God put it right?’, ‘what is our response?’ type questions.

The drawback here is that multiple Bible themes tend to be read through a set soteriological framework that can, if not done very well, tend to flatten out the Bible into a predictable and rather uni-dimensional grid of salvation. This can lead to the rather too familiar repetitive one-size-fits-all gospel formula that was / is repeated at evangelical ‘gospel meetings’ every week; mostly preaching to the converted who know all the right answers beforehand anyway!

However, Keller does this sort of gospel preaching brilliantly. He is enormously gifted and bringing the text to life and connecting it to deep themes of the heart. His preaching allows a consistent yet flexible ‘gospel reading’ of the Bible that gives weight to the richness and diversity of Scripture and allows the gospel to be presented and contextualised in many ways. There is variety and richness in this approach.

Keller gives three examples of Bible themes and relates each to a gospel framework of what God wants for us (creation); what happened and what went wrong with the world (Fall); what God has done in Jesus to put things right (redemption); how history will turn out at the end (Restoration).

  1. Exile and Homecoming
  2. Yahweh and covenant
  3. Kingdom of God

So to take one example, here’s a synopsis of Keller’s kingdom / gospel framework:

  • The kingdom theme shows us our need for a liberator from slavery. [In St Bob’s words ‘you gotta serve somebody’].
  • The story of much of Israel is the search for a true leader. But they end up in slavery, idolatry and exile.
  • The hope of the OT is of a Messiah who would bring freedom.
  • The story of the NT is that Jesus is the ‘divine king returning to take up his kingdom’.
  • The power of the king is seen in liberating from false masters and enslaving idols [surprisingly again, no mention of the power of the kingdom in terms of spiritual conflict, healings].
  • Wrong priorities (power, money) are re-ordered in Christ’s kingdom by generosity, service and humility.
  • His kingdom is entered in repentance and new birth and becoming like a child.
  • Those in the kingdom look forward to the final liberation of all things when ‘The freedom and joy of the kingdom of heaven will come to earth.’ (43).

Comments, as ever, welcome