On Joy

What image comes to mind when you think of joy?

I can’t think about joy without picturing a couple sitting around a kitchen table in an anonymous Communist-style tower block apartment back in Ceaucescu’s Romania. They had lost jobs, been in prison, were regularly hounded by the Securitate, had poor health and little or no access to decent medical care.

They were (and are) two of the most joyful people I have ever met.

Joy is a hard thing to define. You know it when you see it – and know when it is missing. As I suggested in the last post, I’m suspicious of the idea that joy can be so deep down that it never surfaces in visible, tangible ways. Joy, I think, can’t really exist without a delight in life and in other people. It’s a sense of happiness and gladness that can’t be contained. It is not superficial cheeriness, but neither is it possible without smiles, humour and laughter.

There is a lot of joy in the New Testament – in Jesus, John, Paul and others. I did a little study of joy (chara) and grouped some examples into different categories (this is not exhaustive and not researched – just a quick sketch).

  1. Joy at the promise of the Messiah

Luke 1:14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth

Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

  1. Joy at the word / gospel / kingdom of God

Mat 13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy

Mat 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Luke 8:13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.

1Pe 1:8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory

  1. Experiencing the joy of God

Mat 25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

  1. (Mega) Joy at the resurrection

Mat 28:8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Luke 24:41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Luke 24:52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy

  1. Joy in Mission

Luke 10:17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Acts 8:8 So there was much joy in that city.

Acts 15:3 So being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.

  1. Joy in and through Jesus

John 15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 16:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

John 16:22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive that your joy may be full.

John 17:13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

  1. Joy in the actions and goodness of God

Acts 12:14 Recognizing Peter’s voice in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

  1. Joy in the Spirit

Acts 13:52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

1Th 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit,

  1. Joy in Relationships within the family of God

Rom 15:32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

2Cor 7:13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.

2Cor 8:2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Philippians 1:3-4 I thank God in my remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy

Philippians 2:29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men

2Ti 1:4 As I remember your tears I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.

Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

2Jo 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.

  1. Joy in Spiritual Maturity and Progress of others

2Cor 1:24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

2Cor 7:4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.

Philippians 1:25 Convinced of this I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,

Philippians 2:2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brothers whom I love and long for my joy and crown stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

Col 1:11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,

1Th 2:19-20 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

Heb 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant [joyful], but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1John 1:4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

3John 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

  1. Joy in the midst of suffering and persecution

Heb 10:34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Jam 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds

  1. The Joy of Jesus

Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Perhaps there are things that strike you afresh as you read that list. Here are some that occurred to me in no particular order:

i. Christian joy is, well .. Christian. It is centered on the good news of Jesus – as promised Messiah, the faithful saviour, the risen Lord who ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross.’

ii. Joy has to come from somewhere. It is a virtue that needs sustaining, And in a Christian framework it is tied to the Spirit who gives new life. Joy is a sign of the Spirit at work. Joylessness is a sign that the Spirit has vacated the building. This is why it is almost impossible to separate joy from other fruit of the Spirit.

iii. Christian joy flows from rejoicing in the spiritual progress of others and seeing fruit in mission. It is other focused. Many instances of joy are relational, radiating from deep friendships and a common identity as followers of Jesus.

A personal aside here. This week at IBI we have been celebrating with students the end of the academic year. Many have shared stories of what they have learnt and experienced at College – and it has been humbling and deeply encouraging to hear again and again students say that they have been transformed, challenged, envisaged, and impassioned. And the other consistent theme is joy in deep friendships made – along with a lot of affectionate mockery, craic, fun and lack of proper respect for their teachers may I say …

iv. Ultimately Christian joy depends on the good news of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians can be and should be joyful in the world of tears because this world does not and will not have the last word.

The unsmiling dour Lurgan Spade Christian who has a deep deep joy is I’m afraid ultimately life-denying and gospel denying. Unattractive gloom does not speak of hope, love, joy and transformation. It speaks more of a fatalism and hope-lessness, a gospel of bad news rather than good.

There is not one instance I could see where joy resulted from a material thing or experience.  This is not to go down a grim ascetic route, God created the world and it was very good. It is just to note that the focus in the NT is joy revolving around the serious things we discussed in the last post. The material (fallen) world as a source of joy is relatively unimportant.

I wonder here how much my life – and the church in the West – finds sources of joy largely within the world on its own terms. Things like good food, friends, holidays, creation, slick technology, a home etc. And so, bit by bit, we find it harder and harder to imagine joy that does not depend on these things?

v. Christians are to be joyful because they belong to that new world, right in the midst of this old one. Not in an escapist sense – exactly the opposite. They are to be serious people of hope, and justice, and mission and courage because God is and will redeem this gloomy serious world into a new world of joy.

Joy, theologically framed, is therefore a foretaste of the world to come. We love and laugh and rejoice now because of the joy set before us.

9780567669964Back to the conversations between Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas one last time. The book finishes on an entirely appropriate note – that of joy. I love what SH says here (not sure how he knows he has only 5 or so years to live)..

Joy isn’t something you try to have. It’s an overwhelming that you suddenly find yourself taken up in an activity that just offers satisfaction that you could not have imagined as possible. Yesterday when I came in and you and I looked at each other it was joy, wasn’t it? I find it when I’m at worship, over and over, the joy of having been made part of this wonderful world that otherwise could not be imagined. I find it in the joy of the work we have been given as theologians. Funny as it is! How silly to think you could know how to talk about God? But that’s what we’ve been given to do. I just find it a constant surprise. To speak in another key, I wonder what it means that I’ll be 76 in July. I don’t have more than five— or a little more— years to live. I thought I would be afraid of death, and I may be, but I haven’t experienced it that way yet. Probably because I still don’t know I’m going to die. I think, one, I have had such a wonderful life and, two, whatever Heaven may be, it will be joy. I don’t know what it means to be part of that, but I am sure it is there, because I think that all that is is surrounded by joy. [286]

Brock later quotes from Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew,

The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed— but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.

And Hauerwas responds that in effect being caught up in joy means “the great adventure” of refusing “to let the old world overwhelm the world that we have been given in Christ”.

The Christian life as the great adventure of joy – I like that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

You are what you love 3 (or how to develop your love life): Jesufied worship?

9781587433801In chapter 3 of Jamie Smith’s creative and thought-provoking book is called ‘The Spirit meets you where you are: historic worship for a postmodern age’.

The argument so far: we are what we love; our hearts need constant recalibrating and redirecting; we live in a culture of competing loves or ‘secular liturgies’; we need to train our hearts to keep them rightly directed at a certain telos – the kingdom of God. We can do this by counter-liturgies, embodied communal practices.

In the words of the boss ‘Everyone’s got a hungry heart’. springsteenThe question is what our hearts are hungry for. The Bible is full of this sort of imagery. Take Is 55:1-2

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Jesus uses similar language in the Beatitudes

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”.

And in John 6:35

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

But we can’t, says Smith, necessarily think our ways to new appetites. What we currently desire has been acquired over time and has been habituated by routines and customs.

Changing desires takes practice. Counterformative practice. (61) Smith tells the story of his slow intellectual assent to the need to eat and exercise more healthily. But it was only with discipline, with others, with enforced new practices, that slowly his desires changed.

Old habits die hard. Change means submitting ourselves to practices that confront and change our most engrained habits.

Our sanctification – the process of becoming holy and Christlike – is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape (65)

Leaving aside the question of who on earth listens to a book on tape any more (!) Smith shifts to give some practical suggestions for spiritual change of appetites. And I really like the focus here because he links to the Spirit of God. He calls this ‘Habituations of the Spirit’.  Liturgical practices that the Spirit can use to retrain our loves. But Smith want to emphasise this is no lone process but happens best within the worship of the church.

He anticipates objections here. Liturgy is a bad word for many Protestants.  Worship is seen as little more than singing. But the response says Smith is to be properly liturgical. The point of liturgy is to create a space for the Spirit to meet with his people. Worship is about God, his activity and our response.

Liturgy gives form to our response to God’s love and grace. In classic Reformed language, Smith argues that even our response is made possible by God’s Spirit.

He’s critical of much contemporary evangelical worship which reduces participants to passive spectators, where humans are the only actors. This is worship as expressivism – we express ourselves and we are at the centre making worship happen. This sort of worship also usually happens in a context that is designed to make us feel comfortable and at home. So the church looks like a mall or a coffee shop.

But, says Smith, this misses how these forms are not somehow neutral – they are embedded in secular liturgies of consumption, desire for more, with me at the centre. And such human expressivism cannot grasp what liturgy is about – it seems to be insincere pre-planned and tantamount to earning God’s favour. The problem here says Smith is that they cannot see how they have put ‘us’ at the heart of worship rather than God.

He calls a lot of modern worship services little more that “Jesufied versions of secular liturgies.” The focus on experience reinforces the gospel of consumerism and makes Jesus one more commodity. Amen to that.

Traditional liturgical practices are not just old, they are rooted in a different understanding of worship. God is at the centre, we encounter him. It is top down rather than bottom up. Smith calls this the gymnasium where God retrains our hearts (77)

What he is saying here is that the form or worship matters. This is not about ‘style’ – this is not a discussion about ‘traditional’ versus ‘contemporary’ worship. Smith’s point is that historic liturgical worship, forged over centuries, has a depth, biblical shape and content that helps to form its participants. It connects us to the church catholic and reinforces oneness and unity.

This can all be summed up as expressivist ‘showing’ versus humble ‘submitting’.

He concludes

“The liturgy of Christian worship is the litany of love we pray over and over again, given to us by the Spirit precisely in order to cultivate the love he sheds abroad in our hearts.” (81)

I wonder what you make of this?

Where are you in terms of worship as primarily human expression ‘up’ to God, or humble submission around God’s revelation of himself ‘down’ to us?

Does the idea of a ‘Jesufied’ secular liturgy ring true to you about a lot of Christian worship services?

Is this an age thing? I am more and more with Smith. At times I imagine that I could happily be an Anglican. The older I get the more and more I love and appreciate the consistency, depth and richness of historic liturgy. And the more and more I find it difficult to cope with the unpredictable evangelical lottery of contemporary worship songs and services.

Having said all that, I’m not convinced as yet that even well practiced liturgy has the capacity to reform us in the way that Smith seems to be suggesting. There are a lot of dead churches who have been practicing a lot of good liturgy for a long time …

Comments welcome. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost Sunday

The Spirit is first and foremost the eschatological presence of God in the here and now. A couple of quotes for reflection this Pentecost Sunday.

First from JDG Dunn

“for Paul the gift of the Spirit is the first part of the redemption of the whole man, the beginning of the process which will end when the believer becomes a spiritual body, that is, when the man of faith enters into a mode of existence determined solely by the Spirit.” Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 311.

Second from Max Turner

“We conclude that for each of our three major witnesses, [Luke, Paul and John] the gift of the Spirit to believers affords the whole experiential dimension of the Christian life, which is essentially charismatic in nature. The gift is granted in the complex of conversion-initiation. The prototypical activities of the “Spirit of Prophecy” which believers receive – revelation, wisdom and understanding, and invasive speech – together enable the dynamic and transforming presence of God in and through the community. These charismata operate at individual and corporate levels, enabling a life-giving, joyful, understanding of (and ability to apply) the gospel, impelling and enabling different services to others in the church, and driving and empowering the mission to proclaim the good news.” Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: Then and Now. 155.

Barth, Schweitzer and the weirdness of Christianity

At particular times in the history of the church, ‘disturbers’ have emerged, protesting against the cultural captivity of the church. They have rightly seen that authentic Christianity should never be domesticated and made ‘safe’.

Maybe you can think of some ‘disturbers’. A couple that come to mind are:

SchweitzerAlbert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus brushed aside the anaemic Jesus that had resulted from 19th century liberal theology’s quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. Schweitzer was magnificently right in his rejection of the un-Jewish and un-troubling Christ of the First Quest. His portrait of Jesus of the Gospels was far closer to the truth – even if Schweitzer finally drew the wrong conclusions about Jesus as a failed apocalyptic revolutionary.

The 20th century Jesus Seminar was in many ways a replay of the First Quest – a de-historized Jesus, shorn of miracles and the eschatological urgency of the kingdom of God. One of N T Wright’s many achievements has been his compelling rejection of the methodology and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar in his Jesus and the Victory of God. What shines through Wright’s work on Jesus is how he brings the Gospels, and their main subject, to vibrant disturbing life.

Another ‘disturber’ was the Swiss pipe-smoker Karl Barth. His protest was against a culturally captive form of Christianity, unable even to identify the threat Hitler posed.  His great ‘NO’ to any form of natural theology denied that God could be reached ‘from the bottom up’. Barth’s genius was to insist on absolute otherness of God; God could only be revealed from the ‘top down’ by the triune God himself.

Karl BarthThus, God, for Barth is both the Revealer and the Revelation. It is God alone who can choose to reveal himself, and he does so in Jesus Christ. It is God’s Spirit alone who can effect God’s revelation in Christ. It is a mixture of hubris, pride and naivety that leads people to believe that they can put God in a nice neat box. Barth blew up the box.

Schweitzer and Barth, in very different ways, saw clearly that when we downplay the ‘weirdness’ or ‘Otherness’ of Christianity, God and the gospel become quickly domesticated, diluted, insipid; unable to stand against evil; to give prophetic witness; to form radical and counter-cultural communities of faith; to speak of an alternative kingdom of God that has broken into this world.

It’s no coincidence that both Barth and Schweitzer spent much time considering Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels just isn’t dull, predictable, undemanding, easily accommodated into our lives and having little to say about the broken world in which we live.

Once we lose touch with the weirdness of Christian faith, it is inevitable that we end up with a form of Christianity that is virtually indistinguishable from the wider culture.

So what are some signs that we have lost touch with the strange Otherness of Christianity?

Here are some suggestions in no particular order – feel welcome to add your own:

1. When the content of much Christianity tends to be primarily therapeutic.

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. The church is a community where you will be loved and accepted unconditionally. The gospel will give your life new significance and meaning. God will help you navigate through the storms of life. The pastor is there to remind and encourage you that you are loved.

This is Christianity lite – a form of spiritual consumerism that promises all and demands little. God is there for you because you are worth it.

No place here for the NT’s embrace of suffering, injustice and persecution as ‘light and momentary troubles’.

No place here for the notion that being a Christian means death: death to the self; death to sin; death to an old order of existence.

2. When faith is assumed.

This is perhaps the most damaging legacy of Christendom. Everybody is ‘in’; everybody has been baptised; Christianity is natural, universal, and all-embracing. The focus of preaching and teaching is on equipping and exhorting and encouraging members to be more committed to helping the church maintain its structures and existence. Mission is marginalised and almost irrelevant.

Little place in an assumed faith for the deep mystery of the atonement: that somehow in one man’s death and shed blood, something happened of universal spiritual significance that forgiveness and freedom from sin needs to be appropriated through repentance and faith.

3. When Jesus is marginalised.

God IncarnateYou know – things like his apparently crazy teaching on non-violence. His teaching on money and possessions. His utterly uncompromising demands of his followers. His passion for justice. His words of coming judgment. His unrelenting eschatological focus on the kingdom of God and his urgent summons to enter now.

And, to top all of this, is the NT’s exalted Christological claim that this local Rabbi was God in the flesh. A completely unexpected development; foolish nonsense to Greeks, revolting heresy to Jews, unbelievable religious jargon to contemporary atheists, a threatening universal truth claim to modern pluralists.

This is why I love this picture of Jesus by Oliver Crisp – it brilliantly captures the otherness of Jesus who resists all easy categorisation.

4. When the Spirit is paid only lip-service.

Pentecostals and charismatics rightly protest against a sort of virtually ‘binitarian’ Christianity, where the vital, central and life-giving role of the Spirit is replaced with a form of rationalism. Where there is little expectation of the empowering presence of God himself to change lives, heal, and work visibly in the church and the world.

5. When ‘God is on our side’.

I mean by this a form of religious nationalism where Christianity is co-opted to bless and sanctify our politics; our identity; our nation. ‘God bless America’. God on the side of the British Empire. God on the side of Catholic Ireland’s fight for freedom against that Empire. God on the side of [Protestant] Ulster not to be subsumed within Catholic Ireland.

God sure does switch sides a lot doesn’t he?

Once God is safely for us, then our enemies are unrighteous. Since error and heresy have no right, all sorts of horror follows. For examples, read some Irish history.

6. When we buy into the sacred / secular divide.

A nice image here is of an orange and a peach. A Christian view of life is not orange – nicely segmented into distinct categories, with spiritual being one sitting alongside work, family, leisure etc. Rather life is like a peach – one whole fruit where everything is spiritual with Jesus as the centre stone.

The sacred / secular divide attempts to neuter the universal Lordship of Christ over all of life. It reduces Christianity to some sort of Kantian subjective experience. Truth becomes individualised and privatized. The gospel is reduced and personalised. The church has little to say to the world.

7. When we lose touch with the eschatological heartbeat of the Bible.

The OT and NT look forward to a new creation; a remaking of all things within a different order of existence where death is banished. No hospitals, doctors, medicines or morgues there. A future where evil and sin will have no place and justice will be done for ever.

But this is not just away in the future sometime – the future is already here in the present. The ‘proof’ is the presence of the promised Spirit, a foretaste of God’s rule to come. The resurrection of Jesus is the forerunner of the resurrection to come for all who belong to him.

Now that just doesn’t sound ‘normal’ and rational and scientific does it? Such a vision invites scorn and ridicule (as well as joy and hope). Well, let the scorn and ridicule come for Christianity is nothing without eschatology. Whenever the church loses focus on future hope it becomes fat, lazy, complacent and inward looking.

 

So, any attempt to make Christianity acceptable and reasonable to modern culture by removing the ‘unbelievable’ bits is doomed to failure. Even with the best of intentions, what remains will bear little resemblance to historic orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve nothing against good apologetics (defending the historic reliability of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection etc) but increasingly I see a Christian’s primary task as simply announcing and telling and discussing the good news as it stands – without apology, or qualification or embarrassment. (And without aggression, arrogance or coercion either).

The irony is that it’s when we take it upon ourselves to change the story and try to make it more popular and relevant, that we do the greatest damage.

In other words, let the weirdness and Otherness of the Christian gospel stand on its own two feet. This is the apostolic story that we have been given – let’s keep to the script and trust in God to do the rest.

Flesh versus Spirit 2

Returning to the ‘two natures’ discussion a couple of posts back and zoning in on Galatians:

A problem here has been the translation of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ (e.g., in the NIV, although more nuanced in more recent editions). This is a loaded translation which distorts the text.

Flesh versus Spirit needs to be understood eschatologically rather than individually as some sort of internal war between two natures.

Paul has some very negative things to say about the ‘world’. Take Galatians 1:4 and his description of how Jesus’ death for our sins rescues us from ‘this present evil age’.

Things associated with pre-Christian identity are being a slave under the ‘basic principles of the world’. The whole world is a prisoner of sin (3:22). The Law (Torah) cannot release people from this slavery. The theme of curse in Galatians is significant: those who rely on the law are under a curse for the law could never justify (3:10-11).

George Grey Barnard, ”The struggle of two natures in man” (1892)

Those in Christ, who have been justified by faith, belong to a new age; they are ‘new creations’ who belong to God’s redemptive purposes for this fallen world. They are set free (5:1) in Christ.

This new creation has invaded the present evil age (Gal 6:14-16). Since the coming of Christ and the Spirit, believers are living in the overlap of the ages. The world in its present form is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)

Those in Christ are dead to the old age (flesh); it is crucified. The Christian life is therefore all about a community of faith who are drawn by God’s grace, into his redemptive purposes for the world.

The problem in Galatians was their utter foolishness to go back to something that enslaves and cannot give life. The flesh equals the old age that has decisively been defeated at the cross and resurrection. Its days are numbered. To go there is to go back under the curse.

Paul, their concerned father, has strong words for those who would lead the Galatians astray (1:8-9 – under God’s curse and wishes for a bit of painful self-mutilation with a knife in 5:12).

In contrast, Christians now belong to the new age of the Spirit. The Spirit brings life, grace, justification, freedom, transformation and hope. This is part of the promised blessing to Abraham (Gal 3:14) – for both Jew and for Gentile.

Those who walk by the Spirit will demonstrate practically and ethically what God’s good purposes for humanity looks like. They will live lives that are attractive and loving – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Individual Christian lives and communities are to be visible, beautiful and joyful witnesses to the new age of the Spirit; a foretaste in the present age of the ultimate age to come. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6)

It is only the power of the Spirit who can change lives; who can bring someone new life; who can overcome the powerful ‘passions’ or ‘desires’ of the (age of) the flesh.

So, rather than end up with a sort of schizophrenic Christian identity of two internal warring ‘natures’ in each individual Christian, the flesh versus Spirit conflict is much bigger than the sphere of the individual.

The real challenge of Galatians is a calling to live by the grace and new identity that has already been given to believers through faith in Christ and the vivifying gift of the Spirit.

For Paul’s warning to the Galatians is not just theoretical – they were in danger of going back under the flesh and turning their back on the gospel. And, at the same time, were denying the radical boundary-breaking implications of justification by faith alone for anyone – Jew or Gentile / male or female / slave or free (3:28).

Do you think that many Christians see themselves as living their lives within a larger cosmic conflict of flesh versus Spirit? If not, why not? Has the church lost touch with Paul’s thoroughly eschatological perspective on the Christian life?

If the Christian life is all about life in the Spirit from beginning to end: walking by the Spirit; sowing to the Spirit; keeping in step with the Spirit; what does this actually look like in practice? In your experience and understanding, how does it work? How do you sow to the Spirit and not to the flesh? Where does the community of the Spirit (the church) come in?

Pneumatology and eschatology

T David Beck’s thesis in his book, The Holy Spirit and the Renewal of all Things: pneumatology in Paul and Jurgen Moltmann, is that much Western theology has failed to do justice to the comprehensive and central place of pneumatology in the New Testament.

I tend to agree.

If one response has been the ‘institutional tendency’ (e.g. Barth) driven by Christology and ecclesiology and an ‘experiential tendency’ in response (e.g. Wesley), Beck argues both don’t adequately capture the NT’s framework itself.

NT pneumatology is not driven, he contends, primarily by Christology, ecclesiology or experience, but by eschatology. All NT reflection on the Spirit operates within an eschatological framework.

But what does this mean?

He goes for an inaugurated eschatology of the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ most identified with G. E. Ladd.

He doesn’t critique Ladd (and there is room for critique), but the main problem he wants to highlight is how within much systematic theology, eschatology is often reduced to study of the future: topics like the parousia, resurrection, judgement, heaven and hell etc. All things that are yet to happen.

But this, Beck says, fails to grapple with the overlap of the ages so predominant in Paul and elsewhere in the NT.

Yes there will be future consummation of God’s kingdom rule, but this rule has already begun. If the present age is the eschatological age ‘broken into the present’, then eschatology is ‘here and now’ and not just future events yet to unfold.

Systematic theology’s tendency to kick eschatology down the line has, for Beck, several unfortunate consequences:

1. A distance and alienation from the strong sense of climatic fulfillment within the NT. A Christian faith lacking a strong sense of how God’s promises have been fulfilled in Jesus, is one detached from the joyful tone of most of the NT.

2. The NT’s strong continuity between promise, fulfillment and consummation disappears.  For example, while Christians may hope for resurrection to come, it tends not to be seen as a natural extension of the blessing of new life already given in the here and now.

3. Eschatology is often relegated to a sort of appendix of the Christian faith. It gets relegated to obscure debates about times and dates of Christ’s return etc

4. When eschatology is marginalised, an anemic pneumatology tends to follow. This is seen in Western theology’s subordinationistic view of the Spirit. ‘This age’ is seen as the waiting time between the two appearances of Christ (what Beck calls ‘the rickety bridge between two strong towers’), rather than an age of the promised Spirit who has been poured out for many.

Rather, Beck rightly argues, pneumatology and eschatology are inseparable: the ministry of the Spirit is evidence of fulfilled OT  promises in the experience and writings of NT believers and as tangible anticipation of the future work of the Spirit in the consummation of God’s kingdom.

To earth this a bit, some questions:

If you are a Christian, how much do you understand yourself already to belong to God’s new age; as already having new life through the Spirit?

How does this give you joy, assurance and hope, even in the midst of struggles with doubt, disappointment, mundane work, tiredness and weakness?

 

Wesley and the experiential Spirit

The other end of the spectrum within Western pneumatology to the institutional tendency is what T. David Beck calls the ‘experiential tendency’.

If Barth is an example of the former, John Wesley is an example of the latter. His conflict with the Anglican Church of the day revolved to a large degree around his view of the Spirit in the Christian life. Wesley was charged with being an ‘enthusiast’ (a bad thing to be obviously).

Wesley’s influence has been every bit as significant as Barth’s. His holiness theology was one of the inspirations for the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement, now the largest and most dynamic sector of global Christianity.

If justification is what God does for the believer in and through his Son, sanctification is what God works in the believer by his Spirit.

If the Christian life is a battle between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’, the Spirit can win the struggle. The believer can therefore reach a state of ‘perfection’ – which in Wesley’s terms means loving God with all of our hearts, mind, soul and strength. In this state of perfection, or entire sanctification, there is no room left to commit wilful sin.

Wesley emphasised unique functions of the Spirit. One was assurance through the inner witness of the Spirit. Another was an experience of the depth of God’s love for the individual believer. He talked about a ‘sweet calm’ satisfaction of knowing God’s grace.

The indirect sign of the Spirit’s transforming presence is the fruit of the Spirit – affections like joy and peace and love.

The big point here is the experiential role of the Spirit in transformation – whether assurance of being a child of God; overcoming deliberate sin; or seeing his fruit as a visible witness of his presence.

Wesley never stopped insisting on the perceptibility of the work of the Spirit in the day to day of the Christian life. It is this experience of the Spirit that is the key to preventing Christianity from sliding into formalism and institutionalism.

In other words, this is a theology of encounter with the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is distinct from, and complementary to, that of the Father and Son.

There are great strengths in this form of pneumatology:

– a stress of personal experience of God in and through the Spirit

– a Trinitarian framework, but one in which the Spirit has distinct agency and ministry

– a passion for holiness and personal transformation

A quick read of the previous post gives a sharp reminder of how different Wesley is from Barth.

Beck points to weaknesses in Wesley’s pneumatology:

– The Spirit’s work is too closely focused on the individual believer with the subsequent danger of individualism

– The Spirit’s ministry is therefore tied too tightly to the present time – with little reference to the OT and to eschatological hope.

– And if Barth is overly Christocentric, Wesley could be charged with being overly ‘pneumacentric’ (to make a word up). And it’s no surprise to see this tendency emerge in some forms of Pentecostalism, where there is a search for spiritual experiences of the power of God as a key to revival.

Beck’s overall argument is that neither ‘bipolarity’ of Barth or Wesley is adequate to do justice to the NT witness of the Spirit. I’ll try to summarise his path between them in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barth and the forgotten person of the Trinity

Been doing a bit of reading and research over the last while related to the Spirit and Paul including The Holy Spirit and the Renewal of All Things: pneumatology in Paul and Jurgen Moltmann by T. David Beck.

Beck starts with a bang: consistent with the Filoque clause in the Nicene Creed (the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son),  Western Theology has struggled to develop a consistent and biblically robust theology of the Spirit.

He’s right.

He identifies two opposing tendencies: the institutional and the experiential. I’ll look at the first in this post which has been reflected in Luther, Calvin and the institutional churches of the Reformation.

The Spirit’s location is in the sacraments and in the Word. But more than this, the Spirit is tied to Christ, as an agent through whom the atonement is applied to believers. This leads to a subordinationistic tone to Western Protestant pneumatology. The Spirit’s work  is tied to ecclesiology (Word and Sacrament) and acts as a function of the church and of Christ.

Beck argues that Karl Barth’s pneumatology is a classic example of the institutional tendency. Take his doctrine of Revelation, corresponding to the Trinity: God the Revealer makes known his Word, the Revealed, to humans. The only way for them to know the Revealed is through divine revelation, the Holy Spirit, God’s Revealedness.

In Barth, the Spirit is the revelatory bridge between sinful humans and God. It is God alone who enables and empowers people to know him. Only through God is God known.

This all sounds fine does it not? What is the problem for Beck? We’ll get there.

Barth, of course, has no time for natural theology. Revelation is the event where Scripture becomes ‘the dynamic and effectual Word of God’. The Word reveals Christ. The role of the Spirit is to make this happen. The Spirit’s role is to enable believers subjectively to know God, based on the objective work of Christ.

Barth’s theology of revelation is obviously trinitarian. Yet, here is the rub for Beck. Barth’s Trinitarianism is so strongly orientated around Christology that the latter overshadows pneumatology. Yes, Barth has an indispensable role for the Spirit, but the Spirit only makes subjectively real what ‘is already objectively real in the being of Jesus Christ.’

Put it this way. For Barth, the church is NOT made the body of Christ, nor individuals become members of the body by the gift of the Spirit. Beck quotes from CD IV.1:667. The church

became his body and they became its members in the fulfillment of their eternal election on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in his resurrection from the dead … there can be no doubt that the work of the Holy Spirit is merely to ‘realize subjectively’ the election of Jesus Christ and his work as done and proclaimed in time, to reveal and to bring it to men and women.

So the Spirit is the one who brings to historical reality the eternal hiddenness of believers’ prior election in Christ.  Yes, the church can only exist because of the work of the Spirit. But that church, for Barth, is already the body of Christ.

The Spirit, for Barth, is ‘wholly and entirely’ to be regarded ‘as the Spirit of Christ, of the Son, of the Word of God’ (CD I.1:452.) The Spirit is the power of Christ, whose ministry is orientated around revealing Christ and uniting believers to Christ.

So Barth can say of the Spirit ‘But fundamentally and generally there is no more to say of Him that He is the power of Jesus Christ ..’ CD IV.1:648.

This leads to Barth virtually merging the work of the Spirit and the work of Christ to a point where it is difficult to see any distinct agency for the Spirit.

Barth can say that Jesus attests his own reconciliation to us by the Spirit. He calls believers by the Spirit. He can even talk of the Spirit as the arm of Christ in his self-revelation to humanity. Even that the presence and gift of the Spirit are directly Christ’s own work. Such ideas tend to depersonalize the Spirit.

There is a lot to appreciate about Barth’s Trinitarianism: Father, Son and Spirit all work in harmony and grace in revelation and reconciliation. No-one can know God but through the subjective work of the Spirit.  Rightly he stresses the intimate and inter-related work of Christ and the Spirit and how they are related to the Father.

However, if the Spirit is functionally identified with Christ, the result is a pneumatology submerged within Christology. Another word for this is subordination.

As Beck puts it, the Spirit ‘tends to evaporate as the third person of the Trinity, appearing instead as a thin veneer of Christ’ (7).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

6 Points of Discussion on the Spirit with the Renewal Movement and Pentecostals

How can and should the theology and experience of the early church of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament be ‘translated’ to modern church life?

How this question is answered will play a major part in what local church Christians join. To over-simplify, Pentecostalism, and the later charismatic and Renewal Movement, is shaped and motivated by the belief that the NT experience of the Spirit – as described in Acts and 1 Corinthians in particular – should be the normative experience of the church in all generations.

Towards the end of his book, The Holy Spirit – in Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries and Today, Anthony Thiselton gathers some themes and questions together. He has said  that he prays that this book will stimulate much new thinking and discussion. In the final section he summarizes his concerns and questions, which he hopes will “open up some neglected areas of teaching, thought, and experience, and bring God’s blessing.”

One set of challenges is aimed particularly at the Renewal Movement and Pentecostals.

I hoped to write a book which would invite sympathetic dialogue with Pentecostals (with some probing questions also) and those in the Renewal Movement (also with probing questions).

So, here are the probing questions: the sub-text here is that here are the areas that Thiselton has most reservations and questions about in their praxis around the Spirit.

1)   The Trinity and the Spirit 

His point is not very clear here: filling in, I suspect that he is cautious about an over-emphasis on the Spirit, that detaches his person and ministry from the work of the Son and relationship with the Father. Where experience of the Spirit becomes almost the end itself, a sign of God’s blessing and evidence of advanced spirituality.

2)   Unity of the Spirit fosters unity of the Church

The concern here is an over-emphasis on ‘newness’ and uniqueness.  ‘We’ are the ones through whom God has chosen to bring spiritual renewal. We have the Spirit in ways others don’t. But such an attitude goes against the Spirit’s work of unity. It judges others as being less spiritual and fosters an attitude that either you work with us or you are not participating in what God is doing.

3)   Appeal to ‘new things’:

Certainly traditionalism can be spiritually deadly. [As Jim Packer wrote many years ago in Keep in Step with the Spirit, it is no great achievement to have order in a graveyard]. But taken too far this attitude can deny the work of the Spirit in previous centuries and in other churches today. It can lead to an over-emphasis on feelings and experience. Seen in some contemporary worship music with trivial and repetitive songs.

4)     Healing:

Yes God heals, but Thiselton is cautious of a form of dualism around some miraculous gifts.  He urges the development of a healthy eschatology that has room for the reality of sin and death and sickness in this fallen world. Without a now and not yet perspective, teaching on healing can foster guilt, depression and confusion. (It’s my lack of faith I’m not healed etc).

5)   Prophecy and tongues:

Thiselton concludes (and its hard to argue with him on this I think) that historically the gift of tongues has been over-emphasised within Pentecostalism. Today many Pentecostals are withdrawing from that over-emphasis (some are not). The Renewal Movement has not been so tongue-tied (just thought I’d add that wee quip in there – good eh?).

But Thiselton offers a warning to those in the Renewal Movement over prophecy. He sees the possibility of a replay of the Donatist controversy (I assume he means where division within the church is caused by one section claiming for itself particular purity of doctrine and life over against the compromised wider body).

He argues prophecy needs to be seen more widely than only prophetic word and inspiration. He sees a place for thought, reflection and teaching within prophecy rather than some form of instantaneous revelation from God.

He is cautious for example about the practice of someone using a ‘picture’ in their mind for guidance in public worship. He wants to root prophecy in the story of redemption of what God has done, not subjective pictures.

6)  Baptism in the Spirit:

The Renewal Movement is not tightly tied to a particular theology of ‘baptism in the Spirit’.

The real question here is for Pentecostals and their historic elevation of this experience as a normative ‘second blessing theology’, evidenced by speaking in tongues.  Thiselton wishes Pentecostals would abandon this theology as exegetically indefensible and unnecessary. Yes God can and does give particular experiences of the Spirit post conversion – but don’t make it normative and don’t call it Baptism in the Spirit.

………

These are good questions for debate and discussion. It will be interesting to see if and how Pentecostals and people in the Renewal Movement engage and respond to Thiselton’s work.

These sorts of questions also form I think a good basis for believers who are seeking to build understanding and robust unity across ecclesiastical and theological boundaries. A unity that is not based on pretending we don’t have differences but addresses and explores those differences within a deeper committment to working together. I’m thinking here of Evangelical Alliances for example that seek to build bridges between Renewal, charismatic, Pentecostal and ‘mainstream’ churches and organisations.

And I said in an earlier post, I also wish he had had more to say to ‘mainstream’ churches and their desperate need of reform and renewal in their theology and praxis of the Holy Spirit.

Comments, as ever, welcome

On inappropriate sharing and spiritual progress

I don’t tend to blog too much about personal stuff – isn’t a middle-aged parent, teacher, elder, and man (!) supposed to have his life together? To have answers, not lots of questions? To be a model mature Christian, walking in faith with no great struggles or conflicts?

Occasionally in a class on the Holy Spirit discussing the Christian life or something related, I may say something like I struggle with anger, lust, greed, faithlessness, envy, worry or some such thing (the  list could keep going here but there is such a thing as inappropriate sharing).

More than once a reaction from students has been ‘Oh no, don’t tell us that. I thought when I get to your age I’d be over such things.’

Now this is somewhat amusing; amusing for its bluntness – like watching Up in the Air last night with my daughter where 23 yr old Anna Kendrick says about George Clooney, ‘Oh no I don’t think of him like that at all, he’s old‘. (no comparison with George Clooney intended!)

But it’s also revealing of an expectation that the Christian life should, or will, get easier. That at some point, we reach a plateau where we can relax a bit, dump a lot of baggage, rest from the fray, and walk easily ahead on a new level.

Now one reaction to this can be to wonder wherever did such an idea come from?

How can Christians, of all people, who are supposed to know a bit about the realities of sin and the daily need for God’s grace, ever swallow such hokum?

How, if we look at ourselves with ‘sober judgement’ and see the swirling mixture of ambitions, fears, resentments, self-reliance, judgementalism, pride etcetera, can we imagine that we will be free somehow of our very human and fallen nature in this life?

How, if we look around at the pervasive reality of fallen Christian leaders, can we be naive enough to think that those who are a bit older and more experienced are somehow less prone to spiritual failure?

Why are we so easily seduced by the idea that there is some sort of silver bullet to the Christian life? Is this longing what lies behind so much investment in some Christian circles of the necessity and possibility of a special transforming spiritual ‘event’ that will revolutionise your life for good?

But another reaction is to acknowledge that those students are right.

A mature Christian should show signs of spiritual transformation; there is something wrong about an adult who is still acting like a child.  1 Timothy 3 is pretty unambiguous about character qualifications for leadership:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

And recall that Timothy was ‘young’ – the issue is maturity in Christ not age per se. And mature believers are to set an example:

set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 1 Tim 4:12

And without making this post too much longer, the NT is pretty clear on what I think can fairly be called a high expectation of spiritual progress.

For Paul, the Christian knows the experienced reality of the Spirit. The ‘new age’ has dawned to which Christians belong – rather to the age of the flesh which is passing away (Roms 6-8).

What Jesus and the Spirit have effected, the believer is to participate in – to ‘walk by the Spirit’ and so not live to the flesh (Gal 5). Christians are to ‘put off the old man’ (Col. 3:5, 8, 9; Eph 4:22, 25-32; 5:3-5). And in such walking by the Spirit, the Law is fulfilled (Rom. 8:4).

So where does this leave me sharing my failures?

Comments, as ever, welcome.