October 31, 2011

The Role of Experience in the Life of the Christian

The people called Methodists have always recognized the importance of experience in the Christian life. It is the common privilege of the children of God to personally and authentically appropriate the loving forgiveness of God in Christ and the redemptive embrace of God's own Holy Spirit. The authentic experience of being rightly related to God brings the truth of God revealed in scripture to life in each of us. At our best, we Methodists have understood this and made it a priority in our preaching and teaching.

As with many things, we must exercise caution to avoid allowing experience to do more than it was ever intended. Unfortunately, experience is sometimes granted ultimate authority over reason, tradition, and, at times, even scripture. We are tempted to think that if something feels right, then it must be right. We Methodists are reminded, though, that we must "interpret experience in light of scriptural norms" (2008 Book of Discipline, para. 104). Experience is not always a reliable guide, and it is an ongoing necessity to discern between personal preference and the genuine experience of being led by the Spirit. This is why the scriptures must be the norm. When experience and the Bible contradict, experience must surrender to scripture. The Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures will never lead anyone in a manner that contradicts those scriptures.

Experience is not an authority above or even on par with the Bible; rather, experience functions to make the truth of scripture a real factor in our lives as disciples of Christ. Experience is that authentic knowledge that God affirms our faith and obedience. It is Wesley's warm heart. It is the feeling of forgiveness and the assurance of God's love for us. Experience is not to be granted authority to contradict or trump the Bible; rather, it is the conviction of the Spirit when we stray from truth. An authentic experience of God's love and grace are essential to the Christian life, but like every aspect of life, experience needs to be conformed to the image of God in Christ as revealed in the scriptures.

October 26, 2011

Pelagius Redivivus

As hard as I tried, I was unable to resist the temptation to write about this. It would seem that the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta hasn't much important to do given their intent to vote on the reinstatement of the 5th century heretic Pelagius at the upcoming 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta which meets November 4-5, the last such meeting to be presided over by Bishop Neil Alexander.

The move to reinstate Pelagius is being led by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta. You can read all about it in this article at Virtue Online, which summarizes Pattison's motivation:
According to Pattison, the historical record of Pelagius's contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire and their ecclesiastical dominance. "An understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition."
The article also cites the disdain of retired Bishop C. FitzSimmons Allison:
As one considers the theologically inept accommodation to the secular world there should be no surprise that Pelagian doctrine of the will's freedom without grace would be dug up again. A world losing its trust in God will compulsively trust in the human will to obey if it is sufficiently rebuked, exhorted, threatened and scolded. No wonder Richard Hooker and St. Augustine called it a 'cruel doctrine'.
There are so many things that could and should be said about this. And while I'm tempted to spell out precisely what I think, I suspect you already know. Try to imagine my red-bearded chin dropping with incredulity and then shaking, back and forth, praying this is someone's idea of a little good-hearted ecclesiastial prankish fun. Yes, at any moment someone will pop out from hiding with a camera that has recorded the look of shock still on my face and tell me that this whole thing was cooked up to add a little humor to my day, and then we'll share a hearty laugh and talk about how silly such a proposal would be. I'm waiting.

October 24, 2011

Theory or History? The Difference is Important

It has become common in theological circles for historic doctrines related to the work of Christ to be described as "theories." Different aspects of the atonement have been commonly referred to in terms of models or theories for some time (e.g. penal substitution, Christus victor). Now, especially it seems since the release of Douglas Campbell's latest book, justification is being increasingly discussed in terms of "justification theory."

It's one thing for this to be the language of professional academic guilds, but I hope this language doesn't work it's way into the Church. Why? Well, I'm glad you asked. It's important because atonement and justification have to do with how we come into a right relationship with God. And from a pastoral perspective, I don't want to leave that up to theory.

Paul wrote of sinners that, "they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith" (Romans 3:24-25). And whatever that means, it is no mere theory. It is history; it is simply what happened. How do we gain access to God? Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. How are we justified? By his grace as a gift. These are not theories for Paul. They are theological truths grounded in the historic event of Christ's death and resurrection. I don't want my relationship to God through Christ dependant on someones theory; I want it dependent on something that Jesus actually did.

The language of theory grants competing interpretations of atonement and justification some level of mutual credibility. The problem is that not all competing interpretations are credible. Not all are to be believed. Did Jesus propitiate the wrath of God or didn't he? Does God justify sinners or doesn't he? And the matter of whether and how he does that is not simply a matter of theory; it is an issue of what actually happened. It is a matter of what transpired on the cross, of what happens when a person believes the gospel. We must do the hard work of understanding what scripture means when it speaks of what Jesus actually did and what actually happens to us. Theories are of limited help; history is the key thing. There is a difference, and the difference may very well bear eternal significance.

October 19, 2011

Context Counts: Conflict Resolution in Philippians

Philippians 4:4 is a well-known verse: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." It's brief. It's happy. It is easily recalled. There's even a song about it that we all learned as children. And that's good. It's a worthy exhortation to be committed to memory.

But in Philippians this command to rejoice in the Lord does not come without context. There was a problem in the church in Philippi. There was some element of divisiveness. To what extent, we are not sure. But we can be certain that Paul felt it important enough to publicly call out the two parties at the heart of the disunity: Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).

Paul's exhortation to rejoice comes on the heels of his call for the Philippians to resolve their differences and maintain the unity of the church, and in many translations it is marked by the beginning of a new paragraph. I wonder whether this is helpful. It gives the impression that Paul is moving on to some other topic. It seems to signal that he is finished with the call to unity and is moving on to more general instructions about rejoicing, gentleness, and gratitude (4:4-7).

But what if that's not what is happening at all? It is worth remembering that the original manuscripts did not contain paragraph breaks. So, in the original text, Paul's instruction to pursue and maintain peace was immediately followed by his command to rejoice. What if the commands to rejoice, be gentle, not worry, pray, and be grateful were really intended as keys to resolving the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche? If that's the case, verse 4 is probably not the best place to begin a new paragraph.

Context matters here. Paul doesn't command unity and then leave the Philippians to figure out how to implement it. If the Philippians were focused on rejoicing in the Lord, they are less likely to be antagonistic towards one another. If they are acting with gentleness, it will counteract the easily enacted harshness that comes with conflict. Recognizing the presence of the Lord should lead them to think twice about their bickering.

So, while the verse with the double command to rejoice is commendable as a memory verse, we would do well to remember it's original context and original application. Rejoicing in the Lord is at the heart of maintaining the unity of the local church.
Image: Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

October 18, 2011

The Homiletic Task

The task of the preacher is to proclaim the glory of the triune God, revealed in the cross of Christ and experienced in the communion of the Spirit, such that the Church gains an ever-enlarging vision of the trustworthiness of God, in order to foster a constant increase of confidence among the people of God, which results in obedience that transforms the world and fills the earth with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

October 17, 2011

Embracing Eschatology

J. R. Daniel Kirk posted recently on the importance of embracing the biblical vision of the future; his exhortation: Don't give up on eschatology. He writes:
With great confidence (and financial expenditure), May 21, 2011 is declared to be the day of Jesus’ return. Or the rapture. Or whatever.
But, of course, it wasn’t.
Neither was 1994 or 1982.
When the obsession with eschatology (ideas about “the end”) produces such crazy results, it’s tempting to leave eschatology aside altogether. Let the obsessed have their little obsession while the rest of us get on with the business of real life, and real faith.
But it would be a mistake to give up on eschatology altogether.
Kirk is addressing this post to many who have simply given up on eschatology because of being overwhelmed and exasperated by some of the unusual and unbiblical eschatological constructs out there. The post struck me because it resonates with my own experience. There was a time in my own theological journey when I, like many, simply avoided eschatology. There was too much; it was too confusing; too fearful.

I soon realized, though, that a pastor who avoids eschatology won't have much to say to the Church about our certain hope, and I finally gave myself to the study of the biblical vision of the future. What I discovered was deeply satisfying and mysteriously wonderful. I soon learned that God's plan for his world was not one of doom, gloom, and destruction but hope, joy, and redemption. Eschatology was not a fearful thing; it was the glorious reality of Christ's promise to come and restore all that has been tainted or damaged by sin. I fell in love with biblical eschatology, and it has even become a significant portion of my own research in New Testament. Kirk's post is much needed and right on target.

Read the rest here.
Image: Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

October 14, 2011

What About Justification?

After reading this recent post, someone may wonder, "If 'the righteousness of God' in Romans 3:21-22 is God's own righteousness and not the righteous status granted to believers in justification, then what about justification by faith?" If we take "the righteousness of God" to be an attribute of God rather than God's justification of sinners, have we lost justification? The certain answer is that we have not. Μὴ γένοιτο.

We don't lose justification because the doctrine is clearly taught in the very same paragraph that we have been considering. Paul says that sinners who believe in Jesus are justified by God's grace as a gift (Romans 3:24). And it is because of God's own righteous character that he grants justification to sinners as a gift of grace through faith in Christ. Even if we take the controverted πίστεως᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ (3:22) to be "the faithfulness of Christ" rather than "faith in Christ", we do not lose justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Paul is clear that God's action to justify, which is the fruit of his own righteous character, comes by his grace as a gift (3:24a) in Christ Jesus (3:24b) through faith (3:25). It's right there.

So, in taking "the righteousness of God" to be a description of the divine attribute of righteousness, we haven't tossed justification by faith out the window. It's a both/and rather than an either/or. I would even venture to say that a more robust doctrine of justification emerges that is exegetically grounded in God's eternally consistent righteous character.

October 13, 2011

What is the Righteousness of God?

One of the ongoing debates in New Testament studies is the question of what is meant by the phrase "the righteousness of God" (Gk. δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ). At the center of the debate is Romans 3:21-22, where the phrase in question appears twice. The Greek phrase can be nuanced this way and that, but the two major options for "the righteousness of God" are (1) the righteous status that God grants to believers or (2) God's own attribute or quality of righteousness. With the first option, δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ would be translated along the lines of "a righteousness from God" (NIV); with the second, it would be "the righteousness of God" (NRSV) or "God's righteousness." I've wrestled with the evidence for each interpretive option for several years now, often having difficulty settling on one or the other. I now find myself settling into the view that "the righteousness of God" in Romans 3:21-22 refers to God's own attribute or quality of righteousness, and I intend to use this post (and likely a few following posts) to highlight a few of the exegetical matters that have led me to hold this particular view of the righteousness of God (for now, at least).

A key determinant in translating δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ ("the righteousness of God") is the flow of the argument in the whole of Romans 3. Romans 3 begins with a question: what advantage has the Jew? This question follows logically from the previous material in that Paul has just finished indicting his fellow Jews right alongside the non-Jewish nations arguing that they properly and justly stand under the condemnation of God. So, if the Paul's Jewish kinsmen are justly condemned along with the Gentiles, then the question is natural: what's so special about being a Jew?

Paul's answer is that the Jews are special in that they were made stewards of God's self-revelation (3:2). The problem is that they did not faithfully steward that with which they were entrusted. They did not proclaim the name of God to the nations. This raises the question as to God's own faithfulness. God has promised to bless all the nations of the world through Israel; yet if God is to be just, he must condemn Israel for her lawlessness. So, God finds himself in a catch-22: how will God be faithful to keep his promise to bless the world through Israel and still act in righteousness in condemning Israel for her unfaithfulness? What is God to do?

All this is to make the point that the central question of Romans 3 is whether or not God will act according to his righteousness. Paul asserts that God must be proved true, justified in his words, and prevail in his judging (3:4). But how exactly is he going to do that when the law silences the mouths of all and makes the whole world, Jew and Gentile, accountable to God?

If the question of Romans 3 is how God will be found righteous when he must both bless the world through Israel and simultaneously condemn Israel, then the answer to that question comes in Romans 3:21-26. God reveals his own righteousness (δικαιωσύνη θεοῦ) through Jesus. Jesus is both the faithful Israelite through whom the world will be blessed and the one who propitiates (ἱλαστήριον, 3:25) the just wrath of God that condemns sin. He does all this to demonstrate his own righteousness (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:25) and to prove that he himself is righteous (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ, 3:26) by showing himself to be both just (or righteous), in that he condemns sin, and justifier (or the one who makes righteous), in that he blesses the world through Jesus, the faithful Jew.

So, what is the righteousness of God? In Romans 3 it is that attribute whereby God always does what he ought to do. He always does what is right. He keeps his promise to Abraham to bless the world through Abraham's descendant. He maintains his justice by condemning sin. And he does all this so that he may be justified in his words and prevail in his judging. He does it to reveal his own perfect righteous character. That's the righteousness of God.

October 11, 2011

Is There a Carefully Reasoned Christian Critique of Capital Punishment? A Response to Mark Tooley

America's debate over the death penalty was reignited recently with the execution of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia. The case itself was swamped in controversy and religious leaders on both sides of the issue spoke out with regard to the Davis case in particular and to the validity of capital punishment in general.

Mark Tooley
Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and a United Methodist layman, wrote an article summarizing some of the religious debate surrounding Davis' execution that appeared on the websites both of the IRD and American Spectator. Tooley's summary featured especially the commentary of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who argued strongly in favor of capital punishment saying, "The death penalty is intended to affirm the value [and] sanctity of every single human life, and thus by the extremity of the penalty to make that visible and apparent to all." After quoting Mohler extensively, Tooley went on to cite a few contrasting examples of Protestant denominations, including our own United Methodist Church, that are opposed to capital punishment, though he gave little to no attention to the rationale behind such opposition. He rounded off the article by pointing out that, while the Roman Catholic Church is often popularly portrayed as being opposed to the death penalty, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles has "insisted that Roman Catholicism has 'never advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.'" Mr. Tooley concluded his essay with this peculiar statement: "Absent a few voices like Mohler's, such careful reasoning rooted in Christian tradition is mostly absent in today's religious debates over the death penalty and likely will remain so."

This statement is peculiar because it ignores those thoughtful and carefully reasoned Christian voices that have argued against the death penalty on the basis of Christian scripture. One need not look long to find the work of the late John Howard Yoder, who was Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. A number of Professor Yoder's previously unpublished writings critiquing the death penalty have been made available just last month under the title The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder (edited by John C. Nugent). Among his other published work against the death penalty is Yoder's contribution to The Death Penalty Debate (Issues of Christian Conscience Series), which includes an annotated bibliography pointing the interested reader to many more thoughtful perspectives on both sides of the issue. One might disagree with Yoder, but one cannot disagree with the reality that his arguments are not only carefully reasoned but grounded in Christian scripture and tradition.

Mr. Tooley unfortunately paints a misleading picture of the capital punishment debate. He appears to prefer bestowing the liberal label upon those who disagree with him rather than respectfully pointing to and interacting with those thoughtful, detailed, and articulate Christian advocates of the position contrary to his own. If Mr. Tooley is unaware of these voices, then his qualifications to speak to the issue are in question; if he does know of them, then his seeming suggestion that the only thoughtful position is that which favors capital punishment is not only erroneous, it is deceptive. And the quickly locatable volumes of literature on both sides of this issue easily bear the weight of my assertion. Sadly, Mr. Tooley's refusal to engage seriously with dissenting voices within his own Christian tradition undermine the credibility of his writing and leave it with the odor of propaganda. Indeed, one is left with the impression that Mr. Tooley has forgotten to make use of the "careful reasoning" he claims to value. 

With issues as serious as capital punishment, mere name-calling  and propaganda simply will not do. When human life is on the line, we are obliged to responsibly and carefully weigh all of the arguments on both sides of the issue. Perhaps, in the future, Mr. Tooley and the Institute on Religion and Democracy will find it possible to contribute to that responsibility rather than merely distracting us from it.

October 5, 2011

A Contemporary Account of Christian Perfection

John Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection is not only his most significant contribution to Christian theology but, perhaps, his most misunderstood as well. Wesley had a very specific understanding of Christian perfection (or entire sanctification) that is oft maligned and is, unfortunately, seldom given serious interaction. As a result, the doctrine has been forgotten by many, not least the people called Methodists. This somber state of affairs is even more grave since the mission of the Methodists, when first we came to the Americas, was to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

The doctrine of Christian perfection needs to be recaptured and restated today. And a recent, if unexpected restatement of some core elements of Wesley's thought can be found in Francis Chan's Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. The suggestion that Chan has given us a contemporary account of Christian perfection may come as a surprise to many, not least Chan himself. Nevertheless, Chan's book reflects a number of elements central to Wesley's own thought. A few quotes will illustrate:
"Are you willing to say to God that He can have whatever He wants? Do you believe that wholehearted commitment to Him is more important than any other thing or person in your life? Do you know that nothing you do in this life will ever matter, unless it is about loving God and loving the people He has made?" (97, italics original).
"When we love, we're free! We don't have to worry about a burdensome load of commands, because when we are loving, we can't sin" (102, italics added).
"In the same way, you have to stop loving and pursuing Christ in order to sin. When you are pursuing love, running toward Christ, you do not have opportunity to wonder, Am I doing this right? or Did I serve enough this week? When you are running toward Christ, you are freed up to serve, love, and give thanks without guilt, worry, or fear. As long as you are running, you are safe" (104, italics original).
Compare Wesley's own comments from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection in answer to the question: what is Christian Perfection?
"The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love" (19).
He later says:
"Scripture perfection is, pure love filling the heart, and governing all the words and actions...Pure love reigning alone in the heart and life, - this is the whole of Scriptural perfection" (19).
For both Chan and Wesley the result of a heart full of love for God and others means freedom from sin. I'm sure these two men would nuance the doctrine in different and various ways, but the essence of Wesley's understanding of entire sanctification is present in Chan's work. Francis Chan has blessed the Church with a contemporary account of Christian perfection, and if Wesley were alive to restate his views on Christian perfection to today's world, it would look a lot like Crazy Love. Christian perfection is crazy love.

October 3, 2011

A Novel Idea?

From the opening chapter of Tom Oden's book, After Modernity...What? Agenda for Theology:
What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be "fresh" or "self-expressive" or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some decisive improvement" on the apostolic teaching."
Yet from the first day I ever thought of becoming a theologian I have been earnestly taught and admonished to "think creatively" so as to make "some new contribution" to theology. Nothing at Yale was drummed into my head more firmly than that the theology I would seek would be my own, and my uniqueness would imprint it. So you can imagine that it took no small effort on my part to resist the repeated reinforcements of my best education in order to overcome the constant temptation to novelty. And you can understand how relieved I was to see such an intriguing epitaph prefigured in a dream, one that at last seems to be coming true on these pages - "to make no new contribution to theology" - Laus Deo (22).
It would seem, according to Oden, that the thing most needed by present-day theological studies is a revival of interest in the ancient and historic teaching of the Christian faith. Oden is certainly right that the task of passing on what has been handed down goes against the grain of contemporary theological studies where every graduate student is charged with making an "original contribution to knowledge" in his or her specialized discipline. My question is this: is there any wisdom for the practice of ministry in this statement from Oden? Where is the balance between finding new and effective ways to reach new people and ensuring the preservation of what we have received?