October 29, 2012

Guaranteed Appointment Redivivus: A Few Reflections on a Major Decision

The big news in United Methodism over the weekend is Judicial Council (JC) Decision 1226, which declared legislation passed by the 2012 General Conference (GC2012) that would have ended the so-called guaranteed appointment (GA) to be "null, void, and of no effect." The basic argument in the decision is that the changes are unconstitutional because they violate the third and fourth restrictive rules which, respectively, perpetuate the intinerancy and safeguard clergy rights to trial and appeal. The argument is that doing away with security of appointment would "destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency" and remove the rights of clergy to trial and appeal. Some are pleased with the decision; others are not. I won't take time now to repeat what I've said before about this issue. Instead, I'll offer a few reflections (in no particular order) on the decision and the early reactions to it.
  • We already have a way of exiting ineffective clergy. I say that because the relevant paragraphs in the Discipline which provide clergy with accountable security of appointment specify that only an "effective elder" who is "in good standing" shall be appointed (par. 334; cf. par. 337). So, if an elder is not effective, then he or she is not guaranteed an appointment. Paragraph 334.4 also specifies that elders who fail "to meet professional responsibilities" or do not "demonstrate vocational competency or effectiveness" forfeit their right to an appointment and an official complaint against them can be made. One of these "professional responsibilities" is "continuing effectiveness" (par. 334.3.c), and the Board of Ministry and the cabinet have the authority to define effectiveness (par. 334.4). So, conceivably, an elder who is ineffective could be removed from an appointment and formally charged with failing to perform the work of ministry. The point is that, despite the language of GA, we do not have the absolute guarantee of an appointment. We have an accountable security of appointment. And there is already a process in the Discipline for removing ineffective elders. The question is not whether we have a way of removing ineffective elders. The question is whether we will make use of the process we already have.
  • General Conference (GC) would do well in the future to ask for counsel from experts in our denomination's constitution and from the JC during (and even early in) the legislative process. With this decision, the two most significant acts of GC2012, namely the restructuring plan and the removal of GA, were overturned for unconstitutionality. If someone had asked the JC whether removing GA was constitutional early in the process, we might have saved a lot of time, energy, and resources. If legislative body and the judicial body worked together rather than being pitted against one another, the process would be more efficient.
  • The JC is being (and will likely continue to be) criticized for not considering and taking into account the will of GC2012. We should note carefully and respectively that the role of the JC is not to consider the will of the GC as weight in favor or against a decision. In this case, it was the will of GC2012 itself that was under review and whether or not that will was within its constitutional boundaries. Rejecting or accepting the will of GC2012 is precisely what the JC was asked to do, and rejecting the will of GC2012 is, evidently, what the JC took to be the right decision.
  • This decision is a good reminder that, while GC is the only body that can speak on behalf of the UMC, the GC has neither absolute nor unilateral authority to so speak. Even GC has accountability. The authority of GC is checked by the JC. Sometime the GC speaks mistakenly (or unconstitutionally) on behalf of the UMC, and the JC is responsible to correct such mistakes.
  • It is not quite clear to me how the removal of GA might destroy the itinerancy. So, if someone could clarify that in a comment, I would appreciate it.
  • I tend to agree with JC that removal of GA undermines the right of clergy to trial. If an elder can be exited from the itinerancy without a trial (which is, I think, what the legislation was trying to do), then it would seem that the fourth restrictive rule has been violated.
What do you think? Do agree or disagree with JC Decision 1226? Leave a comment and tell me why.

October 23, 2012

Understanding the Little Apocalypse: Three things to remember about Matthew 24


Matthew 24 (along with its parallels), like other Jewish apocalyptic, is remarkably difficult to get a handle on. Much could be said about it. With this post, I want to raise three points that should be near the beginning of any effort to interpret this challenging passage.
  1. Everything Jesus says is his answer to the question raised by the disciples in 24:3. And their question is primarily looking for a bit of explanation with regard to Jesus' apparently surprising prediction that that the temple will be destroyed (24:1-2). This means that the passage should be read as the context indicates; namely, Jesus is answering a question about the timing of the destruction of the temple. The signs and symbols should be taken first to point to this reality. Whatever else they may or may not point to, the destruction of the temple is the thing that gets this little apocalyptic discourse started.
  2. Sometimes "coming" does not mean "second coming". The disciples compound their question about the destruction of the temple with a question about Jesus' "coming" and about "the end of the age." I tend to think that these are three aspects of a single event. That is, when the temple comes down, Jesus will be vindicated both as true prophet and God's anointed king, which will likewise bring an end to the present evil age and usher in the age to come, the age of God's kingdom as manifest in the rule of the Messiah. Let me explain. When we read the word "coming" in the Bible, our default interpretation is to take it to mean the second coming of Christ. But consider the plausibility of the disciples raising a question about what we think of as the second coming of Jesus. Were these men expecting Jesus to be crucified and killed by the Romans? No. Were they expecting him to be buried in a tomb only to be resurrected by God on the first day of the next week? Once again, the answer is no. They certainly were not. Thus, if they were not expecting his death and resurrection, we can likewise infer that they were not expecting him to go off to heaven for an unknown and rather lengthy period of time only to return again sometime later. The idea of crucified messiah was not on their radar. Neither was the idea of a messiah who disappears for more than two millennia in order that he may come again a second time. Their question could not have possibly meant that. They must have meant something else when they asked bout the "sign of your coming". The question is: What?
  3. The "end of the age" does not mean the end of time or the end of the world. Jewish thinking in Jesus' period was commonly characterized by the idea that history was divided into two periods of time. There was "the present evil age", which referred to the period during which the Jewish people were under the rule of foreign oppressors (which was, at that time, the Roman Empire). This evil age would come to an end when God delivered his people from their oppressors. The evil age would give way to the second period of time known as "the age to come". This coming age would be marked by the rule of God's anointed (Messiah) king and the flourishing of God's people. When the disciples ask about the end of the age, they are not asking about the end of history; to the contrary, they are asking about the end of Roman oppression and the beginning of an age in which they enjoyed God's forgiveness, freedom, and blessing.
There are unhelpful interpretations of Matthew 24 aplenty. I suggest that we can guard against straying down such an abominable path by keeping these three things in mind. As indicated, there is much, much more to be said. But these three items must be the starting point to interpreting the "little apocalypse".

October 17, 2012

Book Giveaway: Spirituality According to Paul by Rodney Reeves

I've got an extra copy of Rodney Reeves recent book Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ (IVP) to give away. Reeves is professor of biblical studies at Southwest Baptist University. Here's the publisher's description:
Spirituality often evokes images of quiet centeredness, meditative serenity and freedom from life's pressures. It’s become a chic commodity, with its benefits evoked by images of sunrises and secluded retreats.
Contrast the apostle Paul, who promotes a cross-shaped spirituality for fools making their way though life's trials. Paul realized that images of crucifixion, burial and resurrection would never be popular images of the spiritual life. So he encourages his fellow travelers, who are spiritually united with Christ, to "follow me as I follow Christ."
As he explores this ancient spiritual path, Rodney Reeves probes our understanding of what Christian spirituality should be. And to illuminate its transformative power, he gives us living illustrations of what it means to follow Paul as he followed Christ. Here is a book that joins a deep understanding of Paul with a pastoral and spiritual wisdom born of experience.
Here's how you enter to win a free copy of this book:
  1. Post a recommendation with link to Incarnatio (or to your favorite Incarnatio post) on your blog, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, or other social media platform. Posting a link to multiple social media sites and mentioning this book giveaway will only increase your chances of winning. And subscribing in the sidebar to the right to receive Incarnatio by email will boost your chances also.
  2. Leave a comment on this post indicating on which sites you recommended Incarnatio and whether you subscribed to receive posts via email. Include a link to your posts (remember to make them public) so they can be verified. On Facebook, click on the time stamp of your post for to get the link. On Twitter, expand your post and click on "details".
I will (subjectively) judge the winner taking into account the creativity and quality of your recommendation. I'll announce the winner next Monday and message him or her on Facebook or Twitter (a good reason to include links to your recommendations) to request your mailing address, and then I'll drop the book in the mail. The contest is limited to the lower 48 United States to keep postage down, but feel free to recommend Incarnatio even if you live elsewhere.
 

October 15, 2012

Review: Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction

Questions about death and what may lie beyond are always with us, and the mystery of the unknown has given rise to more than a few theories. With Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, Terence Nichols provides a biblically grounded, historically rooted, and carefully argued account of the Christian understanding of what awaits us after death.
 
The first two chapters introduce the reader to the various attitudes toward death and afterlife in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish texts. He concludes that ancient Hebrew texts generally show belief in some sort of ongoing personal existence after death in Sheol (or the underworld), but these concepts were vague and lacked detailed expression. As time passed, Jewish texts became increasingly, though not exhaustively, characterized by belief in bodily resurrection. Nichols finds extensive evidence in the New Testament for early Christian belief in future bodily resurrection, and he accurately identifies this as transformed physical life in God's new creation. He helpfully resists a strong duality between heaven and earth suggesting that afterlife is the consummation of choices made in the present.
 
After laying out the biblical material, Nichols investigates the meaning of death and afterlife in key thinkers in Christian history (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin). He demonstrates that each one affirmed the resurrection of the body as the Christian hope, even if each one understood resurrection in somewhat differing ways. The strength of the study to this point is the demonstration that from its earliest history, Christianity has come at questions of death with a firm vision of the resurrection of the body.
 
Chapter four brings a shift from historical theology to a presentation of contemporary scientific challenges to afterlife and the soul. This chapter will be particularly useful to those unfamiliar with these recent and varied challenges to the historic Christian view. Chapter five begins the author's response to the challenges by appealing to testimonial evidence of those who have had near death experiences (NDE) and argues that such experiences cannot be accounted for by physicalist denials of an immaterial soul.  
 
This leads Nichols to a discussion of the soul (chapter 6) in which he describes the different approaches to the body-soul relationship (physicalism, substance dualism, holistic dualism). Nichols argues for a form of  holistic dualism that he calls "subject-in-relation". This means that the soul and body are, in this life, an integrated whole but that the soul can still survive bodily death and carry forth personal identify to the resurrected body. The soul, he believes, is a subject that stands in relation to the body, others, its environment, and to God. Thus, it exercises its powers through the body, but the body also influences the soul. So, causality goes in both directions. Particular powers of the soul include free choice and the ability to relate to God. Nichols thinks of the soul as a "bridging principle" for humans to relate to God (132). By this he means that a bridge is needed for the world of spirit to interact with the world of matter. As physical creatures, human beings need a means of relating to God, who is understood as pure spirit. The soul fulfills this bridging role as a non-physical aspect of human life that allows us to relate to a spiritual God.
 
I do find this bridging role to be somewhat problematic in that it seems to slide into an unnecessary contrastive dualism. If our non-physical souls can interact with our physical bodies, why should we think that a non-physical God is unable to likewise relate to physical creatures? Further, it's not clear how an immaterial soul successfully bridges the gap between God and humanity. As David Kelsey points out, when we concieve of the difference between God and humanity in terms of the difference between the Creator and the creature, then it's not clear how a created soul relates to an uncreated God, even if both are immaterial (cf. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, 1:255-56). Instead, following Kelsey, I think we can say that God lovingly relates to those he creates in the very act of creating them, our physicality is no barrier to God's determination to relate to us. Indeed, in the very act of creating, the immaterial God lovingly relates to his physical creation.
 
Nichols goes on to articulate a case for belief in resurrection despite arguments to the contrary (ch. 7). He gives a chapter to "Justification and Judgment" in which I found little with which to disagree, even though Nichols is writing from a Roman Catholic perspective. He describes justification as "forgiveness of sins, through faith in Christ" that "should lead to the inner transformation that comes from the outpouring of God's love in the hearts of believers" (160). He describes that transformation in terms of sanctification through the presence of the Holy Spirit. He does say that justification is "completed by sanctification" (160), but this doesn't seem to conflate the two, and, while sympathetic to the Canons of the Council of Trent, his view strikes me as somewhat more Protestant than Tridentine.
 
Nichols does argue for the historic Roman Catholic view of purgatory in chapter nine. I would like to take more space to present and evaluate this interesting, though flawed, argument. But this review is already rather long for a blog. So, I hope to follow-up with a post devoted specifically to interacting with Nichols' view on purgatory.
 
The final chapter presents a vision of dying well, which Nichols describes as "dying into God" (187). This involves a deeper surrender of ourselves to God as we move toward death, the supreme trial of our lives.
 
All in all, I found this book very interesting and very helpful. The apologetic value of the book is high in that it summarizes and introduces readers to the significant difficulties for those who reject (whether for scientific or other reasons) the historic Christian understandings of the soul and the resurrection of the body. It also does an excellent job of drawing a vision of a future with a hope, and a path for the journey through death. I am happy to commend it.