Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The final section on this work of systematic theology is ecumenism, which pertains to the conversation and actual practice put in place to attempt to unify the church, both outwardly and inwardly. It intends to participate fully in Christ’s prayer that all who follow him would be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:22). To place it at the very end is not intended to make it seem unimportant, but it is only once we have surveyed the breadth of Christian theology that we can begin to understand ecumenical dialogue in a proper way. First, we will discuss some of the problematic ways of thinking that the ecumenical movement has operated with over the last hundred years and then to attempt to draw attention to some people who have been pursuing the conversation in a different and more productive way.
Traditionally, the questions that have been at the forefront of ecumenical dialogue surround ecclesiological issues (that is, issues that we have discussed in this chapter), such as the sacraments, ordination, church government, and the like. Various documents have been drawn up outlining what people perceive needs to happen in order to bring about real unity and they have achieved wide-ranging acceptance, especially among the mainline denominations. Indeed, the problem with them lies precisely in that acceptance.
What is interesting is that to focus on issues like ordination, church government and the sacraments presumes that this is what is most important to each denomination. This is simply not true. Churches that have a low view of those issues, who treat them as peripheral, don’t care to have serious conversations about them, because they do not matter to them. This, however, does not mean that they are willing to concede the point to those who have a high view of them, as that, too, would betray their convictions. Often, Christians outside of the mainline do not tend to get excited about ecumenical dialogue because they perceive it to be a sacrificing of their integrity. If they believe in things like speaking in tongues or predestination, or any of a host of controversial issues, why would they want to join with people who thought those were not consistent with real Christian faith? If those are the things that are important to them, how could ecumenical dialogue of this kind not tend to make them give up their identity?
There has been much conversation along these lines over the past century and there has been some fruit. For example, it has prompted tremendous effort on the part of biblical scholars to try to understand what the Bible teaches about things like church order, ordination, and the sacraments. However, it does not seem to have actually healed breaches between traditions, just make them less hostile to one another (which is, however, an important victory nonetheless).
There have been a few others who have taken a radically different approach to ecumenical dialogue. For example, Thomas F. Torrance, a Scottish Reformed theologian who has influenced the content of this work tremendously, led a dialogue between the World Council of Reformed Churches and the Pan-Orthodox Communion. Everyone came in expecting to fight about bishops and communion and ordination. However, this was not the case. Torrance insisted that they begin by trying to find some common ground on the doctrine of God (the Trinity). After many years of discussion, this body eventually produced a statement on the Trinity that both sides could agree with. Agreement between East and West on the topic of the Trinity has not happened for a thousand years.
The basic insight of this approach is that the differences that most of ecumenical dialogue has focused on is the outworking of various presuppositions that lie deeper than those issues. By working hard to deal with the symptoms instead of the underlying causes, no real unity is achieved, there is just clarity as to the particular views. However, by working from the very center of the Christian faith by asking questions like, “Who is God?” “How should we understand the incarnation?” we enable ourselves to clear the way, to find a basis on which real unity can rest, and then proceed to other topics. Further, this way of thinking allows us to draw on the insights of those core doctrines to shed light on questions of ordination and the sacraments.
It seems that this approach is more consistent with the way that God has taken to interact with us and affect change. Jesus comes first to take our place, to be both our representative and our substitute. First, God changes who we are, then, and on the basis of that, he changes what we do. The attack on human evil launched by God is from the inside out. Perhaps this is how we should approach the issue of Christian unity.
Church order is another hot topic in ecumenical debate. Very few churches share exactly the same kind of order and nearly all of them consider the way their church is organized to be the “right” way. Because I believe most of this debate to be useless, there will not be much commentary on how the church “ought” to be structured, but as a way to help laypeople understand some of the major differences that do exist, here are the three major structures of church government.
There is a denomination in America called the Episcopal Church; however, there are churches that have Episcopal forms of church government outside of this denomination. This form of government has been the predominant one throughout the history of the church, being used by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church (of which the Episcopal Church in America is a part).
Episcopal church government simply means that government is primarily by bishops (the word Episcopal comes from the Greek word επισκοπος which means overseer). Bishops are the highest administrative office and wield the most power over how things are done. Historically, the church has held councils of large numbers of bishops to make church-wide decisions (such as the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon). In any particular area, the bishop is where final authority rests.
The United Methodist Church fits into this category but in a modified form. Whereas in most episcopally governed churches, bishops are considered a third order, in the United Methodist Church, this is not the case. Traditionally, one is ordained as a deacon, then ordained as a priest or elder, then ordained once again as a bishop. This means that, once one is ordained as a bishop they are no longer an elder; they have left that behind just as they left their lay status behind when they were ordained in the first place. The United Methodist Church does not ordain bishops, but consecrates them to a particular office. Bishops are not “higher” than elders, but they do fill an important office.
The advantage of episcopal church government is that it is somewhat streamlined. Everyone knows where authority lies and to whom they are to appeal. As the church is structured from “the top down,” as it were, it can make decisions quickly and efficiently. The disadvantage it has is that it places the power in the hands of a few. If the few are particularly qualified and effective, things go well (just like, throughout history, it was in a land where there was a good king). If they are ill qualified, on the other hand, it can be extremely problematic.
Once again, there is a denomination that bears the name “Presbyterian,” but there are other churches, such as the Reformed Church of America, the Church of Scotland, and others, that have a Presbyterian government. As the name implies (Presbyterian comes from the Greek word πρεσβυτερος, meaning elder), presbyterian churches are governed by elders. These elders include the various ministers of word and sacrament, who are called “teaching elders,” but it is not limited to them. The governing body of the local church is made up of members who are elected as elders. These people are eligible to participate in various assemblies to make decisions that affect larger portions of the church.
Another note regarding the United Methodist Church is in order, partly because it is the denomination to which I belong, partly because it has such unusual polity. It could be argued that, though it is governed by bishops, the United Methodist Church practices presbyterian ordination. The final decision of whether to ordain someone is not made by the bishop, but the board of ordained ministry, a group of ordained pastors (in the United Methodist Church, pastors are ordained as elders). The bishop functions as the chief elder in the ordination, but is accompanied by a group of elders in the actual act of ordination.
There are many churches that operate with congregational forms of church government including about any church with “congregational” in the title, the United Church of Christ, various Baptist churches, and, presumably, most nondenominational churches (it can only be presumed because there is no rule that insists that any nondenominational church uses a particular form of church government. In theory, a pastor of a nondenominational church could have autocratic rule, which would make it more episcopalian than congregational). In this form of government, the congregation is the highest source of authority to which everyone else, including the minister, is ultimately subject.
The main advantage this has is that it is theoretically impossible for the authority of the church to make a decision that is disagreed with by the congregation because the congregation is that authority. This means that each congregation is free to carry out its business as it sees fit. The main disadvantage is effectively the same thing. There are times when local congregations are in the wrong about one or more important issue and, left to themselves, will only perpetuate the error. Accountability to a larger body would be helpful to restrain the tendencies of maverick congregations. As a side note, congregational “denominations” do not function in nearly the same kind of authoritative way that others do. There is tremendous freedom to agree or disagree with official denominational proclamations.
It is difficult to make a case that says that one particular form of church government is the form that is taught and insisted upon by the New Testament (though some have certainly tried to do so). Bishops, elders and congregations are all spoken of as having a say in how the church is run, but none are afforded the kind of supremacy that would seem to lie behind such exclusive claims that a particular form of government is “right” that some people make.
The sacraments have provided the major topics of debate within the church for hundreds of years. As such, there are a multitude of different ways to understand the sacraments of the church, and I do not intend (nor could I) go into them all here. I hope to simply articulate an understanding that seems to be consistent with the thinking put forward so far in this work and deal with some very broad issues. It seems that, more than anywhere else, it is in a tradition’s sacramental theology that their hidden presuppositions come to light. As such, they are symptoms rather than critical issues in themselves. This is why they are being dealt with in the very last chapter of this work.
The first of the two sacraments that we will treat is baptism. It should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church celebrates seven sacraments, but Protestantism has been more or less agreed that there are two (with the exception of some who believe that footwashing should be included as well). Baptism is a profoundly moving ritual as it marks the very beginning of a person’s life of obedience to Christ.
The place we need to look in order to understand the meaning of baptism is in the life of Christ. Back in chapter three, when we were considering various important events in the life of Christ and what meaning they bore for our understanding of the Christian faith, we discussed his baptism in the Jordan. When Jesus was baptized, he was baptized with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. However, Jesus is the sinless one, the one who had no sins of which to repent. We must understand Christ’s baptism as a vicarious act (one done on the behalf of others), on our behalf and in our place, repenting for us because we are not even able to repent correctly. Our repentance, even at our best, is half-hearted and insincere, when compared to the comprehensive sorrow and change of heart demanded by the gospel.
What does this mean for the practice of baptism? It means that it is the sacrament of our justification, that is, it is the sacrament that bears witness to the once-for-all-ness of our salvation. God has accomplished our salvation in such a way that it will not, and indeed, cannot be repeated. It marks a person as partaking in the act of God that was done, not in response to the work of humanity, but prior to any human act, purely out of grace; as Paul says, “while we were yet sinners.” Baptism reminds us in a clear and tangible way that God has taken our place both in life and in death.
This once-for-all character of baptism is why it would be terribly inappropriate to baptize someone more than once. To do so would be to say, effectively, that Christ’s substitution was not good enough, that we need to do it again. Actually, the reason that is often cited to support people being re-baptized are deeply related to the arguments against infant baptism, so it is to this topic that we will turn.
There are those who claim that infant baptism is not legitimate. The argument goes something like this (though there are, of course, variations): Baptism is to be done as part of a public declaration of faith to confirm the faith of the individual. Infants cannot make such a public declaration; in fact, they are not truly aware of what is taking place when they are being baptized and they will certainly not remember it later in life. Therefore, infants should not be baptized.
There is a deep problem with this way of thinking and it lies in its presupposition of the meaning of baptism. Is baptism indeed a response to faith that a person already has? It seems somewhat unlikely. After all, Jesus was baptized on our behalf and in our place long before anyone had saving faith. We see, at the beginning of John chapter four, that the disciples are baptizing people. However, it is clear that it is only after the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church that people really have faith in the sense that is spoken of in the New Testament. So, if so much baptizing was going on before there was real Christian faith, how can baptism be primarily a response of faith? There are examples in the evangelism of the apostles where people come to faith and then are baptized, and it is true that we have no record of the apostles baptizing anyone against their will, but that does not mean that one must believe before being baptized.
The insistence that the person who receives baptism must have made a personal decision for Christ before doing so owes far more to secular Western philosophy than it does to the New Testament. Baptism becomes a sign, not of what Christ has done but of what we have done. Even if we stress the primacy of grace in our faith, we still end up affirming that baptism is to confirm what already exists, rather than being the sign of God’s grace that precedes all our own choosing of God.
When we remember that baptism is more about what God does than it is about what we do, these questions and problems fall away. It becomes clear that it does not matter if we remember our baptism in the literal sense (we can still “remember our baptisms” and be glad, because we remember that we were baptized, even if we cannot recall the event). After all, the point is that Christ has taken our place and that we cling to that reality. There is no need to attempt to point to the time and day that Christ took our place in our lives because, in point of fact, he took our place when he was born of the virgin Mary, and again when he died and rose again for us and our salvation. The act of substitution took place two thousand years ago. It the reality of the fact that Jesus has taken our place that is primary over even our recognition of it.
If baptism is the sacrament of our justification, or of the once-for-all aspect of our relationship with Christ, Communion is the sacrament of our sanctification, that is, the ongoing aspect of our Christian lives. We have indeed had our places taken by Christ once and for all and nothing can undo that fact (even if we insist on damning ourselves to hell, it does not change the fact that Christ has taken our place; it simply means that heaven is not the best place for us in that instance. See the discussion of hell in chapter 7). And yet, we are still creatures who have fallen. The kingdom of God has drawn near, it has broken into our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, and yet, the old age still lingers on. Because of the brokenness of the fallen world, we always have a need to be reminded of the grace that God has for us, to be recalled to repentance of our own ways, and return to the ways of Christ.
When we participate in Holy Communion, we are engaged in the tearing down of idols, but in order to understand this, we need to consider the long history of the Passover. In Exodus 12:1-13, we read of the preparation of lambs to be killed as part of a meal while the Israelites are still captive in Egypt. They are to slaughter a lamb and take its blood and smear it on the doorframes of their house. When the angel of death passed through the land, taking the lives of all the firstborn sons, it would see the blood of the lamb, and it would pass over that house and the children would be safe. This has been carried out year after year in remembrance of how God had delivered them and made a distinction between the people of God and the people who hated God.
We must understand that this was the context for the last supper. Christ and his disciples were sharing the Passover feast. Christ took the symbols of the feast and reinterpreted them so that they bore witness to himself. The bread that was broken was his body, broken for them; the wine that was shared was his blood, shed for them. He was the lamb, the sacrifice, provided by God, so that the people could be saved from death. Christ revealed himself to be both priest and sacrifice, both offerer and offering.
What is interesting is that, though Jesus spoke often about the fact that he would die, he did not always go to great lengths to explain what his death meant. Here, at the last supper, we have Jesus explaining to his disciples that his death was not accidental, nor was it simply tragic, but that it was full of divine meaning. He was not just dying, he was dying for them (and also for us). Had Jesus not spent this time instituting this sacrament that was to be done over and over again in remembrance of him, we would have a drastically inadequate understanding of his death.
A word must be said regarding whether the communion table should be open or closed. Above, the arguments against infant baptism were dismissed as being irrelevant to the real purpose of baptism and that, if we understand the real purpose of baptism, we will not be compelled to deny the baptism of infants while still rejoicing to baptize adults. Similarly, there are some who argue that communion should be closed. This often has an extremely excluding tendency. In practice, this often means that a church that practices closed communion would require one to be a member of their denomination, if not their particular congregation, in order to participate in the sacrament. The argument behind this practice is often to make sure that people are taking the sacrament “worthily” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
In spite of the appeal to this way of thinking, a close reading of the letter from which this concern comes reveals that the problem in Corinth was not that sinners or outsiders were participating, but that communion was being used as a tool to foster divisions within the church. Even still, the appeal must be made to the actual practice of Christ. Christ shared his last supper with both Judas and Peter, one who betrayed him to his death and the other who denied him over and over again. If there were ever two people who should not participate in communion, it would be these two. And yet, our Lord does not hesitate to include them in this celebration. If Jesus is willing to have such flagrant sinners dine with him (as he did throughout his earthly ministry), we should be willing to do the same. After all, why should we deny this sign of incredible grace from those who might need it most?
The Marks of the Church
Towards the end of the Nicene Creed are the words, “We believe in the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church.” These are extremely potent, carefully chosen words that carry tremendous meaning. Because of this, we must be extremely careful as to how we interpret them. Many people have approached them from different angles and have had sharp disagreements over them. It is not my intention to explain every possible view, as seen throughout church history, but rather to present their most natural meanings when we define them in light of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.
The fact that the church is one has been the subject of a multitude of conflicts, especially because the Roman Catholic Church has tended, historically, to define the church in terms of its external expression and by its allegiance to the pope. This, of course, is an unacceptable interpretation in the eyes of Protestants, as that would immediately exclude them from the church. There are others who, wanting to exclude those who exclude them, define it in similarly external ways, but in a way that is congenial to that particular group.
In point of fact, there can be no real question as to whether or not there is only one church or even how this oneness is constituted. There can be only one church because there is only one Christ, in whom and through whom alone the church can exist. To say that there is (or even that there could be) more than one church is to say that Christ can be divided.
The issue of how this oneness is constituted should make perfect sense in light of all the preceding discussion throughout this work. All those who are in Christ make up the church. It does not matter they are affiliated the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches or any of a multitude of Protestant Churches, if they are truly in Christ, they are part of the one church. The only thing that can truly separate one from the church is if they are separated from Christ. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage in North Africa in the third century is famous for saying, “Outside the church there is no salvation.” This has also been interpreted in many ways, but it seems to be most true when we consider that the church and the group of all people who are in Christ are coterminous (that is, they extend equally far). The only way to be saved is to be part of the church (though this is the one church of the creed, not a particular manifestation of that one church) because they are one and the same. The point that we need to remember is that it is not possible to be in Christ and somehow avoid being in the one church.
This is the mark of the church that was of particular interest to John Wesley. His basic insight will be explained presently. The question that has been asked is, “What makes the church holy?” Classically, and I agree, it has been stressed that it is Christ who makes the church holy because it is first and foremost his holiness that matters. If we take the idea of substitution seriously and the fact that, by taking on all of human nature and living a human life, God has taken our place in every aspect of our lives and not just our deaths, we can come to no other conclusion than that it is because Christ is holy that the church is holy.
However, is there not an implication for the actual believers who participate in the holiness of Christ? This was the conviction of John Wesley. Wesley was surrounded by people who argued that, because Christ was our total substitute, there was nothing that we needed to do in response. This is, of course, not how total substitution has been portrayed in this work. Wesley insisted that the holiness of Christ manifested itself in the lives of believers. Using terminology of the time, Christ imparts righteousness to every one to whom he imputes righteousness. That is, every single person for whom Christ is the total substitute also has a life that is fundamentally changed.
This cannot be doubted in light of the discussion of the person and work of Christ and the Spirit. If, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are grafted into Christ so that it is no longer we who live but Christ lives in us and that the Spirit takes the things of Christ and makes them ours, how can we not begin to manifest the righteousness of Christ in our own lives? Now, we are by no means any more loved by God because of this righteousness; indeed, while this righteousness is, in one sense, our own as it is working itself in our lives, it is still Christ’s righteousness. This is one of the crucial insights that Wesley had in the face of the antinomian (“without law”) teachers who surrounded him.
The catholicity (or universality) of the church is closely connected with its unity. If there is only one church, this church must be universal. There can be none who are grafted into Christ who are somehow outside the scope of the church. In this very basic sense, the church is catholic.
There are, however, two other ways in which the church is catholic or universal. The church is catholic because, by its very nature, it is meant to span the globe. There is no part of the world that is somehow excluded from the promises of the gospel and so there is no place where the church is not meant to be set up. The fact that the church is not yet an earthly and historical manifestation of this global catholicity just goes to show that the church is not yet is it should be, for none are to be left out of the promises that have formed it and to which it bears witness. The other way that the church is catholic or universal is in regards to the human person. Absolutely all of the person is implicated in the gospel. As this was explored in greater depth in the last chapter, no more will be said of it here.
This is a crucial mark of the church and has a few layers of meaning. First, to say that the church is apostolic is to say that the church is founded on the witness of the apostles. This means that the church’s thinking and practice is explicitly built on that witness as the foundation on which sound thinking can be derived and a core set of data from which alone appropriate conclusions can be drawn.
This leads us to the second layer of meaning of the word apostolic. To say that the church is apostolic is to say that it cannot be any other way. It is important to note that there is a very big difference between saying that it “can” not be otherwise than it is and saying that it “could” not have been otherwise than it is. As we have discussed at a few other points before, God was, in theory, able to do things differently than he did; the creation might have been different, when God become a human being, he might have done so as a woman. However, those possibilities do not enable us to build our thinking on these other possibilities. God’s revelation is not utterly timeless and spaceless that can be reinterpreted and re-symbolized depending on our present culture and thinking, but God has revealed himself to us in time and space, as Jesus Christ, in Israel, two thousand years ago. We cannot bypass that revelation.
This is why the church cannot be anything but apostolic. The actual revelation of God, which took place in time and space, created a community in which Jesus dwelt, day and night, preaching, teaching, and shaping the thoughts and lives of a particular group of men and women. Even though the disciples did not understand at the time, after the resurrection of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit upon the church at Pentecost, they remembered all of what Jesus said and did and understood what it meant. This is what God has actually done in revealing himself to human beings. To bypass the apostolic witness is to bypass the actual concrete revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
To give some more concrete reflections about this, think about the New Testament witness. If we were to avoid the apostolic foundation of the church, we would also avoid the entire New Testament. Not only the epistles were written by apostles, but the gospels themselves, the lives of Jesus were written down either by apostles themselves or by others based upon the witness of the apostles. To do away with the apostolic nature of the church is to do away with any reliance of the Bible. Human beings are free, of course, to disagree with the Bible and even hate what is written in it (indeed, it is to be expected since it stands so strongly against the ways of human beings), but to say that the Bible has no authority, or even that it is not the normative authority, is to stand at sharp deviation from the church throughout the ages.
I have chosen to call this chapter “the Church” instead of the more formal word “Ecclesiology.” This is due largely to the fact that this will be more of an extended reflection on various topics relevant to understanding the church and how believers fit into it than an in-depth study of all the problems that this topic is capable of. These problems are so extensive that, if one wanted to deal with every one of them, the chapter might very well exceed the length of the rest of the work combined. It is my concern to raise some classical issues and think them out in a way consistent with the rest of this work, that is, using Christ as the beginning, middle and end of our thinking.
The church has been defined in different ways throughout the years. Sometimes, and still within certain branches of the church, it is defined by outward association with a leader or a series of leaders (such as the Pope or the sum of the Eastern Orthodox bishops). However, in more recent times, there has been a greater appeal to the scripture to define what the church is. Interestingly, the mainstream of the Reformation looked to verses like Matthew 18:20 to define the church. “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” This goes along with their definition of where the church is to be found: Where the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it perpetuates the problematic thinking that the church is bound up by a particular gathering. So long as Christians are gathered together for Word and Sacrament, we cannot doubt that a church exists according to this way of understanding it, but what happens when the people leave the gathering and go home? Are they still part of the church? Very few people would say that people who are part of the church when they are gathered together are no longer part of the church when they are no longer so gathered, but this just goes to show that Matthew 18:20 is not sufficient in itself (it might also be argued that it appears within the context of a chapter regarding church discipline, and not intended to define the church in the first place).
John Wesley, the leader of the Methodist movement in England in the eighteenth century, took a somewhat different approach. He was not concerned about establishing his movement as an independent church, for that was what he was hoping to avoid. Instead, he was intending to foster an ecumenical spirit between the Anglican Church and the various nonconformist churches, members of whom were active participants in his Methodist classes and bands. When setting out to write a sermon on the nature of the church, Wesley appealed, not to the common passage in Matthew, but from Ephesians 4:1-6. “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
The emphasis in this passage is not on a gathering, but rather the relationship of the believers with the Triune God of grace, bound together by baptism. In light of this treatment of how the believers are to be related to one another, it can come as no surprise that Wesley did not make hasty judgments about whether a particular church preached “the pure word of God” or whether the sacraments were exactly “rightly” administered, but yearned that those who were already united in Christ would be united outwardly, or at
least not be harshly divided. This understanding of the church is radically Trinitarian and thus radically participatory and relational (we are members of the church inasmuch as we participate in the life of God through Christ and in the Spirit).
(It is important to note here that Wesley would be no friend of the rampant relativism found in much of the mainline church today. It is true that, in his sermon “On the Catholic Spirit,” he wrote, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may” However, he did not mean that no opinions or doctrines, like the incarnation and the Trinity, were important. He says later, “It is not a speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.” Wesley called for all Christians to be gracious and seeking unity, but more than that, he called for them to truly be Christians.)
There are a few images of the church in the New Testament that are particularly potent. One is the calling of the church the “body of Christ.” This comes to marvelous expression in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul says each believer comes to participate in the gifts of the Spirit (which are also the ministries of Christ and the effects of God the Father) and is empowered to work in complimentary ways so that we are all together the body of Christ, and are all parts of a single, though differentiated whole. This is a wonderful way to think of the church, but it is important that we do not become fixated on the metaphorical sound of the image. It does not seem that Paul meant this to be a true metaphor, that is, we are to think of the various people as being like a body, but rather that we are a body, we are intimately connected to one another as parts of a body and we must always remember that and let it govern our thinking.
A second image is the church as the “bride of Christ.” This only comes up explicitly a few, but important times within the New Testament; however, there are certainly several places in the Old Testament that imply that such an interpretation of the people of God is appropriate. The idea is that the church is like a bride presented to a bridegroom, who makes her his own and gives himself to her completely. This is a rich image, but we must be careful not to read every aspect of marriage, even marriage in ancient Israel, into it. After all, a bride would provide a dowry, and we surely cannot think, in light of the person and work of Christ, that we are to provide a dowry to make the marriage worth Christ’s while. No, instead, an idea latent in an allegorical understanding of the Song of Solomon (which not all agree with, it must be stated), is useful here. There, we read about a wealthy king who takes a poor Shulamite woman to be his bride. In this case, the bride has nothing to contribute to the king, but is the recipient of all blessings.
A third image, used only once explicitly by Christ is that believers are branches on a vine. This is more properly an image of the church than it is an image of the individual believer. After all, we are not all totally separate branches on totally separate vines; rather, we are all branches on the very same vine of Christ. This is important as it emphasizes that, at the end of the day, our life does not come from ourselves, but it is, as it were, the blood of Christ that pumps through our veins as the church. We are so bound to Christ that we cannot exist outside of him. As all believers are equally bound to Christ the same vine, they are all equally bound to one another, as each are bound to Christ. This kind of imagery is implied every time we read Paul speak of believers as being “in Christ,” a phrase that appears in Paul’s writings well over one hundred times. It is, in many ways the dominant imagery to speak of the life of faith, both individually and corporately, and was recognized as such by the reformers, but has been ignored in much of modern thinking due to the amazing primacy given to the concept of being forgiven.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Chapter 08, The Christian Life, Important Aspects of the Christian Life, Dynamic and Personal, Participatory
Dynamic and Personal
We learn from Jesus that the life entirely devoted to God is not static, but dynamic. To put that in other words, we come to realize that following God is not simply a matter of devising a complete list of what to do and what to avoid, as if following such a list with absolute rigor would be the same as the life that Christ lived. When we look at Christ in the gospels, we see that Jesus continually surprises his disciples. Jesus often broke social norms for the sake of mercy and yet did not entirely abandon those norms. In spite of our best efforts to circumscribe the Christian life, there is no way to complete the statement “Jesus always...” with the exception of “behaves consistently with himself,” which, though true, is not particularly helpful in questions of practical living.
Even saying that Jesus always does what is right or that he always shows mercy toward others, or that everything he does is good requires us to take the meaning of those terms from the life and example of Jesus himself. After all, it is not difficult to point to places where Jesus was by no means right, merciful or good by independently and secularly generated definitions of those terms. Jesus is often harsh with people, not least the Pharisees, made them look foolish, and broke the Sabbath, which was a command given by God himself to the people.
The point is that, in spite of how helpful it might seem if we were to have a definitive list of appropriate and inappropriate behavior so that we would have an infallible rule by which to determine whether an action is right or wrong, such a list does not exist and is actually in contradiction to the dynamic nature of the life of Christ. To imagine that we can contain the Christian life in a list of ethical norms is to collapse it into a static, impersonal code rather than what it actually is, the living, active, and personal God living in and through the believer.
Indeed, the fact that Christ is not just dynamic but personal is extremely important. When we say that the life of Christ and, therefore, the life of Christians, is not static, we do not mean that Jesus lived in any way that was random or misleading. The fact that Christian behavior cannot be encapsulated in a series of propositions does not detract from its absolute reality. Jesus is a person who lives consistently with his personal being. It is one of the distinguishing aspects of a person that they do not always do the same thing, but are able to evaluate circumstances and behave appropriately to each circumstance as it arises.
Let us look at this issue from another point of view. If we were to say that God behaves in a certain way, regardless of changing circumstances and, because of the nature of things, God must do so, what we have done is established a way of behavior, an ethical norm that is not subject to God; indeed, God is subject to it. God is indeed sovereign, even over ethics. This does not mean that God willfully changes his mind regarding ethical behavior so that it is not connected in any way with the nature of God, but that the being of God is transcendent and supreme, even over our ethical formulations. God is constant and faithful in every way. Our perception of the Christian life and our understanding of the God who gives rise to it is not.
This subsection should not be surprising. Its main point has been made in different ways in various other sections. As a result, it will be very short. From Jesus, we see that the Christian life is participatory. Strictly speaking, we do not see this in Jesus, but rather we hear in from him. In all of Jesus’ teaching on the Holy Spirit, we see that it is through that Spirit that we become partakers of the things of Christ. When the apostles began to preach and teach, the idea of being “in Christ” quickly came to the forefront.
What we mean when we say that the Christian faith is participatory has already been emphasized. It is to say that the source and norm of our living are not found in ourselves but in Christ. Just like we cannot think out the attributes of God except in light of Christ, just as we cannot think out how the culmination of God’s plans will work out except in light of Christ, so we cannot think about our life in Christ except in light of the incarnation. It is to say that we are not free to think up our own way of living in isolation from Christ, but must allow the fact of the incarnation to shape our lives from beginning to end without exception. It is not truly our Christian lives that we are living but Christ is living his life in and through us in such a way that every aspect of our humanity is implicated.
Important Aspects of the Christian Life
As should be clear from the preceding discussion, it is not appropriate to reflect on the Christian life in any way that bypasses the actual revelation of God in human flesh in Jesus Christ. In him and only in him do we truly see what the life wholly devoted to God looks like. Even in the lives of the apostles or the saint throughout the ages our insight is broken. Each of them, in varying degrees, succeeded in following their Lord, but none lived their entire life, from cradle to grave, in absolute obedience to God; but Jesus did. This does not mean that we cannot use the lives of eminent Christians to encourage us and to remind us of what the grace of God has actually accomplished in the midst of frail, disobedient human beings, but that we must always remember that it is Jesus who gives us our standard and must, therefore, be the focal point of our reflection. There are a few things that are worthy of highlight that we learn from the actual example of Christ regarding the nature of the Christian life.
We learn from Christ that the Christian life is holistic, that is, there is absolutely no part of the life of a Christian that is unaffected by the fact that the Lord is God and that this God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Well-meaning Christians have often reflected as to what extent their Christian faith should extend to the way they live their lives. Should our faith have a concrete impact on our public lives, where others can see us and where our conduct most directly reflects upon God for the observation and evaluation of anyone who should come into contact with us? Should our faith have a concrete impact on our private lives, where nobody sees us but ourselves, where we sin in secret and where we cultivate a distinct way of living unaffected by our evaluation by others? Should our faith have a concrete impact on our intellectual lives, where we engage in mental activities and solve mental problems that seem to be so easily distinguished, if not separated from, daily life? Should our faith have a concrete impact on our emotional lives, where we are beset by hormones and feelings that rage like a torrent that seem so utterly out of our control?
The simple answer, in light of what God has actually done in Christ is “yes.” The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ should play a role in every conceivable aspect of our lives. Such a conclusion may be somewhat uncomfortable if we are not yet living in such a way where we have allowed the reality of God’s interaction with us to impress itself upon us in every way, but if we take just a moment to reflect on these issues, it should become clear.
When we discussed the significance, in chapter three, of God becoming man, it took a two-fold form. The first thing that was emphasized was that, in Jesus the living and active God of the universe has come among us in a real way so that, though God has drawn close, he is still the God he had always been. The second major theme that was emphasized was that, when God came among us as Jesus Christ, God really and truly entered into our humanity. This humanity was by no means deficient in any way, as we can see by the fact that God became incarnate in an actual, particular man, as one who was born of a woman and was equally descended from Adam and Eve as we are.
Early debates in the church raged over the nature of this humanity, some saying that Jesus did not take on real human flesh, others that he did not take on a real human mind. The church came to reject such views, emphasizing that if there were any part of Christ’s humanity that was not held in common with our humanity, it called into question our salvation in precisely that area. If Jesus did not have a fully human mind, our fully human minds would remain unredeemed. If Christ did not share our actual human flesh, our flesh would remain untouched by God’s saving work.
So, just as the incarnation of God entered fully into absolutely every aspect of human nature, it has touched and impacted every aspect of our lives. It means that not only our outward behavior is condemned and regenerated in Christ, but our inward behavior, the thoughts of our minds and the emotions of our hearts are so as well.
However, if we are not very careful, we will fall away from the concrete revelation of God in Christ at precisely this point. As far as the Christian life is concerned, we are not interested in speculation as to what godly thoughts and emotions are. If we were to think out the perfection of human emotion, not in accordance with the actual example of Christ, but in accordance with an independently generated way of thinking, we would probably conclude that emotions such as anger or sadness and grief are unworthy of the Christian. However, if we came to such a conclusion, the reality of Christ stands against us. After all, we see that Jesus displays anger and wrath as well as sadness. To deny these to a Christian would be to say that we are to be something other than human, as true humanity is demonstrated in Christ.
To take up the language of “What Would Jesus Do?” again, we might modify this by adding that we are concerned, not only with what Jesus would do, but also with how Jesus would think and feel. After all, in Jesus, emotion and intellect were not divorced from being and action, but were all integrated together.