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Tag: Church

Troeltsch – “Social Teaching of the Christian Churches” – Dualisms and Dual Morality in Early Catholicism

According to Troeltsch, the early Church saw the rise of a sharp distinction between Church and world, as well as a rise of a double morality, in which monastics began to practice ultra-ascetical disciplines while the laity were governed by a more accommodating set of moral norms. In Chapter 1, Troeltsch also notes the impact this had on the ethic of early Catholicism. From an ethic guided by absolute individualism (and thus universalism), it shifted to a focus on ascetical behavior, aimed at denying the “world” and procuring merit through the mediation of the Church. In a word: “Ascetic meritorious love swallows up individualism” (111).[1] In what follows I will attempt to trace the sociological effects of the shift from the Pauline and Gospel ethic to the ethic of early Catholicism. The difficulty with Troeltsch is that his argument is not particularly linear or cumulative—rather it is fugal. One must be able to recognize the theme that gets repeated over and over again, with different emphases each time. The theme, as far as I read it, in this section is “tension.” There are various tensions within the church’s social teachings that end up either in a “dual morality” or in a paradoxical “dualism” (or sometimes both). In my presentation of this section of Troeltsch, I will focus primarily on how this tension arises with respect to various social spheres (e.g. property, work, callings, family and slavery, charity, science, and state), and how it gives rise to dual morality or dualism in the church.

First, to set the stage: Initially the church had little overlapping concern with the Social, especially with the state, as Troeltsch defines it. The church and state were like non-overlapping circles. Early on, the influence of the church was mainly on the “most accessible point” (112), i.e. the family. Over time, the circles began to overlap more and more, and the church began to have a stronger effect on economic life of society, and eventually on the state—although Troeltsch is always quick to point out that the sociological impact of the ancient church was always fairly minimal, when compared with the medieval church, at least.

The first social sphere Troeltsch examines is that of property. According to Troeltsch, the absolute rejection of private property was never a viable option in the early church. Claims that seem to put such a view forward are actually hyperbolic exhortations to generous charity (115). With the increased socioeconomic diversity, however, a new problem did emerge: viz. “The Rich.” The problem of what to do about rich people was a complex one. While the institution of private property in itself remained untouched, it was unclear what amount of property was appropriate, although many agreed that one should only have the minimum necessary. The Church reached a two-fold solution. First, there was an “ethic of compromise” in which private property and even “riches” were allowed to the lay people in the Church and to the Church itself, so long as it was accompanied by an “inner detachment” and a spirit of generosity. At the same time, the way of monasticism did away with private property altogether, renouncing it in the name of ascetic denial (117-118). [Dualism & Dual Morality]

In a related matter, the early church had an ambivalent relationship toward work. On the one hand it was encouraged for its disciplinary effects on the individual, and this even in the monastery where private property was abolished. On the other hand, it was seen as a result of the fall and a punishment for sin (119). According to Troeltsch the early Catholic church was characterized by a dualism of a “practical wisdom” with regard to economics (i.e. she gained much through her work), accompanied by an under-theorization of the relation between work and sustenance, as manifested by constant exhortations to rely constantly on God to provide for daily needs. [Dualism]

In the early church there was no robust sense of calling as there was in the medieval church (in one way, monasticism) and in the Reformation church (in another, as described by Luther). Insofar as differences in class existed, they were largely believed to be a result of the fall and a punishment for sin (121). Most Christians believed that external inequality could coexist with internal, spiritual equality in the church. For the early Christians, one was to stay in their current calling, not because of any inherent goodness of the calling, but simply because the short eschatological horizon meant that it was most important to avoid those means of employment manifestly incompatible with Christianity (i.e. supporting the pagan idol worship) (123). In the third century, with the rise of Christians in the upper echelons of society, things became more complicated. Here one sees an “evading and softening [of] these rules” (125) about participation in various vocations. When Constantine converted to Christianity, the most important impediment to participation in society was taken away—i.e. the pagan emperor-cult (125). Christians could now be encouraged to endure the present social order (still a result of the fall), in order to uphold the good of social order (c.f. Augustine in City of God). And yet, the more the church became identified with a fallen world and its orders, the greater became the importance of a monasticism that could “redress the balance by a rigid practice of Christian principles” (126). “Thus in her attitude towards the social and economic organizations of the day the Church was divided between submission to the conditions imposed by sin and insistence on the monastic communistic ideal of love” (127, emphasis added). [Dual Morality]

The early church had much to say about the realm of the family. It supported a strict family ethic, which included monogamy, prohibition of extramarital relations, strict discipline of children, and prohibition of exposure of infants. In this regard, “there was a ‘perpetual struggle between the highest ideals of Christianity… and the motives of the secular legal system’” (130). This meant a high view of a particular picture of family life. At the same time, however, there was also a parallel morality of celibacy and virginity among the monastics. Family was affirmed as part of the good order of creation, but it was also something that some gave up for the sake of a higher, supernatural end. “The sex ethic split into two parts… In this respect the development of the sex ethic was typical of the whole ethic of the Early Christian Church” (132). [Dual Morality]

Insofar as slavery was affected by family relations, the church had an influence upon it. But insofar as it was an expression of the social sphere and the economic order of the State, the church did not try to alter it. Fully aware of “the inconsistency between [slavery] and the inner freedom and equality which was the Christian ideal” (133), the Church allowed it to continue to exist. [Dualism]

Early on charity had the following marks: it took place in tight, homogenous communities; it was largely private and philanthropic; it was primarily about expressing and acting out of love for neighbor. Later (post Constantine?), charity had changed. It now took place in the context of a large diverse society; it was depersonalized and institutionalized; and it was performed more and more as a means of obtaining merit, rather than for love’s sake (135-137). The institutionalization of charity is also related to the rise of the bishops and clergy as a “new class,” awarded “more and more privileges” (138) by the Emperor. These privileges for the Church were turned toward care of the poor and social welfare; the bishops became “patron of the poor and wretched” (140). Without fundamentally changing the oppressive Social order itself, the privileges of the church functioned as a “corrective and a softening of existing conditions” (141) – while, at the same time, the rise of a new clergy class had the effect of further separating the church from the world. [Dualism?]

Troeltsch’s final—and most extensive—exploration concerns the relationship between church and state. The early church, according to Troeltsch, was marked by a fairly strict dichotomy between Church/Kingdom of God, on one side, and State/World, on the other (146). The “world” was not thought of as in cosmological or metaphysical terms, but rather as a passing age (aion houtos, saeculum) between Fall and parousia. The state, on the one hand, was part of this passing age, a result of the fall, and therefore part of this “world.” On the other hand it was good, insofar as it was from God and used by God for social order and to punish sins (148).

As the church grew in size and influence, it inevitably compromised the element of antithesis. Some “minimum” form of secular institutions were necessary to uphold common life. But how much was this “minimum”? “This was the question which divided Christianity into two great camps” (149). Most of the church came to acquiesce more and more to the secular conditions of the empire, but “monasticism restricted this ‘minimum’ as far as it was humanly possibly to do so” (149).

How did Christians come to justify their (tentative) affirmation of the state? First, early Christian apologists began to appropriate the Stoic doctrine of Natural Law (150). Especially after Constantine, many Church Fathers based their acceptance of the laws of the State on the theory that positive laws “proceed from the Divine Law of Nature, which is identical with the Decalogue” (152). But this introduced a conundrum: what should one think about laws that are manifestly bad? The Stoics felt this tension as well, and “found their solution in isolating the primitive period, or the Golden Age” (152) in which the “Law of Nature prevailed completely” (152). Christians took a similar route. The fact that positive law no longer directly reflects the Divine Natural law is a result of human sinfulness. At the same time, the fact the Natural Law as we have it does not exactly match the Divine Natural Law (of the primitive state) is not simply a result of the corruption of our faculty of reason after the Fall. Rather “it is the transformation of the Law of Nature, which, according to the Divine Will, took place after the Fall” (153). Postlapsarian Natural Law “can only become evident in the form of an order of law and compulsion” (153). This gives rise to the distinction between a “relative Natural Law, corresponding to the conditions of the general sinfulness of humanity” and the “absolute Natural Laws of the Primitive State” (154, emphasis added). The “harsher aspects” of positive law, according to this view were a result of sin, but were also used by God as a remedy for sin.

Along with Natural Law, the church also stressed “theocratic absolutism” (158). This was a way of understanding the authority of the emperor to make positive laws. While they might have gone the way of the Stoics, and conceived of a free transfer of authority to the princeps occurring in the primitive state, the church fathers more often affirmed that “the authority of the Emperor comes from God” (156)—whether by the grace of God (if it is a good Emperor) or by the wrath of God (if it is a bad Emperor) (156). As regards this second (theocratic) conception, the authority of the Empire could only be limited by its source of authority, i.e. God. Practically speaking, this meant that the Church (“the institution in which God is incarnate” (157)) claimed authority over the Emperor “in all spiritual things, in questions of dogma, of the law of the Church, of ecclesiastical property, of ecclesiastical legislation,” etc. (157).  In so doing, the Church “hallows” the State.

This dualistic theory—combining “the theory of relative Natural Law and the theory of theocratic absolutism”—had various outcomes in the social realm. First was the “division of labor” between Church and State, with the Emperor ruling in the secular affairs of State, and the Church ruling “in everything which concerned religion and the Church” (158). Another outcome was that the Church also began to utilize the State for her own ends, i.e. to secure a “unity which was enforced by the powers of the State, and not by the inherent logic of the ideas contained in the doctrine of the Church” (159). [Dualism]

Troeltsch’s final say on this dualist theory of state is damning, and worth quoting at length:

“The Christian theory of Natural Law—in which the pure Natural Law of the Primitive State, the entirely opposite relative Natural Law of the fallen State, the positive law, which often included the greatest abominations, and that true goodness which, in spire of all these ideas of Natural Law, is the only source of the supreme power of the theocracy, were in continual conflict—as a scientific theory it is wretchedly confused, but as a practical doctrine it is of the highest importance for the history of civilization and social evolution” (160).

In the end, I am left with the following questions: (1) Does the heuristic of “dualism” vs “dual morality” illuminate—or obscure—Troeltsch’s understanding of the early medieval catholic social ethic? Is there a better overarching way of explaining this section? (2) How does Troeltsch’s historical treatment help us understanding Christian appeals to “Natural Law”? Is his distinction between relative and absolute natural law correct? (3) Using some of the concepts that Troeltsch introduces, as well as some of our readings for this week, how might we begin to explain a Christian doctrine of political authority, either for the ancient church or for our own day?

[1] Although Troeltsch notes that individualism was preserved through the ideas of Christian love, monasticism, and contemplation (111).


Reading With Our Spines…

I’ve recently been reading James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, and it has been thoroughly enjoyable. Smith reflects upon Christian formation and education from a Reformed perspective, and yet he significantly shifts the center of gravity away from talk about world-views, beliefs and ideas to a more Augustinian account of the importance of loves. Given my recent fascination with Augustine, this is scratching me where I itch, so to speak.

One of his critiques of world-view speak is that it ignores the relationship between our embodiment and the formation of our loves toward certain ends (teloi). In particular, Smith argues that our “vision of the good life” is more often formed by affective, unconscious (or subconscious) means, rather than by cognitive means. In everyday speak, this means that it is the stories and images that we encounter every day that affect us at the gut level that really form us. “Stories seep into us–and stay there and haunt us–more than a report on facts” (58). Or, in the words of a former teacher of mine, “facts are inert, what matters is imagination.”

Smith offers an example of this in the process of reading good literature:

“Given this role of the imagination, we might suggest that liturgy is like literature: it gets hold of us through the body. In that connection, consider Vladimir Nabokov’s comment on reading Dicken’s Bleak House: “All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week. but I think Dickens will prove stronger.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature [New York: Harvest, 2002], 56)

Nabokov doesn’t mention it directly, but he could very well have commented on the antithesis of the mode of reading literature and the way we engage the world through the medium of the internet. I know and love the shiver that he mentions, and while I have certainly felt that shiver while watching a good film, I have never experienced it while reading a blog post, tweet, or facebook status update — although increasingly I am spending more time doing that. It makes me think hard about the quantity/quality distinction when it comes to digesting new information. I must remember to spend time reading good literature, or just not reading at all and thinking and praying, so that my thoughts can focus and come from a deeper place. The problem with the internet is its tendency toward shallowness (and its tendency to make us shallow, not just emotionally but also intellectually – so argues Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains). I can already see this in my own habits of reading the first few lines of many blog posts each day without actually reading a single one through to the end.

About Smith’s point generally, I wholeheartedly agree with his [Augustinian] analysis of human formation and am excited to see what he does with it (although he is particularly applying it to the context of Christian education, a form of education about which I am particularly skeptical). I think the church must constantly be attentive to the importance of imagination, desires, and embodiment on human formation, not just in the realm of Christian education, but also in the realm of gospel proclamation and cultural engagement.

Christian Hipsterdom…

Brett McCracken, one of my favorite bloggers (The Search), has a book coming out in August on the relationship between being “cool” and being “Christian.” It looks to be pretty interesting, considering the endless ebb and flow of trends and taboos within the bounds of the Christian cultural matrix.

The website for the book has a cool quiz you can take to find out your CHQ (Christian Hipster Quotient). Before taking the test I assumed that I would probably have a high CHQ (I mean, c’mon, I blog and tweet, whats hipper than that?). But then about halfway through the test I began to think that maybe my CHQ would be very low (I love VanAuken’s Severe Mercy, but is it more theologically significant than The Imitation of Christ? No way). Anyway, here are my results…

Your CHQ (Christian Hipster Quotient): 81/100 – High CHQ. You are a pretty progressive, stylish, hipster-leaning Christian, even while you could easily feel at home in a decidedly un-hip non-denominational church. you are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, and sometimes you grow weary or trendy “alt-Christianity.” But make no mistake: You are a Christian hipster to at least some degree.”

So there it is. I do feel at home in “un-hip non-denominational churches,” and I am “conservative on some issues and liberal on others.” So in that way it is pretty spot-on. On the website he also has different types of Christian hipsters (I am probably the “bookish intellectual” but if I had more money I would surely be the “monied yuppy“). If I were to categorize myself I would say that I am an interested observer of Christian hipsterdom–I think it is fascinating, and I feel pretty ambivalent toward most of the trends, most of which I hopefully dont get too caught up in. But who knows.

I wonder what Jesus would have scored?

Hauerwas on Preaching…

I found this quote provocative. It comes from an article by Stanley Hauerwas (which can be found here). It is important to remember when Hauerwas talks about enemies, that he is an ardent pacifist. Still, the article encourages us to have convictions, and stand by them–in a radical way if need be.

“God has entrusted us, His Church, with the best story in the world. With great ingenuity we have managed, with the aid of much theory, to make that story boring as hell. Theories about meaning are what you get when you forget that the Church and Christians are embattled by subtle enemies who win easily by denying that any war exists. God knows what He is doing in this strange time between “worlds,” but hopefully He is inviting us again to engage the enemy through the godly weapons of preaching and sacrament. I pray that we will have the courage and humility to fight the enemy in Walter Rauschenbusch’s wonderful words, with “no sword but the truth.” According to Rauschenbusch, “such truth reveals lies and their true nature, as when Satan was touched by the spear of Ithuriel. It makes injustice quail on its throne, chafe, sneer, abuse, hurl its spear, tender its goal, and finally offer to serve as truth’s vassal. But the truth that can do such things is not an old woman wrapped in the spangled robes of earthly authority, bedizened with golden ornaments, the marks of honor given by injustice in turn for services rendered, and muttering dead formulas of the past. The truth that can serve God as the mightiest of his archangels is robed only in love, her weighty limbs unfettered by needless weight, calm-browed, her eyes terrible with beholding God.” May our eyes and our preaching be just as terrible. Indeed, may we preach so truthfully that people will call us terrorists. If you preach that way you will never again have to worry about whether a sermon is “meaningful.””

Stanley Hauerwas

Copyright © 1996 First Things 53 (May 1995)

Hear No Evil Blog Tour…

Matthew Paul Turner, author  (Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess, and The Christian Culture Survival Guide) and popular blogger, is known for his slightly irreverent, yet honest and insightful, humor. In his newest book, Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost, he puts these qualities on display, as he tells his story through the lens of the music which helped shape him into the person he is today.

Hear No Evil is a memoir of MPT’s life told through a series of vignette-like chapters. He begins his book by recounting an experience he had while sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Nashville: a chance conversation with a nervous looking wannabe Christian rocker. In recounting the conversation, Turner takes every opportunity to deride common, trite stereotypically Christian, traits. It is not that Turner is against Christians or Christianity–he is one! It is that he is against inauthentic expressions of it, as the following quote demonstrates:

“I think about how many times I’ve heard this type of conversation. Hundreds, perhaps. The context is sometimes different, but much of the dialogue is the same–people talking about how to creating something ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ rather than just being real and authentic. So many of us Christians are all about being vulnerable, especially when we’re on stage, dressed up in a costume and wearing makeup, putting on a performance we consider ‘a means to an end.'” (11)

From this experience, MPT turns to his own story, and his beginnings in an “ultraconservative Baptist church where emotion and honesty were even less compatible than Christian fundamentalism and self-worth” (8). As a child, despite his circumstances, Turner discovered his natural ability to sing (he dreamed of going on Star Search), his love for pop music (particularly Sandi Patty, who was basically anathematized by his home church because she didn’t stick to the old hymns), and his desire to become the Christian Michael Jackson (the “King of King’s King of Pop”). He describes his first time going out to see a movie (at age 18), his encounter with Presbyterians at Belmont University (described as rebellious, trendy, hyper-Calvinists) and his experience running a Christian coffee shop in Northern Virginia (Jammin Java – a place I used to frequent when I lived in NoVA).

These vignettes are filled with humor and wit. They are fairly entertaining to read, especially considering that the book does not really have a plot. They are loosely held together by the fact that each has something to do with music, and each was an experience of personal and spiritual growth. In one of the final chapters, MPT tells the story of an interview he had with one of his favorite musical artists, Amy Grant, while working for the magazine, CCM. Without giving away too much information, I will simply say that Turner and his editor had personal differences as to how the story should be written, with the result that Turner’s version was scrapped, and a different piece was published in his name. In this chapter, entitle Chasing Amy, Turner attempts to clear the air about what really happened. One is left wondering if the whole book might have been in order to give Turner a chance to do so–but given the popularity of his blog, he probably didn’t need to write a book in order to set things straight.

While Hear No Evil does not really have all of the traditional elements of a plot, it does have an easily discernible trajectory. Through his many experiences, narrated with special reference to the impact of music on his life, Turner transcends his fundamentalist, ultraconservative roots, and embraces a lively, tolerant, yet somewhat cynical, faith. As noted by my wife, who also read the book, Matthew Paul Turner belongs to an increasingly popular genre that I would call “post-religious Christian inspiration,” which places him among the likes of Donald Miller, Anne Lamott, Brian McLaren, and–in the music world–Derek Webb. My only worry is that much of humor latent within the cynicism would be lost on someone who picks up the book, yet is ignorant of the Christian culture (let’s be honest, not everyone in America cares what is overplayed and trite on Christian radio stations, they are watching MTV or browsing MySpace instead).

If you are looking for a quick, entertaining, slightly irreverent read, however, I would recommend Hear No Evil. It may make you think about aspects of Christian culture that you take for granted, allowing you to transcend your own cultural baggage, and discover the radical otherness of the gospel.

If you want to by Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost click here.

This book was provided for review by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group.

Primal Blog Tour…

This morning I finished reading my review copy of Mark Batterson’s new book, Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity. I remember hearing about Mark’s church, National Community Church (www.theatrechurch.org) while I was living in Northern Virginia, and I have been reading his tweets and blog posts for a while now. This book, however, was the first time I have been able to get a glimpse into what he is all about. And I liked what I saw.

The basic premise of Primal is that we tend to overcomplicate Christianity. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12). The problem with Christianity in our day, according to Batterson, is this simple: we do not live out the Great Commandment.

In Primal, Batterson explores what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He identifies a key inward characteristic and a key outward characteristic of what it means to love God with each of these four dimensions of our personhood. Loving God with our heart is exemplified by the experience of compassion and the act of generous giving. Loving God with our soul is exemplified by the experience of wonder and the act of meditation on and obedience to Scripture. Loving God with our mind is exemplified by the experience of curiosity and the act of prayerful creativity. Loving God with our strength is exemplified by the experience of energy, and the simple act of relying on God’s energizing Spirit.

The content of this book is great. At times, however, I wondered whether his “vehicle” [as my wife, the former speech competitor calls it] was the most effective one he could have chosen. Batterson alternates between the metaphors of (a) stripping away the layers of history, (b) being great at the Great Commandment, and (c) starting the next Christian Reformation in order to deliver his message. Each of these “vehicles”  would be effective on their own (and granted, they are certainly related), but at times the mixing of them was confusing.

That being said, I found the book very enjoyable to read. Batterson’s strength lies in his ability to incorporate psychology, sociology, and the natural sciences in ways that make the Gospel come to life. In doing so, he shows how the Christian message is relevant–how it relates to the way we think and interact and how it relates to the world in which we live. He has a great ability to explain theological concepts in accessible, engaging ways. Also, I was pleasantly surprised by the punch-line of his chapter on loving God with all our strength: namely, that loving God with all our strength means to rely on God’s strength in us. Batterson manages to make his book a call to action, while affirming the Reformation Era slogan Sola Gratia (“by grace alone”).

There are no new theological ideas in this book. As a seminary student at the end of a long semester, that was refreshing. Primal is a reminder of the basics, and an encouragement to see the profundity of the Great Commandment. I would confidently recommend this book for an adult education team looking for a 4-week curriculum on the Great Commandment, or for a youth group leader looking for a book to go through with a small group of high school kids.

Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity can be purchased here.

An Evening With NT Wright…

Last night, Sarah and I (and her parents – the Lut’eran Ministers) went to an event at the seminary hosted by the Center for Theological Inquiry. It was an interview session with NT Wright, bishop of Durham, who is here in Princeton working on the next volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Like all of the other theological nerds, I was very excited to see him speak. All semester I have been scanning the study carrels in the library and the crowds of people walking along Nassau Street hoping to see him. My master plan is to *accidentally* spill my coffee on him, apologize profusely, and then offer myself as a study assistant for the remainder of his time here, free of charge. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but at least I have had the chance to hear him speak while he is here.

Because the format was that of an interview, he did not speak on a “topic” per se. Most of the questions focused on how to be an academic in the service of the church–how to hold those two world in tension without using “two bibles: one for personal devotion, and the other for academic study.”

The most profound moment of the night, for me, came when NT Wright answered a question about Modernity and Postmodernity. While acknowledging the great advances of Modernity (he said he didn’t want to have dental work performed by a postmodern dentist–or a premodern dentist for that matter) he went on to explain the freedom that postmodernity brings to the academic and theologian. Modernity, Wright explained, tended to lead to dogmatic statements such as “Now that we no longer believe that sort of thing…” or “Now that we know that all truth is relative...” or “Now that we have taken this or that into our own hands…” that left little to no room for an open, honest conversation about spiritual matters. Postmodernism, on the other hand, called those sorts of statement in question. That, he said, is a good thing. However, he was not idealistic or romantic about postmodernity either, as if postmodernism is the cure for all of the church’s ills. He used the following metaphor. Postmodernism is the equivalent of the Secular Fall Story. Modernism was an age of optimism and progress, in which the church and world were thought to be on an upward trajectory toward achievement of the perfect society – the kingdom of God, if you will. And yet, in reality, the age of “enlightenment” did not make humanity better, more just, or more loving. Instead, it led to two world wars and the horrors of the Nazi death camps – in other words, it led to a humanity that was more efficient at exterminating and destroying each other. The reaction to this effect of the age of modernism has been an extreme reaction against any all encompassing stories of progress or meaning – in the words of Jean-François Lyotard “incredulity toward metanarratives.” This for Wright, signals the “Secular Fall.” Implied in this analysis is the conclusion that postmodernism is not the answer. If anything, it provides the context in which we must try to move forward – looking for ways to participate in God’s work of redemption. How are we going to redeem this world? Part of the answer for Wright lies in culture. We must seek to engage and create culture in ways that help people find their own place in God’s story – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration [my words, not his]. I find this to be a helpful way of thinking about postmodernism – not an answer, rather a reaction resulting from the fall of the secular myth of progress – now, we must begin to look forward constructively and creatively seeking to redeem a world that is all to familiar with its own brokenness.

NT Wright is a good role model for those of us who hope to be intellectually honest, academically precise, and most importantly to encourage people to trust in Christ. In person he is winsome, engaging, and self-deprecating. Last night was a real treat.

Time, Cross and Glory: The Christian Movement as Missio Dei

OZ Cross5

This week I attended the Princeton Theological Seminary Student’s Lecture  on Mission. The presenter was Dr. Scott Sundquist, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his lectures, “Time, Cross, and Glory: the Christian movement as Missio Dei,” Professor Sundquist described the task of helping Communist Chinese Economists learn how to study Christianity. They were interested, he said, in Christianity’s ability to reform the culture and morals of a society. And yet, they did not even understand the meaning behind the most basic Christian symbol: the cross. “Can one study Christianity from a materialist-communist perspective, without distorting it with one’s own worldview? Can Christians study their own history in a postmodern environment that has a disdain for the historical? What is the interpretive key that can unlock the meaning of Christian history?” These are the central questions that Dr. Sundquist sought to answer in his lectures. In this post I’ll briefly explain his interpretive “keys:” time, cross, and glory—drawing implications for the formation of a missional theology for the Church today.

Slightly altering the order of presentation, let us first consider the central Christian symbol—the cross. Why is it that among the world’s religions, Christianity is the only one whose symbol is one of suffering? Not only the cross, but also the Eucharist (“My body broken…my blood shed…”) and Baptism (a symbol of the death of the old self). According to Dr. Sundquist, “Suffering is the key to understanding who God is for us.” At the center of the Christian religion is a suffering savior, who identifies with the poor and oppressed and is willing to suffer on their behalf. In order to understand salvation from a Christian perspective you must understand both “missional incarnation” (God-with-us) and “redemptive suffering” (God-for-us).

This, of course, has implications for Christian ethics and ecclesiology. If God chooses to reveal God’s self in this two-pronged way, then Christians who are being faithful to God will follow suit. The combination of “missional incarnation” and “redemptive suffering” in the ethical sphere, Dr. Sundquist calls “cruciform apostolicity.”  Those who follow Christ will bear the risk of suffering, as demonstrated in every major revival in Christian history, according to Sundquist. Suffering, then—while not to be sought, in and of itself—is to be expected in the pursuit of faithful witness to the suffering God.

And yet, suffering is not exactly what the Christian faith is about. As Protestants, we use a cross and not a crucifix. The cross is empty, as is the tomb; the emphasis is on the victory over suffering that Christ has secured through resurrection. Similarly, in the Eucharist the risen, alive Christ is with us and in us. As for Baptism, the Church would not grow at a very fast rate if we left people underwater! Those who die to the old self are then raised to new life. The good news of the Christian faith is that suffering, while certainly a reality, does not have the last word. The paradox of the Gospel is that it is precisely in suffering that Christian glory is revealed. The Scriptures, according to Dr. Sundquist, present suffering that leads to glory is a normative experience for the Church (e.g. 1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Peter 4:12, Ephesians 3:8-13, Romans 8:15-19).  Once again, the implications are apparent. If suffering leads to glory, then suffering is not pointless. We can endure suffering because we know that God is with us in it, and that God has a plan beyond it. Presupposed in this view of suffering and glory is the third aspect of Dr. Sundquist’s lectures—a certain view of time—to which we turn presently.

Christianity is a radically historical religion. In Jesus Christ, we have a God who entered history, acts in history, and has a purpose for all of history. His-story is going somewhere, so to speak. Of course, this is also a very Jewish way of understanding history. The Hebrew Scriptures emphasize the importance of God’s creating activity (Genesis 1-2), God’s acts within history (e.g. the exodus), and God’s future fulfillment of history, described as new creation (Isaiah 65-66).  This view of history as a linear metanarrative challenged Platonic Greek thought which the early church encountered, and continues to challenge both Eastern views of history (as cyclical), and postmodern views of history (as irrelevant).

The Church must properly understand and emphasize God’s role in the creation of history in order to properly understand God’s redemptive acts in history, and God’s redemptive purpose for history. Only a God who is sovereign over history is one who can redeem through suffering—and redeem suffering itself. Otherwise, the suffering that we encounter is more often viewed as a result of a created order that we need to escape (ironically a pitfall of both Buddhism and fundamentalist Christianity!). Or, conversely, when the Church loses sight of God’s sovereignty in history, Christians seek to enact redemption on the horizontal plane, by their own power. This was the false optimism that seems so naïve to children of the postmodern generation when they look back at Christians like James Dennis and the Student Volunteer Movement (“…to evangelize the world in this generation”). The reality, however, is that redemption is always an act of God, and any hope that Christians may rightly hold must be grounded in the future consummation of history that will be a result of God’s initiative, and not our own (although God certainly works through human agency—thus the tension!). When we understand God’s sovereignty over creation and history we are guarded against the opposing threats of hopelessness and triumphalism, and thus freed to practice “cruciform apostolicity” in the sure hope of ultimate redemption and glory.


Scott W. Sunquist is the W. Don McClure Associate Professor of World Mission and Evangelism at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

The Importance of Beginning in the Beginning…


Click Here to Download the Sermon…

Today on my run I listened to a great sermon by Rob Bell from Mars Hill Bible Church which he gave on 08.16.09. In it he stresses the importance of including Gen 1-2 (Creation) and Revelation 21-22 (Restoration) when we tell the story of Jesus. Why is this important? Because, as Bell says, when we leave out Creation and Restoration, it profoundly effects the story we tell.

Another way of saying this (in my words, not Bell’s) is that the Biblical narrative of redemption occurs in 4 chapters (creation, fall, redemption, restoration) but we often hear it told in only 2 (fallen humanity, redemption in christ). While the 2 chapter gospel is most certainly true, it also is limited. When our story of God’s redemption leaves out God’s original good creation (characterized by shalomuniversal flourishing, wholeness and delight) , and God’s future restoration of that Good creation (also characterized by shalom) it is an incomplete story.

Why does this matter? Here are a few reasons…

1. A 2-chapter gospel tends to emphasize the individualistic to the detriment of the cosmic scope of the Gospel.

2. A 2-chapter gospel tends to lead to an escapist view of redemption – not heaven coming to earth, the restoration of shalom, but rather the escaping into a disembodied heaven somewhere else

3. A 2-chapter gospel tends to minimize the inherent goodness of vocation in the world–that is except the vocation of full-time church work. If we do not have a proper understanding of Genesis, we will miss out on the co-creative, stewarding, cultural mandate given to people before sin ever entered into the world.

If you get a chance, listen to Rob Bell’s sermon. It is sort-of long (about an hour). But it is worth it. I don’t always get behind what Bell says, but I have to admit… I like what he says in this one and think it is an important message for the church.

Feel free to let me know what you think… leave a comment.

Risky Grace


No one could live this close to Philadelphia without overhearing numerous conversations about the Eagle’s newest signee. Michael Vick, to say the least, is a divisive character. Vick rose to stardom from humble beginnings in Newport News, Virginia (near my own hometown of Virginia Beach), starring on a Virginia Tech football team that received wide attention in the National Title Game against Florida State, and electrifying the NFL while playing for the Atlanta Falcons. Vick had everything. He also had a terrible hobby and some dubious acquaintances. When he was caught running a dogfighting ring from his home in Virginia, he instantly lost everything, as he was sentenced to two years in jail.

If you had asked anybody back then whether Vick would return to NFL football they might have laughed in your face. The chances of staying in football shape for that time was slim to none – not to mention the public relations nightmare that any team would face if they signed him. Michael Vick had made too many mistakes- ones that were too terrible in nature to warrant a chance at redemption. Putting your money on Vick returning to football was like setting it on fire and washing the ashes down the drain.

Or so it seemed. Vick now has been given a “second chance,” a shot at redemption. As a dog-lover (and hopefully a human-being with a heart) this gives me mixed feelings. What he did was terrible. Many well-meaning people have said “everyone deserves a second-chance.” But who says? By what criteria is a second-chance what someone like Vick “deserves.”  The truth of the matter is that he doesn’t “deserve” anything but the just consequences of his actions. In truth, none of us do.

But Vick has been given more than what he deserves and that is called grace – a gift. What I want to talk about is not whether this is a good thing or not. What I do want to point out is how this gift came about. Consider the following quote from Andy Reid, head coach of the Eagles.

“I’m a believer that as long as people go through the right process, they deserve a second chance. He’s got great people on his side; there isn’t a finer person than (Vick adviser) Tony Dungy. He’s proven he’s on the right track.”

It seems that the decisive factor in the story of Michael Vick’s return is the support that he has received from former Colts head-coach Tony Dungy. While Vick was in prison, Dungy began meeting with him and mentoring him. Think about this decision for a minute: the coach in the NFL with perhaps the most stalwart reputation visiting the former NFL player with perhaps the greatest blot on his reputation. When most people wouldn’t touch Vick with a ten-foot-pole, Tony Dungy risked his own reputation to reach out to a man who had made great mistakes. Why? Maybe it is because Dungy is a Christian and he worships the God who did the very same thing for us. Maybe it is because Dungy knows his own sin, and in the light of that knowledge he doesn’t judge, but looks for ways to demonstrate what grace truly is.

Grace is risky. Forgiveness requires sacrifice. Think about it. When someone has wronged us, we can either “settle the score” or “hold a grudge” or forgive. When we settle the score, we get revenge or “pay them back.” By getting back at them, we even out the ledger sheet between the two of us. We may have incurred a loss but we also made them incur a loss, and that feels like a gain. When we hold a grudge we do not settle the score, but we hold on to the ledger sheet for a later date, constantly placing the other person in our debt (whether they know it or not). When we forgive, however, we take the loss into ourselves and absorb it. The person is set free by our act of sacrifice. If someone buys a car from us and promises to pay us at a later date, but never does, we can “forgive” their debt but only at great cost to ourselves.

God, similarly, forgives us. But only at great cost to himself. God’s grace is risky. When Jesus walked the earth he had a stalwart reputation which he put on the line for the “sinners and tax collectors” and the “prostitutes.” Jesus identified himself with them so that by finding their identity in him, they may be redefined, redeemed. Of course it didn’t stop with his earthly associations. Jesus carried this attitude all the way to Calvary. On the cross Jesus, the sinless one, “became sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And now, all of us whose identity is primarily in him (i.e. the church) are redeemed and redefined by his identification with us (“if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come” 2 Corinthians 5:17).

So back to Vick and Dungy. It remains to be seen whether Vick will enjoy success again in the NFL. It also remains to be seen whether Vick has truly changed, has truly left his dubious friends behind. Vick may disappoint. For my part, I hope that he doesn’t. I hope that he has changed and that he will have a positive impact on all those who may look to him as a role-model. But, that all remains to be seen. What can clearly be seen, however, is the risky grace of Tony Dungy, who is risking his own reputation to stand with someone who no one else will stand with. Tony Dungy is being Jesus Christ to Michael Vick.

Will we (the church that is) learn from him? Will we learn to stop being self righteous, sitting in judgment on those who have made mistakes? Will we learn that God may require us to risk our reputations to show the world what kind of God we serve? Will we stand by those who may not “deserve” a second chance, but who may be redeemed by one? May God give us the grace to be that risky.