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