Avoiding Idolatry or What We May Learn From the Ancient Church

Some time ago, a Christian celebrity occupied the office next to my office at the university. This great lunch partner and friend awarded me a gift upon his departure — a Bible signed by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They gave him the gift when his wife and he had appeared on their TV show. Upon hearing the story my daughter laughed and asked, “Who signs the Bible – is that idolatrous?” We talked about when one should and should not sign a Bible. My daughter laughed at me even more when I confessed I had for a time used the Bible to prop up my computer monitor to the correct height- irreverent by contrast. Recently I came across the word “idolatry” in Denys Turner’s beautiful book on Thomas Aquinas. I teach that religious language is rooted in analogy. I tell students that some language is metaphorically true, for example, “God is my rock.”  Literal language, more modestly, sees a connection between our words about people and our words about God.

Analogy falls between two mistaken approaches to language. A (1) univocal sense pictures our language is a perfect fit; words like “wise” apply directly to God without reservation. Thomas knew this approach would never work. It is indeed the case that my father is wise; but Thomas knew that God was wiser still.

Neither did Thomas tolerate the other mistaken approach – the (2) equivocal sense. In this approach, the words we use to speak about God have nothing to do with our human experience at all. Saying my father is wise would have no relationship at all to saying God is wise.

Thankfully, Thomas avoids the two extremes. The (1) univocal is over confident in human ability to capture God exhaustively. The (2) equivocal concludes that human experience and language is not related to God at all; our language thus provides no insight whatsoever. Thomas teaches that human analogues, like a wise father, really do help us understand something about God. Simple enough. We can speak meaningfully but not exhaustively about God.

Turner’s book artfully argues that Thomas was more concerned with what analogical language sought to protect (the mystery of God) than to articulate.  In other words, Thomas was happy to nail down that knowing my father was wise would help me understand that God was wise; he was even more concerned to remind me that there is a depth to God’s wisdom beyond my father’s – beyond what I could know.

Turner worries about modern folk’s God talk. Without the limits of analogy in mind, we may read the Scripture picturing God as one more actor among all the others. Taking God down to size has consequences; according to Turner, Thomas would declare it idolatry.

Herbert McCabe wrote long ago that Thomas was a mystic; he seems smarter with each passing day.

What does “We believe in God the Father mean?” or What did the early church know that we may need to re[dis]cover?

lightstock_146024_medium_user_870913Rowan Williams, wise and worrisome, reminds us that the earliest creeds begin with the notion of trust.  The early confessors were not typically facing a common question from our own day: whether or not to affirm there is god, whether some kind of generic god or gods exist?  The early Christians affirmed and embraced a mystery when they declared “we believe…”  They were declaring allegiance to a very peculiar version of God. They were publicly acknowledging they placed trust in this one and true God who has sent his Son on mission to reclaim the world; the same one and true God was now present in the world, being heard in the voice of the Spirit (Trinitarian from the get-go).  Don’t miss the mysterious direction of things. The Father had come our direction with the Son; now the Father was working (even wooing) within us to bring us his direction in the Spirit.

The early confessor was not saying (1) “I am affirming that there is a god.” This is what young modern evangelicals have in mind when they have seasons of doubt.  They also assume this is the question their non or post Christian friends have in mind in this secular age. It is an affirmation that is rooted in the domains of metaphysics (think, “what is real?”) and epistemology (think, “how do I know what is real?”). Continue reading

Going to Church: How the Only Politics That Finally Matter Happen At Church

I begin with remembering two conversations about going to church.  First, my parents believed in going to church.  They called it “big church” when they inquired if I was going to skip the congregation- wide meeting after a youth meeting.  Their conviction was driven home without argument or rationale; it seemed intuitive or instinctual.

Secondly, several years ago my friend, Pastor John, ask me to spend an evening with students who were back from university for Christmas break.  The assembly was typical or representative: some had lived freely and God fell off their radar (a practical rather than a theoretical atheism), some felt bullied by a skeptic professor, and some had been assigned to read Nietzsche in honors class.  The students were encouraged by registering some worries and took some hope in learning these issues had history and were part of a bigger conversation.  They seemed pleased I had also assigned readings in Nietzsche and even took his side in several issues.  As the evening concluded my final theme was about going to church.

I explained Christianity was not merely a set of ideas to be affirmed but centered on relationship and trust.  Faith is nonnegotiably participatory; it envisions practices in concrete reality and community.  I told them to pick a church quickly and connect; they did not need a cool pastor but a concrete pastor who had lived out faith with family and folk.  Pastor John may have initially wondered… I brought a college professor to talk to my smart college students and this is the big finish – “you guys should go to church?”  Soon though, he appeared mystified by the greater wisdom concerning church.  I was simply closing with the most central survival tip of the evening, but John latched on to the idea and has recently asked me to share it with the entire church.  What follows is one idea in an effort to put into words the conviction of my parents – we need to go to church. Continue reading

The Baptists – Down And Out But Not [To Be] Forgotten

“Baptist” is not the most popular of names today. Both the news and the numbers are bad. In the news Baptists are viewed as legalistic, as divisive and disruptive, as favoring the appearance of devotion over depth, and the greatest sin of all – as being “out of touch.” Indeed our denominations are marked by controversy and our congregations are often clouded in chaos.

The numbers are not much better. Rather than another rehearsal of declining statistics I will venture to capture the Baptist psyche of the last several decades by offering a distinctly American Baptist voice paraphrasing the Pharisee’s prayer (as opposed to that of the tax collector).

70s         I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not like the godless Europeans, whose churches are emptying at a record pace…

80s         I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not like the declining liberal denominations here in America that are losing market share, members, and money…

90s         I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not declining as rapidly as the liberals around us…

2000s     I thank thee God that we, the Baptists, are not like the godless nation that surrounds us and holds us in disdain…

The news and the numbers are not good. So why not forget the Baptists?

The Baptists have a history of flourishing when they are hounded and harassed. While they may not rule well, their convictions shine the brightest when they are the weakest; their convictions don’t die even if the Baptists might. In their weakness they have ventured to bear witness to the larger Church. Two convictions merit consideration. 1) Baptists hold that baptism should express the faith of a believer who professes his/ her new identity as a disciple; this profession is not a mere declaration of belief but the identifying mark of a new life, community, and identity – believer’s baptism. 2) Baptists believe that the Church is comprised of only baptized believers – believer’s church. Many in the Church have received this witness. Much of the explosive growth of Christianity has occurred in the “majority world” among nondenominational and charismatic circles (and others) who embrace these two convictions. Baptist need not exaggerate that we were the first to grasp or recover these convictions (think Anabaptist) or that we have labored alone (think Churches of Christ), but we can be grateful for the legacy of witness to these convictions that has persisted through suffering and persecution.

The witness of baptism picturing new life emerging from death is well- rooted in Easter; the potency and truthfulness of this conviction is more grand and enduring than the Baptist brand.

Christ, Community, Mission – an Ancient and Modern Routine

My students in Church History are well pleased with Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language.  I was please to revise and update the book furnishing its 4th edition.  It serves, especially beginning students, very well.  It gives the student stories of key events and persons in Shelley’s warm conversational style.  Students also read Robert Louis Wilken’s The First One Thousand Years. As an avid Wilken reader, I knew I would admire  it.  Master level students have frequently enjoyed Wilken’s other works.  But what about the undergraduates?  They noted that the book is not as easy to read as Shelley’s, but the students sense that it is “well- written,” “deep,” and “it tells a good story.”  I add “it is beautiful, artful.”  It is artful because it helps the contemporary reader more fully appreciate the topic.

Two examples from the chapter on monasticism will illustrate.  Wilken reviews some of the key figures of monasticism, including Anthony.  Anthony and others sought to do battle in the wilderness with the demons.  Wilken remembers another monk had taught that the demons “fight through people and things” when in the world, but “in the desert they assault us through our thoughts.”  The desert is a place of frightening clarity.  Here the demons exploit the weaknesses the monks have brought with them.  Wilken reminds students it is not an easy victory.  Suffering and loneliness persist.  Only the slow, deliberate, and costly disciplines lead one nearer to tranquility.  Wilken shows how even solitude had a dimension of service and connection with others (100-101).

Wilken also portrays Macrina, the older sister of Basil of Caesarea.  Macrina influenced her brothers –three of which become bishops.  She pioneered a new style of monasticism, which was inspired by her routines of prayer, a simple diet, and the work of making a home.  This style seemed naturally suited for service to the community – such as the care of orphan girls.  Basil’s considerable influence encouraged a more social vision for monks, which joined solitary prayer with a life engaged in service.  Macrina illustrates the higher standing women enjoyed in the church.  She precedes the famous women of the church, such as Catherine of Siena (104-105).

My students begin as strangers to the peculiar and distant world of monasticism.  The student’s world is given to comfort needs – to embracing and enhancing pleasures.  The monks’ deny themselves in order to enhance the clarity necessary for spiritual warfare.  Students discern that it is the disciplined life of the monks that more naturally lead to love and service to others.  They also recognize that the trendy new methods in mission are actually the manner of witness exhibited long ago by the monks; the monks pursue Christ in the life of discipline, they model a more noble community with respect for one another, kindness for the stranger and mercy for the sick and weak.

[Charismatic] Christianity and Wealth

It has been my privilege to spend a good portion of last year editing Bruce Shelley’s remarkably popular Church History in Plain Language.  The 4th edition is due in December.  I have ventured a humble effort to describe the nature of the Christianity which is expanding at an astounding rate around the Globe and especially in the Global South and China.  This expansion or revival is typically charismatic.  A recent conference may have strayed off course from critiquing the prosperity Gospel to offering a general condemnation of Charismatic experience; a panel discussion did strike a note of caution calling for patience for two evangelicals who were strangely open to the movement, John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  The following observations may be helpful.

1.  There are very grave challenges faced by the “new Christianity” sweeping around the globe; some are deficient in the doctrine of the trinity; some may be overly emotional and naive; some offer crude and manipulative instruction concerning money, indeed there are many other concerns.  I am not a charismatic but I am humbled to report a magnificent working of God across the globe.  Almost every revival has had similar criticisms and corresponding false and deviate versions of genuine Spirit phenomena.

2.  The biblical case is admirably summarized by John Piper; he cites I Corinthians 14:29 (instructing prophets be allowed to speak but be evaluated), I Thessalonians 5:20-21 (ordering the church not to hold prophesy in contempt but to evaluate it), I Corinthians 11: 4-5 (stipulating proper decorum for men and women prophets – Piper cautions about women exercising authority), and I Corinthians 13:8-10 (teaching that these disputed gifts would be in place until Christ returns).  The presumption that prophecy is unbiblical is unwarranted.

3.  Our concerns for Charismatic teaching and practice hold strange ironies for “first world” evangelicals.  One example will suffice.  I am deeply troubled about how many charismatics talk about money.  Too many times their teaching is crude and appeals to the worst kind of greed.  But I fear North American Evangelicalism has too little to teach them and too weak an example to give witness to a better way.  Are they much more sick on this issue that we?  They teach the Gospel carries with it the notion that believers who have nothing (especially the oppressed and abjectly poor) will receive reward; we teach the Gospel includes the caveat that wealthy believers need change little about the way they live or handle their money.  The desire for worldly wealth seems to drive both.   Jesus warned in Matthew 6:24 that Wealth / Mammon can endanger those who have wealth (Matthew 6:19 – 24) as well as those who have nothing (Matthew 6: 25-34).  We need a better way forward.

Pentecost, Pesher, and the People of God

 In sum: “to be saved” in the Pauline view means to become part of the people of God, who by the Spirit are born into God’s family and therefore joined to one another as one body, whose gatherings in the Spirit form them into God’s temple.  God is not simply saving individuals and preparing them for heaven; rather he is creating a people for his name, among whom God can dwell and who in their life together will reproduce God’s life and character in all its unity and diversity.

                                                                                                                                        Gordon Fee

                                                                                   Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God

This passage serves as an epigraph for my epilogue to the 4th edition of Bruce Shelley’s popular work, Church History in Plain Language. Revising Shelley’s work was an honor but also a humbling undertaking.  The most humbling challenge by far was the charge to offer a new conclusion to the work taking note of the remarkable growth of the church in the “Global South.”  Trying to picture the changing face of Christianity in a couple of chapters was daunting; I could work for 10 years to tell the story of the faith in the last 100 years and have only begun.

I hold a modest confidence toward other revisions concerning Gnosticism and early theology, but one of the very satisfying things about the project is the epigraph.  I found these words not only a faithful rendering of Paul’s teaching about the church but also fitting and prophetic when considering the church today.  The awakening of Christianity around the globe has awakened my own convictions about the church.  An almost pesher quality permeates my reading. Like Peter I declare “this is that” – this great global embrace of Christ is that church one sees in the New Testament.

Peter declared the Pentecost phenomena of Spirit- outpouring and tongue- speaking was that which Joel had prophesied (Acts 2); in this event the Spirit had overcome geographic, cultural, and language barriers to form his people; but so as not to miss the point, the Spirit also falls on the half- Jew in chapter 8 and the non- Jew in chapter 10.  The Spirit gathers the church from across racial lines.  Reconciliation requires a transforming of persons, but this transforming involves the forming of the people of God from every people and nation. Reconciliation apart from reconciliation with his people seems out of step with the Spirit’s work in the first century and in our own.

Jesus, Gnosticism, and the Vampire Culture

What follows is my retelling of observations made in a lecture titled “Did We Get Jesus Right? Jesus in the Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels” by Simon Gathercole and response by David Chapman at Lanier Theological Library on September 8, 2012.  My retelling will appear as a text box entitled “Understanding Gnosticism Today” in the forthcoming 4th edition of Church History in Plain Language.

Two analogies or comparisons may help us assess Gnostic claims about Jesus.  The first is about historical proximity.  The church’s Gospels are written about 30 to 65 years after Jesus’ life.  This span of time would be comparable to a professor’s (age 55 at year 2010 in our thought experiment) relationship to the Vietnam War or the Korean Conflict.  This professor can assess what he reads about these conflicts with his own living memory and that of his eyewitness contemporaries.  By contrast the earliest Gnostic Gospel is probably written 140 years after Jesus’ life (and much longer for all except the Gospel of Thomas).  This span of time would be comparable to our professor’s relationship to the Civil War.  Our professor would have no living memory of or connection to these events.  Fortunately it is one of the remarkably well-documented events in all of history; otherwise we would be precariously dependent upon a limited number of stories without living memory to serve as an anchoring restraint.

Another comparison centers upon the difficulty of offering historical reconstructions of events and persons.  There have been a great many books and movies that reconstruct the life and work of Abraham Lincoln.  These typically share some general consensus about the outline of his basic life story, family, and service but still vary about his motives, religion, and person.  But a very different reconstructing of his life emerges from the vampire mania of contemporary culture.  This carnivorous cultural phenomenon seems to offer a variety of takes on a seemingly endless variety of topics. Its reconstruction of Lincoln replaces some of the consensus story and supplements the surviving elements of the story.  Intriguing elements take on new significance; e.g. Lincoln was prone to long sleepless nights and he could handle an axe.  Even the overall reconstruction yields an interesting insight; slavery, like vampire wars, was draining the life-force from slaves and the nation for the sake of money (see the numerous reviews).  The book picturing Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter is typically understood as fantasy; but on the issues of proximity and methodology, it is an illuminating comparison to the Gnostic versions of Jesus.  The old narrative is replaced or supplemented to make a substantially different story.

But these observations or stories are but new and creative versions of a longstanding conversation. The second- century Irenaeus mocked his Gnostic opponents saying “there were no Valentians before Valentinus;” he drew attention to the publically accessible chain of custody (so Robert Wilken in The First Thousand Years, p45) – the church claimed to be recipient of eye witness testimony from Jesus’ followers.  Early churchmen were aware of the variety in the four Gospels which Irenaeus embraced, but they believed these Gospels had the right “big picture.”  Irenaeus compares Gnostic readers to bad craftsmen who take the pieces of a mosaic and offer a picture of a dog while losing sight of the noble royal subject.  The question was not who could come to a text and venture a creative reading but which text faithfully pictured Jesus and who read the text faithfully.

Faith Falling and Rising or the Globe Upside Down

Lately I have been reading on “The New Christianity / Christendom” in preparation to write a conclusion for the fourth edition of Bruce Shelley’s popular book, Church History in Plain Language.  Mark Noll has two wonderful books about the surge in Christianity’s numbers and vitality south of the equator. Most books on the subject observe how different the new Christianity is and how it will or should change first world Christians; in The New Shape of Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith Noll observes what believers from the global south share with American believers. His Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia with Carolyn Nystrom offers brief biographies that give personal character to this topic usually engaged with the necessary statistics, maps and charts.

Noll provides an imaginative notion of a Christian Rip Van Winkle who would awake to a Christianity he would hardly recognize.  If I may personalize, a Rip who dozes off on the day of my birth in 1956 and awakes on my recent 56th birthday would see “the world turned upside down and sideways.”  He would be shocked by the following items noted by Noll:

  • Upon first dosing many feared that Christianity would be obliterated in China, but it is very possible that more people attended church this Sunday in China than in the all of “Christian Europe.”
  • More Anglicans worshiped in Kenya, more in South Africa, more in Tanzania, more in Uganda, this Sunday than Anglicans in Britain and Canada combined with the Episcopalians in the United States.
  • About half of the worshippers this Sunday in “London were African or African – Caribbean.”
  • Great Britain is now a target of missionaries, 15 thousand missionaries mostly from Africa and Asia seek to minister currently (New Shape of Christianity, 19-21).
  • Maybe more amazing still, we will see the day in the near future (months or years-not decades) when half of the all the Christians from all of history will be living, breathing, occupying the planet at the same time.

Many American believers share a typical impression that Christianity and religion generally are in decline and may give way as cultures grow more sophisticated – and indeed we have recently seen a rise in public impatience and intolerance toward Christianity; in reality, however, Christianity has never witnessed such a sweeping advance.  The greatest changes in the composition of Christianity have occurred in my life.  What a privilege to live during this remarkable and unprecedented expansion.  We are humbled by the frequently dormant texture of much discipleship here; but we give thanks for signs of life here at home and winds of revival and transformation sweeping across the globe.Theologically, the one people of God comprised of believers from every nation seems more tangible that ever before.

R. L. Hatchett

Professor of Christianity and Philosophy

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