April 21, 2015

The story of Jesus: culturally relevant?

This post continues an exploration of Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123, 4.

Last time we noted that the ancient apostolic tradition (also called the "rule of faith") of the church emphasizes the story of Jesus as told in Scripture and established in the four great Ecumenical Creeds. When the church has moved away from this focus, it has lost its "gospel-grounded identity" (p. 82). This has led to what Walker and Parry refer to as the "third schism" -- a divide within the church that continues to diminish its health in our day.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler
by Heinrich Hoffman (1889)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Why this move away from the orthodox telling of the story of Jesus? Largely because of a desire to relate Christianity to the contemporary culture. Though this motive may have been admirable, when unchecked by the ancient rule of faith, it led to deemphasizing, if not entirely abandoning, key tenets of the apostolic faith, including the Trinity, the Incarnation, the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus -- doctrines that, to one degree or another, seemed "illogical and unreasonable" to modern sensibilities (p. 83).

Sadly, this departure from the apostolic tradition led to churches that were more about religious philosophy than about real encounters with the living God-man, Jesus Christ.

But shouldn't the church be at liberty to adapt the gospel (the story of Jesus) to contemporary cultures? Walker and Parry provide helpful answers, noting that "the early church fought hard to maintain a positive embracing" of the rule of faith, including the core doctrines noted above. They also note that early Christians "always claimed that Jesus is absolutely unique -- he alone is God incarnate and it is through him alone that salvation comes to creation" (p.89). Thus the story of Jesus, as told us by the apostles and the early church fathers, is non-negotiable and must not be re-written.

Of course, claims of Jesus' exclusivity do appear to some moderns (and post-moderns) as "arrogant and inappropriate." However, to address this objection by abandoning core tenets of the faith is a costly mistake. It amounts to a rejection of historic Christology---taking what is attested to in the apostolic witness concerning the reality of Jesus, and turning that into something else. typically mere metaphor (where Jesus becomes more a concept than the living God-man). Note this comment from the authors:
Christian orthodoxy has always understood its beliefs about God and Jesus to open us up to both the truth and the mystery of God. Its claims about the Trinity and the incarnation have always been taken as telling us something fundamental and true -- albeit simultaneously beyond our rational comprehension -- about what God is in Godself  (p. 91).
Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon 
by Vasily Surikov (1876)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 
A prime example of this coupling of truth with mystery is the doctrine concerning the dual nature of Jesus, which is grounded in what Jesus revealed concerning himself, and what the apostles personally experienced in Jesus' presence, then set down in their writings (John's Gospel and epistles, in particular). This doctrine was further defined (and defended) at the first four great Ecumenical Councils: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (380), Ephesus (431) and in even greater detail at Chalcedon (451). Rather than an innovation of the time, the Chalcedonian Statement was "the fruit of four centuries of Christian experience and reflection." Its aim was "to hold together the full divinity and full humanity of the one person of Christ" (p. 92) as revealed to us in the story of Jesus.

Preceding and following these Councils, various alternative Christologies arose that in one way or another denied essential aspects of the rule of faith concerning the dual nature of Jesus. This then led directly to denials of the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of salvation:
The church...claimed that if Jesus is to be the savior, the one through whom God reconciles the world to himself, he has to be both fully human (to save us) and divine (to represent God before us). This claim is spelled out in different ways by different thinkers depending on how salvation was pictured but the common core was that only God can save us and for Jesus to save us he had to be more than a Spirit-filled man. The orthodox Jesus is Emmanuel -- God himself with us (p. 96). 
Though seeking to make Christianity culturally relevant is "a worthy endeavor," it is one that comes with significant "inherent risks" (p. 97). A primary area of risk has to do with the right worship of the church. We'll examine that important topic next time.

April 14, 2015

The rule of faith: right belief, practice and worship

This post continues an exploration of Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3, 5.

Last time we looked at Walker and Parry's plea that the church would return to its "apostolic tradition" in order to mend the "third great schism" that plagues much of the church. This tradition, sometimes also called "the rule of faith" has three key elements: right belief, right practice and right worship. In this post, we'll look briefly at each one.

Belief

According to the Walker and Parry, rather than merely holding to right propositions, right belief is...
...like a dimmer switch on a light. There is indeed an on and an off mode but the on mode comes in a wide range of degrees of brightness. As the man with the epileptic son said to Jesus, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24) (p. 65). 
Anselm, Arch-Bishop of Canterbury
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
According to Bishop Anselm (d. 1109), rather than a one-time event, right belief involves a "life-long journey" guided by faith that is directed toward the primary object and source of our belief:
I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand (p. 65).
Note this comment from Walker and Parry concerning the Christ-centered, relational nature of right belief:
The heart of the faith [another term for the apostolic tradition] is a living relationship with a living God, revealed in Christ. Faith in Jesus is, first and foremost, an existential commitment to and trust in Jesus; "belief in..." and not simply "belief that.." (p. 70). 

Practice

Right belief then leads to right practice (action). Believing that God is triune, is a fundamental truth of the apostolic tradition. But merely assenting to this truth falls far short of the rule of faith. Our calling as Christ-followers is, to "live into" that truth--to live daily in accordance with the truth that, by the will of the Father, in union with Christ and by the power of the Spirit, we truly are included in the tri-personal communion of the Trinity. That belief, grounded in faith, leads to profound life transformation.

Worship

Right belief and right practice then form a God-ward directed "posture of the self that ...manifests as prayer and praise" (p. 66). This right worship, in accord with the apostolic tradition, is thoroughly gospel-focused---its emphasizes the story of Jesus: his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This sort of worship is about a common commitment to a common Lord. It flows from a center in Jesus. A prime example is the Lord's Supper (communion) which is a sharing with Jesus in the common meal of the Body of Christ (see p. 69).

The rule of faith: a "virtuous spiral"

There three elements of the rule of faith (the apostolic tradition) form a three-fold "virtuous spiral in which we grow toward the knowledge of God in Christ as our belief, worship, and [practice] inter-act and we are conformed closer and closer to the image of Christ" (p. 67). Denial of any of the key (essential) elements of the tradition threatens the health of the church. Note, for example, 1 John 4:1-3, which addresses denial of the core belief that Jesus is fully human, as well as fully divine.

A focus on the rule of faith takes us to the ancient Nicene Creed, which has "served as the formal distillation of the heart of the faith catholic [universal] since the fourth and fifth centuries" (p. 71). The Nicene Creed is Christ-centered with a structure that is organized "around the persons of the Father, Son and Spirit as they are revealed in the biblical narrative of the good news" (p. 72). This Trinitarian, gospel-focused structure is not imposed on Scripture, but flows from it (see, for example, the Trinitarian structure of our Lord's description of baptism in Matthew 28:18-20).
Irenaeus  (woodcut)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus (d. c. 202), emphasized the Trinitarian structure of the rule of faith, by defining its three articles as God the Father, the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit, noting that the Father comes to creation through his Son and in his Spirit; and creation, in turn, comes to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit (p. 74). This rule of faith derives from what Christ taught his apostles, who passed it to the next generation, and so on, down the centuries. Note Walker and Parry's comment:
What is impossible to miss is that the early churches from Gaul to Egypt shared a common core of beliefs that represented the very heart of Christian belief. Variety in expression of that core was permitted--we even find diverse presentations of the rule within works by a single author...but the basic elements were fixed (p. 76).
From the beginning, the church's belief, practice and worship had a Trinitarian shape and a gospel focus. To say it was "gospel-focused" is to say that it emphasized the story of Jesus. Next time we'll learn more about that story and its prominence in the rule of faith.

April 6, 2015

Remembering our future - return to apostolic tradition

This post continues an exploration of Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 45.

Last time we looked at Walker and Parry's call for a return to the historic "tradition" of the church in order to counter what they refer to as Christianity's "third schism." By "tradition" they don't mean church traditions and customs (like those described by Thom Rainer of LifeWay in a recent blog post), but "the apostolic tradition of the New Testament... handed on and jealously guarded by the community of faith" (p. 49). According to the authors, this apostolic tradition (sometimes called "the rule of faith") has five levels of truth, listed below in descending order of importance:
An illustration of the tradition
as outlined in the Apostle's Creed
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Primary (dogmatic) truths attested to in Scripture, which have been distilled for the church in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381.
  2. Secondary truths attested to in Scripture, which, though matters of "theological weight and seriousness," are ones where there is "some leeway for disagreement."
  3. Matters that are "speculative or popular beliefs or practices, supported by the church fathers or their successors, but not necessarily warranted in Scripture," such as "the Feast of the Theotokos."
  4. Matters that are "adiaphora," meaning "of minor significance," such as the tradition that monks wear beards.
  5. Matters "of private opinion, which [have] no ecclesial authority at all" (see p. 50).
Though most Protestants consider levels 3 through 5 to be of no universal consequence, many Evangelical Protestant churches have lost key aspects of levels 1 and 2, substituting instead matters that are speculative and/or adiaphora. This unfortunate development is due largely to evangelicalism being both the "grandchild of the Reformation," and the "child of the Enlightenment." As a result, there tends to be within evangelicalism...
...a built-in bias toward [in favor of] individualism at the expense of community and tradition. This is exacerbated by evangelical missiology, which, being essentially activist, can be loosed from its moorings in ecclesiology and become something outside the church that takes on a life of its own. Another feature of evangelical faith, its experientialism, though positive in itself, at times cuts adrift and sails away from doctrine, contributing to an uninformed and undernourished faith. Evangelicals [according to D. H. Williams] suffer from "theological amnesia" and this not only robs them of their past, but it also destroys their sense of identity in the here and now (pp. 50-51).
The apostolic tradition, as formalized by Saint Vincent of Lerins (died c. 455), was "predicated on three tests of orthodoxy: that which was accepted by (a) everyone (universitas), (b) always (antiquitas), and (c) everywhere (consensio)" (p. 51). All three are vital to determining what is genuinely apostolic and thus of universal application. This rule of faith is referred to in Scripture using the Greek words paradosis (noun) and paradidomi (verb) along with related words. For example, Paul uses paradosis in Col 2:8; Gal 1:14; 1 Cor 11:2 and 2 Thess 3:6. In 2 Thess 2:15 he refers to "the traditions [paradosis] that you were taught by us...." Then in 1 Cor 11:23, Paul says "For I received [paralambano] from the Lord what I also handed on [paradidomi] to you...." in a passage where he describes the tradition concerning the Lord's Supper as handed down to the apostles by the Lord himself.

Indeed, when it comes to the apostolic tradition, Jesus is both its source and content (2 Cor 1:20; 4:5-6). Our Lord then handed the tradition to his apostles who, in turn, passed it to their immediate successors. From there it was received by the church fathers, both in writing (books circulating in the early church, including gospels and epistles) and orally. Athanasius, one of the church fathers, appealed to this apostolic tradition in noting that Arius' teaching concerning Jesus was an innovation contrary to the tradition. That tradition served for Athanasius and other church fathers as the "rule" (canon) by which they determined in the fourth century which of the Gospels and Epistles in circulation would be included in the New Testament canon. The authors comment:
The issue at stake for the fathers from the beginning of the apologetic century was never Scripture versus tradition, or writing verses orality, but the desire to be faithful to the apostolic witness preserved in both Scripture and tradition (p. 56).
The demise of personal knowledge of the apostolic generation meant that, "oral tradition began to lose its allure and even its status as paradosis" (p. 57), though as noted above, oral tradition preceded canonization of the New Testament. In our day, tradition, appropriately, is "illuminated, judged, and controlled by Scripture" (p. 58). Nevertheless, the tradition remains vitally important and, according to Walker and Parry, needs to be reclaimed and thus restored to its rightful place of preeminence in the belief and practice of the church. To do so is not merely a matter of historical curiosity--it's about the church being firmly grounded in timeless truth (the reality of Jesus and his gospel) so that it will be relevant (aligned with the timeless truth of Jesus) in the present age.

Evangelical churches lost their center in the tradition largely due to the fall-out of the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on sola scriptura understood, sadly, in highly individualistic ways. The result was two-fold: Each individual became "his or her own pope (with, in fact, far more power to reshape Christian faith than any actual pope, constrained as popes are by the tradition)," and the door to "theological pluralism" was thrown wide-open (p. 59). However, this does not mean that the reformers themselves lost sight of the tradition. In general, they accepted and emphasized the first four ecumenical councils and the three historic creeds (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed). Nevertheless a certain "gospel amnesia" and consequent "loss of the scriptural mind" arose in Evangelical circles as the councils and creeds were deemphasized (and sometimes written-off as "dead tradition"). Walker and Parry make a compelling case against that drift, calling for the restoration of the apostolic, Niceno-Constantinopolitan tradition to a central place in all churches:
This is no small matter; for the apostolic faith to be a living one it has not only to be retrieved, it also needs to be reactivated and received, This requires a living tradition of worship, discipleship, and service. Living tradition is the provision of the spiritual environment without which the Bible cannot flourish as Scripture.... Authentic and relevant Christian faith in the present requires not simply understanding our own cultural contexts but also recovering the faith's deep roots in the past. Deep church is about remembering our future" (p. 61).

March 29, 2015

A message for Easter: Come Awake!

In Christ we died and rose to new life (2 Corinthians 5:14-17). This is the gospel, and the gospel-shaped invitation that flows from it is this: Come Awake! -- live into the reality of who you truly are in Christ. The video below powerfully offers this simple, yet profound invitation using the song "Christ is Risen" by Matt Maher and Mia Fieldes. Here is part of the lyrics:
Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling over death by death,
come awake, come awake,
come and rise up from the grave!
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?
O church, come stand in the light
The glory of God has defeated the night!

If you'd like to show this video in worship, you can purchase it at Worship House Media or Igniter Media. Free lyrics and chord sheets and information about purchasing the song are found at WorshipTogether.

March 23, 2015

Overcoming the "third great schism"

This post continues an exploration of the book Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. To read other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 345.

Walker and Parry assert that a move toward "deep church" is essential if the church's "third great schism" is to be healed. That schism resulted from a centuries-long movement in Christendom away from the historic, orthodox Christian faith. In this post we'll see how the schism arose and what it entails.

Modernity and secularization
The authors largely attribute the third great schism to the secularization of western-Christian cultures. They define secularization as "the complex of social processes by which religious thinking, practices, and institutions become socially marginalized" (p. 32). The rise of secularization in the West has stretched from the 1500s until now, with the net effect being that God was effectively banished from acting in the world. Deism became the popular conception, with God seen as operating "from a distance" on a largely mechanistic cosmos.

Portrait of René Descartes
by Frans Hals (ca. 1649-1700)
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Within this secularized, modernistic setting, human reason reigned supreme (recall RenĂ© Descarte's statement, "I think, therefore I am") and supernaturalism was suspect (how do you rationalize miracles?). A hermeneutic of suspicion replaced that of trust toward God, his revelation and Christian tradition. Orthodox doctrines of the church such as the Trinity, the incarnation and the resurrection became open to attack. Christian values were more and more relegated to the sidelines in public life and discourse. Add to this the rise of the industrial age with its urbanization, individualism and rapid growth of capitalism leading to a rampant consumerism that is expressed in this statement: "I shop, therefore I am."

As a result of these factors, the social significance of the church diminished--a move exacerbated by the emergence of scientism in which religion, viewed increasingly as subjective and arbitrary, was relegated to the private realm (p. 30). The authors comment:
The public world came to be dominated by pragmatic, instrumental reason that aims at maximizing efficiency by tailoring means to ends. By contrast, the private world is the world of emotional escape from the harsh impersonal and rationalistic realm of the public square.... This way of dividing up the world was unknown before modernity but seems second nature now (p. 34). 
In this modernistic setting, the work of the church, along with belief in God, became largely a private matter and, therefore, only marginally relevant in the life of the culture at large. As the authors note, it's not that modernity rejected Christianity, but that it began to view Christianity with indifference (p. 36).

Postmodernity
In modernity, the individual and not God or the church, is at the center of life. This person-centeredness continues in postmodernity, though the individual is "subjected to de-centering and deconstructing" (p. 40). Postmodern thought also differs from modernism in its rejection of scientism with its inherent positivism. Instead, postmodern thought is open to truth beyond the scope of science. In that way, postmodernism represents a return to some aspects of premodern thinking, though the church continues to be marginalized, with religion being seen merely as one of several options with therapeutic benefits.

Post-Christendom
The Christendom of pre-modernity (and the early years of modernity) is gone forever (p. 43). The cultural shift that sidelined Christianity from the center of public (and even private) life and discourse, is an undeniable reality. At times the church sought to respond to this shift in ways that were tantamount to abandoning the historic, Christian faith (tradition). It is this abandonment that the authors of Deep Church Rising refer to as the "third great schism." This movement was, no doubt, often motivated by good desires to make Christianity relevant to modern/postmodern people. But the effect, in many instances, has been to lose the very center of the Christian tradition, namely the gospel itself (the apostolic tradition).

Retrieving the tradition
In order to heal the third great schism, the authors call upon the church to return to its ancient, premodern tradition. This move toward deep church, "is neither 'renewal' nor 'revival,' but retrieval... A quest for something old" (p. 49). It's not a church-growth gimmick, another program or a mere technique. Instead it's a necessary step back so we can move forward toward a church faithful to the tradition while being relevant in the current modern/postmodern cultural context. The authors comment:
The purpose of going back is not one of antiquarian curiosity, but to retrieve something that we have lost in order to make the church vital again in the present. And the something that evangelicals and others have lost and need to retrieve is tradition" (p. 49).
Of course, the word tradition makes many Protestants nervous. Why? Because to them, "tradition" means "dead tradition." But that is not what Walker and Parry want to retrieve. Instead, they are calling for a return to the "apostolic tradition." Next time we'll see what that entails.