September 4, 2015

What does it mean to be human?

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1234567, 8.

Lost and Found by Greg Olsen, used with permission
Every culture has an implicit and subjective understanding of what it means to be human. To join Jesus in his ongoing ministry, it's vital that we understand those cultures. However, it's also vital to understand the objective reality of what it means to be human as established in the humanity of Jesus. Anderson comments:
The core assertion of a Christian theology is that the controlling social paradigm by which humanity is defined sets squarely within the objective relations that exist between God and humans, through the humanity of Jesus Christ as divine Son of God. This actuality of real humanity lies at the core of the witness of the Christian tradition concerning the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Christ, thus identifying him as the one who represented the fulfillment of the social reality of Israel as the people of God.... 
For Christian theology the event of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is understood as a social paradigm that defines and determines human nature and destiny. A Christian anthropology does not begin with the "humanity of man" in seeking to find relationship with God. Rather a Christian anthropology begins with the "humanity of God," as observed in the historical person, Jesus Christ, and with the social structure of the new human community within which he himself is known" (pp163-4).
This understanding has significant implications for Christian ministry and ethics in a time when various cultures are radically redefining what it means to be human. While we must be sensitive to what those cultures believe, we must also be reminded of the objective reality of human being as defined by Jesus. As we study the Bible's testimony to that reality, we see in Jesus that humans bear the image of God not as solitary individuals but as beings-in-community. In Jesus we find that "real humanity is fellow humanity" (p165). We also find in Jesus that there is an essential and complimentary relationship between human genders---what Anderson refers to as "cohumanity," which "integrates biological sexual differentiation into the essential differentiation of the meeting and communion of persons" (p166). These are key concepts in a theological understanding of human sexuality, marriage and family---significant topics in our day.

As cultures around us define and redefine what it means to be human, including the nature of human sexuality, our challenge as Christians is to look to the humanity of Jesus for direction, for it is his humanity that we find the objective reality of what it means to be truly human. In Jesus we see that real humanity is "a particular form of humanity" (p168): Jesus was a male Jew, not a nebulous "everyman." As our humanity is re-created in Christ, "racial, sexual and cultural distinctives are not obliterated. Instead real humanity is now to be experienced in and through these distinctives" (p168).

We also look to the ministry practices of Jesus---to the way he interacted in love with people as individual, valued humans who often were quite different than he was:
In drawing persons around him, Jesus re-created humanity in the form of a community of shared life and common identity. Even [his] narrower circle, defined by the specific calling of the twelve, was structurally open to the unclean leper, the tormented demoniac, the self-righteous Pharisee, and the women of ambiguous reputation. In contact with Jesus, humanity is liberated from the blind and capricious powers of nature and disease, as well as from the cruel and inhuman practices of the social and religious tyranny of the strong over the weak. In the real humanity of Jesus we see the humanization as well as the socialization of humanity. 
In his person and his actions Jesus embodied both grace and truth (John 1:17). His moral presence was both convicting and empowering. He drew to his side the fugitive from the law as well as the furtive Pharisee, without shaming either.... He let people be like who they were and offered to help them become who they could be... He did not ask for conformity but for commitment. His style was love, his pattern devotion (pp168-9). 
As seen in Jesus, true humanity is not an individualized humanity standing alone and aloof apart from others, but a shared humanity (co-humanity) grounded in a commitment to love others. By the power of the Spirit, which has been poured out on "all flesh" (Acts 2:17 KJV), that love leads people to authentic repentance that seeks the restoration of their humanity, which means the restoration of right relationships both with other humans and with God. For Jesus, the love that transforms is not a romanticized, individualistic concept, but a way of being and acting in community with others. Love for Jesus is about social humanity, not individual humanity.

In our day, as we embrace and live into this Christ-centered perspective on humanity, we often will find ourselves up against cultural forces that stress an individual (autonomous) humanity that places great value on "doing my own thing," pursuing a self-defined identity apart from any common identity which emphasizes social good. In contrast, a theological anthropology tells us that "the norm for determining what is the good is consistent with the 'humanization of humanity' through Christ (p173, and see Ephesians 2:14-15). What is good and bad, right and wrong, is determined by looking to what "upholds the dignity, integrity and essential value of the other person in the concreteness of every social relation (Eph 4-5)" (p173). It is this ethical criterion that Paul refers to s the command of love (Romans 13:8, 10). Anderson comments further:
The kingdom of God values love as the core of discipleship... In his letter to the Ephesian Christians, Paul drew out the implications of the gospel of Christ in such a way that the basic structures of that society were to be "humanized" through the activation of the Spirit and law of Christ (p175).
As we seek to join Jesus in his ongoing ministry in our world today, let us keep these concepts clearly in mind so that we are able to connect with and love all kinds of people in all sorts of cultural settings.

August 29, 2015

God's commands: threats or promises?

How are we to understand the commands of God recorded in the Bible? Some view them as threats ("Do this or else!"), others as promises ("In me, you shall do this"). Here we find a key distinction between a legalistic and a grace-based view of obedience to God. While legalists view obedience as what must be done to avoid condemnation (or to earn rewards), those living by grace view obedience as the outflow of the relationship they have been given with God in Christ through the Spirit. While legalists obey God out of obligation, those living by grace obey God because they are part of his family.

As noted in the helpful sermon below from Peter Heitt (lead pastor at The Sanctuary in Denver), this difference of viewpoint is seen clearly in how people interpret Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount.

August 15, 2015

Christian ethics: it's about being neighbor

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123456, 7, 9.

In a chapter on ethics grounded in Trinitarian, Christ-centered practical theology (Christopraxis), Anderson offers this summary statement:
The criterion by which we measure... the "ethical event" between humans is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ by which humanity is liberated from the inhumanity of sin and restored and morally empowered through grace. Christopraxis is a form of moral empowerment rather than merely moral judgment. (p160)
The Good Samaritan (Modern) by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)
Following the teaching of Karl Barth, Anderson asserts that Christian ethics is not about impersonal rules and ideals, but about true humanity found in Jesus. As our representative and on our behalf, the Son of God united all people to himself by assuming our fallen humanity, and then through his life, death, resurrection and ascension judging and recreating it. Now, via his continuing incarnation, Jesus, through the Spirit, shares with us that true humanity, which as Anderson notes is fundamentally co-humanity, represented by the biblical ethical concept of neighbor:
[Christian ethics] has to do with real humanity, not pseudohumanity, or even ideal humanity. There can only be one real form of humanity... and Jesus Christ has revealed that... as it was originally and finally determined to be.... If we have discerned the true form of humanity... then we will have discovered the criterion for theological ethics. This is so because the form of humanity... called into being originally by the determination of the Lord God... through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, establishes the ethical response of hearing and obedience. God becomes the neighbor to humans as creature and summons persons to become the neighbor to God and to fellow humanity. (pp134-5, emphasis added).

The concept of neighbor at the core of Christian ethics

Anderson places the biblical concept of neighbor at the heart and core of Christian ethics. This move is not merely conceptual, for Christ is not a concept---he is alive and active; he has thoughts and takes action in the world, bidding his followers join him in a way of being in the world governed not by abstract principles, or a static list of do's and don'ts, but by life lived in solidarity with him, and through him with other humans. Key to this approach to ethics is knowing that God's decision concerning humanity in creation, incarnation and redemption is "the common factor of the divine upholding of humanity in the form of fellow humanity" (p137). Anderson's incarnational Trinitarian approach to ethics is thus fundamentally relational---seeing humans as "fellow-humans" (neighbors), not isolated, independent beings. Humanity, in Christ, is fundamentally people-in-relation with other people and with God.

Of course, within this fellow humanity are points of structural differentiation (eg: race, gender, ethnicity), but none of these overshadow the greater reality that we humans share together the one, perfect humanity of Jesus who, alone, as "true human" is "true neighbor." Anderson comments:
In Jesus Christ, God himself has become the "neighbor" of Adam through his own humanity. The incarnation is the embodiment of God as the true form of humanity, not the embodiment of an ethical ideal. Real humanity, then, is humanity as a determination of human being by God himself; it is humanity in the form of a being of one with the other, and it is humanity as the covenant partner with God and the other. 
The incarnation does not produce another form of humanity but can be understood as the "humanization" of humanity. The ethical content of love as a criterion for theological ethics is not just "Christian love," as distinct from non-Christian love, but it is "human love," as distinct from inhuman love.... It is, after all, says Barth, "not ethics, but an ethical event that takes place between two persons."
The love that constitutes the ethical event in cohumanity is common to all forms of humanity. When divine love becomes the content of the event of cohumanity created through incarnation, what results is the "humanization" of humanity.... The true form of humanity made manifest through the humanity of Jesus serves to ground moral responsibility not in moral reason alone as an abstraction but in cohumanity as determined by God and as experienced in the concrete, historical existence of persons... In the humanity of Jesus Christ the actual humanity of every person has been taken up, judged, put to death and justified. Jesus Christ is not only the Son of the Father, he is at the same time the brother of every brother and sister (pp138-9, emphasis added). 
The inescapable and unavoidable conclusion of this reality is that we, as Jesus' followers, have the "ethical responsibility of living freely for and with" those who God decrees to be our neighbor, namely all humanity (p139). This decree "unites love of God and love of neighbor in a single ethical movement." That being the case, the great question of Christian ethics is this: "How do I... stand each moment of my life in relation to my neighbor?" (p143).

On being true neighbor

For Anderson, the concrete reality of neighbor (fellow-person, both near and far) thus becomes a key criterion of ethical conduct---conduct that necessarily involves our active engagement, including our repentance, for "repentance toward God includes seeking reconciliation with my neighbor, costly though that may be" (p144). To love our neighbor demands more of us than merely ceasing to do them wrong---we are called to join Jesus in the healing of relationships. Doing that requires that we go to our neighbor in a repentant spirit of humility that seeks to do good to our neighbor.

This is why the church, as the body of Christ in the world, must have an approach to ethics that is not merely about retreating from the world to avoid its sin. Rather the church is called to be a "missionary community" that is open to the world, seeking opportunity to facilitate reconciliation that is both neighbor-to-neighbor and neighbor-to-God. In that way the church shares in Jesus' ongoing "ethical event." As Barth wrote, "If I refuse to meet [my] neighbor, even though he may appear to be ungodly to me... I may deny the Christ living in me" (p146). Along those lines, Anderson makes these observations:
Theological ethics are derived out of the concreteness of human life, and especially the concreteness of the neighbor, as a form of the command of God. (p150)
The incarnation can be viewed as the single ethical event that destroyed the "dividing wall of hostility" between persons (Eph 2:14). Moral goodness, as the material content of a life in union with Jesus Christ, demands that one is accountable not only for what is honorable in the sight of Christ but "also in the sight of others" (2 Cor 8:21; cf. Rom 12:17; 14:18). (p150)
No longer can there be both sacred and secular spheres that permit Christians to claim ethical exemption from the moral good of the neighbor. Rather, as Bonhoeffer put it, "Christ, reality and the good" comprise a single sphere of moral and spiritual unity. (pp150-1)

For the apostle to say that "we must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29) does not mean that God's commands are arbitrary and totally subjective but that God's purposes for humankind already revealed through Jesus Christ take precedence over religious commitments and religious authority.... When the injured person lies beside the road on which the religious person travels, the question as to what constitutes the ethical action of a "neighbor" takes precedence over the more abstract fine points of theological difference (p153).
Authentic concern for neighbor carries with it an assessment of what might be better, when the best cannot be done without destroying the structure of fellow humanity itself. (p155)

A word of caution and clarification

Warning against taking the concept of neighbor as the key ethical criterion in a direction inconsistent with the mind of Christ, Anderson adds these words of caution and clarification:
It is Jesus Christ who commands the Christian conscience in its moral reflection and action, not merely the neighbor. This is because we cannot view the neighbor independently of Christ, nor Christ independently of neighbor. Ultimately, Christ is the true neighbor.... We are not suggesting that fellow humanity as expressed in the concept of neighbor becomes the single criterion of theological ethics.... But it is also fair to say that the concept of neighbor is a criterion of a theological ethic based on the theological foundation of God's election of persons to be covenant partners... (p155).
A natural theology [where conscience is a primary basis of ethics] that does not have at the center a cross sunk deep into human flesh will not find transforming love at the center of human moral action. It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the transformation of moral authority takes place.... The incarnation was not for the purpose of putting the humanity of God on the cross but for the purpose of sinking the cross deeply into human life....The Christian is called to exercise a role of responsible witness to the new and true humanity that has been obtained through Jesus Christ" (pp156-7, emphasis added).

The bottom line

With these thoughts about an incarnational Trinitarian perspective on ethics, let's close with two quotes. First from Holy Scripture:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these." 
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34)
And now from Anderson's meditation on Scripture:
Moral actions grounded in repentance, which seek the true reconciliation of neighbor with neighbor, can and must be a transformation of moral authority into a gospel of liberation from inhumanity and for humanity. This, finally, is the contribution that the gospel of Jesus Christ can make to human goodness as a source of ethical concern. (p160).
For an earlier Surprising God series on Christian ethics, click here.

August 8, 2015

The church: it's about incarnational, ministering community

This post continues a series looking at The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123456, 89.

Wikimedia Commons, creative commons license
These days we're often told that churches must become more "missional." Various models are offered for doing so (including the one at right). Ray Anderson helpfully adds to this discussion with a Christ-centered ecclesiology and missiology grounded in incarnational, Trinitarian theology:
[The] mission of the church is grounded in its nature as the community of the children of God whose lives have ontological grounding in the very being of Christ.... As the inner life of Jesus in his relation to the Father is constitutive of Christology, so the inner life of the church in its experience of Jesus Christ is constitutive of ecclesiology (p113).
Anderson then shows that the church does not need to add something in order to be missional. Instead it needs to live into the reality of what the Spirit has already formed the church to be as the body of Christ in the world: an incarnational, ministering community. 

The church as Incarnational Community 

Just as the self-emptying of the Son of God via the incarnation is the very basis for Jesus' ministry, so too the church is to be a community of self-emptying love:
As Jesus exists in a community of relation with the Father characterized by self-emptying, so does the church exist as a community of the world. It is this nature of the church...that determines the form of its ministry. Jesus expresses this quite specifically in the prayer, "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18). The "as" and the "so" constitute the hings on which the existence of God as revealer and reconciler turns outward into the world. Ministry thus precedes and determines the existence of the church as the ministry and existence of Christ. Paul can thus appeal to Christians to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Phil 2:5-7 NKJV) (p115).
As the church participates in Jesus' love and life and thus his ministry in the world, it becomes more and more what the Spirit forms the church to be: a truly incarnational community. Just as Jesus was conformed in intimate communion to the Father, so too the church is conformed to Christ---united to him in union and communion in such a way that it is not involved in mere "institutional religion" but in the actual love, life and mission of Jesus. As Anderson notes, quoting Bonhoeffer, "The incarnation has already taken up the the humanity of all people in the body of Christ. And it is precisely this truth that must be announced [by the church] to the world" (p117). Anderson continues:
Along with the re-formation of humanity to the human existence of Christ, the kenotic [self-emptying] community [the church] exists as the formation of Christ in the world. This formation does not take place as an act of separation from the world for the sake of exemplifying certain characteristics or virtues that may be thought to portray an ideal of Christ. Rather it takes place as Christ himself continues to have both a presence and practice in the world. The church thus becomes the form of Christ in the world through Christ's own ministry of reconciliation.... 
It is not only that the world needs the church in order to have Christ. The church also needs to be in relation to the world in order to know Christ and in order to be the body of Christ. Formation of Christ in the world does not take place apart from the world [as seen in Jesus' instructions in Matthew 25].... 
The Christian mission does not bring Christ to the world. That is not its power. Rather, Christians witness by their own presence in the world that Christ has come to the world and has taken up the cause of the afflicted, the oppressed and the estranged as his own cause. Solidarity between the community of Christian believers and the world has already been established through the incarnation.... It is by the grace of God that the church exists in the world and for the sake of the worlds as those who bear witness to the transforming power and life of Christ (pp117-118).  
Therefore, the responsibility of the church is to join with Jesus in lovingly and sacrificially serving the world---being what Anderson refers to as a diaconal community. Just as Jesus was in the world as "one who serves" (Luke 22:27), so too the church is to be known for its diaconal life. This service (diakonia) to the world is one in which love is enfleshed (incarnated). Anderson comments:
The incarnational community does not come to the world offering what it has to those who have not, but comes as those who have not themselves, as receiving for and with all others what God gives abundantly and without favor through Jesus Christ.... 
The incarnational community exists as an eschatological-sacramental presence in the world between the evangelical word of forgiveness [at the cross] and the restoration and liberation of all things [at the parousia] (p119-121).

The church as Ministering Community

Intrinsic to the idea of the church as incarnational community, is its calling to be ministering community:
As the incarnational community in which Christ himself is present and through which he continues his ministry in the world, the church has its existence grounded in this divine ministry or service [latreia] of the Son to the Father on behalf of the world.... Thus latreia is the root paradigm of [the church as incarnational] community (p122).
In addressing the church as ministering community, Anderson raises the issue of church authority noting that its leaders are to be "serving and sustaining" rather than "tyrannical and dictatorial" (p125). Moreover, the church is to be inclusive, rather than exclusive---serving the non-believing world in love rather than standing apart from it in severe judgment (p126). Instead of seeing the evangelistic task as getting people first to believe, so they can then (and only then) belong (included within the community), the church as ministering community offers unbelievers a safe place to first belong where they can explore the faith, coming to believe, then become (grow to maturity as disciples of Christ). Anderson comments:
The true freedom to believe only results from the actuality of belonging which the incarnational community signals by its own existence in the world as the gracious latreia of Christ (p128).
Concerning the related topic of evangelism, Anderson says this:
The Christian mission does not bring Christ to the world. That is not its power. That is the power of Pentecost, where Christ returns in the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather, Christians who are the temple of the Holy Spirit witness by their own presence in the world that Christ has come to the world and has taken up the cause of the afflicted, the oppressed and the estranged as his own cause.... Christopraxis is the continuing Pentecost event that takes place through the growth of the church in the world.... Church growth, as a movement, must become part of church growth as mission, with Christopraxis once more becoming the basis for the theology and praxis of the church as a missionary people of God (p130).
For another post addressing a belong-believe-become missional model, click here.

August 1, 2015

What is Jesus doing? (LGBT issues)

This post continues a series looking at The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1234, 5, 789.

Last time we saw how Anderson addresses the calling Christians have to discern what Jesus is now doing so that they may participate with him in serving the Father, through the Spirit, for the sake of the world. An essential part of the discernment process involves carefully exegeting Scripture in order to understand God's will. Part of that exegesis involves looking for what Anderson refers to as a biblical antecedent related to the issue under examination. Last time we saw how Anderson applies this hermeneutical method in addressing the issue of female ordination. This time we'll see how he applies it to the issue of homosexual relations.

From Wikimedia Commons
(creative commons license)
As we begin, it's vital to remind ourselves that anything we conclude concerning this controversial topic must not overshadow what Jesus tells us (in word and in deed) about our calling to share in his holy, unconditional love for all people, no matter their current behavior or sexual orientation. There is no place in the body of Christ for condemnation or bigotry leading to excluding from fellowship anyone who, coming in peace, seeks in and through the church fullness of life in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Indeed, the Spirit's ministry is to lead the church toward this fullness of life in Christ (John 10:10)---what Anderson refers to as "eschatological fullness." In that context, Anderson asks this question: "Is it possible that the way forward includes acceptance of homosexual ordination and same-sex marriage?" He points out that to answer rightly, the church must not only be aware of cultural preferences, it must also seek the mind of the Spirit concerning these issues through careful exegesis of Scripture.

Anderson does acknowledge that the church must be sensitive to cultural preferences. Why? Because, by God's design, the church exists for the sake of the world. And if the church is to serve effectively with Christ in the world, it will at times need to change its practices. But in making such changes, the church must find in Scripture a biblical antecedent that would indicate that the Spirit is granting to the church freedom to make the change.

As noted last time, Anderson finds in Scripture a clear biblical antecedent (and thus freedom to change) with respect to ordaining females. He also finds an antecedent with respect to divorced believers remarrying. But Anderson does not find in Scripture a biblical antecedent that would grant freedom to the church to validate homoerotic behavior by ordaining practicing homosexuals or by marrying same-sex couples. He comments:
It is not [cultural] precedent that permits the church to move with freedom of the Spirit but a biblical antecedent. Where the church has recognized the role of women in ministry, it has a biblical antecedent for affirming this as the praxis of the Spirit. Where the church has blessed the remarriage of divorced persons in recognition of the renewing work of the grace of God, it has a biblical antecedent for his ministry grounded in marriage itself as part of God's created order. Some who argue that even as the first-century church struggled over the issue of including the Gentiles and finally accepted them, so the church today must accept homosexuals. The issue is not the same, however, for in the case of the Gentiles, there is a biblical antecedent in the promise to Abraham, a point Paul clearly made in his argument to the Galatians church (Galatians 3:8).
What can we say about the issue of homosexuality in this regard? Even if one should dismiss all of the biblical texts that appear to forbid homosexuality (in both the Old and New Testaments) as not relevant for our present understanding of same-sex relationships, we are left with absolute silence from the Bible in this regard. Those who argue for the validity of homosexual relations as fully equivalent to heterosexual relations do, in fact, argue from silence with regard to the biblical view of sexuality.... 
The Bible, however, is not silent regarding human sexuality and the image of God. "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27).... If one reads the text as intending that the image of God be understood to include sexual differentiation as male and female... as does Karl Barth, among others, then the biblical antecedent is clearly one of heterosexual orientation and practice as God's preference. The antecedent for homosexual relations does not appear to be found in Scripture. As a consequence, those who argue for the normalization of homosexual relationships and full acceptance by the church must do so on other grounds (pp. 111-112).
Anderson thus ties the nature and purpose of human sexuality to the imago Dei (image of God). In doing so, he is acknowledging that gender differentiation is fundamental to God's design for human being. With this emphasis, Anderson avoids entering into the seemingly endless and contentious arguments concerning certain individual scriptures that may or may not be relevant to the nature of homosexual relations in our day.

If you'd like to learn more about this topic, I recommend the following:

  • Read chapter 16 in Anderson's book (click here, then scroll to p266 to read much of the chapter online). 
  • Read a helpful (and thorough) paper from Dr. Gary Deddo on why God created humans as gendered beings (click here to download)
  • Check out an earlier series on this blog concerning Christian ethics (and note in particular the post entitled Ethics and cultural context).
  • Read a letter from GCI president Joseph Tkach on LGBT issues (and note the resources linked at the bottom of the letter).