May 19, 2016

Ministry: sharing in God's being and doing

This continues a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1.

For Purves, a truly incarnational, Trinitarian understanding of Christian ministry is grounded in two great theological precepts:
  • The dual mediation of Christ: Jesus is both God's Word and act addressing humanity, and humanity's word and act addressing God. Athanasius was an early champion of this truth.
  • Union with Christ: by the Spirit we are joined to Christ and thus to his mission from and to the Father. Calvin emphasized this truth in the Protestant reformation.

Hand in Hand by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

Given these foundational truths, Purves makes several key assertions:
  • The ministry of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ is the proper foundation for the understanding and practice of ministry.
  • The focus is on God's ministry, which was and is and ever will be actual, and therefore relevant and appropriate because of what it is. The church's ministry is a participation in that ministry, not something new of the church's invention to meet some present need or circumstance, or a vague imitation of Jesus Christ but doomed to failure because we are not messianic. It is not an ideal ministry yet to be made practical; it is the actual ministry of God, rather, that makes our ministries practical, relevant, and appropriate. 
  • Pastors do what they do because of who God is and what God does. Or more precisely before it is the church's ministry all ministry is first of all God's ministry in, through, and as Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Pastoral work has no subject other than Jesus Christ, and no content other than "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people" (Jude 3). (pp. 1-3)
Unfortunately, much of ministry in the contemporary church has become "unhinged" from the true ground of pastoral ministry, which is the actual ministry of God in the world. This is so because ministry today tends to be "skill-driven rather than theology-driven and seems to incorporate little of the dynamically practical nature of theology insofar as it speaks about who God is and what God does" (p. 3). Another way to say this is that much ministry has become disconnected from the actual ministry of Jesus, who is present in the world, "clothed with his gospel" (p. 4).

To remedy this disconnect, the church must ground its pastoral ministries in Jesus and his gospel, which means grounding ministry in a clear understanding that God, in and as Jesus Christ, is the one source of life and hope. By understanding pastoral ministry in this way, the church sees ministry for what it truly is---a sharing in "the priesthood of Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit" (p. 6).

With this perspective, rather than "being cast back on ourselves" (a favorite saying of J.B. Torrance), we are led to depend solely on Christ and his ongoing ministry. That dependency is not a passive one---it involves active participation, by the Spirit, through faith, in what Jesus is actually doing in the world. Our ministry does not replace the ministry of (a supposedly absent) Jesus---it participates in it. This theological perspective on ministry is not pie-in-the-sky, ivory-tower stuff. It's highly practical because it is addressing reality--what Jesus is really doing. Purves comments:
Practical theology is practical because it is theological: it has to do with God. All theology, all knowledge of God, by virtue of the subject matter---the acting God---is inherently a practical theology or a practical knowledge of God. Axiomatically, knowledge of God is knowledge of God creatively, redemptively, and eschatologically active in the world and in human history through Jesus Christ... Knowledge of God is knowledge of the missio Dei [mission or actions of God], of Jesus' ministry to the glory of the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world. (p. 7)
Purves then points out two consequences of this theological perspective on ministry:
  • God is in himself always and reliably what he is toward us in Jesus Christ. This was made clear in the Nicene Creed by its declaration that Jesus is "of one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri). T.F. Torrance was a champion of this vital truth in our day.
  • While our knowledge of God is dependent on God's self-revelation to us in Jesus, we don't understand God by deductively reflecting on ourselves and our experiences of God. Rather we understand that God himself (not our experience of God) is the subject of our knowing. As applied to ministry, it is not we by our actions who define what constitutes Christian ministry, rather it is who God is and what he does. And what God does is seen definitively in the person of Jesus, who by his acts reveals clearly who God is and what God does. (pp. 8-9)
Purves then draws this important conclusion:
The ministry of the church...has no content apart from the content of the gospel of Jesus Christ to which the doctrine of the church bears witness and on which it depends for its truth and reality... Doctrine exists as the church's witness to the primary ministry of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ and as such has its source in the freedom and love of God to be God for us... [Therefore] there is [a close] connection between doctrine and the church's expression of the God who acts and what the church and pastors do.... There is a difference between helping someone therapeutically and leading that person to Jesus Christ (p. 10) 
Christian ministry, being gospel-shaped, is true participation in the ministry of Jesus, who comes to us clothed in his gospel. It is Jesus himself who heals and transforms, not our pastoral methods and practices. As Karl Barth said, "It is not Jesus Christ who needs pastoral work, it is pastoral work that needs Jesus Christ" (p. 10). Purves comments:
Because pastoral care is at all points both a ministry of God and a ministry of the church, it is tied to the gospel given in Word and sacraments. Functionally, this means that as a ministry of Word and sacraments pastoral care is tied also to Christian worship and community, discipleship and mission. (pp. 10-11) 
I imagine that most readers of this blog will, at this point, find themselves agreeing with Purves, but also asking, "How do I as a pastor or other Christian minister, live this out day-to-day?" We'll look at Purves' answer to this important question next time. Stay tuned.

May 12, 2016

What makes pastoral work Christian?

This begins a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in this series, click a number: 2.

A concern of many Surprising God readers is how incarnational Trinitarian theology relates to the everyday challenges of pastoral ministry. It is to this concern that theologian Andrew Purves addresses himself in his insightful book, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology. He offers a fully incarnational and Trinitarian perspective on pastoral theology (or what some term practical theology).

Theologian Ray Anderson (now deceased) endorsed the book, commending Purves for grounding "pastoral care in Christ's continuing ministry of revelation and reconciliation in the world on behalf of God the Father through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit" (back cover---and click here for an earlier Surprising God series on Anderson's book The Shape of Practical Theology). 

Ministry as participation with the triune God

For Purves and Anderson, truly Christian pastoral ministry is about participation in the ongoing ministry of the triune God. Sadly, this trinitarian theological perspective is largely missing from much of the literature and practice of pastoral ministry in our time. Purves comments on his purpose for writing:
I am trying to think radically concerning Jesus Christ and to understand pastoral theology... guided by the twin doctrines of union with Christ and our participation in his ministry from the Father and to the Father. This is pastoral theology that is thoroughly christologically grounded. (Preface, p. x, italics added).
In writing, Purves relied heavily on the work of James and Tom Torrance (Purves studied with both). As a summation of the theology that undergirds his approach to pastoral ministry, Purves (pictured at right) offers this quote from Tom Torrance:
For us to be in the Spirit or to have the Spirit dwelling within us means that we are united to Christ the incarnate Son of the Father, and are made through union with him in the Spirit to participate, human creatures though we are, in the Communion which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spire have among themselves and are in themselves. (p. xi, quoting from The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons, p. 148)

Ministry with a Christological center, grounded in the gospel

Fundamental to an incarnational Trinitarian theological approach to pastoral ministry is the understanding that "God is the principal subject matter of pastoral theology...a theology concerned with action" (p. xiv). Unfortunately, much of pastoral practice in the modern area is more about anthropology than theology---human-centered rather than Christ-centered.

According to Purves, pastoral care in our era, "has moved in a distinctly clinical, psychotherapeutic, or, more generally, social-scientific direction" (p. xiv). As a result, pastoral care often lacks a Christological center, which means that it tends to move in a secular-humanistic direction. To avoid this, Purves challenges us to ask and answer a foundational question: What makes pastoral work Christian? His answer is that ministry that is truly Christian is possessed by the Gospel rather than merely being a ministry that possesses the gospel. He comments:
The actuality of the gospel is the basis for the possibility of our ministry. It is not Jesus Christ who needs pastoral work, it is pastoral work that needs Jesus Christ. Just as faith lives not by human effort, but solely by the grace of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ, and through our incorporation into his life, so also ministry must be understood to be built not upon human striving for growth, well-being, and health but upon the grace of God, which is understood now as a participation in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, on earth, in heaven, and as the one who will come again. The focus of pastoral theology, then, is God's extrinsic grace in Jesus Christ, on the gospel that is a...Word from beyond us, and to which gracious Word and to that Word alone pastoral theology and pastoral practice must submit in order to be faithful to the gospel. (p. xvi)  
And so Purves' purpose in writing is to provide a basis for sound pastoral work (praxis) that is sound specifically because it is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He comments:
Pastoral theology can only meet its basic task to speak concerning God by grounding pastoral work in God's ministry through attention to the act of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ in such a way that it draws out the basis for all Christian ministry as a Spirit-enabled participation in the praxis of God. (p. xvi, italics added).

But what about real life?

But how does Purves' incarnational Trinitarian approach to Christian ministry work out in real life---in the trenches of everyday pastoral ministry? Purves asks a related question on our behalf: 
What does pastoral work have to do with incarnation and atonement, resurrection, ascension and eschatology; with the Christian doctrine of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one being three persons; with the teaching and ministry of Jesus; with the theology of Paul, and the author of Hebrews, and so on? (p. xvii)
Purves takes 232 pages to answer his question, and in this series of posts we'll try to capture his key points. This is a vital topic for as Purves notes, modern day pastoral theology and practice (praxis) has, in large part, "abandoned the responsibility to speak concerning God" (p. xvii), substituting instead a focus on human functioning (and dysfunction), and thus on pragmatic issues of ethics. Added to this humanistic emphasis is a focus on psychological categories regarding human experience. And flowing from that is an emphasis on subjective questions of meaning and human functioning rather than on discipleship. The focus has thus become self-actualization rather than salvation. As a result, pastoral work in our day tends to be defined in functional (pragmatic) terms with great emphasis on "how to" knowledge. Purves offers his book as a corrective:
I argue that pastoral theology guides the practice of the church in speaking forth and living out the gospel by bringing to expression the meaning of our life in union with Christ, who is both God's Word of address to us and the fitting human response to God. As such, pastoral theology has both a prescriptive and a self-critical responsibility explicitly in the light of the gospel. (p. xx) 
Knowledge of God and God's mission is the only critical perspective from which or by which we can judge our own pastoral actions. Thus the introduction to and the most important part of pastoral theology is a presentation of the doctrine (or better, the practice) of God in christological, soteriological, and eschatological terms. (p. xxi) 

Toward a theologically-grounded approach to pastoral ministry

Purves is not suggesting that pastors run from the trenches of everyday life to the safety (and unreality) of a theological "ivory tower." The pastoral theology he strongly advocates is fundamentally "practical" (real) for it is grounded in the reality of who God is (as Father, Son and Spirit), and in the reality of what the Father, through Jesus, by the Spirit, is actually (really) doing to bring healing into the lives of real, suffering people. Purves comments:
Trinitarian theology is inherently practical theology in that it is a knowledge of God's action grounded in God's being. The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis for Christian practical theology. (p. xxv)  
Next time we'll explore Purves' assertion that true Christian ministry is our participation in this reality of God's being and doing. Stay tuned!
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For two You're Included videos with Purves on the topic of a theological approach to pastoral ministry, click here and here.

May 5, 2016

True freedom and dignity in Christ

This post concludes a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Forgiven by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)
Highfield begins his concluding chapter asking, "Does the Christian way of viewing God and humanity overcome the idea that God is a threat to our genuine freedom and dignity?" (p. 207). As we have seen throughout the book, his answer is "yes" and the reason is not fundamentally about a how, but about a who---about Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. It is in and through Jesus that we see the definitive truth (reality) concerning both God and humanity.

The reality of the God-man Jesus

The biblical, Nicene faith declares that Jesus is fully God and fully human---two natures in one person. Moreover, it declares that in and through the humanity of Jesus, by the Spirit, the God of love and grace has permanently united himself to all humanity. This means that rather than being our competitor, the triune God is the source and guarantor of our human identity with its incomparable, God-given freedom and dignity. Highfield comments:
In the person of Christ, God and humanity are so united that even the possibility of competition is overcome.... The existence of Christ shows that God and humanity are not intrinsically exclusive of one another; only the sin, evil, blindness and death that distort and wound humanity are excluded. True humanity is God's image, God's dear child. It contains no qualities that contradict the divine nature. By taking humanity into his person, the Son of God frees it from the "other" that troubles it. Its union with God is so perfect, its vision of God so clear, and its love so pure that its affirmation of God is at the same time perfect affirmation of its own being. In this state, harmony between humanity and God is as perfect as harmony among the persons of the Trinity.
...The conditions under which it makes sense to compete are incompleteness, separateness and scarcity. These conditions are overcome in Jesus Christ, for Jesus is fully human and fully divine. His divinity is eternally complete, and in his resurrection Christ brought his humanity to complete fulfillment. His humanity and deity are so united that the joy of one is included in the joy of the other; for they enjoy the same inexhaustible good, God. (p. 208)

The source of our true humanity

Through the incarnation of the Son of God and by the Spirit, our humanity is united to God in the most intimate way. Rather than diminishing our personhood, our union with Jesus establishes it, for in Christ we are united both with God and with all people. This union between persons is the source of our true humanity, and thus of our personal freedom and dignity.

We see this personal ("personalizing') freedom and dignity in the Holy Trinity in which the Father, Son and Spirit love themselves in the love they have for the others: "The Trinity is ideal community---perfect union without loss of personal identity" (p. 210). The same is true for God's design for us (for we are created in his image). Jesus said to his followers, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). He did not say, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." God does not define love as independent of others---his love is other-centered. And so Jesus calls upon us to see our neighbor's good as our own (for that is truly the case). As Highfield notes, "The ideal implicit even in human love is a union between persons that rules out competition without erasing distinction" (p. 209).

A life of faith, hope and love

Of course, on this side of glorification, we do not love perfectly. Despite our faith, we still compete, even with the ones we love most. So how then should we live in the midst of our brokenness on this side of glory? The answer is that we live with, in and through Christ, by the Spirit. This is the life of faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13). In faith, we trust in and rely upon the perfection of Jesus (including his perfect, glorified humanity). In hope we look forward to the perfection we will one day experience with Christ in a new heaven and new earth. And we receive from God his love by which we love God and other people. "Our union with Christ instills in us a sense of unity with others that replaces the former sense of separateness" (p. 211). In Christ we are set free to love and to be loved---free to share in his love for God and for all people, ourselves included.

Born anew, from above

This freedom is the outflow of the rebirth of the modern me-centered self. Enlightened by the Spirit, we come to see the modern self (with its me-centered sense of freedom and dignity) as nothing but an illusion---a "vain wish to be like God and to possess divine attributes and prerogatives" (p. 212). With clear-eyed realism, Christianity "faces squarely the desperate nature of the human condition and deals with it at its roots" (p. 212). It also sees Jesus and what, by entering into the human condition, he has done to overcome our fallenness and open to us the possibility to be who we truly are in him---our true selves, beloved children of God who "are given dignity rooted in God's love for us and freedom empowered by God's Spirit" (p. 212). Highfield continues the thought:
In Jesus we learn that we were made to love others. We can exist as our true selves and exercise genuine freedom only by loving God and others. Our highest dignity is grounded in God's love for us. Through the eyes of Christ we see clearly that God is love and that our true humanity is love as well. Competition no longer makes sense. Self-giving love cannot compete with self-giving love. Our love of freedom can find fulfillment only in the freedom of love. (p. 213, italics in the original)

Loving in, with and through Christ

This love, of course, is not ours merely by mimicking Jesus. We don't "love like Jesus loves" in a way that is somehow disconnected from Jesus. Instead we love with, in and through Jesus and by the Spirit. This means that we love others with the love by which God, in Christ is loving us and loving them. Jesus is the source---the fount---and by the Spirit he freely shares with us his perfect, other-centered love both for God and for all people. And so our true humanity, our true human identity, is found not in ourselves, but in (and with) him. Jesus is the one Mediator between God and humanity, and also between human and human. In, by, with and through him, we love ourselves without pride or shame---we see ourselves through his eyes as we truly are. And in union with him, we love God freely and others unselfishly by participating in Christ's love for God and for all people. This is the true "freedom and glory of the children of God" to which Paul refers in Romans 8:21.

Highfield concludes his helpful, thought-provoking book with this statement:
God is so much for us and we are made so much for God that only by returning ourselves to God utterly may we become truly ourselves and live life to the full. In loving God for God's sake alone we will find genuine freedom, and in allowing ourselves to be loved by God we will discover our true dignity. (p. 217)

April 28, 2016

What is our true worth as humans?

This post continues a review of key points in Ron Highfield's book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12345678910, 11, 13.

Rembrandt: Return of the Prodigal Son
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
In our me-centered world, people ground their sense of worth (and thus their dignity) in all sorts of things. But according to Ron Highfield our true worth as humans is found in one place only---the love the triune God has for us all. But doesn't reliance on something external to ourselves compromise our dignity? Highfield comments:
[Human] dignity in its most basic form is a relation of being loved by another. And God is the only "Other" whose love can establish our dignity beyond dispute... The relationship of being loved and favored by God is the... fundamental basis of human dignity. (p. 192)
Highfield goes on to review the writings of various Christian authors who assert that humanity's highest dignity comes from the fact that, being created in God's image, we are able to share in all that is excellent. While that may be true, the problem is that many of these excellencies are finite. But as Highfield notes, being loved by God bestows a "dignity of belovedness" on us that far surpasses any excellence that we might achieve or experience (p. 198).

Counterfeit dignity

In contrast to the true human dignity grounded in God's love for us, there are all sorts of sources of counterfeit dignity. Highfield points out two: pride and shame.
Pride rises out of an insecure wish to be significant given fantastic form by imagination. In relation to others, wish becomes assertion in search of confirmation. Pride desires to experience admiration or envy from others so that it can relish its own worth.... Pride breeds falsehood, and falsehood sooner or later will be dashed against the rock of truth. (p. 199)
Shame is a defective sign of unworthiness. Shame is a feeling of unworthiness not before our own consciences, which is guilt, but with reference to others. On the surface it seems opposed to pride... [But] shame agrees with pride that our worth must be grounded in our inherent qualities. We are ashamed when we look at ourselves because we do not see the qualities others admire. Shame and pride also concur that the thoughts of others reveal the truth about us.... Finally, both shame and pride think of dignity in comparative terms. (p. 200)
"Worth" is a relative and relational term. Something has "worth" because it is worth something to someone. In our me-centered world, people have worth because of what they can do that benefits someone else. But true worth (and thus true dignity) values people not as a means to something else, but as the ends. Highfield elaborates:
The highest dignity we can bestow on another person is love, and the purer this love is from selfishness, the greater the dignity we give to the object of our love. (p. 200)
But as Highfield goes on to note, "Human love cannot serve as a secure foundation for human dignity." Why? Because as we all know, human love is unreliable and is not universal. "We cannot be satisfied with dignity that rises and falls with others' feelings about us," says Highfield (p. 200). Human dignity thus needs a foundation that is relational, unchanging and universal, and that brings us to the foundation of the triune God and his love for us.

The nature of God and his love for us

Fundamental to the doctrine of the Trinity is the understanding that the triune God is relational in his very being. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are a triune communion of love. God loves because he is love. Inherent in God's triune nature is "the dignity of belovedness" (p. 201). It is this love that is the ground (basis) for human dignity. Why? Because it was in love and for love that the triune God created us in his own image. Infinite value was thus attributed by God to people because of the eternal love he has for us. Highfield comments:
God's love for his dear children creates a real dignity relation. We must recognize human dignity as relationally inherent in our fellow human beings; that is, each and every human being exists and possesses a dignity bestowed by God. They are worthy of our love because God makes them worthy of God's love.... We love God because God first loved us and we love our neighbors because God first loved our neighbors. (p. 202)
If we locate dignity in personal attributes and powers (what one can do), then it follows that God has dignity far beyond our own. However, it is belovedness that is the ground of true dignity, and with that in mind we can rightly assert what Highfield goes on to state:
God bestows on us the same dignity that God bestows on himself, for God loves us no less than God loves himself. The Father loves us with the very same love with which God loves the beloved Son. No higher dignity can be imagined of conceived. (p. 203-4, italics in the original)

Look to Jesus

We thus understand that our dignity, and God's dignity have the same ground: the love of the Father, Son and Spirit. How do we know this is true? Because we see Jesus---the divine Son of God become human---a human upon whom is bestowed divine dignity. And in Jesus we see the true nature of all humans as beloved children of God.

Remember a fundamental precept of Incarnational Trinitarian faith: What happens to Jesus happens to us all. He is our representative and substitute. He became incarnate to show us the Father (to reveal the triune God of love) and to show us our true humanity (who as beloved children of God by adoption possess infinite worth). As Highfield notes, "The Father treats each of us as if we were the Father's own dear Son, and that is why we are God's children" (p. 205). He continues the thought in this stunning concluding statement:
We know that God loves us no less than God loves himself, because God does not love us for what we are. God's love for us is grounded in the Father's love for the Son. The Father does not love God's human children less because they are not God's equal in excellence of being or character. God loves us just like, and just as much as, the Father loves the Son. Even though we were by nature nothing, by deeds sinners and by affections enemies, God loved us. There is and can be no higher dignity.... By loving us with the love of God, God bestows on us the highest dignity conceivable and frees us for the most perfect freedom possible. (pp. 205-6)

April 22, 2016

Discussing the Nicene Creed

Incarnational Trinitarian theology is sometimes referred to as "the Nicene faith" because it is grounded in the precepts of the faith of the Christian church set forth by the patristic fathers in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (commonly called the Nicene Creed). For a post that looks at Thomas F. Torrance's Trinitarian perspective on the Nicene Creed, click here.

A helpful resource for discussing the Nicene Creed in small groups is the I Believe video series, produced by the If: Gathering organization (for an article about them, click here). Because these videos are generally (though not in every detail) aligned with Torrance's Trinitarian theology, they would make helpful discussion starters for fellowship (small) groups and Bible study classes that wish to study the Creed. Those groups could then refer to the Surprising God blog post noted above for additional information (click here to download a copy in Word format).

Here is the introductory video in the I Believe series. The others are linked below.