May 25, 2015

Deep church: eucharistic community

This post concludes an exploration of Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1234567, 8

Holy Communion (stained glass window)
Wikimedia Commons
Walker and Parry conclude Deep Church Rising by asserting that being a "deep church" is fundamentally about being what they refer to as a eucharistic community. This is so because, "in the Eucharist right belief, right worship and right practice embrace" (p. 145). Indeed, in the ancient apostolic tradition, the Lord's Table was the heart and core of worship---both visually (with the communion table set front and center) and liturgically (with the service leading to and thus centered upon the Lord's Supper).

Sadly, many evangelical churches today de-emphasize and thus neglect the Lord's Supper, with some seeing it as "a distraction from the real business of worship" (p. 146). Why has this happened? The authors note that the answer lies in Christian history with various theological perspectives on the Eucharist developing. Many evangelicals today follow the view of the Swiss Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli (d. 1531) who argued against seeing the Eucharist as Christ's "real presence," viewing it instead as simply a memorial (commemoration) of Jesus's death, and the bread and wine as mere "symbols" of that past event. From this viewpoint, "the Eucharist is more about the absence of Christ than about his presence... Communion is simply what Christians do 'until he comes'" (p. 147).

As the authors note, Zwingli's theology of the Eucharist reflected a deep dualism. "He thought that no physical element can affect the soul...Consequently, the signs (bread and wine) and what they signify (body and blood) must be held apart" (p. 147). This perspective reflected Enlightenment rationalism, which favored non-mystical views of all things, including the Lord's Supper. Zwingli was also reacting against the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Unfortunately, in following Zwingli's humanistic, rationalistic approach to the Eucharist, many contemporary evangelicals unwittingly undermine the importance of the meal that Jesus gave us, making it non-essential to the life of the church.

To recover deep church (the church of the apostolic tradition), Walker and Parry advocate that churches restore the Eucharist to its essential, central place in worship. What they mean by this is not returning it as one of other empty worship ceremonies, but restoring it to the place it was given by Jesus himself--the principal place where his church regularly, in community, encounter his resurrected, ascended presence.

To do so, the authors note that we must let go of the dualism that separates (in our minds) the spiritual and physical. In God's economy, there is no such separation. The triune God engages the people of God spiritually in ways that are mediated through the physical world of his creation. At the Lord's Table, Jesus, in his glorified, physical humanity, is present to us and with us in and through the communion bread and wine. Thus, as Walker and Parry note, Holy Communion, rather than being a mere memorial that utilizes interesting (though incidental) physical symbols, "is a key Christian way of knowing God" (p. 149). The physicality is essential to this knowing (this encounter). And thus rather than diminishing in our minds the importance of communion with it's physical (tactile) aspects, we should embrace and celebrate those aspects--the smells, textures, tastes, sights and sounds of the Table. These are all ways that we discern (experience) Jesus' real presence at the Table and in the service that surrounds it an leads us to it.

There are, of course, different ways to try to explain Jesus' "real presence" at the Table. Part of the problem in doing so has to do with misunderstanding what the early church fathers meant in referring to the Communion elements as "symbols." In their day, a symbol (or sign) "was not thought of as being something quite different from the reality which it represented, but... as participating in some way in the reality itself" (p. 151). Though we may not understand how Jesus in his human body (seated as it is in heaven), is present with us on earth in the Communion elements, we understand that it is the Holy Spirit himself "who thins the veil between heaven and earth... [who] makes the crucified and risen Christ really present to us in the Eucharistic meal" (p. 152). However we may conceive of that presence, it's essential to understand that Christ's glorified human body is in heaven but he is spiritually present with us in Communion by the Holy Spirit. He is with us,. ministering to us; feeding us, sharing with us his own glorified humanity; a sharing that brings nourishment and healing: body, mind and spirit.

The Lord's Supper really is "Holy Communion." It is a means (and one might say the principal means) by which we participate in the eternal life in Christ (see John 6:54). The authors comment:
Jesus himself is the spiritual "bread" we "eat" and the "wine" we "drink." It was the unanimous view in the early centuries of the church that taking Holy Communion with faith brought the resurrection life of Christ to those who took it. When you eat or drink something it enters right into the depths of you---it brings you life---it becomes part of you... Jesus speaks of drinking his blood and eating his flesh as a metaphor for taking his very life deep into our own spiritual lives by faith. We are united with him---his life becomes our life. That's what it's all about (p. 156).
The authors go on to make this important observation:
The Eucharist bears within itself the marks of the whole biblical metanarrative, from creation to new creation. Like the hub at the center of a bicycle wheel, where all the spokes meet, Communion is that sacred center that gathers together Christian doctrine. Thus to participate in Holy Communion is to practice "right belief"; to engage---often without realizing it---with the breadth of Christian theology (p. 156).
Some Christians make the mistake of thinking that Communion should be taken only occasionally by likening it to the Old Testament Passover. But as Walker and Parry note:
Eucharist is not a Passover meal... Christians never treated it as a once-a-year celebration at Passover time---[though] it still speaks of an exodus for the people of God from slavery and of redemption by the blood of a sacrificial lamb. Jesus told his followers to eat the meal together "in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19).... As we hear the story of the first supper over and over in our worship it becomes our story, our memory, we were there...this remembering at the Lord's Supper is owning the stories as our own. In Eucharist we "remember" by immersing the stories of our lives in the story of our Lord (p.158).
The authors go on to note that "to inhabit this [Eucharistic] way of worship is to situate oneself in relation to the biblical-narrative" (p. 163), which is the story of Jesus (the gospel), which speaks of creation through new creation and is centered on Jesus' incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, continuing session and eventual bodily return in glory. All of this story is rehearsed and celebrated in communion. All of Jesus is present there with us and presented there to us by the Holy Spirit. When one understands the ancient incarnational, Trinitarian theology of the church fathers this reality becomes even more meaningful. And it is for that reason that I (Ted Johnston), personally advocate that churches place the Lord's Supper at the center of all of their worship services, rather than doing so only occasionally. In Grace Communion International, we have no policy that mandates the frequency of Eucharist in our churches, so this recommendation is the expression of a personal preference.

I conclude this post, and the series in the book Deep Church Rising, with a quote at the end of the book, which speaks to the broad perspective of deep church, and specifically to the way the Eucharist points us on to the church's participation at the Table and beyond in our Lord's ongoing ministry in and to the world:
At the heart of the liturgy [of the church in the apostolic tradition] lies the good news of God's everlasting love and forgiveness in spite of our failures. At this Table we see ourselves as a forgiven people who are called to the spiritual practice of forgiveness. In fact, we are asked to work beyond forgiveness to reconciliation (p. 164.
Note: For a related earlier Surprising God post that speaks to an incarnational Trinitarian perspective on the sacraments, including the Lord's Supper, click here.

May 16, 2015

Deep transformation (discipleship)

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: 123456, 7, 9

Already in this series we've looked at what Walker and Parry say about a return to deep church (the apostolic tradition), calling for the recapturing of deep faith, deep worship and deep living, Now we'll look at their call to deep transformation, which means recapturing the practice of discipleship (catechesis). They point out that this practice is life-transforming when it is gospel-focused and worship-centered, and includes (among other factors) corporate prayer, theology, holiness and mission. Below is a synopsis of these points.
Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper - public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gospel-focused

At the heart of Christian discipleship in the apostolic tradition is the story of Jesus (the gospel), which is about transformation, not mere information. This transformation is individual and communal as together, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we are conformed to Christ. For that transformation to occur in churches with consistency, they must face the harsh reality that we are living today in a mass media-driven, consumeristic world that focuses "on shaping us to its values, beliefs, priorities and practices" (p. 130). As followers of Jesus, we must ask: What are we being formed into? If not into Christ's image, then we must take steps to restore discipleship (catechesis) to the place of prominence it had in the early church:
According to the third-century Apostolic Tradition, catechesis was a journey that lasted for three years.... [it] functioned as a kind of decompression chamber that took those seeking entry into the church on a transformative journey, climaxing in baptism and full entry into the Christian community (pp. 133-134). 

Worship-centered

Sadly, the emphasis on catechesis in the apostolic tradition was largely lost as the culture was progressively "Christianized." As we move toward recovering that emphasis in our day, it's vital to understand that discipleship is not just about acquiring right beliefs and moral practices. It's fundamentally about participating in Jesus' own, on-going worship of the Father, in the Spirit. As Walker and Parry note, this deep worship, which is whole-life worship, is at the center of discipleship that is transformational. It is, according to the authors...
...the activity in which all our skills [i.e. all other aspects of discipleship] are ordered. As Christians, our worship is our morality for it is in worship we find ourselves engrafted into the story of God. It is in worship that we acquire the skills to acknowledge who we are---sinners.... Worship is a learned set of practices and they are formative practices. So a fundamental part of catechesis must be to teach people to engage in worship. Such learning cannot simply be didactic---teaching about good worship---but must also be a regular, engaged participation in communal worship... [which is] not merely about praise and adoration... but also penitence, confession, lament, supplication, thanksgiving, silent contemplation, and attentive listening (p. 135).

Corporate prayer

Deep worship, which is fundamental to discipleship, includes prayer both privately and corporately. Walker and Parry emphasize corporate prayer, recommending that churches recite aloud the ancient prayers of the church. This suggestion might make some free church Protestants a bit uncomfortable, fearing "vain repetition." However, that viewpoint belies a lack of awareness concerning the transformative power of praying prayers that have been carefully crafted for corporate worship down through Christian history. First and foremost, of course, is The Lord's Prayer, which Jesus gave his disciples to recite together. Corporate prayer is part of the holistic worship that engages not only the mind but also the body. Whereas modernity tends to focus on the cerebral, pre-modern apostolic tradition understood that "to change the posture can re-poise the heart" (p. 136).

Theology

Transformative discipleship, of which deep worship is central, also includes learning and embracing the core theology of the historic, apostolic Christian faith. According to the authors, "What a deep church needs today is a theology of Christian basics" (p. 137). They are not alone in calling for this theological return---it is what this blog advocates and is not about merely gaining head-knowledge, but about embracing the Trinitarian theology of the early church in such a way that it shapes worship, beliefs and practices---our whole lives. An excellent way to regularly celebrate and thus emphasize in worship the theology of the apostolic church is to recite together the Apostle's creed or the Nicene creed. Both of these creeds are fully grounded in incarnational, Trinitarian theology.

Bible reading

Transformative discipleship also includes reading the Bible well together:
First and foremost this is learning to understand the broad sweep of the biblical story---from creation through fall and redemption to new creation, from Genesis to Revelation. It is learning to understand one's own life in relation to that story. In this way we see the book as a whole--=a grand narrative---and not simply the compilation of timeless, blessed thoughts (p. 137).
To read the Bible well is to read it "in the light of the rule of faith," which as we've noted already in this series is the gospel-focused apostolic tradition, which is under-girded and shaped by the ancient incarnational Trinitarian theology advocated in this blog.

Holiness

Note that Christ-centered, gospel-focused discipleship leads to true holiness, which is not merely about the absence  of something (such as bad behavior), but about the real, life-transforming, positive presence of Jesus. True holiness is about sharing with Jesus, by the Spirit, a pattern of living that is...
... shaped by the cruciform narrative of God in Christ. [This sort of] holiness is not dry and stuffy but beautiful. Conforming our lives to the pattern of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit but it is a divine work that we are called to co-operate with, in community... Becoming more like Jesus involves the formative practices of worship, of studying Scripture prayerfully, and of intentionally developing new patterns of speaking and acting (p. 138). 
As the Spirit forms believers through these gospel-focused beliefs and practices, they are equipped to accurately "interpret" the culture, viewing it through the "lens" of the story of Jesus:
Christians need to be taught how to see with subversive gospel eyes: to discern the values that underlie various social, cultural, economic, and political institutions and practices, to be able to deconstruct adverts, interpret pop culture, question the unquestionable assumptions underlying the world as given... This is a difficult lifelong process of discernment and communal self-reflection, for there is nothing so hard to see as one's own unquestioned self-reflections (p. 139).

Mission

Among other aspects of transformative discipleship, Walker and Parry emphasize the importance of leading followers of Jesus to engage in "God's mission for the sake of the world." Indeed, the church exists...
...to serve as the body of Christ to and for the world. So while "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" [the] church is called to proclaim, "Be reconciled to God." [The] church is called to work in the world so that God's kingdom may come to earth as in heaven. And mission is as broad as God' work in restoring creation. It includes evangelism, but far exceeds it... Catechesis is where people are introduced to the breadth of God's mission, the work of the Spirit-filled church in being a medium of that mission and the multiple ways in which the church can fulfill it. It is also the place in which individuals are encouraged to start participating in God's mission in exploratory ways" (p. 140).
The authors have much more to say about the purpose and practice of transformative discipleship (catechesis), I urge you to read the book on this point alone. Next time we'll end this series looking at what Walker and Parry say about deep church being a "Eucharistic community." Stay tuned.

Note: for a previous post on the topic of discipleship, click here.

May 5, 2015

A return to deep living (Trinitarian ethics)

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: 12345, 6, 89.

Icon of the Resurrection
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Last time we looked at Walker and Parry's appeal for the church to return to right (deep) worship (orthodoxia). Now we'll examine their appeal for a return to right (deep) living (orthopraxia), which they define as "a wide-ranging concept covering everything from the ritual use of the body in worship to appropriate Christian moral behavior." For them, right living is "intimately entangled with belief in God as creator and with the story of God in Christ" (p. 114).

One of the reasons the church in modernity largely lost its ethical moorings is that modern thinkers largely rejected the idea that human nature has a goal or purpose (telos). Once recognition of this telos ceases, ethics becomes grounded only in the empirical world of facts devoid of values. Gone is any concept of moral "ought," to be replaced by such approaches to ethics as utilitarianism, emotivism, naturalism and subjectivism (p. 116).

In much of Western culture, this trend in ethics led to a moral pluralism and moral relativism, where there is no right or wrong in any absolute sense. Ironically, certain ethical precepts continued to be viewed in modernity as "absolute"---a concept that largely was a carryover from Judeo-Christian biblical ethics. An example is the enduring belief in universal human rights. But given the state of ethics in modernity (and now post-modernity), those rights lack an objective moral foundation, being "reduced to the protection of the individual's right to realize his or her own desires" (p. 118). In contrast, ethics within the apostolic Christian tradition was...
...determined by the transcendent realm and the very structures of the creation that God had made, by the kinds of creatures human beings were (in the image of God), the purposes for which God had made them, and the commands that God had given to guide them. Virtues were those dispositions that led toward those divinely appointed ends and vices were those that led away... Right and wrong were objective truths about the world. But as the theological framework upon which such moral vision depends loses its public acceptance the vision itself loses its basis (pp. 118-119). 
The authors emphasize that the divine laws fundamental to ethics in the apostolic tradition...
...[were not] random prohibitions and prescriptions but were related to the kinds of creatures that God had created humans to be. Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and love were not arbitrarily selected but were similarly tied to God's purposes for humanity (p. 119).
Those purposes were directly related to the gospel, which tells us where we are from and where we are going. Ethics in the apostolic tradition was not about a mere list of do's and dont's but about the grand story of creation and redemption---the narrative of God into which we are included through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, our representative and substitute. This gospel-shaped approach to ethics is seen clearly in Paul's epistles. Note his use of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, where being "in Christ" means being "a living exegesis of this narrative of Christ" (p. 121). The authors comment:
The Christian journey, for Paul, is a journey toward being conformed to the image of the Messiah and what that means is cruci-formity. It is a story that links into a bigger story of Adam created in God's image for glory, about the defacing of the image and its recovery. It is a story that tells us where we are from, where we are, where we are going, and how God is going to get us there. It is a story that subverts all the alternative stories in both the ancient and the modern worlds, reconfiguring ethics in the process (p. 122).
In the apostolic tradition, is it the story of Jesus (the gospel) that gives meaning to such ethical concepts as goodness, gratitude, and love. This is important to note, because in popular culture, ethics often is grounded in a pop-culture conception of love ("If it's loving, it must the right"). But in the gospel, love is defined "by the master story of Christ crucified" (p. 121). Note, for example, John's definition of love in 1 John 4:10-11. For Christians, Jesus' sacrificial love is determinative of Christian ethicsOrthopraxis (right living) flows from a heart transformed by the gospel--a heart full of love for God and for people.

This being the case, the authors note that orthopraxis (right living) is inextricably connected to orthodoxia (right worship). This is seen in Paul's comments about the Eucharist in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 where he notes that the Lord's Supper is a community-building feast where all should gather, in love, as equals---as the one body of Christ. But that is not how some in Corinth were celebrating Eucharist. They had become "poisoned by anti-gospel values" (p. 124).

The authors urge the church to return to "deep living" (right living/orthopraxis)---behavior that exemplifies gospel-shaped ethics in which human life is viewed as having a God-ordained telos revealed by the gospel. They urge us to ask ourselves: Are our ethical values and imperatives drawn from popular culture, or from the gospel itself? Gospel-shaped answers to such questions often will not be black or white. Finding the answers will typically require "careful reflection and nuanced responses" (p. 128). Why? Because "the call to deep church is a call to an ongoing discernment of the gospel-shaped response to the complex world in which we live" (p. 129). Is this a call to situation ethics? No, it's a call to gospel-shaped ethics---to a life lived out in the presence of the resurrected God-man, Jesus Christ.

Next time we'll look at what Walker and Parry advocate concerning implementing in churches a gospel-shaped discipleship program (catechesis).

For another series of Surprising God blogs on the topic of Christian ethics, click here.

April 27, 2015

A return to deep 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: 1234. 5, 7, 89.

Last time we looked at what happened when parts of the church, seeking cultural relevance, departed from apostolic tradition. One of the results was departure from orthodoxia (right worship). A primary way this manifested (particularly in recent years in the West) was in the embracing of what some refer to as the "entertainment culture." In this setting, worship becomes less about glorifying God and more about providing the next "shot in the arm" to people who tend to view the church as merely one of multiple "voluntary club" alternatives.

Picture from Wikimedia, creative commons attribution
The downside of this consumeristic approach to worship is that the participants often quickly weary of the worship offered, and move on to other entertainment options. In what may have been a well-intentioned effort to relate the church to the culture, these churches have unwittingly produced "self-centered consumers of religious entertainment" (p. 98).

Given this reality, Walker and Parry challenge us to evaluate our own churches, asking these diagnostic questions: Is it a congregation or an audience? Is it about worship or a performance? Is my church forming disciples or merely keeping customers happy? Are we honoring God or are we more about pleasing ourselves? The authors hasten to add that they are not against churches providing worship that is beautiful and joyful. What they are saying is this: "If we are to be true to the aspirations of the tradition the agenda for worship has to be determined by the gospel, not by the entertainment culture" (p. 98).

According to the authors, gospel-focused worship (orthodoxia) has two vital components:

1. It is in Christ. Our worship is either in Christ (and thus "right") or it is not. But how can broken, sinful humans like us offer God right worship? The answer, of course, is that we can't! However, Jesus, the God-man, the one Mediator between God and man, can and does. Jesus "offers orthodoxia to God as our human representative." The authors comment further:
Christian worship is worship that is offered to God in and through Christ by those who are united to him by the Spirit through faith. Our imperfect worship passes, as it were, through the filter of Christ's own perfect worship and is thereby purified... First and foremost orthodox worship is worship offered to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. If it is, then it brings "right glory" because Christ's worship does (p. 99).
2. It is rightly aligned. Orthodoxia can be conceptualized as a journey with Jesus, which leads to life transformation. The Spirit leads us "from one degree of glory to another" as we experience in gospel-focused worship the reality of who we truly are in Christ. The authors comment further:
Orthodoxia is like the water flowing from a tap: it can be dripping, dribbling, flowing, gushing, or pounding. In experienced reality our worship is right to the extent it is conformed to the image of Christ. So orthodox, from this angle, is not so much what we are as what we are becoming, not so much where we are at as where we are heading. It is an eschatological feast that can be tasted in present reality (p. 99).
Walker and Parry go on to note that orthodoxia has these key characteristics:

1. It is God-focused. If worship is all about us--our preferences, our entertainment, etc., then it is misdirected. Right worship looks up, not in---it gives "glory to God for God's sake." And such worship, which seeks to bless (glorify, extol) God, blesses us too, for "it is in losing ourselves that we find ourselves" (p. 100). All the great liturgies of historic Christianity direct us to fix our eyes, not on ourselves, but on God.

2. It is gospel-shaped. The story of Jesus, the gospel, determines the shape of right worship. Here the gospel is proclaimed in word, sacrament (baptism and Eucharist), time (organized around the story of Jesus as it plays out through the Christian year), and in space (arranging the worship space in ways that proclaim Jesus and his story).

3. It is Trinitarian. Right worship is not directed toward a generic God---it's about "the God revealed in the person of Christ--the Triune God" (p. 105). Right worship is Trinitarian in its shape (to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit). It is worship that is gifted (enabled) by God (from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit). Right worship is also Trinitarian in its focus---giving "glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit" (p. 106). Right worship brings the church into a dynamic encounter with the Holy Trinity.

4. It is existentially engaged. Instead of "going through the motions" right worship is "an existentially engaged encounter with God" (p. 106)---engaging us, body, mind and soul, with God.

5. It is a holistic response to God. Right worship engages us as the embodied creatures that we are. Such worship "is multi-sensory, appealing not merely to the ears--through songs and sermons--but to the eyes, to touch, to taste, to smell," Right worship is a "socially mediated, bodily enacted, sensually attuned means of knowing Christ" (p. 107). It attunes the whole body to discern and embrace the presence of Christ.

6. It accompanies ortho-praxia. Worship is never right unless accompanied by ortho-praxia, which is right living (practice). The authors ask, "Do we imagine that God will accept our worship if we are blatantly living in ways that run counter to the gospel?" (p. 109). Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced this question when the Nazis began co-opting the German Lutheran church for their own purposes in the lead-up to World War II. His conclusion then was that the church, in capitulating to the Nazis, had lost ortho-praxia and thus its orthodoxia. In his view, it had ceased to be the church of Jesus Christ.

7. It involves community. Right worship is necessarily communal. This insight flies in the face of our individualistic, consumeristic, entertainment-crazed culture where self-centered, superficial commitments are the norm. But right worship only occurs when brothers and sisters who are deeply committed to one another, gather in peace to praise their Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit.
Next time we'll look further at what is touched on in #6, above: right practice (ortho-praxia). This will take us to the important topic of Christian ethics.

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, 6789.

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).

In the view of the authors, this departure from the apostolic tradition has led to churches that are more religious philosophies than real encounters with the living God-man, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, some argue that the church should have the liberty to adapt the the story of Jesus to contemporary culture. But against this viewpoint, Walker and Parry argue that "the early church fought hard to maintain a positive embracing" of the rule of faith and so should we. 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 by the apostles and other early church fathers, is non-negotiable and must not be re-written.

Of course, claims of Jesus' exclusivity 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.