September 22, 2014

Examining the origins debate

What does this topic have to do with incarnational, Trinitarian theology? Principally this: the Triune God, who created the cosmos, now sustains it moment by moment. As noted in Scripture, "In him [God], we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). There is no distant, uninvolved, deistic God here.

The Triune God revealed to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ is one who has been and still continues to be personally involved with his creation in the most intimate way. However, in his grace, God does not dictate all that happens to his creation (as though it were a mere puppet on a string). Rather, in and for love (real relationship), God grants to his creation (humankind included) the freedom to develop--or in the words of science (which need unpacking) the freedom to evolve. This freedom to be and to become does not exist apart from God, and thus is said by theologians to be "contingent freedom" (more about that in later posts in this new series).

Gerald Rau
Unfortunately, the origins debate (often more like a war than a respectful debate), tends to unhelpfully and unnecessarily pit science against religion. At times, it also pits one group of Christians against another. Sorting through all the issues in the debate is a huge undertaking--one too big for a blog like this. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to sort through some of the primary issues in a series that will draw from Gerald Rau's helpful book, Mapping the Origins Debate, Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (InterVarsity, 2012). I particularly appreciate Rau's humility and, to the extent that it is possible, his objectivity. Note how Rau concludes the book:
Wars are costly and take resources away from other things [that] time and money and lives could be better spent on... Unfortunately, they seem to be inevitable, a result of our sinful hubris that leads us to believe that we are right and others are wrong, rather than admitting that the truth is beyond our ability to grasp. Doubtless in the end the whole truth will prove far more complex than we can conceive at the moment... [Therefore], let us strive for humility and charity in our dealings with our brothers and sisters (and even those we do not consider family) who hold a different understanding of the issue than we do, realizing that we all see as "through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV) until we see face to face (p190).
I hope that this post, and ones that follow on this topic, will reflect the same reserve and humility. There was a time when I felt quite confident that I had the whole origins thing buttoned down. But the more I learned from Scripture and from science, the more I came to realize that the issue is complex and I know far less about both topics than I had assumed. Rau does us all a favor by mapping out six basic positions (he calls them "models") in the ongoing origins debate. With an even handedness that is admirable, he compares and contrasts these models, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each, all the while looking for common ground.

A key concept in Rau's book is to recognize that each model is framed/influenced by a particular worldview (philosophy/perspective) leading to and grounded in certain presuppositions that influence how people view/interpret the relevant data (be it data in Scripture or from science). Rau explains it this way:
The fundamental thesis of this book is that although everyone has access to the same evidence, the presuppositions implicit in a person' philosophy determine the perspective from which he or she views the data, leading to different logical conclusions about which explanation [of the data] best fits the evidence (p20). 
This concept comes to the fore most significantly when facing the reality that the universe exists, thus raising this fundamental question: Is the universe eternal (i.e. has it always existed) or did it at some point in time come into existence? Rau frames the question this way:
Something external to the universe must have been present--either another source of the matter and energy it comprises or something with the ability to create matter and energy. Put more simply, there are only two logical choices for what is eternal--natural or supernatural (p20).
Related to these two positions are various worldviews with certain deeply held presuppositions. No one in this debate is exempt from this dynamic. Those who hold a naturalistic worldview, "must of necessity postulate a way for matter and energy to be eternally self-existent" (p22). Those who hold a theistic worldview, may have various views of science, depending on how they believe God interacts with the world, and thus the origins debate often pits one Christian group against another, particularly when it comes to interpreting the early chapters of the book of Genesis.

Unfortunately, the origins debate often is framed as science vs. religion, or evolution vs. creation (as though these concepts are hopelessly at odds). But the debate is far more complex than that and there are certainly more than the two positions that fall at the polar extremes of the debate (the ones that often get the most press!).

To some extent, the polarization we see in the debate arises because "science" is a particularly difficult word/concept to define. "There are many types of science, each with its own methods and techniques... [as a result] it is hard to delineate where science ends and some other way of knowing begins" (p23). Moreover, it often is not fully appreciated that the scientific method, by its very nature, necessarily involves three components: presupposition, evidence and logic. Different fields of science utilize different types of evidence with a logic that is specific to that type. For example, historical science studies non-repeatable physical events (including origins). This field is quite different from fields of science that study ongoing events. But in all fields of science, inferences must be made in order to interpret the evidence deemed relevant. These inferences necessarily rely on either deductive or inductive logic.

Inferences arising from deductive logic are either valid or invalid, while those arising from inductive logic are either strong or weak. Inferences related to origins, necessarily are inductive, and thus cannot be absolute--that is, they cannot be shown to be true or false (in an absolute sense). No one was present at creation (using a biblical term) or at the big bang (using a scientific term). Looking at the evidence for this non-repeatable event, we use inductive reasoning to infer what occurred. Those inferences are, necessarily, shaped by our presuppositions--this is true for scientists and for theologians.

Contrary to what I just said, there was a time when it was claimed that science uses only evidence and logic in its work and was thus free from any presuppositions. That claim now is understood by most to be false. "Science cannot be done without some philosophical assumptions or presuppositions" (p26). But lest we religious types get all smug about this, we must admit that we too bring to the debate our own set of presuppositions. The point is that when it comes to the topic of origins, pure objectivity (reasoning apart from any presuppositions) is simply not possible for naturalists or for theists. We all approach the topic with the perspective of a particular theory, and doing so affects both our data collection and our interpretation of the data.

Rau admits that one of the presuppositions of his book (and one I share this presupposition with him--I hold degrees in Christian Studies, Environmental Science and Psychology), it that "ultimately there is a unity of knowledge--a reality that can be known--but we [must] use multiple approaches to seek that knowledge" (p27, italics added). I would add that I find Rau's perspective very much in line with an incarnational, Trinitarian theological viewpoint, for it speaks to the real, dynamic relationship, grounded in freedom, that God has with his creation. However, I acknowledge that this position, itself, cannot be "proven" in a direct way. Rather it is inferred from available evidence, and for me, that evidence comes both from the book of revealed knowledge (Scripture) and from the book of nature (science)--both which tell us important things about the ground of all reality, which the Triune God himself--Father, Son and Spirit.

As we proceed in this series on the topic of origins, we'll see that Rau maps out and then carefully examines six explanatory origins models: 1) naturalistic evolution 2) nonteleologial evolution 3) planned evolution 4) directed evolution 5) old-earth creation, and 6) young-earth creation. Next time we'll begin to define and then explore each one. I hope you'll find this series illuminating, and that you'll come to more fully appreciate the issues involved, no matter which model you personally embrace.

September 15, 2014

The practice of confession

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 1234567, 8.

This is the ninth and concluding post in a series examining Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic book on Christian community. His focus in the last chapter is the practice of confession within the church.

Scripture admonishes followers of Christ to "Confess your faults one to another" (James 5:16 KJV). But as Bonhoeffer notes, many Christians neglect this instruction to their detriment: "He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone," and this despite being together with others in worship, prayer and fellowship. Without confession as part of the practice of the community, its fellowship "permits no one to be a sinner... everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship." The result is people gathered together, yet living alone "in lies and hypocrisy" (p110).

Confession leads to truth and liberation

This unfortunate situation compromises the truth and grace of the gospel, which confronts us and then receives us and forgives us as we truly are: sinners! In that there is true liberation. And so Christian community without confession leads to people who are not being truly liberated--people who are wearing masks to conceal truth, rather than being open about the reality of their sin and finding liberation in Jesus Christ who "gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in his name" (p111). On this point, Bonhoeffer quotes Jesus' instructions to his followers; "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:23 KJV).

Many Protestants are uncomfortable on this point. Can a human forgive sin? Isn't that the purview of God alone? In one sense, yes it is. Sin is against God and God is the one who forgives sin. But Jesus' point (and Bonhoeffer's with him) is that our Lord has given to the church the calling to be conduits of God's forgiveness. And thus the church is called to declare God's forgiveness to people. Make no mistake, doing so represents administering great power and authority--great grace. When a Christian brother stands before another Christian brother who is confessing their sin, he is doing so in Christ's stead, and in Christ's stead he declares the liberating truth of God's forgiveness in Christ. Something very profound, very powerful is occurring here.

As grace-filled brothers receive the confessions of their brothers, they are extending God's word of forgiveness. And as this occurs, the community becomes a place of truth--of openness--of mercy--of real healing. In such a community a person need not hide from the truth of their own sin. They can dare to be the sinner that they actually are. They can begin to see Christ more clearly for who he actually is--a brother who is there to forgive and to help. And they also begin to see other members of the community as brothers who are there to help in Christ's stead. 
[Such a brother] hears the confession of our sins in Christ's stead and he forgives our sins in Christ's name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God. So in the Christian community when the call to brotherly confession and forgiveness goes forth it is a call to the great grace of God in the church" (p112).
Through confession of sin, one brother to another, there is true and profound breakthrough to authentic Christian community, and true transformation of individuals. Sin likes darkness, but when it is brought into the light through confession, strongholds that enslave people in sin are broken: "God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron" (Psa 107:16).

This is a breakthrough person-to-person and also a breakthrough to the humility of the Cross. One of the great sins that holds us enslaved to other sins is pride. But confession demands, and yields humility. In confession we die to self--we let go of self-protective false pride. Bonhoeffer comments:
In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in confession we affirm and accept our cross. IN the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother--which means before God--we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation. The old man dies, but it is God who had conqured him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life (p114).
And so through the death to self-protective self that real confession is, we enter into new life. In short, "confession is conversion...Christ has made a new beginning with us...Confession is discipleship" (p115). On this point, Bonhoeffer quotes Proverbs: "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Proverbs 28:13). He then notes that "What happened to us in baptism is bestowed upon us anew in confession" (p115).

Why confess to a person?

Some might respond to Bonhoeffer's plea for brother-to-brother confession with this though: "I confess to God, not to people" But Bonhoeffer notes that our confessions to God often are merely confessions to ourselves, and as a result we are living in self-forgiveness rather than in real forgiveness, and so the cycle of sin continues. But when we confess to a brother, we can be certain that we are not merely confessing to ourselves, but to God, represented to us by our brother. 
A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light... Our brother has been given me that even here and now I may be made certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace (p116).

Who should hear confession?

Who is qualified to hear a confession of another? Do they need to be a trained psychologist? Bonhoeffer says no. The primary qualification is that such a person lives "beneath the Cross of Jesus: that they be a person who is deeply aware that they too are a sinner saved by grace. Such a person is non-judgmental. Such a person loves the other brother with the merciful love of God that leads through the death of the sinner to the life of the child of God" (p119).

Bonhoeffer also notes that in a Christian community, one person should not serve as the confessor for all the others. When that is the case, there is a danger that the work will become routine and thus an empty sham. Worse yet, there is the danger that it will become a source of spiritual domination.

Confession leading to Communion

Bonhoeffer concludes the book by noting the importance of confession preceding reception of holy Communion. "It is the command of Jesus that none should come to the altar with a heart that is unreconciled to his brother" (p121). It is thus appropriate (even vital) that in the worship services of the community, prayers of confession together with a declaration of forgiveness in Jesus name precede the receiving of the Lord's Supper. But even more importantly, the church that regularly practices confession person-to-person, will find at the Lord's Table true Christian community. Bonhoeffer comments:
Here [at the Lord's Table] the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and his community is complete. The life of Christians together under the Word has reached its perfection in the sacrament" (p122).
Here is a sample order of service that would fulfill Bonhoeffer's goal for the community to begin with confession and proceed to a declaration of forgiveness followed by communion.

Call to Confession. The text here was written by Dr. Gary Deddo.
As we enter now into a time when we are renewed by God’s grace,
Let us remember that, the one who died, the one who was raised for us and our salvation, is our living Lord. His ministry did not end on the Cross. Raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, He remains our high priest, continually interceding for us. He remains the one and only mediator between God and humanity.  
Even here and now, this Sunday morning, he serves as our Great Worship Leader. As his adopted brothers and sisters, He takes us into the very presence of God our heavenly Father. Because of him we can approach the throne of grace boldly as we offer our confession. 
Even in our time of confession, he leads us, serving as our gracious and faithful high priest. He is ready to receive our confessions, sanctify them, and lift them up to our heavenly Father. And day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year he more and more enables us by his Spirit to share more completely in the perfect confession he makes in our place and on our behalf as our Great Substitute who lives now and forever to make intercessions for us.
Please join me in the prayer of confession shown in your bulletin [or on screen, etc]
Prayer of Confession. This is recited aloud and in unison by the congregation. The following sample prayer is quoted from the Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Declaration of forgiveness followed by Communion. The worship leader begins by declaring God's forgiveness--typically in prayer like this example adapted from the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,
strengthen us in all goodness,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.
Communion is then served with an appropriate invitation and with prayers of consecration/blessing.

September 8, 2014

Ministries of the Word and authority

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 123456, 7, 9.

The previous post in this series noted Bonhoeffer's call for the practice of meekness as essential to the health of a faith community. He goes on to discuss the related practices of listening to one another (Christians, particularly Christian leaders, too often speak before listening, p97), helping one another, and bearing one another's burdens--including one another's sins though the practice of unconditional forgiveness (p102).

The Ministry of the Word

When these ministries of grace are in place, "the ultimate and highest service can also be rendered, namely, the ministry of the Word of God to others." Because this ministry is often abused within the church, Bonhoeffer gives this warning:
[Speaking the Word is] that unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another person, bespeaking the whole consolation of God, the admonition, the kindness, and the severity of God. The speaking of that Word is beset with infinite perils. If it is not accompanied by worthy listening, how can it really be the right word for the other person? If it is contradicted by one's own lack of active helpfulness, how can it be a convincing and sincere word? If it issues, not from a spirit of bearing and forbearing, but from impatience and the desire to force its acceptance how can it be the liberating healing word? (pp103-104)
Ironically, as we listen, serve and bear with one another, few words will likely be needed. Indeed, the discipline of holding one's tongue often is what is needed most. Bonhoeffer comments: "[Having] a profound distrust of everything that is merely verbal often [appropriately] causes a person's word to a brother to be suppressed" (p104). But doing so is hard for preachers, who are professional speakers! It's also hard for those who are inclined to dominate verbally.

The Ministry of Authority

With those thoughts in mind, Bonhoeffer goes on to address the topic of authority within the church. He begins with a quote from Jesus, the living Word of God who bore all the authority of the universe: "Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister" (Mark 10:43, KJV). He then goes on to make a lengthy and vital comment:
Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even thought these be an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community, indeed, it poisons the Christian community. The desire we so often hear expressed today for "episcopal figures," "p[priestly men," "authoritative personalities" springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. There is nothing that so sharply contradicts such a desire as the New Testament itself in its description of a bishop (1 Tim. 3:1ff). One finds there nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The bishop is the simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire.  
...Genuine authority realizes that it can exist only in the service of Him who alone has authority. Genuine authority knows that it is bound in the strictest sense by the saying of Jesus: "One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren" (Matthew 23:8, KJV). The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren... The church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but by the word of the Good Shepherd. 
The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word (pp108-109).
 May all of us who bear authority within the body of Christ heed these words of wisdom!

September 1, 2014

Preparing for Advent and Christmas

He will come again in glory
It's now September, which means that Advent, followed by Christmas, is not far away. It's likely that those who lead the church in worship are already preparing. This post may be of help. 

The Advent/Christmas season celebrates (in this order), the future, present and past "comings" of the incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ ("advent" from Latin "adventus," means "coming"). These celebrations begin a new cycle in the church's annual worship calendar in much of Western Christianity.

For an incarnational, Trinitarian perspective on the meaning of this important season, together with other resources to help with preparation, click here. (Note: the first Sunday of Advent in 2014 is November 30).

Remaining flesh, the man Jesus comes to us now through the Spirit 
Through the Incarnation, the Son of God came to us in the flesh

August 25, 2014

Holding one's tongue, practicing meekness

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 12345, 6, 89.

In chapter 4, Bonhoeffer addresses the topic of ministry within Christian community. He begins by noting an evil that quickly arises in community: a spirit of competitive, self-justifying judgmentalism. It arose early on among Jesus' own disciples: "There arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest" (Luke 9:46). Because this spirit quickly destroys fellowship, "It is vitally necessary that every Christian community... face this dangerous enemy squarely, and eradicate it (p90). But how? Bonhoeffer suggests several remedies, all related to spiritual disciplines that help us minister (serve) in truly Christ-like ways. We'll cover two of these disciplines this time and more later. 

1. The discipline of holding one's tongue

According to Bonhoeffer, an important and effective antidote for the insidious poison of self-justifying judgmentalism is to hold one's tongue: 
....The spirit of self-justification can be overcome only by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin.... He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body (James 3:2ff). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him... To speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when in it seeking to create mischief" (pp91-92).
Bonhoeffer notes James' related admonition:
Speak no evil one of another brethren, He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law; but if thou judge the law, thou are not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who are thou that judgest another? (James 4:11-12).
And then he quotes Paul:
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers" (Ephesians 4:29). 
Bonhoeffer comments:
Where this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. His view expands and, to his amazement, for the first time he sees, shining above his brethren, the richness of God's creative glory. God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God's image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God's free and sovereign creation. To me that sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it (p93).  
Rather than looking down on others because they are different, we should rejoice in the diversity that God has placed within our faith community, and make a place for each to serve:
Each member of the community is given his particular place, but this is no longer the place in which he can most successfully assert himself, but the place where he can best perform his service (pp93-94).

2. The discipline of practicing meekness

Leadership and other forms of service within the church is not about position or "the use of domination and force" (p94). Rather it's about serving others with grace, in meekness. To be a true servant of the fellowship requires first learning to think little of oneself. As Paul said, let no man "think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Romans 12:3). On that point, Bonhoeffer quotes Thomas a Kempis:
This is the highest and most profitable lesson, truly to know and to despise ourselves. To have no opinion of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others, is great wisdom and perfection.
Bonhoeffer then comments:
Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself. He will know that his own wisdom reached the end of its tether when Jesus forgave him.... Because the Christian can no longer fancy that he is wise he will also have no high opinion of his own schemes and plans. He will know that it is good for his own will to be broken in the encounter with his neighbor. He will be ready to consider his neighbor's will more important and urgen that his own. What does it matter if our own plans are frustrated? Is it not better to serve our neighbor than to have our own way? (pp94-95).
But if everyone in the community exemplified this attitude of meekness, how would the word of God ever be declared in power? How would authority be administered within the community? These are meaningful questions, and we'll address them next time when we'll continue discussing the topic of ministry in Christian community.