August 18, 2014

Solitude and silence

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

So far, Bonhoeffer has emphasized the corporate practice of the spiritual disciplines. Now he addresses our time alone:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ's call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.... But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.... If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.... Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship (p77).
Bonhoeffer thus emphasizes the importance of personal silence and solitude for the spiritual health of both the individual and the community. For Bonhoeffer, the silence that accompanies solitude does not mean being speechless as though unable to talk. Rather it means willingly keeping silent--particularly as it relates to silence "under the Word." Bonhoeffer comments: "The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him who holds his tongue.... Silence is nothing else but waiting for God's Word and coming from God's Word with a blessing (p79).

Of course, being silent for extended stretches of time is difficult for most of us in this world so full of mindless chatter and empty talkativeness. Therefore, according to Bonhoeffer, silence must be learned and then intentionally practiced as a spiritual discipline: "Real silence, real stillness, really holding one's tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness" (p79). Doing so is worth the effort (and sacrifice), because being silent in the presence of the Lord, before his Word, bears wonderful fruit. "It leads to right hearing and thus also to right speaking of the Word of God at the right time.... After a time of quiet we meet others in a different and a fresh way" (p80).

Times of silence are vital for the spiritual practice of meditation, which, sadly, is absent from the lives of many Christians in our noise-filled world. Some, of course, are fearful to meditate. But as Bonhoeffer notes, rightly practiced, meditation, "does not let us down into the void and abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word.... In so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand and clear directions as to the steps we must take" (p81).

Bonhoeffer encourages us to focus our meditation on the words of Holy Scripture. Doing so leads directly to prayer and from prayer to intercession (a particular prayer focus). All these disciplines occur in the presence of the Lord our High Priest who leads us and carries our prayers, intercessions and thoughts to the very throne of the universe.

Such spiritual practices, of course, take time. And so we are challenged to offer our time generously to the Lord. As has been popularly said in our day, a mature Christian is "too busy not to pray"; not to meditate; not to be silent. Great blessings come our way, and through us to the community of faith, when we take time to practice solitude and silence.

August 11, 2014

Trinitarian theology---Calvinist or Arminian?

Jacob Arminius
John Calvin
Unfortunately, some try to force-fit Trinitarian theology into the continuum that exists between Calvinism  and Arminianism. Doing so overlooks (or at least oversimplifies) the history of Christian theology, which goes back to the Apostles and from there flows in multiple streams, including Orthodox streams in the East; and Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopal and other streams in the West.

Contrary to common misunderstandings held by some (many?) Western Protestants, Calvinism and Arminianism are not the only theological "games in town." Trying to locate Trinitarian theology within the continuum between those dueling theologies is like trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole. The result, often, is badly misinformed criticism of Trinitarian theology.

Martin Luther
In a recent post on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) professor Douglas Sweeney showed how trying to fit Lutheran theology into the Calvinist-Arminian continuum is a similar mistake. He concludes the blog post, titled "Was Luther a Calvinist?" with these words:
The wrong thing to that Lutherans are hesitant Calvinists, or two-and-a-half-point Calvinists, or imperfect Arminians. Lutherans are Lutherans. Their theological frame of reference is not closely related to the Calvinist-Arminian continuum. Lutherans have their own theological history, one that has contributed in major ways to the evangelical movement. 
There are, of course, similarities between all Christian theologies. Trinitarian theology does have common ground with Calvinism and Arminianism. But there are important differences. We do an injustice to all theologies when we try to force them into the grid of another. Instead, we should evaluate each one on its own merits, comparing it principally to the revelation of Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus is ultimate Theology. His person and work (which are inseparable) constitute the complete and final revelation of the true knowledge of God. Every Christian theology, being faithful to the orthodox, historical, Christian faith (as summarized in the early creeds), bears something about this true knowledge of God (i.e. true theology). There are similarities that can and should be noted, and the truths found should be appreciated and embraced. But there are real differences to be noted (without demonizing any of them). Within my tribe (Grace Communion International), we find incarnational, Trinitarian theology to be the most faithful representation of the theology found in the person and work of Jesus--his revelation of the nature and work of God.

The roots of that theology are found in the writings of the Apostles. It was then developed by some early church leaders (most notably Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers--pictured below). These leaders sought to understand the theology that upholds the truth concerning Jesus given in Scripture and through the church's life in the Spirit.

T.F. Torrance
The teachings of these early church theologians greatly impacted the formulation of the Nicene Creed. Their teachings then informed 19th Century theologians like George MacDonald and 20th Century theologians like Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance and J.B. Torrance. Through prayerful study of Scripture and the writings of these and other Trinitarian theologians, the Spirit led GCI to what it sees as a more accurate understanding of the incarnational, Trinitarian theology that underlies the doctrines of the Christian faith.

To learn more about this theology, read GCI's booklet, The God Revealed in Jesus Christ. To learn more about T.F. Torrance, click here to read chapter one of Myk Habet's helpful book, Theology in Transposition.

August 4, 2014

Spiritual disciplines together

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 123, 4, 6.

Last time in this series reviewing Life Together, we noted Bonhoeffer's exhortation for churches to practice together the spiritual disciplines. He mentioned first praying the psalms together. Now we'll look at his emphasis on the communal practices of Scripture reading, hymn singing, praying and partaking of the Lord's Supper. In these ways, the community of believers, by the Spirit, share together in their Lord's love and life.

Reading Scripture together
According to Bonhoeffer, "Holy God's revealed Word." He regards this Word as an integrated whole, comprised of both Old and New Testaments. The Word is connected by "inner relationships...of promise and fulfillment, sacrifice and law, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping," through which, through the Spirit, we are given "the full witness of Jesus Christ the Lord" (p51).

This Word becomes an integral part of community life as the congregation reads aloud lengthy passages of Scripture. The communal practice of Scripture reading stands in contrast to the modern habit of occasionally reading of limited, individual verses (what today we might call "sound bytes")--a practice that falls short in that it fails to reveal the multiple, Christ-centered interrelationships within the Word made evident only as lengthy passages of Scripture are read aloud in community gatherings.

Singing hymns together
Bonhoeffer on guitar
By singing hymns together, the community experiences a shared voice that yields a shared heart (song being the language of the heart). According to Bonhoeffer (who was a pianist, guitarist and singer)...
Where the heart is not singing there is no melody, there is only the dreadful medley of human self-praise. Where the singing is not to the Lord, it is singing to the honor of the self or the music, and the new song become a song to idols (pp58-59). 
As we sing hymns in unison as a community, we "sing words of praise to God, words of thanksgiving, confession, and prayer" that is "completely the servant of the Word...[that] elucidates the Word in its mystery" (p59).

This power of singing in unison should not be lost by having music that is more performance than participation (as is now common in some churches). "It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you [or some solo performer] that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song" (p61).

Praying together
The prayers together are "our word" in response to "God's Word." As people living together under the Word of God, we are led to pray together, in the name of the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Such community prayer will, naturally and importantly include intercession for the fellowship as a whole and its members individually. The one praying those prayers will be praying as a brother among brothers. 

The use of formal, written prayers (like those found in prayer books) can be helpful, but the community must not allow prayer together to become formalized, empty ritual--there needs to be a certain freedom and spontaneity. As Bonhoeffer notes, "the poorest mumbling utterance can be better than the best-formulated prayer" (p65).

Partaking of the Lord's Supper together
Bonhoeffer advocated that a Christian community partake of the Lord's Supper each time it meets. By doing so it receives from the Lord, at his Table, many distinctive gifts, including these:

1) At the Table, we come to know Jesus more deeply as "the giver of all gifts...the Lord and Creator of this our world, with the Father and the Holy Spirit" (p67).

2) At the Table we understand more fully that Jesus is not only the giver of such gifts, but is, himself, the gift. He our divine Mediator and Savior--the one who serves us at the Table with the elements that present anew to us his own renewing, healing life. 

3) At the Table we experience the manifest, personal presence of Jesus. What happens there is far more than symbolic; fare more than ritual. Jesus meets us and shares with us his actual life and love. Grace is imparted in mysterious, though tangible ways. At the Table we truly are nourished by the presence of the Lord himself.

4) At the Table we are reminded of our obligation to others in the community. We receive the bread not as "my bread" but as "our bread." At the Table "we are firmly bound to one another not only in the Spirit but in our whole physical being" (p68).

July 28, 2014

Praying the psalms together

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 12, 3, 5, 6.

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the importance to the church of the corporate use of spiritual disciplines. He begins by emphasizing the importance of praying the psalms together, noting New Testament exhortations for churches to "speak to yourselves in psalms" (Ephesians 5:19) and to "teach and admonish one another in psalms" (Colossians 3:16)" (see p44).

Christ's prayers on our behalf
Bonhoeffer's view is that through the psalms, God speaks (the psalms, like all of Scripture are "God's Word"). And so, Bonhoeffer appropriately asks this: "How can God's Word [in the psalms] be at the same time prayer to God?" (p44). His answer is that we should interpret the psalms as the prayers offered by the man Jesus (the living, incarnate Word of God) to his Heavenly Father on behalf of the Body of Christ (the Church). This idea has several profound implications:
Those who pray the psalms are joining in with the prayer of Jesus Christ....their intercessor.... The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church. Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own. That is why the prayer of the psalms belongs in a particular way to the fellowship. Even if a verse or a psalm is not one's own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth (pp46-47).
Whether together or individually, in praying the psalms, we learn to pray on the basis of Christ's vicarious prayer on behalf of his Body on earth. And so to pray the psalms is to pray with and according to the Word of God. In doing so, we appropriate the promises of that Word, which are prayers of faith--not merely faith in the things that might interest us at the time, or in the things that might address our particular needs at the time, but faith in the things that pertain to the whole Church. Jesus' own faith is being expressed in these prayers on behalf of the whole Church, his Body (see p47).

Imprecatory psalms
But if the psalms are understood in this way as Christ's own words of faith on behalf of the Church, what are we to make of the imprecatory psalms? Bonhoeffer answers by noting that through these particular psalms, Jesus was taking upon himself God's wrath against his enemies. In doing to on behalf of his people, Jesus was acting to forgive our enemies. These are powerful and profound words on the lips of Jesus, for he, in his own mind and body, suffered the wrath of God against evil in order that his enemies and ours might go free. As we pray these psalms together with Jesus, as members of his Body, we share in Jesus' own heart of forgiveness and grace for our enemies and the enemies of all of the people of God through all time (see p47).

Praying together
As noted above, the psalms are particularly powerful as we pray them together as the Body of Christ. Doing so reminds us that our individual prayers are but a tiny fragment of the whole prayer of the Church. When we recite psalms together, we are lifted above our narrow, personal concerns and allowed to pray selflessly (p49). "But," some might ask, "would not such recitation together, on an ongoing basis, constitute 'vain repetition?'" Bonhoeffer's answer is "no"--particularly as we remember that "in all our praying there remains only the prayer of Jesus...The more deeply we [together] grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become" (p50).

We should note here that the psalms are written primarily as songs to be sung by the people of God together. Many are written with lines that were sung (or spoken/chanted) by the "song leader" with lines that follow to be sung responsively by the congregation. Bonhoeffer, being Lutheran, was accustomed to such responsive group readings of the psalms as part of the standard liturgy. But when the Confessing (dissenting) wing of the German Lutheran Church was forced underground by the Nazis in the lead-up to World War II, Bonhoeffer found even deeper meaning and efficacy in reciting the psalms together as part of worship in the small underground house churches that formed in that breakaway movement.

Bonhoeffer (second from left) and others in the Confessing Church movement.
Let us conclude by praying with Christ the words of Psalm 26, a psalm that, no doubt, was particularly meaningful to Bonhoeffer and those he led during that terrible time:
1 Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. 2 Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind. 3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you. 4 I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; 5 I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. 6 I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O LORD, 7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds. 8 O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides. 9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty, 10 those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes. 11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. 12 My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD. (NRSV)

July 21, 2014

The link between theology and mission

Randy Bloom
This post is quoted, with permission, from the Church-Next Training course manual published by Church Multiplication Ministries (CMM), GCI's U.S. church planting arm. The manual was written by CMM national coordinator Randy Bloom. In this section of chapter one, he helpfully outlines the essential (though often overlooked) link between theology and mission.

The Trinity: Loving Communion

According to Scripture, there is one God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three distinct yet unified Persons sharing the same essence, nature, and will. Father, Son, and Spirit live in a perfect, mutually dependent relationship of love. An ancient theological term used to describe this loving communion is perichoresis. Perichoresis attempts to express the interpenetration and co-inherence of the three persons of the Trinity. Perichoresis refers to the eternal “movement of love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” which is expressed in the outworking of God’s purpose to reconcile and renew the world.

The perichoretic life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is dynamic, highly personal, vibrant, and relational. God in his perichoretic being is also creative. Out of his dynamic love, God created people, in his image, to live in communion with him. Jesus expressed God’s desire to live in perichoresis with mankind (John 17:3, 21-23). This passage states that the Father desires to share with all humanity the very same relationship he has with the Son. This desire is ongoing and includes all of humankind, despite the fact that humans have lost knowledge of our intended relationship with God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1-4).

To remedy the loss, the Eternal Son entered into our humanity and assumed it into the eternal perichoresis of the Trinity (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:4-7; Philippians 2:6-8). He redeemed mankind from sin and opened the pathway for all people to know God and to relate to him as his adopted children. Jesus affirms the fundamental purpose for mankind’s existence – to live in personal communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to glorify God for eternity.

However, knowledge of humankind’s intended relationship with God has diminished over time resulting in the concept of a remote God. In addition, many Christians hold an exclusivist view regarding mankind. Rather than viewing all people as connected to the Father through Christ and invited to join in the life of the Trinity, many Christians have developed a dualistic, forensic theology toward non-Christians in which only a select few are beneficiaries of God’s love and grace. In this view, God remains aloof and uninvolved with most people. Many non-Christians are viewed as not being objects of God’s love and grace as revealed in Jesus. Many Christians believe that the majority of non-Christians are predetermined to eternal alienation from God. Trinitarian theology rectifies these misperceptions.

In apprehending the Trinity we not only learn about the perfect, loving perichoretic relationship shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit; we also learn about the love God has for all humanity. Through Jesus, and by the Spirit, all mankind has access to the Father. By sharing in the perichoretic life of the Trinity it is possible for imperfect people to experience the “give and take” elements of relationship with God. In Christ, broken human relationships are healed and people are able to live within God’s
redeemed community.

Implications of Trinitarian Theology for Church Planting

The Father’s Mission
The doctrine of the Trinity is an inescapable foundation for mission. Mission flows from God’s nature and purposes. The roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the salvific work on behalf of mankind are clearly expressed in scripture.

In John 3:16, Jesus declared that he, the eternal Son, was sent by the Father to save the world and reestablish the avenue that was laid out before creation for people to share eternal Trinitarian life. Jesus is the incarnation of the Father’s mission and the Holy Spirit is the agent through which the Father accomplishes the mission in Christ. It is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26; Acts 2:33), who calls and “fills” people for missional work. It is the Spirit who transforms minds and hearts, gives gifts, commissions, guides and empowers people to accomplish the Father’s mission in Christ. (Romans 1:6, 7; Acts 4:31; Acts 13:4; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

The Triune God, therefore, is in his very essence a missionary God. That which is typically understood as the church’s mission is the Father’s mission (Missio Dei). Church planting, therefore, is not centered on the church. It is theocentric. It is defined, directed, energized and accomplished by the Triune God.

Incarnational Living
Jesus’ incarnation set the pattern for the church as it fulfills the Father’s mission on earth. As Jesus was sent by the Father, Jesus sends his church (John 20:21). As the Father revealed himself in his Son who was made flesh, he continues to reveal himself to the world through flesh – his people. The church is called to be with people where they are and as they are, within their cultural contexts. This requires a form of sacrificial social engagement on the order of Jesus himself (Philippians 2:5-8).

Incarnational mission requires setting aside cultural preferences and abandoning nonessential traditions, without compromising core values and doctrines. It requires living within culture regardless of the cost – a willingness to die to self in order to bring forth new life (1 Corinthians 15:35–38).

The Church’s Role
Jesus commissioned his church to continue the mission he began (Matthew 28:18-20). He delineated the primary principles for living: love for God and love for people (Matthew 22:37:38). God’s perichoretic love, as revealed through the doctrine of the Trinity and incarnation of Jesus, is the motivation for the church’s work – not fear, not church growth, and certainly not the perpetuation of tradition or organizational structures.

In 1 Corinthians 3:9-11, the apostle Paul describes Jesus as the foundation for all ministries. The church is Jesus’ “building”; it does not belong to the domain of men. Church planters are co-workers with Christ and they are exhorted to build with care and grace. As the incarnated Son of God did not become human to serve self-interests, Jesus Christ has called the church not to live for itself alone. It is to be in the world and for the world as Jesus was and is in the world and for it. God sends his church into the world as he sent and sends his Son and his Spirit into the world.

The root of the church’s mission is, therefore, the very being of God. It is a matter of God’s being in action through his people in the world. As Christians are included in the Triune life and participate in the divine nature of God, they are included in, and actively participate in, his divine mission. This participation leads to church planting that is focused on revealing and sharing God’s love – sharing the opportunity to enter into Trinitarian communion – within every possible cultural context. This aim glorifies God and expands his kingdom on earth.

Ministry built on this theological framework helps ensure quality results. This foundation leads to healthy, Christ-centered congregations that effectively engage their cultures, make disciples, and reproduce new churches.