Tag Archives: Church

Scripture on Sunday: James 2:2-3

James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)
James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)

James 2:2-3
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet…’

James has introduced his primary point in verse one: Christian faith is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. Verses two and three form the first part of a conditional clause, a twofold protasis (the if statement), with verse four supplying the apodosis (the then statement). Together these verses provide an illustration of James’s point.

Verse two, then, presents an image of two men, one obviously rich and the other obviously poor (note that James explicitly refers to the second man as “poor” (ptōchos)). This judgement is made on the basis of their contrasting appearance: the rich man is dressed in fine clothes, wearing gold rings, while the poor is dressed in shabby clothes and has no corresponding emblems of wealth. Although the descriptions are generic, so that we cannot identify either man as either Roman or Jewish, Christian or non-Christian, Moo suggests that the description of the wealthy person might identify one belonging to the Roman “equestrian” class (81). The “fine clothes” (esthēti lampra) of the rich person suggests fabrics that are “bright” or “shining,” and so speak of luxury, elegance or even flamboyance. In contrast, the poor man’s clothing is rhypara—shabby, dirty or filthy (cf. 1:21).

Both men have come to the “assembly” (synagōgēn), a term used to denote a Jewish place of assembly for the purposes of worship and instruction. That James uses the word without the article may signal that he is referring to the people assembled rather than the building itself (Vlachos, 69). The word does highlight the Jewish character of James’s listeners, although it is likely he is referring to a Jewish Christian assembly, a position McKnight favours, noting also that James refers to your (hymin) assembly (183). Peter Davids, however, is not so sure. Davids notes that apart from this instance, synagōgēn is never used in the New Testament as a description of a Christian meeting, and so argues that in fact, the occasion envisaged by James is not a Christian meeting of worship, but a church-court, an assembly in which the two men are the litigants in the process (109). It seems most commentators are content to see this as a more generic description of visitors to a Christian worship service.

The third verse now adds another layer to the conditional clause by introducing a third party: “you,” that is, the assembly to whom James writes. Just as there are two visitors entering the assembly, so there are two responses on the part of the others present. They pay special attention (epiblepsēte) to the one dressed in fine clothing, and offer him as it were, the “best seat in the house” (hōde kalōs – “here, in this good place”). They also address the poor man, but dismissively, telling him he can “stand over there” or “sit here at my feet,” or literally, “under my footstool” (stēthi ekei ē kathou hypo to hypopodion mou). In contrast to the favoured treatment and position afforded the rich man, the poor man is humiliated and marginalised.

The scene is now set for James’s application to be delivered in verse four. Before moving to that verse, however, it is helpful to address two important issues. First, is this simply a hypothetical illustration with no basis in reality? The structure of the sentence as a conditional clause suggests a hypothetical case, but the blunt accusation of verse six (“but you have dishonoured the poor man”) also points in the direction that this, if not an actual case, is representative of the kind of behaviour that has actually occurred in the assembly. Further, Vlachos notes that the plurals used in verse three indicate that the attitude is that of the group, and not simply of the leaders or other individuals involved (70).

The second question concerns whether the men involved in this little story are Christians. While we cannot know for sure, we must note that James does not refer to the well-dressed man as “rich,” a term he often uses when referring to those who are not Christians (see, for example, 2:6; 5:1-6; see also my comments on 1:9-11). Thus it may be that James has in mind a rich Christian who is a member in the assembly. But it could also refer to a rich fellow Jew or rich gentile visiting the assembly, though one who not yet a Christian. It probably does not affect the interpretation of our passage: the members of the assembly are courting the favour of this rich person simply based on his appearance and evident wealth, and conversely, they disparage the poor man on the grounds of his appearance. In view of his principle in verse 1, for James, such behaviour is inappropriate and unconscionable.

“The Humanity of God”

God-and-AdamThis lecture, delivered by Karl Barth on September 25, 1956 at a Swiss Reformed Ministers Association meeting, is the second lecture in a little collection of three lectures bearing the same name. Barth begins the lecture with an opening statement that defines what he means by this intriguing and provocative title:

The humanity of God! Rightly understood that is bound to mean God’s relation to and turning toward man. It signifies the God who speaks with man in promise and command. It represents God’s existence, intercession, and activity for man, the intercourse God holds with him, and the free grace in which He wills to be and is nothing other than the God of man (Barth, The Humanity of God, 37).

That is, Barth’s ascription of humanity to God is a metaphor intended to emphasise the utter grace of God in God’s relation towards humanity. Barth is not saying that God is actually “human,” as though he were humanity writ large, or as though he were actually human with no remainder.

The introduction and first section of the lecture function as a kind of “retraction,” or more accurately, a correction. Barth recalls the fundamental shift, the 180o change of theological direction whereby forty years earlier he and his companions repudiated the major features of nineteenth-century theology and struck out on a new course. What they sought was a mighty reaffirmation of God’s deity, the “godness” of God over against what they understood as the anthropocentric theology of their forebears. Now Barth confesses, “We were wrong exactly where we were right” (44). It is not that Barth wants to lose this emphasis on divine sovereignty—far from it! But in and of itself, it is insufficient for it does not convey with necessary precision the full truth of who God is:

See the moon in yonder sky?
’Tis only half that meets the eye.

The fulsome emphasis on God’s transcendent deity meant that God’s “humanity” was left undeveloped. Barth still wants to assert the godness of God, though now with an emphasis also on God’s humanity.

The second section of the lecture then insists that the humanity of God is seen and known only in the place where God—in his deity—has given himself to be known; that is, in Jesus Christ. There is no abstract God just as there is no abstract humanity: here, in Christ, both true deity and true humanity are revealed. Nevertheless, Barth resolutely maintains the ordering of God’s deity vis-à-vis his humanity, but just as resolutely insists on his real, actual and genuine humanity. All this comes together in what I call a “purple passage”:

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in his one person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God. He is the Word spoken from the loftiest, most luminous transcendence and likewise the Word heard in the deepest, darkest immanence. He is both, without their being confused but also without their being divided; He is wholly one and wholly the other. Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus he comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love, and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus he attests and guarantees to man God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude.  Thus he establishes in his person the justice of God vis-à-vis man and also the justice of man before God. Thus he is in his person the covenant in its fullness, the Kingdom of heaven which is at hand, in which God speaks and man hears, God gives and man receives, God commands and man obeys, God’s glory shines in the heights and thence into the depths, and peace on earth comes to pass among men in whom he is well pleased. Moreover, exactly in this way Jesus Christ, as this Mediator and Reconciler between God and man, is also the Revealer of them both. We do not need to engage in a free-ranging investigation to seek out and construct who and what God truly is, and who and what man truly is, but only to read the truth about both where it resides, namely, in the fullness of their togetherness, their covenant which proclaims itself in Jesus Christ. …

Beyond doubt God’s deity is the first and fundamental fact that strikes us when we look at the existence of Jesus Christ as attested in the Holy Scripture. … In the existence of Jesus Christ, the fact that God speaks, gives, orders, comes absolutely first—that man hears, receives, obeys, can and must only follow this first act. In Jesus Christ man’s freedom is wholly enclosed in the freedom of God (46-48).

God does not exist in majestic isolation in and for himself, utterly free from all that is not God. God’s freedom is freedom to love (48). God is free not only to be God, mighty, majestic and exalted but also lowly, a servant, human. The mystery of God includes God’s determination not to be without humanity, but with them; not to be against humanity, but for them. God determines to love us, to be our God, our Lord, our Preserver and Saviour, and as such, God is human (50-51). “His free affirmation of man, his free concern for him, his free substitution for him—this is God’s humanity” (51).

The final section of the lecture develops some implications of the humanity of God, including:

  1. A real distinction is bestowed on every human person, entirely on the basis of grace. Every person is loved of God who is their father. Their humanity is God’s gift, and so must issue in the practical acknowledgement of every person’s human rights and dignity (53).
  2. Theology finds its focus and message in the humanity of God, for theology is determined by its object. Theology is not about God in himself, nor human existence in and of itself, but about the “history, dialogue and communion” of God with humanity and humanity with God—and in this order.
  3. Because the covenant is “history, dialogue and communion” theology also finds its character and form: that is, theology exists as prayer and proclamation, as responsive address to God, and as the address of the great news of God’s love to all others.
  4. The message of the church is the joyful, positive announcement of God’s affirmation of humanity. Certainly God’s No is inevitable, but it has been borne by Jesus Christ. Barth refuses to deny or confirm the idea of universalism, but trenchantly insists that “this much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ” (62).
  5. Finally, God’s turn toward humanity calls forth and awakens a company of people who respond to God in worship, praise and service—the church.

We should be ashamed of Jesus Christ himself, were we willing to be ashamed of the church. What Jesus Christ is for God and for us, on earth and in time, he is as Lord of this community, as King of this people, as Head of this body and of all its members. … We believe the church as the place where the crown of humanity, namely, man’s fellow-humanity, may become visible in Christocratic brotherhood. Moreover, we believe it as the place where God’s glory wills to dwell upon earth, that is, where humanity—the humanity of God—wills to assume tangible form in time and here upon earth. Here we recognize the humanity of God. Here we delight in it. Here we celebrate and witness to it. Here we glory in the Immanuel… (64-65).

Roger Olson on Authenic Christianity

OlsonRoger has posted a good little list on his blog about what constitutes authentic Christianity. The first item on the list is negative: that is, it stands as evidence against authentic Christianity…

The very first thing I look at is how much the church reflects the culture around it. I don’t mean in its facilities; I mean in its ethos. In America that means: To what extent does the church reflect consumerism, materialism, competition to “get ahead” of others, “success in life” as defining status, tolerance and self-esteem as goals, and “American exceptionalism?”

Another item on his list is certainly challenging:
True community manifested by sharing lives and property is another mark of corporate Christian authenticity. By “sharing property” I don’t mean communalism or collectivism but the practice of taking care of each other, hospitality, holding loosely to “personal property” so as to meet the genuine needs of others in the church.
What do you make of his list?

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:18

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:18
In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

The first question to be asked of this verse concerns whether James is writing with respect to the creational or redemptive work of God. If verse 17 is understood in a creational sense, it is possible to read this verse in the same way. Humanity, generally, has been created in the divine image by God’s word of command to be the first amongst God’s creatures. In our comment on the previous verse, however, we concluded that although the text could be read in a creational sense, it is better to understand it in terms of an exhortation to the believing community. So here, James uses language that elsewhere in the New Testament refers to God’s salvific work. The “word of truth” refers to the message of the gospel (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:7), which, more broadly, is understood as the instrument by which men and women are brought to faith and so to salvation (cf. Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25). The emphasis on divine sovereignty in this verse echoes Paul’s similar emphasis in Ephesians 1. The broader context of verses 13-18 suggests that James is piling up reasons for why his hearers should not blame God for the trials they experience. God’s will and activity toward us has ever been gracious and kind. God does not tempt us with evil, not only because his goodness is incapable of evil, but because such an act would also be counter to his ultimate purpose, which is to establish his people as the paradigm of his intent for the whole creation. God does not will evil, sin and death, but life.

“In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth” (βoulētheis apekyēsen hēmas logō alētheias). βoulētheis is an aorist participle meaning “by an act of will, deliberately” (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 692). The use of the aorist participle with the verb indicates that God’s action was the outworking of his logically prior determination. The implied subject of the verb (apekyēsen) is the “Father of lights” from verse 17. Salvation, a premier example of a “good and perfect gift,” has its ground in the divine purpose and intent. If James’ messianic community has experienced salvation, it is because God has purposed it; the whole emphasis is on God’s purpose and God’s activity, and so on grace. As such, this verse could have been written by Paul, and undermines the idea that James has a soteriology of works rather than grace.

The verb itself is daring, for apekyeō is properly applied to a female, and literally means to give birth (from kyō, to be pregnant). The image is applied metaphorically to God—the “Father of lights” gives birth!—and is almost certainly deliberately used by James here in contrast to its previous use in verse 15. Whereas human desire leads to sin which gives birth to death, God’s will gives birth to new life and new creation (see McKnight, 129). The image of salvation as new birth is found elsewhere in the New Testament in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, in John 1:13; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, and in 1 Peter 1:23. Although it is common to think of being born again in personal and therefore individual terms, McKnight (130) argues that the “us” (hēmas) in this text, refers to the messianic community which God has “delivered” into the world. McKnight’s emphasis is a helpful corrective, and a reminder that while salvation is personal, it is neither private nor simply individual, but has a corporate intention and public aspect. Indeed, McKnight goes on to say that,

The “new birth” of James is both intensely personal and structurally ecclesial: God’s intent is to restore individuals in the context of a community that has a missional focus on the rest of the world (131).

This intent comes more fully into view in the final phrase of the verse, “that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (eis to einai hēmas aparchēn tina tōn autou ktismatōn). With this phrase, the whole saving purpose of God comes into view, and God’s salvific work is identified as the fulfilment of his creational activity. Because God has his eye on the whole of creation, he has brought forth the community of God’s people. They are the “first” of the harvest, and the promise of the full harvest which is yet to come. In the Old Testament, the first fruits belonged to God, whether the firstborn in a family, the first animal of the herd, the first grain of the field (see, e.g., Exodus 13:1-2; 22:29-30), and had to be offered to God or otherwise redeemed. As the first fruits of his creation Christians are God’s treasured possession, the first harvest of his intention that the whole creation shall be renewed and redeemed. God is giving birth to a new creation and believers, having been brought forth by the gospel, are the first fruits of this renewed world. It should be noted that the New Testament uses the idea of regeneration both with respect to the salvation of individuals and of the cosmos itself (see, e.g. Titus 3:5; Matthew 19:28; cf. Acts 3:21). The Father of lights has not abandoned his creation but is leading it towards its consummation.

That God’s intent is the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) does not imply universalism, especially in James, where the threat of judgement is very prominent and directed especially against the rich. Rather, and this picks up McKnight’s insistence that the messianic community has a missional focus, the redeemed community is to function as a picture of God’s intent for all humanity, and as the instrument by which God will continue his harvest. This reminds us of the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, where God called Abram because he had his eye on “all the families of the world.” So God has brought forth the church, not simply to be the sole recipient of his goodness and blessing, but that through the church, his every good and perfect gift might also be directed to every creature. Such a gracious God is not leading people to fall as some in the community seem to be asserting (v. 13). Rather, the good and gracious God is one who strengthens them to endure the test that God’s purposes for them and for the entirety of the creation might be realised (Davids, 90).

Now Available on Kindle!

Church as Moral CommunityI have just discovered that this truly exceptional book is now available on Kindle for only $33.89 – what a bargain for such an outstanding work! Buy it here!

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From the back cover:
Before Karl Barth gained global recognition as an acclaimed theologian, he served as pastor of a small congregation in the Swiss village of Safenwil. In this book Michael O’Neil opens a window into the world of Barth-the-pastor as he wrestled with the great themes of the gospel and its proclamation and application in the midst of devastating social upheaval and change. Barth’s theology is pastoral theology; his dogmatics are a Church dogmatics, a theology in service of the life and ministry of God’s people. O’Neil shows that Barth’s early insights into the gospel are every bit as relevant in the early twenty-first century as they were in the early twentieth-century.

Let Barth’s moral vision inspire and challenge you to live for Christ in a challenging world: read the book!

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:9-11

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:9-11
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away .

The Great Reversal
Our study of this passage has concluded that it is a continuation and specific application of the theme commenced in verse two. That is, one of the major tests being experienced by James’ community concerns the issue of poverty and wealth. But this is not simply “an issue,” such that it might be considered apart from the actual life-setting and life-experience of the community. James’ listeners are suffering, a poor and despised group in an unfamiliar land. Further, their faith in Christ has isolated them from the help they might otherwise have received from the Jewish diaspora community. Perhaps they face the temptation to curry the favour of their wealthier kinsmen; perhaps also the temptation to relinquish their faith in Jesus the Messiah and return to the synagogue. It is clear from 2:1-6 and 4:1-3 that the community is at least distracted if not riven with such attitudes and conflicts.

Further, I have argued that the syntax of vv. 9-10 requires that we read James’ exhortation to the rich as addressed to the rich believer. While the poor may rejoice in that they have been exalted, the wealthy are given arguably the more difficult task: to rejoice in their humiliation. James is using dialectical language to set forth the inherent tension the believer experiences. On the one hand the social and financial reality of each group remains unchanged with respect to their position in the broader society. On the other hand, James envisages a day when there shall occur a “great reversal” in the fortunes of the poor and the rich whereby the poor will be exalted in reality, and the rich, especially those who have acted unjustly (5:1-6), will be humbled.

James’ words echo a theme common in the Jewish tradition and which also found expression in the teaching of Jesus, especially the Lukan version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). Here Jesus looks forward to the eschatological dénouement in which the great reversal will take place. Mary, too, celebrates this hope in her prophetic song, although now the reversal is spoken of as already fulfilled:

He has done mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble (tapeinos). He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-53).

(Scot McKnight (96) rightly draws attention to the impact Mary had on the fledging Christian community through her two sons.)

Thus, James’ eschatological horizon provides the grounds for why both the poor and the rich might rejoice. The poor look forward to the coming kingdom in which all things will be made right, and the rich likewise rejoice in that they have now discovered that the coming day will not be the terror to them it might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, this exaltation and humiliation are not simply eschatological, for already the poor are exalted, and already the rich are humbled. What might this mean, since it is evident that their socio-economic status remains unchanged?

Here James’ dialectic has a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although future in itself, the great reversal issues in a radical transformation here and now in one’s own perception of oneself, and in the community. Here and now there is a re-ordering of expectation, of desire, of value, and of relationships on account of the new reality which has arrived in Jesus the Messiah, and which will be enacted in the eschatological judgement. Here and now the poor are welcomed as honoured, indeed, primary members of the kingdom community. Here and now the rich embrace humiliation, precisely by entering into solidarity with the poor and despised Jesus followers. The Christian community enacts on the historical level the hope to be realised in the kingdom of God. It is becoming a community in which one’s identity is founded, not on one’s socio-economic status, but on one’s status in Christ. A trans-valuation has occurred with the values and priorities of the earthly city giving way to the values and priorities of the heavenly city. James has a vision of the eschatological kingdom which exists not only in the future, but impinges upon the present, and presses toward expression in the community of God’s people, here and now.


Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #2

Time Cover BarthToday I continue to post some observations drawn from Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts which I highly recommend.

The living and true God, the high and holy God, the transcendent and immanent God, the one God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ, God the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, God the Wholly Other, the Good and Gracious God who has come to us and judges and calls us in Jesus Christ: this God was the centre of Barth’s existence, from whom and towards whom he lived. It was the reality of this God who ever stands over against us which drove Barth’s break with the Liberal theology of his student years, and it was the knowledge of this God revealed decisively in Jesus Christ that continued to drive his innovative theology over the course of his career.

Dismayed by the capitulation of all but one of his Liberal teachers to the war policies of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, Barth and his friend Eduard Thurneysen knew they could no longer follow this theology, and so sought a “wholly other” foundation for theology (it was Thurneysen who first used the famous phrase). They tried starting again with Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel, but found them more and more dissatisfying. In the end, they turned again to Scripture and found, “Lo, it began to speak to us.” Barth began his career with exegesis, especially of Romans, and it was this work which catapulted him into public awareness. For much of his career he taught not only theology but also New Testament exegesis. His Church Dogmatics abound with extended passages of biblical exegesis and exposition. About to be expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1935, he said in his final words to this students:

We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! I had plans for the future with other colleagues who are either no longer here or have been away for a long time – but there has been a frost on our spring night! And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given us (259).

Theology and Church
Theology, of course, is what Karl Barth is most well-known for. This was not only the field of his expertise, but also his passion. As early as 1902, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, and on the eve of his confirmation, ‘I made the bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time’ (31). Theology, for Barth, is a human endeavour of response to the Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ. It is faith seeking understanding, the free and joyful science of God who has given himself to be known by us. It demands our very highest, deepest and most concentrated thought, and yet it is still grace if we come to know God at all. Indeed, as Barth struggled to grasp how he might arrange and structure the doctrine of reconciliation, ‘I dreamed of a plan. It seemed to go in the right direction. The plan now had to stretch from christology to ecclesiology together with the relevant ethics. I woke at 2 a.m. and then put it down on paper hastily the next morning’ (377). Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation (Church Dogmatics IV/1-4) is seen by many as a modern classic—and its outline came in a dream!

The Church Tower at Barmen
The Church Tower at Barmen

But theology, for Barth, is a discipline in and for the church, and indeed, for the entirety of his career Barth remained a man of the church. It is no accident that his major work is called Church Dogmatics—he had changed the title from an earlier attempt which was titled Christian Dogmatics. Barth wanted to make sure that theology is an activity of the church, and that the church rather than the academy was the proper locus for theology, although theology could legitimately be undertaken in the university so long as it remained true to its proper theme and method. Barth did theology to support and inform the proclamation of the church, and throughout his career pastors and preachers remained amongst his most avid readers. If only that remained true today! Theology is not an end in itself, but exists as a ministry of and to the church that it may be faithful in its other ministries of preaching and teaching. In so doing the church remains a teaching church and a hearing church, the place where God’s gift of revelation continues in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the church is thereby continually formed and reformed, gathered, built up and sent.

Not only is theology in and for the church, but as Busch makes crystal clear in his account of Barth’s life, theology is also and simultaneously in and for the world. Theology is done in the world as well as in the church, for God’s Word comes to us as people in the world and God’s call makes us responsible to the world. For Barth, then, theology and ethics belong indissolubly together, and always in this order: right thought about God issues in right thought about the world and the church’s life in the world, and so generates an active life in correspondence to the active God revealed in Jesus Christ. Barth lived an active life in the world. During his Safenwil pastorate (1911-1921) he was known as the ‘Red Pastor’ because of his socialist convictions and activity on behalf of the poor workers in his village undergoing industrial transformation. He was deeply involved in the Confessing Church and the theological and ecclesial resistance to Hitler. After the war he pleaded for the forgiveness of the Germans and participated actively in its reconstruction, and was just as deeply involved in the politics of the Cold War, at odds with his many friends on both sides of the Atlantic because he refused to be caught up in anti-Communist fervour, but instead sought to support the church living under Marxist regimes.

The King Jesus Gospel

Scot McKnightMcKnight, S. The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011); 184 pages; ISBN: 978-0-310-49298-6

Have Evangelicals “got the gospel wrong?” Scot McKnight thinks so, arguing with strong language that “Evangelicalism that focuses on decisions [instead of discipleship] short circuits and—yes, the word is appropriate—aborts the design of the gospel” (18). The problem, McKnight contends, is that many Evangelicals equate “gospel” and “salvation” or more particularly, “justification by faith,” and that this reductionist gospel deconstructs the church. “I think we’ve got the gospel wrong, or at least our current understanding is only a pale reflection of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles. We need to go back to the Bible to find the original gospel” (24).

McKnight does just that with two chapters on the apostolic gospel in the letters of Paul and Peter’s preaching in Acts, plus two more chapters on Jesus and the gospel, and the Gospel in the gospels. Using 1 Corinthians 15 as his primary text, McKnight details eight observations of Paul’s gospel, which together comprise the fundamental content of the apostolic gospel. This gospel is the announcement of the story of Jesus as the saving news of God, and as the climax of Israel’s story. The content of the gospel is Jesus, this particular person who is Messiah and Lord, Son and Saviour—King. In light of this content, then, the four gospels are the gospel par excellence, setting forth the story of Jesus and communicating the central features of the apostolic gospel. These central features also show up in the apostolic proclamation recorded in Acts, though McKnight notes two important innovations; first, Paul contextualises his proclamation in gentile contexts with a nuanced account of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s story, and second, gospel proclamation in Acts included a potent summons to repentance, faith and baptism.

McKnight is careful to distinguish the gospel itself from the salvation which flows from the gospel. His argument is that the ancient church extrapolated 1 Corinthians 15 into the rule of faith, and then the creeds. That is, the creeds exegete and expound the apostolic gospel. In the Reformation, however, the focus of faith, theology and preaching became the personal appropriation of and response to the gospel. Although a legitimate development in its context, this led in the post-Reformation period to a truncated gospel in which the gospel was wholly encompassed by this focus.

The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions—Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist—was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility (71).

King-Jesus-GospelMcKnight argues that the as a result of the Reformation, the gospel story was reframed in terms of the individual and against the church as the mediator of grace. The key innovation in this reframing was the central place given to the doctrine of original sin. McKnight perhaps overstates his case here. The reframing of the gospel through the lens of original sin occurred long before the Reformation. Nevertheless his central point stands: the reframing of the Christian story in terms of original sin and personal justification provided the theological context for the religious individualism which came to full flower in revivalist pietism, and especially so in the American context with its particular individualistic ethos.

In Evangelicalism, argues McKnight, the gospel has been equated with personal salvation, and proclamation of the gospel with the enumeration of a “Plan of Salvation” in one form or another. This reduction of the gospel to being a story simply of “salvation” has eviscerated the gospel. The heart of his concern becomes apparent in the following paragraphs:

When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off the  story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation.

There’s more. We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story from a story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person—me—and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism (62).

Reducing the gospel to a series of abstract propositions tears us from the story that not only frames the gospel, but is the ground of our identity, vocation, and hope in Christ. It becomes concerned narrowly with personal salvation and morality rather than the lordship of Christ in all of life. As such, it deconstructs the church because there is no inherent or necessary link between a gospel which aims simply at decisions or “conversion,” and discipleship.

What response can be made to these claims? First we need, I think, to recognise the legitimacy of McKnight’s critique where such reductionism is concerned. How prevalent this reductionism is, I cannot say, though I can witness to having seen much of it in the Evangelicalism I have experienced over the last thirty years. Second, what is to be done? The answer to this question is the focus of the final two chapters of the book “Gospeling Today” and “Creating a Gospel Culture,” in which McKnight argues for a robust narrative proclamation of the gospel that sets forth the Lordship of Christ and summons people to respond, so that they may not only be forgiven, but restored to their true humanity and vocation which was defaced and lost in the Fall. The church thus becomes integral to the gospel proclaimed, and salvation a life of following Jesus in the company of God’s people. In all this McKnight does not deny the necessity of personal response and decision with respect to Jesus’ lordship and the work accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. What he does deny is that this decision and response can be abstracted from the overarching story of Scripture and concrete participation in a life of discipleship.

I suggest there is more to be said here about the role of the church in the economy of salvation, especially if the church is no longer to be viewed as a voluntary society. Although the deconstruction of the church was one of his major concerns, McKnight has not developed these points here. Those churches and traditions with a strong ecclesiology, and a covenantal and/or sacramental theology already have the resources to navigate this relation. I suspect that McKnight will be drawn in these directions as he continues to develop his thought in this area.

This is a good and relevant book, addressing an important and probably widespread misunderstanding, and written in a popular and colloquial style for an audience who are unconcerned with academic conventions or critical approaches to Scripture. Its chief virtues are its clear-sighted focus on the issue, its careful delineation between his position and the one he critiques, and its prominent use of Scripture to explore the issues and make its case. I can envisage pastors referring to this text as they help their congregations understand, live and share the gospel.

Diaspora Judaism: Analogy for the Post-Christendom Church? Part 2

"Leaving Zion" Detail from the Arch of TitusYesterday I posted a piece on Diaspora Judaism, and asked whether patterns of life in Diaspora Judaism might serve as an analogy for being the church in a post-Christian environment? There are obvious differences between the contemporary church and Diaspora Judaism, especially the fact that Diaspora Judaism was at its core, an ethnic community with common ancestry, custom and heritage. Perhaps, though, the contemporary church might learn from the success of Diaspora communities which managed to maintain their distinctive identity and faithfulness, sometimes for centuries, in the midst of a foreign and sometimes hostile environment.

Paul Trebilco identified several key features which sustained Diaspora Judaism, including their legal status within the Roman world, which offered some degree of protection from local persecution. Other features identified may offer some insight into how the church might retain its unique and distinct identity and ethos…

1. The local community
The community itself was central to life in the Diaspora. It was here that ethnic Jews found the acceptance, identity, value, friendship and support they needed to live faithfully in foreign and sometimes hostile environments. Community life included weekly gatherings, regular feast and fast days, and financial contributions, all of which helped reinforce their distinctive identity and lifestyle, and bond them together in solidarity.

Trebilco emphasises the social significance of the local community and weekly gatherings. It is, perhaps, this aspect of community life which is more difficult to nurture in a post-Christian context. Majority-culture Christians are typically highly assimilated with so many relational opportunities, that participation in the local Christian community loses its impetus and value. We simply do not need the community the way the Diaspora Jews often did. One strategy to alter this circumstance is to intentionally nurture the relational and social aspects of community life, so that genuine friendships and supportive relationships might occur. More important is the fundamental shift of one’s core identity to being essentially Christian. If being a Christian is our core identity, we will more naturally gravitate toward and value the community.

2. Endogamous Marriage, Parenting and Re-socialisation
Diaspora Jews by and large married within their own ethnic group, and raised their children as Jews, passing on Jewish traditions and heritage from generation to generation. Proselytes and others seeking entry into the community were re-socialised, learning the ways of the community and adopting them as their own.

I don’t know how easily these could inform contemporary Christianity. When I married it was almost assumed that a Christian would marry another similar-brand Christian. I am not sure that is still the case, especially for Christian women, for whom the options are often quite limited. This key feature of Diaspora Judaism points to the necessity of ministries that support and nurture marriage and family life, including the raising of children in an environment of active faithfulness. I suspect this will become increasingly important as marriages and families continue to suffer the stress and breakdown which characterises the contemporary West. I suspect that it will also become an important aspect of Christian witness.

The ancient church had a strong tradition of re-socialisation: new converts received extensive mentoring and catechesis before finally being baptised and accepted into the full life of the community. This period of instruction and training was designed to help converts learn and adopt the beliefs and practices which sustained the community in the midst of the hostile Roman empire. Many voices are calling for a restoration of such practices in the church today.

3. The Torah
Regular instruction in the Law was a key element in the weekly synagogue and laid the foundations of Diaspora identity. Trebilco makes the interesting observation that Moses was seen as a “skilful lawgiver, a profound philosopher, a noble king, a supreme military commander, miracle worker and priest” (298). This indicates to some degree, the assimilation of teaching to categories of thought common in the surrounding culture.

The more important observation, of course, concerns the centrality of Scripture to identity, community and life formation. Personal and communal transformation requires extensive and intensive engagement with the texts of Scripture, learning together to inhabit the world of the biblical text, and to embody that world in the daily realities of life.

4. Visible Practices
Trebilco identifies the importance of Jewish dietary laws, Sabbath-keeping and  circumcision as “key boundary markers of Jewish identity, with great social significance” (298). The first two, in particular, were highly visible commitments which distinguished Diaspora Jews from their countrymen, and reinforced their distinctive identity. The third, perhaps visible in the context of public baths, constituted, says Trebilco, a strong affirmation of Jewish identity for men. I find the visibility of the Diaspora community intriguing.

Perhaps the closest analogue to these practices for the contemporary church is gathering for public worship, followed closely by practices of gathering for common meals. Other practices could be such things as serving the poor or other good works in the public sphere. In any event, visible identification with the cause of Christ will effectively enhance one’s core sense of Christian identity.

5. The Fundamental Commitment
Finally, Trebilco notes the fundamental belief which underlies the entire structure of Diaspora Judaism, including even the core reality of ethnicity: monotheist belief in the one God of Israel, whose people they are. Belief that this God was the “God of Israel” implicated them ethnically. Belief in the one God entailed the rejection of all other so-called gods, idols and cults.

In the post-Christian environment in which we now live the church will continue so long as there are people whose identity is grounded in the reality of the divine grace by which we have been chosen and called, that is, those whose our existence is a response to this God who has given himself to us in Jesus Christ. An essential difference also emerges here: Diaspora Judaism was inherently an ethnic community; with the revelation of God in Christ, we understand God in universal terms and not simply as God of the Jews only. Diaspora Judaism grew by procreation and occasional proselytes. The Christian community is commanded to make disciples and so to grow by conversion as well as by procreation. It is a Diaspora community characterised by mission.