Monthly Archives: February 2012

Conservatives, Liberals and Diversity

Neo-Anabaptist Scot McKnight has written a response to a recent Slate article entitled “Liberals: Don’t Homeschool Your Kids.” The primary argument of the Slate article is that #homeschooling can never be progressive because homeschooling by its decentralized nature cannot serve the needs of society at large.

McKnight counters that a diversity of perspectives benefits a polyglot society more than the monolithic perspective a 100% compliant public school system would foster. He writes,

Aren’t we better off in a society that draws on folks who got different sorts of education? Some progressives seem to think a diverse society is one where every 14-year-old in America arrives at school, pledges allegiance to the nation’s flag, takes out an American history textbook shaped by panels of bureaucrats in California and Texas, and proceeds to be guided by a teacher with a state issued credential in how best to pass a standardized test. Who is celebrating diversity, the champions of putting every kid in the education wonk’s vision of the ideal classroom, or the folks who want some kids to start their day interacting with multi-ethnic classmates while others start their school day praying and still others learn about raising backyard chickens?

It is interesting to me that liberals/progressives generally claim a monopoly on embracing diversity, when my understanding of conservatism (based largely around the local agrarian insights of a Wendell Berry or, dare I say, Thomas Jefferson) is based precisely around preserving specific instances of diversity.

As McKnight summarizes, “society as a whole requires people who challenge the prevailing system if it is to identify the few who can offer new insights.” Clipped from its context defending homeschooling as one choice among many (and McKnight emphasizes that it may not be the best choice), this could be part of any progressive mantra.

What do you think? Who has the corner on diversity? Is either homeschooling or its eradication more likely to benefit society as a whole?



Review of The Jesus We Missed by Patrick Henry Reardon

Thomas Nelson publishers sent me a copy of Patrick Henry Reardon’s new book, The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth about the Humanity of Christ, for review.  I was not required to give a positive review.

Patrick Henry Reardon has written a book that lightly embraces the idea of a historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life without deviating from orthodox Christian belief. He states in the introduction that nothing he states in the book should be construed as contradicting the great creeds of the church about the nature of Jesus as 100% human and 100% divine.

Rather than contradicting the creeds, Reardon examines what that 100% humanity consisted of. He does historical work, arguing for hypothetical sources for various traditions within the New Testament. In particular, he highlights the role that Jesus’s mother Mary may have placed as a chronicler of his life.

The result is a very comfortable, comforting work for Christians. I found the work enjoyable to read, but unchallenging, in much the same way that Rich Mullins’s music characterized Jesus’ life. Where Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew did much the same work, Yancey seemed to feel he was writing rebellious, seditious material. Reardon’s writing doesn’t feel that way; it feels affectionate. The picture of Jesus he paints is the kind of man we would mostly enjoy being around.

Reardon arranges the material roughly chronologically, following along with a conflated gospel account. As such, I would recommend the book as an introduction to the gospels or a commentary on them. I would also recommend the book to reflective Christians with a slight intellectual bent. The strength of Reardon’s analysis for me is probably his focus on how Jesus read the Old Testament and developed his self-understanding from it. Jesus read of the suffering servant in Isaiah, for instance, found his identity there, and followed it.

Preaching the Whole Gospel?

A rallying cry in the Reformed community is the place of the gospel in the sermon.  According to a widespread and conventional view in the Reformed
churches, a sermon is only properly called a sermon if its subject is the gospel.  Any passage of scripture preached on must be mined to find its oblique reference to Christ.  This led Nietzsche to cynically applaud Christians for their ability to find a cross in every piece of wood, and a resurrection in every cave.

But Luther was emphatic on this point, and when his parishioners asked him why we preached the gospel every single week, he responded that “I preach the gospel every week because every week you forget it.”

So mainstream Evangelical preachers like Rick Warren are criticized for “not preaching the gospel.”  I am not familiar enough with Warren’s sermons to comment on this point, though I plan to download a few from the website to listen to and hear for myself.  But I would not be surprised if I discover in them aspects of the gospel that my Calvinist brothers and sisters would not recognize as the gospel.

I (clearly) do not name myself as belonging to the Reformed stream.  My roots are equally in the Anabaptist tradition (the so-called Radical Reformation, though this can become confusing) and in Wesleyan thought.  And this is perhaps the point of the widest divergence between the Reformed traditions and other Christian streams: not free will vs. determinism, not individual vs. corporate election, but soteriology: the doctrine of salvation.  What does it mean to be saved, and what does that salvation consist of?

And on this point, I feel that Calvinists think of the gospel as both too much and too little.

Adding to the gospel

Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright have both argued from opposite contexts (one a neo-Anabaptist, who blogs out of Portland coffee shops, and the other an Anglican bishop who writes 1000-page tomes out of abbeys and anchorages in Canterbury) that contemporary Christian teaching has confused the gospel with the message of salvation.  The gospel, they have both concluded, is simply the message that Jesus has completed the Old Testament story of Israel, ending their exile and reestablishing the people of God around a new temple in himself.  It is the message of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, his enthronement as the Son of God, the rightful king of all the earth.  The message of salvation (“how we get saved”) follows from that, and that’s where discussions about justification, regeneration and imputation come in.  But those discussions are not the gospel; they follow the gospel.

Many of my Reformed friends say very explicitly that if someone does not believe in imputed righteousness, for instance, they do not believe the gospel, and I think that’s a category mistake.  Where is this gospel presented in Acts 2, when the church made three thousand converts?  Where is this gospel in 1 Cor 15, when Paul says, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you,” and then goes on to cite the word he preached, which amounts to saying that Jesus was dead, buried, resurrected and many people saw him?

So I am concerned that in some cases the gospel is being added to and weighed down, when we tie the message about Jesus with our beliefs about how the message of Jesus functions to reconcile us to God.

Yet subtracting from it?

And the deep irony is that in doing this, we are at the same time undercutting the scope of the gospel, which is not just about getting out of hell free.  The gospel is a message of cosmic importance.  It is not just about saving human souls, getting them safely off to heaven when they die.  It is about redeeming the whole creation, every particle of it, and sanctifying human life and (even) community, every aspect of it.  God doesn’t care only for the soul, but for the whole person.

Here I think a comparison of Left Behind and some statements from John Wesley is instructive.  I believe Left Behind is a work that could only emerge from a Reformed tradition (in this case sort of quasi-reformed, as both its authors are Southern Baptists).

The Left Behind books were extremely evangelistic, and present their salvation message repeatedly, beginning within the first four pages of the first book.  Here is their first and most representative account of what salvation means: “Saved people aren’t good people, just forgiven.”  Salvation here has only to do with forgiveness, not with being people who “live holy lives.”

John Wesley, on salvation: “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, the way it is popularly talked about, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven. But a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity, a recovery of the divine nature, the renewal of our souls. I mean that God actually changes us here to be ready for that future.”

Left Behind shows its Calvinist view of salvation particularly in who salvation is open to.  There are numbers and quotas.  In the sixth book of the series, we’re informed that less than 25% of the world was raptured, and the books stress that there are set limits of how many will convert during the seven year period between the rapture and the end of the world, for instance, among the ethnically Jewish, there will be 144,000, no more and no fewer.

Wesley, by contrast, believed that God empowered all to accept salvation, if they choose to turn to God.  He did not believe all would be saved, but believed all could be saved.  He believed “the love of God from which comes our salvation is free in all and free for all.”

But we can really see how Left Behind limits the scope of the gospel by asking what salvation does.  Is it just for the soul, or is it for all aspects of life?  What changes when someone is saved?  In Left Behind, it is primarily a change of status, being moved from one list to another.  Then, when you die, your soul goes to heaven instead of hell: one of the books is even titled “Soul Harvest.”  In another book, salvation is described like this: “Those who have trusted Christ have been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, so that when they die physically they remain alive spiritually and are never blotted out.”  One of central themes of the Bible, resurrection, is not hinted at as part of what salvation.

For Wesley, on the other hand, God cares about human life as a whole, body and soul.  He wrote in a letter, “It will be a double blessing if you give yourself up to the Great Physician, that he may heal soul and body together. Unquestionably this is God’s design. He wants to give you, my dear Mrs. Knox, both inward and outward health.”  God cares not only about your soul, but about your body, mind, emotions and relationships.  There is no “health-and-wealth gospel” here, as Wesley realizes that not all things will be perfect, and  thatsuffering is part of the bargain (“take up your cross and follow me”).  Further, Wesley recognized that the gospel is for all of creation, including animals.  God raises all things up.

John Calvin actually did believe in the presence of animals in the afterlife.  He didn’t want to, but he was convinced that the way to read scripture was to take its plain meaning, and there is just too much talk of animals in the new creation to ignore.  So Calvin creatively posited that there would be animals in the afterlife, but that they would exist in a physical world on which humans would only gaze from heaven, like a kind of free-range zoo.  For Wesley, animals, the creation and humans were interrelated in such a way that God would raise them all together, as a redeemed whole.  And because God cares about the whole creation, so should we.

But my point is this: the neutered gospel of Left Behind is the logical conclusion of the way that the gospel is conflated with the message of salvation in Reformed circles.  Many Reformed Christians rise above their doctrine in the same way many atheists live good lives despite their nihilism.  But the gospel as a message of how to get saved is simply insufficient to the whole scope of the gospel message.

So what about our sermons?  Is it incumbent on us to make the message of Christ’s kingship the subject of every sermon?  Is there no room for sermons exploring the ramifications of that enthronement, sermons about the role of the church in the city, or in the nation?  Sermons about restoring relationships?  Granted that these all these must be shaped around the cross of Christ, but are they not subjects worth preaching about in their own right?

What do you think?

From Outside the Mainstream: a very basic context for the Church of God

There was a clearly identifiable mainstream Christian bloc at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. It was the precursor of modern evangelicalism, and identified largely with the Evangelical Alliance, an alliance primarily of socially influential Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches (src).  Many Christian groups could not accommodate themselves to this mainstream.  Historian Sydney Ahlstrom identifies five streams of Christianity that either already existed or developed during this time that found themselves in conflict with the Protestant mainstream.

The first were the developing agnostics, free religionists, socialists and others who left the church altogether to develop alternative forms of thought and values.  The developed out a specifically Christian context, but left the institutional churches.  The second group consisted of more moderate liberals and “social gospelers” who attempted to adapt Christianity to what they saw as more urgent modern needs. This stream led to many Christian organizations and parachurch ministries like the Salvation Army and YMCA.  The third group Ahlstrom identifies is the cluster of those churches who either due to ethnic background of some “special revelation” had always remained aloof from the Protestant mainstream: Mormons, Christian Scientists, Mennonites, Unitarians, Catholics and black churches.  The fourth group was a large movement within the churches who resisted innovations such as critical method and rejected the move toward theological liberalism and the passing of Puritan moralism.  This group called itself Fundamentalism, and makes up a good deal of the current Evangelical mainstream.

The fifth group Ahlstrom describes more fully:

The fifth and final group effected a more distinct separation from mainstream Protestantism than most Fundamentalists sought. A desire for a rebirth of life in the Spirit often led its adherents to schism and sectarian withdrawal. Its chief doctrinal concern was sanctification, and the “gathered” communities which it founded were Holiness or, if more radical in their innovations, Pentecostal churches.  Finding its adherents chiefly among the disinherited and the uneducated, this movement was primarily a protest against the birthright church membership and a Protestantism that had settled for a religion of conformity, middle-class respectability, and self-improvement.  Since the Wesleyan emphasis on Christian perfection was very prominent in its teaching, the Methodist church was deeply involved in the attendant strife. Many of these sectarians, however, came to share the Fundamentalist’s concern for biblical inerrancy, and Christ’s Second Coming often loomed large in their thought.

The largest of the church movements that sprang from this stream called itself the Church of God reformation movement, and locates its ministry headquarters today in Anderson, IN.  The movement is more significant worldwide than within the United States, and more than half of its people (Church of God rejects the language of church membership) are found in South America and India.  It is this church movement that I am happily a part of.

Another historian, John W. V. Smith, however, feels that Ahlstrom overstates the significance of the Methodist element in the holiness movements.  Many other streams at the time emphasized holiness, including the Finney revivals and the Oberlin theology.  George Winebrenner was extremely influential in the early formation of the Churches of God (then so-called), and was himself Reformed, though the Churches of God soon rejected Calvinism and declared themselves Arminians.  Part of this was due to their rejection of creeds and their taking of the “Word of God as their only rule of faith.”

Winebrenner replaced the emphasis on doctrine with an emphasis on ecclesiology.  He said,

It was agreed, as the unanimous sense of the meeting: First. There is but one true church; namely, the Church of God. Secondly. That it is the bounden duty of all God’s people to belong to her, and none else. Thirdly. That it is ‘lawful and right’ to associate together for the purpose of cooperation in the cause of God.

As such, the Churches of God opposed membership and denominational loyalty.

Eventually the Churches of God collapsed into various sects, each one taking with them the name of Church of God.  Three of these exist today, the two most prominent being a Tennessee pentecostal church, and the Church of God reformation movement of Anderson, IN.  When I speak of “Church of God” it is the latter group that I refer to.

The Church of God was pioneered by Daniel S. Warner, whose main divergence from Winebrenner was his embracing of Anabaptist social postures.  So by this time the lines had so crossed and converged that Warner’s Church of God could be criticized by Methodists for their anti-denominational stance, by other anti-denominational holiness groups for their pacifism, and by other pacifist groups for their support of Wesleyan notions of total sanctification.  And despite a hundred years of distance between us and Warner, those lines are largely intact.

The Horse and the Rider

Detractors of Christian nonviolence often point to one of the central images of
Revelation as a counterpoint to the straightforward commands of Jesus to his followers to love even their enemies and do good to those who would harm them.  In one of its most extreme permutations, we have Mark Driscoll saying,

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

But Revelation consistently relates depicts Christ’s beat-up form as normative, as it refers to him over and over as the lamb, the lamb that was slain.  As Richard Hays has said, “A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion.”  Revelation, taken as a whole, seems to depict a pacifist church seeing its members killed off by an oppressive tyrant, while singing hymns to a God who was himself tortured to death by an oppressive tyrant.    The task of the church seems to be to wait and hope.

So what do we do with the sword and the rider?  Even when we notice that the followers of the Lamb do not participate in any kind of battle but are simply to remain faithful, are we left with the idea that Jesus will do our dirty work for us?  It’s not so clear.

Notice that it is specifically the “the Word of God” being depicted in chapter 19 as the rider, and that the sword is not held in his hand (contra Driscoll), but comes from his mouth.  Notice also that the phrase sharp (double-edged) sword is the same one used elsewhere to refer specifically to scripture, which is also called the Word of God.  It seems that the tyrant is overthrown not by steel but by truth, truth so powerful the author can only depict it in martial imagery.

As Willard Swartley summarizes,

Christian resistance – not returning evil for evil, but a willingness to suffer for the cause of Jesus Christ – echoes the central theology of other parts of the NT. What Revelation adds is the central figure of the slain Lamb. The paradoxical image of victory through suffering love forms the heart and soul of Revelation’s christology. Suffering love marks the authentic followers of the Lamb.

Swartley then cites with approval a passage from Walter Pilgrim,

The Apocalypse adopts a stance toward the state that is radically different from the two other New Testament traditions. Here we find an understanding of the political structures as d

ising resistance. emonic, historical embodiments of injustice and evil. In response, the church is encouraged toward an ethic of uncomprom

What do you think?  Does Revelation depict a pacifist churc

h, waiting and hoping for God’s action?  Does Revelation depict a military Jesus, whipping up support for a grassroots militia?  What is the central message of what is likely the most political book of the New Testament?