Wednesday, December 5, 2007

More Blog Commentary on the AEF Conference

Here are comments on the AEF Conference from InterVarsity Press's Al Hsu (The Suburban Christian) and North Park University's Scot McKnight (Jesus Creed). Read more!

The Biblical Story and Stem Cell Research

One of the hallmarks of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future is the primacy of the biblical story over all the other narratives that try to tell us who we are and what the world is about.

Evangelicals almost always turn first to the Bible when they have a question or are trying to meet a contemporary challenge. But we often fall into proof texting rather than using the entire sweep of the biblical story to inform us. Likewise, we frequently use biblical passages as if they were written in our own day with our own society’s issues in mind. It takes time and effort, but it is worthwhile to look at the whole story and to try to make explicit all the links in the chain of connection between the biblical story and our own time.

At the moment, I’m attending a consultation on Human Embryonic Stem Cell research in Pasadena, California. One of the participants is Allen Verhey, who taught at Hope College for many years and moved to Duke Divinity School in 2004.

In his paper, Allen tries to look at medical research (including stem cell research) in the light of the whole biblical story and not just the familiar proof texts evangelicals got in the habit of quoting when they got entered the abortion debate in the late 70s and early 80s.

Allen contrasts the biblical story with other accounts of reality, including “the Baconian project” (Science and technology are the saviors that deliver us from the world's evils) and “the Capitalist project” (The market saves us from our ills).

He begins his account of the biblical story by noting that most Protestants who want to support stem-cell research start with an appeal to Jesus’ healing ministry. That is a noble place to begin. Jesus was a compassionate healer and so were the apostles. If that text gives us our orientation, it “forms a readiness to celebrate the research, including stem cell research, that may provide help for the sick and suffering,” writes Allen.

But let’s not stop there, he says. The story of creation “orients us both to turn from idols and to delight in the creation as a gift of God.” But what happens when nature (the creation) becomes our enemy (as it does when disease threatens)? And what happens when technology (including medical technology) becomes an idol? At times, the creation story helps us to resist that idolatry. But at other times it helps us to roll up our sleeves and bring nature back into line. It takes wisdom to know in any given moment which we are to do.

We also find in the story of creation respect for human dignity and for natural relationships. Human beings are not mere animals but are made in the image of God. We are also created to be social creatures who form marriages and families and societies. When it comes to medical research, this means that we cannot reduce other people simply to their bodies or their organs, which may be fascinating subjects for research but which are not ours to commandeer.

Clues from the Jesus Story

Now let’s turn back to Jesus. “The stories of his conception and birth point us toward a high regard for and generous hospitality to nascent life,” writes Allen. The application of that orientation to embryonic stem cell research will be familiar to evangelicals.

When as we look at Jesus’ ministry we see that he was not only a healer, but a preacher of “good news to the poor.” That means that when we confront questions of medical technology and scientific advance we need to be oriented to issues of fairness and “the effects of research and development on the lives of the poor.”

And then we look at Jesus’ death. This story (among the many other things it does) calls us to “a readiness to share suffering,” not just to eliminate suffering as modern scientific culture pushes us to do.

The biblical story ends with “God’s good future.” We’re not there yet, but we must always keep that in view as we struggle with contemporary challenges.

Allen summarizes his survey of the biblical story this way:

These orientations ... do not always point in the same direction or towards the same conclusion. Until the good future of God we will live with moral ambiguity. The Bible does not provide a code for research, but it does form a community capable of moral discourse and discernment.

Now, if you’re looking for the Bible to always deliver clear answers to your questions, Allen's summary may not be very satisfying. But mature Christians know that you can’t always expect the ancient text to give you a quick and easy answer. That’s why Jesus promised that we’d have the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth.

Notice what Allen says about how the Bible forms “a community capable of moral discourse and discernment.” Our task as a Christian community is to be formed by the biblical story, to engage vigorously in moral discourse, and under the guidance of the Spirit to practice discernment. That is not an individual task, but a communal one, and like much of what happens in community, it may have a longish timeline.

* * *

The ideas in Allen’s paper were also covered in his book Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine (Eerdmans, 2003).

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

More AEF Conference Links

There was tremendous intellectual and spiritual energy at the 2007 Ancient Evangelical Future conference, which ended at noon yesterday.

Thanks to "Desert Pastor" Chris Monroe for liveblogging the event. Here are the rest of his posts.

2007 AEF Conference: Evening Worship
2007AEF Conference: Scot McKnight
2007 AEF Conference: Edith Humphrey
2007 AEF Conference: Panel Discussion #3

If you want to order CD's of the talks and the panels, you can contact the Grow Center at Northern Seminary.
Read more!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The 2007 AEF Conference Begins

Yesterday afternoon and evening, I emceed the opening sessions of the Call for An Ancient Evangelical Future (AEF) Conference at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.

We had some thought provoking papers by Kevin Vanhoozer and Scot McKnight based on the first article of the Call (“On the Primacy of the Biblical Narrative”) and some lively, engaging panel discussion.

Check out the notes and video clip from live blogger Chris Monroe (a.k.a. “Desert Pastor”) at

Here are his entries so far. (Watch for further posts on presentations by Scot McKnight and Edith Humphrey.)

AEF Round Two

2nd Annual "Ancient Evangelical Future" Conference Begins

2007 AEF Conference: Kevin Vanhoozer

2007 AEF Conference: Panel Discussion #1

2007 AEF Conference: Evening Worship

Read more!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dr. Luther, Rapmeister

Last week the e-newsletter from brought me a chuckle.

The lead cartoon featured a pastor talking to his worship leader. “Okay,” says the pastor to the guitar-clutching musician. “We’ll do the rock service, but forget about rapping the Nicene Creed.” (Oh, the challenges of "blended worship"!)

As soon as I had chuckled at the cartoon, I realized there was a historical precedent. Others had already had set the creed to rhyming, rhythmic verse, hoping to make it memorable for worshipers. Tobias Clausnitzer (1668) and Cyril V. Taylor (1941) are among the lesser known writers to attempt this. The most famous was clearly Martin Luther (“We All Believe in One True God,” 1524).

* * *

Now Martin Luther didn’t write rap. Rap is not just rhyme and meter. Rap is also improvisation (and therefore a vehicle for personal statement and an opportunity to show off just a bit).Yet Luther, like rappers, placed a premium on the words over the music. Among his many hymns were didactic songs that helped the people learn their faith.

Luther’s Shorter Catechism is well known as a brief and digestible guide to the faith. It was organized around what he considered the basics: The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar. If one understood these things, one could be an informed believer. One would be equipped to understand the gospel and to resist superstition.

It isn’t surprising then that Luther would also write a hymn to convey each of these truths. The American Edition of Luther’s Works comments on his Ten Commandments hymn (“These Are the Holy Ten Commands”):

We have become so accustomed to think of poetry as an expression of the personal feelings and emotions of the writer that we cannot conceive of a merely “utilitarian” use of poetry. Hymnody in our own age has been defined as “lyrical religion.” We find it difficult to think of a merely didactic hymn without sentimental overtones.

But Luther proceeded from different premises. Very soberly he thought of the hymn as a means of instilling the Word of God in the people. While some of his hymns were born out of his most personal experience and reflected the struggles and victories of his own faith, others were mere versifications of the Catechism.

His setting of the Creed seems a little less didactic than the Ten Commandments hymn, because it is the bold declaration of a common faith.

We all believe in one true God,
Maker of the earth and heaven,
The Father who to us the power
To become his sons hath given.

But the didactic purpose is still blended with the joyous celebration of truth.

Luther relied on an earlier medieval attempt to versify the Creed, but that poem tried to cover the creed in a single stanza. Luther expanded the structure to three stanzas to reflect the three parts of the Creed, one for each person of the Trinity. That larger structure required more material, and so he infused the hymn with additional truth (as in the brief excerpt above, where he inserted the idea from John 1:12 that we have been given the power to become children of God).

Luther wasn’t just interested in teaching the faith; he was interested in teaching the young. He was worried about the things that seduce young people away from the faith. And so he explained in a preface to a 1524 hymnal:

These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young—who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts—something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and teach them something of value in their place.

That makes him sound like one of the architects of Youth for Christ in the 1950s!

Hats off to the Reformer dude, Rapmeister Martin.

* * *

P.S. So what do I think about rapping the Creed? Well, the main thing I have against it is that rap isn’t a communal form of expression, while the Creed is the statement of a community of belief. But if we all had a good enough sense of rhythm, we might be able to rap it together.

* * *

Concordia Publishing has published a 4-CD set of Luther's Hymns, Ballads, and Chants. You can here a short bit of "We All Believe in One True God" here and another excerpt of "These Are the Holy Ten Commands" here.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

The Church Next to the Godiva Chocolate Shop

At lunch today, my wife and I were discussing ecclesiology. (Does that happen only in our family?)

The subject came up because we had both read an op/ed by Kyle Wingfield, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe.

Wingfield lives in Brussels, and he wants us to know that, for many of the Europeans he has met there, “it's not God who is dead to them as much as it is The Church—the official, often state-supported church, be it Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran.” He then shares his personal experience with a nontraditional church called The Well.

The Well, with its rock-oriented music, would in some ways feel familiar to many American evangelicals. But here’s what wouldn’t feel familiar: it doesn’t meet in its own building, but it uses several decentralized meeting places—including a restaurant called Jesus Paradise and a tavern called La Chaloupe D’Or, billed on the church website as “close to the Godiva chocolaterie.” (Well, count me in!)

The entire 120-member church meets together for worship only once a month. The rest of the time, they meet in these satellite sites.

In a tavern or restaurant, just anyone can happen by. And, Wingfield says, such serendipity is much more likely to occur in the settings chosen by The Well than if the group were to meet in a designated church building.

It's far less intimidating for newcomers to visit a public space with a dozen or so other people than a normal "church" with pews and a steeple and a hundred strange faces. In the course of our gatherings, we also meet people who were just going out for coffee and probably wouldn't have wandered into a sanctuary along the way.

That’s where my wife and I started talking about ecclesiology. “Is it church when confused people get together to discuss religion?” she asked. “Or does church require belief, commitment, and participation in worship?”

I said, the church should fundamentally be a gathering of the committed. And those who are committed should be trained to help the confused sort out their questions.

This tension between meeting the needs of the confused and the nurture of the committed is, of course, not new. It was present in the mid-1970s rise of the seeker-sensitive church, which minimized elements of traditional worship in order to appeal to the unchurched. The tension continues in mainline denominations that want to be so inclusive of everyone and so tolerant of everything that they can’t tell the difference between hospitality and inclusion. (See my review of Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality and my interview with author Carolyn Westerhoff for more thoughts on this mainline Protestant trend.)

From Closed Doors to Public Square

The early church met behind closed doors. That made sense in a truly hostile culture where being a Christian could cost you your life. When it was finally able to meet in public, the church became not only a sacred institution but a civic one as well, with its meeting places prominently located on piazzas. In that new role, what the church gained in openness it lost in distinctiveness.

In a comparatively indifferent culture, some kind of alteration of the barriers makes sense. Barriers to inclusion shouldn’t be erased, of course. The Well’s website says that “at its core, church is people, coming together, becoming more like Jesus than they were before.” True, but not complete. At the heart of Christian life and Christian community, there are things that don’t make sense without study, commitment, and participation. Christian communal life cannot exist apart from common prayer, common confession, and Communion. These are things that unbelievers cannot join in. Because of the nature of the church, there will always be insiders and outsiders.

Placing key elements of church life out in public view is an important part of Christian witness in a secular and indifferent culture. A group like The Well can maintain its distinctiveness from Europe’s post-Christian culture. It can be open and welcoming at the same time. Maintaining that tension consciously and conscientiously will be an important challenge, because without the things that make Christian life distinctive it may be a great opportunity for discussion, authentic sharing, and witness. But it won’t be church.

Nevertheless, bless The Well and similar groups across Europe for engaging in this experiment.

* * *


Article 4 of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future defines some of the essentials of the church’s worship.

The Well is a project of Christian Associates International, which has church plants in 15 European countries and aims to have planted 50 “high impact churches” by 2010.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What J. P. Moreland Really Said

In a recent post (“Over-committed to the Bible?”, Nov. 16), I agreed with several points made by J. P. Moreland in a paper he presented at the Evangelical Theological Society.

I relied on a report by CT’s Ted Olsen, to which J. P. Moreland has now responded. He calls Olsen’s summary “generally fair,” but he says that “because it is still a summary,” it “could not provide the needed context for understanding [his] paper.”

Since the lay audience has now heard about his paper, he has made it available on his website. Read his argument and evaluate it for yourself.

The church and the Bible

In my previous comment, I said that the church was the missing element in Moreland’s picture of evangelical “over-commitment” to the Bible. Now that I’ve read his paper, I need to refine that.

J. P. is clearly calling for scholars to conduct their search for the truth (whether in biblical or extra-biblical areas of research) for the sake of the church. And when he talks about evangelicals who take the Bible as the sole authority for and source of truth, he quotes earlier authoritative evangelical statements that portray the Bible not as the sole authority but the supreme and final authority. In that context, the church and tradition are also mentioned. The church is not missing from his paper.

Moreland portrays evangelical over-commitment to Scripture as a reaction to the shift in our universities and our culture away from the search for an integrated understanding of knowledge and from a commitment to cognitive notions of truth.

By and large, Evangelicals responded during this shift by withdrawing from the broader world of ideas, developing a view of faith that was detached from knowledge and reason, and limiting truth and belief about God, theology and morality to the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. If I am right about this, then Evangelical over-commitment to the Bible is a result of the influence of secularization on the church and not of biblical and theological reflection.

But the point I made in my November 16 post, I believe, still stands. Evangelical over-commitment to the Bible (as Moreland carefully defines it) is also the result of our abandonment of our heritage of reading the Bible with the larger church.

Martin Luther read the Bible in innovative and intensely personal ways, but he was still in dialogue with all that had come before him. Luther read the Bible in conversation with the church. Somehow over the centuries that got transformed into the idea that just any Christian, disconnected from past and present believers, could read the Bible, know precisely what it meant, and try to use it as the sole authority for truth.

If we could recover the habit of reading the Bible in conversation with past and present believers, all the while paying attention to the inner testimony of the Spirit (Calvin), it would go a long way toward curing the ills Moreland has diagnosed.

Read more!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Two Paths Through the Old Testament

Advent 2007 hovers on the horizon, and I am planning this year’s music of judgment, hope, and expectation for my congregation. This particular Advent, parishes in the Episcopal Church will be adopting the Revised Common Lectionary, instead of the more traditional lectionary found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It was voted by General Convention, and so it shall be.

At first glance, the lessons for the four Sundays in Advent don’t seem that different from what we heard before. The main difference comes during the long season that stretches from Pentecost to Advent, the beginning of the next liturgical cycle.

On these Sundays, two sets of Old Testament lessons are made available. One is traditional, with the Old Testament passage chosen to highlight some aspect of the Gospel reading for the day. The other is, well, not new-fangled, but different. It provides for a more continuous reading of the key Old Testament stories so that preachers have the opportunity to expound their way through the stories of Abraham and Joshua and David—and Deborah and Ruth, as well. The profile of the women of the Old Testament has been raised.

Some have complained about disconnecting the Old Testament reading from the Gospel reading, and their complaint has good grounds. Ever since the beginning of the Christian movement, Jesus' followers have read the Hebrew Scriptures through the window of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Luke 24 tells how the risen Christ explained the Scriptures to two followers who did not yet have eyes to see.

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” 27 Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Compare that to John 5, where Jesus tells his contemporaries:

39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Early Christians adopted that filter in their reading of the Hebrew Bible, even before they had assembled the various Letters and Gospels into what would become the New Testament. Look at the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts, and you will see that their fundamental message was based on the way Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the words of the prophets. This sometimes required them to read the Law and the Prophets and the Writings typologically, so that something that is said of Aaron or David or Melchizedek is applied to Jesus.

This was not, by the way, foreign to contemporary Jewish ways of reading the text. If something was true of the archetypal King David or Prophet Moses, how much more would it be true of Messiah, went the shape of the argument. It is this kind of reading of Scripture that Bob Webber urged us to recover in The Divine Embrace (see p. 127ff). The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future does not address typology explicitly, but it critiques its opposite when it speaks of “modern methods” that “compartmentalize God's story by analyzing its separate parts, while ignoring God's entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ.”

So the traditional lectionary, which selected an Old Testament reading to match some part of the Gospel story, was following this early Christian way of seeing the Hebrew Bible.

From Typology to Warning

But the typological/messianic reading is not the complete picture of how the New Testament writers viewed the Old. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul writes that the stories of Israel’s failures were written as ethical warnings.

11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

And in the famous 2 Timothy passage on the nature and purpose of Scripture, the writer once again focuses on the ethical (on praxis, if you will).

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Not all apostolic reflection on the Hebrew Scriptures was Christological, though Christology was the central filter through which they read the text. Their reflection was also ethical, treating the stories of vice and virtue and of God’s faithfulness in both judgment and mercy, as pointers to how we should live.

The more continuous Old Testament stories presented in the Common Lectionary will prove more preachable for this secondary purpose—as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

Not that we need more moralizing, particularly in evangelical pulpits. But both approaches to the Old Testament are needed. Evangelicals do a better job of reading the stories as cautionary tales than we do of expounding Christ in all the Scripture.

So let me urge my fellow evangelicals to polish the lenses of our Christological spectacles and learn to look for Jesus in the book that he said “testifies” of him (John 5). The moralism doesn’t help us see the overarching narrative of God’s work in the world. The Christological vision does.

* * *

There’s still time to register for the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future Conference. Click here for more information.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Over-committed to the Bible?

J. P. Moreland said something provocative this week. Ted Olsen, in his “Postcard from San Diego” (where the Evangelical Theological Society has been meeting) recounts how Moreland told a packed auditorium that North American evangelicals are “over-committed” to the Bible.

Ted opines that “to accuse evangelicals of over-commitment to the Bible at ETS would be like accusing environmentalists of talking too much about climate change at a Sierra Club meeting.” But there it is.

This primo evangelical apologist, J. P. Moreland from Talbot School of Theology, told the Evangelical Theology Society, “In the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ. And it has produced a mean-spiritedness among the over-committed that is a grotesque and often ignorant distortion of discipleship unto the Lord Jesus.”

I too have observed the irrationality, the mean-spiritedness, and the distortions of discipleship of which Moreland spoke. I can relate.

Moreland’s complaint, according to Olsen, is “the idea that the Bible is the sole source of knowledge of God, morality, and a host of related important items.”

Those with a little historical knowledge know that when the 16th-century reformers raised the cry, Sola scriptura, they never meant that Scripture stood alone, only that it was the norm by which all other religious authorities were to be judged.

In Olsen’s “postcard,” Moreland says Scripture has crowded out three other good things. It has suppressed (1) an eagerness to learn from investigating the phenomenal world for what it can teach us; (2) an openness to following the leading of the Spirit; and (3) a willingness to appeal to natural theology and moral law in political and cultural discussions.

The Missing Factor

All of these things are important. All of these have their appropriate use. But what is missing from this picture?

The church. A distorted evangelical use of Scripture has resulted from tearing the Bible away from the fabric of the church.

Bob Webber wrote succinctly about the place of the Scripture in the fabric of the church’s life and faith in the Appendix to Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World.

Scripture is the church’s tradition, the possession of the church, and as such, the church is responsible to guard it, preserve it, pass it down, and interpret it. ... It is not the Bible standing alone, but Scripture as the product of apostolic interpretation handed down in the church for generations.

Others have noted the importance of reading the Bible “with” the church. Jim Packer, for example, addressed this in the New Dictionary of Theology in his typically understated way: “Nor is the helpfulness of the church’s heritage of interpretation always recognized.” And Chris Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers is a successful experiment in trying to put the Bible back where it belongs—in the bosom of the church. This restoration of the tie between Bible and the church is also the point of the first article of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future, on which Bob Webber labored so diligently before he passed away.

So when we read the Bible “with” the church (with the historic church, with the global church, and with the ancient consensual church), do some of the problems Moreland mentioned solve themselves?

Surely a historically and globally informed reading of Scripture will get us listening to the Spirit and learning from his leadings. And it will also help us to recognize and discipline excess without withdrawing into an anti-Spirit rationalism. And if we read the Scripture with the church, we’ll learn how the church was able to use natural law arguments alongside Scripture, but in subordination to Scripture.

Whenever an issue arises, evangelicals’ impulse is to ask, What does the Bible say? But an informed evangelical perspective realizes that there is usually no straight line between the biblical text and the contemporary problem. Negotiating that path requires contemporary social or scientific analysis, prayer for wisdom and guidance, and drawing on the experience of Christians. For the mature Christian, Scripture is supreme, but never truly alone.

* * *

Update: I've now been able to read Moreland's paper. Read my further comments on this subject.

The primacy of the biblical narrative is the topic of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future Conference this month. There’s still time to register.

J. P. Moreland's most recent book is Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Your Atonement Is Too Small

Scot McKnight wants you to have your golf bag fully equipped—theologically speaking. That’s the controlling metaphor of McKnight’s new study of soteriology, A Community Called Atonement (released in August by Abindgon).

Here’s the way the metaphor works. Each “theory” of the atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like a round of golf. The way we proclaim, teach, or share the good news in any given situation should be adapted to the situation, just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter. You can, theoretically, still hit the ball out of a sand trap with a driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available?

Here’s the strength of the golf-bag metaphor: It asks us to stop being partisans for one particular theory of the atonement or another and actually to do ministry with the best tools at hand. McKnight is a peacemaker and a bridge builder, and that makes his book very welcome.

Plenty of discussion recently (some of it acrimonious) sounds very much like people saying that all the other clubs are better than your putter—and indeed that your putter is inherently defective. Meanwhile, others respond by defending the putter as the only club you need, since each round ends on the green. (“Drive for show, putt for dough.”)

Check out this recent news item from Christianity Today and you’ll see why McKnight’s book is a breath of fresh air.

* * *

The main target of criticism has been “penal substitution,” a 16th-century Reformation development of Anselm’s 11th-century “satisfaction” theory of the atonement. In penal substitution, God the Son bears the penalty for our sins on the cross. The Son having paid our debt, God now views us as righteous because we belong to the Son.

Sometimes people stretch this language too far, and they divide the members of the Trinity, setting them against each other—as when they talk of the Son as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross.

Sometimes they talk about the paid penalty almost exclusively in individual terms. When John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed while listening to Luther’s preface to his commentary on the Romans, he grasped something important. “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” But my salvation is not the full picture, and speaking only in individualistic terms can lead to a weak doctrine of the church and even an anemic doctrine of the atonement.

Some critics stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to nothing other than “divine child abuse”—an angry cosmic Father beating up his meek and helpless Son, an image which subtly leads us to tolerate the evils of domestic violence.

But McKnight recognizes that while the Scriptures do talk about Jesus bearing the penalty for our sins, they never divide the members of the Trinity at the Cross or bifurcate the God of love from the God of wrath. Whatever took place at the Cross and however we are to understand it, it is a unitary act of the whole Trinity. Thus John Stott could devote a chapter of his magnum opus, The Cross of Christ, to “The Self-Substitution of God.” And the Apostle Paul could write about God setting forth his own hilasterion. (This is a rare Greek word that literally means a thing that makes someone happy, but that is used as a technical term for the place on the Ark of the Covenant where on the Day of Atonement Israel’s chief priest sprinkled the sacrificial blood.) Paul clearly stresses that any appeasement is God’s self-appeasement. What is that? Self-appeasement? It is ironic even to use such language, but Paul wants to get at something bigger and ultimately more mysterious than the picture often portrayed by those who preach penal substitution.

In this tense context, McKnight recognizes that the best defenders of penal substitution do not fall into these traps.

* * *

But A Community Called Atonement is not just a bridge-building book. It is an expand-your-vision book. To parody J. B. Phillips’s famous title, this book could have been called Your Atonement Is Too Small.

Classic evangelical writers tend to use the word atonement fairly narrowly to refer to what Christ Jesus accomplished in his death on the Cross. When most evangelical expositors wanted to talk about the bigger picture, they would use a phrase like “the plan of salvation.”

Unfortunately, when you use the word atonement that narrowly, you can end up not thinking about the broad reach of God’s atoning activity. God was in Christ reconciling you and me to himself. But that’s not all. Paul says that God was in Christ reconciling the entire world to himself.

Decades ago when Bob Webber stepped out of line and shocked the evangelical ranks by emphasizing the early church’s understanding of Christ’s activity as victory over the devil, death, and sin, he was asking his students to grasp this bigger picture.

Scot McKnight does something similar in A Community Called Atonement. He reviews the various metaphors, pictures, and theories of atonement implicit in Scripture and looks for the big picture. Like Webber, he finds it in the witness of the early church. Taking the themes expounded by the earliest fathers together—victory, ransom, recapitulation—he wraps them into one package called “identification for incorporation.” In Christ, God identified with the descendants of Adam to the point of experiencing an ignominious death and was raised to new life so that he, as the new Adam, might incorporate the fallen race into a new humanity. He became what we were that we might become what he is. That’s the summary notion that Athanasius used to express this view most succinctly.

This is the creator God re-creating, but doing it in such a way that he does not leave the old creation to languish in its sin and brokenness.

* * *

This broader approach to atonement requires a corporate understanding. And that is the point of McKnight’s title: A Community Called Atonement. It also requires a missional understanding.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that the result of God’s reconciling the world to himself is that he gives to us, the members of his church, a ministry of reconciliation. God’s reconciling action and our ambassadorial role are bound tightly together in Paul’s thought. God does not simply reconcile us to himself. He does this with the purpose of making us his agents of reconciliation. And McKnight’s call to see atonement in a bigger context is nothing other than a call to mission, mission that copies God.

* * *

This post is already too long. Part II will come along in a few days. In that context I hope to connect McKnight’s golf-bag metaphor with a couple of my own images—J. K. Rowling's Dobby the self-flagellating house elf and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

While you’re waiting for Part II, consider coming to the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference to hear and interact with Scot McKnight in person. Click here for information.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Friends and Lovers: Sacraments of Divine Love

In my last post, I introduced Edith Humphrey’s 2006 book Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit.

Edith builds her notions of spirituality on a biblical framework (see Article Five of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future). But she focuses primarily on two biblical doctrines: the Trinity and the Incarnation. These two doctrines are keys for understanding what we are called to be.

As we are called to live into what it means to be made in the image of God, the life of the Trinity models many things for us. That leads us to think about family life, because the persons of the Trinity have eternally been in relationship, involving mutuality, cooperation, submission, and sacrifice. The mission of God is at every point the mission of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all of them, all the time, not just one or another.

The Incarnation helps us understand that embodiment is not optional for us. It is not something to be regretted (as in some ascetic spiritualities). For Christ to be for us the icon of God (see Colossians 1:15; cf. Hebrews 1:3), he had to take on human flesh. And God did not make us in his image apart from making us embodied creatures. When he made us his icons, he made us flesh. Spiritualities that try to deny the importance of our bodily existence to our spiritual calling miss something foundational.

Early in her chapter “Icons of Love,” Edith inserts an old photo of her daughter Alexandra that illustrates the title of her book: ecstasy and intimacy. The snapshot shows her young daughter playing her violin in a jaunty pose and with a magnificent smile on her face. Ecstasy. Little Alexandra is clad only in her underpants and socks, and her posture and facial expression demonstrate a total transparency to the parent behind the camera. She is holding nothing back. Intimacy.

Refracting the divine nature

Edith spends the rest of the chapter exploring how our human relationships—being friends, siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives—refract something of the divine nature. She says, for example, that the things we experience as friends—“mutuality, equality, exclusivity, inclusivity and absorption in something shared”—help “to enlighten our understanding of God” and are “capable of mediating God’s love and light to us.” This is also true of the particular things we experience in our other human relationships.

Here are a few key ideas from her reflections on marriage:

While the Old Testament uses marriage as “a simple pictorial reminder of God’s desired intimacy with his people,” in the New Testament “it takes on a ‘sacramental’ or iconic significance.”

The Incarnation, the coming of God himself as one of us into our world, has made what was only metaphor a living reality. Similarly, the relationship between believing husband and wife tangibly indicates the life of Christ with his beloved Church; indeed, each marriage relationship that is in Christ itself partakes of this divine mystery.


[B]elievers commend marriage as a special state that is conducive to repentance, healing, growth, and glorification for the couple involved. Precisely here, we say, one can see a refracted picture of the wholeness, the holiness, the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity.


The married couple will be surprised to find how it is that their growing intimacy, yieldedness, and vulnerability to each other indeed transfers to their relationship with God, the lover of all. ... There is, therefore, a crossover between our embodied condition and our spiritual life that we might never have expected.

Our choice-crazy culture

One further thought. In commenting on both the parent-child and the husband-wife relationship, Edith looks at how these contrast with our culture of choice.

In the case of marriage, contemporary society is historically out of step because we have the privilege of choosing our own spouses. The upside of that is that spousal friendship and romance are far more likely to occur here than in societies where other people make that choice for the couple. But the culture of choice also undermines commitment. Because our society tells us sixteen times every day that we should be exercising choice—and sometimes it communicates that our choices make us who we are—we need reminding that marriage is not a lifestyle choice. It is a window into the divine love and a school for growing more like God.

In the case of parents and children, the “givenness” of the relationship reminds us that, despite “the choice-crazy climate of our day,” some things are for keeps. That “choice-crazy climate” may magnify the difficulties parents and children encounter. The lasting nature of the parent-child relationship (though it grows and changes) reminds us that our culture of choice is not normal.

In her reflections on human relationships, Edith does not ignore the pain and hurt we experience. Because these relationships, as icons of love, reflect the ultimate, they also are the contexts in which we can be most deeply damaged. Families and marriages are dangerous things. And for that very reason, they need to be nurtured and tended with the care due to the icons of ultimate love.

* * *

Edith Humphrey will be speaking at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference, November 30 through December 1. Click here for details and registration information.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Sexualizing the Image of God

I’ve been reading Edith Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy the past few days—a masterful work on grounding Christian spirituality in the biblical story, particularly in the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation.

Edith will be speaking at the AEF Conference at the end of November. But I first heard of Edith Humphrey many years ago when J. I. Packer pointed me to some excellent position papers on human sexuality that she had helped write for the embattled Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Canada.

Thus, I couldn’t help skipping over some chapters to get directly to “the good stuff,” namely her chapter on human relationships as “Icons of Love.” I was particularly interested in her reflections on marriage and on the use of feminine language for God in worship.

Here’s some of what she has to say about the effects of calling God “Mother.” (Warning: R-rated stuff ahead.)

It is not that God is not motherly, but turning “Mother” into a proper name for God “tends to foster an unchristian kind of ... view that God is in everything ... because in using womb language, we are apt to confuse Creator with creature.”

She cites a prayer that “throws caution to the wind” and “sexualiz[es] the image of God in a bizarre manner.”

Elder woman, from the wine of your womb-love, You create the universe and bring healing.... Pour out upon us the elixir of your divine mercy: that, touched in the innermost parts of ourselves, we are restored as your beloved.... One whose splendour gave birth to the angels, Eye of wisdom, Holy Sophia, Goddess Three in One. Amen.

Humphrey’s astute observation? “What worshiping body would accept a parallel prayer that used masculine terminology (e.g., “the seed of your penis-strength”) as blatant as the feminine imagery used here?”

When you put it that way, you don’t need to add an argument, but (of course) she does. Humphrey reminds us that we are Trinitarian Christians and that (as Pannenberg observed) on the lips of Jesus, “Father” becomes a proper name for God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Father is one name among many. But with Jesus, it becomes the name by which we know Him—Abba, Father.

Her comments on marriage and sex? Well, I’m given to writing longish blog posts, so I’ll cut this one short and postpone sampling those other comments to another post and another day.

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Monday, October 1, 2007

What's the Fuss About Recapitulation Theology?

Recapitulation. Last week Northern Seminary’s Phil Kenyon and I worked over the brochure copy for the upcoming AEF Conference (info here). I noticed that the brochure kept using the word recapitulation—about half a dozen times.

Earlier, Regent College theologian Hans Boersma had noticed that the theme of recapitulation had emerged in our conference plans. He was excited. Here’s part of what he wrote to us:

Already in the second century, St. Irenaeus, ... opposing the narrow-minded Gnostics, ... insisted that the incarnate Word had taken into himself all of humanity—recapitulation. There's nothing quite like an evangelical conference that deliberately wants to assume the same astounding truth for its starting-point.

Enough already, I can hear you saying. What’s this recapitulation stuff all about?

If you’re a little hazy on the concept, don’t be embarrassed. We haven’t talked about it much in our theology books. And we’re only now seeing a renewal of a very old concept.

I looked in quite a few evangelical theology books I have on my shelves, and in the vast majority of them I couldn’t find any reference to the early church’s theology of recapitulation. Some exceptions? Well, the Moody Handbook of Theology briefly mentions it as an example of a false theory of the atonement. But then the book seems to misunderstand the concept.

Stan Grenz was more positive in his 1994 Theology for the Community of God. Stan devoted five or six paragraphs to Irenaeus and the atonement. At the end of the section, he wrote that Irenaeus “never intended that his theory be viewed as a description of a transaction in the history of creation. It was merely a picture of the meaning of the victory of Christ.”

If Stan is correct, then we do well to listen to Irenaeus, but not to press his account of the Atonement into bearing the full weight of the meaning of Jesus’ work. If we do that, we can make it into “a false theory.” But used rightly, it can help us speak of Jesus to ourselves and to our age.

The first theologian I found on my bookshelf who actually devoted an entire chapter to the topic was (drum roll, please) Robert E. Webber. No surprise there for those who knew Bob. And a new book on Atonement theology, Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement, also gives it a full treatment.

What Is Recapitulation?

So what is this “recapitulation”? It simply means “summing up,” and if you were reading Ephesians 1:10 in the Greek New Testament, you would find the word anakephalaiosasthai there. “Ana” is the equivalent of the Latin prefix “re” (again), and “kephale” is the equivalent of the Latin “caput” (or head). If your lawyer has made a case, and then she sums up her argument for the jury by going over her key points (the argument’s main headings), we call that “recapitulation.”

So Paul says that in Christ, God’s plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head” (Eph. 1:10, NIV). Other translations use “sum up” instead of “bring together.” (Amazingly, the “literal” New American Standard Bible and Eugene Peterson’s “dynamic” The Message agree at this point!)

One way that Jesus sums things up is by getting right what Adam got wrong. Adam was supposed to be the head of the human race, but he bungled it and sent the race off course. And so we need a new humanity headed by a new Adam. (Think of Paul’s comparison and contrast of Adam and Christ in his resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15. And remember also how in his discussion of grace in Romans 5 Paul calls Adam “the figure of him that was to come.”)

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote:

So the Lord now manifestly came to his own, and born by his own created order which he himself bears, he by his obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree. ... Indeed, the sin of the first-formed man was amended by the chastisement of the First-begotten, the wisdom of the serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death.

Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit; and placing the Spirit in man, he himself is made the head of the Spirit and gives the Spirit to be the head of man, ...

He therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam, tramping on his head ...

Cyril Richardson, who translated the Library of Christian Classics version of Irenaeus, chose to use the word “renew” (or “renew and reverse”) to convey the idea of recapitulation.

This wonderfully positive word hides some word play. Notice the number of times “head” appears in the brief excerpt above. Christ is the head of the Spirit. He gives the Spirit to be the head of man. Christ tramps on the head of the serpent. And the etymological root for “head” is buried in the original each time Richardson translates “renew/reverse” for “recapitulate.” Christ by obedience re-heads what was done by disobedience. He re-heads all these things in himself by tramping on the head of the serpent.

What I Like About Recapitulation Theology

This importance of this idea of “head” brings me to the first reason I like this theology of recapitulation.

1. Recapitulation theology recaptures our corporate identity. We are important to God as individuals, but we are also important to God as a human race. In our Enlightenment-influenced culture, we almost entirely come down on the individualist side of the scales. The novel, for example, emerged in our culture as a way to portray the struggle of the individual self against oppressive and conformist society. And our evangelism and church life has been shaped by the same influences.

Recapitulation theology reminds us that we are not merely saved as individuals, but we are part of God’s project to create a new human race in Christ, just as he originally created the human race in Adam. God did not make Adam as an individual, but immediately gave him a partner and commanded them to multiply and fill the earth. Just so Christ’s triumph is for the purpose of filling his kingdom with a new humanity.

You can immediately see the importance of church, then, as a corporate expression and countercultural context for living out this new reality.

2. Recapitulation theology affirms creation. The second reason I like recapitulation theology is that it affirms the goodness of the created order. Irenaeus wrote at a time when some Christian teachers were denying the Incarnation of the Christ. “Vain are those who say that his appearance on earth was a mere fiction,” wrote Irenaeus; if Jesus was to recapitulate (revisit, renew, and reverse) Adam’s failures, he too had to be fully human.

Other Christians were teaching that Jesus did not come to his own creation but to the creation of some inferior God who messed things up by the very act of creating a material order. “Vain indeed,” wrote Irenaeus, “are they who say that God the Son came to things not his own ... in order to hand over the man who was made by another to the God who neither made nor created him.” Why is it vain? Once again, in Christ God is revisiting, renewing, and reversing. It had to be his own creation.

Still others were teaching that flesh and blood can’t be redeemed. God only redeems our spirits, they taught. But Irenaeus wrote, “Vain above all are they who despise the whole dispensation of God, and deny the salvation of the flesh and reject its rebirth, saying that it is not capable of incorruption.” But then what are we doing in the Eucharist, Irenaeus asked. That wouldn’t make sense unless God redeems us as flesh and blood. “For if this mortal flesh is not saved, then neither did the Lord redeem us by his blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of his blood, and the bread which we break the communion of his body.”

It is a commonplace that Christian theology has often been too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, too focused on the spirit and too flesh-denying to experience and preserve the goodness that God has created for us. Recapitulation theology places our Christian lives squarely back in God’s good created order. And it reminds us that Christ redeems not only people but an entire cosmos.

3. Recapitulation theology has a symmetry that keeps us focused on the big idea. The Adam-Christ way of thinking helps to close the circle that was opened when our first ancestors rebelled. It puts back into order that which was disordered. The biblical story is a lot like one of Garrison Keillor’s typical Lake Wobegon monologues. At the beginning of one story, Keillor drops a brief reference to a group of folk going off to Minot for the funeral of an old Lake Wobegon High School English teacher. And then he meanders through a dozen other topics, from an old guy who hunts ducks from his upstairs bedroom window to the arcane rituals of the Sons of Knute Lodge. But in the end, Keillor brings all the strands together into a meaningful whole laden with profound insight.

When you’re listening to a Keillor monologue, it is easy to lose sight of where it all started. But after all the wanderings, he’ll uncover a big idea for you. Just so with Adam and Christ. It is easy to lose sight of Adam amidst all of Israel’s wanderings, but Paul and Irenaeus bring us back to our focus. We are a human race gone bad, but we have renewal and reversal in Jesus.

When I was growing up in a holiness-influenced denomination, I couldn’t have told you what the faith was all about. I knew we didn’t do certain worldly things. But it wasn’t until much later that I grasped the big idea. Recapitulation keeps us from that old tendency to mistake taboos for the Truth. And it keeps us from mistaking any of the church’s cultural accommodation (say, turning Jesus into your very own therapist) into gospel.

That’s enough for now. I hope to see you at the conference where we can spend more time examining the ways we frame the biblical story and how they help us keep the Big Idea in front of the people to whom we minister.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Theology by the Seasons

Right from the start, John Colwell’s The Rhythm of Doctrine (Paternoster, 2007) turns things upside down. The Spurgeon’s College theologian begins with Revelation rather than Genesis. Just as the season of Advent points us to “The One Who Comes” both at the Incarnation and again at the Last Day, so does the Apocalypse: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev. 1:8).

(See the earlier post in which I introduced this fascinating first attempt to structure a systematic theology around the seasons of the church year, rather than around the three articles of the Creed.)

Colwell unpacks this verse in relation to God’s self-naming in Exodus 3:14: “I am who I am” or better yet “I will be who I will be.” Perhaps most important, he identifies God’s freedom and God’s self-existence implicit in these self-disclosures and shows how they run counter to the vaguer, less personal, less historical notions of God that reign in many theological classrooms and pulpits. “The God of panentheism (or pantheism) cannot ‘come’ to creation since the distinction between God and creation has already been blurred if not abolished..."

God’s immanence, says Colwell, must be conceived of not as necessary, but as free. A necessary immanence not only blurs the line with creation but also destroys both love and grace. “That God ‘comes’ to his creation is an act of grace and the act of coming itself, as a free act, identifies God as gracious.”

Thus the God who freely comes to his world is the same God who came to his people in making covenant with Noah, Abraham, Moses and the children of Israel, and supremely in Jesus. There is an identity of grace between the God who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come.

In spelling out a doctrine of God by reflecting on “The One Who Comes,” Colwell strikes a note of humility. Because the kingdoms of this world have not yet become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, we do not comprehend as we shall comprehend. He casts this humility in postmodern terms, discussing the limits of knowledge—even in relationship to revealed truth. But he is no relativist, and he writes with confidence about what we can know. Because this is the God who has already come to Moses and has come in Jesus, we can hope with confidence.

Colwell is not just subdividing his theology by the liturgical seasons; he is also following his postmodern impulse to tie theology more closely to ethics than to philosophy. Thus he matches each season with a classic theological virtue. In the case of Advent, that virtue is hope. He cites Stanley Hauerwas on the difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is “hope without truth.” Because we know the truth about the God who has come, “we live in hope, not overwhelmed by our sin and our propensity to sin, but continually trusting in a mercy that forgives and a grace that restores and transforms.”

Incarnation, the measure of creation

From Advent (“The One Who Comes”), Colwell moves to Christmas (“The One Who Takes Our Humanity”). Here he deals with the doctrine of Creation—normally one of the first topics in a systematic theology because the Creed and the Bible begin by confessing God the Father as “maker of heaven and earth.”

Because Colwell locates his treatment of Creation under the Incarnation, a curious thing happens—and a good thing it is. Christ becomes the measure of creation. Colwell cites Colin Gunton, who wrote that Irenaeus “views creation as God’s project, a project that only ever reaches its fulfilment in Christ.”

And then: “the perfected humanity of Christ is ever the only means of the fulfillment of creation’s perfection; creation comes to its goal here and not otherwise or elsewhere.”

From this he draws out the purposefulness of creation and the goodness of bodily existence. Also from this perspective, he is able (later, in the chapter on Lent) to bypass the old debate about whether the Son assumed a fallen human nature or an unfallen nature. In this scheme it is not Adam but the Incarnate Son who defines human nature. We know what true humanity is because we know Jesus.

Colwell continues his meditations on the virtues in this chapter on Incarnation. Here he aptly chooses the virtue of love, which entails sexuality. Worth quoting:

Few could have foreseen forty years ago how the relative reliability and availability of contraception would alter notions of public morality. Sever to such a degree the possibility and expectation of child birth from the act of sexual intercourse and the significance of the act of sexual intercourse is changed; the potentially procreational is re-envisaged as the merely recreational. ... [T]his contemporary and popular trivialisation of sex to the merely recreational represents a more pressing and more foundational challenge to Christian virtue than related issues of cohabitation, divorce, and re-marriage.

And after noting the nature of God’s love as revealed in covenant faithfulness, he writes this about human love:

It is love so defined, rather than mere sexual attraction or self-serving desire, that is the essence of marriage: a love that implies consequences but which is unconditional ... ; a love that is faithful and seeks faithfulness; a love that is generous rather than grasping; a love that is both trusting and merciful; a love that seeks to serve rather than to be served; a love that is freely for the other and that, through sexual intimacy, is welcoming of children.

But Scripture does not put the full burden of reflecting God’s love on the institution of marriage. It is the church, writes Colwell, that “is called to be the principal and most profound reflection and mediation of the faithful and merciful love that is God’s eternal nature.”

Last Things

That’s just a sample of how organizing a theology around the church year can give us a chance to view essential doctrines from a different angle. To give a thorough account of the book—with its treatments of Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, and All Saints— would take a much longer essay; so let me conclude with a few words of commendation.

First, Colwell’s method allows us to re-appropriate the Jewish context of the gospel. Because it is set in the context of Israel’s story and Israel’s Messiah, this approach pulls us away from centuries of anti-Judaism and centuries of philosophizing and asks us to engage with the particularity of the revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. Colwell makes this particular man the measure of what we mean when we say God, what we mean when we say human, and what we mean when we say perfect. That is all to the good.

Second, Colwell’s method counteracts a Flatlander’s approach to Scripture. Hebrews is very clear in pointing us to a Christological reading of Scripture—a series of revelations that culminate in Christ. In times past, says Hebrews, God spoke to our ancestors in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken through his Son, who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:1-3). Despite this inspired commentary, some evangelicals treat types and shadows as if they were "the exact representation." But viewing God’s revelation through the lens of the church year reminds us that earlier revelations were indeed a foreshadowing—and that Christ is the fulfillment.

One final comment: Colwell is among those who find theories of penal substitution inadequate to explain the work of Christ. But he is to be commended for not dumping all notions of substitution. Indeed, he recognizes that the theme of substitution is woven throughout Scripture—Christ indeed makes our place his, and his place ours.

And Colwell is also to be commended for not rejecting outright Luther’s insights even as he holds a different view of Paul's purposes. He recognizes that Luther may have been making appropriate use of Paul in his rejection of “works righteousness” in the late medieval context.

Other critics of penal substitution make both of these mistakes. But I won’t write more about that until a later post. Abingdon has just published Scot McKnight’s new book, A Community Called Atonement, and I want to read and digest that before engaging further with Colwell’s argument.

The Rhythm of Doctrine is a theological sketch worth engaging and even meditating on. Bob Webber's blurb on Colwell's book calls it "cutting edge" and warns that "the older evangelical generation may not be willing to move in this direction." Since I liked the book's direction despite the fact that I am very definitely about to enter my seventh decade, I can only conclude that I must be part of the younger generation. Thanks, Bob.

(Unfortunately, the book is not currently available in the U.S. but can be obtained from several booksellers linked through

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Lark News Satirizes "Orthodox Lite" Worship

The new edition of Lark News takes a shot at--what?--blended worship? Lark is The Onion of evangelical Protestantism--a humor and satire site devoted to evangelical foibles. Its latest effort talks about evangelical churches offering "Orthodox lite" services, complete with "candles, non-specific iconography ... other religious-looking items ... generic vestments and ... a more somber manner."

The piece was supposed to be funny, but I find the phenomenon it was satirizing to be sad. So if you read it and chuckle, that's fine. But since satire is supposed to have a point, let me comment on what I take to be the barb in the Lark's "news item."

According to the fictional EV Free pastor featured in the item,

"It’s the same sermon, same worship songs in many cases, just done in a more liturgical style," Fitzgerald says. "I don’t mind changing the packaging for people. It freshens it up for them and for me."

There's the rub. As long it's about "packaging," adding liturgical elements to a service is pretty empty.

"I like the reverence and the mood," says one girl, 16. "It feels more spiritual."

"I like the candles," her friend chimes in.
"Packaging" or "feel" or "mood" are all about marketing. But liturgical worship is about other things:

  • It is about doing what the people of God have done for nearly two millennia: Word and Sacrament. (Candles and incense really are optional.) The round of Scripture reading and sacramental practices shape us and mold us--keep us from being squeezed into the world's mold (Rom. 12:2).
  • It is about worshiping as embodied souls. Physical acts (kneeling, singing, bowing, lifting our hands) and the use of physical substances (bread, wine, oil, water, incense, salt) remind us that we are not just here to learn, but to participate. The life of a Jesus follower is about believing and doing. And worship needs to order both our thoughts and actions.
  • It is about objectivity (the opposite of "feel" and "mood"). Ritual actions are designed to help us praise God whether or not we "feel like it." And they are about opening us to God's action in our lives, about placing ourselves at his disposal, rather than creating a subjective, emotional response.
  • It is about setting aside our own "creativity" and opening ourselves to God's re-creating grace. This is the "sabbath" nature of worship. We've been doing all week. With long to-do lists in hand, we've been responsible for making things happen in our homes and our workplaces. On the Sabbath, we don't need to engage in a lot of innovation. Worship doesn't depend on us. The saints are already casting their crowns before the throne and crying alleluia. The pressure on us to be original, creative, and subjective is off. All we have to do is join the chorus.
  • It is about making sure that we proclaim God's story. Non-liturgical worship can easily become oriented to felt needs or therapeutic self-help discourse: How to be a good parent. How to manage your finances Christianly. How to deal with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. All good topics, but they are not of the substance of worship. Liturgical worship ensures that we read the full range of the scriptural story and walk through the cycle of Jesus' story every year. And within that context, we will be shaped as parents and financial stewards.
  • Okay, okay, it is about mood and atmosphere, but only to the extent that it signals a break from a world that tells us stories other than God's story. In the world's stories, you are an individual who is a consumer (your worth is in what you own) or an achiever (your worth is in what you or your family accomplish) or a cool person (your worth is in your ability to keep up with trends in music, clothing, coffee, electronics, and so forth). But when you come to worship, the narration of all those stories is put on "pause," and you listen once more the God's story and how you are part of a called-out and redeemed community destined to play a role in the restoration of creation.

I could go on. But my point is made. The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future says we should have "
public worship that sings, preaches and enacts God's story" and and we must "recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God's saving acts." This is about liturgical worship as substance, not as surface. The things we do in liturgy "shape our lives and signify the meaning of the world."

Now, I'm all for blending historic liturgical elements into worship services that also feature contemporary song and drama and elements from the non-liturgical traditions. But we must do the blending with an eye to telling God's story comprehensively to people who are daily squeezed into the world's mold, and who need instead a vision of God's way and God's future.

So, was the Lark News item funny? Well, I did laugh at the very end, when "the Bartel family of suburban Cleveland, Ohio, tried the local Orthodox church for a month, but 'couldn’t make the cultural shift long-term' ... When they walked back into an evangelical service, 'the drums and guitars sounded pretty good for once.' "

Liturgy takes work and commitment and even "cultural shift." But it doesn't exclude drums and guitars.

* * *

Lark News updates its satirical news items the first of every month. In addition to humor, you can find religious artifacts for the cynical, including tee-shirts that say "Homeschooled & Wild," "Heard You Got into That Christian College. Bummer," and "Jesus Loves You! Then again he loves everybody."

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