Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Institute for Worship Studies passes accreditation hurdle

The late theologian Bob Webber had a vision for an academic program where people could pursue graduate-level studies in worship, without having to pass through the standard seminary channels first. There are a lot of church musicians and worship leaders whose training is in music or dance or some other related field--people with the academic abilities but who for career reasons cannot take the M.Div. detour before studying the theology and history of worship.

In 1998, Bob founded the Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida. It has been a nontraditional program that combines on-site seminars with distance learning. It's facilities are seriously limited, but it has attracted a knowledge-hungry and enthusiastic group of students, having graduated 161 students from over 30 denominations in its 10 years of existence.

Last week I got an e-mail from IWS president Jim Hart, excitedly telling me that the school had passed a major hurdle in the accreditation process.It has been granted candidate status with the Association for Biblical Higher Education. According to the IWS press release:

Candidate Status grants the Institute membership in the association, and also provides pre-accredited status. Pre-accredited status is granted by the ABHE to institutions that meet its Conditions of Eligibility, and provide a basis for achieving accreditation status within four years.

Congratulations to Jim Hart and the IWS community!The press release with full information is posted at the website of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Read more!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.: Holy Week Edition

Today's mail brought the brochure for this year's performance of Franz Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (string quartet version with guest meditations). I mention it because I'm one of the "special guests" providing one of the meditations. Others include Martin Marty, David Tracy, John Buchanan, Willie T. Barrow, and Jean Bethke Elshtain. For the full list and for ticket information, click here and scroll down to March 18.

This will be the second time I've participated in this event, which is made especially meaningful by violist Richard Young's pre-concert parsing of Haydn's musical themes and their relation to the theological themes of the work. (Young collected meditations from past years in Echoes from Calvary. His essay on the relationship of the music to the theology can be found in the book's appendix.)

In 2004, shortly before I first spoke at one of these events, I wrote up the following historical commentary for Christianity Today:

Haydn's Seven Last Words is a powerful guide for Good Friday meditation.

In writing about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I identified it as a devotional exercise. It seemed to me to be an extended visual meditation on the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. Others have identified it as a meditation on the Stations of the Cross. In any case, the movie translated a classic Christian devotion into a shockingly modern form.

The church has preached the Cross from its apostolic beginnings at Pentecost, but it seems that once people heeded the message of the Cross and became followers of Jesus, they felt a need to structure personal and communal ways to remember that pivotal event in salvation history.

The most ancient description of a ritualized remembering of the Passion is a fourth-century eyewitness report by a Spanish nun named Egeria. She traveled to the Holy Land and reported that Christians in Jerusalem gathered for three hours on Good Friday to listen to the bishop read from the Scriptures the prophecies of the Lord's Passion and their fulfillment.

Christians have developed other forms of commemoration (literally, "remembering together"), such as walking the Way of Sorrows (via dolorosa) either literally in Jerusalem or symbolically by praying and meditating before a series of plaques that recount the events of Jesus' painful trek to Calvary.

This Holy Week, I am going to participate in another variation on such communal remembering: a service of meditations on the Seven Last Words. This service was first developed by Jesuit missionaries in Peru, who blended cross-centered preaching with guided meditation to create a kind of congregational "spiritual exercise." In Jesuit terms, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says, Spiritual Exercises refers to a 4-week program of meditations designed by Ignatius Loyola to combine "sense impressions, imagination, and understanding, in actuating the will towards the pursuit of perfection." Ignatius devoted fully one-quarter of the meditations (the third week) to the Passion, and these meditations shaped the spiritual lives of his followers. In the century after Loyola created the Spiritual Exercises, these Jesuit missionaries created a three-hour meditation on Jesus' seven sayings from the Cross for use on Good Friday.

This service eventually became an occasion for dramatic music as well as meditation. In 1785 or '86, the Austrian Catholic composer Franz Joseph Haydn received a request from Spain to write a series of seven orchestral interludes to accompany the spoken parts of the service. Though Haydn wrote with classical restraint just after the close of the Baroque era, the spirit of the Spanish Baroque is at work in this project. (To gain a visual impression of how the Spanish imagination had dealt with the Passion, consider the Pieta by El Greco, Ignatius's younger contemporary, or Christ on the Cross by Velasquez, who lived at the same time the Jesuits shaped their meditations on the Seven Last Words.)

Here is how Haydn himself described the service for which he composed his Seven Last Words:

Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the seven last words of Our Savior on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness.
At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse.
My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners.

Haydn's music—an introduction, seven musical meditations on the words, and a final "earthquake" movement—not only succeeded in not "fatiguing the listeners," but its popularity and power has lasted more than 200 years, from its first performance in 1787 till now. Haydn also created a version for string quartet so that the music could be played where the full forces of an orchestra were not available. And in 1795-96, he wrote a choral version, which was published in 1801.

In one of history's curious twists, Good Friday services that focus on the Seven Last Words have become more popular among Protestants than among Catholics. Perhaps this is because the service lends itself to preaching, and Protestants, we all know, love to preach. The service also lends itself to multiple preachers, which is why it is often sponsored as an ecumenical service by local ministerial fellowships.

The event in which I will be participating this year, uses Haydn's string quartet version, and its nature is ambiguous. Is this a concert? Or is this a service? The promotional materials call it a "concert," a "performance," and a "presentation," but in order to be true to the work's original intent, eight religious leaders (including yours truly) will be offering brief meditations. (I am speaking on "I Thirst." In two previous events, CT's associate news editor Stan Guthrie spoke on the same saying from the cross.)

The ambiguity is heightened by the choice of venue: the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. A grand Gothic-revival structure, the broad strokes of the Rockefeller Chapel's architecture evoke medieval cathedrals with their soaring tribute to God's transcendence. But whereas Gothic cathedrals were filled with Christian symbolism: crosses, angels, saints, pelicans, and such, the details of Rockefeller Chapel reflect the liberal Protestant spirit of its times, and its few Christian symbols are discreetly placed so as not to offend anyone.

The musicians for this occasion are the Vermeer Quartet, and I know from conversations with violist Richard Young that they take very seriously the religious character of Haydn's music and its performance. Since 1988, their annual presentations have tried to recreate something of the original experience.

Not everyone can get to the Vermeer Quartet's concerts at the University of Chicago and Northern Illinois University where they blend music and spoken meditation. So in 1994 they produced a two-CD set—one CD that is music only, and one CD that features both music and spoken word. The CD features such high-profile preachers as Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., renowned scholars such as Raymond Brown and Martin Marty, and the voice of Jason Robards.

Whether you participate in person or by listening to a recording, the music of Haydn is a powerful instrument to help focus meditation on the Lord's Passion.

Read more!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Book Review: How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

A few years ago, an African-American friend and I were discussing a popular black pastor whose doctrine of the Trinity just wasn’t orthodox. My colleague thought Christianity Today should give the man a pass. After all, he was doing good ministry and the fine points of the Trinity were just more of that dead-white-European-male baggage.

I hadn’t thought of it before that moment, but suddenly I had a flash: Athanasius, the architect of Trinitarian orthodoxy was African, not European. (So, of course, was Arius, the heretic who drove Athanasius to distraction.)

I took the opportunity to remind my colleague that orthodoxy arose out of the African context.

* * *

Indeed, many of the shapers of Christian orthodoxy were African. Names like Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, Clement, Anthony, and Pachomius were familiar from my undergraduate church history survey. But my professor had not presented them as Africans ministering and teaching in the context of an African culture.

That common omission is what theologian Thomas C. Oden wants to address with the Early African Christianity Project as well as with his book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (IVP, 2007).

The title of Oden’s book suggests a parallel to Tom Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. That’s unfortunate, because readers may expect Oden to play the raconteur in the Cahill manner. Instead, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is an outline and an agenda for research. (The agenda genre is classic forward-thinking Oden, who has devoted other books to outlining where theologians should be turning their attention.)

Classical African Christianity, claims Oden, has been ignored—or treated as something other than African. Augustine, Athanasius, Tertullian, and others have been treated as Europeans in disguise.

The story of Christian theology has been told from a European perspective. Oden wants to tell that story differently: classical Christian theology was heavily shaped by Africans. The language we use to worship the Trinity, the received definitions of the Christ’s two natures, the early church’s methods for restoring repentant sinners, the basic patterns of monastic life, our fundamental approach to biblical interpretation, the church’s devotion to its martyrs—all of these things have their roots in African theological debate, African prayer, and African biblical study.

The movement was from south to north. Concepts hatched in Alexandria or Carthage were appropriated in Constantinople or Rome or Milan. Eventually, Arab Islamic expansion across north Africa drove many Christians from their native soil. The result is that some of what Cahill’s Irish monks preserved was in fact African. Writes Oden:

There is little doubt that Irish Christianity sustained strong African and monastic motifs in its piety, hagiography and temperament. This can be seen visually in its crosses, funerary objects, décor, calendars and art forms, as well as literarily in poetry, song and preaching.

Oden theorizes that as the scholarly monks who followed the rules of Pachomius and Augustine were driven out of Africa by the Vandal and Arab invasions, they migrated to Sicily and the little island of Lérins off the coast of France. From there came the influences that shaped Irish monasticism. That monasticism, as Cahill tells the story, eventually shaped European Christianity, which in turn sent missionaries back to Africa.

But even before the seventh-century Muslim conquest, the influence flowed from south to north. Not only theologians like Athanasius, but influential rhetors (the Greek term for professional orators) like Augustine and Tertullian brought distinctly African patterns of argument to Rome. Throughout this book, Oden asserts the significance of the African context for the contributions of these key figures. Then he repeatedly appeals to African scholars to document and analyze the material in its African context.

Those repeated appeals may grow tiresome for the general reader, but Oden’s focused audience is African scholars who need to take up the outlines of his agenda, document the broad strokes with all the historical detail, and above all, demonstrate just how socially and culturally African our orthodoxy is.

* * *

Why is Oden so urgent? Part of his motivation fits broadly into his program to redeem theology from liberalism. It was northern European liberalism (Adolf von Harnack is the chief villain in Oden’s narrative) that dismissed the significance of the African context and tried to label many ideas of classical Christianity as Greek philosophy, alien to biblical thought.

But the urgency derives even more from the current sub-Saharan struggle between Christianity and Islam. As Oden writes:

The rising charismatic and Pentecostal energies in Africa are stronger emotively than intellectually. They may not sufficiently sustain African Christians through the Islamic challenge unless fortified by rigorous apologetics.

That rigorous apologetic can clearly come from Africa’s own history, but only if African theologians reclaim the history of Africa’s north for the entire continent. That reclamation is at the heart of Oden’s agenda.

* * *

For a special treat, see the literary timeline of early African Christianity included among the appendices of How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. A similar feature can be found on the Center for Early African Christianity website.

Read more!

OTB - Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The board that oversees New York's 71 remaining OTB (off-track betting) parlors has voted to close them, according to an article in the New York Times. Apparently, they are no longer profitable for the city of New York.

People are already mourning the demise of OTBs because of the unique social atmosphere they provide. (The article is strong on atmospherics.)

Here's the quote caught my eye in that article. A regular at the OTB on Seventh Avenue at 38th Street told the Times reporter:

“Wherever you have gambling, you’re going to have rich guys and beggars next to each other,” observed ... Eric Quinones, 40. “And that’s what makes these places unique.”

Oh, wait a minute. I thought that having "rich guys and beggars next to each other" was supposed to be the church. As a matter of fact, it is what the church is called to be.

And from what I read in my own magazine, New York's churches are doing a pretty amazing job. (See this important article by Tony Carnes from December 2004.)
Read more!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Some of Us Still Sing Hymns

I keep hearing that hymn-singing in churches is virtually extinct, that contemporary praise-and-worship music (accompanied by contemporary praise-and-worship bands) has completely taken over the church music scene.

That's why I was thankful for small graces today when I saw the results of a (totally unscientific) poll on the Christianity Today website. We asked our readers what they sing in church.

Here are the percentages:

Almost exactly half do sing predominantly "modern worship choruses." But 34% sing "mostly hymns." We who love (or at least tolerate) meaning-packed rhyming text set to predictably rhythmic tunes are not quite yet extinct!

Christianity Today Poll

What do you sing in church?

Mostly hymns - 34%

Mostly modern worship choruses - 52%

Mostly gospel/spirituals - 2%

Other - 12%

Total Votes - 849

Read more!

An Opportunity for Texas Readers of this Blog

Yesterday I received an e-mail announcement of an upcoming lecture by patristics scholar Dan Williams. Dan is the editor of the Evangelical Resourcement series of books from Baker Academic (which yours truly has blurbed) and consulted with my team at Christian History and Biography to produce our theme issue on the Council of Nicaea. In addition, he was one of the four theological editors of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future.

Here is the poster for his upcoming lecture at Baylor:

I always enjoy listening to Dan, and I'm sorry I'll be in frigid Illinois rather than temperate Texas on February 28. But if you're going to be near Waco on that day, you may want to take in this lecture. More info after the jump:

For further information, contact:

Joyce Swoveland
Office Manager/Assistant to the Chair
Department of Religion
Baylor University
One Bear Place #97284
Waco, TX 76798-7284
office: 254.710.3758
fax: 254.710.3740
Read more!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Inscrutable Advice from Pastor Ingqvist

Quote for the Day:

Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon segment from the February 9 broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" ends with disturbing news for Clint Bunsen.

After he failed to find any records of his grandfather among the Norwegian immigrants at Ellis Island, Clint got DNA test results that show he isn’t Norwegian at all.

Clint confides in his pastor. And Pastor Ingqvist tells Clint:

We are what we are—Sumus Quod Sumus—but Management reserves the right to change this suddenly.

And so be grateful, as we say in Norwegian, we say, … “Shut up and be beautiful.” Meaning that you are beautiful, whoever you are. Take it as an opportunity; take it as an experience.

Some luck lies not in getting what you have or what you thought you wanted, but in getting what you have now, which—once you have it—you may be smart enough to realize is what you would have wanted had you known in the first place.

It’s good to get inscrutable advice.
Read more!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Truth and Power; Faith and Ideology

Quote for the day:

Political ideologies read history as an opportunity for empowerment. Classic Christianity reads history as an opportunity for living out the truth revealed in history.

Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p. 106.
Read more!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Christology: Luke Timothy Johnson on the Great Both/And

A little over a year ago, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) rapped the knuckles of Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino.

That reads like a dog-bites-man headline. But in the current issue of Commonweal, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson illumines the debate in a helpful article entitled, “Human and Divine: Did Jesus Have Faith?” (requires subscription to read full article).

It seems that Sobrino, taking his cues from the New Testament book of Hebrews, wrote that “with regard to faith, Jesus in his life is presented as a believer like ourselves.” The CDF replied that since Jesus was fully God, his divine consciousness and his intimate communion with the Father precludes him from having faith the way we have faith.

Johnson argues that both sides have much to learn from each other.

As they articulate their Christologies, the CDF and Sobrino are engaged in two entirely different but nevertheless complementary modes of discourse, says Johnson. The CDF speaks the language of ontology (the philosophical discipline that deals with being), which shaped the language of the Chalcedonian definition of Jesus as fully God and fully human—the Great Both/And of Christian faith. Sobrino, like other liberation theologians, is influenced by other modes of discourse: politics, economics, historiography, and anthropology—all of which are appropriate if we are to understand Jesus as fully human.

Not only does the CDF not know how to bring these disciplines together with the traditional philosophical categories, says Johnson, they don’t know how to bring the fruit of biblical scholarship to bear either.

* * *

Johnson is a bridge-builder, but he’s not a split-the-difference compromiser. In this situation, he wants both sides to learn the usefulness of all the disciplines and all the modes of discourse in our understanding of Jesus; thus he does some knuckle-rapping of his own, admonishing both the CDF and Sobrino for their lack of breadth.

Unlike many in our postmodern context, Johnson does not want to jettison the putatively Greek philosophical categories of the creeds, even as he advocates the importance of historical consciousness and of understanding the narrative and literary character of the gospels. He is a both/and kind of thinker. The philosophical language, he says “was a splendid and supple instrument with which to express the mythic dimension of the Christian faith: that God entered into the frame of human existence and elevated it to a participation in God’s own life.” (Note: Mythic here does not mean “fictitious,” but refers instead to the language that transcends the natural world and provides an explanatory framework for why things are the way they are.)

But all of this is prelude to addressing the question over which the CDF gave Sobrino a warning. Did Jesus have faith as we can have faith?

Yes, says Johnson, because the CDF misunderstands the relevant scriptural passages and fails to give full weight to the humanness of Jesus. The CDF clearly understands faith as a cognitive thing—believing that something is so. And if Jesus had a divine consciousness, his way of knowing about the Father and the Father’s plan of salvation was surely different from our own.

But that is not the way Scripture talks about faith, for the most part. Johnson gives a nod to the exceptions, but asserts (rightly) that when the New Testament talks about faith, it usually is talking about the volitional rather than the cognitive. The Greek words built on the pist- root can have cognitive overtones (I believe that), but the vast majority of contexts demand that we read them in more relational and volitional categories (I trust in).

Thus, while Jesus had full communion with the Father and knew the plan of salvation, he was still required to trust and obey, even as we are to trust and obey. Especially in Hebrews, Johnson writes, “Jesus’ human faith” is understood “in terms of his obedience to God (3:1-6; 5:8-9; 12:1-3).” It even says that Jesus “learned obedience.” And in this way, Jesus is the leader/pioneer/trailblazer (archēgon) and perfecter (teleiōtēn) of faith.

It was this notion of faith as trust in God, and not just assenting to truths about God, that made the 16th-century Reformation possible. Fortunately, the magisterial reformers (Calvin, Luther, Zwingli) were like Johnson, seeing the value in both the cognitive and the volitional understandings of faith.

* * *

This puts me in mind of Edith Humphrey’s paper at the most recent Ancient Evangelical Future conference. She resisted the postmodern tendency to suppress propositional approaches to theology in favor of narrative approaches.

Like Luke Timothy Johnson, Edith understands that our faith is a both-and kind of faith (Jesus is both fully God and fully human). And she showed in some detail why we need both narrative and propositional thinking in order to live as followers of the Great Both/And.

Read more!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Forgotten Church Discipline

An Alabama blogger named Ron Etheridge has linked to a 2005 series of articles on church discipline from the pages of Christianity Today. One of the articles, "Healing the Body of Christ," was mine, but until he pointed to it, I'd forgotten I'd written it. (Such are the demands of my life, that I must, as St. Paul says, constantly press toward the mark, forgetting those things that are behind.)

Here's that 2005 article, which discusses the high ethical demands of church membership in the apostolic and patristic eras and ties those demands to the character of God.

The points are parallel to article 5 of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future, which demands that the "spiritual formation of the people of God" be "based firmly on a Trinitarian biblical narrative." Article 5 continues:

We are concerned when spirituality is separated from the story of God and baptism into the life of Christ and his Body. Spirituality, made independent from God's story, is often characterized by legalism, mere intellectual knowledge, an overly therapeutic culture, New Age Gnosticism, a dualistic rejection of this world and a narcissistic preoccupation with one's own experience. These false spiritualities are inadequate for the challenges we face in today's world. Therefore, we call Evangelicals to return to a historic spirituality like that taught and practiced in the ancient catechumenate.

And now, my 2005 article:

Healing the Body of Christ

Church discipline is as much about God as it is about erring believers.

All of the offerings in this special section presume one particular truth: that church discipline hinges on a high-demand understanding of what makes the church the church.

In For the Glory of God, Baylor sociologist of religion Rodney Stark discusses the dynamics of high-intensity religious movements. High-intensity religion is often created by reformations, he says, by attempts to restore religious belief and practice in existing organizations to a more demanding level. When such attempts fail, reformers are pushed out of the existing structures and create "high-intensity religious alternatives." That is what happened in the 16th-century magisterial and radical reformations, as well as in later movements such as Methodism, Puritanism, Quakerism, and the Salvation Army.

In economic terms, high-intensity religion demands a high price. But, Stark points out, people will pay a high price to obtain a product of high value. And high-demand evangelical religion indeed offers great value: transformed lives, support and motivation for moral reform, a deep sense of connection to a community of believers, intimacy with God, and ultimately, salvation.

Evangelicalism sprang to life in the ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield. Methodism, in both its Wesleyan and Calvinistic forms, expected a reorientation of the affections from worldly pursuits to godly goals. Rigorous moral, financial, spiritual, and practical disciplines have long been part and parcel of evangelical religion.

But over the past few decades, evangelicalism's eagerness to reach the lost has taken a cue from a different economic model: discount retailing, where prices are low and the customer is king. In some corners, a radically abstracted doctrine of justification by faith has been used to marginalize any concern for renewed and reoriented lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this "cheap grace."

In the beginning, things were not so. The religion of Yahweh was distinct from other religions of the ancient Near East because it emphasized the ethical imitation of its god: "Be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44, CF. Lev. 19:2, 1 Pet. 1:15-16). The prophet Moses taught that choosing and living the right and good leads to health for individuals, families, and society. Choosing the wrong and corrupt leads to death. These themes run through the final chapters of Deuteronomy and come to a climax in 30:15ff: "See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. … This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…"

The followers of Jesus understood their calling in similar terms. They called their movement "The Way." And The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, one of the earliest and most highly esteemed Christian documents that almost made it into the New Testament (and written while some of the apostles were still alive), begins, "There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways." The book goes on to exhort readers to love God and neighbor, forgive enemies, and avoid adultery, fornication, and idolatry.

Reconciling the Brother

This early ethical focus arose from the theological. God's saving action brought with it the demand that our lives mirror his character. Church discipline was (and is) one of the key ways of manifesting the intersection of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our faith.

The classic text for discussing church discipline is Matthew 18:15-20. Despite the way we often use the text, it is not about procedure. Jesus is teaching first about reconciliation between "brothers"—that is, fellow followers of Jesus. "If your brother sins against you," Jesus begins, "go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." Reconciliation is the goal. The church gets involved only when the offending brother refuses to reconcile. And if that brother remains unrepentant, the church should "treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

Though the focus is on the horizontal, Matthew does not omit the vertical dimension. For Jesus concludes by saying, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." God affirms the results of both failure and success in reconciliation. (Heaven was often used as a metonym for God.)

Likewise, when in the same chapter Jesus tells Peter to forgive "seventy times seven," seemingly without limit, he adds a warning in the form of a parable. He tells about a servant who begged his king to cancel his debts, but who then turned around and threw another man who owed him money into debtor's prison. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you," Jesus said, "unless you forgive your brother from your heart." This is a matter of simple congruity: Receiving forgiveness from God requires giving forgiveness to brothers and sisters.

We see the vertical and the horizontal intersect in Romans 6, as well. Paul categorically rejects the idea that God's grace abounding unto sinners means that we may continue in sin. "By no means!" he exclaims. To continue in sin would be incongruous.

He writes in startling terms: "We have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." He goes on to unpack these ideas: Our old selves were crucified so that we might be freed from our enslavement to sin and made alive to God, just as the resurrected Christ is alive to God. We no longer "present our members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity," but we "now present [our] members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification."

The Divine Family

All of this turns on the idea that we are "in Christ." We are made "alive to God in Christ Jesus." In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul teaches us to think of Christ as the second Adam, that is, the head of a new human race. And as reborn people, we belong to that new humanity of which Christ Jesus is the head.

So when we talk about the church, we are not talking about a voluntary society of people who share compatible religious views or similar religious experiences. We are instead talking about those who are related by (re)birth into a new family. We are talking about the body parts of Christ. Our relationships to each other (the horizontal) do not exist apart from our relationship with God in Christ (the vertical). Indeed, it is our vertical relationship with Christ that makes possible our horizontal relationships with each other. The vertical constitutes the horizontal.

Now we are ready to understand why alienation and sin in the church must be dealt with, why accountability is essential, why reconciliation is not optional. It is inconceivable that Christ should be at war with himself. Alienation between followers of Jesus is tantamount to slicing open the body of Christ. Reconciliation between followers is the healing of that wound.

It is also inconceivable that Christ should sin. That is why Paul recommends that a flagrant sinner be separated from the church and handed over to Satan "so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord" (1 Cor. 5:5). Christ cannot ignore the sin or division in his body any more than you or I can ignore a growing, cancerous tumor.

Then again, reconciliation between followers or restoration of a sinner is as if a wound is healed, a cancer cured, and full health and vitality restored to the body, Christ's body.

High demand, indeed. High reward, especially.

David Neff is editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today.
Read more!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Martin Marty on Ancient-Future Evangelicals

On Monday, the day before he turned 80, senior church historian Martin Marty took note of Christianity Today's cover story in his weekly "Sightings" commentary.

Back to Marty. He credits the CT cover story for stimulating some reflections on how American evangelicalism has changed and stayed the same.

These thoughts were brought on this week by my reading of Chris Armstrong's "The Future Lies in the Past," subtitled "Why evangelicals are connecting with the early church as they move into the 21st century," in the February issue of Christianity Today. Armstrong takes off with a report on the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference on "The Ancient Faith for the Church's Future." He pays tribute to the recently-deceased Bob Webber, the pioneer in this "connecting" work. Many of us had paid tribute to him as he lay near death at the time of a 2006 conference on this theme, one in which I participated and found ample opportunity to do some sizing up. As Armstrong describes it, this growing minority is weary and wary of an evangelicalism that puts too many of its bets on growth for growth's sake, triumphalism, present-mindedness, and repudiation of the Christian past.

The 2006 conference Marty refers to was the first conference on the Call to an Ancient-Evangelical Future, where he was one of the speakers.

Marty notes that a small minority have migrated to liturgical churches, but that the issue for most Ancient-Future evangelicals is not migration but positive change based on ancient understandings: "Most remain in the churches of which they were a part, but bring in change—not made up of novelties, but based on the early Christian church. The changes are to be used not as antiques or period pieces, but as challenges to many of the forms that took over in recent decades."

You can trust Marty to get to the heart of things. Read his full commentary here.

And for more on Chris Armstrong check his blog. Read more!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Finding the Primacy of the Biblical Narrative--in the Bible!

John Kirn, interim president of Northern Seminary, recently wrote his response to what he heard at our December conference on "the primacy of the biblical narrative." Where does one get such an idea? From the Bible itself, says Kirn. Read his essay here.
Read more!