Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Redemptive Movements in Social Issues

This post might be epic, so brace yourselves…

Let me start by giving a little bit of context. For a long time, evangelicals have resisted any involvement in "social" or "environmental" issues because they were perceived as "liberal" issues. The Bible and its gospel, it was assumed, have nothing to do with material and "earthly" concerns. It is solely about spiritual redemption and forgiveness. I'll be honest, I see very little difference between this conception of the gospel and the ancient Gnostic heresies. Evangelicals are finally beginning to embrace these other issues thanks in no small part to Post-Modern Emergent Church thinkers who have forced the Evangelical community to recognize that material/physical concerns are every bit as much a part of the redemptive work of the gospel as the forgiveness of sins. So just as a side note, I cringe whenever I hear Evangelicals bashing Post-modernity or the Emerging Church not because I don't think there are things about both those movements that need to be criticized but because I think a blind rejection of them will likely lead to a repeating of the same mistakes that caused Evangelicals to be laughed out of the intellectual world and forced into a "Christian ghetto" after the rise of Modernism.

So… the basic story is that Evangelicals are now thinking about social and environmental issues. In discussing a session of a conference of Evangelical Scholars that I am at right now in New Orleans, a friend of mine who is a grad student at Wheaton College asked what I think is a very appropriate question. She asked what is different about Christian involvement in these issues versus secular involvement? It seems like, she argued and I think she is right, that our involvement in these issues should be very much a reflection of the gospel message. So how do we do that?

I think first of all that we have to frame the discussion by understanding what we mean by the gospel. I think the mistake of the past has been to adopt one metaphor among many used in the New Testament for redemption, namely a legal metaphor concerning the forgiveness of sins, and assume that is the entirety of the gospel. Its certainly a part of it, but I think it is not the end of the story. A personal friend and former professor of mine named Dave Malick gave a presentation at this conference this morning in which he rehashed something he used to teach us in his classes- a way of charting stories known as the "Mono-myth" or "Cyclical Story." It follows the four seasons and traces the fall from summer to winter and the redemptive movement (spring) out of this to return to summer. This cycle is I think what is captured by the gospel- in terms of the legal metaphor, we were created perfect, but have fallen via sin into death. But our guilt has been taken away by the substitutionary death of Jesus and therefore we rise again to life. In terms of the greater cycle of redemption, it seems that our sin carries with it the consequence of destroying the order of creation, bringing pain and misery, evil and brokenness into the world. Jesus has begun the work of redemption, a work that we continue and that he will finish at his return, of restoring the order of the world to the way things should be. Another conference session I sat in on today (actually, the one that sparked this conversation) given by a scholar named Daniel Block proved very helpful for me in understanding this. His belief is that humans were created to be representatives of God (I wholeheartedly agree), which implies a service to God. In fact, the context of man's creation in Genesis two implies a service to God in taking care of the garden. So in contrast to our very frequent understanding that the earth is here for us to use, we are here to care for the earth (this discussion revolved primarily around environmental issues). He begins to make this connection as well- the same language used of man's role in the garden is used to describe the Levite's role in the tabernacle/temple. I think we can extend, then, his argument beyond environmental issues and also argue that the people of God, as God's representatives, have a similar obligation to care for the other people of the world. All of this is in the context of a redemptive movement, of restoring the world to how it should be, of establishing God's kingdom. It is all supposed to be a reflection of the gospel.

Thus far, however, all I have accomplished is laying out a redemptive theology that encompasses more than the forgiveness of sins. I think if this means anything, though, it must be something that is practiced, something that we do. So the question on the table is how, practically, do we reflect this redemptive mindset in our engagement with social and environmental issues? How does the way that we go about addressing these issues reflect the idea that we are acting as agents of redemption in service to the Agent of redemption, Jesus Christ?

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Very, Very Brief History of Christian Thought

Prompted by a conversation with a friend (and roommate) of mine that got me thinking on this and then I couldn't get it out of my head, so I started writing… Also prompted because I think its important that we understand our heritage as Christians in terms of the history of where the things we believe came from.

Christianity starts out as "Judaism fulfilled"- a group mostly consisting of Jews and gentiles who were already sympathetic to Judaism who proclaimed Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of a messiah. They consider themselves part of Judaism and not a separate movement.

As persecution breaks out, and particularly after the Jewish revolt against Rome, Christianity and Judaism part ways until Christians find themselves as a separate entity in the eyes of the world. In response to charges of being a group of crazies from many Roman onlookers, Christianity begins to adopt more Greco-Roman philosophy (moving away from its Hebraic roots) to explain its doctrines. This eventually results in the emergence of classical theology. It also, however, results in the rise of many heresies that are based on Greco-Roman ideas applied to Christianity and taken too far. In response to these heresies, the Church develops a body of tradition (there isn't really a clear view on a canon of scripture yet) that becomes the Ecumenical Creeds (Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, etc). These creeds become the "cornerstone" of Christian orthodoxy in a sense- they are written to denounce heretical views and provide a basic core of doctrines that all Christians are expected to adhere to (things like the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, the incarnation, resurrection, ascension and return, etc.). There is also a strong sense of community in the creeds- one of the primary defenses against heresy is the declaration that all churches hold these doctrines, so heretics are proven wrong by their going against what the whole Church teaches. This focus on the universal (catholic) church kinda gets lost after the Reformation (and particularly after the rise of Baptist churches), but that's another story.

The church doesn't stay unified for very long. The Eastern church follows a much more "mystical" road and eventually comes to see tradition as king in theology (because there is only so much we can know propositionally when we are mystics). The Western church becomes more "logically" based- they want to write theology and not just mystically contemplate it (I'm really oversimplifying, I'm sure)- and so they see rational thinking and scripture as equal sources of theology with tradition in theory. In practice, the decrees of the Pope become more and more powerful and begin to shift in a more and more questionable direction, prompting the Reformation.

The Reformers are reacting against a Roman Church that sees itself as the source of true doctrine. So they put forth the idea of "sola scriptura"- that only in Scripture can we find true doctrine. This is the basic idea of Evangelicalism (which is Europe is more or less the catch phrase for all Protestants). However, scripture has to be interpreted for us to understand it, and this to some extend depends on philosophy, tradition, and other similar factors. This results in a lot of division among Protestants over doctrinal issues- Calvin vs. Arminius vs. Wesley, for instance. Or debates over infant baptism or church government structure. Eventually, after the Enlightenment and the rise of Modern Philosophy, many Protestants will claim that the scriptures are just a human writing and that we need to build our beliefs purely from a human, philosophical understanding. This gives rise to Liberalism. In response to this came Fundamentalism, a very radically conservative movement that tended to create large lists of things that were "fundamental" beliefs in order to try and brand all their enemies as "heretics" or "non-believers" who could be dismissed and ignored. Fundamentalists got very quickly laughed out of the academic world, started fighting with each-other over what qualified as "fundamental" and really disgraced themselves in a lot of ways. Modern Evangelicalism/Conservative Theology is an attempt to correct Fundamentalism by claiming the essential Protestant beliefs that it is primarily from scripture that we derive doctrine, but also acknowledging the role of philosophy, tradition, history, etc in interpreting scripture and being more open to a variety of viewpoints so long as those viewpoints can in some sense be derived from the Bible.

There are many other things that play into each of the viewpoints we have very briefly described here. This mainly just discusses their view on the authority or source of doctrine, though I have left the content of that doctrine alone for the most part. So in addition to these distinctions we could talk about individual denominational distinctions that are mostly based on their views of particular doctrinal issues. But I'll leave that alone for now...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Righteous Will Live by Faith

Very often when we think about what it means to "have faith" we think of this in terms of a very abstract, distant thing- a "belief" that we hold about God. Frequently having faith in Jesus means that we believe that he is real, or we believe (in a very abstract sense) that he is the savior who forgives our sins. Which we should, those are all good beliefs to hold. But James tells us that even the demons believe these things. So what separates holding these beliefs from faith?

In thinking about what Paul means when he discusses our faith, its important to look back at where he is drawing a lot of his information from in the Old Testament. Paul makes the statement that the righteous live by faith, a statement he derives from Habakkuk. How does Habakkuk understand faith. In a lengthy vision or prophecy, he describes the contrast between those who are wicked- those who serve themselves and trust in their own ability to accomplish what they want- and the righteous- those who trust in God to make everything right in the future, who are not violent or treacherous but are obedient to God, humble, and compassionate to others. It seems that from the standpoint of Habakkuk, faith is not an abstract belief in God or in a theological claim. Faith is much more personal than that. Faith is a guiding principle, a trust in God to accomplish what he says he will accomplish. As a result of this faith, we are certain kinds of people, we live a certain way. Without some-sort of response, faith is worthless. James and Paul will both make that point very clear in the New Testament. Faith is very much rooted in who we are and how we live, not in what we say we "believe."

So in light of this, here is a question to ponder: What is the source of our faith? What causes us to have faith or where do we get our faith from? What makes our faith "real," causes us to live as those with faith in God and not as those who put our trust in ourselves?

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