Thursday, October 1, 2015

The central evangelical strength is also its main weakness

The scholarly definition of evangelical is best summarised by Bebbington's quadrilateral: "biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism." Fred Sanders, while introducing the Trinity as understood and expressed by Evangelicals, observes the central weakness of evangelicalism as soteriological over-emphasis (aka "over-realised soteriology") in the beginning of his book, The Deep Things of God: how the Trinity changes everything
"When evangelicalism wane into an anaemic condition, as it sadly has in recent decades, it happens in this way: the points of emphasis are isolated from the main body of Christian truth and handled as if they are the whole story rather than the key points. Instead of teaching the full council of God (incarnation, ministry of healing and teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming), anaemic evangelicalism simply shouts its one point of emphasis louder and louder (the cross! the cross! the cross!). But in isolation from the total matrix of Christian truth, the cross doesn't make the right kind of sense.A message about nothing but the cross is not emphatic. It is reductionist. The rest of the matrix matters." (Sanders, The Deep Things of God, 16)
However this is the essential strength of evangelicals, the focus on salvation, Jesus and the Bible. It's also the main weakness because the context that gives those three topics meaning and significance is lost if you tune up the volume all the way to "eleven". On the one-hand weekly preaching requires a weekly sequence of clear ideas returning to these central themes. On the other-hand, that gets boring and theologically lopsided very quickly. The tonic of course is exegetical preaching where you wrestle with the ideas as they turn up, putting them in their local context, the wider Scriptural context and then the listeners context. While trying not to be Hegelian, it's a see-saw of pushing your evangelical congregation to be enthusiastic about salvation, Jesus and the Bible while all the time challenging them with the confusing, controversial and strange ideas of Scripture.

[From left to right, top to bottom: William Wilburforce, Billy Graham, Christianity Today, Peter Akinola]

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Gospel and Culture

Another painting from the Red Thread collection, 'Running Home'. The girl is like Paul Revere riding across the countryside to warn the colonialists of the approaching redcoats. Her movement across the sky towards the light on the hill should be a warning to the village below. The gospel is like that, the warning is true and urgent and changes everything around us, like a light on a hill, illuminating our reality.

That is what makes Carl Trueman's criticism of the "transformative" view so frustrating. How would something so important and urgent as the gospel not be a warning to the world around, not shine out like a light illuminating the surrounding world?  'Ideas have consequences', the gospel changes everything. The Gospel motivates us to care for the treatment of children in detention centres, to be frustrated by the hollow denouement of Madmen and to seek human flourishing across our desks and kitchen tables. How could it not?

Another version of Trueman's two kingdom approach to 'Christ and culture', is artificially separating conversion (aka gospel ministry) from the rest of life. As if making disciples (Matthew 28:19), is only about first-contact and not your wallet, bed-sheets or screen. The gospel is heard, understood and applied in a million small ways, during movies, across breakfast or in a ditch. Now, we don't have to blur genres so to speak; painting Bible verses on surfboards in order to apply the gospel to surfing. The local church has a narrow purpose, to make and gather disciples, but God's Kingdom extends way beyond 10am on Sundays. In other words theology like medicine should be studied and understood and then if it's true, applied.

This isn't to condone clumsy campaigns to ban books or to implement the Old Testament laws on modern society (Theonomy) but it does mean we should be having the discussion about what gospel shaped human-flourishing should look like and how in a hostile world do we live out what we believe. Contra Trueman, civilisation ebbs and flows and sometimes the cultural impact of Christianity is disproportionate to it's size. I need all the encouragement I can get to live out the gospel in every aspect of my life. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jonathan Edwards Conference Reflections

For my study leave I recently attended a conference [technically a congress] about Jonathan Edwards at Ridley College. Overall I was struck by the usefulness of thinking through various contemporary debates through the prism of Edwards' expansive remarks. (A good summary of Edwards via Rhys Bezzant. "The last puritan and the first evangelical.") A few reflections on some of the keynote speakers and papers presented and a couple of the conversations over lunch.

'Edwards and the freedom of the will' by Chris Stead
How do we square Edwards' traditional understanding of providence with secondary causation without making God the author of evil? The Enlightenment was in full swing at the time of Edwards with it's growing focus on the independence of nature. Edwards was reacting (rightly) against the independent determination of 'natural philosophy.' He saw providence not as fatalism but as the personal decrees of God worked out in the world. He does this because he sees the glory of God everywhere. Stead suggests that because Edwards was a man of his time reacting to problems of his time  And so Edwards doesn't adequately explain the relationship between providence and secondary causes, particularly in the light of the complex interrelated nature of causation in the world.

'Being seen and being known' by Kyle Strobel
Strobel outlined Edwards' theological anthropology. Basically it's that people exist because God sees them, "God's perception upholds and defines reality." Edwards describes us in this way because of the "beatific vision", the internal delight, beauty and glory of God that then overflows into creation, redemption and restoration. Becoming a Christian is about seeing the Son, which is an echo of the way the Father gazing on the Son.
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Salvation is essentially then partaking in the life of God. We were created with the Holy Spirit, but then are barren after the Fall and the Spirit is restored in our salvation. Then there was a fascinating aside about humans as being more substantial than the reality around them. Also during question time Strobel commented that the doctrine of Justification is about Christ first and foremost and is applied to us because of our connection to Jesus.

'Christology in Conflict' by Corne Blaauw
This was a fascinating paper presented by a doctoral student looking at Edwards' Christology. Blaauw argues Edwards arrives at the right view with some peculiar reasoning and also observes that there's no scholarly consensus on Edwards' Christology. Blaauw's solution is to outline a more comprehensive Christology based on a wide variety of Edward's sermons and notes. I was struck by Edwards' description of Jesus' human nature "accommodating", in it's disposition, the glory of God. "Jesus Christ is the Shining forth of the Father's Glory"

'Jonathan Edwards: Christian Zionist' by Gerald McDermott
McDermott's thesis was the Edwards' theology sometimes sounds like supersessionism (the Church replaces Israel) but that he brings in a strong Christian Zionism through an eschatological back door. McDermott started by showing how Edwards arrived at his Christian Zionism with a brief theological and historical tour that started in the New Testament.  For example he noted the early church's participation in temple life and the Zionistic emphasis of the New Jerusalem, gates named after the twelves tribes. Although the early church fathers (Justin Martyr and Tertullian) were hostile to Judaism, they also surprisingly affirmed the restoration of the people of Israel to the land of Israel. Full blown replacement theology arrives with Origen. McDermott then traces some interesting themes of Christian Zionism from the notes of the Geneva Bible into Puritan theology (e.g. Brightman) and then into New England. Jonathan Edwards, reacting to the rising force of Deism and it's attendant anti-Semitism, argued for a strong degree of continuity between the Old and New Covenants. (We are saved by the trusting in the mercy of God in both.) Edwards, a Post-millennialist, thought that Calvin had adopted too much of Augustine's A-millennialism which over spiritualised things and didn't give enough attention to the bodily nature of redemption. McDermott closed by observing that Christian Zionism has an ancient pedigree and shouldn't be tied to the modern manifestation of dispensationalism. For Edwards he saw God's hand at work in history, and the Jewish people returning to their land as part of the glory of God being expressed in the world.

'Jonathan Edwards and the nature of imputation in Original Sin' by Heber Carlos de Campos
De Campos argued that Edwards' view of Original Sin is a Reformed expression of that doctrine. Campos' presentation was notable for his clear outline of how Original Sin is transmitted from Adam to us. Oliver Crisp argues that 'Edwards fused realism and representation.' Realism is an obscure way to say we're sinful therefore we have Original Sin, without clearly explaining how it makes that jump between Adam and us. So how is guilt transmitted? Generally there are two competing answers, guilt comes through personal corruption or guilt comes through representation. To help us navigate an answer through Edwards and more generally de Campos outlined six characteristics of the doctrine.
  1. Sin rightly understood is both a privation and perversion, not just a lack of original righteousness, sin is destructive.
  2. Original Sin encompasses both guilt and corruption, it's a two fold problem solved by the two fold work of Christ, justification and sanctification.
  3. Adam holds both a natural and a federal relationship with his posterity. Just Jesus is the legal or federal head of the Christian, so Adam is the legal or federal head of the sinner. Remarkably, we don't have a genetic or natural relationship with Jesus, so our union unlike with Adam has a mystical, Holy Spirit created nature. 
  4. God creates individual souls, there isn't a master 'soul blob' [my phrase for Traducianism] in Adam.
  5. The communication of corruption is to a degree mysterious, like the communication of holiness by the Holy Spirit through our union with Christ, mysterious.  
There is an important but neglected parallel with justification. We might argue that's it's unfair for God to credit Adam's guilt to us, but our righteous standing before God because of our faith in Jesus is also unfair. De Campos noted that modern interpreters sometimes struggle with the idea Adam being a representative because of our post Enlightenment emphasis on individual agency and responsibility.

'Hero or Herald? Agency and Authority in The Life of Brainerd by Edwards.' Rhys Bezzant 
As part of a larger project about how the famous people of Christian history mentored others, Rhys analysed the topic of evangelical leadership, through the lens of Edwards's biography of Brainerd. Brainerd was a missionary in the mid 1700's to the American Indians. Brainerd was relatively successful despite poor health and a lack of formal qualifications. Since then he's been held up as a heroic leader, boldly evangelising the Indians. Rhys opened by quoting Vishal Mangalwadi's observation that Christian leadership subverts the cultural norm of heroic superman with the model of  suffering servant.  However Edwards' biography of Brainerd is almost a hagiography which plays well in the modern evangelical climate of promoting entrepreneurial "big L leaders." Rhys then made the case that if you look closely you see in Brainerd a man who struggled and also willingly operated within a larger ecclesiology and framed his work eschatologically and not as "a big L leader." "We need heralds who are privately godly and not public heroes" in ministry argued Rhys.

Economics with Andrew Schuman
Over one lunch I asked someone doing a combined Theology-MBA degree at Yale for a Christian approach to economics. He suggested this:
  1. Against Quietism we say that we need to be involved in the political economy because an economy is made of people doing things, who both need the gospel and need to live out the gospel.
  2. Rather than adopting a partisan approach, outline a set of commitments Christians should have, eg Justice, care for the poor, freedom etc and encourage them to make specific economic decisions based on those commitments. 
  3. Finally economic involvement is a form of evangelism, by graciously expressing those commitments you begin a conversation about God's big story and you show the love of Christ for them by not adopting a partisan approach. 

Theodicy with Tim and Mark
Over another lunch I asked two pastors, Tim from Victoria and Mark from Perth (I didn't catch their their last names) about theodicy. This came out of one of the themes of the conference, did Edwards' emphasis on God's glory in creation and redemption make him the author of evil and what's a practical pastoral response? Together they suggested this mini framework.
  1. Delayed Judgement is a mercy
  2. God is able to act in spite of evil = an unnecessary statement if evil is part of God's glory
  3. God's Holiness and unResponsibility for evil = Just as we hold Jesus' divinity and humanity together without (we shouldn't anyway) artificially talking as though they were independent things, we should talk about these two aspects of God.