No, you aren’t the only Jesus some people will see…

Standard

jesus_in_mirrorYou’ve probably heard it one time or another. Someone, well meaning, says, “You know, lots of people will never darken the doors of a church or go to an evangelistic meeting. So if you are working with someone, or going through the line at the grocery story, remember, You might be the only Jesus some people will see.”

There’s even songs written to this effect. Like the old Imperials song, “You’re the Only Jesus.”

But is that true?

Karl Barth, in a remarkably short sentence (for Barth), puts it this way (with light edits for quotability):

“Jesus is immanent in the Church only as He is transcendent to it.” (CD 1/1, 100-1)

Barth’s big point, I think, is to remind us that while indeed Jesus is the one who is present to and in his people, the Church, he is always and only the transcendent Lord of the Church.

I happen to think Barth has it right here. There is an asymmetrical relationship between Jesus, the Head, and the Church, the Body of Christ. We can’t put a big equal sign between “Head” and “Body.” They are vitally (literally vitally!) connected, but they are far from being the same thing.

So if Barth is right, that means:

  • Jesus is a self-giving Gift to the Church, but he is never a “Given.” Just because the Church is Christ’s chosen covenant partner doesn’t mean that the Church can presume that Jesus is present in all of the church’s witness and actions. Indeed, there may well be times when the Body acts independently (and rebelliously) against the Head. In those instances, we should be thankful that we aren’t the only Jesus people can see.
  • Jesus works and acts in the Church, but is not constrained only to work and act in the Church. It is true again that Christ has chosen the Church to be his primary covenant partner by which he carries out his Father’s mission in the world. But we should be under no delusion that somehow Jesus is restricted to working only in the church and no where else. If God could use Balaam’s ass to speak his word then, he can surely use some other ass to speak his word today.
  • The Church can point others to Jesus in their midst, but they can only point to the Jesus who is in their midst. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that by introducing people to ourselves as Christians that we have somehow automatically introduced these people to Jesus. Just because he’s in the room doesn’t mean people know him just because we are there. You might see something of me in my children, but there is no way you would make the mistake of assuming that because you’ve met my children that you’ve met me. Now if you’ve met Jesus, on the other hand, then you have met his Father (John 14:9)…but that’s a little bit different story!
  • No, you and I aren’t the only Jesus some people will see. Actually, if Barth is right, people may very well  see Jesus in our midst. But it is nearly blasphemous, or at least we are putting a little too much faith in ourselves and a little bit too much pressure on ourselves, to think that somehow we “need to be Jesus” to others.

Let’s make it simple this Christmas Season. If we want people to know Jesus, let’s be sure to do our utmost actually to introduce them to Him. In the words of the Samaritan woman,

“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:29)

 

Remembrance Day for Aliens and Strangers

Standard


Briercrest College Chapel November 9, 2015
Text: 1 Peter 2:11-17

It’s September 14, 1938, and my father is on ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s his 9th birthday (he remembers getting a whole orange to himself!) and he is with his family—his father and mother, his grandfather, and 8 other siblings, and thepoppyy are headed to Canada, leaving their homeland of Poland behind. Rumours of war have been brewing in Poland, and their pastor has encouraged the Guretzki clan to leave for their well-being. Why? That has never been made clear to me, but it may be because the name Guretzki was a common Jewish name, and you only need to be scarcely aware of some of things happening during that time that might suggest the need either to lay low or leave. Indeed, just a few weeks after my father’s family arrived in Canada, on Nov 9, 1938—77 years ago on this very day—that Hitler’s so-called Storm Troopers attack and destroy Jewish homes, businesses, and houses of worship. The terror, Kristalnacht—The Night of Broken Glass—would result in dozens of Jewish deaths, and the arrest of tens of thousands of other Jews who were sent to concentration camps, many of whom never returned home. By God’s providential mercy, my father’s family—the family with the Jewish sounding name—were spared.

But things were far from rosy in the dilapidated farm house north of Edmonton where my father’s family settled after the long journey from Poland. The winter that year was brutal. Water left in a pail in the house would be frozen solid by morning. There was no social assistance, and the family survived on potatoes and cabbages given to them by the folks from the local Pentecostal church. My grandparents wondered if they’d made a mistake in coming. Then on Feb 14, 1939, just months after arriving in Canada, my grandfather fell sick. He was rushed to hospital 40 miles away, which turned into a nightmarish journey because the car kept breaking down along the way in the sub -40 below zero temperatures that day.  That night Grandpa died, leaving behind his young widow and family. Say what we want about Christian hope of the resurrection, but I can’t imagine Grandma took easy comfort that Valentine’s Day. For her, Feb 14 must have ever after been a perpetual reminder of the horrible day she and 9 kids under 14 were left alone, aliens and strangers in a strange new world.

Dan asked me some time ago to provide some reflections on a Christian perspective on Remembrance Day which we will observe this week, so you’ll forgive me if this bit of my own family’s life history may not seem immediately to relate. I hope it eventually will. As far as  Remembrance Day goes, my family hasn’t been involved much in the military. My Dad was too young to serve in the military, and few in my extended family have served. I have two uncles who served, but frankly, I know little of their story. One I didn’t even know and one I visited maybe twice in my life, and all I know of him is that later in his life, the war memories haunted him to his dying days. So I can’t really speak from the perspective of one affected directly.

When I began preparing for today, I start where I usually start: In search of a text. As I prayed, I landed on 1 Peter 2, which we have just heard read. Turn with me again to this text and let me point you first to vss. 13-14: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Sure, it would be easy, and indeed, right, to tell you that Remembrance Day, for the Christian, is one day when we should stop momentarily, remind ourselves and one another, that much of what we enjoy today—the freedoms to worship, to move around freely, even to attend a theological school—were won and protected by the blood and scars of many before, especially in those instances in the past when we went to war to fight an evil that seemed to be so clearly Evil, and when the Just cause seemed to be self-evidently Just. My father’s family didn’t know it in their immediate tragic situation, but eventually would see the blessing of having escaped the ravages of the war in Poland. And eventually enjoying the blessings of living in a country like Canada, despite their initial hardships.

And so, I must not fail to exhort you today to obey what Peter by the Spirit has commanded us: Honor the authorities, honor the king. And do this by honoring the ones sent, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, to do the king’s bidding. We don’t have to agree on our theology of war or Christian involvement in the military to do this very thing. It is significantly different to honor the king than to agree with the king. Indeed, I can’t imagine Peter agreeing with the King of his day, especially since it was possibly Domitian (Dom-ish-an) who was the Emperor at the time and who opposed all who denied his divinity. But Peter—and Paul in Rom 13—both say: Submit to the authorities and give honor where honor is due. And so on this Remembrance Day, do what you can to honor those who have served, even when those “in charge” have sometimes acted against our own theological convictions. You may attend a Remembrance Day service, or wear a poppy, or not. Or you may say a pray for those who are serving now and those who have served, and especially for those injured in body, mind, and spirit in the midst of their service. You don’t have to agree with individual’s decision to join the services. You don’t have to agree with the all the reasons we have gone to war. But at the very least, a basic sense of common honor should keep us from scorning those who have and do serve in this way.

But if that were all I had to say, I think you should be disappointed. I don’t give the preceding advice tritely, but there is nothing particularly Christian about it. Virtually anyone of any religious or political stripe should be able provide some level of civil honor. You don’t have to be Christian to be civil. But is that all that Peter is saying to us in this text?

As I studied the text more carefully, it was “context” that finally nailed it for me. You know, that fundamental rule of hermeneutics: always read a passage in its context. So as I reflected on Peter’s imperative to submit to authorities, I looked at the larger context. Unfortunately, in lots of Bibles there is a break between vs. 12 and 13, as there is in my NIV. But that break causes us to miss something vitally important, and that is that the way in which we submit to the authorities and honor the king depends in large part in first understanding who it is that we are. Let me explain.

Jump back to v. 9-10. There we discover we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. We also discover that once we weren’t a people but now we are the people of God. Such royal language! We should be proud—and indeed, we can be proud in the Lord. But then Peter does something unexpected in vs. 11. It as if he says, given all that you are, do not be surprised by what I am about to tell you: You are out of your element! Peter says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war [or as some translations put it, “wage war”] against your soul.” Here Peter, under the Spirit’s inspiration, reminds us that though we are a royal chosen people, we are nevertheless aliens and strangers in this world.

I guess when I first read that, I came to realize that really and truly, I don’t have much clue of what it must be like to be an alien and stranger, but as I recalled the stories from my father’s family—of their feelings of alienation and insecurity both in their homeland and in the land to which they have come—that I got maybe just a tiny glimpse of what it means to be an alien in our own world. Maybe there some of you here who can indeed relate firsthand to what Peter says, either now or at some time in your life. You know what it feels like to be the alien and stranger. We could learn a lot from you, I’m sure. But I also know that really, probably most of us really don’t “get it.”

Here’s the thing: Whether you can relate to the experience of being a “foreigner in a foreign land” or not, Peter here reminds us that regardless of the presence or absence of a feeling of alienation, the fact is that we, that strange band of Christ followers called the Church, are indeed aliens and strangers. As followers of the Stone rejected by men (v. 4), we should, therefore, not be surprised to be rejected also by the world.

But something really unfortunate has happened: Christ’s followers, us, have at times become so comfortable in this world that we have forgotten how unlike the world we are. We have forgotten that we really do not fit into the expectations and patterns of this world. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical state of being strangers and aliens who have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers! As my dad’s family struggled to find their place, I can’t imagine that they had to pinch themselves and say, “Oh yeah, we are strangers in this land!” They knew it and they lived it every day.

Now hold on to that thought for a moment, and let’s move on to the second thing that Peter points out in the second half of verse 11. Having reminded us that we are in fact aliens and strangers, Peter urges us: “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Some versions more accurately call these “fleshly desires”, but whatever they are, Peter makes clear how dangerous they are: they are waging war for your soul.

Notice how Peter combines two images: a sociological image—aliens and strangers—and a militaristic—of things waging war. And no doubt Peter combines these images for good reason. Even a semi-honest accounting of human history tells us that war, civil strife, and military action have caused more human alienation and suffering than anything else. Is this not what we are seeing in places like Syria even today?

Peter knows war damages stuff deeply. And not only stuff, but the people who engage in it and the people who involuntarily suffer under it. And yet, he also reminds: there are other things than war itself—things as hellish as war itself—that can and will do great damage to our very being.

At this point, we might cue up images of an ominous battle scene, the Orcs vs. the Dwarfs, Elven and Hobbits, complete with epic battle music! But that is not what happens. We might expect Peter (like Paul?) to say, “Now that you know these things are coming to destroy you, get ready to do battle with every piece of spiritual weaponry and bravado that you have!” But he doesn’t.

Instead he says: Abstain from these things. WHAT? Yes, you heard it. “Avoid those things.” Peter’s response is almost laughable. But indeed, that is all he says. Abstain from them. Simple measures for epic dangers.

Well, ok. But what are these things? Frankly, he doesn’t give us a list. He gives us no indications of what we should be on the look-out for. Why not? Maybe it’s because the things that seek to destroy us, that wage war against our souls, are self-evident when we see them. Sort of like seeing an Orc. You never have to wonder whether Orcs are of the friendly or unfriendly type. We just know they are there to destroy you. And there’s no second guessing the things that are waging war on our souls. Why not?

I think it’s because those of us who are living stones of God’s spiritual house (v. 5) already know full well what those Orcish, hellish, demonic desires are. Peter doesn’t tell us because the Spirit of God is fully capable and faithful of doing just that–in his time and in his way. Sure, we all need instruction of wise teachers and spiritual examples of godly living. But when it comes to the things that could destroy our soul, we already know what they are. We don’t need Peter, and you don’t need me and I don’t need you to tell me because God’s Spirit has already made it plain. You know it. I know it. That’s not the problem. By God’s Spirit you may even be able to name it right now. No, the problem isn’t that I don’t know it. The problem is that I simply don’t want to abstain from it.

And this is where the two images of v. 11 come together. You see, the problem is twofold: On the one hand, we have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers in this world; and on the other hand, we have gotten too comfortable and made false peace with those very things that are destructive to the souls of Christ’s followers. So what then shall we do? How do we show ourselves to be aliens in this world? How do we avoid being destroyed by these evil desires?

Peter gives us insight in v. 12: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong (as indeed, they will), they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” In other words, Peter says, Start living in this world as the aliens and strangers you already are. The world may not like it, and the world may not understand it, and the world may even accuse us of wrong doing. But know this one thing: One day, they will know what is right and that your citizenship is with God, and they will glorify God when Christ returns.

Well, where does that leave us when it comes to Remembrance Day? No, I haven’t forgotten about it. Shouldn’t we be talking about political theology? About pacifism and just war theory? About theories of political engagement? Certainly, those have their place, and those who know me know that I think these are critical issues to work through. But as I looked at this passage, I came to realize that these discussions are finally secondary to the fundamentals we’ve discussed this morning.  No matter your view on military service, 2 things are firm: 1) God’s people are strange, and 2) their strangeness is manifest in their refusal to make peace with the very things which are seeking to destroy us, AND that the things most trying to destroy us aren’t other peoples or nations. That doesn’t mean we don’t honor the King, but it does mean doing so in a way that refuses to allow our strangeness to be domesticated by the King’s demands.  I think this is implicit in the three things that Peter commands to us do in v. 17: Love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king.

1) First, love the brotherhood. Peter knows our Lord’s word: “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, by how you love one another.” It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said: Our primary “love allegiance” is not to the mother or fatherland, not to the flag, and not to the King or Queen. Our primary allegiance is with the King of Kings, our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the Church over whom he is Head. Therefore, we remember well when we remember to love our brothers & sisters in the Lord. (IDOP yesterday). And yet, when it comes to a day like Remembrance day, it is tragically ironic how easy it has been for a Christian pacifist violently to denounce his brother or sister in the Lord for taking a just war stance. And it is equally tragic and ironic how easily a Christian just war theorist can unjustly denounce, and even punish, her or his brother and sister who conscientiously objects, even to the point of labelling them as traitors to the State. Our failure to love another in the midst of our theological differences about Christian participation or abstinence in the military is already to put the allegiance to the Flag or the Country ahead of our Spiritual Communion in Christ’s Church.

The failure to love is the first and most deadly danger to Christians which Remembrance Day presents. Whether our theology permits us to participate or not, may we not grieve Holy Spirit of peace by treating our brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree as if they were the enemy. Practically, that means simple things like not turning your nose down at those who may wear a poppy though you may think you should not.  And vice versa. Or more positively, it might mean taking the time to sit down and listen to those with whom we disagree to get a better perspective. But whatever we do, me must do it with the recognition that we are CHRISTIANS—aliens & strangers—first, and Canadians (or Americans, or whatever) second, not the other way around.

2) Second, fear God. Notice that Peter puts Fear God before Honor the King?  Yet it is an unfortunate reality that so much of our present political climate is based on fear of each other (terrorists, immigrants, politicians, political parties, nation-states, etc.) rather than our fear of God. It is a sad state of affairs that we can so boldly pronounce our favor or disfavor for the State’s foreign policy, in its use of the military, and in its treatment of the foreigners and aliens in our midst, and yet be so timid in boldly pronouncing to one another against those things that battle for our very souls, and against the ways of God. It is, frankly, easier for us to condemn a political platform, or social or foreign policy, than to condemn the greed, laziness, gossip, rage, covetousness, overindulgence, prayerlessness, sexual immorality and plethora of other things that are killing our very souls. But let us recognize that our propensity to advocate for the things that make us safest and most security politically—even if there is nothing wrong to do so—is perhaps evidence that we more often speak and act out of our fear of people than out of fear of God our Father and Maker. On Remembrance Day, and on every other day, let’s not forget that all of us, kings and servants, prime ministers and citizens, men and women, rich and poor, will be called upon to give an account in the Last Day. And the question which we must soberly ask every day: Am I abstaining, even fleeing, from those desires that war against my soul?

3) Third, Honor the king. We do well to heed Peter’s words here. Peter doesn’t make the wrong assumption that fear of God means snubbing our noses at the King. On the contrary, being a follower of Jesus means acknowledging that all authorities in heaven and earth are under his domain. We do not have to dishonor lower case “k” kings in order to honor the upper case “K” King of Kings. But what we must remember is that it is only as children of the King of Heaven that we can honor the earthly kings and authorities. We do not honor God by honoring the king; we honor the king by first fearing the King.

So, on this coming Remembrance Day, let us never forget that first, we are aliens in a foreign world. We will be hated and challenged, whether at home or abroad, and so we should not be surprised when even in our observances of honor, we may be criticized because we haven’t fallen prostrate to the King, or we don’t jump on a militaristic bandwagon. Christians should be the first to realize that the State is Fallen, indeed, it often does evil things. Yet neither should we be armchair rebels and electronic revolutionaries who take potshots on Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere at those who have given and served on behalf of their fellow citizens, sometimes even with their own blood. To do so is to exercise a strange form of Christian anarchism that thinks we can live under the authorities without submitting to them, as Peter says, for the Lord’s sake. Indeed, for the Lord’s sake and for his glory, let’s us pay honor to those who have served, to those who are serving, even while remembering that we do so as spiritual expatriates whose kingdom is from above and whose King shall live forever. Amen.

Confessing Christ for Church and World: A Review

Standard

9780830840595

First, a few biases and necessary qualifications.

  • Kimlyn J. Bender’s book, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology was graciously sent to my by IVP for review. I was under no obligation to present a review in positive terms if I didn’t see it as a strong work. Fortunately, I have no problem, as you will see, giving this book high commendation.
  • Generally speaking, I tend to be wary of collections of essays–which this book is. I find that too often the essays are only loosely connected at best, and often it is difficult to see what they are together trying to accomplish. Bender’s collection does a lot to help me see how collected essays can actually be worth the effort of reading.
  • I am, for those who know me, obviously drawn to anything connected to the study of Karl Barth. So it was natural for me to want to take a closer look because I know of Bender’s earlier work on Barth’s ecclesiology.

With those biases and qualifications now on the table, let’s get into the review. I wish I could engage the book at the level it deserves, but there are such wide ranging issues covered in the book, that it would be impossible to do justice to them here. So instead, here are three of the most important qualities of this book which makes it worth getting and reading.

1) Confessing Christ for Church and World isn’t about Karl Barth, even though Karl Barth is Bender’s main interlocutor. 

This observation shouldn’t come as a surprise: the book’s title doesn’t even mention Barth.

But I admit that I came to the book with expectations that indeed, Barth would be mentioned often. He was.

Bender has previously published one of the best recent books on Barth’s ecclesiology, so I was expecting that Bender would carry on the good work he started there. He did.

But as noted, this is not a book about Karl Barth.

On the contrary, Bender succeeds, as well as anyone I have read in the past decade, to examine some central aspects of theological concern (ecclesiology, canon, christology, atheism, creation, redemption, etc.) and did so through the christological and dialectical lens which Barth has supplied.

In this regard, I think Barth would be gratified to read Bender’s book, because Bender only tells us what Barth believed about this or that topic for the purpose of getting to the substance of the debate itself, not to put Barth on display per se.

To put it another way, this is no collection of essays that tells us what Barth thought about canon or church or Christ, but it is a collection of essays displaying how understanding what Barth thought about these topics can help us to think through those topics today. Consequently, Bender should be upheld as one of that younger generation of Barth scholars who understands that Barth is important not primarily for his own sake, but because Barth helps us grapple with Scripture and the theological issues we are facing today–decades after Barth has already passed from the scene.

2) You’ve heard Barth is a “dialectical theologian.” Bender’s book not only reaffirms this, but displays how “dialectic” can actually be applied theologically today.

Again, Bender is not concerned primarily with the proper historical-theological task of documenting the various ways in which Barth’s theology is “dialectical.” That has been done ably many places elsewhere (most notably, of course, in Bruce McCormack’s work). Yes, Bender highlights Barth’s dialectical positions in many such ways in  this book. But Bender goes beyond this and takes those dialectics–the dialectics of Christ’s humanity and divinity, of Scripture as diverse and yet unified, of the irreversible dialectic of Scripture and tradition (or confessions), of the dialectic between Scripture and Church,  etc.–and shows how such upholding of both sides of the dialectic (often asymmetrically) is necessary to avoid forms of theological reductionism. It is unhelpful, in other words, to try to say, for example, “It is either Scripture OR tradition.” On the contrary, it is rather more important to say, What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition (or confession, or the church, etc.)? It is here that Barth’s dialectical positioning as highlighted in Bender can help guide us through these thorny issues.

As one who has actually worked in Barth for many years, even I have sometimes wondered how “dialectics” apply, even while I admit that it has become a lot clearer in past years. For me, the studies presented in Bender’s book will either help readers to understand what dialectics really are and why they are important, or it will provide concrete illustration of how dialectics actually informs theological decision making for those who are already theoretically committed to the underlying rationality of dialectical theology.

3) Many of Bender’s chapters simultaneously stand as self-standing primers and as constructive ways forward on certain theological topics. 

What I appreciated most about Bender’s skill is that many of his chapters could be read as stand-alone primers on a topic for a relatively keen theological novices. Want to know what’s going on in some of the contemporary currents of ecclesiology in American evangelicalism? Bender has a chapter on that. Want to know the basics of Schleiermacher’s christology? Read the “concluding postscript on Schleiermacher.”

But the great thing about Bender is that he is not satisfied with only setting out the contours of a theological debate, but expertly suggests constructive ways forward as well. Clearly, Bender is bringing pedagogical skill into his writing because he not only gives enough information on the topic to get a reader “up to speed” but invites the reader to move beyond the basics and to begin to participate in the act of theologizing itself.

Now, I wish I could summarize all of the chapters, because really, they are all worth reading. ( I don’t think I found myself once thinking, “I’ll just skip this one for the next.”) Thus, if pressed to select a favorite chapter, I would find myself in a quandary. So instead, I will highlight three of my favorites, one from each of the three sections of the book.

In “Part One: Church and Conversation,” Bender situates Barth’s ecclesiology in conversation with the dialogue partners of American theology, American  evangelicalism, and Catholicism. Here I believe that his chapter entitled, “An Old Debate Revisited: Karl Barth and Catholic Substance” gets at the heart of what it is that really sets Protestant and Roman Catholic ecclesiology apart. Bender’s ably engages with the Catholic theologian, Reinhart Hütter on the role of tradition and confession, but in the end shows why Hütter’s, and other Catholics, imprison the agency of the ascended Christ into the practices of the Church–a position which is ultimately incoherent with the ongoing free Lordship of Christ over the Church.

In Part Two: Canon and Confession, Bender’s chapter on “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism” stands clearly out for me. This is because Bender once again uses Barth to give a theological strategy of dealing with contemporary atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris–all without having to go into the messy details of what each of these have actually proposed. This is because Bender shows how Barth’s response to the atheism of his day can still stand as a model for how we engage those atheists of our day.

Most helpfully, Bender points out Barth’s refusal to address the atheist objectors on their own terms. This is usually the strategy of those who set out to respond with a apologetic for a general philosophical theism rather than a christologically and historically particular confession of the Gospel itself. Apologists have understandably struggled to provide philosophical “proof” for the existence of a triune God and have often opted simply to try to prove the reasonableness of an infinitely powerful, eternal deity.

But here Bender (via Barth’s guidance) counters: The best response to atheism is to refuse to try to prove the existence of the “god” whom atheists reject, but rather to out-narrate the atheists by re-telling the narrative of Jesus Christ. This is especially important because of how modern atheism is “parasitic” because it has its identity primarily in that which it rejects. Let’s just say, I loved this chapter and will point students to it regularly in the future.

There is a real treat in last section of the book, “Christ and Creation” and it is Bender’s essay entitled, “Standing Out in the Gifford Lectures: Karl Barth’s Non-natural Lectures on Natural Theology.” For those who may not be aware, Barth was asked in 1937-38 to deliver a series of lectures for the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, famous for being the most sustained conversation on the possibility of natural theology. Of course, Bender rightly notes the irony: “the world’s foremost opponent of natural theology now asked to give the world’s most famous lectures on natural theology” (315). It is well known that Barth, after giving only brief mention of natural theology, went on to deliver a series of lectures on the Scots Confession, an explicitly Christian theological confession written in 1560 by the Scottish Reformed church.

Barth’s tactic has often been viewed as simply his way of snubbing his nose at natural theology–and to be honest, it is at least that! But what is fascinating is how Bender draws out how Barth may not have actually been alone in questioning the assumptions of natural theology in the history of this event, noting how others such as McIntrye, James, and Hauerwas, too, have delivered the Gifford Lectures with implicit agreement with Barth at several points.

Once again, Bender is not simply satisfied with pointing out the historical parallels between what Barth and other Gifford lecturers did, but draws attention to how Barth’s lectures foreshadow what is now increasingly becoming recognized in scientific circles: that the object of inquiry demands its own methodology, and that the seeking of a universal scientific methodology which the Gifford lectures seemed to presuppose is no longer tenable even within the sciences themselves. Consequently, theology no longer needs to apologize for its own distinctive methods.

Conclusion

Bender’s book is, admittedly, not aimed at the beginning theological student and those without some training will likely get lost all too easily. That is too bad, because at another level, I think that Bender is doing something exemplary for us all: He is showing us how historical theology cannot be an end to itself, but serves systematic and confessional theology, and of course, the Church.

Bender teaches us that we read Barth and Schleiermacher and Calvin and Wesley and Augustine and Irenaeus and others not for their own sake, but because through them we have hope of seeing what they themselves saw or missed. In that regard, I would commend Bender’s essays as exemplary for theological students and scholars alike who want to know just what a theological essay in service to the Church looks like. May his lot increase!

Seven things Christians can do during a Majority Government

Standard

This week Prime Μinister Stephen Harper steps into the 41st Parliament with a majority government of 166 seats. The NDP, of course, begins its first session as the official opposition with 103 seats elected to Parliament. This is new ground for both.

It’s been a while since Canada has had a majority government. What can we expect?

Given the fact that the official opposition has lost their beloved leader who brought them to this point, it will be fascinating to watch how both Government and Opposition function in coming days. Will the Government take advantage of this moment and ram through a bunch of bills that have been difficult to pass in past years? Will the Opposition come out, (registered) guns a-blazin’, with new found confidence in the force of their numbers? It’s too early to tell, but stay tuned!

But here’s another question. What should Christians be doing as this new session of Parliament begins? Is there anything we can do to become actively involved in the political process? Or is all we can do is sit back and let the cards fall as they may? I hope readers opt for the former rather than the latter. But to encourage a more active and responsible Christian involvement, no matter what one’s political stripe, here’s seven things we can do as Christian to keep from becoming politically apathetic in between now and the next federal election some four years hence…

1) Pray for our MPs.
Scripture doesn’t give us direct insight into the kind of political stances we are to take on many issues as a Christians, but it is very clear on one thing: We are to pray for those in authority over us (1 Tim 2:1-3). Indeed, Paul tells us that to do so is “good” and that praying for our leaders “pleases God our Saviour.” How much more direct political instruction do we need?! Praying for our leaders also has the added benefit of keeping the edge of cynicism out of our voices when we speak about politicians. It’s pretty hard to pray for a politician one moment and then mock her or him the next.

 2) Find out who your MP is.
I am amazed at how regularly I meet someone who doesn’t know who her or his own Member of Parliament is. Given that our MP is supposed to be our representative in Ottawa, it seems a bit odd that we wouldn’t know to whom we are supposed to turn when we want to be represented. So, if you don’t know who your MP is, and you know what your postal code is, go here to find out.  Once you’ve found out who your MP is, why not pray for her or him, too?

Oh, and if you’re interested, you can also find out where you MP sits in Parliament here. While it doesn’t tell you everything, you may be interested to know how far away from “centre” (Prime Minister or Party Leader) the Member sits. This may suggest the level of influence the Member has toward the Leader.

3) Find out what’s on the docket for the next Parliament.
While there are always matters of discussion that come up unexpectedly in Parliament, there is nevertheless a basic plan for what it going to be covered. You can find the proposed bills here. It is worth taking a few minutes scan through the titles and see what catches your eye. I did a quick scan and found Bill C-233 entitled (somewhat optimistically), “A Bill to Eliminate Poverty in Canada” (!).  While you’re in the area, you might want also to head over to the Parliament of Canada home page that gives a lot interesting information, including some great educational resources for teachers of primary and secondary students.

4) Do some research on a legislative Bill of your interest.
Whatever your bent, you are sure to find something in the parliamentary docket that piques your interest (or raises your hackles!). Do a bit of reading on the bill to see what is going to be proposed. Are you in favour of this approach or not? Outline two or three things that makes you want to support, or signal opposition to, the proposed legislation. Oh, and while you’re at it, as a Christian it would be good to find out what Scripture has to say on the issue! Scripture doesn’t, as previously mentioned, always give us direct instruction on how we should view any particular piece of legislation. But surely as Christians we would be remiss if we didn’t at least try to discern what the Bible might have to say.

5) Write a letter to your MP supporting or opposing an upcoming piece of legislation.
I think it would be disheartening to know how many people have ever contacted their MP about anything. I suspect the percentage is rather low. This despite the fact that MPs tell us regularly that they consider one letter equivalent to the opinion of several hundred constituents. Indeed, MPs are often asked what their constituents are thinking about a matter, and the communication received from their constituency is one of the main ways they gather this information and pass it on to the party leaders.

So, using the address of the MP you found above, take the time to write a brief letter expressing your opinion. Yes, you heard me correctly–write a letter, not an email.

Now for some of us, we probably haven’t written a letter in years so you might want some tips on how to do this effectively. I’d suggest a couple of sites that describe effective letters here and here.

Why not an email? It isn’t that emails aren’t appropriate, but email is a less formal medium and a letter, complete with an actual envelope and actual paper, communicates just how seriously you take an issue. Oh, and the good news about writing a letter your MP–you don’t have to put a stamp on it! Canada Post guarantees delivery of letters to Members of Parliament and Ministers without the need for postage.

No matter what, don’t be afraid to identify yourself as a Christian in your letter. You have a right to be heard not simply as a citizen in Canada, but as a Christian. Just remember, though, that what you say in the letter will also influence, rightly or wrongly,  the MP about what he or she thinks about Christians. Be honest, in other words, but remain polite and respectful.

6) Write your MP a letter of encouragement.
This is a bit different than #5 above, so let me explain. A few years ago I attended a session in Ottawa to listen to several Christian MPs from various parties speaking on their perspective of the intersection of faith and politics. I’ll always remember what Bill Blaikie, a highly respected New Democrat MP who served the House of Commons for many years, said. He spoke of how rarely he had ever received letters of encouragement from constituents. That is bad enough, but worse yet was that he said that the most hurtful–indeed, hateful–letters he ever received were penned by self-professed Christians. How sad!

It is easy for us to criticize and blame at a distance, and we surely shouldn’t automatically agree with everything our MP does on our behalf. But surely as Christians we can remember that we should be the aroma of Christ (2 Cor 2:15), or to use Jesus’ metaphor, salt and light (Matt 5:13-16), toward our political leaders. Remember that once you’ve identified yourself as a Christian, you are also acting as a representative of Jesus Christ himself itself. Make sure your witness is Christ honouring and faithful to the Good News of the Gospel.

7) See #1 one above!

So there you have it. Seven things Christians can do during a majority government. But now that I think of it, these are things we can do no matter what kind of government we have! So don’t wait for the next minority!

The Politics of Idolatry

Standard

While working my way through 2 Kings recently, I came across a recurring theme, mainly, “the sins of Jeroboam.” Repeatedly throughout 1 and 2 Kings, we find out that the kings of Israel who did evil in the sight of YHWH were often lumped together with the “sins of Jeroboam.” For example, in 2 Kings 3:3, we find out that Joram, though not as evil as his father Ahab (who, we find out, was one of the worst), nevertheless, “clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.”

Or, take the case of King Jehu. Though he was obedient in killing all of Ahab’s family (2 Kings 10:17) and in destroying Baal worship in Israel (2 Kings 10:28), nevertheless “he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit” (2 Kings 10:29). (For some other places where the “sins of Jeroboam” are spoken of, see 1 Kings 16:31; 2 Kings 3:3; 10:29, 31; 13:2, 11; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24, 28; and 17:22).

So what is this all about?

First, we need to remember that Jeroboam was the first king of Israel in the divided monarchy. He was a contemporary of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, who was King of Judah. The narrator tells us that Rehoboam and Jeroboam were at war continuously (1 Kings 15:6). This alone tells us that Jeroboam was, at the very least, constantly under political pressure.

Second, we need remember what the sin of Jeroboam  actually was. We find the account in 1 Kings 12:25-33 and it is remarkably simple. Jeroboam’s sin was that he set up two golden calves and he told the Israelites, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). (It is sadly ironic that the language used here is exactly the language used by the people when Aaron brought them a golden calf in Exodus 32:4b). After Jeroboam’s reforms, the people of Israel went either to Dan or Bethel to worship one of these golden calves rather than Jerusalem in Judah–where Solomon’s temple of YHWH was and where the people were supposed to worship.

In light of these things, it should be clear that the actions of Jeroboam were not simply religious but overtly political in intention. The setting up of the calves (along with other liturgical reforms such as building shrines, having an alternate festival day, and installing non-Levitical priests – 1 Kings 12:31-33) was not mere religious reform (though that it was). Rather, it was both a political reaction to the heavy-handedness of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:13-14) and a political means of rallying the people of Israel in rebellion against Judah. Indeed, Jeroboam’s reforms pale in religious significance relative to their ultimate political objective. Jeroboam may have been religiously naive, but he was no political fool! Thus, Jeroboam’s action should be characterized as nothing less than an attempt to use religion as a means to a political end.

[Here commentators are somewhat divided on the question of whether Jeroboam was being portrayed as a radical or a conservative. If he was a radical, it was because he was decentralizing worship away from Jerusalem–a kind of rebellion against the tribe of Judah. If he was a conservative, it was because he wasn’t intending for the people to worship anyone but YHWH, but was using the calves only as a pedestal or means to worshipping YHWH. But either way, the narrator of Kings consistently recounts the action as reprehensible–whether it was a politically radical or conservative move alike.]

Clearly, readers are supposed to realize that Jeroboam broke the first and second commandments–and encouraged the people of Israel to do the same. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below (Ex 20:2-4).

The consequence of Jeroboam’s action is that he not only makes a significant religious blunder and misleads the people into explicit idolatry against God’s own command, but in so doing, he leads the people toward forming a new (misguided) political identity. Remember: The people of Israel were constituted, under YHWH, as an elect nation called and led by YHWH. But Jeroboam, in one fell swoop, divides the nation and demotes YHWH into yet but another pair of localized tribal deities in Dan and Bethel, rather than the one LORD God of Israel. YHWH, creator of heaven and earth and deliverer of Israel, now, under Jeroboam’s “religious reforms,” takes a mere place alongside the other Canaanite deities. All in the service of political expediency!

I’m reminded here of the temptations we are constantly faced with in the Canadian political scene. There are at least three (though there are surely many more):

1) We are constantly tempted to isolate religion in such a way that God is worshiped as  a “tribal deity.” These days we don’t call it that, but instead, constantly are told that “religion should be a private affair only.” It may not have been Jeroboam’s intention to privatize Israel’s deity, but the practicality of his decentralization of worship was indeed the “privatization” (as we would call it), or at the very least, “tribalization” of Israel’s religion.

2) We are tempted to use religion as a means of achieving a political end. It is terribly unfortunate when Christian Churches or Christian organizations succumb to the temptation to alter their practices or even their theological convictions in light of political pressures or in the service of an ultimate political end. In this regard, it is not that the Church should have no interest in politics (for religion and politics, though not the same, cannot be extricated), but rather to be constantly aware of how subtly political power or political goals can alter the substance of our theological convictions or even the missional goals of our organizations.

3) We are tempted to blend the religious and the political in a kind of theopolitical amalgam. We need to look no further than the situation the church faced in Nazi Germany when, in an attempt to maintain its status in the society, the church capitulated and created a strange syncretist version of Christianity and National German Socialism. Perhaps in Canada we may even allow secular versions of “tolerance” or “justice” to slowly and imperceptibly mold our theological convictions into an image of the State. In such cases, the work of the Church and the work of secular organizations can eventually look no different from one another. We need prophetic insight and discernment here to be sure.

Whatever Jeroboam’s intention was, and however innocent or radical he may have been, the Kings narrative gives us at least one important lesson. The repeated reminder to Israel of the sin of Jeroboam in the Kings account seems to indicate that a political end is never sufficient reason for religious reform. In other words, beware of making religious and theological compromises simply to accomplish a political objective. For in doing so, we can be sure that we have fallen into a form of political idolatry in which the political goal has taken its place alongside, or over, the true worship of God. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “I am the LORD [YHWH]; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isa 42:8)

Governing Authorities as Servants

Standard

I found the following paragraph to be an especially helpful way of debunking the idea that Paul, in Romans 13, was telling Christians to obey the government absolutely. The author also hints at just how radical Paul’s notion of “governing authority as servant” was in his context.

Some Christians interpret Romans 13 to suggest that Christians are to give total and unconditional obedience to the state: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13.3:1). However, a closer understanding of the text suggests our obedience to the state is not unquestioning in nature. A few verses later Paul adds that government is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4). Thus in Romans 13 Paul recasts the prevailing understanding of the Roman political order by insisting that governments are servants—a fairly remarkable thing to argue at the time of the Roman Empire. Paul thereby relativized the Roman imperial order by refusing to accept the emperor as the ultimate authority and arguing that the emperor was under God—a servant with a particular task to do. Roman emperors (and government leaders more generally) were not gods, not lords, but servants; the emperor was not the only or the final sovereign entity.

Corwin Smidt, “The Principled Pluralist Perspective,” in Church, State and Public Justice. IVP Academic, 2007, p. 143.

 

Hauerwas to College Students and Their Parents…

Standard

I’m not a big Stanley Hauerwas fan, but no one should ever say that what he has to say is boring. And the same goes for this fantastic “open letter” that Hauerwas has written to college students heading off to college. It is called, “Go With God: An open letter to young Christians on their way to college.”

Though Hauerwas addresses students here,  I’m convinced that parents of college students (and parents of potential college students) need to read this letter almost as much as college students themselves. That way they can keep encouraging their kids as they press forward (or sometimes feel like quitting) in their education.

Although the article is packed with good advice, one paragraph catches Hauerwas’s heart:

Your calling is to be a Christian student. The Christian part and the student part are inseparable. It will be hard and frustrating because you won’t see how the two go together. Nobody does, at least not in the sense of having worked it all out. But you need to remember what Christ said: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” However uncertain we are about how, we know that being a Christian goes with being a student (and a teacher).

Now just go read it…it’s worth it.