Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jesus as the Unifier of the Bible

I am reading a manuscript by Phillip King entitled The Bible is for Living, in which the following comment struck me---

"the New Testament is not necessarily a commentary on the Old
Testament, that is to say, Jesus is not to be found on every page of
the Old Testament. The Old Testament text is not simply shining
in reflected glory; it has rich meaning in its own right. Without
the Old Testament, the New Testament is a superstructure suspended
in midair. There is both continuity and discontinuity
between the Testaments. Jesus is the unifier of the Bible, both
Old Testament and New Testament; for example, the two great
commandments—love of God (Deuteronomy 6:5), and love of
neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). These two Old Testament injunctions
are combined in the New Testament: “You shall love the
Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your mind, and with all your strength … You shall love
your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31; Matthew 22:37-39)." (p. 12 of mss.)

In what way are the two testaments united in and by Jesus, especially since the OT is not in the main about Jesus? One way would be to say that if we fulfill the Great Commandment(s) as Jesus said we should we would love Jesus with all our hearts as God and also love Jesus as our nearest neighbor (and so as our nearest and dearest human relative). A second way to look at this, is our modeling our love of God the Father and neighbor as Jesus himself practiced it, showing us the way.

Think on these things.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ephesos at Night

Tunc Tezel, a native of Turkey, is an amateur astronomer and photographer. I love his picture of Ephesos at night, taken as one looks up Curetes Street near Hadrian's little temple he built. Thanks to Tim Collins for putting me on to his work. Here is a link where you can learn about him Tezel.


Obama a Muslim? Not a Chance

One of the most frequent emails I have had sent to me since the primaries were over by worried Christians is the one which claims that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim, based on the fact that he had a Muslim father, and, it is claimed, he attended a Muslim school when young in Indonesia. This is rather like claiming that my wife is a closet Roman Catholic because she attended a Catholic school whilst young, because she had a devout Roman Catholic mother. A person's faith should be assessed on their adult commitments, behavior and professions of faith, not on the basis of what their parents had them do when they were not making choices for themselves. Should we also conclude that Barack Obama is a closet Roman Catholic because his parents enrolled him in a Catholic school in Indonesia? Of course not.

It is hard for me to say what bothers me most about these fear and smear tactics by some Christians-- whether its simply the untruth of the claim, or the fact that some Christians are prepared to use all sorts of unChristian tactics to prevent Obama from becoming President of the United States.

If one will bother to read Obama's biography, or pay attention to various of his interviews and speeches when he has been asked about this subject, the truth of the matter is not hard to assess. One may not like the fact that Obama is a social action Christian much like Dr. King and others, but a Christian he is, and he is proud to say so.

So let's be clear for a moment-- whether one agrees with Obama's politics or not, those views should be judged on their own merits, not on the basis of the false claim that Obama is a closet Muslim.

As for those who keep sending this email around--- my grandmother has a word for you--- SHAME ON YOU, GO WASH OUT YOUR MOUTH (and your emails) WITH SOAP. I would just add that you need to heed the words of Jesus, that if you have something against your brother then you go and ask him, or consult sources where he has spoken on the matter. You then should extend him the courtesy you would want to have extended to you--- to take him at his word, unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise. This sort of email nonsense is an example of Christians behaving badly. Go read the sermon of James on the taming of the tongue.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SHACKING UP WITH GOD—William P. Young’s ‘The Shack’

When a novel by an unknown Christian writer which is basically privately published, goes to the top of the NY Times fiction bestseller list, mostly on the basis of word of mouth, you know something is up. More particularly you know it seems to be a God thing, since word of mouth doesn’t really travel that far that fast from say the woods outside of Portland Oregon. This however is the second important Christian work to emanate from that general neighborhood (the first being Blue like Jazz), and when it is a neighborhood not generally known for its Christian ethos, one is forced to take notice. Furthermore, when people as diverse as Wynonna Judd and Eugene Peterson and the producer of ABC News (Patrick M. Roddy) are giving testimonials to this first time novel, Peterson even suggesting it might do for our generation what Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did a long time ago, then again, something is afoot, as Sherlock would say. Since I about to publish my first novel, I had an added reason to ask—‘What’s Up with Dat?’

I want to say from the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, as it involves a lot of interesting theologizing about God and the divine-human encounter, and it clearly has struck a nerve with many people who are longing to have a close encounter with God of the first sort. I am happy this novel can provoke thought and stir up people to reconsider the God of the Bible and what having a relationship with God might mean and be like. And because it is a work of fiction, no one should evaluate this work as if it were an exercise in systematic theology as if it were Barth’s Dogmatics for the Emerging Church, as its aims are much more modest. But there is both good theologizing and bad theologizing that can go on in popular fiction (remember the Da Vinci Code), and so it is certainly fair to ask what is going on in this novel and why has it struck a nerve. This novel is not a literary masterpiece. Its value stands or falls on some of the provocative and interesting things it says about our relationship with God, and it is in regard to its theology that I want to comment in this post. I accept that this novel has gone through various revisions, and rewrites, and could be called a work in progress. What I would suggest is that it needs considerable further theological refinement.

One of things that is up is we are in a post-modern situation and this makes people in some cases more open to things spiritual, but paradoxically less open to traditional church and religion in general (if I see one more bumper sticker saying ‘I believe in Jesus, not Christianity’, or ‘I believe in Jesus, not religion/church etc.’ I think I will be forced to honk). This novel most certainly breathes that ‘Jesus without traditional religion air’. For example, late in the novel Jesus says to the main character in the novel Mackenzie Phillips who is turned off by traditional church “that’s because you’re only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs…Not a bunch of exhausting work and long list of demands, and not sitting in endless meetings staring at the back of people’s heads…just sharing life” (pp. 179-80). It’s all about relationships, and not about religion, according to this approach. And while no one would deny it’s very much about living and loving relationships, the truth of the matter is that it is a false dichotomy to separate Jesus from religion, or for that matter organism from organization. Let me give an illustration on the latter point.

Consider for example a very simple organism indeed—the single cell amoeba a form of protozoa. Now the amoeba is nothing if not flexible. It can subdivide over and over again. But within that larger flexible entity there is organization—there is a nucleus for example, without which it could not exist. It also has pseudo-pods by which it moves and vacuoles by which it maintains its equilibrium. Without structure, order and organization it could not ever be even a viable living thing. This is in fact true of all organisms, and that includes the church, if one wants to call it an organism. That doesn’t mean that human beings aren’t capable of over-institutionalzing things, or ossifying some of the structures, but to pit organism over against organization, with one seen as living and the other dead, one God-given, and the other man-made is absolutely a false dichotomy when it comes to the church.

There is no such thing in heaven or on earth as an organism without organization, order, structure, form, otherwise it would have no distinct shape, purpose, or being. And that applies to God, the church, as well as to all created things—remember the story of how God created the universe in a very specific order with very specific properties? Well it’s always been like that. Creativity takes a particular form and shape, bring order out of chaos or a disparate group of elements. Spontaneity is not particularly more God-like than something that was planned before the foundations of the world and executed over a long period of time. And why we should think an organism like the church needs to normally be completely spontaneous in order to be ‘alive’ is a mystery. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to spending too much time in moribund or unwell churches. One thing I know about real works of art--- they take time to create, and care, and skill, and form, and substance. This is as true of a Matisse masterpiece as of God’s creation of the universe. But I digress.

Another element in the creative theologizing in this book is what is said about the Trinity. Another of the bad guys in this novel is ‘hierarchy’ whether in human relationships or in the Godhead. Consider what is said on p. 122—“Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and enforcement of rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promoting it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship” Or on the immediately previous page ‘Papa’ (aka God the Father) tells Mack “We [i.e. the Trinity] are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command. What you are seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power…Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually this is your problem, not ours.”

There are some real problems with this sort of formulation, especially when one comes to deal with the fact that the Son is the only begotten of the Father, and only the Son dies on the cross, and no one comes to the Father except through the Son, and no one receives the Spirit except if the Father and Son sends the Spirit. Even in the most revealing of Gospels when it comes to the relationship between Father and Son, the Fourth Gospel, we have a very clear picture of a functional subordination of the Son to the Father—he can only do and say what his Father gives him to do and to say, even though he is fully equal in being to the Father and can be called God in John 1 and 20 (see my study The Shadow of the Almighty). In other words, hierarchy and subordination are not inherently the enemies of equality of being. There is a reason why the church Fathers suggested a triangle rather than a circle best images the Trinity—it has a certain order and shape, just as the relationships within the Trinity do. The image of God in this novel is even pushed so far as to say that following “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed.” (p. 98). This statement is closer to Monarchianism, a heresy the early church rightly condemned than it is to Biblical Christianity.

The Father and the Spirit did not become incarnate as the Son did, and did not assume the limitations the Son did at the point of the Incarnation. Only the Son took on flesh. The three-ness of God must be stressed just as much as the oneness of being or ‘ousia’ of God, and in that three-ness there are things that can be said of the Son that cannot be said of Father or Spirit (for example the Father is unbegotten from all eternity, the Son alone died on the cross, and the Spirit did not become Incarnate with or as Jesus). Equally problematic is the comment on p. 100—“I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” This for sure is not what the ecumenical councils said about the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit. They said that the three persons of God shared the divine nature or ousia, not that each of the 3 are fully and entirely the one (go back and read up on monarchianism, monothelitism, Sabellianism, and Apollonarianism).

Equality in the Godhead no more means ‘the same’ in all respects, functions, or activities any more than it need mean that in human relationships. If there is a place for subordination and obedience within the Trinity, there is a place for it in human relationships. And furthermore, obedience is not at odds with love--- indeed we are commanded to love in the Bible, and thus the two are rightly spoken of in the same breath—as Jesus says “if you love me, you will keep my commandments”. Law, order, rule, commandments are not inherently the source of the human problem in the Bible, sin is—which not incidentally begins as an act of disobedience to a specific commandment.

While I certainly agree that some forms of hierarchy can be oppressive, for example a gender specific hierarchy which resulted from the fall when ‘to love and to cherish’ became ‘to desire and to dominate’, the Bible is quite clear that ordering of relationships is a normal and good thing. It is not an accident that children are commandment to obey their parents in various places in the OT (see Proverbs) and the NT (see Paul’s letters). Obedience is the quite concrete shape love can and often should take. But what about the idea of freedom in this book--- both the freedom of God, and the free will of human beings?

I suspect that Calvinists will have even more problems with what is said about freedom in this book than I would, but I too have various serious issues with what is said about freedom in this novel. Let us consider first what is said about human freedom on p. 93: “Does freedom mean that you are allowed to do whatever you want to do? Or we could talk about all the limiting influences in your life that actively work against your freedom. Your family genetic heritage, your specific DNA, your metabolic uniqueness, the quantum stuff that is going on at the subatomic level…Or the intrusion of your soul’s sickeness that inhibits and binds you, or the social influences around you, or the habits that have created synaptic bonds and pathways in your brain. And then there is advertising, propaganda, and paradigms. Inside the confluence of multifaceted inhibitors….what is freedom really?” This is actually one of the best and most interesting passages on freedom in this novel where God reflects on human freedom, and it is precisely these sort of factors that lead to assumptions about materialistic determinism, or biology is destiny and so on. At the very least these factors are inhibitors or limiters of human freedom to some degree. And I would emphasize that human falleness is the biggest inhibitor of all. Apart from the grace of God, human beings are not able not to sin. Apart from God’s grace, we are all in the bondage to sin. The question becomes, does God’s grace work outside of and before we have a personal relationship with God? Fortunately the answer to this is yes, or else none of us would ever repent or have a personal relationship with God at all.

One of the major flash points in the discussion of freedom and the reason for an insistence on it is of course that love is not something that can be forced, compelled, compulsed, pre-determined etc. To have a loving relationship with someone requires a modicum of freedom of choice, at a minimum, and the power of contrary choice. I have stressed this elsewhere in this blog, so I will not belabor the point here, but Young is basically right on this point. But how far and to what degree does this characterize the way God relates to us. At one point Jesus in the novel says “To force my will on you…is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful and healthy.” (p. 146). The concept is then broached about how God has submitted himself to our human choices in various ways. The problem with this is it eliminates part of the Biblical paradox. The Bible is all about divine intervention. God is always intruding into our affairs, like a good parent should when his children are as wayward as we are. Is it really the case that God never rescues us against our will? Does God stand idly by, when a normal human parent would leap in and grab the child about to step out onto a highway and be smashed by a sixteen wheeler? Or listen to the following passage on p. 188. God says:

“Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.” And then God adds “my love is a lot bigger than your stupidity…I used your choices to work perfectly into my purposes.” (p. 192). Now it is clear enough that Young is not an universalist in the sense that he thinks all will ultimately respond positively to God’s will. But when you once allow that God is busy working all things together for good for those who love Him, whether they realize it or not, then it becomes perfectly clear, as also in cases like when God flattened Paul on the road to Damascus that there are times when God doesn’t wait on our permission to do things on our behalf, and in various cases does things that would have been against our wills at the time. And herein lies the mystery—God, by grace both gives humans limited freedom, but is prepared to intervene and make corrections, redirections etc. for God is free as well, and there is something more important than human beings ‘having it their independent way’ and that is rescuing them. A drowning person can’t save themselves, they require a radical rescue—but how they respond to that rescue thereafter, whether in loving gratitude or with a bad attitude—well that’s another matter and involves human volition.

In other words, the answer to the question of why tragedy happens in the world is not just because God won’t violate our wills, or just because our wills are bent and fallen, and we are the orchestrators of our own tragedies. It’s far more complicated than that. If God’s relationship with us is at all like a relationship between a good parent and petulant child, then yes there are times when the human will is and must be violated to rescue the child from disaster. Thank goodness my parents cared enough about me to do that on occasion. On most occasions loving and leading and modeling was enough. On some occasions it was not.

The God of the Bible is not just a wistful wooer of fallen humankind. The God of the Bible is an intervener and a Lord over all. And while we are at it—the Jesus of the Bible is not Mr. Rogers--- he said he was coming back to judge the quick and the dead, as the Book of Revelation makes so very evident. Nor is the Holy Spirit just the one who gives us holy goosebumps, the Spirit is the Spirit of holiness and a refiner’s fire of sanctifying influence.

In other words, the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and mercy, of righteousness and compassion, of love and lordship, of order and creativity, of hierarchy and equality. Unless you can hold these antinomies in tension, you cannot paint a full picture of the Biblical God.

I am thankful for this novel, and its strong stress on the relational and deeply personal nature of our God. I am equally thankful for the message that God is much greater than we could ever think or imagine. I like as well the emphasis on love and freedom, rightly understood, as well as its admission that not all roads lead to God, for Jesus is the way. But on its next lap around the revising track, and before it goes into somebody’s movie, it needs to make a pit stop for some more theological tune ups.

The Dark Knight's Dark Night of the Soul

Somewhere along the way, Comic Books became serious, and started calling themselves Graphic Novels. This was well after my senior high years when I stopped reading them for the most part, except on summer vacation. For those of us who grew up with the early DC and Marvel Comics, and then the high camp, low evil Batman TV show starring Adam West, the recent twist in the tale of Batman, starting with 'Batman Begins', and accelerating in 'The Dark Knight' takes some mental adjustment, not to mention a paradigm shift. This movie is sort of Batman meets Greek tragedy, and it is played with all the seriousness of Greek tragedy as well Indeed, this movie brings in the heavy hitters--- Morgan Freeman, and (once more) Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman (Lt. Gordon never was this serious and smart before), Aaron Eckhart and of course Christian Bale and the late lamented Heath Ledger. Once you see this performance of Ledger's you will not only think it is Oscar worthy, you will wonder if playing this demonic role pushed Ledger over the edge. In this movie you get to look directly into the heart of darkness, and the one in whom that heart beats is the Joker. Ledger plays the Joker as sadistic, whilst Jack Nicholson played him more as sarcastic and just a tad too mean. Ledger's portrayal blows away Nicholson's, and is in a whole nother league. Nicholson's Joker actually had friends, Ledger's only has fiends.

One of the problems in doing a movie like this, where we have the titantic struggle between good and evil, is that it is so much easier for fallen human beings to play evil well, than to play good without appearing sappy, maudlin, 'too good to be real', and other epithets. Yet Christian Bale does a good job of being good, without pretending to be letter perfect. The Batman, as he is frequently dubbed in this movie, is alone in this film, not having his trusty side kick Robin, but thank goodness Alfred and Lucius Fox (the sort of CEO of Wayne Enterprises) are there to help. And as it turns out, he needs all the help he can get, because the Joker is not joking around. Indeed, he seems to be able to do 10 hard things before breakfast including making the Chicago mob do his bidding.

So what should we think of this 2 hour and 30 minute attempt at an epic? First of all, this is not the filming of a comic book, and it is not played like a comic book. Erase that image from your minds and by no means go to this movie if you are looking for a family film that is light popcorn type entertainment--- another bit of summer lint to add to the American navel whilst lying on a beach. Indeed, I would definitely NOT recommend you take any young children to this movie. One mother in front of me had a small child with her who ended up howling and having to be removed. This movie is not for the young, the squeamish, or the faint of heart. It has graphic images worthy of a 'graphic' novel. It also is mostly dark, since bats come out at night, as does evil.

The movie is immaculately filmed, though it could have stood to be a bit shorter, and some of the lines could have been delivered a little more slowly to allow them to sink in. There is in addition the stretching of credulity to the breaking point at various junctures (how exactly had the Joker managed to wire both a whole hospital and all the ferries in Chicago for explosion without anyone noticing anyway, and how exactly did he manage to extricate himself from that Chicago jail cell?). Batman is not played in this movie as an anti-hero, but like Hancock, one could say he is a reluctant hero, who would rather have a normal life instead engaging in daring do. Yet he does have an ethical geiger counter, unlike the Joker who is not motivated by either love or money or any sort of twisted Mafia-like principles. He is the kind of person who simply likes to watch the world burn, by his own hands, as Lucius Fox warns Batman. It is hard to catch or trap someone who has no normal vulnerabilities or predictabilities.

I must say that on the whole this movie has more Oscar potential than any other drama from the summer season, but I liked Ironman better as a movie. It had more redeeming qualities, and was not unrelentingly dark, and the dialogue was better as well.

But this movie has gravity, a very specific gravity, and it forces one to face the heart of darkness, and realize that evil is not just being 'not nice'-- it is depravity, it is the destruction of all that is good and true and beautiful, and even a small measure of good is better than none in a fallen world. In the battle between good and evil, this movie insists, we must take sides, but beware when your heroes have not merely feet of clay, but wear gravity boots as well. That brings the subject matter right back down to earth, for only God is truly and inherently good.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Here is the link to the brief discussion on the Gabriel Stone which I was involved in this week:

Howard Snyder's Review of 'Pagan Christianity'

What follows in this post is the verbatim of the full text of Howard Snyder's review of 'Pagan Christianity' which appeared this spring in the Revitalization magazine (Vol. 15 No. 1 Spring 2008) edited by Asbury's Prof. Stephen O'Malley. Howard gave me his permission to reprint it here. What it demonstrates, in my view, is that Howard thinks 'Pagan Christianity' has some good critiques of the failures of Institutional Churches, but thinks that the way forward is through revitalization movements, NOT the model suggested in Viola and Barna's work. He is also clear enough that the reading of early church history in 'Pagan Christianity' is flawed in various ways, as is its naive understanding of what the NT has to say about Christian community, its structure and its leadership.

What’s the Fuss about “Pagan Christianity”?

Frank Viola’s 2002 book Pagan Christianity: Exploring

the Roots of Church Practices has kicked up some

fuss since it was revised with the help of George Barna

and recently released under the Barna/Tyndale imprint.

This is a ground-clearing book. Many Christians

will be surprised—maybe shocked—to learn how much

contemporary “Christian” practice has no biblical basis whatsoever.

The question is: So what? Is such development merely the appropriate

fruit of gradual adaptation to changing circumstances? Or

is today’s church guilty of the charge Jesus leveled against the Pharisees:

“You nullify the word of God by your traditions” (Mt. 15:6)?

Legitimate adaptation and contextualization, or betrayal?

Viola (and now apparently Barna) believe the answer is “betrayal.”

They celebrate those who have “left institutional Christianity”

and have begun meeting in unstructured house churches—seen

here as the only legitimate form of the church.

The authors summarize: “The DNA of the church produces certain

identifiable features. Some of them are: the experience of authentic

community, a familial love and devotion of its members one

to another, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the native instinct to gather

together without ritual, every-member functioning, the innate desire

to form deep-seated relationships that are centered on Christ, and

the internal drive for open-participatory gatherings. We believe that

any church that obstructs these innate characteristics is unsound, and

therefore, unbiblical” (p. 263).

One can hardly argue with that, except

for the idea that it is possible for groups to meet “without ritual.”

I have considerable sympathy with the book’s argument. Contemporary

Christians, in my view, are not self-critical enough of

the ways they do church—whether liturgical Protestants, revivalist

evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, seeker-sensitive congregations,

or “emerging” churches (not to mention the Roman

Catholic and Orthodox traditions). Most of us do not pay enough

attention to what the Bible plainly teaches about the nature and

practice of the church as Body of Christ. So I wish church leaders

everywhere would calmly read and reflect on this book.

But that is not the end of the story. In the background here is a

deeper question: How do we view changes in church practice over


Legitimate development, or betrayal and maybe even apostasy?

This debate has a long history, tracing back at least to Peter’s

God-prompted decision to have dinner at Cornelius’ house. In the

Middle Ages people were anathematized, imprisoned, denounced, or

burned at the stake depending on how they answered the question.

Here also the issue of revitalization comes in. The logic behind

the Center for the Study of World Christian Revitalization

Movements holds that genuine renewal is not an either/or issue.

Three Approaches to Church History

Traditionally, the church’s development through history has

been seen in one of two ways: The “traditional orthodox” approach

or the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory.

The Traditional View. The most generally accepted view—the

traditional orthodox interpretation—is that God has guided the

church through history, protecting it from heresy and apostasy, assisting

it to adapt to changing circumstances. The development of

clergy, liturgy, church buildings, and all the rest were the ways in

which the church successfully adjusted as it grew and got more

complex, and the way it extended its influence.

Constantinianism—the development of the church after the

conversion of the Emperor Constantine—is the key test case. In the

traditional orthodox view (celebrated first by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical

History), the success of the church under Constantine was

the great triumph of the church. God’s hand was in it all.

In this view, it is foolish to expect the church today to look like

the New Testament church (which was essentially a network of

house churches with highly flexible leadership patterns). The New

Testament church was the church in embryo; the little seedling that

has now wonderfully put forth branches into all the world.

The Secret History of the Faithful Remnant. The other view, unsurprisingly,

is just the opposite. God has been working down

through history through a mostly hidden underground church. The

“institutional church” is corrupt and largely apostate. But God has an

unbroken succession of the true church that has appeared from time

to time in groups that the official church viewed as heretical or extreme.

This true church has surfaced periodically under names like

Montanists, Priscillians, Anabaptists, Waldensians, and so forth—

and in networks of house churches today.

This view has been advocated by various people—notably the

German Pietist Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), and today people like

Gene Edwards. Pagan Christianity seems to assume this theory.

In this view, Constantinianism was a great tragedy—the fall of

the church. The only route to fidelity is a return to the New Testament

pattern, some form of restoration to the original model.

The choice here is rather clear-cut. But there is a third way, a

mediating position that can be supported biblically, historically,

theologically, and sociologically.

The Renewal Movement View. This view recognizes the truth in

both the traditional view and the counter-view. Yes, God has been

working through the “institutional church” down through history, despite

its problems. Yes, the church has often been unfaithful, corrupt,

and, in certain times and places, apostate. And yes, God has often

worked through marginal groups—even sometimes rather extreme

groups, like the “Montanists” — to enliven a “faithful remnant.” And

yes, many of these groups were not really heretical doctrinally, yet

were shamefully persecuted and often driven underground.

The renewal-movement view holds that, despite the church’s

frequent unfaithfulness, God has continued to work through “institutional”

Christianity. It also observes that underground “remnant”

churches can themselves become corrupt, or dysfunctional (I’ve

known some), or moribund, needing renewal.

Those of us in the Wesleyan tradition note John Wesley’s insights

here. Wesley was outspoken in his denunciation of the failures

of the Anglican Church in his day. Yet he did not abandon it.

His views on the church, drawn largely from the New Testament,

church history, and contemporary groups such as the Moravians,

had much in common with the “secret history” view.

But Wesley felt it was possible (and substantially proved it) to

create a “faithful remnant” movement within the larger “institutional”

church. This was British Methodism during Wesley’s lifetime.

In this view, God has worked throughout history to bring new

life to the church through a series of movements. This dynamic is foreshadowed

already in the Bible, especially in Israel’s history. It can be

documented over the centuries of the church. God has never given up

on the church—even the “institutional church.” Neither should we.

Yet in particular times and places the church may become so unfaithful

that it falls under God’s judgment and may even disappear entirely.

Rethinking “Pagan Christianity”

We who find the renewal movement view convincing thus

have a mixed reaction to Pagan Christianity. Though a valuable

contribution, it is neither the last word nor the whole story.

Some specific criticisms: The book speaks of “transformation,”

but exactly what that means is mostly undefined. The authors

paint with too broad a brush in speaking of “contemporary Christianity”

and the “institutional church.” Many “traditional” churches

do demonstrate genuine discipleship, community, and deep spirituality,

whatever their imperfections. The book holds that local

churches should be “autonomous,” despite what the Bible teaches

about translocal networkings of the Body of Christ. And it largely

ignores the contribution of Roman Catholic orders, an “institutional”

form that in many notable instances faithfully embodied

genuine Christianity for centuries.

Two other issues are more fundamental: First, the book’s basic

syllogism is fallacious. It holds that because much church practice is

pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned. Viola

writes, “Should we follow a model of church that is rooted in New

Testament principle and example, or should we follow one that finds

its origins in pagan traditions? That is the ultimate question” (p. 264).

But the options are not that simple, and the “model” advocated is not

as unambiguously New Testament as the authors believe.

Second, the authors do not really deal with the key issue of

contextualization. Yes, the New Testament vision of the church

should be normative. But what does that really mean in very diverse

cultural contexts? When it is appropriate to adapt cultural traditions,

even “pagan” ones, and use them for kingdom purposes?

Still, the cumulative weight of Pagan Christianity is impressive.

Christians today who want to see the church be faithful to the

gospel of the kingdom should ask themselves: Which of our current

traditions are consistent with Scripture and help us to be faithful

communities of the kingdom? And which really nullify God’s

Word? If churches confront that question prayerfully while seriously

examining Scripture, many things may change.

–– Howard A. Snyder

The Sound of the Soul

N.B. This is a small selection from my forthcoming book of metaphysical poetry with commentary entitled The Living Legacy by myself and Julie Noelle Robertson. It is a work arranged according to the church year, and intended for spiritual formation. Enjoy. BW3


The sound of the soul

At the speed of light

Passed through my brain

And into the night.

Stifling silence

Sensing the sigh

Feeling the longing

Wanting to cry.

The sound of the soul,

Like a get away train

Doppler effect

Plaintive refrain.

Listening intently

Longing to know

Who am I really?

And does it show?

The sound of the soul

Like a voice in a well

Echoing always

Clear as a bell.

Tuning the instrument

Assessing the tone

Looking for harmony

Searching alone.

The sound of the soul

Out of the depths

Heart cry towards heaven

Wordless precepts.

“By him we cry Abba…

Groaning within

Awaiting adoption

Release from all sin”

“The Spirit assists us

With sighs double deep

Interceding with Abba

My soul to keep.”

Jan. 7, 2006


This poem, somewhat like ‘Something Deep Inside’ is an attempt to express the search for the ever illusive inner or true self. Beyond all the facades, charades, and personas, there is a real self, created in the image of God. The Greek philosophers of course urged ‘Know Thyself’, but from a Christian point of view this is a difficult task, not least because sin and self-centeredness impede the search. Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the inner self, but it is fleeting, like the sound of a train going by, or the glimpse of the back of someone as they run by in haste. One of the things I am suggesting in this poem is that the Holy Spirit who dwells within knows us better than we know ourselves, and not only can illuminate us on this and other subjects, but also can articulate for us what is really down deep inside, what our real heart’s cry is.

I am also suggesting in this poem that there is an art or craft to getting to know one’s self, and that beyond progressive sanctification and illumination by the Spirit there is also the need for us to hone our craft, be intentional about the odyssey of self discovery, not as if we should be like Narcissus staring into the pool at our own reflection, but rather seeking out the particular shape the image of God takes in us.

C.S. Lewis in his last, and some would say greatest literary work Until We Have Faces explores in depth what it means to become a whole self, and so to know one’s self without posturing or personas. He intimates it is a painful journey to take off the masks and see ourselves as we really are. And since we are complex beings we may well ask, which self. Is it the public or the private self? Is the best self actually the real self, or only a pretender? And since personality grows and develops, at least in its self-expression we may well realize that we are talking about a moving target here. Indeed the New Testament suggests this very thing. In texts like Romans 8.28-30 or 2 Cor. 3-4 it suggests we are gradually being transformed and conformed to the image of God’s Son, a process that will not be completed until we reach the eschaton and we get our resurrection bodies. Until then, we are always a work in progress. Notice that according to Rev. 6 this is even true in heaven. The saints under the altar are cranky, crying out--- How long? They are given robes and the implication is they need to hush and be patient. As Lewis would put it, we do not fully have faces until we face Christ in person. Short of that we need to regularly take stock, to face ourselves, realizing we see in a glass darkly at this juncture.

Spiritual Meditations:

“The Sound of the Soul”

  • Lectio Divina: 2 Corinthians 3:4-18

  • Conversation can be a glorious spiritual discipline. Schedule time to grab coffee or a meal with a friend (or friends) and talk in broad strokes about your life and God’s presence in it and allow your friend(s) to do the same. You might need to do this a handful of times to be sure that you get the opportunity to truly reflect and respond to each other.

  • Confession can really free us to discover our true selves. By releasing our false selves through confession, we are better able to live freely and joyfully in this life. Carve out some time this week to confess (privately or with others) where you have not been true to the image of God within you. Ask God to give you strength to see yourself as he sees you and to live into his plans for your life.

Thoughts for Further Reflection:

“[T]he Holy Spirit who dwells within knows us better than we know ourselves, and not only can illuminate us on this and other subjects, but also can articulate for us what is really down deep inside, what our real heart’s cry is.” Ben Witherington III

“We are dead without Him. He must give us life. If we are trying to please Him with our own hard work and good intentions, we will fail. God is pleased and we are saved only when we let Him do the work inside of us.” Dennis Kinlaw

“We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real and which lives by a shadowy autonomy for the brief moment of earthly existence, and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists. It is this inner self that is taken up into the mystery of Christ, by His love, by the Holy Spirit, so that in secret we live ‘in Christ.’”

Thomas Merton

Personal Ponderings on “The Sound of the Soul”:

No modern writer has wrestled more honestly, openly, and beautifully about the interior life that the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. A modern day mystic, Merton’s brief life was a contemplative one. The whole of his life was a quest for peace within himself and throughout the world.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton speaks of the necessity of silence, solitude, and prayer. He purports that it is only in these practices that we discover our true selves. This meant life as a monk for Merton, but he believes that the discovery of self through the contemplative is not only possible for others, but also vital for abundant life in the here and now. Merton writes,

“Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us. We cannot go to heaven to find Him because we have no way of knowing where heaven is or what it is. He comes down from heaven and finds us. He looks at us from the depth of His own infinite actuality, which is everywhere, and His seeing us gives us a new being and a new mind in which we also discover Him. We only know Him in so far as we are known by Him, and our contemplation of Him is a participation in His contemplation of Himself. We become contemplatives when God discovers Himself in us.”

This journey to discovering what Merton calls the “true inner self” can only be reached when we dig deep within, listening for the voice of God within. It is an awakening of sorts, but one we cannot attain on our own. We only discover God when we lose ourselves and allow God to find us.[1]

[1] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions, 1962, p. 37-39

Thursday, July 10, 2008















Kudos to Sister Mel for these pictures.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Should Christians Meet on Sunday and Who Should Do the Teaching?

In this post I am not interested in discussing the issue of whether Sunday is the sabbath or should be considered the Christian sabbath or not. My interest is the historical one--- did early Christians regularly meet on a fixed day of the week, and was that day Sunday? We have seen in the immediately previous post, that Pliny noticed that Christians did indeed meet on specific or set day of the week, at least in the region where he was governor. But is there other evidence besides the allusion to the Lord's Day in Revelation 1, or the reference in 1 Cor 16? Well yes there is, and it is probably first century evidence as well. Here below you will find the discussion in the Didache on this very matter. The first day of the week was called the Lord's Day, because of course it was the day Jesus rose from the dead. It was not picked because it was called Sunday or the day of Apollo. It had to do with the Jewish calendar not the Julian one, and more specifically it had to do with when after dying on Passover Eve Jesus thereafter rose from the dead.

Here is the quote from the Didache--

14:1 And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.
14:2 And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled;
14:3 for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord;
14:4 "In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice;
14:5 for I am a great king, saith the Lord and My name is wonderful among the nations."

15:1 Appoint for yourselves therefore overseers and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved;
15:2 for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers.

The translation here is by that other Durhamite, J.B. Lightfoot. Several points call for comment. Firstly, in this text there is a definite reference to the Christian meeting being on Sunday, and the activities listed involve sharing in the Lord's Supper and confessing sins, as James instructed. Notice that the word sacrifice is applied here to the meal which is spoken of as involving breaking bread and giving thanks. What makes especially clear that the reference is to the Lord's Supper, is that it entails a sacrifice "spoken of by the Lord".

The very next section of the Didache refers to the congregation appointing for themselves both overseers and deacons who perform for you the service of prophets and teachers. The reference here is clearly enough to specific persons who are appointed to specific roles, and what is interesting is that the 'speech' roles are assigned to overseers/bishops and deacons who are to be the congregation's prophets and teachers.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Pagan Christianity--- Postlude

One of the more disturbing problems with the sort of arguments found in 'Pagan Christianity' is the lack of understanding of early Christian history, and the relationship of continuity between earliest Christian communities and the communities one finds at the turn of the NT era and at the beginning of the second century when there was still much Jewish Christian influence and character in these communities. Those who want to actually study the influence of the synagogue on early Christian meetings in homes for worship and fellowship should carefully work through James Burtchaell's important monograph From Synagogue to Church. Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (Cambridge U. Press, 1992). When one examines a text like the Didache, which comes either from late first or early second century Jewish Christian contexts, what is so very interesting about this text, is not only its Jewishness and its use of the Gospel of Matthew's form of Jesus' teaching, but its highly developed sacramental theology of both baptism and the Lord's Supper, a sacramentalism that has nothing to do with pagan rituals, ceremonies or theologies at all.

Here for example is translation of Ivan Lewis of Didache Chapter 10 which comments on the prayer said after the Eucharist, If you read Didache 9 first you will see that clearly the context is a discussion about the Lord's Supper.

1) After the meal, give thanks in this manner:
2) We offer thanks, Holy Father,
For Your Holy Name which fills our hearts,
And for the knowledge, faith and eternal life,
You made known to us through Your Servant;
Yours is the glory forever.
3) Almighty Master, You created all things for Your own purpose;
You gave men food and drink to enjoy,
That they might give You thanks;
But to us You freely give spiritual food and drink,
And eternal life through Your Servant.
4) Foremost, we thank You because You are mighty;
Yours is the glory forever.
5) Remember Your Body of Servants,
To deliver it from everything evil
And perfect it according to Your love,
And gather it from the four winds,
Sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it;
For the power and glory are Yours forever.
6) Let Your grace come,
And let this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David!
May all who are holy, come;
Let those who are not, repent.
Maranatha. Amen.
7)But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving/Eucharist as they wish.

Notice please the reference to the communion providing spiritual food and drink unto everlasting life. The Greek is even clearer than the English.

And just for the sake of comparison let us consider a text from an outsider--- Pliny the Roman Governor of Bithynia in A.D. 112-113. Here is what he had observed about early Christian meetings. Pliny has been busy trying to get Christians to worship the image of the Emperor, which most are very unwilling to do. When he inquired of them what their worship practices were, here is the answer he received:

"However, they [the Christians he interviewed from Bithynia] assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake was this:-That they were of the habit, on a certain fixed day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by an oath, not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids, who were called Deaconesses: but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition. "

Several things are of note about this revealing passage: 1) the context suggests that the meeting at dawn was on the same exact day each week; 2) it was a morning meeting; 3) the singing of a hymn to Christ as a god was most certainly seen as part of an act of worship, which Pliny countered by trying to get them to worship the image of the Emperor; 4) there would be ethical exhortation and promises made of virtuous behavior; 5) notice the part in italics above about how after the worship time they would depart and meet again to share a common meal. It is this latter part that is said to have been abandoned upon the edict of Pliny because it was an indoor meeting that suggested something of a conventicle or secret society was being set up; 6) note the reference to deaconesses involve presumably in both the worship of the set day and the common meal at different local. Perhaps they were tasked with the serving of the meal, since diakonia in its root meaning is 'to wait on tables'.

Now it is precisely this sort of early evidence that needs to be used to help provide context for the proper reading of the NT evidence about meetings in homes and their character and praxis. When one does this, it is interesting to see that in the latter text the common meal is separated from the worship at sunrise, and the former is what is seen as more pernicious or threatening to the Empire.