Friday, July 30, 2010

On Paul's Proclamation of the Mystery of God in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Corinthians

In Colossians, Paul proclaims the mystery of God:
[I] present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord's people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. ... [I write] in order that [all] may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (1:25-27; 2:2-3)
In Ephesians, Paul proclaims the mystery of God:
Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (3:2-6)
In 1 Corinthians, Paul proclaims the mystery of God:
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God's wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they have, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

"What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—these things God has prepared for those who love him"—

for God has revealed them to us by his Spirit. (2:6-10)
So what is the mystery? Is it Christ? the church? the Holy Spirit? Which is it?

The mystery of God hidden before all ages but revealed in these last days is the gospel itself, the good news of what has happened in Israel’s Messiah:
  • that God has fulfilled his promises to Israel in the Messiah;
  • that God has inaugurated the new age of the kingdom in the resurrection of his Son and the outpouring of their Spirit;
  • that the sign of the new age in the midst of the old age is the church, the renewed people of God, centered in the Messiah and indwelled by the Spirit, a concrete witness to the reality of the kingdom, in that the alienation between Jew and Gentile (and male and female, slave and free, etc.) has been abolished in the Messiah's cross.
In this way, therefore, the mystery can be truly and wholly named as Christ, as the Spirit, as the church, or indeed as any number of things.

The point is that the good news names an eventthe event—in, by, and through which the living and triune God has acted once and for all to rescue his creation from the powers of sin and death. Any and every reality that identifies or characterizes this action—known and hidden in God for all eternity, but revealed, apocalypsed in the cross and resurrection and the Spirit's advent and the witness of the apostles—may rightly be called “the” mystery of God, inasmuch as it participates in and attests to the reality of the gospel in the midst of the world.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Top 12 Books to Read Before Undergraduate Ministerial-Theological Study

I've shared elsewhere from my story of calling and vocation, how, at the tender age of 18, I made the decision to begin taking steps toward becoming a professor of Christian theology, a life of teaching and writing in service to the church (and a path on which, seven years later, by God's grace I still find myself). I am the oldest of three boys, born of two adult converts to the faith, and thus mostly devoid both of hurtful history (substantive ecclesial baggage) and healthy history (familial spiritual tradition). What a surprise, then, to discover that not only I, but all three of us brothers will, in one way or another, be devoting our lives in formal service to the church.

My middle brother, Garrett -- about whom I have also written elsewhere, and whose blog you can read here -- has a story of calling worth telling in full, and by him; but as a consequence, he just finished his undergraduate degree in Bible, is beginning his Master of Divinity in a month, and in three years will with his wife leave the dry comforts of Abilene, Texas, for the east African nation of Tanzania. They will be part of a mission team devoted to a particular region and people there, and through proclamation, service, and sharing life together, prayerfully hope to partner with God's Spirit to see God's reign embodied, believed, and obeyed in communities of faithful discipleship.

For the last five years, then, Garrett and I have been partners in similar ventures, mutual theological springboards, and so on. God just happened to call us brothers into brotherly pursuits. We always assumed, however, that our youngest brother, Mitchell, would be in a different field altogether. Mitch is undoubtedly smarter and a harder work than both of us, and with an entrepreneurial spirit, was likely to be supporting us in our relatively meager financial returns.

That all changed over the last year, as Mitch felt increasingly called to the ministry of preaching. Given that there was never a hint of trying to follow in our footsteps -- besides, who in their right mind would choose to be a preacher? -- it has been a wonderful experience to walk with him through this time of discernment. God may yet have different plans for him, but for now, we expect for Mitch to begin his undergraduate studies next year majoring in ministry and preaching.

I realize this is a bit different from mainline denominations, in that many (most?) seminarians earn their undergraduate degrees in whatever major, then go on to a 3-year MDiv as their preparation for ministry or theological education. As churches of Christ have no formal ordination or ministerial "track," the way things go in our case is usually to start with Bible/ministry in college, then (if time and money allow) to go on to the Master's level. (You can imagine my surprise -- and dismay -- when my first semester at Candler felt like freshman year all over again.)

In any case, with Mitch planning to start his studies in a little more than 12 months, Garrett and I took it upon ourselves to begin his theological education in advance. I have seen others' examples of "pre-theological reading" lists, but keep in mind that ours is aimed at someone in their final year of high school, in preparation not simply for theological thinking, but for a lifetime of ministry, proclamation, and Christian pastoral care.

So without further ado, with one book assigned per month (a generous allotment of time for the reading, we think), and having already had Mitch read other authors (Barbara Brown Taylor, Arthur McGill, Shane Claiborne, C.S. Lewis), here is our list of the Top 12 Books to Read Before Undergraduate Ministerial-Theological Study (just rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?):
  1. Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp
  2. Simply Christian by N.T. Wright
  3. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
  4. After you Believe by N.T Wright
  5. The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen
  6. The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter
  7. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
  8. Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon
  9. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder
  10. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  11. The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
  12. The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez
You can probably gather our general approach from the list: grasp the gospel, know the story, involve your self. Of course, we have a thousand other suggestions for each year of his studies, for the Master's level, for essential novels and poets and films and art -- and blogs! But we wanted to keep it simple, lay the groundwork, expose him to multiple authors, and get his wheels turning. Besides, there are enough radical ideas in that short list to change his life forever a thousand times over. So we shall see!

In any event, Garrett's shorter post yesterday sharing this list inspired me to broaden out the story and context a bit; moreover, I'm curious to hear from others. What would your list be? What was your list? What are we missing? What might be missing, but fits someone at a later stage of development or education? What must a burgeoning preacher read as soon as possible? What say you, garrulous and furtive blogosphere?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Remonstrating Sententiously Against Studying GRE Vocabulary

Generally, I'm a dynamo; but, predictably dilatory in studying for the GRE, my lassitude has become hypertrophic. The indigence of my vocabulary -- for all my orthographic skills -- is nonpareil (not to mention when the presence of polysemy, parvenu that it is, appropriates my putrid brain in the proceedings!). Will the test's invigilation succor my dolorous and diffused preponderance for cadging aid? Or will my attenuated memory -- arabesque in theandric imprint, mere striated scurf before the gods of ETS -- call forth a craven recreancy discomfited by the torpor of falsely mellifluous note cards? I am positively harrowed to the point of turgidity.

O that the dulcet wind of inspiration would wend my way when assayed next Wednesday: to my eminent lucubration, to the peremptory luculence of my edacious garrulousness, to the detumescence of my blithely supine mind in incorrigible sepulture. Apposite of nothing, vertiginously flaccid, could the closing circumambient walls prove exiguous enough to denude my protean potentialities of failure? Inconcinnity that it is, I am a votary of the process; I must simply ossify my feckless and deciduous churlishness until the auspicious moment when the winnowing hand of the screen placates the plangent puissance of my obstreperous will -- no timorous tyro here, only pellucid, sanguine volubility.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Who Knows?": A Sermon on Jonah and the Timely Compassion of God


O God,
we thank you for this day.

We thank you
for the life you have breathed into our bodies,
for the lives you have surrounded us with,
for the loves you have offered to us in others.

O God,
we thank you for the time we have tonight
to share in worship and conversation
which we know from you
can be one and the same thing.

O God,
tonight we lift you up
as a God gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in faithful love,
a God with time enough and grace enough
to listen to our hearts,
to give us all we need.

And now, God, to that end
I pray that you would pour through me
the gift of preaching,
that these old words would speak afresh to us tonight,

that the word of God
for the people of God
might call forth thanks to you, O God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Questions About God

To begin, I want to ask some questions for you to be reflecting on as we go through the text. The questions fall into two different sets.

Here is the first set of questions:
  • Do the decisions you make every day have meaning before God?
  • Do the decisions you make every day have an effect on God?
  • Does God listen to you when you pray?
  • Why does God listen to you when you pray?
  • Does it matter if God listens to you when you pray?
  • Is your future—later this evening, tomorrow, the next day, next month, next year—is your future closed, or open?
  • Has God already decided your future in advance?
(I will not be answering all of these for you tonight!) Here is the second set of questions:
  • How do you react when things don’t go the way you expected them to go?
  • How do you react when God blesses those you don’t think should be blessed?
  • What do you think God thinks of people you don’t prefer?
  • What do you think God thinks of people who aren’t just not your preference, but who are actually in the wrong—people or groups we might call “sinners”?
  • How do you think God relates to people “on the outside” of boundary lines—whether these boundaries are a social group, a religious community, or a nation?
  • How do you feel when you think about crossing some of those boundary lines?
  • How do you feel when you think about God crossing those same boundary lines?
Jonah: Memory and Reality

Tonight we’re going to be looking at the prophet Jonah. The book of Jonah belongs to a collection of books that ends the Old Testament, which is a series of twelve prophetic books that are relatively small in size. And Jonah’s short length relates to its purpose, because the book of Jonah is less about history—which you can find elsewhere in the Bible—than about telling a great story.

The book of Jonah spins a yarn—about a bumbling prophet who never gets it right, about a Gentile nation that gets it perfectly right, and about the God at the center of it all—and like a fable, there is a “moral to the story.” And just like any fable or tall tale or folklore, this is a kind of campfire story, meant for retelling aloud, with dramatic voices and laughter at the goofball prophet and his mistakes and having our assumptions turned over and even a surprise ending.

So if what comes to your mind when you hear “Jonah” is a great big whale swallowing a man—well that’s just part of the fun of the story; but we’re going to spend some time going a bit deeper and seeing what God might have to tell us from this wonderful tale.

Jonah 1 & 2: Call, Flee, Boat, Fish

We’re going to be focusing on chapters 3 and 4, but let’s walk through chapters 1 and 2 to set up the story so far. The book begins:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me."

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
We jump straight into the action—with no introduction about who this Jonah is, God calls on him to speak as a prophet—and with no explanation, Jonah literally “runs away from the Lord.” Already we can see this one isn’t too bright!

The story continues. Onboard, Jonah is of all things sleeping below deck—and after revealing that he’s on the lamb—from God—and not just any God, but the God who made the sea, he offers to be thrown overboard. But for Jonah, this isn’t noble—this is his best way to escape from God! (We haven’t seen the last of Jonah wishing for death in this story.) The sailors end up being more reverent than Jonah, but follow through and throw him overboard—at which moment the storm ceases.

As for Jonah, he thought he’d escaped—but God doesn’t let him off that easy, and the text says that God provides a “huge fish to swallow Jonah,” and “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

While in the fish, Jonah comes to his senses and realizes that the Lord just spared him from death—so “from inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.” And what is God’s response to Jonah’s first faithful action? After a long prayer by Jonah, Chapter 2 concludes, “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”

Jonah 3: Proclamation and Repentance

Here is where the story picks up in chapter 3:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you."

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city, proclaiming, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown." The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:

"By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
God’s Timely Compassion

Let’s stop there, and find our bearings. Notice that when Jonah obeys and preaches the message God gives him, the story quickly becomes about something other than Jonah: it becomes about the city of Nineveh, on the one hand, and the living God, on the other.

Now at the time, Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the great empire to the northeast of Israel that invaded and conquered the northern half of Israel—which probably gives us an idea why Jonah wasn’t thrilled to go preach to them. So this isn’t just about the one true God and a random city—this is about the God of Israel and the capital city of Israel’s most hated enemy.

But this enemy doesn’t act like an enemy: When Jonah preaches, “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”—hear this with Israelite overtones: “...just like you overthrew us!” But what is the very next sentence? “The Ninevites believed God.” And the Ninevites don’t merely believe inwardly—they act on their belief, and from the least to the greatest, they declare a city-wide fast—all the way up to the King! By royal decree the entire city is not allowed to eat or drink anything at all, not even the animals, and everyone must wear clothes for mourning and repentance. And here is where I want to focus: “Let everyone calls urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

Tonight what I want us to hear from the story of Jonah is that this short phrase—Who knows?—is one of the most profound statements in the entire Bible, and tells us something of monumental importance about the life of Christian faith. What it says is this: The future is not closed, but open—for the living God is a God of surprises, who will happily show grace to us even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

This question pops up elsewhere in the Old Testament. When David is asked about fasting and weeping when his child was sick, he answers:
While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ ”
When Queen Esther is faced with a difficult decision, her cousin Mordecai sends her a message:
If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?
When the prophet Joel is calling Israel to repentance he says:
Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing.
This phrase, this question, arises when God’s people feel most threatened—and instead of resigning themselves to an already written future, they pose a question to the God of all grace, to the God who listens in love: Who knows? Who knows what will happen? Perhaps there is reason to hope...

And with that question lingering in the air, chapter 3 concludes: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” Israel’s God listened to Israel’s most hated enemy and answered their collective prayer with unaccountable compassion. So this God of surprises is also a God of compassion, who listens to the prayers of all, and who responds faithfully to human decisions.

Before we move on, take a moment to reflect on how this God corresponds to some of the questions we posed earlier.

Jonah 4: Anger and a Lesson

As you’re reflecting, let’s pick up the story, now at the beginning of chapter 4:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, "Isn't this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

But the Lord replied, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a gourd and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the gourd.

But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the gourd so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live."

But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?"

"It is," he said. "And I'm so angry I wish I were dead."

But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?"
Resentment in a Closed World

This scene is openly comical—Jonah just doesn’t get it, even after obeying God just before. But for a moment, step into Jonah’s shoes: not only is he upset that a city of people he understandably hates isn’t going to be destroyed—apparently because God’s got a bleeding heart—but by God choosing not to go through with the judgment Jonah proclaimed, Jonah is made out to be a false prophet! By the Bible’s own standards, if the words of a prophet don’t come true, that prophet is thereby deemed to have been a false prophet—and Jonah, with us, knows this fact. Therefore it seems as if God is less concerned with Jonah’s status on the international scene as a reliable prophet, and more concerned with the fate and well-being of confused human persons—and even animals!

Listen to God’s speech in this story—just five times does God say something. The first two times God speaks, it is simply a command to Jonah: “Go! Preach!” But the last three times are all in chapter 4, and they are all rhetorical questions—again, like a fable, leading us, the hearers and readers, to answer for ourselves.
  • First, about Nineveh not being destroyed: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
  • Second: “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”
  • Third: “Should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh...?”
The entire book ends with God's rhetorical questions, hanging in the air for us to consider for ourselves.

What does this tell us further about God? The God of surprises is a God who crosses the boundaries we fear to tread.

We are the builders of borders, we are the makers of boundaries, we are the authors of discord and gossip and division. But as God is no respecter of persons, God is no respecter or builder of borders—rather, God is the one who breaks our barriers and tears down our walls:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female—for all are one in Christ Jesus. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.
God is the one who looks upon those we disapprove or dislike or disregard, not with agreement, but with compassion and love:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
What Jonah felt was resentment in a closed world: his people were the only people God should care about, but God had to go off and care for others. Are we any different? Am I? Are you? Speaking for myself, I do it all the time: I wall myself in from those I don’t like or prefer, and create my own special group or clique or whatever. But whether in a family, a home, a church, a retirement community, a nation, wherever—God is the great border-crosser: the One who transgresses the boundaries we set, the One who breaks down the walls and fences we erect, the One who has compassion on those on the inside and those on the outside.

Praying to a Surprising God, Sharing Compassion Across Borders

This all could sound like bad news, or at least discomforting news. The God of surprises is sure likely to mess up your perfectly planned tomorrow. The God of compassion is sure likely to let people off the hook who don’t deserve it. The God of border-crossing is sure likely to love on people outside of your little group.

But what if we turn this upside-down message into good news?

The God of surprises is bound to surprise you with his love at any moment. The God of compassion is bound to let you off the hook when you don’t deserve it. The God of a borderless kingdom is bound to offer you welcome when you feel left on the outside. Isn’t that good news?

But God’s good news is always challenge, too. So how might we be people of this God—right where we are, right at this moment?

Let us be people who surprise others with love, who open others’ futures to possibilities they never would imagined feasible. Let us be people who forgive others and let go of grudges, even and especially when we have good and plenty right to be angry. Let us be people who cross borders, who knock down boundaries, who welcome those on the outside to come in.

In other words, let us be people of happy grace, of gratuitous love, of unconditional and spontaneous hospitality. In doing so we will, on the one hand, be avoiding the way of Jonah; and, on the other hand, we will be following the way of Jesus.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Adam Zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski is a distinguished 65-year old Polish poet, influenced by and appreciative of the great Czeslaw Milosz. The poem below is from his 2008 collection Eternal Enemies, translated by Clare Cavanagh; and in its careful simplicity -- like so much of Zagajewski's work -- it contains and effects what it seeks to describe.

- - - - - - -

In a Strange City

By Adam Zagajewski

The faint, almost fantastic
scent of the Mediterranean,
crowds on streets at midnight,
a festival begins,
we don't know which.
A scrawny cat slips
past our knees,
gypsies eat supper
as if singing;
white houses beyond them,
an unknown tongue.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Draft #2: "Why Theology Matters"

Yesterday I posted the first draft for my piece over at New Wineskins, with an explanation; today for your edification, we have draft number two. I quite like what I've written below -- having not particularly enjoyed the first draft -- but instead of making it more amenable to a popular readership, I made it denser; hence the third draft. Be that as it may, enjoy!

- - - - - - -

The church is a missionary people sent among the nations with good news to share. As a people, the church is an identifiable community of persons over time, united by particular beliefs and practices, whose history and collective memory is a loose but locatable tradition. And the “news” to be shared among the nations by this community concerns a living Subject, whose originating and ongoing story gives the news its "good" content.

This brief articulation of the church, the gospel, and the church's evangelical mission is vital in order to understand both the "what" and the "why" of theology. The "what" is at once simple and complex. On the one hand, theo-logy merely names talk about God; according to this definition, as many have said, everyone is a theologian: to talk about God is to do theology. On the other hand, the discipline of theology—the actual training, learning, and equipping for the office, role, and practice in the life of the church—is much more than chatting about matters divine. It is here that the "what" and the "why"—definition and justification—converge.

We may both define and justify theology as the necessary and unavoidable task of a community whose temporality and dispersion impinge directly on a message whose living truth is narrated by speech. Let us unpack that thick claim below.

The church is not free from time. The church is temporal. With temporal existence comes both natural change and, in a fallen world, death. The church exists over time as a people unable to secure its own future in advance. Thus from a human perspective the church's future is always in doubt—hence the perennial predictions of the church's demise. Time takes its toll, time brings difference and death, and so the church must deal with these realities in its own life and history.

Death in particular means that the church's members in any one generation will be gone in mere decades, and therefore that the community today will be made up of entirely different persons tomorrow. Given that the church does not persevere by procreation but by evangelism, the threat of death and the question of the next generation renders the situation even more insecure. Who knows whether our sons and daughters or converts to the faith will arise in the wake of our death?

With time also comes change, and brings with it the first essentially theological question for the church: What will we say today that we said differently yesterday, remaining appropriate to our time yet faithful to our message? This question brings us to an equally important fact of the church's existence: its sent-ness into the world. The church belongs to no geographic area, no fixed boundary, no one civilization or cultural milieu. The church has been commissioned and sent among the nations, sojourning in exile yet with a clear directive, and therefore the question of how to speak to evolving temporal contexts applies equally to diverse cultural contexts. What, for example, does it mean to communicate the gospel in Austin, Texas, in 2010, compared to Tomsk, Russia, in 1210, or to Hippo Regius in 410? The question is one of both time and place.

Thus, these two variables—implicit in the church's constitutive mission—impinge directly on the formulation and articulation of the message of the church's commissioning. How to speak it faithfully and truly without simply repeating it ad nauseam is the whole project. And yet that it can be done is revealed not only in the fact that the church has been sent—i.e., that the church's dispersion is not happenstance but part and parcel of the job description—but precisely in the character of the church's message: a story, told and retold, by human speech.

The story given to the church is the story of Jesus. But this Jesus' story is at the center of a larger story, one of the true God and his life with the world: creation, redemption, and consummation; sin, death, and slavery; exodus and resurrection; Israel, cross, and new creation. It is the grand salvific drama of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose life of love revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the hope of the nations and the light of the world.

That is one short way to tell the story. But as new situations, ideas, and communities encounter the church's storytelling, the church's task becomes distinctly theological inasmuch as its members must discern creative ways to meet temporal, cultural, and other challenges appropriate to the context and faithful to the gospel.

Every season of the church's history testifies to the inevitability of theological engagement. Paul faced it in the question over Gentiles' supposed need to become Jewish proselytes as a prerequisite to membership in the covenant people. Irenaeus faced it in the Gnostic challenge of whether Jesus actually came in the flesh. Athanasius faced it in the question of Jesus' divinity, the Cappadocians in the triune relations, Chalcedon in the two natures of Christ, and so on. These were not spontaneous philosophical pontifications, nor were they alien adulterations of the pure or simple gospel. They were instead timely and creative responses to new challenges facing the church's mission. The question came in a way it had not before: Is Jesus God, or not? And the church—as messy, disordered, chaotic, and fallible as any other human endeavor—came to say the old gospel anew: If Jesus is not God, the game is up. Therefore, those who do not affirm Jesus as God cannot be said to be the church—that is, cannot be said to belong to that community sent by Jesus with his message.

The questions raised by these historical events—of church hierarchy, authority, creed, and dogma—are, for the moment, beside the point. It is of little concern, for our purposes, how the church ultimately ratified and handed down their theological decisions, but that they did, and that they had to do so. For it is no different today: there are profound challenges facing the church in today's world, and we must recognize above all that these are primarily theological challenges. Particularly for those of us who belong to streams of the church either suspicious of or outright hostile to theology, this recognition is crucial. Beyond the fact that we have a more expansive history than we may often acknowledge, more to the point the lesson is this: we cannot simply repeat Bible verses in the face of today's questions. The gospel is more pressing, its Subject more lively, the Spirit more creative than slack-jawed rote recitation.

I say this not to demean Scripture, but rather to raise it to the level for which it was given. As the founding and abiding texts of the story we have to tell and the community to which we belong, Scripture is the authoritative witness to the God who stands behind all our efforts at faithful and truthful speech and action. Just so we may and ought to trust this One who sent us into the world, to stand with, behind, and beneath our efforts to speak the truth anew and well.

This task is no in-house doctrinal sparring, no endless parsing of technical terms without purchase on the ground. Theology is nothing less than life and death, nothing short of cosmic struggle between principalities and powers. What, after all, does it mean, theologically, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? It means, definitively, to claim that the Lord of the cosmos is not the free market, not military might, not political triumph, but a crucified Jew from a backwater town in Palestine. It means that those who say worship belongs to this One alone will be willing to die for saying so. It means that those whom this One cared about most—the poor, the weak, the marginalized, women, foreigners, and traitors—will take priority over the fashionable, the beautified, and those able to reciprocate. It means that "in this world we are like him": him who forgave his enemies, him who suffered without retaliation, him who went to the cross. It means that what this man did and said really is the key to human existence, and therefore that his authority overrides that of any and every other claimant to the throne.

There are other theologies on offer, in the world and in the church; and at times these theologies envision a different Jesus, a different gospel, a different mission. It is always our first task to recognize these as different theologies—what Scripture calls idols—and then to go about responding. There will always be diversity, of course, in the church's fresh tellings of the story, both in word and deed; and indeed this is a blessing. But there will also be diversions and distortions that must be addressed—primarily (and preferably) by offering an alternative telling of the story. The telling and the retelling—faithful to Subject and message, fit for time and place—is the singular task of the timeful work of theology.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Draft #1: "Why Theology Matters"

When Sara Barton contacted me back in May to contribute to this month's issue of New Wineskins, I had no trouble at all choosing my topic -- "Why Theology Matters" -- but had an extraordinarily difficult time writing the piece. Not that I couldn't find the words, or an approach, or an argument; rather, I couldn't find the right fit for the genre of article and the readership of the magazine. Two years ago I could barely squeeze out a paragraph in a "scholarly" or in-house "theological" voice; now I found it hard to write in any way intelligible to someone not intimately familiar with technical jargon and references. Thus the article was a wonderful challenge in forcing me to say in comprehensible language what I was used to saying in -- to the average reader -- incomprehensible formulations. And so, instead of editing an original composed-all-at-once draft (always my usual habit), I wrote, and trashed, two full potential drafts, before coming to a third blank page and finding the right balance. Now that the official piece is published, I thought it might be instructive to share my initial drafts. Here's number one.

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That theology matters is a claim the church has rarely felt the need to defend, much less to argue. Rather, the church has simply done theology, assuming in the very doing of it both that it is worthwhile and that it is self-substantiating (or, at least, that its substantiation is self-evident). In the same way, many of the church’s practices are no less difficult to establish or explain. For example, we might ask “why” Christians worship, or “why” Christians baptize converts or pray for their enemies. To reply that God has commanded these things is no answer to the implicit question of why (God commands that) we do it. As Kim Fabricius notes, we worship because God is to be worshiped. It is a theological tautology. The only path toward understanding worship is to worship—and yet one will quickly realize that the point of worship is not to understand worship, but to worship the God worthy of worship! And so we go.

Given the tautologous (or not-immediately-explainable) character of much of what Christians do, theology in particular has, at various times and in particular streams of the church, come under suspicion, if not outright attack. Certain reasons have been profound and even laudable: distaste for elitist erudition and classist condescension; wariness of trusting “man-made books” over the Good Book; concern for not adding complicated stumbling blocks to the simplicity of the gospel; worry that human theologizing quickly becomes self-projection; and, perhaps most of all, the historical record that when people start talking about God, in that very instant people start dividing. In the face of such robust criticism, how then can theology be justified?

The first and abiding answer to this question only loops us back to the beginning: theology is justified because there is nothing for the church to do but theology. But enough frustrating word games; how truly to unpack this claim? Let us say the following, then go about elaborating it: as theology simply names talking about God (theos-logos, literally “God talk”), it is part and parcel of the mission God has given the church to speak God’s good news for the world. It is the form, content, and audience of this gospel-speaking that the church has to work out in its life and history—not whether to speak at all!

Articulated in this way, theology is crucial—and explicit acceptance of it is so important—precisely because the very act of denying or deemphasizing theology is itself a theological move. We can’t help but theologize: we’re all theologians, every last one of us. To be a Christian, to be the church, is to be called into the lifelong conversation and embodiment of God-talk. There is no way around it.

To be sure, this calling can be blessing or curse, depending on context and on the faithfulness of our practice. Few have been spared the pain of others’ manipulation of God-talk to suit their own ends or wielded as a weapon. And there is no denying that dogmatics and division can seem related as directly as cause and effect. As with all other human affairs God has left to the church’s obedience, the pitfalls and obstacles are gargantuan.

But the difficulty of the task is not, and certainly can never be for God’s people, a reason or excuse for inaction, but only motivation and impetus for renewed faithfulness. Thus, having spoken so far only on the unavoidability of theology, let us take up hereon why and how theology matters for the life, faith, and mission of the church in the 21st century.

Theology matters first and foremost because for Christians, theos and logos have been inextricably united in the person of Israel’s Messiah. That is to say: the Word’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us is no mere philosophical datum—it is the definitive revelation of the true God. We have seen the glory of this God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, the Incarnation of the Word is not out of step with God’s character or an altogether new connection between theos and logos. From start to finish in Scripture, “God” and “speech” are never far from each other, but uniquely and powerfully intertwined. In the first chapter of Genesis we find God, in the beginning, creating heaven and earth through the agencies of Spirit and Word: the former hovering over the waters, the later spoken into the void—and there is light (vv. 1-4). This same Word, in the first chapter of John, is named in the beginning with God and, indeed, as God (vv. 1-3). It is this One enfleshed on whom the Spirit comes in baptism and whose baptism of others will be with the Holy Spirit (v. 33). The triune relations narrated in just these two passages alone tell us something irreducibly significant about God as Speaker, Spoken, and Spirit, pertaining both to the divine creative act and to the inner life of the Godhead.

To speak God in this way is to place ourselves in the tradition of the church’s language as it has developed over time. Just so, we are participating in a conversation. This conversation is not closed, but neither did it begin recently: it has been going on for millennia, and one of the most important things in joining it is the refusal of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We are liberated from fads, from the perpetually “new,” from the thankless march of technological innovation, into a history and a people whose language is living but ancient of days.

To attend the grammar school of the church—in which we both submit to the language’s rules and conceive syntax and vocabulary anew—is thereby to prioritize two related tasks: truthfulness and mission. Thus with Robert Jenson we may define theology as
reflection internal to the act of tradition, to the turn from hearing something to speaking it. Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old word. Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken? (Systematic Theology 1:14)
Here the issue is time: the message was truthfully spoken one way at one time; but what is the truthful way for our time? We do not revert to Koine Greek to tell others of the gospel—that is not something Americans understand. What language, then, will faithfully communicate what we have received, given that it was indeed first passed on in Greek?

However, it is more than linguistics and translation that theology is concerned to address. As a missionary people, the church encounters differences of culture, ethics, and religion in the nations to which it has been sent. It is precisely in these encounters that the “good” nature of the “news” that is the gospel must be newly understood and articulated—not in isolation from or only critique against the discovered differences, but also in conversation with them. If for no other reason this is possible and to be expected because there is no area or community in the world untouched by the creative hand of God or outside of the Spirit’s sustaining care; therefore, the first question the church must ask in such encounters is, Given the Spirit’s leading us here, where is the Spirit already present? The work of theology is in a profound sense nothing other than the repeated asking and answering of this question.

In his book Preface to Theology, John Howard Yoder begins his study of the history of theological inquiry with the New Testament—not, as one might presuppose, to lay the “groundwork” for what “later theologians” would expand upon (or distort), but instead to name explicitly that the earliest canonical Christian texts are themselves works of theology. This fact is essential to understand in particular for those in churches begun in the Restoration movement, for with “no creed but Christ” came the institutional distrust of theology and, in its place, a radical trust in the authority of Scripture. At this juncture, though, we ought to affirm the latter and question the former, for as we saw above, a denial of theology is itself an act of theologizing. And what is Scripture itself but Spirit-led God-talk? Not to mention the formation and reception of the canon—the very belief that this and not that collection of books is authoritative is itself the first and primary extra-biblical theological claim. To repeat: there is no getting around it!

The question, to conclude our query, is whether we want to get around it. “It” can name a headache-inducing circularity or the wild adventure of speaking God’s kingdom. It is the basic claim made here that theology is squarely the second option, and that it is indispensable to the church’s mission. If, for example, a crucified Messiah is Lord, and military might is not, what then does that mean for right living in the world? And if God has acted to redeem the cosmos, what then does that say about the created order, about our treatment of it, about God’s relationship to it? If in the end our deepest longings—for justice, for vindication of the oppressed, for an end to the powers of violence and death—are real, and not only real, but participation in and anticipation of the deepest fabric of reality, the infinite love of the triune God: what then?

From Pentecost to Eschaton, if for this question alone—“Given this God, what then?”—theology matters for the church.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Why Theology Matters" Published at New Wineskins

Just got in from a long weekend vacation with family, only to find my piece "Why Theology Matters" already published over at New Wineskins, as part of their new issue this month on "What Really Matters." Thanks to Sara Barton -- editor, missionary, minister extraordinaire -- for the kind invitation to write for this issue, and to the magazine's editors for the good work they're doing in and for churches of Christ and the church catholic. Be sure to go check out my piece, as well as others already posted and those to be published later this month and into August.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Thom Satterlee

The following poem is from Thom Satterlee's first collection of poems, Burning Wyclif, which, as Robert Fink notes in the Introduction, "is structured in a chronological sequence of selected events from [John] Wyclif's life and times" (p. xv). And the section from which the following poem is taken is entitled "The Private Meditations of John Wyclif," including poems on angels, celibacy, inspiration, and Eucharist.

I love the way this poem, like its inspiration, has its own logic, its own self-evident view of God and the world, and thus a tickled theological humor. And I love those last four lines; such is the way things go in that world on the way, in which God is all in all.

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On the Virgin Birth

By Thom Satterlee

There is no contradiction in the following:
A virgin conceived and bore a son.
Now the grammarians will say,
if she was a virgin, then she did not conceive;
and, if she did not conceive, then she did not bear.
Through their words they show disdain
for Holy Scripture and pay no attention
to greater minds. Even a cursory reading
of Anselm's De conceptu virginali
would reveal the common logic
of infinite terms and make plain the manner
in which we every day conceive of such terms
as for instance that of whiteness
by which we call a white wall white.
So likewise a virgin might conceive
and bear insider her what is above her.
The true miracle lies not in conception
nor in birth, but as always in the act of God
who this one time allowed the thought
of every mother-to-be, to be.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Answering Questions, Planning Dates, and Filling in Contributors

As seems to be the consensus, I have so far greatly enjoyed and appreciated the ongoing releases in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. I have been reading through the Pentateuch over the last six months, and I had Ephraim Radner to accompany me through Leviticus and now David Stubbs through Numbers, both of whom were and are wonderful and insightful guides through those thick texts. And of course, my man Jenson released his impressive commentary on Ezekiel last year, the writing of which he says nearly killed him, but, in any case, will help me through those difficult textual waters in the next couple months.

Because of the impressive scope and substance of the series so far, I have been looking for a definitive list of every contributor to the series for every biblical book, and have yet to find one. Below you will find what I have pieced together so far -- much of which is listed on Brazos's website, but there have been some changes in the last few years, and there still seems to be a few gaps, namely in the Minor Prophets.

Areas in blue are books already or to be released by the end of 2010; red means I don't know who is writing that commentary; orange entails a specific question in need of an answer. I'm also looking for any updates to seminary/university transitions that have yet to show up in the academic locations.

By comment or email, if you happen to have information on any of these matters, please send them this way! And by all means, if you know when any of these will be coming out in the future, enlighten us -- in four years, only 14 commentaries have been published out of a potential 45-50 total, meaning we may have a decade or more to await the rest!

Old Testament

Genesis – R.R. Reno (Creighton)
Exodus – John Behr (St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary)
Leviticus – Ephraim Radner (Wycliffe, Toronto)

Numbers – David Stubbs (Western)
Deuteronomy – Telford Work (Westmont)
Joshua – John Franke (Biblical Theological Seminary)
Judges – Laura A. Smith (Calvin College)
Ruth and Esther – Stephen Fowl (Loyola) and Samuel Wells (Duke)
1 Samuel – Francesca Aran Murphy (Notre Dame)
2 Samuel – ???????
1 & 2 Kings – Peter Leithart (New Saint Andrews)
1 & 2 Chronicles – Scott Hahn (St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology)
Ezra & Nehemiah – Matthew Levering (Dayton)
Job – David Burrell (Notre Dame)
Psalms – Ellen Charry (Princeton)
Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – Daniel Treier (Wheaton)
Song of Songs – Paul Griffiths (Duke)
Isaiah – ???????
Jeremiah – Kevin Vanhoozer (Wheaton)
Lamentations – ???????
Ezekiel – Robert Jenson (Center of Theological Inquiry)
Daniel – George Sumner (Wycliffe)
Jonah – Phillip Cary (Eastern)
Other Minor Prophets: Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Micah Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah Haggai Zechariah Malachi – ???????

New Testament

Matthew – Stanley Hauerwas (Duke)
Mark – John Michael McDermott (Pontifical College Josephinum)
Luke – David Lyle Jeffrey (Baylor)
John – Bruce Marshall (SMU)
Acts – Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale)
Romans – David Yeago (Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary)
1 & 2 Corinthians – Bernd Wannenwetsch (Oxford) and Brian Brock (Aberdeen)
Galatians – Kathryn Greene-McCreight (clergy)
Ephesians – John Webster (King's College, Aberdeen)
Philippians – George Hunsinger (Princeton University)
Colossians – Christopher Seitz (Wycliffe, Toronto)
1 & 2 Thessalonians – Douglas Farrow (McGill)
1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Jude – Risto Saarinen (Helsinki)
Hebrews – David Bentley Hart // Is Hart still writing this one?
James – Timothy George (Beeson, Samford)
1 & 2 Peter – Douglas Harink (King’s University College)
1 & 2 & 3 John – Michael Root (Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary)
Revelation – Joseph Mangina (Wycliffe, Toronto)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Dialogue With Jimmy McCarty on the Trinity, Christian Identity, Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy, and Churches of Christ

Over the past week my friend Jimmy McCarty and I have been having a back-and-forth email conversation about the Trinity, what constitutes Christian identity, orthopraxy versus orthodoxy, and the intersection of all of these matters in our particular ecclesial tradition, the churches of Christ. Jimmy is a PhD student in religious ethics in Emory's Graduate Division of Religion, having moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles a year ago. We thought others might benefit from our dialogue, so enjoy!

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Jimmy: What's the biblical basis for the claim that Jesus was raised by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit? Seems like someone's forcing a Trinitarian reading where it isn't totally present unless I'm forgetting something... I've always thought the question about who raised Jesus, the Father or Jesus himself, was rather ambiguous in scripture.

Brad: Regarding your question about the Trinity, there's two ways to answer that. One is that, for such a claim, it is grounded not in the fact that Scripture says it, but that the church confesses the triune God, and insofar as that God is truly triune, everything the one God does he does so as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, God the Father raised God the Son in the power of God the Spirit.

On the other hand, given that I think Trinity is biblical, this sort of claim seems to me clearly evident in Scripture (though of course there are always ambiguities and a scope beyond this particular of a formation). That the Father raised the Son is simply an extension of the fact that often, especially in Pauline language, "God" names "Father" while "Lord" or "Son" names Jesus. For example, Philippians 2 says "and God also highly exalted him [Jesus], giving him the name that is above every name [Lord], that at the name of Jesus, every knee ... every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." So that's one side.

The other would be that Jesus is raised in the Spirit. Romans 1:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16 seem to be the closest to saying something like this -- but again, they only point us to the larger reality that "the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead" is in fact the Spirit of the Risen One. Which only leads to a theological understanding of the Holy Spirit as God's inexhaustible presence and force for Life -- in the midst of and through death. That is, resurrection life.

There's a great meditation on this by Peter Leithart. It gets at some of the ambiguities you mentioned, albeit super Trinitarian.

Jimmy: That's helpful. Not surprisingly, it seems some of my hesitations about the Trinity are the same as my hesitations about the who raised Jesus question. It just seems so convoluted to get to any coherent understanding. I see where your grounding comes from, though, and think the command to baptize in the name of Father, Son and Spirit is one of the strongest arguments, so it makes sense to be Trinitarian in baptismal rites. I just always get nervous when Trinity becomes a requirement for faithful Christianity, so it's inclusion in your liturgy made me ask.

Again, I lean Trinitarian, I'm just nervous about making it dogma. There's a part of me that thinks that if you confess Jesus as Lord (whatever that might mean) that's enough for me to count you as Christian.

Also, having just come from small town Tennessee -- one of the lifebloods of CofC -- there are still a lot of ministers with no training from our universities and many congregations that actually frown upon their ministers having a Bible degree. I do think they're dying though... Just a friendly reminder since it seems you've had a unique CofC experience in some ways.

Brad: Yeah, it's always helpful for me to remember that our autonomous situation means "trends" in many ways aren't even nameable. Such a bizarre time for our tradition.

It would be an interesting sociological experiment to ask and explore whether we can even call "churches of Christ" a coherent, identifiable tradition/movement. How many concrete splits are there, within churches that still claim the name?
  • ICOC - though technically they did claim a new name
  • CoC - evangelical/mainstream
  • CoC - sectarian/fundamentalist

It's probably helpful for all future discussion purposes to note that I have had literally no direct contact whatsoever with either the ICOC or the sectarian/fundamentalist strains. Now, of course there is going to be a midway point between the mainstream/evangelical types and the sectarian (where would you place your L.A. church?), but it seems like speaking communally, they can be identified. You can even have progressive sectarians and conservative mainstream-ers, but there's something there regardless.

It would be interesting on a purely qualitative level to know two statistics: first, what percentage of churches fall in the mainstream category; and second, what percentage of persons fall in the mainstream category. I wonder if the former would be a smaller overall number than the latter -- i.e., there are more sectarian churches, but less overall people in them.

In any case, always interesting to think about that stuff.

Regarding the Trinity, for me, it's less about dogma/creed/heresy and "signing on the dotted line" than about which God we are worshiping. I may have told you this story before, but I had a friend in high school who was in a semi-cult-ish church-type group [the details of which not being pertinent to public discussion]. Anyway, they didn't believe God is triune because it's "not biblical." But my friend didn't think this was important between he and I, and wanted to say we were both Christians, etc. I said that that couldn't be true, if we wanted to be honest with each other, because when we said "Jesus is Lord" we meant different things. He said it didn't matter. I said, as an absurd example, that if by "Jesus is Lord" I meant "Jesus the Palestinian Jew was and is ruling God of the cosmos" and he meant "Jesus the Palestinian Jew was a golden retriever," we simply would not be saying the same thing, even if our words were the same. His response was that we would be, so therefore it didn't matter.

That is an absurd example, but it names the precise matter: what do we mean by our words? I'm happy to let a thousand sleeping dogs of ambiguity lie, so long as we have a few essentials down. Jesus' divinity and the character of the God we confess and worship are two of the handful for me. A few others would be that Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised from the dead, and that that event is salvific; that this God is the God of Israel who created all things; that this God is love and will make all things new; etc. But I just can't get around the centrality of God as triune, as nothing less than a biblical and requisite doctrine of God for all Christian teaching, faith, and proclamation.

Now, if the question is whether we should use the word "Trinity," or something equivalent, I'm open to talking. I'm not sure there is any better language available to us, and I want to claim the tradition wholeheartedly, but I understand the issue there.

Jimmy: I'm not sure if it's legitimate to count black churches of Christ as another unique expression of the tradition, but it's worth considering. There is something unique about them, but most tend to fall into the sectarian/fundamentalist mode rather than the mainstream one.

I think your question about which God we are worshiping is a legit one. And I'm glad you recognize the absurdity of your example if for no other reason than the words "Jesus is Lord" cannot mean Jesus is a golden retriever (or any other dog for that matter)! Also, your description of his church as "cult-ish" is very poignant. Part of my hesitation about drawing lines that exclude some who claim the name Christian comes from the experience of having been accused of being in a cult by other Christians because I am a member of the CofC. I'll wear the name Christian whether others want me to or not. That's just the way it's gonna be! So, I feel the duty to offer the others the same courtesy. The golden rule or some other touchy-feely Jesus thing.

Now, back to your question about the God we are worshiping: I firmly disagree with the God of the prosperity gospel (perhaps the American version of the Deuteronomistic God), but I cannot say those who believe this are not Christian even though I do not believe in that God. Perhaps you can make a distinction between the who-God-is question and the what-God-is-like question, but I think that at some level they are the same question.

This does not mean that I think all "Christianities" are created equal. In my opinion there are some that are clearly horrible, and some that are better than most, but the fact that some are really bad doesn't mean they no longer qualify as "Christian" in some sense.

So, what are the essentials to claim the name Christian?

1. Jesus was God in the the flesh.
2. Jesus is Lord.
3. Jesus was murdered, buried and raised from the dead after three days.
4. God is known as Father, Son and Spirit (not necessarily Trinitarian since I include modalists as legitimately Christian).
5. God is known in the Christian scriptures.

Any variation from this seems to me to exclude one from bearing the name Christian in any historically recognizable way. Now, there's a whole lot more to be said about other matters, but it seems to me if you differ from me on any other issue I can think you are terribly mistaken but still be Christian in some sense. (Now, remember I wrote this up rather quickly so I may modify this list in a future discussion!)

Brad: I'm intrigued by your notion (which I've heard you express before) about not wanting to exclude someone who claims to be Christians, and/or not wanting to say someone "isn't a Christian" who claims to be Christian.

You'll have to help me in understanding more precisely what that means. There are lots of ways to read it, but in any case, I don't have the same hesitation at all. Probably the main reason is, you and I aren't bishops or formal leaders in an institutional church; if we were, saying "yes" or "no" to "this person is or is not a Christian" would be the answer, and it would simultaneously answer whether they were or could be members of said institutional body. That kind of position and situation would be dealing in profound power, and I absolutely would have to re-think much of how to approach whether someone was "in" or "out."

But given that that is not the case, and we are talking descriptively as persons without institutional power -- and, just as importantly, without societal power to determine whether someone may claim for themselves a particular religious moniker or practice -- I just don't have those similar hesitations. Historically, "Christian" identifies a particular set of commitments spoken and enacted. More importantly, as a Christian and thus speaking theologically, I believe that Christian truth claims are in fact true, and therefore "Christian" actually names something real and identifiable.

Because reality and human experience are both fallible and given to sin, I'm all for the big tent, and intentional reticence in claiming "yes" or "no" to others' claims to be Christian. And every church, group, theology, etc., will be imperfect in expression and practice.

That said, if a person or group self-identifies as Christian, and their understanding or articulation of what it means to be Christian does not hold up historically or theologically -- even within the big tent -- I just don't know what it would mean to say, "Well, I can't say you're not." My first response wouldn't be to inform someone that they aren't what they say they are. Either descriptively in the third person, I would say that they aren't; or in a real, personal conversation, I would say that, given our respective claims, only one of us (me or the other person) could truly be a Christian, because they are actually contrary claims. That might mean I'm wrong instead of them, but I would prefer for us to agree that our claims are mutually exclusive than to say we won't say the other isn't Christian.

I had this situation with my cult-ish friend, as well as with Mormon friends. I'm happy for Mormons to say that I don't belong to the true faith, and therefore am not a true Christian -- they would be lying or dishonest to their own convictions if they said otherwise! That is, I am happy to be a Mormon heretic.

As for claims about cult status, I understand the power of the insult that someone might look at CoC and say it's a cult. But again, this seems to be mixing multiple issues. That you will wear the name Christian whether others want you to or not, and your accepting the duty to extend to others the same courtesy, has to do with cultural power and religious freedoms. The question is whether you are in fact a Christian, and whether others are as well -- not what you or I or others claim to be the case.

Does that distinction make sense? I guess boiled down, I would say: sociological hospitality and theological hospitality are different spheres. Sociologically, of course anyone can claim to be anything, and I believe as a Christian we must and ought to honor others' claims freely (here's where nonviolence comes in!). Theologically, religious claims are not equal, and if we are to speak and relate to one another truthfully -- almost always what I value most in relationships and human community lived out together -- then it is a false humility to say someone else "may be" or even "is" a Christian if one's convictions utterly disagree with them.

Let me know if I'm talking in circles or speaking somewhat coherently. Glad to be in on the theological email gravy train with you today.

Jimmy: Well, your sociological/theological distinction is striking since I do both! And I know sociology has affected my theology and vice versa. Milbank would be very disappointed in me.

I do not accept that neither you nor I have any societal power to wrongly exclude others from the Christian tent. We are both rather privileged and in fact do have such power. Also, historically, societal and religious power has been used to do just that. I think we must deal seriously with that fact. We may not agree about the power we have, but at least we should recognize that I am working from the perspective that I do have, however limited, such power and therefore some responsibility to use the "power" that is granted me as a minister, theologian and professor in a responsible way.

Now, as to your description of actual conversations had between people who disagree: I have often told people certain beliefs they hold are not Christian. However, this does not mean they are not Christians -- my beliefs have changed, and are changing, so many times, that it's hard to link Christian identity with too many doctrines. I've been a Christian the whole time!

I am slow to link Christian identity with orthodoxy (at least a broad understanding of that). For me, being a Christian has much more to do with orthopraxy. I'm much quicker to condemn a Trinitarian crusader than a non-Trinitarian martyr (and there have been those who have died for the name of Jesus who have not confessed the Trinity), for example. (And, hence, our differing status as a theologian and ethicist, at least to some extent). Obviously, some balance between belief and praxis is necessary, but how they are balanced is the issue at hand, at least so it seems to me.

As a side note, I don't think Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses or other such fringe groups fit my list of criteria to be Christian, so I think I'm safe on that level. The real test, it seems to me, is between Catholics and Baptists, Coptic Christians and Korean Christians that hold some shamanistic beliefs. Can all these people be considered Christian? It seems they can -- except sometimes that Trinity thing gets in the way!

Anyways, I feel like I'm rambling now. You were making sense, am I?

Brad: Ha -- I hope I never gave the impression of endorsing Milbank. He's a fascinating conversation partner, with brilliant insights, and also happens to be wrong a lot. In an incomprehensible way.

You are definitely making sense, but we're going to have to define some terms. In what sense do you and I have cultural power "to wrongly exclude others from the Christian tent"? Of course we share and participate in webs of power, and as educated males with history in the church -- who play to write, teach, influence, etc. -- there is extraordinary power there. But my claim is simple: Neither of us is in any position to inform another person or group that they are, as such, Christian or non-Christian, in a way that would actually decide the matter. Of course, historically that has happened repeatedly and horrifically -- but two of my central ecclesiological convictions are that the church be free and that the church be nonviolent. Meaning, there is no institutional structure from which to pronounce "Yay or nay" on others' identity (the ecclesiastical temptation), and neither is there a magisterium which speaks infallibly (in a real sense, the pedagogical sectarian temptation), and neither is there a claim that "we" have it all right (the fundamentalist temptation) -- and, finally, there is no state-centered coercive power to force practice or conviction or to make salvific claims (the Constantinian temptation).

So I acknowledge power -- but given that I want to refuse all those temptations, what kind of power remains that you are weary of?

Jimmy: I was definitely talking about those cultural expressions of power. Inasmuch as you are talking about institutional modes of power, you are correct about our relative impotence.

And I would never sin against you by claiming you have any allegiance to Milbank. I was just recognizing another heresy I am apparently guilty of according to some.

Brad: Glad to know you would never, at the least, label me a Milbankian. But what if I claim to be a Milbankian, yet am not...

It seems that to some extent we're getting into the question of what it means, ontologically, to "be" something, and therefore to affirm or deny another person's "being" something. In this case, the question is whether a person (or group, but we'll keep it individual for now now) "is" a Christian. As I understand you, you would respond to a person who says, "I am a Christian because I confess Jesus Lord -- that is, as a golden retriever," by saying, "That position is not Christian" or even "That confession does not accord with the confession that makes one a Christian" -- but you would refrain from saying about that person that he or she "is not a Christian." Is that correct?

If so, it does seem we've waded into philosophical waters about ontology and identity. I'm not trained to swim here, so I've only got middling thoughts, but I'll share anyway.

Basically, I just want to say that, whenever I offer a descriptive account of someone's Christian identity, or lack thereof, I do so with the ever-present disclaimer, "To the extent that Christian identity can be perceived and named." Because I recognize, of course, that I am not the judge (*), and that my assessment does not determine the case, my expressed judgment is only to the extent that I can perceive the matter and that words have meaning that matches reality. If a person says, "I am a Christian," and bows down to a golden retriever and worships him as Lord, I can't imagine not being able to say, "To the extent that Christian identity can be perceived and named, that person is not a Christian."

(*) I should note that I have noticed in some conversations that determining Christian identity often entails with it the assumption of whether someone is saved. I don't assume this connection as a necessary corollary, so I don't feel threatened by such judgments (whether about myself or others), but I understand why it would for those who do assume it.

Now, you bring up two important points: first, few cases are this absurd, as most involve interdenominational questions of doctrine and practice; and second, there is orthopraxy alongside orthodoxy. I like my example of bowing down to a dog, though, because most doctrine/orthodoxy can only be perceived through action. So that's why the "minimal list"/big tent works for me, not because they're simply inward beliefs, but because they are expressed in life.

The question seems to arrive in the discernment of orthopraxy through righteous deeds or through constitutive practices. Because Christian identity is first and foremost the identification of a sinner, it is unclear what it might mean to say that righteous deeds (often what "orthopraxy" names in disguise) identify a Christian. Besides, no Christian theology has ever claimed that non-Christians cannot or do not perform righteous deeds on a regular basis. Not to mention the fact that we should never (as I know you agree) claim Christian identity for those who don't claim it for themselves, simply because they "live like Jesus"!

So what might be practices that constitute Christian identity? (Oh no, Hauerwasian territory!) These would seem to be correlates to the "minimal list" named earlier: baptism into and belonging to the communal body of Christ; partaking of the body of Christ in the meal; confession of Jesus as Lord (speech is action!); confession of self as sinner; submission to the authority of Scripture; enacting of the Spirit's gift(s); saying and doing gospel in the world (=service, sacrifice, reconciliation).

Which returns us to the question: So how might we say if a person or group is not Christian? If these things are not spoken and done in community. If they are not, it doesn't mean someone isn't "saved," or that they don't know God, or that they are bad human beings, or that they are not a spiritual journey, or that they are not guests in the house of the Lord. But by what other means would we make the judgments?

Of course, the final close of the circle is to get back to the list: What makes it on the list? Is the Trinity on it? With the overwhelming majority of the church (but not, admittedly, the unanimity of it), I say yes, and without qualification. That said, I acknowledge that it is an open question whether Trinitarian confession leads to greater moral action. (Check out Richard Beck's suggestive blog post on this question.) On the other hand, I certainly believe the Trinity comes out in practice -- otherwise in what name do we baptize? who comes on us in baptism? whose meal do we eat? to whom do we pray the Lord's Prayer? And so on.

Jimmy: Great thoughts!

Some responses: I still don't think your retriever example is a legit one because the word's "Jesus is Lord" categorically cannot mean "Jesus is a golden retriever." If someone were to say that, I would not say "That is not a Christian thing to say but you are still a Christian," I'd probably try and get the person some mental help. You know as much as anyone words actually mean something, and "Lord" cannot mean "golden retriever." Now, if one person says "Jesus is Lord" and means "Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who is also the Son of God seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven" and another says "Jesus is Lord" and means "Jesus is the one whom I obey and follow because of his status as God (though, perhaps, not in any trinitarian sense) and preeminent religious teacher" I'd say they're both Christians.

As to your clarification about orthopraxy, I appreciate your thoughts. I think they're very helpful. However, I've got a few responses.

1. You're right that non-Christians can "do justice and mercy," but that is still constitutive of what it means to be a Christian. To make this simplistic, the difference is that Christians do it in the name of Jesus. Also, I think the Christian vision of life/the world/life in the world, is unique (and doesn't have to be Trinitarian to be unique, though I agree it makes it more compelling in many ways and more unique), though I won't go into that here.

2. I appreciate your move to religious rites and rituals, and agree that those are things that Christians do (and can be used to identify Christians). However, my initial response was, "If that's all that identifies a Christian/Christian community, then Jesus' death wasn't worth it." Harsh, but if partaking the Lord's Supper doesn't lead to actual table fellowship/sharing of goods with the outsider, then it's not Christian (but those who miss the point, and millions do, are still Christians in some sense), for example. Also, this is what makes me so frustrated with Hauerwas, sometimes. It seems to me he implicitly limits the realm of God's intentions, goals and (productive?) activity in the world. I recognize this is my read of him, and many would disagree with me, but it's my read nonetheless.

3. An important point, I think, that is left out of your move to religious practices, is that non-Trinitarians do all of those things and faithfully. Modalists/Unitarians can baptize in the name of Father, Son and Spirit without having a Trinitarian understanding, for example.

4. I'm on board with your distinction between being a Christian and being saved, for what that's worth.

Okay, I think that's enough for now. (Again, I'm basically with you on the Trinity except for it's place as dogma to be Christian.)

Brad: All right, here's some point-for-point responses.

0. You're right about the Jesus-dog thing, but it is at the very least a helpful example for me for two reasons: first, I actually had a conversation with someone where they affirmed the equivalence (of course not the truth) of the proposition, and the person in question is a self-identified Christian, who is not mentally unstable, who is in fact one of the five most brilliant persons I have ever known. Meaning, it's not made up! And therefore, second, that we have to establish that words mean something, and that even something so simple as "Jesus is Lord" or "I worship the God of the Bible" has to be worked out. (This is where I'm a bad Coc-er and a bad Reformer: the perspicuity of Scripture, particularly to random individual readers, especially when those readers are American Protestants, is a highly questionable doctrine in its popularized form.)

But I accept the point that your much more nuanced differentiation between meanings is more likely and more difficult. Nevertheless, let me be clear. I want to say and believe it is coherent to say two things about a modalist or non-Trinitarian self-identified Christian: historically, that person does not accord with what basic beliefs constitute Christian identity; and theologically, that person does not believe as a Christian should. I guess the remaining question you want to press is whether I would then go on to say that that person is not a Christian. And to that, I give ground: at this point, I don't think I'll go that far. But that is for other reasons, perhaps to be explored below.

(Number 2 before number 1.)

2. I wholly understand and share your frustrations with any position or construal of the Jesus community that would entail its being "fully Christian" when its meal doesn't actually function the way the meal is supposed to. I'm curious as to where you go with identity here, because we can both agree that "the meal isn't Christian if it doesn't lead to or involve sharing with the outsider"; but then you still say that those who do this "are still Christians in some sense". Well, what is the "some sense"? Can you be Christian, do/perform actions/practices of Christian identity poorly or even sinfully, and remain Christian? That is, can you "be" Christian poorly or sinfully? I think all I want to say is: given that we are sinners, there is no question that we will in fact be Christians sinfully and poorly. What if the Christian who does Eucharist exclusively today (and thus is only Christian "in some sense") begins to do Eucharist hospitably in a year? Does he/she thereby become fully Christian? What if that has happened, but they aren't practicing their baptism without prejudice (i.e., they look down on another ethnicity)? Then is there still a qualification to their "being" Christian? Etc.

This observation is pointing me back, not even so much to practices, as to what constitutes Christian identity at all. And I might put it as simple as possible in this way: a person is a Christian if he/she is a baptized member of Christ's body who confesses Christ as Lord. In this way, confession, baptism, Eucharist, and community come together nearly as one. Thus we ward off the "in some sense" qualification in two ways. On the one hand, we can say that in baptism a person is made by God's own gracious action a child of the Father and a brother of Jesus, and therefore a Christian; yet given the ongoing penultimate reality of sin, the journey of life will forever be a living into this given identity. And on the other hand, belonging to the community of Jesus means that whether "I" have fully arrived at practicing Eucharistic sharing, I belong to that community whose life is the Eucharist -- and by God's grace, in the journey of life I will come, through the shaping of the Spirit, to live out the Eucharist with the needy and marginalized.

I know that this ultimately doesn't answer the problem of how one could ever "be" a Christian who doesn't actually practice justice in the world, but my response would be straightforward: that unjust person is a Christian just to the extent that as a fellow baptized believer and member of the same community, I can and must go to that person and call them to repentance. This seems to answer your question about changing beliefs over time -- you don't have to be the most sophisticated Trinitarian in the world to be a Christian (that is, your salvation is not based on your cognitive philosophical capacities), for two reasons: you were baptized in the triune name, and you belong to a community that will continue to educate and teach you over time in the truth of the Trinity. So regarding justice, I simply did not understand or practice the implications of God's justice for the poor before the summer of 2006 -- but God confronted me through brothers and sisters who led me to repentance and transformation in the Spirit. I was always a Christian, but I lived into my identity more fully after the fact. And regarding the Trinity, a similar pattern can be traced.

1. Thus instead of saying "doing justice and mercy is constitutive of what it means to be a Christian," I would respond that "doing justice and mercy is constitutive of the Christian identity into which men and women are baptized and live into over their lifetimes." Let me know what you make of that.

3. You make a good point about modalists/Unitarians. But do they do these practices in a Trinitarian community, that is, a community that worships and teaches the Trinity? If not, and the Trinity is the true God and the God narrated and revealed in Scripture, what community is it we are talking about?

Here's one way for me to ask this question: if you're fine saying that fully Christian confession must say that Jesus is fully divine, yet nowhere in Scripture does it say "Jesus is fully divine," as this is a (correct!) interpretation of Scripture, how do you arrive there if you deny the necessity of the Trinity? Is it only the Spirit's divinity that is problematic? Or the articulation of non-modalism (which is only saying that Father, Son, and Spirit are not "masks" for the "real God back there")? Is it an aversion to the creeds, which rule out modalism and its theological siblings, because they don't have authority in the way Scripture does? But who says Scripture has full or final authority? Scripture itself certainly doesn't and can't, for there is no "it" as such to know or talk about "it"; moreover, that there are x books rather than y books is a product of the church's own writing, editing, collecting, and binding. The same communities that decided Jude and Revelation would make it into the canon we have in our hands gave hermeneutical authority to the rule of faith, which came into concrete authoritative form at Nicaea and Constantinople. So on what grounds or on what basis do we say Scripture has its authority that cannot be swept out from beneath us? And is there an answer to that question that allows one to say it is clear the Son is divine, and one must confess it to be Christian, without also being able to say the same about the Trinity?

Jimmy: I think we have come to some shared ground here -- at least until that last paragraph (which I've read a few times now trying to discern). I'll have to get back to you on that.

I am on board with your language of being a Christian sinfully as roughly equivalent to my "in some sense" language. I'm simply "okay" with being "sinfully" a Christian in one's doctrine as well.

Oh, and your retriever story is valid inasmuch as it is a true story. Just remember, there's a thin line between genius and crazy! See: Van Gogh, Michael Jackson, Howard Hughes...

Just for fun, though, are you familiar with the churches of Christ that refuse to baptize in the name of Father, Son and Spirit (which we have assumed is the practice in our conversation)? They baptize in the name of Jesus Christ (see Acts 2:38). Their argument is that the examples of people being baptized don't use the formula at the end of Matthew 28, but only in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, they tend to go out of their way to refuse the doctrine of the Trinity. I think they are mistaken, but they are still Christians (no matter how badly).

[End of the dialogue so far; we will see if more comes of it!]