Notes in the Margins
Jan 21, 2015
Shepherd of Hermas

As part of my reading plan this year, I have been reading the Apostolic Fathers, as compiled in this very helpful book edited by Michael Holmes. In the last couple of days, I have been working my way through The Shepherd of Hermas, written sometime in the early- to mid-2nd century AD. Hermas, the main ‘character’ in the document, initially receives some visions that convict him of his sin and the need to repent, and help him to grow in understanding, before he relays a variety of commandments also revealed to him.

What is interesting about Hermas is that in the process of receiving these visions, he finds himself unsatisfied. The more he receives, the more he wants. And not only does he begin to desire further revelations, but he also begins to ask for interpretations of the visions. At this point, the figures who reveal the visions to him begin to chastise him for these demands. In 18:8-91, we find this dialogue:

'These revelations are sufficient for you…' I answered him and said, ‘Sir, I ask only this one thing…that a complete revelation may be given.’ He answered me and said, ‘How long will you people lack understanding? Your double-mindedness causes you to lack understanding; indeed, you lack it because your heart is not set towards the Lord.'

A few chapters later, in 22:3, Hermas writes,

As I was walking by myself, I asked the Lord to complete the revelations and visions that he showed to me…in order that he might strengthen me and grant repentance to his servants who had stumbled.

Hermas is presented throughout as someone lacking in understanding and wisdom, and he seems to believe that simply by receiving these visions, he will gain the understanding he needs. Conspicuous in their absence as Hermas pleads for understanding are references to Scripture or the Church, and we are left wondering why Hermas effectively ignores these things in pursuit of further visions. I almost felt a sense of frustration as a result whilst I read the document.

Reading Hermas drew my mind to Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. After having died and gone to Hades, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family of where they will end up unless they too repent. Abraham replies that all they need to do is listen to the Law and Prophets, and that if they are not prepared to do this, not even the appearance of someone from the dead would convince them.

There is a fairly clear parallel with Hermas there, I think. Finding himself in a position of being made aware of his sin, and weak in his faith, Hermas longs for these revelatory visions, believing that if he can see just a little more, and a little more, he will have the understanding he needs to have his heart transformed and to know the truth in all its fullness. Like the rich man, though, he has in many ways already ignored Scripture and the Church. To be sure, he did not have the Bible like we have it today, but as a member of the church in Rome, and possibly even the brother to the mid-2nd century bishop there (according to Holmes’ introduction), he would have had access to the Scriptures, and whatever New Testament writings would have been circulating at that time already. Abraham’s statement in Luke 16:31 could easily be modified to apply to Hermas: 'If [he does] not listen to Moses and the Prophets, [he] will not be convinced even if [he receives several visions].'

Holmes notes that The Shepherd of Hermas, despite being such an enigmatic document, was quite popular in the Early Church. That is a bit of disturbing thought because of what it implies about the place of Scripture in the Church at that time. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the way in which Hermas' spirit continues to operate in the Church today; not so much that we are looking for further visions and revelations, but that we so quickly turn away from the revelation already given to us in search of wisdom and guidance. The chastisement Hermas receives in 18:8, then (which Anglicans will clearly hear echoed in Article VI), is one we ought to heed whenever we pick up a Bible: 'These revelations are sufficient for you.'

1Hermas uses two different referencing systems; Holmes employs the more modern chapter and verse system.
Jan 5, 2015

Jesus famously said to his disciples in John 13:35, 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ You do not need to spend much time in Christian circles before you hear those words employed. The point is simple: when the world sees us living in peace and harmony with one another, it reflects something of the beauty of life as it was meant to be lived, and has a magnetic attraction that draws people in to find the source of this life.

The problem, of course, is that far too often we fail to love one another, and our strife and disunity, whether between individual Christians, or between churches and denominations, absolutely cripples our witness in the world. This is not a new problem. Around 1900 years ago, we find this in Second Clement, one of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers:

For the Lord says, ‘My name is continually blasphemed among all the nations,’ and again, ‘Woe to him on whose account my name is blasphemed.’ Why is it blasphemed? Because you do not do what I desire. For when the pagans hear from our mouths the oracles of God, they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But when they discover that our actions are not worthy of the words we speak, they turn from wonder to blasphemy, saying that is a myth and a delusion. For when they hear from us that God says, ‘It is no credit to you if you love those who love you, but it is a credit to you if you love your enemies and those who hate you,’ when they hear these things, they marvel at such extraordinary goodness. But when they see that we not only do not love those who hate us but do not even love those who love us, they scornfully laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed (13:2-4).

These are strong words, but notice the severe warning in the second line: ‘Woe to him on whose account my name is blasphemed.’ The author of Second Clement is building on Isaiah 52:5, where God says that it was because of Israel’s unfaithfulness that his name was blasphemed by the nations who took them into exile. The author’s point is that we bear personal responsibility for those who are turned away from coming to Christ because of our poor witness. That is a terrifying thought. And that is why most of Second Clement is filled with urgent calls for the church to repent and to reconcile with one another.

Although I think a lot of good work has been done in the last century or so to reawaken us to the way our disunity and lack of love for one another hinders our witness, I have never heard anyone speak as clearly as the author of Second Clement of the responsibility we bear for those who are turned away from Christianity because of us. There is good reason, then, to read this letter, because that is a reality we need to be confronted with. And it should drive us to earnest repentance both for the sake of the world, and for the glory of God.

Jan 2, 2015

Now that I am back in the academic world, I have found that I have less time for personal reading than I used to, meaning I have to be more intentional about what I read. Where I used to just pick up any book that caught my eye, I want my reading over the next few years to be more focused. That is why I have decided to make 2015 the year to read primary sources.

Old books

I have made this decision for two reasons. The first is because I have not given adequate time and attention to primary sources in my theological formation. Whilst I was required to read different primary sources in university and seminary, I never maintained the practice, even though I benefited from it at the time. However, this year I have been taking a module in which I have been reading Anglican sources from the 16th and 17th centuries, and it has reminded me again of how important it is to work with primary sources. For the second reason, I direct your attention to the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, in an extended quote from his magnificent introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about 'isms' and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ('mere Christianity' as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

So this year, I will be devoting my attention in my personal reading time to reading old books. For a guide, I am using this list provided by the Center for Pastor Theologians, whose work I have long admired, and who too are committed to the importance of studying primary sources. The list they have compiled is helpful and balanced, and as they suggest, I will be starting with Michael Holmes' book, The Apostolic Fathers in English. Because I am an Anglican, I will make certain amendments to the list later on, particularly from the Reformation era onwards (for instance, making sure to read authors such Richard Hooker and John Henry Newman), but otherwise their list seems to be a good place to start.

I don’t expect to get through the whole reading list this year, of course. Nor will I entirely avoid reading any new(er) books. But I want to put the emphasis on primary sources this year, and expect it to prove to be a fruitful pursuit in my own theological formation.

Dec 24, 2014

Some wonderful words from Augustine's homily, 'Truth has arisen from the earth and justice has looked down from heaven’, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas tomorrow:

Adoration of the Shepherds, Charles le Brun
Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

A very happy Christmas to you all.

Dec 18, 2014

As I have joined in corporate prayer in various contexts in the past few months (by which I mean a setting where one person leads a gathered congregation in prayer, as opposed to a prayer meeting), I have encountered three emerging (or at least, new to me) trends in prayer that concern me. I wanted to make a few brief observations about this, and invite the thoughts of the reader in response.

First, I have observed an increasing number of people lead corporate prayer by simply saying things like, ‘Lord, we pray for Syria and for Iraq,’ or, ‘We pray for our diocese.’ Although I did not recognise it initially, it later struck me that this sort of prayer lacks a petition. I sometimes find myself wanting to interrupt and say, ‘…And? What do we pray for them?’ I’m sure that people who pray this way have genuine petitions in their heart; in the case of Syria and Iraq, for instance, I am sure the unspoken petition is a prayer for peace. But in the context of leading corporate prayer, those petitions need to be vocalised.

Second, I have also heard someone repeatedly use the phrase, ‘We pray to God for ____’, and list the various points of intercession for the day. I was particularly troubled by this, because in addition to not offering a particular petition, we were not actually addressing God at all. This person was informing us of what to pray for, but we never actually prayed.

Finally, I have noticed the emergence of a pattern of including large portions of silence into prayer. Whilst I do not think silence is necessarily a bad thing, I do find it interesting that this happens in the context of corporate prayer. Usually in these silent periods, those who are gathered to pray are invited to pray in their hearts in response to a short bidding. The problem with this is that it then ceases to be corporate prayer. There is something unique about gathering together to pray and collectively bringing the prayers of the people together before God. That is lost when when the corporate prayer primarily becomes a time of silent, individual reflection.

The main reason these trends concern me is because, as William Willimon argues in his book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, the ‘[leader] teaches the congregation about prayer in [their] leadership of the…prayers’ (83, emphasis mine). The person leading the prayers is not just praying on behalf of those who are gathered to pray, presenting before God the prayers of the people, but they also model prayer, and have as their ‘goal the enabling of the congregation to speak and to listen to God’ (83). In his composition of the Book of Common Prayer, this was part of Thomas Cranmer’s aim as well. Recognising that he was working in context of reforming a Church where few people knew how to pray, he gave them the BCP as a means of teaching them how to pray.

Leading a congregation in prayer is both a privilege and a great responsibility. Embracing that responsibility means taking seriously the call to give voice to the prayers of the people, and being intentional about modelling prayer in a way that teaches, equips, and encourages others to take hold of the blessing they have of calling upon God as Father and to commune with him. For that reason, we need to be attentive to how we pray when we lead others in prayer.

Again, these are just a few brief observations, and I welcome any thoughts the reader might have on how we ought to approach and carry out corporate prayer.

Dec 16, 2014

Several times in the past few months I have been involved in discussions on the role Scripture plays in theological reflection. Prior to one of those discussions, we read an interesting paper by Roger Walton, a Methodist leader in West Yorkshire, who did some research into the different ways the Bible was used by theology students in various contexts. He ended up producing a taxonomy of about seven different methods students employed, one of which was what we commonly call proof-texting. In its worst form, it is a method that takes a few verses from here and there to prove a theological point, without any reference to context. At the risk of generalising, accusations of ‘proof-texting’ are most often lobbed by liberal theologians at those who take a more conservative approach to Scripture and theology.1

Proof-texting has a bad name, and even mentioning the word will cause many people to sneer. Indeed, it is often a method employed poorly. But the question I wanted to ask in these discussions was, does that mean we ought to write off proof-texting altogether? Is there never a place for that kind of literal use of Scripture, where we can simply say, ‘The Bible says…’?

Warnings against proof-texting often accompany the argument that a doctrine of Scripture needs to be properly nuanced. Certainly, having a robust doctrine of Scripture is important for theology, and we need to work hard to understand the nature and authority of the revelation God has given to us. But I think there comes a point when we put too much stress on the idea of ‘nuance’. In my more cynical moments, I begin to wonder if those who say, ‘We need to be more nuanced in our use of Scripture’ are actually saying, ‘I need to find a way to make Scripture say what I want it to.’

The December issue of Christianity Today carries a profile of Pope Francis authored by R.R. Reno, and one of the things Reno notes is that people are drawn to Francis because of his literalism, particularly in his embrace of poverty. ‘The literalism of Francis,’ Reno writes, ‘makes immediate the commands of God.’ Because Francis is a Roman Catholic, and I am not, there is much I disagree with him on, but in terms of his desire to live faithfully, he is an important example. He does not spend all kinds of time engaged in academic scholarship trying to figure out what exactly Jesus really means when he says something. Instead, Francis reads the Bible, hears the commands of Jesus, and obeys immediately, in this case seeking to embrace the calling to humility, generosity, and love. That is a type of proof-texting. ‘The Bible says…’ and he does. And while some people scoff at this literalism, it is something that draws many more people to Francis because in those actions, they are pointed to Christ.

The more I hear about ‘nuanced’ doctrines of Scripture, the more I think we have replaced the call to be conformed to Christ with a desire to be conformed to comfort. We cover that up by saying that we are so far removed from the original context or that the text of Scripture has been corrupted over time, that we need to engage in all kinds of study and scholarship to get at what Jesus really said.

By no means am I saying that all scholarship is bad or that the hidden agenda of every theologian is to evade Jesus' words. As someone currently embedded in an academic theological environment, the work done in these sorts of contexts is often very important and valuable. If I did not believe that, I would not be doing the kind of work I'm doing. But I am also aware that when we are not watching our hearts, this kind of thing can become a convenient means of finding a Jesus who will allow us to live in a way that does not provoke hostility from the world around us. It’s worth noting, as I’ve pointed out recently, that inconsistencies here are blindingly obvious to some atheists, and a serious hindrance to our witness.

A desire to always avoid more literal readings of Scripture carries with it an implication that we have a God who is no longer trustworthy and faithful. If God has decided to reveal himself in Scripture, would he really allow that revelation to get so corrupted that only the most academically astute amongst us could figure out what the Bible really says? If loving God means keeping his commands (1 John 5:3), would he allow Scripture to change to the degree that it would be nearly impossible for us to simply read it and discover those commands?

If this makes me sound like a ‘fundamentalist’, then so be it. I want a robust and healthy doctrine of Scripture as much as the next person, but we need to be serious about what is going on in our hearts. The fact is that following Jesus is hard, sometimes it even hurts, and we don’t like that. Our hesitation to take Jesus at his word, to obey immediately, exposes the weakness of our faith and our failure to believe that he really does know what’s best for us.

Following Jesus will bring trouble in this world, yes, but he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Because we have died with him and been raised to new life with him (Romans 6:4, 2 Corinthians 5:17), Christ now lives in us (Galatians 2:20). And that means that however much the world mocks us, hates us and persecutes us (which it will, Matthew 10:22), we will be able to follow Jesus with all our heart and know the joy of living as he has called us to. That is a joy we miss out on when we are more concerned with the pursuit of happiness and comfort. What's more, just as Pope Francis' literalism is what endears him to so many people, when we embrace the joy of living in faithfulness of Jesus, we too point to him and draw others in to discover the life that he offers. So why are we so afraid to take the words of Jesus at face value?

His commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3-4). They bring life (John 5:24). What's keeping us from hearing and believing the words of Scripture is not a corrupted text. It's our corrupted hearts. More than anything else, then, the most important tool we bring to the interpretation of Scripture is a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit.

1It should be noted that more liberal theologians engage in their share of proof-texting as well. I'm thinking, for instance, of the way Matthew 25:34-40 is constantly employed in the service of social justice causes (see Alastair Roberts’ helpful post on why that passage is not as straightforward as it is often taken to be).
Dec 1, 2014

The video above provides a really helpful introduction to the Church calendar and the significance of the different seasons throughout the year. Although I didn't grow up in a context where the Church year was observed (with the exception of the major feast days), it is something I have come to deeply appreciate, and I think following the liturgical calendar is of great benefit to the shaping of the life of the Church, for a few different reasons.

In the first place, as the video says, it roots the Church in the story of the gospel. It's not just that we hear the gospel each time we meet together, though that should certainly be the case, but that we inhabit the story throughout the whole of the year in a much more profound way. We spend long periods of time reflecting and dwelling on the story of redemption and the work of Jesus to reconcile us to God and give us new life, situating ourselves within the unfolding drama. We slow down and recognise what God's people have known for so long – that this is a story that unfolds over thousands and thousands of years, and that we have to wait upon the Lord, who brings salvation in the fullness of time.

This season of Advent that we have just entered into, for example, is so important for the Church because we have largely lost that sense of waiting and expectancy. Advent forces us to confront the reality that we continue to find ourselves living in a time of darkness, in a world that is still broken and in need of redemption. Slowing down to reflect on that helps us to enter into the longing and expectant waiting that the prophets spoke of as they waited for the promised Messiah, to join in Isaiah's cry: 'Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!' (Isaiah 64:1). We can't jump right to Christmas; the coming of the Messiah only makes sense in the context of that longing for deliverance, as we learn what it means to expectantly hope in the fulfilment of God's promises. What's more, one of the characteristics of the Early Church was the sense that Jesus' return was imminent, and therefore the idea of running the race and pressing on in the pursuit of holiness was an urgent task, as was the call to make disciples of all nations and bear witness to Kingdom. As we wait for Christ's second Advent, recapturing this sense of the imminence of his return helps to reawaken a Church that in many ways has lost this urgency.

Secondly, this is about formation. As James K.A. Smith has observed, we are shaped less by what we think than by what we love, and those loves are cultivated by the stories and liturgies that we inhabit, intentionally or otherwise. He argues in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, that our culture is well aware of the reality that we are liturgical beings and bombards us ceaselessly with narrations of the world that seek to capture our hearts and imaginations and orient us towards a particular vision of flourishing and of what it means to be human. The only antidote to these pervasive attempts to re-narrate the world is to firmly root ourselves in the true story of the world, revealed to us in Scripture. And the primary means we do this is through the worship of the Church. The Church's calendar helps us to rehearse that true story of the world throughout the whole of the year in our worship, constantly keeping us rooted in that story and helping us resist those attempts to reshape and reorient us.

Finally, this is a way for Christians to be distinctly separate from the world, to declare that we belong to a different Kingdom and that our lives are ordered differently. Christ is Lord over all of our life, including how we mark time. We march to the ticking of a different clock, and allow that clock to set our focus and our priorities. As people who are baptised into Christ and given a new identity, we root ourselves in the story of redemption and spend the year pointing to Jesus and the salvation that comes through him, constantly rehearsing how God has acted in history and placing ourselves in that story.

And that can only be a good thing.

(The chart below helpfully marks out the seasons of the Church year along with the corresponding liturgical colours, as they are observed in the Church of England.) church-year

Nov 26, 2014

Theologians often argue about which area of theology is most important, the debate being particularly pronounced between biblical theologians and systematic theologians. Last week, Derek Rishmawy offered his own take on the issue:

In response, Alastair Roberts posted about twelve tweets (yes, as prolific a tweeter as he is a blogger), stringing together a number of thoughts on why he thinks liturgical theology might actually be the most important area of theology. For the sake of ease of reading, I have slightly edited his tweets and put them together into paragraph format:

I am not sure I agree with Derek. Liturgical theology (perhaps also ethics) has always been my favourite area of theology. I've always had wide theological and academic interests, but liturgical theology has long been my integrating focus.

Liturgy forces you to bring together both systematic and biblical theology, not as abstract fields of knowledge, but embedded in rich and variegated traditions of practice, and relate them to the prevailing conditions of belief, identity, and community, discerning the ways in which texts and practices form us, instructing and guiding persons in their effective use, crafting new practices of our own, relating to truth of God to the life of the body, and constantly attending to the ways our theology is or isn't validated in the lives and practice of the Church and its members. All the streams of theology converge at and flow from the font.

The loss resulting from neglect of liturgical theology is immense, leaving us only the penultimacy of both biblical and systematic theology. Unlike most biblical theology, liturgical theology places the Scriptures in the context of the reading/formation of the community of the heirs and executors of the biblical testaments. Unlike most systematic theology, liturgical theology approaches Christian doctrine, not as second order reflection, but as preached summons and living confession. For me, liturgical theology has always been the discipline most constitutionally committed to the non-abstractness of Christian theology.

Some fascinating insights here, and as an Anglican, I find myself resonating deeply with his comments. Someone asked Alastair where they could begin reading on the sort of thing he is suggesting here, and in response he points them to Alexander Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World, as 'a book that captures the spirit of the sort of thing that I am arguing for’, a recommendation I would heartily echo.

On the whole, though, Alastair observes that there is still much work to be done here (he briefly notes that he wants to write a book on the subject, and I certainly hope he does). But if liturgical theology is as important as he suggests it is, then hopefully we will see scholars increasingly devoting themselves to this area of theology.

Nov 20, 2014

Elaine Graham and Stephen Lowe, in their book, What Makes a Good City? Public Theology and the Urban Church, make the following point about the benefits of the parish system:

One of the cardinal virtues of the church is its local nature. In the Anglican tradition, that is enshrined in the parish system, which guarantees that every square centimetre of the country falls under the responsibility of a local congregation… Such territorial jurisdiction, however that may be formally constituted in legal terms, does indeed keep alive an understanding of the whole of the created order in a particular area belonging to God, and of a desire to render holy the local, the concrete and the particular as the specific context in which the church, as the spirit-filled Body of Christ, can help to further God’s mission in that place. As the theologian Sigurd Bergmann has argued, it is about ‘God taking place’: a sacralisation of the physical, the spatial…as an arena of redemption (49).

Recently, there has been some discussion particularly here in the Church of England on the drawbacks to the parish system, and it is also important to recognise the reality that our lives are often not rooted in one specific community any longer. Yet despite these things, I think the commitment to place remains something significant. Our calling and mission as Christians is something that must be thoroughly rooted in the places we inhabit. And that is because we do not bear witness merely to something spiritual, but we bear witness to a King whose redemption extends as far as the curse is found, who is at work reclaiming the whole of his creation. As a result, our mission takes concrete form in our local contexts.

I don’t know if Abraham Kuyper knew anything about the English parish system, but if he did, perhaps he would have approved, given that in some ways it is an ecclesiastical structure which takes seriously – and quite literally – the idea enshrined in his famous dictum, that ‘there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, "Mine!”’. Often the parish structure is understood as giving a parish church responsibility for ministering to the people in their parish in specific ways, particularly through the 'occasional offices' (baptisms, weddings, and funerals). This certainly opens important doors for our mission in our local communities. But if Christ is at work reclaiming the whole of creation, then our vision must be bigger – to look at our parishes as the local places in which we have specific responsibility to demonstrate the reality of the Kingdom and the rule of Christ over every single part of life. The opportunities afforded us through the parish system to reach out to those in our communities is one aspect of this, but it also means equipping regular members of our churches to bear witness to the Kingdom in everything they do.

We must be doing this wherever we go, of course, and it is also something we can participate in outside of our local context. But it seems to me that something like the parish structure gives us a tangible and immediate scope in which to exercise our mission, a local focus where we can concentrate and participate in very real ways in making known the presence of the Kingdom. There are some great examples of relatively new churches which have adopted parish models for this very reason. And from there, of course, different parishes in a city can come together to work towards demonstrating the reality of the Kingdom on a bigger scale, and to even use their resources to help churches in other cities around the world begin to demonstrate Christ's Lordship over all wherever they are.1

Very simply, if God enacts his redemption within the arena of creation, then we ought to be demonstrating that in our local contexts. And given that here in the Church of England we inherit with our churches responsibility for a particular community, that's a good place to start.

1I recognise that these are American examples, but I think they are particularly good examples of churches that understand the scope of the mission we are called to in our local contexts. We could learn a lot from them here in the UK.
Nov 18, 2014

Bethany Jenkins got some folks riled up yesterday by suggesting that we drop the term ‘apologetics’, arguing that it is a relic of the culture wars of the 1980s:

As much as you can in a Twitter conversation (you can view the whole conversation here), she makes the case that using the term connotes a sort of battle mentality and can put Christians in the mindset that there is a fight we need to win. She suggests in part that it is not truth that needs to be defended, but instead falsity that needs to be held accountable, and so we ought to avoid the posture of defence. At one point she hints at the idea that our engagement with those who are not Christians could possibly be termed our ‘public faith’.

I have never thought of the idea of dropping the term ‘apologetics’ before, but I am also conscious of the fact that I really have not thought about apologetics since I finished my previous theology degree more than four years ago. Studying apologetics was enjoyable, and I remember thinking at the time that I could see the usefulness in being able both to ‘expose’ the inconsistencies in the thinking of those who were not Christians and to make a rational case for Christianity. However, when I then moved to England and began working for a church and engaging much more regularly with people who were not Christians, I very quickly realised that they simply didn’t care if their thinking was inconsistent. And this was something all the training I had in apologetics did not prepare me for.

Now, that does not mean that I abandoned any effort to make an intellectual or rational case for the Christian faith when engaging with people who were not Christians. Certainly, any communication of the gospel addresses what we think and believe, and there is value in trying both to help people address the inconsistencies in their thinking and to help them make sense of the world we live in. But it seems to be a bit of an illusion to think that simply presenting the most logical and rational argument is going to turn the hearts of people towards Jesus.

This is precisely where some of James K.A. Smith’s recent writings are so important, because this is not primarily a matter of thinking. This is a matter of the heart. One of the big points he makes in the two published volumes of his 'Cultural Liturgies' project, Desiring the Kingdom, and Imagining the Kingdom, is that we are shaped less by what we think and believe than by what we love and desire. Human beings, he says, are 'liturgical animals'; we are creatures who are formed by liturgies that seek to inculcate in us, by way of a set of practices and habits, a particular vision of 'the good life'. These practices train us to respond instinctively to that vision so that we begin to live in the service and pursuit of this good life. This is simply what is at work in those who are not Christians – they have been shaped by the liturgies of the culture they inhabit, been given a non-Christian vision of ‘the good life’, and their hearts are oriented in that direction. And while it might be worth arguing this for the sake of pointing out where they need their thinking changed, more than that, they need their hearts re-oriented.

In my engagement with those who are not Christians, Smith’s thesis has often proved to be true. I could share the gospel with someone and show them how things they thought and believed were effectively irrational, and even find them nodding along in agreement. But in the end, what matters is that following Jesus would mean giving up things – sometimes everything – they loved and desired, not least of which is their autonomy. And that is a much bigger stumbling block than any intellectual objection they might have.

In light of what Smith says, then, how do we engage with those whose loves and desires are disordered? First of all, I would not say that we throw out the idea of apologetics altogether, nor do I think Bethany is advocating that. After all, there are people out there whose objections to Christianity are primarily intellectual, and we should be prepared to engage with them on that level. But for many people, reordering loves and desires will simply not be a matter of getting their thinking sorted out (and we should note that this is often just as much the case for those who hold intellectual objections to Christianity).

Here we need to remember what Lesslie Newbigin once said, that the greatest apologetic for the gospel is a congregation that believes it (I'm not sure if he actually used the word 'apologetic', but the basic idea remains). What he means is that the witness of our lives as the redeemed people of God is often more powerful than all our intellectual reasoning. This does not mean that we adopt the false notion that we can share the gospel without words, because the gospel is a verbal announcement that we are very clearly called to proclaim. But it does mean that the gospel should so transform our lives, both as individuals and as a community, that the world around us is drawn in to see what it is that has changed us.

Instead of assuming a posture of defence, our ‘public faith’ ought to assume a posture of welcome. We are not saying to the world, ‘Let me show you what you have wrong!’, but, ‘Look at what Jesus offers!’ As we live lives that reflect rightly ordered loves and desires, and that witness to the fullness of life that comes from submission to the rule of Christ, we offer an invitation to ‘come and see what God has done, his awesome works for mankind!’ (Psalm 66:50). It is an invitation to come experience a community and a people who have been transformed and made new. And it is in this context that we can then answer those who ask us to give the reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15) as they begin to taste and respond to the love, joy, and hope we have in Jesus.

So maybe Bethany is right that we ought to drop the term. Certainly her call to move away from the posture the term connotes is helpful. But whatever word we use, we are not here to win a fight. We are here as instruments of the Kingdom, bringing hope to a broken world through our witness to the risen and ascended Jesus, and welcoming others to discover the life he alone offers.

(On a bit of a side note, I notice some argument in response to her tweet that we shouldn't drop words simply because our culture doesn't use those terms in the same way any more. I would just point out that this is coming from some of the same people who often cast the word 'religion' as something entirely negative.)

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.