Tag Archive | Holy Spirit

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story. In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me. Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one. Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model. If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened? Exactly. This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community. While many evolutionary biologists have presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God. That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them. I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis. Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature. On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist. I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student lunch and shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation. He told me that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians. The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that they created and the incarnation and giving of Jesus Christ in order to upend the power structures of this world is a profound demonstration of this love. Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves. That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right? A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues. In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened? How did we get to this point? At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can have certainty. Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone. In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (primarily, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas. I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks. Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God. We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.3

+++++

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.

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Will tomorrow be the ‘end of the world’?

Maybe, but I’m suspecting no. [Greg adds: Suspicion was correct.] Readers will no doubt have heard about a Christian group going around, informing the world that 21 May 2011 is the day that God will issue his divine judgment upon the earth. This is said to include an event called the ‘Rapture’, in which Christians will be taken from the earth before God begins a period of judgment that is called the ‘Great Tribulation’ or the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’. Their efforts have spawned a waves of both curious attraction and intense ridicule (which they expect, going up against the ‘Antichrist’ – see 1 John 2:18). One public Facebook event, ‘Post rapture looting’, has, by this afternoon, amassed more than half a million ‘attendees’ prepared to take full advantage of the potential ‘end’ and illegally acquire new stereos in the event of a ‘Rapture’.

If I was going to even begin to really analyse the many facets of this convoluted and heterodox belief system it would take thousands upon thousands of words and I suspect that out of my own personal frustration I’d actually want the world to end after all. I am not trying to pick on these Christians, as I am certain that they truly believe the things that they are preaching, and that if I was convinced the world was going to end on 21 May 2011 I could only hope to demonstrate the passion and fervency to make that fact known like they are. But I really think they’re wrong.

Where do they get these ideas? Well, without getting into the interpretive and mathematical gymnastics required to extrapolate ‘THE END OF THE WORLD IS 21 MAY 2011’ from the Bible, it’s important to know why these people have been looking for this date.

We must begin our brief exploration of this issue in the Book of Revelation, which is probably one of the most misunderstood sections of Scripture. In American Evangelical Christianity (especially within the belief systems called Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism) there is a widespread view that the Book of Revelation foretells the end of the world in very literal terms. What is meant by ‘literal’, I can’t quite grasp, but it’s some way of applying a particular interpretive method described as ‘literal’ that is a somewhat willy nilly version of what we might understand as literal-minded (according to the OED, ‘having a literal mind; characteristic of one who takes a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things’, the term ‘literal’ being used ‘to denote that [an accompanying noun] has its literal sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or inaccuracy; literally so called.’).

According to this interpretation (and there are many variations), the Book of Revelation is entirely futuristic and eschatological, that is, something that takes place at the end of all things. I’m not interested in exploring the legitimacy of this view right here, right now, but I will say that some startling insights for the Book of Revelation come from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees (considered apocryphal by most Protestant denominations) help illuminate the Second Temple Jewish context of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation and lead to some dramatically different interpretations of things like the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’ and the ‘Antichrist’.

Either way, this literalistic/futuristic view believes that God will bring judgment on the earth according to a complex set of events and periods of time. One of these events, as mentioned earlier, is called the ‘Rapture’. The concept of the ‘Rapture’ is primarily based upon one reference in Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, which states,

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This passage provides those who hold to the idea that the Book of Revelation informs us that God will judge this world during a period of ‘Great Tribulation’ with a bit of relief: they won’t have to endure this period of judgment. But in light of the Second Temple Jewish context of the Book of Revelation, I don’t believe in this future ‘Seven Year Tribulation’, and my disbelief is not a result of a lack of faith in God or an interpretation that isn’t ‘literal’ enough. I merely believe that the best understanding of this issue within the Bible would indicate that the great tribulation in the Book of Revelation 4-19 is a reference to the occupation and oppression that the Jews experienced in the Second Temple Period (i.e. the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the ‘beast’ from Revelation 13:5-8; see 1 Maccabees 1:20-28).

While I generally hold to this preteristic (as opposed to futuristic) view of Christian eschatology, I do believe that God will bring about his kingdom in its fullness at some point in the future. I certainly wouldn’t say that these doomsday folk are wrong in believing that there is something significant to come, but I do have trouble with their views on what that looks like and how/when it happens. With regard to the pressing issue of time (being that I may only have 24 hours before the end [15 in Australia!]), the time of God’s full bringing of his kingdom, the end of the authorities of this earth, Matthew’s Gospel (24:36) records Jesus as saying,

But about that day and hour [of my return] no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

I do not believe that the arithmetic these doomsday folk have derived from the Bible to draw the conclusion that the end of the world is tomorrow is actually faithful in any way to the content and purpose of Scripture. Even if the Bible was explicitly clear about this date, when tomorrow rolls by without the end of the world, God would not be made a liar. God is not the Bible. The Bible is a result of God inviting his people into his story. St Paul writes that no one will know when the end will come, as it will come as a ‘thief in the night’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

I don’t think we should waste our time with conjectures about when the unknowable will come to pass. Every Christian generation from the Apostles to our present generation has anticipated the immanent end, but no Christian generation has ever been the Church that loves and serves in the power of God’s Spirit; the Church that fights for the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised; the Church that extends to all people an open invitation into God’s loving family through the wholly effective death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Church that has become what it is called to be. That is our goal and that is our priority. I hope that if tomorrow isn’t the end, these doomsday folk will experience the love and grace of God in a way that will encourage them to divert their incredible faith and energy back to the task at hand.

(Originally posted at Things & Stuff)

Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is exclusively given over to one of these two positions is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the ages.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and explicitly states that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent in 1545 made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have had what some consider an disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’ ever since.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have frequently shifted between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  We must understand that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and his Holy Spirit can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through his Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for his creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Imaging the Kingdom I: Foundations of the kingdom of God

Since I converted to Christianity in my teens I have been continually exploring what it means to be a Christian.  In my experience I have become increasingly convinced that Christianity hinges upon one major theme: the kingdom of God.   It is used throughout the Christian tradition and is referred to throughout the Scriptures many times (oftentimes referred to as ‘the kingdom of heaven’).   The phrase can be picked apart from many sides, but I believe that its general implications are as follows:

  1. God is the king of the kingdom
  2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
  3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

In the Christian tradition, these implications, while very basic, are indispensible.  This series, Imaging the Kingdom, is intended to explore the nature of the kingdom of God and its implications in the universe, and therefore in our world and in the lives of all Christians.  It must be noted that this exploration is inevitably non-exhaustive – we will explore why later.  First we will briefly analyse these three implications.

1. God is the king of the kingdom

The kingdom of God is the most important theme in the Christian tradition (and arguably the other two Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam).  The natural head of any ‘kingdom’ is the ‘king’.  To say that God is the king of the kingdom of God is to say that God is the ruler of the kingdom, a rightful monarch without equal.  All authority and power in the kingdom of God belongs to God.

2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible

In my experience I have noticed that oftentimes conversations about the kingdom of God (if the kingdom of God is spoken of at all) revolve around the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the kingdom of God.  There are real issues affecting how we experience the presence of the kingdom of God in this age, the Church age.  The orthodox Christian understanding is that throughout history God has been extending his reign over a fallen universe that has rejected his reign.  This extension has taken its most dramatic leap forward in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Since (and through) that event, God has established his Church on earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out what it means to be in the kingdom of God, which we will talk more about later.  There is an element (or are elements) of the kingdom of God that is not yet present, something made especially evident in the Christian experience.  The expectation of Christians throughout history is that God will bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God at some future point in the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This is what is meant in the ‘but not yet’, and while the discussion of what is ‘not yet’ is necessary, the primary focus of this study will be that which is ‘already’.  I use the language ‘visible and invisible’ as it is written in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, which I consider the most fundamental and comprehensive ecumenical (general) Church creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…

Even in this first section of the Creed we see our first two implications (1. God is the king of the kingdom; 2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible).  The language of the Creed is helpful because it seeks to paint a very clear and concise picture of the orthodox Christian faith.  The words ‘visible and invisible’ help us to see the overarching nature of the universe and God’s reign of that universe.  Orthodox Christian theology does not paint the universe in a dichotomy of ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’.   Throughout the ages, this dualism has caused countless conflicts that have been deemed heretical.   Indeed, to see humans or the universe as split into ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ conflicts with the way that God has both created the world and redeemed it – holistically.  God is not interested in creating a physical world just to destroy it.  The Incarnation and the life, death and Resurrection of Christ point to a God who created unified, holistic beings, whose nature is fully understood in unified, holistic terms.   As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s bodily Resurrection is “the first fruits” of “those who belong to Christ.”  The kingdom of God is not a disembodied spiritual kingdom, but it is the reign of God over all things that he has created and deemed good, both ‘visible and invisible’.

3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

Because of the first two implications of the kingdom of God, that God is the king and that the kingdom is universal, to be a Christian is to be a part of that kingdom.  We cannot understand any part of what it means to be a part of that kingdom without understanding first that God is the king of said kingdom and that this kingdom is universal; all other implications of the kingdom of God hinge upon these principles.

The inevitable imprecision of our talk about God and his kingdom: ‘Imaging’

Since Christians are members of the kingdom of God, subjects as to a monarch even, it serves us well to learn, rehearse and enact what that means for the way we live and think.   Unfortunately we face one significant roadblock: God himself.   I’ve been writing, “God is this” and “God is that”, but as the seminal twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us time and time again, God is entirely ‘other’.  What is meant by this is that God as a being is distinct from his creation and while he has invested into his creation through Christ, the Holy Spirit and the presence of the kingdom of God, in trying to talk about God we will inevitably be imprecise.   This might seem discouraging, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I haven’t figured everything out in my early twenties!  The comfort rests in the fact that God is gracious.

God has been gracious to us through giving us his Son, Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrates to us what it is to be fully human (an implication of the kingdom of God we will save for another post) and what it is to live in the kingdom of God, but it is Christ himself who is the revelation of God to us.  It is through an active conversation with God as his Church that we learn more and more what it is to be that very thing: God’s Church.  Because of this inevitable imprecision, I find that looking at the Christian life from the perspective of the orthodox understanding of the Gospel is our most reliable source, as it is concrete enough to transform our lives, while remaining very open to conversation and interpretation.   In such a way we are ‘imaging’ the kingdom of God, developing ways to talk about God and his kingdom that effectively inform the way that we live.  Having this ‘imaging’ perspective also encourages a fruitful conversation between all Christian traditions, helping us to be unified and effective in living out the kingdom of God in this world as one Body, the Church.

As we explore the kingdom of God in this series, addressing issues like culture, politics, theology (yes, our theology should be informed by other theology), etc., I hope that it is intellectually stimulating, but most of all I hope that God uses this conversation to transform our lives via the Holy Spirit in order to love God, other people and the world we live in more and more.  The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Pocket Lent

My favourite time of the year is here!  Some look forward to the Christmas season, and while I admire the cooler weather, shorter days, and magnificent prospect of the Incarnation, it is the Anastasis—the Resurrection—and everything building up to it that I find most compelling.

As an Ecumenical Christian I am often asked (by others and myself), “What makes an Ecumenical Christian such?”  I am excited to spend the rest of my life exploring this question, and one way that I can do that is by looking at the ways that the Church has historically rehearsed the Gospel, and one way to explore that rehearsal is through adherence to the liturgical year.  Lent is upon us (when it began is dependent on whether or not you adhere to Western or Byzantine Lenten practice), a time in which Christians are challenged to participate in a communal fast.  The whole concept of Lent, as you may know, is rooted in the narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus is baptized by John and is taken into the wilderness to be tempted, fasting for forty days and forty nights (3.13-4.2).

The severity and imposition of such fasts has changed dramatically throughout Church history.  In 1966 Pope Paul IV issued the Apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, granting more freedom with regard to fasting based upon various economic situations.  Paenitemini also orders that the abstinence that takes place during Lent ought to be substituted with “external acts of penitence” (Paenitemini, Chapter III).  I find Paenitemini to be a very authoritative and valuable assessment of fasts, and so in my exercise of the Lenten fast I have made it my aim to first abstain with the trust that God will provide for my needs both physically and spiritually, and exercising discipline by the power of the Holy Spirit of God to give up some things and take up activities with the goal of very intentionally experiencing life in relationship with God.  I believe that there are great benefits as one experiences life relating to God in the community of the Church, and essentially Lent is a great time to adhere to the Church calendar while practicing spiritual discipline (such as abstinence from food, communicating with God through prayer, spending time in solitude to meditate on the Gospel and God’s character, etc.).

I encourage you to take the time today, Ash Wednesday, to confess your sins before God and experience the great grace of the Gospel, one that invites us to participate in the mission of God—a mission fixed on recreating our hearts and minds as well as the hearts and minds of our neighbors—all for God’s glory.  And maybe spend the next month-and-a-half abstaining from something you enjoy, replacing it with a focused practise to know God more intimately.

O Lord and Master of my life!  Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.
Yea, Lord and King!  Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

The Church (II): Exploring the Gospel

Part of my aim in defining the Church is to define the Gospel, arguably the central tenant of the Christian religion, and from a suggestion in a comment by Ryan B. I will express more of what I believe the Gospel is.

I believe that the best way to learn the Gospel is to explore the Scripture and how the Church has understood the Gospel. I believe that there is a common thread/trajectory running through the Scripture (and I believe this trajectory is also present in what Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha). Therefore, as a precursor to the Gospel, the proclamation of God’s decisive action through Jesus Christ, I believe one must examine the main theological thrust of the Scripture from the first book to the last.

In the first three chapters of Genesis we learn that:
God is preexistent in relation to the universe. God by his own good initiative created the universe (time and space). God created Earth and all of its inhabitants and they were all good. God created humanity and gave humans something unique among all created things: the Image of God. God gave humans a charge, which the humans disobeyed (the Fall). As a result of this disobedience mankind (and the cosmos) is in an unnatural, fallen state (original sin).

This is where the Abrahamic Covenant comes into play, arguably the primary way in which God wants to work to fix the brokenness caused by the Fall, the beginning of the Gospel.

God did not abandon humanity; by his own good will and grace God chose the descendants of Abraham, the Children of Israel, to be a vessel for his glory and blessing to the world. Throughout the Old Testament God continually worked through the oftentimes-disobedient Children of Israel, and this culminated in the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian religion, the climax of God’s covenant with Abraham. Jesus is the Son of God, incarnate through the conception by the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is essential to the Christian religion. In basic terms, the doctrine of the Trinity asserts that the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Father are eternally existent as one God (in essence) in three persons. Jesus is both fully man and fully God in the divine mystery of the Hypostatic Union. Jesus lived his life demonstrating the presence of the promised kingdom of God. Jesus lived his life fulfilling what mankind and Israel had failed at. Jesus—though he was tempted in all things—lived a sinless life. Jesus was tried, crucified, died, and was buried. Three days later Jesus was resurrected in glory (in a body) as a “first fruit” of the eventual resurrection of the Church. Jesus ascended into heaven and is at the right hand of the Father. The Holy Spirit was thus given to demonstrate the power of God and the presence of his kingdom through the Church. In this, God has extended the invitation to all of the earth (using the language of the Abrahamic Covenant) to participate in his active kingdom, resulting in inevitable action from the Church.

In my estimate, the work of God in history is currently at a plateau. The resolution to the climax of the Son of God’s presence on earth has yet to happen. But this plateau is an exciting time, when God is actively pressing his kingdom forth through his Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the fullness of time Jesus Christ will return to earth, and in doing so he will resurrect the Church, recreate the heavens and the earth, and fully judge all that is in rebellion against him.

I believe that these are generally the primary tenants of the Gospel, things that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox can agree on. Looking back on my words above they resemble a bloated Apostles’ Creed, and I suppose that is where a lot of my Ecumenical tendencies find their roots (though I am more partial to the Nicene Creed). I believe that the authority to determine what is the “orthodox Gospel” is found within the Scriptures as well as in Church history, for the Holy Spirit has been and remains active in both elements.