Church And Faith (3)

WILL THE REAL CHURCH PLEASE STAND UP

Since Thwaites apparently wants to change our entire worldview, it is hardly surprising that he wants also to redefine church. “To this day we as saints are still focused on the building we call church, seeing it as the key to the ongoing discovery and expression of divine reality and Christian mission.” Now the discussion over what church is has been running for a long time, and Thwaites is not alone in declaring that “The Word of God calls us to discover the person and presence of God in each other.”

Thwaites writes extensively about church, and asks if church is to serve the people, or are people to serve the church? “The challenge is that we have taken the organisational dimension of life and placed it over us.” He continues, “The outcome is that most leaders and saints now live to serve it.” This makes (potentially) liberating reading, but how useful are these arguments in the day-to-day life of church?

For example, Thwaites says: “The church gathered must ultimately exist to equip and resource the body of Christ with a view to the saints coming into their fullness in, through and over all things in creation.” But is the church not the Body of Christ? Are they not one and the same? And, if they are the same, what sense can we make of Thwaites’ statement that will help us in our daily lives? Especially when we realise what he means by the ‘church gathered’: “The entire creation is the setting for the body of Christ, not the congregation.”

Moltmann says that “The doctrine of the church must, as it were, evolve of itself from Christology and eschatology, that is, from insight into the Trinitarian history of God’s dealings with the world.” He then addresses the essential difference that he sees between faith and experience by considering “The notion of paradoxical identity”, “The notion of anticipation”, and “Sacramental thinking.” Moltmann’s view in this is that the future kingdom touches the world now, rather than the now shaping the future. He also discusses what happens when the church loses that view and falls under the spell of the “Signs of the times.”

Likewise Thwaites tackles the issue of the institutional church: “The present containment of the church in corporate structures is perhaps one of the least questioned but most important concerns we will face when it comes to releasing the saints to engage the created order.” Such statements need careful explanation and support if they are to help us to understand what church is and what it is not. 

Thwaites says that “We now find ourselves with some churches that are predominantly entertainment centres. Others exist to produce life-enhancing merchandise. Many churches operate as perpetual educational and personal development institutions. Others go for the governmental or hierarchical approach, taking charge of people’s lives and superintending their decisions, always doing what is best for the citizens of their congregation.” And your point is, Mister Thwaites? 

Thwaites declares that “The church was never designed to be a marketable item or to market items. It was designed to be a body of people, the very body of Christ – the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Yes, but is it not true that, for better or for worse, the church is all these things and more? Is it really true that “The church has become something that is disconnected from the world and dislocated from the very life and work of the saints themselves.” Or is true only of part of the church?

“Without Christ, no church” is how Moltmann speaks, and he helpfully discusses the question: “Was Jesus the founder, or rather the foundation, of Christian religion?” and he sets “The whole appearance and history of Jesus in the light of his messianic mission.” Moltmann shows that Jesus brought what he calls “A complete reversal of the concept of God,” as Jesus was “A messiah with unmessianic appearance.”

For Moltmann, then, it follows that Christ’s church should be an incarnate church, even though it has an unincarnate appearance. The cross of Christ is a pure message of joy, but it is a strange message nonetheless. As Moltmann goes on to show, liberation comes wearing strange clothes.

Yet, through the work of Christ, we are joined with God in friendship – a remarkable concept which Moltmann explores and rejoices in. If we are friends of God, then we are friends with those who Christ came to and spent time with; in this Moltmann shows how the church must be free of middle-class shackles and an institutional respectability.

Fiddes declares that “Those who have hope refuse to regard any structures as final or sacrosanct, in church or society. They have a holy discontent that is always breaking open old structures and institutions to find new life.” Now Fiddes draws out what I would say in many ways, but I would only want to ask if old structures are broken open, or are they simply reshaped?

Fiddes is raising interesting issues through interesting terminology: “God fulfils promises, not predictions, and is free to fulfil them in unexpected ways; he has purposes, not blueprints for his world.” This statement is worthy of exploration, and it raises questions. Does a blueprint show every detail of a building (or whatever), or does it show the basic layout without going into every detail? Can God’s purposes not be understood in how he brings the blueprint to reality?

I wonder if Fiddes is going to explore these issues with us… “Hope means having a love for the future of things and people, able to take daring steps of seeing their potential within God’s purpose.” Is this muddying the waters? Is that really what hope means? Yet Fiddes is raising lots of interesting issues and asking (sometimes through response rather than stated) worthy questions that need to be carefully and gently explored, without animosity and competitiveness clouding the debate.

THE BIBLE

Armstrong has said that “We need to deal with the whole issue of sola scriptura in a fuller and deeper manner.” What he appears to mean is that we must find fresh and convincing ways to defend Sola Scriptura, but I wonder: Is it really worth defending? Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit cannot speak into our world unless he is quoting Scripture? Do we really believe that there is a verse somewhere that can and should be applied to every situation?

Armstrong seems to believe this, since he seeks to affirm that “Scripture is the only source and norm for all distinctly Christian knowledge.” Indeed, he goes so far as to say that “Humanity is unable to know God apart from the revelation of Holy Scripture.” Forgive me, Mr Armstrong, but where does Jesus fit into all this? Which is the message and which is the messenger?

Since Armstrong declared that only in Scripture is the “Clear knowledge of the Almighty to be discerned,” and that “Only in the written Word is this knowledge revealed to them by the Holy Spirit” he overlooks one fundamental truth of relationship: You only truly know someone when you meet them personally, you cannot know them by reading about them, though you can know about them by reading about them.

Scripture is not an end in itself, it is a signpost that directs its readers to God through Jesus. The signpost will pass away – we will not be carrying Bibles in heaven – but God himself will remain. Jesus and Jesus alone is himself is the Word of God – not print on paper. In the context of Scripture, Armstrong looks for a “Reforming process that would be painful and costly” and that it is David Wells’ judgment (Quoted by Hannah) that “We need reformation, not revival.” I hear the call but I believe that God is a God of transformation, not reformation.

White, in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, discusses a ‘new’ proposition that “God also speaks to His people today apart from the Bible, though He never speaks in contradiction to it.” He attempts to demolish this ‘new proposition’, and I find this curious. Will our heavenly white robes have pockets for our Bibles? But which version will it be? And how does God speak to a dying person who has no Bible? How does God speak to the child who cannot yet read but who can know God? How does God reveal himself to the illiterate? Mr White, is your God really so confined?

Curiously, Armstrong then asserts that “To be made right with God, a sinner must trust Christ alone, through grace alone.” Yet, Armstrong seems to want (sinners turned) believers to trust Sola Scriptura alone. I ask again: Which is the message and which is the messenger? I also have to observe that, from my experience of people through many years, most people have absolutely no idea of what such terms as Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide mean, and most of them wouldn’t even have heard of the terms themselves. I would like to ask Armstrong why the book is not called ‘The Coming Christian Crisis’?

Webber addresses the issue of how we regard the Bible, and declares that “In modern times the act of lifting the Bible out of its phenomenological context of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church has resulted in making the Bible the object of rational criticism.” Therefore, he continues, “In post-modern Christianity the authority of the Bible will be restored, not by more rational arguments, but by returning it to its rightful place in the development of the entire spectrum of Christian thought in the first six centuries of the church and by learning to read it canonically once again.”

Webber goes further by declaring that “The primary problem we evangelicals have inherited from the Enlightenment is its emphasis on the foundational nature of Scripture,” and he identifies that “It was during the Enlightenment that the foundation of the Christian faith shifted from the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ to the centrality of the Bible.” This is of great importance to us, because “Theology shifted from the God who acts to the God who spoke. In the worst scenario faith shifted from trust in Christ to trust in the Book.”

I agree with Webber when he says that “The center of the message is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Bible is the authoritative interpretation of this event.” Therefore, as Webber says, we must shift from “An understanding of the Bible that results in faith to a faith that results in understanding the Bible.” He lays important foundations here, not least by proclaiming that “The mystery of the person and work of Christ proclaimed is the starting point of faith, not rational argument that seeks to prove the Bible to be correct.” For Webber and for me, the Bible is not the good news, Jesus is; we begin not with a book, but with a person.

It is difficult to miss the fact that Willard seems to have little respect for scholars and the academic, and he believes that the Bible must relate to (be related to?) the church in a practical way: “I assume that (God) did not and would not leave his message to mankind (the Bible) in a form that can only be understood by a handful of late-twentieth-century professional scholars, who cannot even agree among themselves on the theories that they assume to determine what the message is.” Some of his statements – especially when isolated – may seem to be off the mark: “The Bible is, after all, God’s gift to the world through his Church, not to the scholars.” [You may perhaps have thought that Jesus was God’s gift to the world.]

Willard is saying that the “The entire biblical tradition from beginning to end is one of the intimate involvement of God in human life – or else alienation from it.” Clearly he does not see scholars as having an intimate involvement with the Bible – though scholars will, I am sure, see things very differently – but he is trying to open the whole of our being to the Bible and calls us to abandon a narrowly defined view of what the Bible is for: “And for those of us who think the Bible is a reliable or even significant guide to God’s view of human life, can we validly interpret its portrayal of faith in Christ as one concerned only with the management of sin, whether in the form of our personal debt or in the form of societal evils?” Can we, indeed?