Church And Faith (4)

CHRIST

Certainly I endorse Thwaite’s high view of Christ, even if the relevance of his arguments are not always clear: “Time and space do not contain the Son, he contains them. As the Dutch theologian Bavinck says, ‘God comes into and is present in every point in space and time.’” And again: “Through (the Hebrew) vision of creation the Hebrews came to understand that heaven (the heavens) and earth existed in space/time relationship with each other.” Yes, and I cannot help but agree with Thwaites’ declaration that God is (partly) revealed through everything that has been created: “God’s revelation of himself is manifest from every created thing, from the earth through to the highest heavens above.”

Webber centres around the work of Jesus Christ – the Christus Victor – and then moves on to relate this to the church, worship, spirituality, mission, and authority. For Webber, “The church is the new society, the people of the future living in the present, the people of the Christus Victor, the people who are defined by the living, dying, rising, and coming again of Christ.”

A church such as this “Presents worship as the church’s celebration of Christus Victor” and teaches that “True spirituality draws its life from the power of Christus Victor.” For Webber, this profoundly impacts the church’s mission and authority, as well as bringing us to see that “The true function of theology is to witness to Christ and to bring us to the worship and service of God.”

Fiddes explores the person (figure, role) of Satan and refers to Gustav Aulen, who, in his study of Christus Victor, “Leans upon the ambiguity of the figure of the Satan, recalling his legitimate role as advocate of God’s law and executant of his judgement, as well as being the prince of darkness” This needs exploration, though Fiddes moves quickly to state that “The victory over Satan is thus understood as God’s removal of his own wrath against sin.” I would like to respond by asking if we really can believe that God has wrath against sin, but has no wrath against any person. I have worded that question carefully!

Fiddes raises issues from Aulen: “The theory here (Christus Victor) is that there is a struggle in God between his wrath and his love, and his love is stronger … it is a theory that raises inescapable and uncomfortable questions about the character of God.” He is exploring just how much God was involved in using Satan, and declares that “Irenaeus is surely right to locate the taking away of God’s enmity against mankind in the moment of Satan’s defeat, but we need not follow Aulén in supposing that God conquers his judgement as Satan.”

“The alternative way of understanding the finality of Christ’s victory over the powers is to see it as an event that creates and enables a victory in our lives here and now” Said Fiddes. I have to confess that, thinking quickly, I would expect that most Christians would see it this way; but, is it so? Is creating and enabling victory the same as having victory? “As we read the gospel accounts, we find that Christ has, for the first time in human history, broken all the idols that confront humanity” Fiddes goes on. Has Christ really broken all the idols that confront humanity, or has he made it possible for all the idols that confront humanity to be broken? When you read this book, it will (if you are anything like me!) raise lots of questions and issues and make you wish that you were with Fiddes so that you could discuss them with him.

Webber speaks of the true centrality of Christ, and declares that, “When I discovered the universal and cosmic nature of Christ, I was given the key to a Christian way of viewing the whole world, a key that unlocked the door to a rich storehouse of spiritual treasures.” Webber thus explores the understanding of the cosmic Christ and, in that context, says that “To preach Christ, then, is to preach the kingdom. In Jesus both the publication and the actualization of the Good News are brought together. He not only proclaims the Good News but he is and does the Good News.” Amen to that.

Yet Webber observes that many churches have moved far from the person of Christ, and that “Some churches are cold, fixed, and rigid in their views and judgmental of those who disagree with them. Some churches pride themselves on being the only church in town that has the truth.” But Jesus does not belong to the church, the church belongs to Jesus; and the church that is truly Christ-centred will be a community that touches the world around it. “People in a postmodern world are not persuaded to faith by reason as much as they are moved to faith by participation in God’s earthly community.”

Webber points out that “The church throughout history has unfolded in many cultures and therefore no one expression of the church stands alone as the true visible body of Christ.”  The body of Christ is an eternal reality, not a theory. “Christians do not believe something about the oneness of the church; they believe in the oneness of the church.” Believing in union – oneness – means that “Evangelicals need to go beyond talk about the unity of the church to experience it through an attitude of acceptance of the whole church and an entrance into dialogue with the Orthodox, Catholic, and other Protestant bodies.”

Meanwhile, however, Thwaites can seem to be going too far for comfort as he says: “The Son of God exists in and through the entire created order – incorporating time, space, atmosphere, matter, events, person: everything in which we live and work.” Hug a tree theology? “The attributes, nature and power of the Son of God reside within every created thing; he is the essence and substance (as in ‘the substance belongs to Christ’, Col. 2:17) of all things in finite creation.”

Such declarations need strong foundations if they are to be taken seriously, but, it seems to me, that Thwaites often finds different ways to say similar things rather than building foundations that allow us to see his arguments clearly, and then accept his arguments because they are founded on solid and tested foundations.

MISSION

According to tradition as recalled by Webber, “The goal of the church, expressed in the great commission, is to convert people to Christ.” I, like Webber, believe that this is an incorrect and unhelpful, if common, misrepresentation. We are to make disciples – nothing less. However, Webber rightly criticizes modern-day evangelism because it has been “Reduced to personal and privatized Christianity and fails to express that Christ has bound, dethroned, and will destroy all evil at the end of history.” This movement away from the community of the Christus Victor has had serious consequences for Webber: “The separation of evangelism from the church has resulted in a separation of evangelism from obedience and introduced the cult of easy and attractive Christianity.”

Christianity is not easy or comfortable, and so “We need to emphasize the cost of discipleship, the absolute claim of God over our entire life, the necessity of a faith that issues forth in obedience, and our belonging to an alternative culture shaped by the kingdom of Jesus.” According to Webber, such an emphasis is not possible without knowing the reality of Christus Victor. “Evangelism in the early church was associated with the victory of evil and the establishment of the kingdom of God.”

As Webber rightly asserts, “Often such a heavy emphasis is put on the decision that the inquirer leaves with the false impression that the sum and substance of Christianity is making a decision.” This individualisation reduces church to a collection of individuals, and the subsequent loss of the reality of Christus Victor means that the “Church has therefore lost its radical nature as a counterculture driven by the politics of Jesus and has made itself the watch dog for morality and a chaplain to society.” This is not the church that Christ is at the centre of.

Webber asserts that “Because Christ’s death is cosmic, having to do with the whole of creation, the battle in which the church is now engaged in the period between Pentecost and the second coming must be one that recalls Christ’s victory over sin through the resurrection and anticipates the consummation of his victory over evil in his return.” Perhaps one of the greatest consequences of recovering the reality of Christus Victor would be that the Christian church would once again be “A counterculture that stands against the powers of evil wherever they may be found.”

Moltmann calls us to learn that it is “Not that the church ‘has’ a mission, but the very reverse: that the mission of Christ creates its own church.” This mission-church is ecumenical by nature; but “There will be no unification of the divided churches without an inner renewal, and there will be no renewal without liberation.” Moltmann declares that such “A missionary church cannot be apolitical.”

I do believe that Willard has valuable, helpful and important things to say that we need to hear in relation to mission and purpose. For example, as Willard is at pains to point out, it is not the gospel that saves a person, but Jesus; it is not believing in Jesus that proves someone to be a Christian, but a living relationship with Jesus. I will certainly add my loud ‘amen’ to that. I, too, believe that, for too long, being a Christian has focused on the acceptance of propositional truth, and has neglected the (essential) relational aspect.

Indeed, Willard points out that the two primary goals of much of modern-day Christianity –  external conformity and correct doctrine – are not primary goals at all, even though “These are the very things that have obsessed the church visible – currently, the latter far more than the former.”

Willard knows that these goals do not make for Christian growth in maturity or loving obedience, but rather that “They either crush the human mind and souls and separate people from Jesus, or they produce hide-bound legalists and theological experts with lips close to God and hearts far away from him.” This is a serious charge, but I believe that Willard is absolutely right; the question is whether dogma will listen and consider the charge before crying ‘heretic’. Unfortunately, dogma may well appear to listen but without ever hearing. Maybe that is why “What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound.”