Church And Faith (2022)
CHURCH AND FAITH (2022)
As I explore the theme of ‘Church and Faith’, I am going to use six books as the main foundation of my study. These were books that, when I first read them, both promoted and stimulated my own thinking and reflection. That does not necessarily mean that I found them all to be positive and helpful! In addition to extensive quotes from those six books, some occasional relevant quotes from other people will appear too.
The six books that I will major on were all written between 1989 and 1999, and therefore some hindsight is possible as I think in 2022 about what the authors were saying, and how their thoughts, their hopes, and their fears, have been realized, or not realized, as the case may be. It is, of course, inevitable that my own ways of thinking and believing have changed over those intervening years as I have become more and more Christ-centered in my life. One value of such thinking and reflection is precisely that it shows how much my own thinking and reflection have changed over the intervening years. Surely, we must all be maturing in our hearts, in our souls, and in our minds; staying the same year after year after year is but a slow and agonising dying.
I will begin this discussion – rather unusually I know – by listing the six main works that I am going to base my study on, as I think, as I reflect, and as I express myself, and present my own thoughts. Therefore, the bibliography of those six main works is up first.
Armstrong, JH, General Editor, The Coming Evangelical Crisis. (Chicago, Moody Press, 1996)
Fiddes, PS, Past Event and Present Salvation. (London, Darton Longman and Todd, 1989)
Moltmann, J, The Church In The Power Of The Spirit, Second Edition. (London, SCM Press, 1992)
Thwaites, J, The Church Beyond The Congregation. (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1999)
Webber, RE, Ancient-Future Faith. (Michigan, Baker Books, 1999)
Willard, D, The Divine Conspiracy. (London, Fount, 1998)
Thwaites said in his foreword that some people had sometimes asked him why the local church demanded so much of their time and energy and yet, in return, gave so little back to them. It seemed to Thwaites that those people wanted to know why the work of the local church was deemed to be more important than their everyday family life and work. Yet, I am also aware that many people can come to church services as mere spectators who want to be entertained for an hour-and-a-half. This raised in me the question of what people come to church meetings and come to church services for: is it to give, or is it to get? Or is it both? Or is it neither? Are some churchgoers merely spectators who turn up, get entertained, and then head home after treating those people who will listen to a critical and destructive analysis of the service, the sermon, and the leaders?
Thwaites wanted not only to address their questions, but also to give to them a worldview that would help them to live out the answers. Did he succeed? Can church work as it was meant do? Actually, how was church really meant to work? Is church more than the gathered congregation on a Sunday? Is church the building, or is it the people? Is church only the members? Is church an institution of belonging, rather like the golf club or the casino? Is church the same as the body of Christ? What is church?
The front cover sub-title for Webber’s book was: “Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World.” I wonder why Evangelicalism deserves that focus… Webber defined modernity as: “Western Christianity … interpreted through the modern categories of science, philosophy, and communication theory.” I do wonder if that is not the wrong way around… Shouldn’t everything else be interpreted through our relationship with Jesus? He said that his view of Evangelicalism (modernity) was dying in his day because of the [then] current revolutions in exactly these same fields of studies, and this new era in the new millennium he called ‘Postmodernity’. It therefore appeared that Webber was not discussing Christianity as a whole, but only Evangelicalism. This seemed to me to be a very narrow and rather exclusive focus… Webber had to therefore define Evangelicalism as he saw it, in order that his discussion was based on a shared understanding of what Evangelicalism was, and what Evangelicalism was not. Was Webber also equating modernity and Christianity? Or was he suggesting that Evangelicalism was Christianity, and that Christianity was Evangelicalism?
The back cover of Webber’s book declared that: “The road to the future runs through the past”. Webber further declared that: “You can best think about the future of the faith after you have gone back to the classical tradition.” Ah, there was me thinking that he was looking back to Jesus and his disciples and then through into the early church. Thus, these phrases expressed the author’s approach, his methodology, and his conclusion. His book focused on: “The demise of modernity, the rise of postmodern thought, and the creative calling to re-present a classical Christianity within a postmodern world.” Re-present a classical Christianity…? Or merely his new ideas of Evangelicalism?
Moltmann’s stated intent was to write a book in which his practical concern was for an ongoing church reform which, for Moltmann, meant: “The transformation of the church from a religious institution which looks after people, into a congregational or community church in the midst of the people and with the people.” What did he mean by that? Is the church not the people? He explored his aim through seven sections:
- The Dimensions of a Doctrine of the Church Today.
- The Church in History.
- The Church of Jesus Christ.
- The Church of the Kingdom of God.
- The Church in the Presence of the Holy Spirit.
- The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit.
- The Marks of the Church.
This seemed to be a fairly comprehensive and important basis of study for his book. Would Moltmann’s approach be in sharp contrast to Webber’s approach?
The book “The Coming Evangelical Crisis” has as its subtitle: “Current Challenges To The Authority Of Scripture And The Gospel.” I found it at once curious that neither Jesus nor Christianity rated any mention here, but Scripture and the Gospel did need to be defended, but from what? Are we on the back foot yet again, desperately shooting at everything that dares to challenge our dogmatically held theological position(s)? Only asking… But then, on turning to the back cover, I found another question: “Has the church lost its way?” Honestly, I often wonder if ‘The Way’ has lost the church!
Armstrong’s book was also asking: “What will evangelicalism look like if it continues on the course it has followed in the past twenty-five years?” I am seriously tempted to answer, “Who cares?” but I had better not do so. The doctrinal alarm was certainly being sounded by Armstrong; but how should we respond? Is our focus to be on Evangelicalism? In the book’s introduction, Armstrong reasserted: “Two vital truths of evangelicalism.” The first was Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and the second was Sola Fide (Faith alone). We will examine these ‘Two vital truths’ in due course.
Willard’s book was attempting to examine a Christian spirituality that was focused on Scriptural truth rather than on denominational labels. That seemed to be a good start, although I wondered whose interpretation of Scriptural truth he was referring to. Willard was appealing for what he called a true ‘New Testament discipleship’ rather than people having a mere opinion or a mere doctrine of truth, and he used what he called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as his foundation on which to build his thoughts. And perhaps a good way to continue, I thought. The author crusaded against the ‘cheap grace’ that suggested that Christianity was all about the life to come, and had no meaningful relevance to mortal life on earth. Amen to that! Richard Foster, speaking of Willard’s book, said that Willard never allowed issues to stay theoretical, but that: “He constantly weaves them into the warp and woof of daily experience.” Willard was therefore seeking to be practical; he was apparently not attempting to be academic, nor to write a commentary, though the length of the book might make you think otherwise! Nevertheless, it was a promising foreword for his book.
In his book, Fiddes asked: “How can our salvation in the present depend upon an event in the past?” Through this question, the author set out to explore the many images by which the Christian church has tried to understand the idea of atonement through the cross of Christ. Understand? I ask: Can the Christian church experience the reality of atonement through the cross of Christ? For Fiddes, the cross was central, because: “The many strands of human experience run through the cross-roads of the cross.” The author explored:
- How that one cross event could impact upon all future (present and past?) human life.
- How the cross related to the continuous process of YHWH’s saving activity.
- How various relationships, such as divine action and human response, justice and love, and the link between past and present, were impacted by the cross.
Thwaites’ book is certainly not easy bedtime reading, and in it he was seeking to radically change the worldview of his readers with regard to church, to work, and – indeed – to the whole universe. Thwaites went back to a very Hebrew view of the world, (and he was not alone in this approach) though not all scholars accepted all of his interpretations. He addressed the issues of ‘commitment’ and ‘membership’, among others, and pointed out what he saw as the failings of the existing church, before then redefining church within his worldview.
Moltmann charted the church’s vital: “Relationship to Israel, to the Old Testament, and to the divine future.” In observing how the church through the centuries had persecuted Jews and dissenters, Moltmann called the church to free itself from: “This abuse of itself [and] to recognize Israel as its enduring origin, its partner in history, and its brother in hope.” Moltmann then examined how the church related to the secular world, and what difference Christianity made, or could make, to the world order of things when held in tension with the anticipation of the Kingdom of YHWH that is already here and yet to come, that is real and yet barely seen, that is known and yet hidden. Thus, for Moltmann: “The church, Christendom and Christianity understand their own existence and their tasks in history in a messianic sense.” I do wonder if every Christian understands that…?
Webber stated that: “Christ is our spirituality.” Spirituality for Webber was not about restrictions and prohibitions, but rather it was about the person of Christ who has drawn us into relationship with him and, therefore, with each other: “We must learn, then, not to have a spirituality, something we turn on at a particular place or time, but to be spiritual, as a habit of life, a continuous state of being.” Amen to that! This, too, leaned towards a Hebrew worldview.
Moltmann said that the church’s guiding lines for the clarity of its commission, situation, and goal, had three dimensions: “Before God, before men [sic] and before the future.” For him the church was an ‘open’ church: “It is open for God, open for men [sic] and open for the future of both God and men [sic].” For Moltmann, this tradition was a ‘moving’ tradition, that is, it was: “The tradition of the messianic liberation and eschatological renewal of the world, (and) it is impossible to rest on this tradition.” This ongoing messianic liberation and eschatological renewal of the world, Moltmann said, was the: “Common work for the coming kingdom.” He addressed what he saw as the [then] current unrest in the church, and clearly stated that this: “Unrest is implicit in itself.” Therefore, in contrast to many other voices, Moltmann declared that: “What is required today is not adroit adaptation to changed social conditions, but the inner renewal of the church by the spirit of Christ, the power of the coming kingdom.” Thus, he declared that the church’s doctrine should be guided by that unrest within the church, rather than doctrine trying to correct that unrest. Moltmann’s overriding claim was that the church was the church of Jesus Christ, and that it did not belong to any other: “Christ is his church’s foundation, its power and its hope.”
Thwaites (in common with others) wanted to put aside the ‘secular/sacred divide’ and turn to see all of creation – heaven and earth – as one interrelated reality: “Earth is connected in a strategic relationship to heaven in real space and in actual time. It was that way in the beginning and, with some majestic changes, it will be that way forever.” In this way, Thwaites was seeking a Christological Hebrew worldview, (which seems sensible to me) but he seemed sometimes to be saying that this Christological Hebrew worldview was the only sensible worldview to hold. I have to ask if different worldviews don’t simply throw different light on various things, but without totally dismissing each other? Can our worldview not change and evolve theologically as we change and evolve theologically? Yet, Thwaites appeared to want us to have only one view – was that one view sufficient? Thwaites said: “Rather than there being any distinction in the heavens and the earth between divine things and natural things, all things express and manifest the attributes, nature and power of the Son of God.”
THE CHURCH AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
For Moltmann: “It is not faith that makes Jesus the Christ; it is Jesus as the Christ who creates faith. It is not hope that makes the future into God’s future; it is this future that awakens hope.” In this context, Moltmann discussed at length the sacraments and their power, their purpose, and their efficacy, for the lives of those people who come into YHWH’s kingdom through the Christ. All of this he expressed in a Messianic way of life that: “Cannot have anything to do with either legalism or lawlessness.” Amen to that! For Moltmann: “The Messianic gospel liberates oppressed life (and) gives its stamp to life in the Spirit.” Moltmann declared that: “When it listens to the language of the Messianic era and celebrates the signs of dawn and hope in baptism and the Lord’s supper, the church sees itself in the presence of the Holy Spirit as the Messianic people destined for the coming kingdom.” In this way, Moltmann began to draw things to a climax as he set forth the big picture for the church of Jesus Christ. Central to his view was that the: “Spirit is not apprehended in the ministries of the church, but the church, with its manifold ministries and tasks, is to be conceived [as] the movement and presence of the Spirit.” Moltmann wanted us to stop proceeding from the present state of the church, whatever that might be, but rather he wanted to proceed from its future; what he called an: “Eschatological history of God with the world.” He was concerned that the church should be recognised as the church of Christ – not merely a church. Thus, the people of the church should be seen as a people of a kingdom that is (largely) still to come. Moltmann therefore considered:
- “The Community in the Process of the Holy Spirit”
- “The Charge to the Community and the Assignments within the Community”
- “The form of the Church as Fellowship”
He went on to speak against the restriction of faith to the private life on the one hand, and against church organisations above the local (church) level that deprive the individual congregations of their independence and, often, their own responsibility.
Central to Thwaites’ arguments was that the Western world in general, and the UK in particular, had historically been very heavily influenced by Greek thought and philosophy, and much more so than they had realised: “We have inherited philosophical terrain with a great fault line running through it.” Thwaites saw the current crises in and around church as an opportunity to change this for the better, saying, “My conviction is that the postmodern period gives the Christian and the church the ability to come out from under centuries of Greek influence and take hold of the worldview God intended us to have all along.” Webber declared that: “Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from the beginning.” This valued the past on an equal footing with the present and Thwaites said that we could learn from “Six discernible paradigms of time” in the history of the church in the West.
Moltmann considered what the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ actually was and what it was not, and he looked for a church of faith, hope, and action, that was united in freedom through the gathered congregation. But, he declared that: “The church in history remains limited, non-universal and non-catholic until every rule and every authority and power is destroyed,” When will every rule and every authority and every power be destroyed? Moltmann continued: “Church in splendour, without spot or wrinkle, is the ultimate goal to which we are being led by the passion of Christ.” Imperfect it is, but it is the church in the power of the Spirit
Thwaites said that: “The Greek worldview divided the spiritual realm from the created realm; the Hebrew worldview unites them.” Thwaites developed this point and leaned heavily upon it: “For the Hebrew the spiritual or unseen realm was one with the created realm. It did not exist in a separate or removed dimension; it was in union with all of life in creation. The spiritual dimension of life is the heart or essence of every created thing, both seen and unseen.” Thwaites said that he was not really trying to give us a new worldview, but rather that he was seeking to return (the church) to the old worldview that it held originally: “As Gentiles we are grafted onto Hebrew stock, not Greek philosophy or mysticism. Our DNA is Hebrew, not pagan.” Amen to that. Thwaites was apparently stating that adopting his worldview meant abandoning the worldview a person may currently hold; whereas some people may consider his worldview to be only a useful modifier to their present worldview. This, however, did not seem to be on his agenda.
Webber began his journey with ‘The three most central features of modern thought’:
(1) Individualism, which asserts the ultimate autonomy of each person.
(2) Rationalism, which is characterized by a strong confidence in the power of the mind to investigate and understand reality.
(3) Factualism, which insists that the individual, through the use of reason, can arrive at objective truth.
Webber explored the background of these features and helpfully considered how mystery was set aside for an explained Christianity, before hitting the buffers of apparent contradiction between the Scriptures and science, reason, and history. Webber called us back to a Christianity that was and is shaped by: “Mystery, holism, interpreted facts, community, and a combination of verbal and symbolic forms of communication.” Which meant that: “Our challenge is not to reinvent Christianity, but to restore and then adapt Christianity to the postmodern situation.
Mohler, who appeared to be focused on evangelicals rather than on Christians, said that: “If we evangelicals are not faithful to our calling, our opportunity, and our commission, God will raise up others to accomplish His sovereign purpose.” Was Mohler really suggesting that YHWH wanted to work first and foremost through evangelicals but, if they were not on the ball and ready to be used, that YHWH would grudgingly use others? For Mohler then, surely, evangelical ministers must be the main thrust of YHWH’s work in the world? A very narrow view… And, as Johnson reminded us: “Intellectual training alone will never make a true minister.” That doesn’t stop us trying though, does it? As Hughes observed, “It is possible for a preacher to follow the expository method and never preach in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Is preaching really all about methodology? Only asking…
WILL THE REAL CHURCH PLEASE STAND UP
Since Thwaites apparently wanted to change our entire worldview, it is hardly surprising that he wanted also to redefine what church was and is. Thwaites was especially concerned to make clear what church was not: “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 and is not has been running for a long time, and Thwaites was not alone in declaring that: “The Word of God calls us to discover the person and presence of God in each other.” Thwaites wrote extensively about church, and asked 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.” Thwaites continued: “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 said: “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 the church and the Body of Christ 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 meant by the ‘church gathered’: “The entire creation is the setting for the body of Christ, not the congregation.”
Moltmann said 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 addressed the essential difference that he saw between faith and experience by considering:
- “The notion of paradoxical identity.”
- “The notion of anticipation.”
- “Sacramental thinking.”
Moltmann’s view in this was that the future kingdom touches the world now, rather than the here and now shaping the future. He also discussed what happened when the church lost that view and fell under the spell of the ‘Signs of the times.’
Likewise, Thwaites tackled 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 continued: “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 declared 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 visible church is all of 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 it true only of part of the church?
“Without Christ, no church” That is how Moltmann spoke, and he helpfully discussed the question: “Was Jesus the founder, or rather the foundation, of Christian religion?” and he set: “The whole appearance and history of Jesus in the light of his messianic mission.” Moltmann declared that, through his mission, Jesus brought what he called: “A complete reversal of the concept of God,” since Jesus was: “A messiah with unmessianic appearance.” For Moltmann, then, it followed that Christ’s church should be an incarnate church, even though it had an ‘unincarnate appearance’. The cross of Christ is perhaps in some ways a message of joy, but it is a strange message of joy nonetheless. As Moltmann went on to show, liberation came wearing strange clothes. Yet, through the work of Christ, we are joined with YHWH in friendship – a remarkable concept which Moltmann explored and rejoiced in. If we are friends of YHWH, then we are friends with those people who Christ came to spend time with; in this Moltmann showed how the church must be free of middle-class shackles and rid itself of mere institutional respectability.
Fiddes declared 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 drew out what I would say in many ways, but I would only want to ask if old structures are truly broken open, or are they all-too-often simply reshaped? Is an old structure truly broken if it has only been reshaped? Fiddes was 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 more 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 YHWH’s purposes not be understood in how he brings the blueprint to reality? I wondered if Fiddes was 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 only muddying the waters? Is that really what hope means? Yet, Fiddes was 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.
Armstrong has said that: “We need to deal with the whole issue of sola scriptura in a fuller and deeper manner.” What that appeared to mean to me was that we must find fresh and convincing ways to defend Sola Scriptura, but I wonder: Is Sola Scriptura really worth defending? Furthermore, can Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and Sola Fide (Faith Alone) exist together in one person? Are they not mutually exclusive by definition? Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit cannot speak into our world unless she 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? Many people have met Jesus without first reading Scripture. Yet, Armstrong declared that only in Scripture was 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.”
Armstrong overlooked 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. Furthermore, Scripture is not an end in itself, it is a signpost that directs its readers to YHWH through Jesus. The signpost of Scripture will pass away when we arrive at our destination and have no further need of a signpost – we will not be carrying Bibles in heaven – but YHWH himself will remain. Jesus and Jesus alone is himself the Word of YHWH – print on paper is NOT the Word of YHWH, though it is the word of YHWH. In the context of Scripture, Armstrong looked for a: “Reforming process that would be painful and costly.”
It was David Wells’ judgment (Quoted by Hannah) that “We need reformation, not revival.” I hear the call, but I believe that YHWH is the God of transformation, not reformation. I hear the call, but I believe that YHWH is the God of renewal, not restoration. White, in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, discussed a ‘new’ proposition that: “God also speaks to His people today apart from the Bible, though He never speaks in contradiction to it.” But whose interpretation of the Scriptures is ‘right’? And which translation of the Scriptures is ‘right’? Therefore, how is any other word that YHWH speaks to be tested? White attempted to demolish that ‘new proposition’, and I find that very curious. Will our heavenly white robes have pockets for our Bibles? But which version will it be? Will I still need a large print version? And how does YHWH speak to a dying person who has no Bible? How does YHWH speak to the child who cannot yet read but who can know YHWH? How does YHWH reveal himself to the illiterate? Mr White, is your God really so small?
Curiously, Armstrong then asserted that: “To be made right with God, a sinner must trust Christ alone, through grace alone.” Yet, Armstrong also seems to want (sinners turned) believers to trust Sola Scriptura alone through sola fide. Which is it? Is it now Grace 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 also like to ask Armstrong why the book is not called ‘The Coming Christian Crisis’?
Webber addressed the issue of how we regard the Bible, and declared 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 continued, “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 went 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 identified 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.” Amen!
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.” Indeed! I agreed with Webber when he said 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 said, we must shift from: “An understanding of the Bible that results in faith to a faith that results in understanding the Bible.” He laid 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.” Amen to that! For Webber and for me, the Scriptures are not the good news, Jesus is the good news; thus, 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 YHWH’s gift to the world. I certainly did. Willard was 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 Willard did not see scholars as having an intimate involvement with the Bible – though scholars will, I am sure, see things very differently – but he was trying to open the whole of our being to the Scriptures and calls us to abandon a narrowly defined view of what the Scriptures are 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?
Certainly, I endorse Thwaite’s high view of Christ, even if the relevance of his arguments is 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 YHWH 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 impacted 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 explored the person (figure, role) of satan and referred to Gustav Aulen, who, in his own 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 moved 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 believe that YHWH can have wrath against sin, but yet have no wrath against any person. I have worded that question very carefully! Is sin a person whom YHWH can have wrath against? In relation to YHWH, what is wrath?
Fiddes raised 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.” A struggle in YHWH between his wrath and his love…? Really? YHWH has internal struggles? Fiddes explored just how much YHWH was involved in using satan, and declared 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.” YHWH had enmity against human beings? Really? Did Jesus not come because YHWH so loved the world…?
Fiddes declared that: “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.” I have to confess that, thinking quickly, I would expect that most Christians would see it this way; but, is it really so? Is creating victory and enabling victory the same as having victory? Perhaps terminology needs to be explained here? Fiddes said: “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.” 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 Fiddes’ 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 spoke of the true centrality of Christ, and declared 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 explored the understanding of the cosmic Christ and, in that context, said 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 observed 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.” He continued: “Some churches pride themselves on being the only church in town that has the truth.” For the moment, let us overlook the fact that, in the Scriptures of the new covenant, truth is always a verb – it is never a noun – and further overlook that Scripture knows nothing of truth as mere knowledge or mere doctrine that can be possessed as ‘right’. Jesus does not belong to the church, the church belongs to Jesus; the church that is truly Christ-centred will be a community that touches the world around it.
Webber again: “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 pointed 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 and everlasting reality; it is not a theory, and nor is it the mere collective embodiment of humankind’s theology. “Christians do not believe something about the oneness of the church; they believe in the oneness of the church.” Is believing in the oneness of the church the same as the church being one? For Webber, 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 could seem to be going too far for comfort as he said: “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.” Is this ‘Hug a tree’ theology? Explain that please, Thwaites. “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 found different ways to say similar things rather than building the foundations that would allow us to see his arguments clearly, and thus be able to accept his arguments because they were based on solid and tested foundations.
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 tradition is both an incorrect and a very unhelpful, if common, misrepresentation. We are to carry out the will of YHWH by making disciples – nothing less. Conversion is the sole work of the Holy Spirit who gives new birth, and we must never try to do her work for her. 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.” Is Christianity the same as knowing Christ? Only asking… Is Christianity a holy club? Only asking…
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 asserted, “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 mere collection of individuals, and the subsequent loss of the reality of Christus Victor means, for Webber, 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 certainly not the church that Christ is the head of. Is it? Webber asserted 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 called 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 declared 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 was 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. Amen to that! Indeed, I will certainly again 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 pointed 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 knew 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.” Yes, trivialising the precious and trampling upon the profound is a mark of a fixed and unyielding dogma that has its fingers firmly jammed in its ears.
Fiddes had a very wide view of the impact of the cross, as evidenced by his by declaration that: “Salvation is an idea which has the widest scope, including the healing of individuals and social groups and even the conserving of a natural world ravaged and polluted by human greed.” I certainly agree, though his use of the word ‘idea’ is an interesting one! Perhaps I would have said that salvation is a reality, rather than an idea. Right at the outset of his book, Fiddes pointed back to the cross: “Salvation, or the healing of life, issues from atonement, and this in turn has its basis in the cross of Christ.” The author therefore examined the constant factors of the human predicament that caused the cross to be necessary, which are alienation or estrangement, unfulfilled potential, and sin or rebellion. Fiddes said that: “It is always in the present that God acts to heal and reconcile, entering into the disruption of human lives at great cost to himself, in order to share our predicament and release us from it.” Fiddes’ statement raises questions as to what he means by YHWH ‘entering into the disruption of human lives’ – does he refer back to the cross here, or he is saying that YHWH does this daily in the ‘now’? It seemed to be the latter: “If salvation is the healing of a broken relationship between persons, then it must actually happen now; it must involve the human response as an intimate part of the act of atonement.” Is this really so? Or is the present human response actually to the fact of the atonement, rather than being a part of it?
My question was answered on the next page, where Fiddes says that the human response to reconciliation with YHWH: “Must actually be part of the act of salvation, not merely a reaction to it afterwards.” Is Fiddes using ‘the act of the atonement’ and ‘the act of salvation’ as interchangeable expressions of the same thing? Does this mean that, since not all of humanity will be saved, the act of salvation will always be incomplete and lacking? “But forgiveness is not simply an announcement, a notice of pardon; it seeks to reconcile the person who is hostile to accepting forgiveness, or who is so anxious that he cannot believe he is accepted.” I agree in some ways with Fiddes, but I am uncertain whether he is focussing on the objective or the subjective as he considers the effects of the cross. The answer to that thought lasted ten pages!
Fiddes again: “The question then is not whether a view of atonement is subjective or objective … the question to be asked is how well it integrates the two elements.” As part of this integration, the author says that: “The fact that future salvation affects the present through its creative influence upon it confirms the discovery that influence is also the mode by which a past event changes the present.” I am following Fiddes here, but wondering about the difference between change and shaping – but perhaps I am overcomplicating issues… I can see Fiddes’ book getting some sharp responses from some evangelicals, because it goes down the road of ‘Open Theology’, and even for him and me to use such a term is to court rebuke and to invite vicious ostracism. “If we take seriously the freedom of God to love, then we can say that he desires fellowship with us, and that by his own eternal choice his being is enhanced by relationship with us.” Yet, do any of us have any good, deep and meaningful relationships that do not enhance us? We live love that is fully relational, that can be ecstatic, that goes beyond ourselves to others, do we not?
Surely, then, Fiddes may be right to say that: “God’s nature is fully relational; he is ecstatic love, love that goes out beyond the self to another.” Surely, then, our own experience of relationships shows us that: “Forgiveness is a costly and difficult matter both for the one who offers it and the one who receives it, because true forgiveness aims for reconciliation, and this means the removal of barriers to relationship.” As Fiddes has declared: “The cross is a creative act, a past event with power to change human attitudes to God and to each other in the present; this creativity is at the very heart of forgiveness, as can be seen if we reflect upon what it involves in human relationships.”
Willard makes the valid point that what many churches call discipleship programs are little more than behavioural modification classes or mere information givers; as such they may be helpful, but they are not adequate to the spiritual life. We need to learn how to train ourselves and others to: “Learn from Jesus how to live our life as he would live it if he were us.” And again: “If I am Jesus’ disciple that means I am with him to learn from him how to be like him.” Surely, we must be learning by now that an academic acceptance of propositional truth is, in and of itself, of absolutely no value if it divorced from a living and vital love relationship with Jesus himself. Yet, I often do wonder if we are learning that lesson at all. Little wonder that Willard said that: “We must recognize, first of all, that the aim of the popular teacher in Jesus’ time was not to impart information, but to make a significant change in the lives of the hearers.” Amen to that!
Changing and transforming people’s lives is the work of the Holy Spirit and, while this does of course involve a person’s mind, her work is not driven by the mind, but by the heart – because relationships centre in the heart, and not in the mind. Therefore, said Willard: “It is, frankly, hard today to think adequately about God – or perhaps to think of him at all. Our intellectual history works against it, and we certainly do not get much training for it.” It may well be hard to think about YHWH, but look around the world and see the evidence of YHWH at work, and let your heart tell you what you need. You need YHWH. So call on YHWH.
Willard proclaimed that: “You cannot call upon Jesus Christ or upon God and not be heard. You live in their house, their ecos (Heb 3:4). We call it simply the universe. But they fully occupy it. It is their place, their kingdom, where through their kindness and sacrificial love we can make our present life an eternal life.” This is the language of relationship, and a relationship which transcends the academic and intellectual; indeed, there is a real likelihood that the academic will neither comprehend nor apprehend the reality of such relationship. And so as Willard said: “Jesus’ good news about the kingdom can be an effective guide for our lives only if we share his view of the world in which we live.” Therefore: “Central to the understanding and proclamation of the Christian gospel today, as in Jesus’ day, is a re-visioning of what God’s own life is like and how the physical cosmos fits into it.” Willard speaks my language – for it is the language of relationship. “One is blessed … if one’s life is based upon acceptance and intimate interactions with what God is doing in human history.”
Relationship with YHWH means that he is what YHWH is doing in human history, he is also doing in my own history. YHWH is doing it in your history. YHWH is doing it in their history. “Their union with Jesus allows them now to be a part of his conspiracy to undermine the structures of evil, which continue to dominate human history, with the forces of truth, freedom and love.” This is relational, this is life-changing, and this impacts how we see, and therefore how we treat, people. “Our confidence in God is the only thing that makes it possible to treat others as they should be treated.” In this way, like Willard, we are a real part of the divine conspiracy.
GOD AT WORK?
Thwaites had a lot to say about work, (in its widest context – not merely employment) but he made some statements that may be a little hard to take, such as: “God waits in the good fruit of our everyday life and work to be discovered and encountered by us.” Does this mean that church and the world are one and the same? Can we discover YHWH better at work than we can as church? Or only in work? He went on to say that: “We were created to discover the very attributes, nature and power of God through all life and work.” Such statements need careful explanation and clear application – and it must begin with defining the word ‘work’ in a way that is accessible to everyone; not merely in their understanding, but in true relevance to their daily life. For example, how does Thwaites theology relate to the unemployed, the long-term sick, the disabled, and so on? He also spends time on the (Hebrew) naming of things, from the animal kingdom through to the words that we speak about our daily lives. “From the time of creation we were given the right and responsibility to name all things. This means that the definition or descriptions we accept or give to any thing, person or event will determine our relationship to them, our ability to see and go into them and ultimately the reality we will build in and from them.” Is this the power of positive speech? Or is it negative? “So, if saints call their work secular, boring, carnal, cursed, second fiddle, then this will be exactly what their work will be for them and they will be for it.” But what do I say if my work (employment) really is boring, or if it really is hard, or if it really is second fiddle, or all three? Is Thwaites suggesting that naming and claiming changes everything to be the way that we want it to be? I had thought that Thwaites was encompassing all of life into the word ‘work’ and not just employment, but then there are times when he seems to narrow his thinking down to just employment.
THE THREE SPHERES
Thwaites declared that there were: “Three unseen and created spheres that God has made for humanity. The first is marriage, the second is family and the third is work. These three spheres are the primary building blocks of humankind’s created reality.” Therefore, he said that: “The church is not something separate from marriage, family and work.” But is church something separate from the single, the disabled, the divorced, and the lonely? Do they count? What of them? Thwaites declared that: “After all of these millennia the three spheres of the created order have not been shaken – people in marriage, people in family, people engaging the world through work.” Yet, as I look around our land today, I see that these very things have been shaken and are being shaken today, so am I wrong to see that? Or am I mistaken? For I see the foundation of marriage being shaken apart in our society, I see the whole basis of family being shaken up in our society, and I see the workplace changing beyond recognition for many people. The Coronavirus alone has impacted these things beyond recognition in many ways. How can Thwaites say that they have not been shaken?
Thwaites also tackled the issue of suffering: “The person of God is actually present in the disappointment, the setback, the obstacle and even the injustice. He is actually present in your suffering as God made man.” Now many have trodden this road, but they have often done so without actually clearly defining what suffering is, and what suffering is not. It seems to me that Thwaites has done exactly the same. Or has failed to do exactly the same. For example, when I reap the consequences of my own foolish actions, can I really call that suffering? Thwaites said: “We have seen through the darkness, reached through the futility and journeyed through the pain to arrive at the beginning of our inheritance in the all things of creation. That is why we must suffer with him to enter into our inheritance.” What does this mean for me? Today? And for my relationships? Am I alone in finding these statements abstract and unhelpful? Can we really expect that YHWH’s kingdom will fully come in our country and in our world? “In and through our work in the unseen orders of the creation we are called and privileged to find the justice and holiness of God in government; the beauty, suffering and playful delight of God in art, literature and leisure; the power and supply of God in business; the wisdom and knowledge of his Spirit in education; the wholeness of God in the wonder of our physical life and in the healing disciplines.” What does this mean? I long for Thwaites to be utterly practical in applying his arguments, but it seems that I long in vain.
Webber asserted that: “There is a great need among us to restore a biblical and historical theology of worship which is an epiphany of God’s saving work in history.” If worship is: “A rehearsal of the saving deeds of God in history” then our worship is second-hand if we have not seen with our own eyes and known in our own lives those saving deeds. Webber calls us to worship a God of deeds as witnessed by past generations and as now in our own time as Christus Victor is real for our Christian community; and therefore, for example, the Eucharist remembrance: “Is not a mere intellectual recall, as in Enlightenment theology, but an anamnesis in which the divine action of God brings to us the forgiveness of our sins and the healing of our broken lives.”
According to Mohler, “The marks of true worship include the singing of hymns, the reading of Scripture, the prayers of the people, the observance of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and the preaching of the Word.” Really? I have seen unsaved people engaging in all of these activities, and mere activities is precisely what they can be. The mark of true worship is a whole life given daily in an ever-deepening relationship with YHWH, and that life will be unmistakably marked by a growing and maturing true holiness. Activity – while not in itself at all wrong – should never be confused with holiness. It is not methods that matter, but a true relationship with YHWH. If sacraments are sacraments, they are sacraments because YHWH is in them, not merely because we observe them.
THWAITES makes some good and valid points but, in making them, he is heavy on abstract expressions and tends towards the academic that, for me, makes little or no connection with real life. For me, anyway. His book shows that he believes that people begin with a worldview and then shape their lives according to their worldview; but I would suggest that most people – even Christians – often merely live; they do not shape their worldview and their lives, but rather have their worldview and their lives shaped for them. For those and such as those, this book will be largely inaccessible. For me personally, if it doesn’t relate practically to my daily life, then life is too short for it.
WEBBER explores his themes in much greater detail than I have been able to delve into here. I believe that this is a very significant Christian primer that deserves our fullest attention and consideration. No, more than that, it ought to change our whole view of Christ and his church. It ought to radically change our theology of discipleship, it ought to revolutionise how we train ministers, it ought to change our way of Christian life. It ought to, but will we let it?
FIDDES’ book is worthy of discussion by those who have an open mind, but, much more importantly, by those who have an open heart. Read the book, open your heart, and meet the God who is there.
“The cross of Jesus shows us that a God who submits to weakness will seem to be a hidden God; his divinity is veiled as he shares in the suffering of the world. But hiddenness is not absence, and veiling is not desertion.” I cannot, in such few words, do justice to the depth of MOLTMANN’s book. He sets forth his arguments and is thorough in support of them; he considers the alternatives and is firm is dismissing them; he is passionate about the church because the church is, first and foremost, the church of Jesus Christ. Catch the passion.
I am already out of time here, but there is so much that still could be said about ‘The Coming Evangelical Crisis’. The book looks at ‘The Holy Spirit In Preaching’, ‘Christ In Preaching’, ‘The Crisis Of Gospel Authority’, and then it goes into battle with people like Clark Pinnock over their thoughts on Open Theology. Why take aim at that which they disagree with? This book deeply frustrates me. If we only believed the right things in the right way, everything would be right! Aye, right! Why do we spend so much time and effort defending theological positions and attacking those who challenge those cherished theological positions?
Where is the beauty of Jesus? Where is our intimacy with him? Let the scholars argue, but without anger or hatred. For the rest of us – know Jesus intimately. I may be accused of being simplistic for saying that – so be it. Heaven is not in crisis. Jesus is not in crisis. YHWH is not in crisis. If we have a coming (or present) crisis of evangelicalism, let us ask much deeper questions than this book asks, and let us truly be open to answers from heaven. To be honest, if we have a coming (or present) crisis of evangelicalism, then bring it on. The foundations are in need of being thoroughly shaken.