Joe Savage’s More of God, More of Me

For the last six weeks, our church has been working through Joe Savage’s wonderful study on the Holy Spirit, More of God, More of Me.  Dr. Savage kicked off the study by speaking at our church, and his written words have proven to be as engaging, effective, helpful, and encouraging as his preached words.

More of God, More of Me is is a 40-day study on the Holy Spirit that presents a basic theology of the Spirit with a keen eye towards the practical submission of the believer to the Spirit’s guidance and filling.  I have found the book (and I believe our church has found the book) to be balanced and appropriately challenging.  As we’ve been gathering in small groups each week and discussing the material, it’s become increasingly clear to me that Dr. Savage has produced an extremely effective tool here that any church would likely benefit from studying.  The material has provoked a great deal of insightful and helpful discussion, and it has struck just the right chord with our church.

Baptists often seem to have a woefully inadequate approach to the Holy Spirit, varying from neglect to excessive preoccupation.  Because of this, balanced and biblical material on the Spirit is most helpful.  To this end, Joe Savage’s book must be judged a great success.

This book is well worth the cost and time.  Highly recommended!

Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir

Over the years I’ve come to love reading Christian biographies and memoirs more and more.  When I saw that Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist theologian and professor at Duke Divinity School, had published his memoir I knew that I would eventually have to get it.  Having just finished it, I wanted to share some thoughts about the work here.

Bottom line:  what we have here is a fascinating but ultimately frustrating and disappointing book.

I came to know Hauerwas (probably like many evangelicals) through his frankly amazing book, Resident Aliens.  I was assigned that book as a seminary student at Southwestern Seminary and I have never forgotten the impact it had/has on my life.  In it, Hauerwas and Will Willimon issue a clarion call for the church’s liberation from Constantinianism and conformity.  They call on the church to be a polis within thepolis and to offer a radical, counter-cultural community in the midst of the fallen world.

I soaked up their message like a sponge, believing it then, and now, to be a faithful articulation of New Testament ecclesiology.  This shot of Anbaptist ecclesiology mediated through a Methodist absolutely rocked my world and I feel that, in many ways, it helped me understand the New Testament concept of the church in ways I previously had not.  I am, and will remain, forever grateful for Hauerwas’ work here.

Since I was first introduced to Hauerwas, I’ve known him to be an eclectic, unique, and, at times, infuriating writer.  For instance, Hauerwas is a pacifist and I am not…but I don’t think I can ever think about war in quite the same way as I did before reading him.  Oddly enough, I even used Hauerwas’ work in my little book on church discipline, Walking Together (that I found helpful material in Hauerwas on this issue is yet another indication of his appreciation for Mennonite John Howard Yoder’s work and ecclesiology).

The additional works of his that I have digested have never failed to stimulate my mind and heart and I do try to read Hauerwas whenever given the chance.

This memoir has certainly explained Stanley Hauerwas.  A few themes occur again and again:  Hauerwas’ humble and hard-working roots, his sense of being an outsider, his growing awareness of God and Christian truth, and, above them all, his utterly disastrous relationship with his mentally-ill wife (now deceased), Anne.

I was particularly struck and inspired by Hauerwas’ work ethic:

“I am often asked how I get done all I get  done. The answer is simple – I work. I get up at five every morning  and I work till six every evening. I do not waste time. If I have fifteen  minutes, I can read this or that. It is the same principle as never going  to the keg without carrying back some block [a reference to the bricklaying of Hauerwas’ youth]. To be so determined can  be oppressive for others, as well as for me, at times. Thanks to Paula I  have learned to rest – a little. But I work because I love the work I have  been given to do.”

Hauerwas is a natural born storyteller, and he does not disappoint in painting a picture of his life.  If you are interested in the inner workings of academia and the running of academic departments, you will find Hauerwas’ often dramatic retellings of the ins and outs of institutional life at places like Notre Dame and Duke absolutely enthralling.

And yet, I was disappointed with this memoir in certain very important ways, primarily in how it reveals Hauerwas as holding a vision of himself as anti-establishment while simultaneously revealing the same old tired liberal cliches.  I found one of his anecdotes to be particularly ironic:

For several years we lived next  door to Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins. We liked them both. Stanley  is one of the most competitive and kind people I know. I loved to run with Stanley. Once, as we ran the neighborhood, I told him I knew his  secret. In spite of his criticism of liberals, he cannot help but be one. He  stopped, looked at me, and said, “Don’t you tell anyone.”

This is ironic because as I read the book I came slowly to believe this very thing about Hauerwas:  “In spite of his criticism of liberals, he cannot help but be one.”  Hauerwas would chafe at such an idea.  He is, after all, quick (and repetitive) in painting himself as a maverick:

The  challenge I have mounted against the accommodation of the church to  the ethos of modernity is my attempt to help us recover our ability to  pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a  world we do not control.

And, of course, his writing in many ways bears this out.  Even so, he does so sound like one of the ever-shrinking number of mainline liberals (shrinking because their churches are shrinking) when he tells us, for instance, that he “does not like Southern Baptists” or that publishing with IVP really was a bold thing for an academic to do.  He plays his cards most clearly when he discusses the question of gay unions:

Paula often has to help me “get” what a friend is trying to tell me.  David Jenkins tried to tell me he was gay. He told me he had been invited   to live with a young man who often came to church with him. I  told him I thought that would be a good idea, because I worried that  he might be lonely. He told me he was going to march in a parade supporting   the mayor of Durham, who had signed a law against sexual  discrimination in city hiring practices. Since I thought that such a law  would be just, I commended his involvement. Paula finally had to tell  me David was gay.
I remain unsure if we can call the relationship between gay people  “marriage,” but I know that David’s friendship enriches Paula’s and  my marriage. I hope and pray for the day when Christians can be so  confident in their understanding of marriage that we can welcome gay  relationships for their promise of building up the body of Christ. That  I have such a hope and that I pray such a prayer has everything to do  with my and Paula’s friendship with David. I think, moreover, that this  is the way it should work.

Ah, yes!  How very prophetically counter-cultural of you, Stanley.  My how you’ve freed yourself from accommodationist liberalism.  One cannot help but be struck at this point in the memoir how a man who has seemingly read everything, who understands complex theological, philosophical, and ethical arguments, who wields nuance and qualification like a surgeon’s scalpel could sound so very much like the American leftist establishment in weighing in on the issue of gay marriage.  “David’s friendship enriches Paula’s and my marriage”?  There you go!  Case closed.

Let me propose a truly radical and brave position for an academic to take:  to demonstrate, like Robert Gagnon at Pittsburgh Seminary has, that the biblical witness clearly speaks against homosexual activity as sinful.

At the end of the day, I will likely continue to find Hauerwas’ ecclesiology to be radically refreshing and truly prophetic…but I have indeed lost some respect for him as a biblical thinker (something he would likely claim not to be anyway).

Finally this:  by Hauerwas’ own admission, his grasp of theological and ethical texts is much stronger than his grasp of scripture.  I do so wonder whether or not Hauerwas might not benefit from at least some expressions of the (gasp!) evangelical biblical scholarship from which he would no doubt want to distance himself.

It pains me to write this.  I’ve considered myself a fan, but, at the end of the day, it just so happens that the entity known as (in the words of Hauerwas’ late friend Richard John Neuhaus) “the rheumatoid left” is more of Hauerwas’ home than I previously wanted to believe.

What a shame.

As an aside, I find that I agree very strongly with Craig Carter’s review of the book here.  Having written my review, I note that my take on it mirrors his own in many ways.  All I can say is I apparently had very much the same journey as Carter did in reading the book, though he says what he says in a much more articulate way than I do here.  Check it out.


Thabiti Anyabwile’s What is a Healthy Church Member?

Thabiti Anyabwile has written a wonderful and helpful little IX Marks book that should be placed in the hands of every church member, and, God willing, will be placed in the hands of the members of First Baptist Church, Dawson (i.e., we’ll be doing home groups through this book soon).  A companion work to Mark Dever’s Nine Marks Of A Healthy Church and What Is A Healthy Church?What Is A Healthy Church Member?discusses ten marks (adding one, prayer, to Dever’s original nine).  They all begin with “A Healthy Church Member Is…”, and conclude:

1. an expositional listener

2. a biblical theologian

3. gospel saturated

4. genuinely converted

5. a biblical evangelist

6. a committed member

7. seeks discipline

8. a growing disciple

9. a humble follower

10. a prayer warrior

The discussion of each is succinct, accessible, brief without being shallow, and practical without being “gimmicky.”  I particularly like his discussion of expositional listening, and kept thinking how careful attention to such a concept would revolutionize worship as we know it.  Numbers 4 and 5 provide some very helpful discussion of the need to share the whole story of the gospel when we share it.  I think Anyabwile has offered a real corrective here for the type of evangelism that attempts to tell the “good news” without sharing first the “bad news” that makes the “good news” good!

Each of the chapters is helpful and commendable.  This would be a tremendous resource to work into a new member orientation class or to take your church through in small groups.

IX Marks is to be commended for producing these wonderful tools.

Check this book out.

Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission

Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission is vintage Willard.  By that I mean that he here explores the same topics he explores in his other books:  discipleship, the disappearance of the idea and possibility of discipleship from modern Christian practice (thus, the title of this book), the disciplines, and Lordship salvation.  It is safe to say that Willard essentially writes the same book every times he writes a book.  Now, that sounds like a real criticism and possibly a slight, so let me clarify:  I am absolutely thrilled that Willard keeps writing the same book!  Indeed, I hope he does 20 more.

Why?  Because nobody is saying what Willard is saying in the convincing and powerful way in which he is saying it.  Furthermore, Willard has his hand on the great tragedy of modern Evangelicalism:  the disappearance of discipleship.  Thirdly, while he writes the same book in terms of focus and thesis, the wonder is in the nuances and shades he brings.  So his books really do form a kind of prism of discipleship which shimmer, shine, reflect, and refract as you turn them this way and that, and, as such, they form a wonderful whole.

I was first introduced to Dallas Willard sixteen years ago when the pastor of the church I was serving as a Minister of Youth gave me The Spirit of the Disciplines.  It absolutely rocked my world.  The Divine Conspiracydid the same, though I found parts of it troubling.  And now The Great Omission has threatened to top them all.  But not really, because these books need one another and I need all of them.

This book is actually a collection of various articles, lectures, and reviews on discipleship and the disciplines that Willard has written or delivered over the years.  They are occasional pieces, but they flow very well together in this book.

Willard repeats the following a half-dozen times in this book:  Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.

That’s a profound and simple way of putting a truth that we desperately need to get straight today.  Grace does not mean that we do not construct a deliberate, intentional, and solid plan for becoming more like Christ.  At the heart of this plan lie the disciplines that Willard summarize here but has spoken of in greater length elsewhere.

The absence of such concrete plans for conformity to Christ, as well as the absence of any apparent need to construct such a plan leads Willard to a shocking conclusion:  grace as we currently have defined it actually works against us being conformed into the image of Christ.

I agree.  It does.  This is evident and beyond dispute.

Willard is essentially seeking to strike a blow at the odd and gnosticized form of Christianity that fuels much of revivalistic Evangelicalism.  He is seeking to undermine that weird notion that one may have Christ as Savior but not Lord.  It is a blow that needs to be delivered, and Willard does so here with aplomb, clarity, and charity.

Trust me:  this is a book you will be glad you read.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church

Try as I might, I simply cannot believe that a young man in his twenties could write such a mind-boggling, thought-provoking, and insightful masterpiece as Sanctorum Communio.  I feel that I will never think of “church” in quite the same way again.  In fact, I feel like I’ve just been given a view of a mountain that I know I must go back and climb again, but the overall sensation of its height is so startling that I’m not quite sure how to begin.  (Maybe, in a weird way, a kind of awed despair is the mark of all truly great books?)  They say that Barth’s commentary on Romans fell on the playground of the liberal theologians like an atom bomb.  Well, Sanctorum Communio has fallen into the playground of this Baptist pastor in just the same way.

Originally published in 1930, three years after it initially appeared as Bonhoeffer’s doctoral dissertation (and 15 years before Bonhoeffer would be put to death), Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church represents a staggering achievement.  Karl Barth would later say of this work, “I openly confess that I have misgivings whether I can even maintain the high level reached by Bonhoeffer, saying no less in my own words and context, and saying it no less forcefully, than did this young man so many years ago” (2).  He would also call this book “a miracle.”

It is steeped in sociological categories that many readers might find offputting.  I do not claim to have followed some of the more technical aspects of the social philosophy sections, but struggling through these parts is reward enough in and of itself to warrant the effort.  Even so, I daresay that the work is accessible enough to anybody who cares deeply about the church.  I found it to be so anyway.  (In a strange way this book reminds of Moby Dick.  I had to sludge through some of the sailing history and terminology that was, frankly, foreign to me.  But the story, and, on hindsight, the foundation that the denser parts of that book lend to the story, was overwhelming.)

I had certain disagreements with Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology.  His approach to church discipline is, in my opinion, hopelessly muddled and amazingly oversimplified.  But I do recall seeing a more biblical handling of it in his Finkenwalde guide, Life Together, so I want to reserve passing too harsh a judgment on him in this regard.  Furthermore, I (obviously) have reservations about his handling of infant baptism.  I thought it was pretty par-for-the-course as far as such arguments go.  There was nothing terribly new about it.  But, in truth, I remain, to date, firmly unconvinced, though a bit more appreciative than I would have been ten years ago.

Bonhoeffer begins by describing the fundamental sociality of existence.  He does this by showing the necessity for one person to acknowledge the other as a genuine person.  Only when this happens can we speak of the “individual” existing:

“When the concrete ethical barrier of the other person is acknowledged or, alternatively, when the person is compelled to acknowledge it, we have made a fundamental step that allows us to grasp the social ontic ethical basic-relations of persons…Thus, the individual exists only in relation to an ‘other’; individual does not mean solitary.  On the contrary, for the individual to exist, ‘others’ must necessarily be there” (50-51).

But this understanding of “I” and “You” (which Bonhoeffer calls “the social basic category…the I-You-relation) is itself a work of God.

“God or the Holy Spirit joins the concrete You; only through God’s active working does the other become a You to me from whom my I arises.  In other words, every human You is an image of the divine You” (54-55)

What strikes me about Bonhoeffer’s argument is how it aims a blow directly at the fragmented, isolationist understanding of the person that has overwhelmed not only our basic relational assumptions but also, in evangelicalism, our ecclesiology.  We have become a people of the lone individual, or so we like to think.  But relationality is fundamentally necessary and also God-enabled.  In a footnote, Bonhoeffer praises his doctoral supervisor (or whatever he was called at the time), Dr. Reinhold Seeberg, for presenting “the idea of sociality as an inherent component of original human nature.  He thereby brought back into theology an important doctrine without which the ideas of original sin and especially the church could not be fully understood” (64).

I do not know about the truthfulness of this statement from a historical-theological perspective (whether or not it was Seeberg who brought this understanding back), but I do believe that the sentiment is true.  In fact, I believe that our rejection of this sentiment (whether explicitly or implicitly) has led to the weakening of the church in profound and tragic ways.

Bonhoeffer goes even further in this direction:

“It is our view that there would be no self-consciousness without community – or better, that self-consciousness arises concurrently with the consciousness of existing in community.  Second, we assert that will is by its nature oriented toward other wills” (70).

Yes, but does this destroy the reality of the individual?  To be sure, we are individuals-run-amuck, but can we not speak of “the individual”?  Bonhoeffer’s answer is telling and, I believe, quite profound:

“The universal person of God does not think of people as isolated individual beings, but in a natural state of communication with other human beings.  Furthermore, in relations with others, I do not merely satisfy one side of my structurally closed being as spirit; rather, only here do I discover my reality, i.e., my I-ness.  God created man and woman directed to one another.  God does not desire a history of individual human beings, but the history of the human community.  However, God does not want a community that absorbs the individual into itself, but a community of human beings.  In God’s eyes, community and individual exist in the same moment and rest in one another.  The collective unit and the individual unit have the same structure in God’s eyes.  On these basic-relations rest the concepts of the religious community and the church” (80).

Bonhoeffer also points to the potential benefits of conflict in communities:  “Genuine life arises only in the conflict of wills; strength unfolds only in strife.  This is an old insight” (85).  This is a welcome word for those who wrongly think that all conflict is inherently bad or injurious to the body of Christ.

He then moves to the issue of sin and human culpability.  He argues for an individual and corporate understanding of sin, whereby, in a very real sense, my sins represent the sins of the whole world.  This opens up the very real possibility for corporate repentance.

When Bonhoeffer moves into a more specific discussion of the church, he sees these sociological realities as reaching their apex in the body of Christ:  “There is in fact only one religion in which the idea of community is an integral element of its nature, and that is Christianity” (130-131).  Furthermore, Christ is present in the church:  “The church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God” (138).  And He is poignantly present because of “the paradoxical reality of a community-of-the-cross, which contains within itself the contradiction of simultaneously representing utmost solitude and closest community.  And this is the specifically Christian church-community” (151).

Here is one of the great strengths of Sanctorum Communio:  it’s argument that the church is an inherently necessary definitional reality.  How badly do Southern Baptists, among others, need to return to this kind of understanding of the church?  The church is not a voluntary association of separated, isolated, “saved” individuals.  The church is the necessary definition and identity of the community of the cross which is comprised of all of those who are in Christ.

Bonhoeffer goes on to some very helpful discussions of forgiveness of sin, the Lord’s Supper, the need for confession, and the interchange of wills within the body of Christ.  I found all of this illuminating, even when I disagreed.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the book in this review, but I do hope it has given a picture of the kind of thinking and wisdom you’ll find in Sanctorum Communio.  This book is a masterpiece and a treasure.  Every pastor should read this and drink long and deep from this well.

Jim Elliff’s Revival and the Unregenerate Church Member

Here is a nice surprise: a thought-provoking little booklet on regenerate church membership that I recently spied on my bookshelf even though I do not remember getting this and haven’t a clue where it came from!  I was finally able to read this and I found it to be reasonable and convincing.  Written by Jim Elliff, President of Christian Communicators WorldwideRevival and the Unregenerate Church Member is especially timely given the passage of Resolution #6 at the Southern Baptist Convention annual gathering in Indianapolis in 2008 and the wider discussions going on in the Convention concerning regenerate church membership.

I do not concur with all of Elliff’s arguments.  I do not, for instance, believe that the invitation system isnecessarily harmful, though, in truth, he appears to stop shorting of saying this (though a perusal of some of the other material on his site suggests that he does appear to hold invitations to be harmful) and though I do agree that the invitation system has certain dangers if not handled in the appropriate way.  This is, however, (in my opinion, but probably not Elliff’s) tangential to the greater issue:  that local churches which do not exercise appropriate oversight of the congregation, that allow the structures of accountability to disappear beneath the siren song of pragmatism and consumeristic models of church growth, that do not preach on the biblical ideal of a regenerate church membership are inevitably shooting themselves in the foot and are, indeed, harming their own ministry efforts and gospel effectiveness.

I have never been so convinced of the need for a return to regenerate church membership as I am right now.  While I suspect that Elliff goes a bit further than I would be comfortable going in certain areas that I would class as “adiaphora” (having an invitation), I wholeheartedly agree with the central focus of this little work.

B.H. Carroll’s Ecclesia

I intentionally read B.H. Carroll’s Ecclesia immediately after finishing Pope Benedict’s Called to Communion in order to maintain some balance and perspective.  I must say, if you ever wanted to read two books on ecclesiology that are at polar extremes on the spectrum, these would be the two books!

B.H. Carroll is the founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.  He was a fascinating figure who was wounded in the Civil War, founded a seminary, pastored a number of churches (most notably First Baptist Waco), and played an important role in the Southern Baptist Convention of his day.

This work has been reprinted by the fine folks at The Baptist Standard Bearer.  It’s vol.38 of their “The Baptist Distinctives Series.”  I’ve spoken well of these guys before, and I’d like to do so again.  They’re doing yeoman’s work, to be sure.  It would be virtually impossible to study Baptist history in the U.S. without looking to their publications.

That being said, it grieves me to start this review with a word of criticism.  I initially thought it would just be an “observation,” and not a full-fledged “criticism,” but no such luck.  I must say, after having finished this book last Friday (while sitting, oddly enough, in “The Holy Land Experience” in Orlando, FL) that I have never read such a poorly edited work in my life.  I do so very much appreciate this ministry, and I realize it is not a large and wealthy organization, but I would suspect that some first year seminary student would love to give just a single read-through of these manuscripts for $20 before they go to print.  I do not mean to be too harsh, but these works are too important to have the numerous spelling, grammatical, and typesetting issues that this book has.

The work itself is worthy of consideration and is as clear a presentation of the traditional Baptist concept of “church” as Called to Communion is for the Roman Catholic concept.  Carroll’s work is essentially a collection of class lectures and sermons.

Carroll provides an interesting and helpful word study of “ecclesia,” arguing that in the vast majority of New Testament usages it retains the meaning of “local assembly.”  He argues against the idea of an already existing catholic church, noting that such a church could not truly exist until the end of all things when all of God’s people are gathered into His presence.  He does not, however, deny the validity of speaking about the “general assembly” of all the believers on earth at any given time.

BHCarrollThe catholic-minded Baptist may feel that Carroll overplays this point (I found myself saying, “Yes, but…” to Carroll’s argument at points), but it is an undeniable fact that the New Testament speaks of local gatherings of the church in the vast majority of its usages.  Regardless, Baptist ecclesiology may serve as a necessary corrective against those who would perhaps undermine this New Testament emphasis.

Carroll moves on to discuss the Baptist approach to baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  I will not belabor either point.  I will only point out that I remain unconvinced of the traditional Baptist notion of “closed communion.”  I have never adhered to this.  I believe it is a mistake.  That being said, it does flow logically from the Baptist (over?)emphasis on the local assembly.

Finally, Carroll ends with a helpful discourse on distinctive Baptist principles.  I appreciated this presentation and am in general agreement with these emphases.  I do note, as a matter of interest, the lack of biblical references for Carroll’s point that “the church is a pure democracy” (159).  Furthermore, I will admit to cringing at this sentence:  “It [the church] is of the people, for the people, by the people” (159).  The coopting of American political language for the church by Baptists certainly will not help to quell the accusation that congregational polity as practiced by Baptists derives more from Enlightenment individualism than from New Testament exegesis.  (I do not concede the point, by the way, just the fact that such language does not help.)

I appreciate the life and ministry of B.H. Carroll and am glad I read this interesting and insightful work.  Anybody wanting to understand that strange tribe called “Baptists” could do much worse than this book for an introduction.

Benedict XVI’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today

Benedict XVI is a pope worth reading.  To be sure, any Baptist who is a Baptist by conviction will have fundamental disagreements with Benedict on more than a few points, but there is wisdom here that any believer in Jesus Christ can not only appreciate but also grow from.  In truth, I found Benedict’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today to be one of the more thought-provoking works on ecclesiology I’ve ever read, even as I disagreed with many of its basic points.

A good bit of this material was delivered by Benedict when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger in July of 1990 to a theological seminar in Rio de Janeiro.  As such the work is essentially a primer on Catholic ecclesiology.  For the Protestant reader, this book will offer some of the more seasoned reflections on Catholic ecclesiology that you are likely to find on the market today.  So this book will certainly help Baptists and others understand Roman Catholics better.  And yet it would be a shame to read this work only to understand what “they” think, for surely even Baptist believers share (in ways poignant and undeniable) in what Benedict calls here “the crisis of ecclesial consciousness through which we are now living” (p.11).

Benedict bemoans the liberal ideology within the Church “which regards Jesus according to the liberal world picture as the great individualist who liberates religion from cultic institutions and reduces it to ethics, which for its part is founded entirely upon the individual responsibility of conscience.  Such a Jesus, who repudiates cultic worship, transforms religion into morality and then defines it as the business of the individual, obviously cannot found a church.  He is the foe of all institutions and, therefore, cannot turn around and establish one himself” (p.15).

Here is one of the many places where we can benefit from Benedict’s wisdom.  His definition and diagnosis of liberalism is helpful and wise.  As Protestants have been bound in the same struggle against this same liberal impulse, we may rightly say that Benedict is speaking no less to us than he is to the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedicts understanding of the Church is profoundly Christological.  The Kingdom proclaimed by Christ is found in Christ Himself and the Church is likewise defined by and embodied in Christ who is present in the Church’s central act of worship:  the eucharist.  “It follows, then,” Benedict tells us, “that it is entirely impossible to conceive of the New Testament’s notion of the people of God apart from Christology, which in turn is no abstract theory but a concrete event taking place in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist” (p.33).

As a Baptist, I do not want to distance myself from the idea of Christ’s presence in the sacraments (even as, obviously, how I would understand Christ’s “presence” would differ markedly from Benedict’s), but I badly want to add this:  “and in the proclaimed, heard, and lived Word.”

Benedict next moves to a discussion and explanation of apostolic succession.  To be perfectly honest, I remain unconvinced.  I do appreciate Benedict’s attempt to ground the idea in exegesis of the text, but as I wrote “non-sequitur” in the margin a couple of times as I read, I was impressed once again by the seriousness and severity of the divide between the Protestant and Catholic ideas of “the Church.”

I do not deny what Benedict explains very persuasively:  the presence of apostolic authority in the New Testament Church and even some evidence of Petrine primacy in the New Testament.  I do not see, however, the implicit evidence for (especially) Petrine succession that Ratzinger finds in the text (he readily admits that “there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament”).  Furthermore, I regret that Benedict did not give serious consideration (in this work) to the fact that the Apostles are present in the Church as it proclaims and heeds “the apostles’ teaching.”

Obviously Benedict has misgivings about the idea of ecclesial autonomy:  “The Church must constantly become what she is through unitive love and resist the temptation to fall from her vocation into the infidelity of self-willed autonomy” (39-40).  Speaking of local churches and the Church catholic, Benedict writes:  “In this respect it can be said that we find here a preliminary sketch of a Church that lives in manifold and multiform particular Churches but that precisely in this way is the one Church.  At the same time, Luke expresses with this image the fact that at the moment of her birth, the Church was already catholic, already a world Church.  Luke thus rules out a conception in which a local Church first arose in Jerusalem and then became the base for the gradual establishment of other local Churches that eventually grew into a federation.  Luke tells us that the reverse is true:  what first exists is the one Church, the Church that speaks in all tongues – the ecclesia universalis; she then generates Church in the most diverse locales, which nonetheless are all always embodiments of the one and only Church.  The temporal and ontological priority lies with the universal Church; a Church that was not catholic would not even have ecclesial reality…” (44).

Earlier Baptists, and many modern ones, will want to stress the priority of the local church and the future coming of the church catholic.  That being said, there is a growing trend of Baptist catholicity that feels that the radical “autonomy” which is often championed in some quarters is derived more from American individualism than from New Testament exegesis, even while it affirms the basic principle of “local church autonomy.”  There is, to be sure, fascinating and occasionally tendentious cross-currents in Baptist life today over the issue of the church local and the church catholic and how these realities are to be understood.  Regardless, all Baptists would reject that which the Pope is clearly moving towards in this selection:  the unity of the catholic Church under the supposed modern successor of Peter (“Nevertheless, there is also a positive tendency today.  Many non-Catholics affirm the necessity of a common center of Christianity.”).

Benedict has some interesting discussion of apostolic primacy in the N.T.  He does not deny the evidence for the primacy of James, but argues that James had primacy over Jewish believers and it disappeared with the collapse of Jewish Christianity.  He then argues for Petrine primacy and succession, even while acknowledging that “we must first of all note that there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament” (65).

But Benedict’s argument for Petrine primacy and succession seems unconvincing to me.  His argument that “it was with this Church that every community had to agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a whole” (69) seems to me a serious oversimplification that does not account for evidence that Rome ascended to its primacy over time and that its primacy was not always assumed by other communions.  Furthermore, his contention that “the Roman primacy, or, rather, the acknowledgement of Rome as the criterion of the right apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than ‘Scripture’” (70) strikes me as pandering to the choir.  The statement is quite different from an acknowledgement that Rome had ascended to ecclesial power before the formal recognition of the canon by the church.  Finally, Benedict argues that “the essential point, in my opinion, has already become plain: the martyrdom of Peter in Rome fixes the place where his function continues” (72).  This strikes me as an amazing non-sequitur that is utterly unconvincing.

All of this being said, I am quite happy with Benedict’s definition of the Church itself, even as  I would undoubtedly understand certain phrases of this definition in a different light than he intends:  “The Church is accordingly the gathering of men from the four corners of the earth and their purification for God.  Together, the two answers describe the essence of the Church and thus introduce us into her practical dimension; both answers can be summed up in the one statement that the Church is the dynamic process of horizontal and vertical unification” (76).

On we could go, but suffice to say that this is a thought-provoking work that will, at the very least, give the Protestant reader an interesting insight into Catholic ecclesiology and theology as it is articulated by one of the Catholic church’s brightest minds.

Shane Clairborne’s Irresistible Revolution

Shane Clairborne’s Irresistible Revolution is a provocative read, to say the least.  Clairborne belongs to what has been called “the new monasticism.”  He’s one of the founders of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, a group of “ordinary radicals” seeking to live the life of Christ in a culture that desparately needs a counter-cultural alternative to the predominate ethos of both the world and (unfortunately) the church.

Bonhoeffer once suggested that the future of Christianity will find its vitality in a new monastic expression.  Flannery O’Connor onced wondered aloud whether a Protestant monasticism would be possible at all.  Clairborne obviously agrees with Bonhoeffer and would answer “yes” to O’Connor.

I suppose it would be easy to write off Shane Clairborne at first glance, but I’d argue that doing so would be a naive and sad example of judging a book by its cover.  He’s young and he has dreadlocks.  His two books are intentionally designed to look like they were pieced together by a 1st grade class.  So, as I say, it would be easy to look at these things and write Clairborne off.

If you’re tempted to do so, let me say this:  don’t.

Clairborne is not, of course, without his problems.  It’s one of the refreshing points of the book that he doesn’t mind saying so himself.  He comes across as genuine.  He’s a provocateur, to be sure, but there’s a meaning to the madness, and there’s a great deal of thought behind the shock value.

To be sure, Clairborne offers the occasional eye-rolling moment:  his statement that he used to be really opposed to abortion and homosexuality…and that he’s still opposed to abortion (the silence, I suppose, is supposed to be tantalizing).  He quotes Crossan’s work on empire, noting that Crossan is indeed provocative, but that he’s not personally interested in getting into those controversial points.  Fair enough, I guess, except that Crossan’s theological quirks include the belief that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead and that his body was likely eaten by dogs.  (Please note that I am NOT suggesting Clairborne believes the same.  In fact, I expect he does not believe the same.  It’s just the tendency of guys to quote left from heretics that gets a bit…whatever.)

But Clairborne needs to be heard.  I would suspect that Clairborne’s proposals of simple living, breaking free from the consumer culture, peace, and radical, literal enactments of Scripture would free my own denomination (the SBC) from the decline that it finds itself in.  In fact, I think that the SBC is in prime need of a new monasticism of the type that Clairborne et al. are living out.

There are genuine moments of conviction here that need to be heard and pondered.  His trip to India and time spent in the leper colony was powerful (especially his observation that many lepers don’t know the words “Thank you” because they’ve never had occasion to use them).  The Jubilee on Wall Street was brilliant and genuinely prophetic, and what these guys are doing in Philadelphia and beyond is not only worthy of emulation, it’s profoundly biblical.

There’s a part of me that wants to dismiss Clairborne, but there’s a much bigger part of me that is frightened of what will happen if I do.  What happens, for instance, when a person or a people scoff off the literal imitation of Christ in favor of their own middle-class churchianity?  What happens, for instance, when we truly reach the point of flipping past the poor on our TV screens without seeing in them not an opportunity for philanthropy but the presence of Christ himself?  What happens when we uncritically applaude the war machine without weeping over the loss of life that war brings?

Shane Clairborne has his critics.  His politics have been called simplistic and his pacifism has been called naive.  His theology is occasionally messy and he is in desparate need of a haircut.

But Shane Clairborne would like to follow Jesus:  seriously and radically.

I’m not suggesting that the rough edges are not important.  I’m just suggesting that Shane Clairborne, and what he’s doing, is.

Os Guinness’ Time for Truth

There’s really no such thing as a “little” Os Guinness book. Most of them are fairly short, but none of them are “little.” Guinness has achieved what most social commentators lack: the ability to communicate deep truths with brevity. Time for Truth (like Dining With the Devil and Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It) is no exception.

To be candid, when I realized that I was holding yet another book by yet another Christian about the issue of moral relativism I was apprehensive. I have personally reached yawn status with this theme because much Christian writing and sermonizing is beginning to sound like a stuck record and most of the old standard arguments are simply being repackaged and rehashed in new but safe formats (probably more for the benefit of Christian publishers than for the average Christian in the pew.) I approached this book with a “Here we go again!” mind set. I am glad to be proved wrong.

Guinness does indeed make many of the arguments on which writers such as Chuck Colson and the late Francis Schaeffer have spoken eloquently (yet repetitively). The notion of objective truth has been rejected by the culture at large. The arrogance of Postmodernism now reigns supreme. Yet man cannot live consistently within his own parameters, so he must live in hypocrisy. Guinness then goes on to exhort those who hold to the Biblical world view (a word he perhaps mercifully avoids) to defend an objective view of truth, founded upon a recognition of God’s presence.

What makes this book a departure from the standard conservative line, however, is Guinness’s powerful narrative examples of modern man’s despair and inconsistencies, and his challenge to Christians to get the whole argument out of its rut and to re-articulate our case with a new vigor and force.

Most striking, Guinness warns those holding to the idea of the objectivity of truth against merely repeating the old arguments against relativism. For instance, the argument that moral relativism cannot stand up to its own criteria is not sufficient in and of itself to make the case for objective truth. “Relativizing the relativizers” is only one argument and (as Guinness rightly points out) it is a necessarily negative argument.

We most go beyond this to stress the positive argument against “radical relativism.” Namely, we must argue against relativism by “pointing out the signals of transcendence.” (p.101) He explains: “Whereas ‘relativizing the relativizers’ is negative because it highlights the negative consequences of false assumption, ‘pointing out the signals of transcendence’ is positive because it point toward the positive conclusions of true aspirations, unnoticed before.” (p.101)

This is a much-needed admonition. Moral relativism, when closely examined, does reveal many such “signals of transcendence.” Time and again, the relativist must be shown that his very arguments have within them evidence of that which is outside our perceived reality. If this can be realized and utilized, the Christian hoping to communicate truth to those who doubt its existence will go much further than merely calling the relativist inconsistent.