I might like Pete Rollins on the Apocalypse

Pete Rollins is planning a talk in Belfast in September to explain that The Apocalypse isn’t coming – it’s already happened.

“Fundamentalist Christianity has long expressed a view of apocalypse as some future event that will consume the present world and replace it with a new one. Yet while this is a bloody and destructive vision, I will argue that it is inherently conservative in nature… For those who hold to such a vision are willing to imagine absolutely everything around them changing so that their present values and beliefs can remain utterly unchanged.  In contrast I will argue that a Christian apocalypse describes something much more radical, namely an event that fundamentally ruptures and re-configures our longings, hopes and desires…”

This resonates with me, although I’m waiting to see where Rollins will take it.  If he has not forgotten his Greek, he will oblige us I hope with a vision of a true ‘apocalypse’ – not earth-scorching destruction but paradigm-shattering revelation.

In January I articulated my own growing sense that the Apocalypse is already history when I called out the folly of Harold (“I did the math”) Camping’s predictions of a Day of Reckoning for May 21 of this year.

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The Sower – how bad theologies delay the Kingdom

The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily one might use the text to implicate varieties of Gospel-preachers rather than Gospel-hearers.

“…some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them…” (Mt 13:4)

Listen again to those words, and hear Jesus saying, “Anyone preaching a Kingdom that sounds like humdrum or humbug might just as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines lack the flavor of Christ’s spirit, and come off spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible – and therefore misunderstood.

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil…” (13:5)

Can it be that Jesus is saying, “On the other hand, if you use emotional hooks to frighten or entice the people with threats of Hell or promises of cheap grace, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up…” (13:7)

Which is to say: “And it is just as big a mistake to pitch my own sublime cares and delights in terms which resemble too much the cares of the world and its delights” – the issue here is confusion of realms, and this implicates teachers as well as students where preaching strives to resemble the everyday wisdom of the world in so many ways that the Kingdom is confused for the world and the spirit is choked by unspiritual meanings and values.

Pentecost – a truth hidden in plain sight?

when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace.

Has a great religion of the Spirit been obstructed by a Christianity of the flesh?

If the way of grace and truth bestowed by God’s Anointed was meant for the whole world, why after nearly 2000 years does more than half the world still remain aloof from its blessing?

I sincerely doubt those who say that this harvest shortfall was preordained. The tardy consummation of the church’s mission cannot even any longer be covered by the Son’s teaching regarding slow-growth (mustard seed, drop of leaven, etc) – because it is the number outside the church that is slowly growing.

The failure of the church cannot be of God, but of men. If the cause of all spiritual advance realized so far is of Christ, it stands to reason that the frustration of this advance is due to human errors which hang too heavily over that human institution which was charged with bearing God’s truth to the world. Can I get a pastor to agree with me here? I doubt it.

Instead of equating the human doctrines of Christianity with truth and orthodoxy, maybe we should check to see whether they have not been admixed with enough human error to obscure the whole truth revealed in Christ.

Instead of acquiescing in the church’s well-meaning attempt to symbolize the truth of Christ by sacraments, ritual, and old liturgies, maybe we should ask whether living truth has not been more deeply hidden, to less effect, by these mysteries.

The causes for the church’s failure might lie too close for us to see, “hidden in plain sight.” A good example is Pentecost itself, which the church has been pleased to celebrate as her own rather exclusive birthday party. She teaches that the Holy Spirit itself was given to her as a birthday present – always explaining that it is her members (only) who receive this gift. People visiting Jerusalem that day from other parts of the world, she says, were instructed about the death, resurrection and eminent return of the Messiah, and told it would be their doom unless they received membership with them through repentance and baptism.

I do not reject the idea that the church would have been unborn or stillborn without the aid of Christ’s new Spirit, but I think this Spirit can be limited in its effectiveness by false teachings which are alleged to determine its availability.

How well are we really able to see the true meaning of the day when the church insists on carrying on so? Tonight, when the birthday party’s over, and the pastors are home wondering how the festivities came off, I say two or three of us come back here and pray over this mess of confetti, and ribbons, and paper lace. Because I think the gift given on this day by God’s Anointed was meant to be a universal opportunity of atonement that transcends Baptism and orthodoxy.

If I’m right, it is the church’s failure to understand Pentecost that has curtailed her own effectiveness and obstructed the Kingdom.

“He is not here!”

“..you seek Jesus of Nazareth …  He has risen.  He is not here.”  Mk 16:6

I remember the Easter service, many years ago, in which I first heard these words of the tomb-angel spoken as if they were a prophecy against the church: He is not here.”

It happened during the sermon, in which the pastor was giving far too much time to his representation of what the world would be like – without the resurrection!

In fact, I think the Easter Morning Gospels present a perfect figure of the failed church: we read that some sincerely devoted women gather at a deserted place with gifts that our Lord is not disposed to receive.

Really? Embalming spices? And yet the churches persist in ‘spicing up’ this untidy idea of our Lord’s physical, bodily resurrection when varying scripture accounts give us a clear choice between a physical or a spiritual resurrection. I think we should be paying attention to those texts that say It was never about tombs or material bodies.  Did the risen Lord not ‘appear’ to his disciples at Emmaus and again in the upper room while the doors were locked? Does anybody think Paul beheld a material body on the road to Damascus?

What if the women had remained in hiding with the apostles long enough for the authorities to take back control of the spin by securing the re-opened tomb from inspection?  Do we think this would have mattered to – the risen Lord?

“He’s not here!”  Maybe the words were spoken today about you – when family and friends noticed your absence from church.  For you I have this advice:  Seek the truth again.  It may be obscured by all the outward stuff which the church is focusing on.  Don’t allow your negative feelings about any specific church to compromise your independent right to truth and your right to worship where and how you want – even to wait upon the Spirit in that inner place of meeting with “my Father and your Father.” (Jn 20:17)

Born from above? – or just born again?

Some born-again Christians of my acquaintance remind me of “Agent Smith.”

They can tell me the date and place of their conversion.  But I get the feeling they have been simply born again in a form which is just a replication of their old self – plus a self-righteous smile or a judgmental frown.

American psychologist of religious education, George Albert Coe (1862-1951) wrote of the distinction between being born again and being born from above in his 1902 book, Religion of a Mature Mind.

The simplicity of the Christian life-principle has been obscured by … the employment of “born again” to represent Greek terms whose plain, literal meaning is “born from above” (John 3:3).  The disciple of Christ is one who is born from above.  That which is of the flesh is flesh, and that which is of the spirit is spirit.  The root-contrast here is not between what is before and what is after, but between a higher and a lower…  Our English “born again” has promoted and kept alive a misunderstanding closely parallel to that of Nicodemus (John 3:9).

The merely ‘born again’ date everything from an heroic past effort to throw off some single ‘secret sin’ or gross vice.  Their old victory has left them relieved but basically unbroken.  Unbroken because they interpret their moment of truth as a trade-off of sin-for-salvation. With this kind of trade-off the principle transaction is complete, and there is no pressure to seek a relation to the life that is from above until the life here below is over.  Instead of relation to God in Christ the merely born-again begin a relation to doctrine.  Doctrines like election and predestination, for example, which offer rationales for a low-octane religion supported by a poorly conceived idea of ‘perseverance’ unto salvation.

We have been looking for events and disputing about processes.  We have caused men to ask themselves, “Have I been born again? Am I sure that an event has taken place?” whereas, we should have pressed home to them the sharp contrast between a spiritual and an unspiritual content or quality of life.   What am I, qualitatively considered? Am I living the life that is from above, or that which is from below?  In the absence of the heavenly quality in the life, no experience of internal wonders is valid evidence of the birth from above. On the other hand, if I am really on the side of Christ, I am born from above, however this comes to be the state of my mind. (Ibid)

The Christian who finds no birth from above in the moment of grace gets a heart ‘born again’ as a carbon copy of his old heart, the old self, the old man – except with an urge to convince others of its own self-justifying theology (instead of the gospel of Jesus).

The habit of looking for newness instead of for heavenly quality works confusion in two directions.

First, persons who are able to answer the question of dates to their own satisfaction, meet the temptation to substitute a “has been” for an “is.” They estimate themselves by something other than the present fact; they would turn the mill with the water that is past. Something of vital power must always be lost when the spiritual life is measured by anything whatever except its own content and its fruits.

Persons of a different make-up suffer from the opposite error. Desiring to dedicate themselves to the Master, yet unable to put their experience of spiritual realities into the forms of book-keeping, they hesitate, postpone action, are harassed by doubts of their personal status. They, too, ask themselves “Have I been?” when they should rather ask “Am I?” They need to be told that whosoever prefers above all things that for which God gave us his Son, and Jesus gave his life, is born from above. The fundamental preference is decisive as to the inner quality, and the fruits are decisive as to the vigor of the inner life.

These mere born-agains will go to church often and be watching out for the 10 commandments in everybody’s life, but underneath they haven’t changed much.  As if they have the idea that living faithfully is just staying ‘judgmental’ toward themselves and others.  They may smile more often than before, but you can catch them in a big frown just as easily.

Professor George Albert Coe was born in Mendon, NY, March 26 1862 ; educated at the University of Rochester (A. B.), Boston University (S. T. B., Ph. D.) studied at University of Berlin, 1890-1891; professor at Northwestern University 1893-1909, Union Theol. Seminary, 1909-22, Columbia 1922-27.  Dr. Coe retired in 1927 and died November 9, 1951.

Getting over the Reformation – Conrad Grebel, 1524

Conrad Grebel 1498-1526

By “getting over” the Reformation I do not mean a return to Rome.  A good post-Reformation theology should already factor in the rejection of the flawed Roman rites and polity which precipitated the 16th century crisis.

Even a loyal Catholic will probably not deny that on the eve of the Reformation the divine judgment upon the Roman Church as a whole was likely to have been ‘guilty.’  But how many Protestants will admit that, after the day had dawned, the Church was nevertheless on the whole worsened by the systems and policies of the reformers?

The main wings of the Protestant movement not only failed in the prime objective of a reform of Rome but also failed to maintain general unity, and finally, failed even to lead a real reform – the last an accusation made by the spiritual and Anabaptist reformers whom they persecuted so bitterly after 1524.

Here is harsh criticism for Luther and Zwingli in a letter of 1524 by Conrad Grebel, co-founder of the Swiss Brethren and called by some the ‘Father of the Anabaptists’

“In respecting persons and in manifold seduction there is grosser and more pernicious error now than ever has been since the beginning of the world.  In the same error we too lingered as long as we heard and read only the evangelical preachers who are to blame for all this, in punishment for our sins.  But after we took scripture in hand too, and consulted it on many points, we have been instructed somewhat and have discovered the great and harmful error of the shepherds…

“… every man wants to be saved by superficial faith, without fruits of faith, without baptism of trial and probation, without love and hope, without right Christian practices, and want to persist in all the old manner of personal vices, and in the common ritualistic and anti-Christian customs of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper, in disrespect for the divine Word and in respect of the word both of the pope and of the anti-papal preachers.”

Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. G. H. Williams & A. M. Mergal, 1957, p.74

If God truly shows no partiality and judges the church as a whole – the period of Reformation must be seen in its result on the whole – not in a renewed church but in a serious disruption of the unity of Western Christianity – characterized by intolerance, intellectual and spiritual isolation, and internecine rancor which has weakened the appeal of Christ to the world.

I’m guessing the decreased percentage of church-goers in town over the past 100 years could be a reaction against the constant refunding of Christian doctrine in the words of Aquinas, Loyola, Luther, and Calvin.  Or do we think the world will never tire of looking at Christianity through the eyes of ‘classic’ thinkers of the Medieval and Reformation eras?

What’s next then?  The blog has already named one post-Reformation ‘Father’ – the 17th-century founder of the Religious Society of Friends, George Fox.  I was going to stay away from the sixteenth century on principle but I think these radical Christians who ‘got over’ the magisterial Reformation almost as soon as it started certainly merit a look – some were the first to die for their faith at the hands of their fellow-Protestants.

Kant’s Religion and Schleiermacher’s Faith

I am inspired (again) by the mind of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – the occasion this time being my third trip through Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793, 2nd 1794 – ET 1934).  I’ve read and re-read a lot of Kant’s books since making my first attempt at the Critique of Pure Reason in 1975.  When my wife saw me paging through the Critique again about 7 years ago she asked, “Weren’t you reading that book when we first met?” (like, haven’t you finished that yet?).  But in my view Kant merits (and rewards) re-reading above all other philosophers.

My second solo study of the Religion was only five years ago (margin notes – no paper).  But this week I benefitted a lot from the discipline of a 25-page per day format and the knowledge that I was accompanied by three other students.   Before the new year started I found this very interesting 2011 reading plan in theology so attractive that I’m going to try to keep up with Jeremy and bloggers Wes Hargrove , and A.J. Smith  at least through April, catching the ‘Liberal’ works on his list.  A.J. will lead off the commentary on Jeremy’s blog soon, and I hope to add comments to their posts.

I think my old T.M. Greene translation served me well once again, but I found Werner Pluhar’s 2009 translation, which has some improvements – including an introduction by Steven Palmquist (which amounts to saying I’m bound to read this great work a fourth time someday and am actually looking forward to it).

Meanwhile I’m already embarked on the plan’s second volume, Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith (1820/31 – ET 1928).  You think you know what he meant by Absolute Dependence and God-consciousness?  Think again – and join us if you can for 25-pages a day (just started) in this classic work of theology (I haven’t read this one myself except for scattered parts of the text).

Apocalypse now and then

I have absolutely no doubt that warnings about a day of the Lord scheduled for May 21 of this year are false. In fact, somebody who was as sure as I am that this preacher is making a bad call would need to have a vision of his own on the matter.  All right then.

Except my vision doesn’t grant me a view of the future; it gives me hindsight into the past – and I most solemnly warn you that the end of the first Christian dispensation has already happened.

I cannot account for the fact that this is still old news; perhaps others are too cowardly to come forward.  But I know those ‘others’ wouldn’t be the Pope or the Archbishops of any denomination – they were never told. No Synod or any other conference of churches had a clue.  And forget about the Evangelicals and the Jews – God can’t tell them anything any more.

I claim no knowledge of specific dates, but only a kind of ballpark figure.  But what I’m seeing is that, at some point during or shortly after the First World War, God very quietly and unequivocally wrote off the old Christian dispensation as ‘not good enough’ for his Son.  Believe me.

NO, I’m not talking about the alleged Apocalypse called by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for the year 1914 – that was no different than this latest 2011 deal – a makeshift built on Daniel’s well-known figure of 1260 and other textual cyphers.  Funny how it always comes down to these numbers in Daniel, and it’s always wrong.  It was just a lucky hit for the Witnesses that they came up with a year in which a World War started.  But the excitement ended for them on January 1, 1915, when it became evident God was featuring nothing more spectacular than the destruction of Christian civilization. The mistake was soon forgotten; membership was up, they moved on.

But for God this was a big thing.  Again, I can’t pin-point the year for you, but ‘the End’ of the old Christian dispensation was brought down in unheralded despair and gloom during one of those crazy, shifting, catastrophic years between those two monstrous secular conflagrations (WWI and WWII).  After a near-total failure by the Christian leadership to stand by the Gospel of Jesus in the summer of 1914, the Reformation gospel  was out on the dung heap with the Pope’s tiara as far as God was concerned.

Meanwhile God’s life goes on in temples not made with hands…  but those external, sectarian forms of Christianity we see ‘still rolling along’ are moving not by the grace of God any more but only by virtue of an original divine impetus – the same kind of motion a long train would exhibit on a very gentle but steady backwards downgrade after being decoupled from its engine.

The plan was not for Christianity to go away (clearly) but God definitely wanted a new model, a second dispensation, with an effective peace testimony and an end to the awful man-made creeds which had been mistaken for faith and only got in the way of his Son’s offer of love and salvation to all who sought him in spirit and in truth (God’s still waiting).

Paul’s two perspectives on Jesus

I hope it is not controversial to say that Saul of Tarsus before his conversion must have shared what was probably the majority view in Israel – that Jesus of Nazareth was an offender against the Torah and a misleader of the people, who had rightly suffered the death of one accursed.

Even our first record of Jesus’ early career (Mark) moves immediately from a 16-verse introduction to a string of 88 verses in which ten out of twelve stories portray Jesus transgressing the literal sense of seven different points of the Law:

1. Sabbath-breaking (Mk 2:24 & 3:6)

2. Neglect of fasting (2:18)

3. Neglect of family (3:33)

4. Contact with lepers (1:41)

5. Eating with sinners (2:16)

6. Blasphemy i.e. Authority to forgive sin (2:7)

7. Alliance with Satan (3:22) i.e. authority over demons (1:27, 34, 39, 3:11)

Mark’s source for the early career of Jesus clearly relies heavily on stories of apparent law-breaking, most of which are accompanied by Jesus’ own prophetic rationale for setting aside the Law.  Can it be doubted that many reports of the deeds of Jesus were circulating without benefit of the sayings attached by Mark?  I think Mark’s emphasis suggests that lawbreaking was an issue for Jews who criticized the mission of Jesus in his lifetime and after the crucifixion.

To an unsympathetic ear it would make no difference if these stories circulated with or without Jesus’ rationale attached.  Because it was I think a matter of common knowledge – also confirmed by Mark (8:11-12) – that Jesus had refused to provide the test-sign demanded by the religious authorities in proof of his authority.  This constituted for them a warrant of the Law itself for disregarding Jesus’ prophetic claims.

I think this is the perspective of the old Saul – knowing that Jesus, despite his alleged works, had after all refused to authorize his mission by the sign required by Moses, Saul had judged that the Law justly regarded his sin as worthy of condemnation and death.

The perspective of the new Saul is best seen from the standpoint of his brief and electrifying encounter on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:2-9).  I trust this report to represent not a dream or myth but a genuine revelation event.  Saul sees and hears for himself what the martyr Stephen had claimed to see – that this Jesus who for all appearances had set the law aside – who under the Law of God was made to be sin and was crucified – is now in the power of the spirit alive.

Saul’s revelation doesn’t give him faith in the fact of the resurrection (one doesn’t ‘have faith’ in experienced facts).  The true object of Saul’s faith is his rapidly-developing view of the meaning and value of the resurrection.  This view was illuminated by Saul’s faith in God, which was never in question.  In its light he comprehends that it is the God of Israel who has raised Jesus from the dead.  A corollary to this faith is the belief that the risen one is God’s anointed, the hope of Israel.

All of which will be quite formative and quite problematic for the future of Christianity.

How Paul got his gospel on the Damascus Road

In his letter to the Galatians Paul claims an apostolate not through man but ‘through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead’ (1:1).  He further says he ‘did not confer with flesh and blood’ regarding the Gospel he preached until three years after his conversion (1:16-19).  How is such independence possible?  Where did his Gospel come from?

I think the ‘miracle’ of Paul’s independent acquisition of a gospel and an apostolate has only one supernatural element: his very brief encounter with the spirit of Jesus Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6).  Because once he has accepted the spiritual reality of that encounter, I think he might easily have inferred from it the truth of all four pillars of what he calls his gospel.

Inference 1 – The Resurrection:  If Jesus, who was crucified and buried at Jerusalem, has appeared to him in the spirit near Damascus, Saul could with great confidence infer the truth of the resurrection – that God himself must have raised this Jesus from the dead.

Inference 2 – The Christ:  If this Jesus whom the God of Israel raised from the dead identifies himself with those whom Saul is persecuting – who proclaim him messiah – then it must be inferred that Jesus is in fact he whom Saul had been so furiously denying – the Christ, God’s anointed.

Inference 3 – The Cross:  If it is manifest from 1 & 2 that the mortal destruction of God’s anointed was accomplished on the cross in the process of punishing one who was judged worthy of death in accordance with the law, the need of a rationale for preaching ‘Christ crucified’ becomes apparent.  We should also expect to see a development of a theology of sacrifice which combines the idea of a divinely sponsored Law which had ‘made him to be sin’ with the idea of a divinely willed death of one ‘who was without sin.’  This gets complicated, but for Paul creates the possibility of reconciliation and peace between man and God.

Inference 4 – Grace, the free gift:  If God’s anointed was crucified under the Law, then the effect of its paradoxical result (reconciliation of God and man) must be intended by God to take the place of the Law.  The inference from this is the end of the Law with respect to justification, and a new dispensation of grace in which all who otherwise were destined to condemnation either under the law or outside the law now have justification by faith in the free gift of the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

I do not mean that Paul perceived all the details of his gospel in the twinkling of an eye.  I only argue that there is no reason to doubt that he apprehended it in its broad outlines immediately and independently of Ananias or Cephas or any other evangelist – in that moment of truth in which he recognized and accepted the identity of the one who came to him so suddenly on the way to Damascus.

Simon Peter – Man and myth

Kevin at Diglotting put up a book give-away offer that has my interest: Peter – the Myth, the Man, and the Writings, by Fred Lapham (2004).

The apostle Peter has already come up for criticism on this blog as one of my special NT problems.

I currently judge Simon Peter as chiefly responsible for the wrong-headedness which introduced error into the early kerygma.  Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-41), in my view, twisted the evangelism of Jesus in a way which eventually submerged the Galilean gospel of grace beneath the new church’s post-resurrection news-for-Jews:  Repent before the crucified and very angry and very soon to be returning Jewish Messiah brings down the whole age on your heads in the manner depicted by your apocalyptic writers.

It was this ill-considered sermon of Peter which, in my view, changed history for the worse by fomenting all the distracting ‘success’ of fear-based evangelical preaching.  Peter channeled the enthusiasm of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem into the first Judeo-Christian megachurchagogue (Acts 2:40-42) of the type which now proliferate in places like Texas.

From that point the progress of the Holy Spirit was ‘in check’ until it made two key moves:

(1) to go out ‘in person’ and turn Paul (Acts 9), and then

(2) to speak sense to Peter (a thing which required that the Apostle be semi-conscious – Acts 10) in order to loosen him up and get him over to Caesarea to witness God’s real plan in action (Acts 10:34-45).

The damage was already done to the kerygma, but at least Paul was inspired enough by the news from Caesarea (Acts 11:18-26) to take the mission out to the whole world (Acts 13ff).

Maybe Lapham’s book will cool me off a bit 🙂

‘Day of Shame’ for some pulpits in the U.S.

Unfortunately for our democracy, some Protestant pastors will not be celebrating a true Reformation Sunday this weekend.  They worship instead an unorthodox holy day of their own making – they are ending a season of lawbreaking and profane secular involvement with a feast day of Mammon which ought to be called The Last Sunday before Elections. The unholy season started on Sept. 26, with a thing called ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday.’

It is not clear how many preachers plan this Sunday to use the authority of their high calling to allege some kind of divine sanction of blessing or damnation for their own personal political choices.  The braver of these ignorant shepherds have already sent tape recordings of their Sept 26 sermons to the IRS, at the suggestion of the so-called Pulpit Freedom movement, which hopes to aid them if any lawsuits are initiated by the Government.

These pastors seem to misunderstand the perfectly legal connection the IRS is making between their tax-exempt status and the restriction that they not interfere with their local, state, and national commerce or politics.

All right then.  I would hope the IRS will exercise due diligence in taking up a limited number of these challenges.  The most air-tight cases are probably few, but let’s begin with those where there is hard evidence that a pastor has endorsed a local, state, or national political group or candidate who also enjoys the privilege of tax exemption on donations made to that particular church.  Look for cases where a state judge or congressman has made a significant donation – particularly if not a member of the church.  Because that’s where we’re headed if the tax-free pulpit endorsement becomes a reality.  Once preachers are free to endorse candidates from the pulpit, a very significant amount of tax-free influence goes up ‘for sale’ which is otherwise purchasable only through taxable media and canvassing outlets.

I don’t doubt that these unsophisticated preachers of God feel very righteous in their decision to go this way.  But seriously, they risk becoming the dupes of astute power brokers who would be very glad to manipulate the churches as ‘combines’ of political and market forces.

Fortunately, most pastors know the ‘Pulpit Freedom’ ruse is wrong

Obviously there are spiritual issues as well.  If you enter one of these stricken congregations this Sunday, expect to witness an overt flouting of both material and spiritual law.

(1) The preacher may blaspheme the will of God by equating it with his own narrow political view.

(2) The preacher may divide the very body of Christ entrusted to his care – by calling their votes either holiness or sin, depending on conformity to his own pompous choice.

(3) The preacher’s church may even enjoy lavish gifts (tax deductible) from the very same local, state, or national office-seeker or party whose views are being touted from the pulpit.

The church’s sacred calling ought to remove it from secular commercial and political affiliation.   Pastors who desire to preach like Jeremiah should be so pious as to end their acceptance of tax-exempt donations.

The rejection of ‘Christian’ economics – a short defense

A recent post over at Diglotting rejects the idea that New Testament principles and example can be normative for economic theory.  I agree in principle, but think this position needs a defense against the usual criticism that it unfairly neutralizes the NT’s apparent sanction of socialism.

My short defense leaves aside the question of specific logia of Jesus and looks only at the example of communalism in the early Jerusalem Christian church (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).

People often treat this example in accordance with pre-arranged views of the value of their own economic philosophy. Those opposed to communalism will marshal supporting evidence which minimizes the degree to which this compelling example of careless love was manifest in the church; those in favor of communalism will demand that we take the text as it stands.

It is not necessary, however, to paint this communal economy as only a partial socialism, or an outreach to the poor, or the result of expectations that the world should end.  Instead I join those who would ‘take the text as it stands,’ but argue that we have historical evidence ‘standing’ elsewhere in the NT that the communalist program in Jerusalem was opposed to the divine will and unblessed by any success beyond its first 2 decades, after which it collapsed in misery.

From the letters of Paul, dating little later than 20 years after Pentecost, it appears that the church at Jerusalem was not any longer able even to provide for its own poor (Gal2:9ff).  James, Cephas, and John were driven to the humiliating extreme of prevailing upon Paul’s gentile churches to raise funds for this purpose on behalf of the mother church.  But Paul’s own words indicate that the community at large – all the saints – are in poverty.  He calls his fund-raising mission: “contribution for the saints” 1Cor 16:1ff; “relief of the saints” 2Cor 8:1ff; “offering for the saints” 2Cor 9:1ff; “ministry for the saints” Rom 15:25.

I think it stands to reason that, if membership reached a plateau in Jerusalem soon after Pentecost, fresh revenues must have dried up.  The ‘saints’ who had joyously (and rashly) liquidated their property and capital in the early days would eventually fall into extremes of poverty not as individuals but as a group.

We can’t say for sure, because Rome put an end to the experiment not long after Paul’s final infusion of gentile cash – a trip whose necessity was the occasion of his arrest, deportation, imprisonment at Rome, and eventual execution.

My point is that nothing in this communalist form of economy has the ring of God’s infallible will.  Until it collapsed, the love-economy presided over by James, Peter, and John (themselves poor from the beginning) was only a sadly mistaken application of Jesus’ small-group missionary principles to the realities of long-term self-sustaining societies.

NOTE: That the poverty of the Jerusalem Christians was due to their practice of communalism of property and goods has the authority of Augustine (cited by Rt. Rev. A. Robertson, Commentary on First Corinthians (ICC), 1911,  p.382).

The ‘great commission’ – success or failure?

If the church was given a divine commission – a worldwide mission and apostolate – how can we call it a success?  And if Christianity has failed to characterize the spiritual life of much of today’s world, how can that be a divine result – isn’t it more likely to be a human result?  Shouldn’t we be asking whether the church has either misunderstood the divine intent of its commission, or  the gospel itself (or both)?  Here then is an opportunity for a little prayer and reflection.

Back in June I wrote a brief intro to a theory of missions after reading Nate Kerr’s provisional theses on Kingdom-World-Church over at Inhabitatio Dei.  My tastes in ecclesiology didn’t extend my interest to more than 2 or 3 or the 13 theses, so I didn’t contribute to the long discussion there, although I got myself into some trouble defending a point of the article over at AUFS (link not available here).

Anyway, I am obliged to Nate and friends for introducing me to the work of Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijk (1912-1975), whose book (The Church Inside Out, 1965) has helped me find my way to valuable points of scripture and useful criticisms of traditional concepts of mission.

In my June post I made the following observation:

“Apostles, ambassadors, messengers, envoys, heralds, missions, embassies – all these concepts I find applicable to the vocabularies of both the Church’s mission and to diplomatic endeavors.  Whereas they do not resonate at all with the vocabularies of temple, army, school, cult, recruitment, confession, etc., etc.”

Hoekendijk, p.21:

“The Messiah is the prince of shalom (Isa 9:6), he shall be the shalom (Micah 5:5), he shall speak shalom unto the heathen (Zech 9:10)… In the New Testament, God’s shalom is the most elementary expression of what life in the new aeon actually is.  Jesus leaves shalom with his disciples – ‘Shalom I leave with you, my shalom I give unto you’ (John 14:27), and the preaching of the apostles is summarized as ‘preaching shalom through Jesus Christ’” (Acts 10:36).

Again, from my June post:

“the mission [constitutes us] envoys of peace to the whole world and everyone in it.  The rationale is that, since Pentecost, every human being may through faith access the protection and ’good offices’ of the spirit, as citizens and subjects [through Christ]…”

Last night I found this in Paul (Eph. 2:17-19):

“And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we… are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God”

Two things.  First, I am not talking about a ‘Peace of God’ whose announcement by missionaries would induce the world’s war-makers to convert their spears into ploughshares without further argument. Second, I am not talking about a universal Peace of God which entails capitulation to the world’s evil.

What, then?  Well there’s more.