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.

Hell a big deal with pagans – with Jews not so much

Finding evidence in ancient texts for a future place of punishment for the unrighteous is much easier and more straightforward in pagan literature than in the Bible.  In fact, references to anyplace resembling Evangelical or medieval Catholic concepts of Hell are almost non-existent in the Bible.  What little we think we find there is almost nil compared to what we find in Plato.

Plato thinks nothing of including in his chief dialogue a lengthy remark by the father of Polemarchus regarding the man’s own beliefs in “the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there” (Republic 330d-331b). Cephalus is grateful that his wealth has afforded him

“no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men when he departs to the world below.”

He implies that an old man without wealth must be unhappy because:

“suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others.  And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.”

This place in The Republic is not the usual stop for scholars discussing afterlife concepts in Plato (see Republic X., Phaedo, the end of  Gorgias, etc.).  But evidence right here for widespread folk-beliefs about future punishment among the Greeks seems to me more ‘historical’ in the everyday sense and less rhetorical than elsewhere.  At least it is clear that in the fourth century BC the belief was already ancient enough to be a commonplace of casual discourse.

My advice is to avoid trying to squeeze Hell-doctrines out of Scripture.  And you evangelicals who admit of Greek influences in the primitive church take note.

Yesterday I found a post by fellow Christian blogger, neglitz, who I think is trying to be honest about the problem of afterlife concepts in Christianity and their meaning for evangelical religion.

I hope I can get something up soon about why a Biblical and textual challenge of Hell-concepts does not necessarily justify that other questionable doctrine of predestination – universalism.

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.

Karl Barth saw Christmas the way I do (almost)

Found this from Karl Barth in a quote from a book entitled Christmas posted by blogger ajmoyse :

“The man who is God’s own Word, does not send forth His radiant light from afar, encountering the “darkness” of other men as a king, hero or sage; but the Light that “shines in the darkness” is an ordinary man and gives light to ordinary people. This is incomprehensible, and yet because of it revelation is real and the Christmas gospel is quite different from both the sweet sadness and the false optimism of mere reverie. The Word of God is where we ourselves are, not where we should perhaps like to be, on one of those heights to which by some luck and strong effort we might attain; He is where we really are, whether we are king or beggar, in our torn condition in which we who face death appear–in the “flesh” …

 (Karl Barth. “The Word Made Flesh,” In Christmas. Translated by Bernard Citron. [Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1959], pp. 12-13.)

I was gratified that so high an authority has understood the ‘Christmas’ side of divine Incarnation as I tried to articulate it in my last post.

More Barth:

“Therefore the Word can give power to real people in the world, to become the sons of God. Therefore real people can accept Him and believe in Him… He does not appear in the form of an angel nor of an ideal man (how can anyone who is not as real as we are, address us?) but as Paul writes, in “the form of a servant” ( Phil. II.7), so that we who ourselves exist in this form, are able to hear Him. He encounters the riddle of our “darkness” on its own ground.” (Ibid)

However, Professor Dr. Barth, in his usual way, cannot go very long before attempting to move his theology along purely by means of a rhetorical flourish – and I find my agreement mixed with disagreement.   By a very strange leap of thought Barth attempts to force Golgotha into the Nativity picture as if the two were inextricably joined:

“We can sum up these comments in this way: Revelation
remains revelation by which the veil of divine mystery is
rent. In other words, except we see the Cross of Golgatha,
we cannot hear the Gospel at the crib of Bethlehem.” (Ibid)

I reject this little tour-de-force (one which I hear all the time from evangelicals at Christmas time).  I do see the similarities between the humility of the nativity and the humility of the cross.  But this kind of similarity is only the stuff of good homiletics and cannot support valid theological inferences.

I think the ‘wish’ to see Golgotha at Bethlehem is  incompatible with a full acceptance of the pre-baptism life and the pre-Calvary Gospel of Jesus.   Barth obviously doesn’t agree.  So I’ve got some explaining to do (later).

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 🙂

My problem with evangelical radio

For years I have had my liberal ears scorched by brief daily exposures to evangelical theology on my clock radio, dialed to a local ‘Family Radio’ station.  It’s eye-opening, certainly, and it prevents me from getting too comfortable in bed.

I used to wake up to a regular sermon spot by the late Adrian Rogers (the spot went away after he died).  Preachers like Rogers are fascinating.  Coming on all southern-fried with that big Johnny Cash voice, but I still remember one ‘family sermon’ that got my goat.

He started with an unobjectionable mix of moral and religious exhortation, a simple Doctor Phil wisdom with a Christian spin that would help anyone raising a family.

“Kids learn from example,”
“Parents should practice what they preach,”
“Love heals all wounds,” etc.

Well, yeah.

Next, a touching family story, with a moral (“…which just goes to show you, friends, we’d be lost without our families”)… at which point I’m thinking, “Man he’s right, I would be lost without my family!”

Then he sets a more serious tone.  A call for soul-searching, a gentle scolding, a little “nobody’s perfect,” “make an effort with the kids,” “stay with it for better or for worse,” etc.  All of this secular wisdom and morality; by now I’m thinking, where’s the Gospel?

But there wasn’t going to be any gospel.  Rogers suddenly and very simply forgets everything Jesus stands for.  His voice grows grim with warning tones, he places undue emphasis on some hard-boiled, out-of-the way place in the Bible, and then finds a point Jesus was trying to make and gives it a kind of nasty, judgmental spin that takes the heart right out of it.

I listen in horror as this old silvertongue leads me into dry and drier pastures, apart from all waters, until he takes away all my strength.  He has carefully spread a banquet of perfect calumny and fear in the presence of my enemies.  I hear how there’s a dangerous devourer of families out there, a cosmic enemy, who wants to bring an end to all our families.  All that sweetness and light I find is at stake in a terrific battle with Satan.

Finally – his ‘good news’ – I can be very thankful that this great cosmic evil is being ably challenged by … by Dr. James Dobson (er what!?).

And last comes the clincher:  the devil is very crafty, and the battle is a lot tougher than it needs to be, because a lot of well-meaning but utterly misguided and dangerous efforts are coming from “the Libruls” – who are just making the enemy’s work that much easier… etc.

O.M.G!

Friends, preaching like this has not gone away, and it must certainly be contributing to the destruction of our national discourse.  If our evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ appear unduly scared and angry, it’s because they have been flat-out lied to by their bad-shepherds – about the Bible, about God’s will, and about the motives of over half their fellow Americans.

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.