Friday, September 25, 2015

How the Pastor came to NOT be a Public Theologian

Here is a massive quote, a few pages, so don't even bother to read if not your thing, from Vanhoozer and Stracham on how the role of "theologian" has largely been forgotten in the pastorate.

From their book; The Pastor as Public Theologian


Throughout the Great Awakening one need not be a member of the formal clergy to preach; one could emulate Whitefield, the tireless celebrity evangelist, and with Wesley claim the world as one's parish. As the First Great Awakening gave way to the Second, it produced new movements and powered upstart denominations. In the early nineteenth century, the Baptists and Methodists exploded in numbers as a generation of circuit riders and evangelists roamed the country.

The effect of these awakenings on America was revolutionary. It was this period and its wave of popular religious movements that did more to Christianize American society than anything before or since. No preacher more exemplified the spirit of the rambunctious Second Great Awakening than Charles Finney. After entering the ministry with little formal training, he promptly sought to modify the theology of of the Edwardsean (Jonathan) revivalists, whom he believed hindered sinners from coming to Christ due to their belief in the necessity of sovereign grace. Finney seized Edward's idea of "natural inability" but converted it to "natural ability" in terms akin to Pelagian theology. According to Finney, in their "inward being" sinners are "conscious of ability to will and of power to control their outward life directly or indirectly, by willing." In Finney's scheme, conversion therefore became a matter of discovering the right agitator of will. Turning to Christ was, in a watershed statement, "a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means." Because of this, Finney instituted the "anxious bench" and other methods that placed tremendous psychological and emotional pressure on the sinner. Unlike past revivalists, conversion for Finney did not require a miracle; it was, with the proper techniques, a sure thing. Finney exerted a significant influence of fellow Christian preachers. Scores of other Protestents began to adopt his practices when they saw just how many converts Finney could win with a single night of preaching. Innovation and no-holds-barred gospel proclamation became the means by which one won a hearing. In many places, formal training was seen as a deadening agent on a young preacher and on the church who endured his stilted preaching.

In one generation, America went from a nation featuring a carefully guarded pastoral office - marked by learning, communal stability, and staunch theological preaching - to one in which disestablishment reigned and highly gifted populist communicators like Finney dominated. At the same time, the increasingly secularised American academy expanded and made territorial claims over the intellectual life of the country. Pastors yielded to academics as thought leaders. The American academy was transformed and with it the American church. Scholarship was seen as its own profession. Philosophy and the sciences replaced theology as the queen of the disciplines. Theology was separated from the life of the church.

It took sometime for the Enlightenment to triumph over the Great Awakening and the victory was not truly recognised until the twentieth century. But the theological guild, particularly its evangelical members, would never be the same again. The queen of the sciences, the discipline that for centuries had God for its object, had dwindled into religious studies, a region of merely human (all too human!) behaviour. If society was one grand dinner party, the theologians were increasingly to be found in the corner, left to their fantastic thoughts and their pious imprecations.

The cultural shift it pastors hardest. Theology became a specialist's discipline, not a generalist's, as was formerly the case. By the early twentieth century pastoring was now a practical profession, more concerned with meeting immediate personal needs than with formulating timeless truths. We thus witness a sea change in the ministry; a taking of the pastorate. Pastoring was now a "practical" field and with the increasing dominance of the American business climate in cultural life, churches began to seek to grow just like mass-market enterprises rocketing into profitability all around them. "Efficiency" propelled the "church growth" model, and "administration" ascended to primacy of place in the panoply of pastoral duties. Outside of the confessional traditions, the pastorate had largely lost its character as a theological office in midcentury America; in many pulpits this conception was lost and has not returned.

Theologically minded pastors like C. H. Spurgeon didn't lack for an audience and yet pastoring had changed. Revivalism blazed on with revivalists like Billy Sunday carrying the torch into the twentieth century. Sunday famously - and proudly - said that he knew as much about theology as a jackrabbit knows about Ping-Pong, a quip that historian George Marsden affirmed as stated "with some accuracy." There is no real contradiction between theology and evangelism and yet many pastors eschewed the former for the latter, finding their model in the mega-evangelists. These tended to see their chief duty to be not biblical-theological instruction but rather the oversight of ongoing revival. In this climate theology seemed separate from evangelism and from the local church's everyday ministry. The church's evangelistic apparatus was strong, but it's theological muscles had atrophied due to disuse.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jeremiah 29:11 and some thoughts on Studying a Passage

On Studying a Passage of the Bible?

Jeremiah 29:11 - I do not think this verse means what you think it means.

Someone mentioned my blog today. I forgot I even had one. It got me thinking that I should probably post something as it has been a while.

Here are a couple of thoughts on studying a passage of the bible. They are kind of based on a document I got as a part of a recent course I was on at Fuller Seminary. 

I more or less use the process for most texts I'm navigating and below give an example of how the process helped frame a sermon on Jeremiah 29:11. You can find that sermon (Famous Verses; Jeremiah 29:11) here or on iTunes. 

1.      Spend a moment in prayer. I believe that the writing, recording, compilation and canonization of the biblical text was ultimately inspired by the Holy Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you in your reading and studying of the text.

2.      Read a couple of different translations of the text to get a feel for what you are reading. Translations vary from word for word, to thought for thought, and right through to a paraphrase translation. Try the NKJV, then NIV, then NLT and then The Message.

3.      Write down your first thoughts about the text. What stands out to you? What questions does it raise? What parts don’t make sense? What seems most applicable in the text? What seems to be the main point of the passage?

4.      Look at the passages that come before and after your particular text. Do they add any insight to the passage you are reading? What the pressures, needs, issues etc facing those that the passage is addressed to?

5.      If you could write down the main point of the passage in one sentence what would it be?

6.      See if you can in one sentence explain what you feel the passage is trying to do in the lives of the recipients?

7.      If the passage is narrative have a think about the larger plot of the story. Who are the characters in this passage? At what place in the story is this passage situated? How does what came earlier, or what you know comes later impact on your understanding of this passage?

8.      Read the passage in a more word for word translation like the Lexham Bible (online), are there reoccurring words in the passage or contrasting words? Do they impact your understanding of the passage?

9.      Does the passage mention a location or refer to a biblical character or story from another time? If yes, in what way might this influence the recipients understanding of the text?

10.  Refer to a couple of biblical commentaries on the passage. What insights, answers, and explanations do these commentaries offer you? Especially in light of questions and comments you have already noted down.

11.   In light of your work above, in what way might the passage be significant for your life, or a church community today? What does the passage teach you about God? About Jesus? About what it means to be a disciple? Does the passage challenge contemporary culture in some way?

Here is my attempt to do the following for Jeremiah 29:1-14

Certain things come up in the passage that are significant that I do not attempt to address in the sermon that follows because you can only cover so much in 35 minutes.

After prayer and after reading a couple of different translations of the text, here are my first thoughts on the passage.

First thoughts:

Verse 1: What follows seems likely to be a fairly significant passage in the text of Jeremiah given the occasion and the recipients of the “letter.”

Verse 2: The occasion indicates that indeed this is a significant time in the history of Judah and Jerusalem; all have been overcome and all are now in exile, a desperate and despondent people.

Verse 4: Even desperate and despondent, they are not abandoned by God, God still desires to speak.  

Verse 5-6: Jeremiah writes that God’s instruction is to build houses, settle down, plant, produce food, marry, and have children. Perhaps you could say, make yourself at home even though you are in exile, this is how things will be for an extended time so settle that in your hearts and get on with living.  

Verse 7: Rather than rebel against the system that dominates them, that is over them in their exile, God’s instruction is to seek the peace of the empire and to pray, and in doing so find that things will go well for them even though they are displaced people.

Verse 8-9: They are not to listen to other supposed “prophetic words.” These words are not from God, rather that which Jeremiah speaks is the word from the Lord for them.  

Verse 10: The long and short of it is that they will find themselves in exile for 70 years (a lifetime) and should thus carry in with life in the situation they find themselves in.

Verse 11: They are not forgotten, God has plans and a purpose for them that is ultimately in their best interest.

Verse 12: Then, after 70 years (?), you will call on me and God will listen and will rescue them.  

Verse 13: It will take 70 years before those in exile are really ready to seek God with all their heart (?).  

Verse 14: At that time God will rescue them and bring them back into their own land.  

Initial Questions:

There are a couple of questions that immediately spring to mind when looking at this passage. 1) Is the seventy years in exile kind of like a time of purgatory designed to cleanse Israel and Judah of their propensity towards unfaithfulness, i.e. will it take seventy years before they are ready to be God’s faithful people again? 2) What does it mean to seek the peace and prosperity of the city one finds oneself in exile to? To what degree might this require either collusion with the empire or at least accommodation into the empire?

Proceeding passage and following passage:

The proceeding passage tells of the prophecy of Hananiah, that the oppression of Babylon will be short lived with Israel and Judah being restored within two years and the conflict of Hananiah and Jeremiah over this. Jeremiah declares this a false prophesy and not at all a word from God. Jeremiah predicts Hananiah’s death within the next year. This indeed comes about and one is left to conclude that Jeremiah is the true prophet and that seventy years in captivity rather than two years is God’s word. The next passage concerns the false prophecy of Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his false prophecy and serves as a book end (along with the false prophecy of Hananiah) that sandwiches Jeremiah’s prophecy in the middle as the true word from God. 

Jeremiah 29:1-14 is God’s true word that the captivity of Israel and Judah in Babylon will be a seventy year experience. Thus they should settle down and make peace with this fact, and peace with the city they find themselves in, but hold on to hope that God will restore them in due course even though this will not be experienced for another generation.   

The main point of the passage in a summary form:

The main point of the passage is that Israel will be in captivity for seventy years and should make peace with this rather than seek to fight against the empire. Their hope should be in what God will do in the future, in seventy years.


Commentators seem to indicate that indeed the seventy years in captivity was in order that those in exile would genuinely return to the faithful following of Yahweh. God had ordained and commanded the captivity of Judah as a punishment upon the rebellious, apostate nation; it was God's intention to humble and discipline his people, and bring them at last to an acceptable relationship to Himself.” In terms of a collusion with the empire or at least accommodation, the reality here seems not to be that of compromise. In “seeking the peace of the city” one is not required to shift one’s allegiance away from Yahweh and to the worship of false gods, nor is a compromise of values, such as Sabbath keeping, required. Rather there is simply a submission to the authorities in power even as promoted in the New Testament rather than rebellion and disquiet. “The wholehearted cooperation with the governmental powers under which one may chance to live is spoken as a cardinal principle of the gospel of Christ in Romans 13:1-12. Praying for authorities is specifically commanded in 1 Timothy 2:1-3.”

Significance of the passage:

The significance of this passage for a congregation today is not that God has great and wonderful plans for people, though God may. The significance is that ultimately God’s plans will be realized, though this may not be on a time scale that we appreciate. And that at times, the less than ideal situations one finds oneself in, may in fact be a season in which great fruit can be produced and true life found. In those sorts of seasons and places there are great lessons to be learnt. Though we might appreciate an encouraging “word from the Lord” telling us that everything will turn around quickly; in reality some situations may last a life time. However: hope remains.

Sermon Outline – Famous Verses – Jeremiah
The Princes Bride: In the movie The Princes Bride, Vizzini (the short bald headed leader of the baddies), runs around declaring everything to be “inconceivable!” After a while Inigo Montoya quips one of his famous lines from the movie, “You keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Famous Verses: I think there are some Bible verses that people famously use, but, “they keep on using those verses, I do not think it means what they think it means.” In the early days of St Luke’s talked about tackling some of those famous verses.
Philippians 4:13
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Luke 6:38
Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.
2 Corinthians 2:14
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.
Seems we’ve the time and space to tackle one of these kinds of verses today.
Does anyone know off by heart any of the verses from Jeremiah 29? Yes verse 11.
Does anyone know off by heart any of the other verses in Jeremiah 29, other than verse 11?

Nope? Funny that.

People keep on using this verse, I do not think it means what they think it means.

Take a verse out of context and it can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean. Leave the verse in its context and you’d be amazed at how context shapes meaning.
Let’s start in Jeremiah 28. Israel is in exile. King Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom of Babylon, has come and taken over. Israel has been dispersed throughout the kingdom of Babylon. It is a reasonably hopeless and bleak time in the history of Israel.
But the prophets are still prophesying and they speak of hope.
Jeremiah 28:1-17
In the fifth month of that same year, the fourth year, early in the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, who was from Gibeon, said to me in the house of the Lord in the presence of the priests and all the people:
 “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and all the other exiles from Judah who went to Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’” This is a good prophecy. This is the kind of prophecy you want to hear. Within two years everything is going to be sorted!
Then the prophet Jeremiah replied to the prophet Hananiah before the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord. But please appreciate here, Jeremiah’s response is kind of a slow clap response from the side of the room. He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfil the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”
10 Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, 11 and he said before all the people, “This is what the Lord says: ‘In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.’” Prophetic theatrics. Common in Old Testament prophecy. Hananiah is doing a good job.
At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way. 12 After the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “Go and tell Hananiah, ‘This is what the Lord says: You have broken a wooden yoke, but in its place you will get a yoke of iron. 14 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will put an iron yoke on the necks of all these nations to make them serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they will serve him. I will even give him control over the wild animals.’” In other words, Hananiah, you think Nebuchadnezzar is a wooden yoke that will be broken in two years, ha, he is an iron yoke that will not be broken so easily.
15 Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.16 Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.’” 17 In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died. Hallelujah, blessed be the name of the Lord.
So this prophet Hananiah is prophesying good news, the overthrow of Babylon, in two years everything is going to be sorted. Jeremiah, no way, you’re a false prophet and you’re going to die soon. This isn’t a word from the Lord.
In chapter 29, Jeremiah then prophecies what is the true word of the Lord. He writes it down and sends it to the elders, priests and prophets of Israel that have been carried into exile…
Jeremiah 29:4-14
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  And now, in exile, in this state of overthrow that you find yourself in… “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.
They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. Lies that the situation for Israel will soon be turned around.  10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. Not two years of captivity. Seventy years! 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
When we read Jeremiah 29:11 within the wider context of Jeremiah there are number of important truths to appreciate. Truths for Israel and truths as well that I think we can appropriate for our lives as well.
God’s time frame isn’t always the same as our timeframe.
The most significant thing about Jeremiah 29 is not that God has plans to prosper his people, to give them a hope and a future. That’s always God’s plan; eventually. It’s the fact that there is 70 years of exile ahead for Israel. A life time.
We’re two year type people not seventy year type people. We’re instant type people not delayed gratification type people.
God’s end game is always a hope and a future.
Restoration, wholeness, relationship with God, being found by God, coming out of exile and into freedom. Prosperity for sure, though we’re to define prosperity and blessing in 21st Century Western materialistic terms rather than biblical terms.
A hope and a future can be found in the circumstances of now, not only the “Promised Land” of tomorrow.
Perhaps you could put it like this; they were to make peace with their less than ideal circumstances.
And in doing so, discover great blessing in this less than ideal place and space of exile.
For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future… For some people I think this stirs up thoughts of God, in due course, giving them their lucky break, their big opportunity, their breakthrough moment, win lotto, get promoted, receive an inheritance, you’re ship is going to come in.
Nope. Make peace with your less than ideal circumstances and discover God’s blessing even in those circumstances.
Do you have some less than ideal circumstances that perhaps you need to make peace with?
Not the right job, not enough money, not the right house, too busy, to tired, kids are too young, kids are too old, don’t have kids, have too many kids, health issues or challenges, relational issues or challenges.
Feel like your living in exile. Waiting to be delivered. Could be waiting a long time.
Perhaps you’re spending so much of your time and resource and energy, protesting against and wrestling against and fighting against something that is less than ideal, that you’ve no strength left over to get stuck into actually living. Could be fighting and wresting for a long time.
Perhaps you need to make peace with the life you find yourself living, even if it isn’t the life you always dreamed you would be living.
But I know the plans the Lord has for me, plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans to give me a hope and a future. I have that verse written out on the back of the toilet door.
Sure thing. It’s a good verse. A really good verse. A verse ultimately directed at Israel in exile, but still, one I think we can appropriate for our lives. Absolutely. It’s just we need to take the other verses in chapter 29 as well and the bigger context to chapter 28 too.
Isn’t that a bit fatalistic?
Well it depends, whose got the true word of God? Who is the true prophet? Hananiah – 2 more years and the yoke of oppression will be broken. That’s what people wanted to hear. Clap, clap, clap from Jeremiah. Good stuff but sorry. 70 more years? Who’s the true prophet.
Summarizing Kierkegaard on faith… “Faith is the total acceptance of the way things are and the total belief that things can be different.”
I think that’s perfect. I think that’s what we have happening in Jeremiah 29.
What you discover is when you have the faith to accept things as they are, when you’ve the faith to make peace with your circumstances, as well as faith to belief that things can be different, you discover you’ve got energy and passion for the now of life.
You discover that life is in front of you now and that you should live it. That God is present with you, even in less than ideal circumstances. And you get stuck in. Planting, harvesting, marrying. You discover that blessing is possible even in the middle of that which is less than ideal.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Top 5 Books of 2014

I love reading. Good books feed my soul, so to speak. You'd have to read Body, Soul and Human Life by Joel Green to understand why I say "so to speak."

As a student much of what I read is dictated by course selection. Often there isn't much time left over to simply read the many books I come across that take my fancy for some reason, or the many that are recommended to me by others. At times this can be annoying but it also ensures I read pretty widely. It's also a blessing in that quite often books I wouldn't otherwise be inclined to read, turn out to be game changes. That's always fun.

In no particular order here are my top 5 recommended reads from last year - well, I made it 6.

The Source of Life - Jurgen Moltmann; Beginning with his experiences as a prisoner of war, Moltmann anchors his reflections in a theology of life - and the Spirit as elemental renewer of life - which links biblical manifestations to contemporary ones, hope to holiness, creation to community, and politics to prayer. In the Spirit we embrace the presence of God, but we also embrace community with people and all living things. 

Accompany Them with Singing - Thomas G. Long; Long reflects on the Christian funeral, what it has become and what it should be. He looks at the muddled theology we often hear at funerals and argues that the proper Christian funeral should be constructed around the metaphor of the deceased as a saint traveling on a baptismal journey toward God, accompanied by the community of faith on "the last mile of the way." 

Life After Death - Graham H. TwelftreeFew of us can remain indifferent to our personal fate. Is death the end? If there is an after-life, what is it going to be like? "We may never know the answers to these questions with the certainty some crave," observes Graham Twelftree. However, through this book Twelftree hopes readers will become clearer about the possibilities and also understand the Christian expectation that death is not the end. "If the Bible is important in forming your views you will probably assume that this book will confirm your views." Says Twelftree. "I cannot promise such a comfortable journey. Thinking clearly with the Bible open can turn up some challenging conclusions."

Eating Heaven - Simon Carey HoltSitting down at a table to eat is an activity so grounded in the ordinary, so basic to the daily routines of life, we rarely ponder it beyond the simple inquiry, ‘What’s for dinner?’ However, scratch a little deeper and you discover in eating one of the most meaning-laden activities of our lives, one so immersed in human longing and relationship it’s a practice of sacred dimensions. In this age of culinary infatuations, global food crises, celebrity chefs and Biggest Losers, the need to reflect more seriously upon eating is pressing. A trained chef, teacher, social researcher, minister of religion and homemaker, Simon Carey Holt draws on experience and research to explore the role of eating in our search for meaning and community. To do so, he invites us to sit at the tables of daily life – from kitchen tables to backyard barbecues, from cafe tables to the beautifully set tables of our city's finest restaurants – and consider how our life at these tables interacts with our deepest values and commitments.

The Bible Tells Me So - Peter Enns; Christians have been defending scripture from attack for two centuries. In fact, argues Bible scholar Peter Enns, we have become so busy protecting the Bible that we are now unable to read it. In The Bible Tells Me So, he provides a revolutionary new perspective: "What if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is? Not the well-behaved version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith. Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it's not meant to be, isn't a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It's actually a thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of our inner disquiet, a warning signal of a deep distrust in God. A Bible like that isn't a sure foundation of faith; it's a barrier to true faith. Creating a Bible that behaves itself doesn't support the spiritual journey; it cripples it. The Bible's raw messiness isn't a problem to be solved. It's an invitation to a deeper faith."

Jesus of Nazareth - Joseph RatzingerIn this bold, momentous work, the pope—in his first book written as Benedict XVI—seeks to salvage the person of Jesus from recent “popular” depictions and to restore Jesus’ true identity as discovered in the Gospels. Through his brilliance as a theologian and his personal conviction as a believer, the pope shares a rich, compelling, flesh-and-blood portrait of Jesus and incites us to encounter, face-to-face, the central figure of the Christian faith. 

Here are my other reads from 2014...

Thinking on the Run - Soo-Inn Tan
The Active Life - Parker J. Palmer 
Spirituality at Work - Gregory F.A. Pierce
The Source of Life - Jurgen Moltmann
Exploring Celtic Spirituality - Ray Simpson
Sport and Spirituality - Gordon Preece and Rob Hess
The Shape of Living - David F. Ford 
A Meal with Jesus - Tim Chester 
The Mystery of the Ordinary - Charles Cummings
Earth Crammed with Heaven - Elizabeth A. Dreyer 
God Next Door - Simon Carey Holt
The Spiritual Life - Evelyn Underhill
God Hides in Plain Sight - Dean Nelson
Spirituality in an Age of Change - Alister McGrath
Eating Heaven - Simon Carey Holt
Seven Days of Faith - Paul R. Stevens
The Elements of New Testament Greek
Accompany Them with Singing - Thomas G. Long
The Honour Key - Russell Evans
The Perfect Smoke - Fred Hanna
The Christian Gentleman's Guide to Smoking - Zach Bartels & Ted Kluck
The God's of Mars - Edgar Rice Burroughs 
Pipe Smoking Guide - Chuck Reitoth
God the Worker - Robert Banks
History of New Zealand - Michael King
The Eye of the World - Robert Jordan
Life After Death - Graham H. Twelftree
The Slavery of Death - Richard Beck
Jesus of Nazareth - Joseph Ratzinger
The Gospel of John - J. Ramsey Michaels
Gone - Michael Grant
Divergent - Veronica Roth 
The End of Religon - Bruxy Cavey
Shrink - Tim Shuttle 
Slow Church - C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison 
Reveal; Where are You? - Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson
Follow Me - Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson
Sticky Faith - Dr Kara. E. Powell 
The Bible Tells Me So - Peter Enns
Johannine Theology - Paul Rainbow
A Kingdom Besieged - Raymond E Feist 
A Crown Emperiled - Raymond E Feist

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Dunamis Power of God Nonsense

Ever heard a rousing sermon on the dunamis power of God? The dynamite power of God? Romans 1:16 is often read; I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. The sermon unfolds as it does due to our English word dynamite being etymologically derived from the Greek word dunamis/dynamis. The idea has always bothered me as dynamite was invented about one thousand eight hundred and sixty seven years after the Apostle Paul wrote the passage. With this in mind it is pretty unlikely that Paul meant power in the sense of dynamite, you know, explosion, tearing things down, blowing things up, gouging holes, blasting things over etc.

D.A. Carson calls this process of determining meaning to be the exegetical fallacy of semantic anachronism. In other words, of using a late meaning of a word (1867 years later) to determine an earlier meaning. Here the problem is two-fold though. We've semantic anachronism combined with the fallacy that a words meaning can be accurately found in its root meaning. Good stuff guys.

Does it matter though? After all a sermon talking about the explosive power of God, the ability for God to turn up and turn over and blow situations up to his glory, isn't that kind of OK? Especially in relation to evil empire (yep RATM reference there).

Of course it matters. We have to let the text speak on its own terms.

For Paul, strength is found in weakness. The power of the gospel is that life is found in death. He could be ashamed of it; it is unimpressive, back-to-front, up-side-down, counter culture, foolishness and so on. He's not ashamed though because there is power in the gospel. Not to tear down and destroy but to mend and heal and reconcile and restore and redeem and make new. It's power, but it is unlike the military might and power of the Roman Empire - it is very un-dynamite like!

It also matters because if you throw together a handful of misunderstood passages to do with the power of God and signs and wonders etc  - let's say this passage plus the old "greater things than these you'll do" and also "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" - you end up with some distorted theology of what and how exactly God is going to work in your life. No too much of an issue on a good day but in the midst of a crisis, with your back against the wall, when you are desperate for God to show up, when you need a miracle of some sort; if things don't unfold like you expected or wanted them to, it is all too easy to end up in a crisis of faith. Not because God let you down but because your bad theology has let you down and left you disappointed. Bad theology always does that.

So yeah, I think it matters.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Future Evolutions of Pentecostalism

I had the opportunity yesterday to share a few thoughts (15 minutes worth) in regards to how I might imagine or envision future evolutions of pentecostalism. The presentation was to a wonderful and passionate group of Pentecostal pastors and leaders from around New Zealand.  On the off chance you might be interested here are my thoughts. My thinking here is focused on pentecostalism in a 21st Century postmodern Western context. 

The Pentecostal church was birthed of the Spirit, there is no doubt of this, at least not among Pentecostals. Its historical roots trace back to The Day of Pentecost some 2000 years ago and its modern roots to Azusa Street 1906. While appreciated by many as an exciting move of God for the dawning of a new century, perhaps the beginnings even of an 'end time' revival, others were not so convinced. Pentecostals have thus been labelled many things over the years; chandelier swingers, holy rollers, fruit loops, and of course, a cult. During the charismatic renewal of the 70's it continued to be a movement that many were suspicious of. In fact, it was only two weeks ago that Pope Francis publically apologised for the persecution of Christianity's Pentecostal Movement by the Catholic Church.

Appreciating this it is not surprising that the Pentecostal Church, in good Protestant tradition, quickly found itself as something of a protest movement on the fringes of the wider Christian church. Certainly not mainline, and even within the evangelical world something of an enigma. It lived on the margins as its own thing. Very quickly it recognised itself as an 'experiential' movement. If one imagines the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of theological reflection, the Pentecostal church has certainly camped out in the experience sector of the quadrant. Tradition, reason and scripture are often considered after thoughts. At times, the Pentecostal church has even defined itself against these things. Traditions are viewed as dead religion, engagement with 'secular' science an unnecessary sideline distraction. And theological training? Well that just confuses promising young pastors and plants within them seeds of doubt or dissent. After all, the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Go and live it, what more could you want?

I know I am using stereotypes and caricatures but the genius of a caricature is not its exaggeration but rather the truth that the exaggeration is built on. While the Spirit birthed Pentecost, it's these kind of caricatures that have created the ever evolving culture of pentecostalism. I'm not old enough to remember 100 years worth of cultural variation, but my memory bank does include; hankie twirling, some sort of a 'Pentecostal' two step, special use of the Old King James for prophesy or prayer, action songs (something about going to the enemies camp), open microphones, visions from the North, the South, the East, and the West, modesty blankets and of course, who could forget late night attempts to map, find and expel territorial demons, (an activity that I am convinced would be a hit with today's postmodern youth).

There is more to it of course than these amusing characteristics. Our embracing of the work of the Spirit and gifts of the Spirit is to be celebrated whole heartedly. That we believe everyone and anyone can be used by God is a strength in our bow. However the Pentecostal experience and pentecostalism are not the same thing. It would be a mistake to equate Pentecost with today's pentecostalism; a contemporary church, a positive vibe or atmosphere, charismatic personalities in leadership, triumphalism, special events, altercalls, conferences or album recordings. These things all have their place but none in themselves are the actual Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit's infilling. An infilling for empowered living in the world as God's people bearing witness to Jesus and evidenced by inspired speech and inspired deeds. (Here I steal a phrase from a well regarded Assemblies of God New Testament Scholar).

My Pentecostal movement has always prided itself on its Pentecostal distinctive. When filling in the current credentials application form, you more or less fill in your name and address, and then you are asked when you were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke with other tongues. The other questions are secondary. Are you a criminal, a member of a sect or secret organisation, theologically trained? Perhaps the answers here don't matter. You studied as a Buddhist monk for 12 years did you? Hmmm. Not to worry you were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues on the 12th of June! We'll sign you up and give you a Missionary Credential, you'd be brilliant in Chiang Mai. Approved! While I joke, the joke does highlight that in this instance we rightly understand the Pentecostal distinctive as empowerment for life and ministry as opposed to a particular doctrine or some current particular from of cultural pentecostalism.

I say all of this in order to suggest four ideas we should consider embracing as 21st Century Pentecostals that might help us craft our way forward into a better future. In the past they've not been ideas we've championed all that much, and in fact, they may even offend stereotypical pentecostalism. This need not be a concern though as they do not in any way impinge on what it means to be Pentecostal.

1. We should embrace a complex faith as well as a simple faith.
2. We should embrace the hard work of formal theological training for ministry as well as God's call to ministry.
3. We should embrace the different insights, wisdom and perspectives of other professions and other tribes within the Christian church as well as the more likeminded relational 'networks' that are currently popular.
4. We should embrace some of the established rhythms, prayers and reflections of the traditional church as well as the guiding, leading and free blowing wind of the Spirit.

The Pentecostal movement no longer exists on the fringes of Christendom. We're no longer a protest movement needing to define ourselves against the 'other.' Roughly 25% of Christians around the world are Pentecostal, about 300 million of us. With so many of us, a new willingness to embrace Christian traditions, reason and scripture (the other already mentioned categories of The Wesleyan Theological Quadrilateral) will not result in the loss of any Pentecostal distinctive. I feel it would lead to the discovery of a complex faith, a deep faith suited to the complexities of the 21st Century world we live in.

In the New Testament those filled with the Spirit of God were likened to drunkards. Pentecostals drunk on the Spirit of God, caught up in a new era of the Spirit, the water had been turned into wine! The best red wine is known for its complexity, never its simplicity. Different elements come together in perfect harmony. Perhaps 21st Century pentecostalism is an opportunity to see Pentecostal experience join forces with tradition, reason and scripture in a manner where they come together balancing and enhancing each other; a complex Shiraz. The simplicity of our faith is important. But so is complexity.

We live in a world of ever increasing complexity. We're offered more overarching stories from which to make sense of life than ever. At the same we're suspicious that there even is a true story from which to make sense of life. It is tempting to offer simple answers in a complex world, and they are often appreciated. However they run out of steam pretty quickly. More is required. Today's contemporary culture is rightly considered 'spiritual' but this is often wrongly equated to simply mean a desire for the 'supernatural' for an 'encounter' for an 'experience.' This is an important piece of the puzzle but it misses a 'spiritual' person's desire for a larger-than-their-life framework by which to make sense of life in its totality; the marvellous and the mundane. Issues such as life-after-death, sexuality, global suffering, wealth distribution, atonement theories, environmental ethics, failure, depression, loneliness and so all need to be addressed. Alter calls, album launches, anointing services, and alliterated sermons starting with 'a' - won't often meet this need.

This doesn't mean all Pastors need complete PhD's but we should seek to lift the bar across the board. Our Presbyterian friends complete a three year degree in theology and then a two year post-graduate internship before ordination. While the average pew dweller wants to be encouraged, inspired, loved and cared for, they also have deep questions, plaguing doubts and painful life experiences they'd like to reconcile with a God of love. Education, experience, gifting and calling all aid in this and should equally be championed. 

Suspicious of experts today's postmodern world is also inclined to give ear to a multiplicity of voices. They know it is impossible for one man up front to have all the answers. The Pentecostal church would do well to create space for voices other than a 'pastor' to speak into the life of the community; counsellors, psychologists, social-workers, nurses etc. This doesn't necessarily mean adding them to the preaching roster but it does mean allowing them to shape the culture, values, practices and methodologies of the local church. It might mean an invitation to speak to the church leadership team or preaching team or pastoral care team. Their perspectives and wisdom, at times critical and at times encouraging, would only make ministry within the Pentecostal church a more healthy and life giving reality. For example we've not always done well with issues to do with grief, loss or mental illness. These other voices would only make us stronger. The same could be argued for more ecumenical openness as well. There is wisdom, strength and insight to be gleaned from across the spectrum of the Christian church that stereotypical pentecostalism has dismissed. Imagine an Anglican Bishop speaking at a Pentecostal conference - in robes. We'll be sharing eternity with these brothers and sisters maybe we could share a stage every now and then, or at least a coffee. There is more going on in the Christian world than our own favoured networks or conferences.

The 'spiritual' person of our 21st Century postmodern Western world also has a deep hunger for an anchored life, for roots (to use a very American term). The modern world has systematically striped tradition from our lives, after all aren't traditions simply backwards looking habits of yesteryear? Society has moved on. No one opens doors for ladies, no one asks to be excused from the table, who even has dinner at the table these days? And yet traditions, when their meaning and significance are understood, add a richness to our lives. They remind us and refocus us on what is important when we are so often tempted to flick from one thing to another, never truly engaged. There is an alternative way to live in the world not tied to individualism or consumerism but anchored in the rhythms of Christ's life given for us. Christian rhythms of life, death, resurrection; the life of the cross, cruciform living. 

The traditions of the church, particularly the Christian calendar, slows us down and orientate our life with the life of Christ. Advent helps us to steer clear of the debt and stress of a materialistic Christmas and offers us hope. Christ came, Christ comes and Christ is coming again. Lent calls us into a season of prayer, of fasting, of repentance. It calls us to acknowledge that life is at times dark and difficult. We don't wallow in this but rather than always try to escape the storm we pause and we find that God is with us in the storm. Pentecostalism, so often committed to overzealous triumphalism, would be better for Lent. It is only 40 days. There's another 325 to be more than conquerors. More could be said.

Our 21st Century postmodern context is a complex one. When I think of future evolutions of pentecostalism I think of a Pentecostal church more equipped than ever to engage with the surrounding culture. A Pentecostal church overflowing with the new wine of the Spirit, blending experience, scripture, reason and tradition together; each aspect balancing and enhancing the others. I imagine a deep, intelligent, robust, informed, connected, anchored and empowered faith that overflows with the love of God, the life of Christ and fruit of the Spirit.