Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Nature of Doctrine

Again, I've been listening to a podcast from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary about the recent General Assembly report on the doctrine of the Trinity. In the lecture, Charles Partee spends some time discussing the practice of theology and the nature of doctrine. Here are some excerpts (the emphasis is my own)...
I would have liked to have seen a much more dramatic approach to the question of what it is to do theology. That is, how does one create doctrine, and for what purpose.

This is my suggestion. Theology in my mind is not science. It simply is not science, and the disciplines of science have only a tangential reference to what theologians do. Secondly, theology is not philosophy. We do a lot of talk about reason and synthetic a priori and analytic a priori and concept of experience and all those kinds things. But in the last analysis, theology is not philosophy no matter what tools that one might appropriate from that discipline. At the same time, theology is not poetry. There is a real reference. There are factual components, and what we do in theology is to make truth claims of a particular sort.

My conviction then is that what theology is trying to do is not explain but protect. It maybe entirely too avant garde for a committee of the General Assembly to try to make that point. But I would suggest that in a classroom setting that you at least reflect on the notion that theology is not the truth but is in fact an attempt of the reverent Church to protect the truth which is quite beyond our comprehension…

In the Christian Church for all our academic emphasis, the first orders of speaking are, in fact, preaching, hearing, singing, and praying. Theology is in my judgment a second order of activity. It is an attempt in our thinking to be faithful to these other parts of the church’s life. The whole language of the Christian Church is not classroom language but is church language. Therefore, a lecture and a sermon are very different activities.

Candidates for ministry vow to "receive and adopt the essential tennets of the Reformed faith." As we examine candidates and discuss essential tennets within the church, some reflection on the nature of doctrine is necessary. Theology is secondary to worship. Our theology must not begin with humanity or an abstract notion of God. It begins on our knees in worship. Ultimately, doctrine is in service to the Church. If it does not protect the Biblical witness, then it is useless. I agree with Partee here.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Renewing One Congregation at a Time

Jim Berkley is a reporter for the Institute on Religion and Democracy which has spent the past several years seeking a change in the social and political witness of mainline denominations. As a Presbyterian, Berkley primarily concerns himself with issues facing the PCUSA. He attended the recent Presbyterian Coalition and the Presbyterian Global Fellowship meetings in Atlanta.

Berkley suggests that the Presbyterian Global Fellowship is following a specific playbook.
The Presbyterian Global Fellowship (PGF) attitude seemed to be that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is largely irrelevant. Thus, the PGF folks will just go ahead and build strong churches that have an outward, missional focus. They're not going to spend much energy anymore thinking about polity machinations or Louisville decrees; they're just going to pursue excellence with a band of missional companions, despite the denomination.

Whether this attitude is an accurate appraisal of PGF remains to be seen. Berkley himself admits as much. No matter how accurate, however, the thought represents the view of many evangelical pastors and elders within the denomination. Whether weary of the battle or happier in hands-on ministry, evangelicals often concern themselves with their local congregation, ignoring the happenings in the greater church.

If Berkley is correct, I do not see this attitude as much of a change from the status quo. Vibrant, healthy churches have always existed in the PCUSA. Unfortunately, as individual congregations have improved, that improvement has not translated to the greater denomination.

Can this strategy bring about renewal in the denomination? Only if congregations become less insular. Healthier congregations should partner with weaker ones. Coalitions of congregations should develop and promote resources for renewal. If possible, these should be accomplished through presbyteries. If not, congregations should do these things on their own. Many small, struggling churches are begging for assistance. Evangelicals should make a concerted effort to help these congregations. Through local churches, the denomination can be renewed one congregation at a time.

Monday, August 28, 2006

One Cheer for Christendom

During a mission trip to Senegal, I had an opportunity to teach church history to some future West African pastors. At one point in the class, we were discussing about how Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Raised on Jacques Ellul and Stanley Hauerwas, I began to decry the heresies of Christendom. I argued that the political recognition of Christianity was a negative mark on the history of the church. The students were confused. Many of these students had come from countries where Islam was the dominant religion with either cultural or political sanction. They could not imagine that a Christianity without persecution could be a bad thing.

I thought of those students recently when I heard a lecturer condemning the evils of Christendom. What was once an important and novel critique has unfortunately become cliché. Church history before Constantine, good. Church history after Constantine, bad. To be fair, the sins of Christendom still haunt us. The largest is the church’s abdication of it’s witness to the kingdom of God. Instead, the church has often been a chaplain for the existing cultural and political order.

I taught my African students that the official recognition and protection of Christianity opened the door to heresy and laziness. They taught me that being a persecuted minority isn’t much fun. Although flawed, Christendom deserves one cheer if not three.

We must not forget that Christendom Christianity witnessed to the gospel in its own imperfect way. Christendom produced Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth and even Stanley Hauerwas. Along with its sins, the Christendom church has done a multitude of good works. The church is always a mix of wheat and tares. To emphasize the tares to the exclusion of the wheat is patently unfair.

The real danger of making a caricature of Christendom lies not in the past, but the future. Christendom is by most accounts dead. The post-modern church will not be susceptible to the sins of past. However, she will be tempted in many new ways. Being anxious to condemn Christendom, we make ourselves blind to our own temptations. Again, the church is always a mix of wheat and tares. Every age demands sober reflection on the nature of the church.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hate-Word of the Month: Missional

I have recently subscribed to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary podcast, and I was listening to a classroom discussion dated 5-3-06 concerning the General Assembly report on the Trinity. The discussion is a good addendum to an article written by Andrew Purves and Charles Partee in the March/April 2006 issue of Theology Matters.

Given some of the recent discussion concerning the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, I found this intriguing quote by Andrew Purves...
I've decided over the last couple of weeks that my hate-word of the the month is "missional." I've gotten tired of "missional." And I've gotten tired of "missional" because I see it more and more functioning as an abstract adjective. Then it gets filled in with content from wherever. I keep wanting to use the word, "christological." Because if we are in union with Christ, of course, we will be a mission people. We can't be otherwise.

I am a pastor whose favorite books in seminary were Calvin's Institutes and Bosch's Transforming Mission. I believe Guder's Missional Church is essential reading for pastors. I am currently leading my congregation with the help of the Center for Parish Development to become more "missional." Despite all this, I am totally in agreement with Purves.

Jesus Christ is more foundational than the mission to which he calls. Mission has definitely been a neglected part of ecclesiology. However, we must not over-compensate by neglecting christology.

Monday, August 21, 2006

PGF and a Warning from Fox News

"Can Rick Warren save the world?"

That question was the subtitle from a Fox News special last night about Rick Warren and his plans for ending "poverty, disease, illiteracy, spiritual emptiness, and egocentric leadership."

Can Rick Warren make an impact in the world? Yes. Can Rick Warren make a positive influence? Yes. Can Rick Warren save the world? No. There is only one Messiah, and Rick Warren ain't him. I don't blame Rick Warren for the Fox News title. I'm sure he was embarrassed. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Warren had a hand in Fox News changing it on their website (Check out before and after).

After attending the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, the offensive Fox News title was a good reminder of the dangers before us. Being missionally-minded must not become a righteouness based on our works. It is easy to be overwhelmed at the pain of the world. Likewise, it is easy to become prideful at our efforts to alleviate suffering. The focus then becomes us. Some might become self-righteous on their own good deeds, but the majority will become burned-out or guilt-ridden because they can't do enough.

Should we reject works? Do we ignore the call to be missional? Heaven forbid. Faith without works is dead, but we must be ever vigiliant to avoid idolatry. The Presbyterian Global Fellowship and our missional congregations must preach and teach the amazing grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We should see obedience to Christ and our good works as gratitude to God. The only way we can be "outwardly focused" is to be "inwardly strong."

I am not suggesting that the leadership of PGF intends anything amiss. I just know that they have hard work ahead of them. I pray for their wisdom and courage.

We cannot save the world. Thankfully, Jesus Christ can and has.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Presbyterian Global Fellowship

I’ve been to Atlanta and back. For the past few days, I’ve been attending the Presbyterian Global Fellowship meeting. This group was born out of evangelical frustration with the fights on sexuality and the financial decimation of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the PCUSA. They are committed to missions abroad and to being missional at home. They are also committed to remaining in the denomination. Several friends recommended that I attend, and I see now that I needed to be there.

I didn’t realize that the stress of pastoral ministry and the frustration caused by the General Assembly have wore me down. Gathering with other evangelicals in Atlanta was therapeutic for me. I wept as I listened to stories of God’s faithfulness. As one speaker suggested, we need to remind each other of who Christ is and what his purpose is for our lives. In the midst of life, we forget too easily.

Clearly, I had a good experience, but I do have concerns. The Presbyterian Global Fellowship is still young, without form or function. We do not know what its relationship with the Presbyterian Church USA will be. We do not know how it will relate to the other renewal groups such as Presbyterians For Renewal, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, and the like. We do not know how the fellowship intends to foster the revitalization of congregations. These are not complaints. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the leadership of the organization has some difficult waters to navigate. General Assembly Moderator Joan Gray was right that they should lead from their knees.

As the organization moves forward, more time will be needed to develop theological clarity. Missional has become a buzz word in churches. In Atlanta, I heard a variety of interpretations of its meaning. Some assumed that missional merely meant more outreach programs. Others saw missional simply in terms of cross-cultural mission trips. Some spoke of organizing the church around mission implying that our unity was found there. I believe these are simplistic understandings of the term. The church is organized around Jesus Christ who sends us into the world. Thankfully some were expressing a more biblical and profound understanding of mission. I hope that these voices will dominate in the future of Presbyterian Global Fellowship.

People were pumped after the meeting this week. A speaker declared that the Atlanta event was the most important event in the PCUSA in twenty years. The truth of that statement remains to be seen. I don’t want to sound like a wet blanket, but the future of our corner of the kingdom of God deserves sober reflection.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Evangelical Politicking

The face of evangelical politics is changing according to Michael Gerson, the chief speechwriter of President George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign and first term. In an interview with Christianity Today, Gerson suggests that younger evangelicals are rejecting the one or two issues of the Religious Right and embracing a broader agenda of “social justice.”
Will compassionate conservatism survive rising deficits, the cost of Katrina, and illegal immigration?
There are some members of the Republican Party who do not understand the power and appeal of this set of issues and who have a much more narrow view of government's role…

Until recently, the Republican Party and Christian conservatives have complained that government is the problem. Is that a view they will likely return to?
I think it's a temptation, but I don't think it's going to happen. One reason is because of what's changed in evangelical political involvement.

I think there are lots and lots of young people, in their 20s to 40s, who are very impatient with older models of social engagement like those used by the Religious Right. They understand the importance of the life issues and the family issues, but they know the concern for justice has to be broader and global. At least a good portion of the evangelical movement is looking for leaders who have a broader conception of social justice…

You're starting to sound like Jim Wallis!
No, because I also don't think the answers can be found in the Religious Left. I don't think we can minimize some of the traditional issues. I don't believe it's possible to be concerned about social justice without being concerned about the weakest members of the human family. I also think that America can play an active and positive role in the world and that we're not at fault for everything.

A few comments of my own...

1. As these comments suggest, Compassionate Conservatism is more than a cynical rhetorical device. Gerson believes that it is a real governing principle. Despite six years into an administration which wears the term as a mantle, the movement remains ill-defined. Gerson seems to equate Compassionate Conservatism with a secular version of Christian "social justice." George W. Bush was apparently more telling than many thought when he named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher.

2. Jim Wallis is the founder and editor of Sojourners. He has been the default spokesperson for the Religious Left in the United States. Gerson interestingly doesn't seem to have a problem with Wallis' view of "social justice." Both seem concerned with poor and the downtrodden. Calls for battling the AIDS crisis in Africa or for providing perscription drugs for the poor resonate with Christians of all political stripes. The only difference Gerson suggests is that the Religious Left has walked away from traditional morality.

3. Gerson seems to reject the notion of limited government. He suggests that evangelical resistance to active government in the past was based upon the character of that government and not about the limits of government itself. He may be correct. Since evangelicals have had more power to influence policy, they have been less inclined to limit the government's role.

Although I am sympathetic to Gerson's goals for "justice" in society, I am very suspicious of an energetic and ever-expanding government. The attitude reminds me of the naivete of the social gospel movement a century ago. Government is a blunt instrument, and "hubris" is a real problem. The evangelicals of today need to be reminded of the pervasive problem of sin. Human depravity even pollutes our good intentions. Reinhold Niebuhr has much to teach this generation of evangelicals.

For those wishing to pursue their faith within the society, more thought should be given to the natural limits of government and power. We should realize that local governments, better than centralized ones, promote responsibility and accountability. We should also remember that structures such as the family, the church, and voluntary associations can often promote justice and human dignity even better than government. Most of all, we must know that true justice will remain ellusive on this side of the God's kingdom. We ignore these principles to our peril.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Preaching as Calling

The other day, I was doing some work on the "marks of the Church." What I discovered was an article on renewing congregational life by a mainline pastor printed in the Christian Century in 2000. In the article, there was a quote that intrigued me. The author, Anthony Robinson, writes...
After the dedication of a new community youth center, a leader in my denomination was invited by the mayor of the city to have coffee. The mayor, who happened to be African-American, told the minister, "You know, I appreciate all your efforts in getting this center opened, and I also appreciate your remarks today. But you are a Christian minister and I didn’t hear you say anything that couldn’t have been said by someone else. We need to hear something different from you. We need to hear something from the gospel."

This is a wake-up call to all preachers, including myself. When I first had the thought that God might be calling me into ordained ministry, I had a quandry. Why did I have to be ordained to preach? I mean, we are all called "to make disciples," to be "Christ's ambassadors," or to be Christ's "witnesses." What makes the preacher different? While in seminary, I was not ordained, but I preached every Sunday. What would be different in my preaching after my ordination?

Finally, I accepted a solution albeit an imperfect one. The preacher who is called and ordained must share God's Word. He or she must be Christ's witness. There are times when the gospel may be inconvenient, embarrassing, or even risky. The ordained preacher must speak the Word of God when no one else will.

It is so easy to lose track of this vocation. In the midst of ministry, preachers will acquire multiple interests and talents. Some become junior psychologists. Others are experts in marketing or management. Still others become political activists. These abilities are not bad things. In its own way, each can bring glory to God. A good preacher uses these talents to inform preaching, bringing them in submission to the Word. Occasionally, we forget our calling, and these talents replace our preaching. We've all heard sermons that were merely political diatribes, self-help advice or sociological analysis. Resisting these tempations, we must cry out with John the Baptist, "[Jesus Christ] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

Teach for America: An Alumnus

The June 2006 edition of Readers Digest has a good article on Wendy Kopp the creator of Teach For America, the national teacher corps. It's like the Peace Corps except instead of going overseas, participants teach in inner-city and rural schools. I'm also an alumnus.

The organization has grown considerably since I was in the Mississippi Delta corps from 1992-1994. TFA is certainly more organized and efficient, but I wonder if it retains the entrepeneural spirit that existed. Back then, ideas about teaching and leadership were coming fast and furious. The organization was very experimental. We would discover (or more likely rediscover) good ideas and reject plenty of bad ones. At least we learned from our mistakes. Most emerged from teaching a bit less naive, more experienced, and committed to Teach for America's mantra--"Every child deserves a quality education."