2019 Year in Review

Another year, another 12 months spent immersed in the development of early Christian views of the Holy Spirit. A fair chunk of the year was devoted to researching and writing How the Spirit Became God: The Mosaic of Early Christian Pneumatology, which is due out in late 2020 from Cascade. By the time I’ve completed final revisions for this book in the spring, I’ll have spent five years on the subject. With the new decade, it might be time for me to take a break and explore a new topic.

Towards that end, I’ve been working on some ideas on how to bring early Christian theology into conversation with pedagogy (that is, teaching and learning) from a Christian perspective. In October, I read two papers at the Kuyers Institute/INCHE conference on Christian education at Calvin University; the first used John Chrysostom as a lens for re-imagining the nature of our students, and the second used Augustine as an impetus for designing deeper discussions. I plan to post this second paper in full on this site soon in the new year. As a new area for me, I’m particularly interested in any feedback on my work thus far.

I enjoyed writing another book review (on Craig D. Allert’s Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, for RBL), and I’m sure I’ll do another in the new year. But aside from any final edits on How the Spirit Became God, I think I might try my hand at some more informal (here and elsewhere on the internet) writing, particularly on topics related to Anglican theology and spirituality. Thanks for your interest in my research this year, and happy 2020!

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Theological Formation — Probing Cultural Christianity: On the Church

Part of what it means to grow as Christians who love the Lord with all our minds is to be constantly reflecting on our beliefs about God, our selves, and the world in light of what we are learning from our study of Scripture, tradition, and reason. In this final part of a three-part series, I will demonstrate some ways that my theological formation has probed the assumptions of cultural Christianity, challenging some of my earlier thoughts about the Christian faith.

Example #3: Worship: What Is Church All About?

“I didn’t get anything out of church today.” This attitude characterized my initial approach to worship: it’s ultimately about what I get out of the service. Granted, the evangelical mega-church model has done much to reinforce this belief through its emphasis on seeker-friendly entertainment, with a worship band and celebrity pastor on stage, performing amidst colored lights and smoke machines before a captive, passive audience. The weekly liturgy of these churches is thus centered on musical worship and the sermon.

I have come to believe, though, that there are at least two problems with this model. First, the church has historically viewed the liturgy of its earthly worship as joining together with the heavenly liturgy already in progress. When we come to church, we are not meant to be spectators but rather active participants in the cosmic worship of the eternal God. This strikes me as a profoundly more appealing reason for devoting an hour-plus every week of my life to this thing we call church than simply seeking entertainment or even community.

Second, Christianity has historically balanced Word and Sacrament (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 65-67; Did. Ap. 2.59[13]); the absence of the Eucharist (Communion or the Lord’s Supper) from the worship service represents a major break from historic Christian teaching and practice. As a sacrament, the Eucharist (like baptism) is “an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace,” gifted by Christ to His people as true spiritual food and drink.

If, then, the Eucharist is a central part of Christian worship, then the gathered worshippers are those who have been baptized into the body of Christ; to put it another way, the Eucharist is a “family meal” and baptism is the means of entry into the family of God (in early Christianity, those who were not baptized could attend the first part of the service but were dismissed prior to Communion). In sum, the church is not about me and my feelings. Rather, church is an opportunity to gather together with the Body of Christ for the purpose of corporate worship, even as we are nourished by Christ through Word and Sacrament.

What strikes me is that a more a conception of worship centered around Song and Word can be “replicated” or even “replaced” by Spotify worship playlists or sermon podcasts. But a view of the church’s worship oriented around Word and Table not only more closely aligns with Scripture and the tradition of the church, but compels us to participate in the corporate life of the church’s worship in order to be fed in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

Summary

Christianity, from the beginning, has taken on some of the ideas and customs of the cultures in which it has taken root, whether for good or for ill. In the context of the modern United States, Christianity has often been corrupted by a spirit of self-centered, consumer-minded individualism, which is the precise opposite of the others-focused, self-giving community to which Christ calls us. Christianity is most definitely not about how I invite Jesus into my heart by affirming a few beliefs about God and thereby get a ticket out of hell so my soul can spend eternity floating around a disembodied heaven. It’s not about my happiness or success. Rather, Christianity is about entering into God’s story, one in which the self-revelation of the Triune God in the story of the creation and redemption of the world invites me into turning from worship of self to worship of God, to laying down my life for his kingdom purposes. Ultimately, our fundamental orientation is to self or to God and others; there is no middle path.

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Theological Formation: Probing Cultural Christianity — On Finding Faith

Part of what it means to grow as Christians who love the Lord with all our minds is to be constantly reflecting on our beliefs about God, our selves, and the world in light of what we are learning from our study of Scripture, tradition, and reason. In this second part of a three-part series, I will demonstrate some ways that my theological formation has probed the assumptions of cultural Christianity, challenging some of my earlier thoughts about the Christian faith.

Example #2: Faith: How Do I Get Saved?

My initial, simplistic view of Christianity was that it was all about us having “faith,” which primarily entailed “asking Jesus into your heart.” Once this was done, your eternal destiny was secure, and nothing else mattered. The “gospel” was thus reduced to the following: we try to get to heaven by our own merits, but we are sinners incapable of making heaven on our own, so thankfully Jesus died for our sins, and by praying this prayer we can be sure of eternal life.

I even had a seminary professor, a notable “global evangelist,” whose approach to sharing the gospel was to strike up a conversation with a non-believer and hand them a card that they could sign when they were ready to believe (had “faith”), guaranteeing them eternal life. In much of popular Christianity, this is further reduced to an emotional experience that either sets aside, or stands in outright opposition to, the call to a life of right beliefs and right actions. As the Christian singer-songwriter Jason Gray puts it (“More Like Falling in Love”),

I need more than / A truth to believe

I need a truth that lives / Moves and breathes

To sweep me off my feet, it’s gotta be

More like falling in love / Than something to believe in

More like losing my heart / Than giving my allegiance

Caught up, called out / Come take a look at me now

It’s like I’m falling, oh / It’s like I’m falling in love

While well-meaning, this understanding of the gospel and salvation ultimately fails because it misunderstands the nature of “faith,” which we will unpack further below. Part of this misunderstanding, I think, stems from how this gospel presentation incorrectly identifies the purpose (telos) of the Christian life, missing out on the call to discipleship that is at the heart of the Christian proclamation. An additional part of it, I suspect, is that approach reduces the gospel (which is about Jesus) to something all about me, totally losing the communal and even cosmic aspects of God’s purposes and rendering Christianity to a slick, well-packaged set of comforting religious ideas that can be easily sold to religious consumers of whom precious little is asked.

Indeed, by dismissing the idea of faith as “giving my allegiance,” Gray in fact gets things exactly wrong. As Matthew Bates has demonstrated in his Salvation by Allegiance Alone, if the gospel is all about Jesus becoming king (which it is; note the initial kerygma “Jesus is Lord” in contrast to “Caesar is Lord”), we are called to respond with allegiance to this king. Thus, “faith” cannot be reduced to reciting the words of the sinner’s prayer, signing a card, or having a warm and fuzzy emotional experience, but it is rather a sweeping concept that joins together notions of mental agreement, professed fealty, and embodied loyalty (so Bates, 82; see my full discussion of Bates’ book here).

In other words, we are called to a life of discipleship, one that of necessity involves intellectual assent to the gospel of Jesus as king, publicly confessing our loyalty as at baptism, and obedient action to Christ’s commands (cf. Matt 7:21-23; Mark 10:17-23 pars.). Again, more careful attention to what Scripture actually says, rather than what popular Christianity often presents, would have benefited my theological method and my understanding of this issue.

Furthermore, bringing in the second source of authority in the Anglican tradition, which is the tradition of the church, would have been helpful. It is hard to read any of the church fathers and come away with the notion of “free grace” (or, per Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace); the invitation has always been, come and die. In other words, a life of discipleship is not an “optional add-on” for the really serious Christians; it is, rather, the heart of the gospel message. 

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Book Update: How the Spirit Became God

Last week, I sent to my publisher a completed manuscript of my second book, How the Spirit Became God, and so I figure it’s time for an update on this project that has ended up being my primary undertaking over the last six months or so.

How the Spirit Became God: The Mosaic of Early Christian Pneumatology tells the often-neglected story of how and why the early church came to recognize that the Holy Spirit was a distinct divine person. While the subject of Christ’s divinity is a popular topic in church and academy alike, the notion of the Spirit’s divinity remains a mysterious yet intriguing question for many Christians today. Focusing on major pneumatological innovations from Pentecost through the Council of Constantinople in 381, I examine how biblical interpretation and the lived experience of the Spirit contributed to the development of this important, and yet often overlooked, aspect of trinitarian theology. This book not only explains, from a historical yet accessible perspective, the development of early Christian pneumatology but also challenges readers to apply these insights from the church fathers to engaging with the person of the Holy Spirit today.

Major writers and texts analyzed in the book include the Johannine literature, the Pauline corpus, the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, and Basil of Caesarea.

How the Spirit Became God will be published by Cascade in the second half of 2020 and will feature a foreword by renowned New Testament scholar Matthew W. Bates. More information to come!

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Theological Formation: Probing Cultural Christianity — On Not Hoping for Heaven

Part of what it means to grow as Christians who love the Lord with all our minds is to be constantly reflecting on our beliefs about God, our selves, and the world in light of what we are learning from our study of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Over the following three posts, I will demonstrate some ways that my theological formation has probed the assumptions of cultural Christianity, challenging some of my earlier thoughts about the Christian faith. 

Example #1: Heaven: What About Life After Death?

I grew up believing that the goal of Christianity was for me to make it to heaven. This life and this world didn’t really matter that much, in light of the fact that heaven was my true home. As the classic hymn “How Great Thou Art” puts it:

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation /

And lead me home, what joy shall fill my heart.

After all, Chris Tomlin was keen to teach me, this planet was going to be consigned to the trash heap of the universe anyway:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine /

But God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.

(Side note: when I worked through this topic with some of my students, they were more troubled by the notion of God being “forever mine.” Fair enough: the individual and consumerist resonances are there.)

And, to make sure I got the point, the old spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” made the dualism more explicit:

Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away /

To that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.

I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away in the morning /

When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.

When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away /

Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.

My body, this earth — it’s a prison, and the goal is for my soul to fly away to a disembodied eternity.

The problem with all of this, of course, is it is not attentive to what Scripture actually says (or the testimony of historical theology, but we need not even go that far afield to fix this one). In his Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright demolished this idea and convinced me of my need for a more nuanced theological method. The notion of our disembodied souls spending eternity with God in heaven is, he made clear, derived from Platonism and not the world of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

Rather, Wright points out, orthodox Christianity has always spoken of the bodily resurrection as part of God’s new creation. Christ’s resurrection is a sign and a promise of what God will do for us and for the whole world (cf. 1 Cor 15). Heaven, then, is better understood as a realm or reality intersecting our own in any number of significant ways, rather than some place that is spatially far off. Indeed, when Christ returns, heaven and earth will become one (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer), and He will make our bodies like His own (cf. Phil 3:20-21). 

So what happens when you die but before you are resurrected? The Bible in fact has much less to say about this so-called “intermediate state,” a temporary place of restful happiness with the Lord (note the Bible does not use the word “heaven” for this) until we are resurrected to share with God’s work in the new creation (cf. Rev 21-22). The practical consequence of all this is that the work that we do in this life and in this world is actually bringing forth, into the present, God’s ultimate renewal of all things. More careful attention to what Scripture actually says, rather than what popular Christianity often presents, would have clarified this for me and been the basis of a more nuanced theological method.

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Theological Formation: Sources of Authority in the Anglican Tradition

I was recently ordained to the diaconate in the Anglican Church in North America, and as a way of connecting my own spiritual journey with my study of the church fathers, I’d like to share a few thoughts on how my theological method has evolved from a more simplistic “me and my Bible” approach to the path of theological formation that I am walking today.

Theological formation is the process of shaping our minds to “think Christianly” about God, ourselves, and the world around us. Most of us uncritically hold some beliefs and reject others without any articulated theological method by which to discern what we believe to be true. In the Anglican tradition, there are three sources of authority by which we approach the task of theology: scripture, tradition, and reason. The image of a “three-legged stool,” popularly (but probably incorrectly) attributed to Richard Hooker (d. 1600), suggests that these three need to be kept in balance with one another; this is typical of the Anglican via media that tries to balance Catholic and Protestant approaches to theology.

Source #1: Scripture

In a largely evangelical Protestant context, we don’t need to be convinced of the centrality of the Bible for our theological method. We know, after all, that the Bible is the Word of the Lord, inspired by God, containing everything we need for salvation, and our primary source or “norming norm” for theology and ethical behavior. That being said, we do at times run the risk of constructing our theology on a wobbly one-legged stool. Christian Smith criticizes evangelical “biblicism” for failing to take into account the reality of “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which is his way of saying that (as has been true through all of Christian history) all differences of opinion and even heresies claim in their own way to be “biblical.” To put it another way, when sola scriptura becomes nuda scriptura, our stool is about to collapse under the weight of our own idiosyncratic interpretations.

How, then, do we read the Bible well? At minimum, we need to avoid proof-texting and other forms of eisegesis (reading our own culture and views back into the text). A good approach to biblical interpretation is to examine the historical, cultural, and canonical context of the passage at hand in order to find what the original author meant (invest in some good commentaries!). We would of course do well to draw on humbly listening to tradition and reason to help guide our readings (see below), to allow ourselves to be shaped by the reading of Scripture in the worship of the Church, and to remember that a truly Christian reading of the Old Testament takes into account the authorial intent of its ultimate Author, the Holy Spirit, so that Christ becomes the “hermeneutical key” for understanding it.

When we turn to the question of application, shifting from asking “what Scripture means” to “what Scripture means for us,” I have been helped immensely by N.T. Wright’s “five-act” hermeneutic detailed in his Scripture and the Authority of God. Scripture is not a set of “timeless truths” or “inspiring ideas”; rather, the Bible has an underlying structure that can help us make sense of how to apply the Bible. For Wright, we live in the fifth act of a play, and as such are in continuity and discontinuity with previous acts (Creation-Fall-Israel-Jesus-Church). The New Testament is thus viewed as the foundation for this ongoing fifth act; “the first scene is non-negotiable, and remains the standard by which the various improvisations of subsequent scenes are to be judged.” Thus, “our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter, on the one hand, and the complete coming of the Kingdom on the other.”  

Source #2: Tradition

In our context, which tends to view the Protestant Reformation as the retrieval of “true New Testament Christianity” (as if everything between the New Testament and the Reformation was all a giant mistake), we are naturally skeptical of tradition. But the importance of tradition can be seen in the simple fact that for the first centuries of Christianity, there was no set New Testament; rather, the teachings of the apostles was handed down from generation to generation of church leaders. It was only in the fourth century that the canon of the New Testament was fixed, with the books chosen for inclusion selected in large part on the basis of their alignment with this apostolic rule of faith. The importance of tradition can further be seen in the fact that certain core doctrines, such as the Trinity, are not explicitly present in Scripture (though they can be deduced from it). Thus, though Scripture remains “first among equals” as a source for theology, we cannot rightly interpret Scripture apart from tradition.

A helpful, albeit oversimplified, test of whether something is in line with church tradition is to apply the Vincentian Canon (attributed to Vincent of Lerins, d. 445), which defined the catholic faith as “what is believed everywhere, always, and by all.” As helpfully articulated by Lancelot Andrewes (d. 1626): “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period — the centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after — determine the boundary of our faith.” Thus, with respect to tradition the weight of emphasis falls on the patristic period, with the creeds of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) representing the most important summaries of early Christian theology.

Source #3: Reason

We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our minds, and therefore we don’t need to be afraid to include reason, rightly understood, in our theological process. As with tradition, reason does not trump Scripture; rather, reason can be understood as guiding our contemporary application of Scripture and tradition. The idea of “reason” is difficult in our postmodern context of “individual truth,” but to the extent that God has created us as rational beings, we are called to critically apply our minds to the project of making the truths of Christianity (revealed in Scripture and tradition) known and relevant today.

For Richard Hooker, the need for reason came about in response to the Puritan belief that since Scripture alone was authoritative, only those practices explicitly authorized by Scripture should be allowed into the worship of the church. Hooker argued instead that because human society is always evolving, the church must also adapt accordingly to new circumstances, and this evolution must be guided by reason as guided by Scripture and tradition.

Summary

Whereas Roman Catholicism views tradition as equal to Scripture as sources of authority, and while radical Protestantism regards Scripture as the only source of authority, Anglicanism seeks a third way: Scripture is the ultimate, unique, and supreme source of authority, but where Scripture is silent or unclear, tradition and reason can help us rightly interpret the biblical text.

Next time: how does this method work itself out with respect to some important theological issues?

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Book Announcement: How the Spirit Became God

I’m excited to share with you readers that I am under contract and currently in the process of writing a new book, provisionally titled How the Spirit Became God: Biblical Interpretation and the Birth of Pneumatology. In this book, I aim to make more accessible some of the insights concerning the development of early Christian pneumatology that I began to explore in The Trinitarian Testimony of the Spirit. The title is a play on Bart Ehrman’s famous book How Jesus Became God and seeks to explain the historical process by which the Holy Spirit came to be recognized as the third person of the Trinity (thus, I am not suggesting that there was a time when the Spirit was not God; rather, it’s a matter of the Spirit being acknowledged as such).

Much more to come!

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