the theological significance of discipleship – a proposal

So I submitted this PhD proposal last week. If I’m accepted as a candidate and the Government decides to give me a scholarship, then I guess you can expect to hear more about it in the next little while…

I propose to examine the extent to which the concept and language of ‘discipleship’ may provide a resource for systematic theology—with specific reference to the Reformed tradition.

Prominent in the Gospels, discipleship has been extensively examined in New Testament studies. And its significance for Christian ethics, missiology and practical theology is recognised with increasing enthusiasm. Early church and Orthodox accounts of ‘theosis’, medieval spiritualities of imitation, the interest in spiritual formation in Roman Catholic moral theology, and the Anabaptist attention to Jesus’ summons to a distinctive polity all reflect the prominence of discipleship in the foundational Christian documents.

In contrast, the churches of the Magisterial Reformation are alleged to have a ‘discipleship-shaped hole’ in their theology and spirituality—so emphasising God’s unilateral action in salvation, and the response of ‘faith alone’, that they tend towards the ‘cheap grace’ attacked by Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship (1959). John Calvin, for example, hesitated to explicitly deploy discipleship language in his account of the Christian life. Although, Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics IV/2: 506) has argued that the context in which Calvin set this account prevented his paradigmatic Reformed emphasis on ‘faith alone’ from becoming “a comfortable kiss of peace”, issuing no summons to a distinctive life and community.

John Webster (‘Discipleship and Calling’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 23.2 [2005]: 133–47) proposes that the language of discipleship connects Jesus’ formation of a new humanity to God’s character. I intend to assess, then, how this language might assist theologians to approach God practically, in response to Jesus Christ rather than ‘behind his back’. Beginning with Calvin and moving to some modern heirs of the Reformed tradition, I will probe its reticence towards the language of discipleship in order to establish (in conversation with Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder) the extent to which it is theologically, politically and/or polemically motivated. These lines of inquiry will enable me to determine the opportunities for and limitations of a Reformed contribution to the contemporary conversation about discipleship.

the next chapter of the discipleship story

SAW-walking-on-water

Last year I attended a seminar at the annual national conference for the Christian student movement I’m part of. It’s topic was discipleship — what it looks like to follow and imitate Jesus.

A key moment in the seminar came early on, where our speaker framed the question of discipleship like this:

“We can’t walk on water. We can’t cure lepers. So what does it mean to say we want to be like Jesus?”

When he said this, we all chortled along. I did too. (I even tweeted it.) Haw. Haw. Yes. Of course!

And he had a point. When Jesus talks about what it means to follow him, he always emphasises being conformed to him in his self-emptying for the sake of others.

Christian discipleship is about following the path he walked. Service. Self-denial. Suffering.

But I’ve realised that there’s another chapter in the story of discipleship. In many ways it’s the chapter of discipleship’s future — the glory following the suffering, the resurrection following the crucifixion.

The New Testament gives us a preview of this when one disciple does in fact walk on water.

In Matthew 14, the disciples see Jesus walking on the water. Most of them freak out — not sure what they’re seeing. But Peter has faith, and asks if he can go out to be where Jesus is. And Jesus agrees.

It’s a dramatic moment. And if it’s meant to be a picture of the Christian life, then surely it’s primarily about where that life is heading — towards the glory of sharing in Christ’s perfect rule over creation.

And yet there’s also much about Peter’s faltering combination of courage and doubt (overwhelmed and distracted by his circumstances) that speaks to us of the Christian now.

Indeed, the themes that swell in this story — trust, loyalty and the need to develop a Christ-centred gaze — simply are the main themes of the Christian life. They’re as true and urgent now in our conformity with Christ’s sufferings as they will be when we join him in his unveiled glory.

For the invitation contained in Christ’s call to follow him is the invitation to take up our fullest and truest humanity. Humanity in fellowship with God. Renewed in his image. And renovated by his Spirit.

And to do so not simply after we’ve emptied ourselves but also in emptying ourselves.

That is the next chapter of the discipleship story. The chapter in which discipleship is the glorious road to our best humanity. Trusting and looking to Jesus above all. And becoming like him — even when that means falteringly setting out across the waters…

why does the Bible say what it does?

SAW-systematic-web

I’m kind of a systems guys.

Personal and pastoral (family) systems. Ministry systems. Above all systematic theology.

That shouldn’t be news for anyone who knows me — even if just from the blog.

But I’ve only just realised what it is that drives my interest in systems (apart from the inclinations stitched into my personality, reinforced by experience and plucked out by situational necessity).

Deep down, what drives it is my borderline obsession with one single question:

Why does the Bible say what it does?

You see, for better or worse (I think it’s for better), I’m really really really interested in what the Bible says.

It’s the bedrock of my life and faith.

It was modelled to me by the people who taught me the Christian faith and how to live it.

It is almost the central and defining part of my Christian heritage as a reformed evangelical.

And it’s what I invested four years of intensive formal theological education to be thoroughly equipped to pursue.

But I’m starting to realise it’s only a means to an end.

When it comes to knowing, loving and living for God, what the Bible says is subordinate to the even more fundamental question of why it says it.

And the why question is the key to thinking in terms of systems.

Because once you start asking it — e.g., ‘Why does Paul say what he says human authorities being God-appointed in Romans 13, and why does that seem to be different from the picture painted in Revelation 13?’ — you’re already doing systematic theology. Better still, you’re doing it as a natural extension of exegesis … which is exactly what it is!

And because asking it also helps you tune into the personal and pastoral implications of a passage — along the lines of Bryan Chapell’s so-called Fallen Condition Focus, which invites you to ponder what particular pastoral situation (and what underlying realities of living in a fallen world) each biblical passage addresses.

And from here the systematic flower blooms in all it’s manifold glory…

momentary rainbows

20140501-104532.jpg
Momentary rainbows.
Filled with promises and
an insistent delight -
“More bubbles! More bubbles!”

Was it Chaos Theory
Bouncing and lifting them
on Earth’s uneven breath?
Effervescent nothings.

Everyday alchemy:
Scientifically mixed
(Water, soap, glycerin)
Transmuted in the light

Of the late afternoon.
Each one a fragile sheen
Of laughter and beauty,
Chasing after the wind.

the McSweeney’s of the Old Testament?

Deck chairs on the top of Mt Pilatus, high in the Swiss Alps

I’ve had the opportunity to speak on the Psalms a bit lately. And I’ve been doing some obligatory puzzling about the authorship and ascription of the whole Psalter.

David’s authorship or influence towers over the Psalter. Many of the Psalms are labelled with the Hebrew for ‘of David’ (or possibly ‘for David’).

And even though a good number are ascribed to other authors, there’s a sense in which the Psalms are still overwhelmingly ‘Davidish’ — if not Davidic.

While ancient composers may not have had the same scruples as we tend to about plagiarism, I’m beginning to wonder whether the Davidic ascription is less about authorship and more about style and voice.

Kind of like the indie publisher, McSweeney’s.

A host of authors (and aspiring authors) write for McSweeney’s.

They write in different genres, about different subjects, and for different purposes.

And yet there’s a striking similarity — of style (casual, observational, shoot from the hip), tone (usually ironic), stock literary devices, etc — across them all.

A McSweeney’s piece is always recognisably a … McSweeney’s piece!

It’s like the literary version of the hipster dress code.

None of which is meant as a criticism. The highly conventional — even stylised — feel of things that are published in McSweeney’s can mean they come off as hollow and unoriginal. But they don’t have to.

In fact, sometimes the very same conventions of style and tone can become vehicles for brilliance — substantial, personal, transcendent and unique.

In doing this, the recognisable conventions also seem to help us find ourselves in the pieces published by McSweeney’s.

And my hunch is that the Davidic/Davidish ascription of the Psalms — as the tip of the iceberg for the collection of conventions that make up the poetry of the Psalter — may be part of what lets us take them on our lips as our own songs and prayers…

how to give grace to whoever you’re talking with

AFES Chappo Interview

How do you give grace to whoever you’re talking with?

This is the question that’s been circling inside since I preached on Ephesians 4.17-5.2 a couple of weeks back.

It’s a challenging passage. It draws a sharp line between our old identity — our old humanity, mangled as it is by our futile and corrupting desires — and the new identity we’re given in Christ — a humanity made new in the image of our Creator.

But one thing that really leapt out at me as I sat with this passage is the sheer emphasis on how we speak.

It’s there at every turn.

But it’s verse 29 that’s really got a grip on me:

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

So that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Wow!

That is an amazing possibility. Isn’t it?

That the things that come out of our mouths could not only enrich, build up, comfort, encourage, advise — and all those other good human things.

But that we could somehow give grace to whoever you’re talking with.

Astonishing, right? It’s almost hard to picture how that could be.

Except that I’ve seen it.

At the 1 hour and 13 minute mark in this video, Australian evangelist John Chapman was asked if there was a period of his life he looked back on as the happiest.

I was in the room when this question was asked. And I remember the tremendous sense of gratitude that flooded me as it was asked: ‘That was such a kind thing to ask…’

I doubt there was a dry eye in the room by the time Chappo had finished answering.

That question gave grace to John Chapman — and to all of us who listened. Tangibly so.

It did this through it’s beautiful combination of specificity and other-centredness.

Specificity because it forced us to pay attention to particulars rather than just skate across the surface of generality.

Other-centredness because it wasn’t chiefly designed to wrest some wisdom for us from Chappo’s memories — although it did that in spades.

(In fact, this combination seems to be the key to all good questions.)

So it’s with that memory burning in my heart that I’m committing myself to learning to ask the kind of questions that give grace to those who hear.

sharpen your conversations in Lewis’s toolshed

This post first appeared as part of the ‘On holiday with C.S. Lewis’ section of the latest issue of CASE Magazine.

Light_shining1

Imagine this:

You get talking with a friend about their objections to Christian faith. The conversation starts to gather momentum. You seem to be getting more and more opportunity to speak personally about Jesus and about the reasons for your trust in him.

But suddenly there’s a metaphorical screeching of the wheels. Then a sickening jolt.

Perhaps you’ve struck a fissure in the conversational rails. Colliding with some unforeseen personal investments around an issue like same-sex marriage.

Or perhaps something you’ve rounded a corner too quickly, barrelling at speed into some aspect of apologetics that you expected to bluff your way through using second-hand facts and figures (about the fine tuning constants in the universe or whatever).

Or perhaps you were too well-prepared, and allowed your ability to speak at length and in details on your personal field of expertise hijack your desire to talk about Jesus.

Whichever way it happened, your once pleasant and apparently promising conversation has been derailed — and may even be careening out of control towards some ominously looming interpersonal cliffs…

If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation then maybe, like me, you have something to learn from C.S. Lewis’s famous ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’.

Lewis introduces his meditation by recounting his experience of standing in a darkened toolshed. A single sunbeam, originating from a crack at the top of the door, cuts across the shed.

After describing the difference between his experience of looking at the sunbeam and looking along it to see the scene outside, he generalises this to two approaches to knowledge: the ‘external account’ of something, and knowing about something ‘from inside’.

For Lewis, this important distinction was itself an apologetic tool. It helped him challenge the hubris of the ‘scientific’, modernist approach to knowledge — especially its inveterate insistence on the absolute superiority of the ‘external account’.

But for me, it’s more significant as a way to sharpen my sense of how to answer questions.

To begin with, it helps me ask myself questions about how well my responses ‘look along’ my faith towards the One who is its object. A classic biblical passage about this is 1 Peter 3:15:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

In these terms, does my response move out of my reverence for Jesus? Or is it shaped by other forces (like my desire to win the argument or gain approval)?

Likewise, I’m learning that it’s one thing to launch a battery of apologetic arguments or draw on conversational tactics that I’ve carefully gathered and memorized, but it’s something quite different to give the reason for my hope in Christ.

For, ultimately, giving the reason for my hope is something that, if I were to do it, might possibly help my conversation partner look along my testimony to see Jesus, rather than simply looking at it to see how intelligent (or well-rehearsed) I am.

pray your way to the good life

Where then does wisdom come from,
and where is understanding located?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing
and concealed from the birds of the sky.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard news of it with our ears.”
But God understands the way to wisdom,
and He knows its location.
For He looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
– Job 28.20-24 (HCSB)

I find limestone caves absolutely captivating.

I love the way they display the power of gradual and cumulative forces to carve out something beautiful. Dissolving and depositing. Accidentally extruding baroque cathedrals. And secreting them away in the dark. For millennia.

What’s more, they stand as eloquent testimony to the formative power of the slow drip.

For their subterranean minarets and elaborate hanging monuments to erosion didn’t just appear overnight.

Mostly, they’re the product of thousands of years of constant repetition. Slowly eating away at and reconfiguring the rock. Day after day.

Occasionally staining it with a shock of ocre from some rich metallic seam above. Sometimes bleaching away the colours locked within by even older processes.

And the picture the Bible paints of human beings is no different.

I’ve come to be persuaded that the slow drip of habit and repetition is at least as significant for us as is the explosive power of a ‘decisive moment’.

This is one of the reasons why I so much appreciate my friend Andrew’s take on the Lord’s Prayer.

One of the best lessons (and gifts) of the Lord’s prayer is that prayer is not learnt by grasping abstract principles that you take away and apply.

Rather, it’s learnt by practice. By being tried on and ‘worn in’ like a pair of shoes you hope to walk in for years.

Yes — in one sense, it is a template for prayer. But the careful preservation of almost identical wording in both Matthew and Luke suggests that Jesus’ disciples saw it as a prayer to be learnt (not just learnt from).

And Matthew’s careful placement of this prayer to be learnt at the apex of the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ most famous announcement of his radical vision of the good life — hints at the fact that you pray your way to the good life.

You pray your way to the good life because we’re so much like limestone caves. We’re profoundly formed and shaped by the almost imperceptible forces of habit.

As our settled inclination to prioritise our reputation, kingdom and glory is dissolved and gradually realigned with God’s priorities.

Or as our seemingly rock-solid devotion to our own independence, superiority and invulnerability is worn away and slowly (painfully slowly!) replaced by an instinctual desire to walk God’s way.

By our looking to him to meet our material and spiritual needs.

By our extending the same forgiveness we enjoy.

And by our seeking his deliverance and protection from the evil within and without…

theological instincts

weights

I’ve been thinking a bit about our instincts — and what place (if any) they have in Christian living and thinking.

How are our theological instincts formed (and re-formed)?

I guess that almost by definition instincts are hard to bring into the cold, rational light of conscious thought.

This isn’t necessarily a drawback. I’m post-modern enough to be suspicious of pretty much every aspect of cold, rational conscious thought.

But it is something to factor in when it comes to trying to get a grip on our theological instincts — and potentially work at developing and honing them.

Something I find helpful is picturing instincts as more like muscle groups that you isolate, exercise and work on than like ideas you research (read: ‘Google’), weigh up the arguments for and against, then assimilate more or less directly.

That said, I think I have begun to become aware of some of my own theological instincts.

To begin with, I have long noticed how I start to squirm internally when some other Christian I’m listening to starts talking about how they’d answer a question about their faith — perhaps cataloging the evidence for Intelligent Design but not once mentioning or even getting close to talking about Jesus.

In contrast, I instinctively find myself wanting to start with and talk a lot about Jesus.

It just feels more ‘natural’ for me to adopt an approach that says, ‘Hey – I know this whole Christianity thing seems foreign and strange. But most worthwhile things take time understanding and becoming familiar with. Why not come in, take a look around, try out the furniture in here? You know, give Jesus a chance…’

Likewise, I’ve recently been struck by the way my theological instincts were on display in this article I wrote about guidance for the Bible Society.

The article began life as a pretty raw blog post, where I tried to put something I’d noticed about my own prayer life into words.

But when I was invited to expand it, I realised I needed to say more about the vision of Christian ‘adulthood’ I was fumbling towards — inexpertly in my original post, and (hopefully) slightly less inexpertly in my article.

And this is where my theological instincts kicked in. Because almost before I knew it, I’d reached for Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4.

The first is a passage about the work of the Spirit in creating Christian character. And the second is a passage about the work of the risen Christ (by his Spirit) in creating Christian community.

Pneumatology and ecclesiology. The Spirit and the Church. These weren’t so much carefully considered topics — calculated for maximum punch and polemical usefulness — as they were just the things I instinctively reached for when asked to flesh out my vision of Christian growth and maturity.

So I’ve isolated Jesus (and the Trinity and union with Christ), the Spirit and the Church as a few of things I instinctively turn to when I’m asked to approach something as a Christian.

The challenge is now to figure out how to exercise and work on them. (Or maybe to compensate for any lop-sidedness by working on some other theological ‘muscle groups’.)