Month: June 2009

becoming a church of irresistible influence (redux)

Check this out:

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books […] But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.
(Lesslie Newbigin – ‘The Congregation as the Hermeneutic of the Gospel’, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p 227).

Now that’s what connecting is all about!

cross-cultural connections (4)

Download a pdf of this series of posts HERE.

How do you divide up the world? There’s lots of debate about the political correctness of these big labels, but here are some options:

  • First, Second and Third Worlds?
  • ‘East’ and ‘West’?
  • ‘North’ and ‘South’?
  • Developed and Developing?

Duane Elmer refers a lot to Westerners and the Western world, but then refers to the rest of the world as the ‘Two-Thirds World’. Linguistically it kind of bugs me, but I hope you get the gist of what he means…Globe

The latter third of Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Connections discusses a number of key cultural differences between the ‘West’ and the ‘Two-Thirds World’. Like all generalisations, it’s going to grate sometimes, but there was also quite a bit of wisdom. One of the things he said that really struck me was about goal- vs relationally-oriented people.

According to Elmer, Western society is dominated by a goal-focussed mentality. There’s plenty that’s good about this way of operating: goal-oriented people work hard, they are often trustworthy and dedicated. They get a lot done. The relationally-focussed person, on the other hand, dominates the Two-Thirds World. Relationships lay the foundation for activity; goals and schedules are only attended to after sharing in conversation and hospitality. When a friend drops in to visit, they become the relationally-oriented person’s priority — the doctor’s appointment will wait.

Now, there’s no right way to do things — Elmer’s clear this is just a case of difference — but here’s the rub… Elmer’s insight is that goal-oriented people will sacrifice relationships in order to reach the goal while relationally-oriented people will sacrifice the goal in order to maintain the relationship.

In light of this insight, I’ve been wondering what kind of impact discussions like this one will have? I think moving towards realistic goals is definitely a step forward, and generally I’m all for KPIs and SMART goals. But Elmer’s planted a small seed of doubt. What will we be prepared to sacrifice (marriages, friendships, sanity…?) in order to demonstrate we’ve achieved our man-made goals?

God’s righteous love

My studies this year have taken me in some unexpected directions. But they’ve also often produced some surprising and delightful moments of cross-fertilisation — different lines of investigation sparking off one another. One of these moments has been the synergy between my preparations for the Patristic Trinitarian Thought exam and my project on John Calvin’s hermeneutics.

Along these lines, I thought I’d share this gem with you. It’s from an essay by Bruce McCormack (‘For Us and Our Salvation: Incarnation and Atonement in the Reformed Tradition’, p 27):

It is not enough to affirm that the reconciling activity of the Son of God has its ground in the divine love if we are not then able to affirm in a coherent way that that love is operative at every step along the way in the accomplishment of our redemption. We must show how the divine love comes to expression precisely in the outpouring of wrath and judgement. If we do not, we introduce a contradiction into the being of God between God’s mercy and His righteousness. We make God’s mercy the prison, so to speak, of His righteousness, until such time as righteousness has been fully satisfied.

vision and conflict

For Christianity, true community means the freedom of people and groups to be different, not just to be functions of a fixed consensus, yet at the same time it totally refuses indifference; a peaceful, united secure community implies absolute consensus, and yet, where difference is acknowledged, this is no agreement in an idea, or something once and for all achieved, but a consensus that is only in and through the inter-relations of community itself, and a consensus that moves and ‘changes’: a concentus musicus.
(John Milbank, ‘Post-modern Critical Augustinianism’)

From my (limited) experience this is something leaders often struggle with. On the one hand, we’re all about consensus. That’s what we want to generate — not imposing our wills or coercing allegiance (that’s tyranny not leadership) but getting people on board, ‘casting vision’. On the other hand, getting explicit about vision can have the opposite effect. Actually sparking conflict.

Blue Helmets

Blue Helmets by riacale, on Flickr

Vision casting sparks conflict because by nailing your colours to the mast — saying ‘This is (or should be) our priority’ — you let people see where the proposed direction may not match their own priorities.

This doesn’t always happen immediately of course. It’s galvanising to be involved in something with a clear sense of purpose. Like jumping aboard a moving train. You’re going somewhere!

But things’ll change as time passes. And it’s more than a case of vision ‘leaking’. A vision that fosters ownership and growing maturity (my idea of a good vision) is already sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Or its own modification at least.

For ownership moves people from being passive observers to becoming genuine stakeholders, personally invested in the direction and outcomes as well as the shape and feel of the project.

Good vision casting is prepared for this. Expects conflict to follow. And knows it can be constructive. If the leadership is trusted and clear channels of communication are maintained, getting explicit about vision opens up debate about the direction and texture of the project. And, managed well, the resulting ‘mobile consensus’ binds together more tightly and truly than a static one.

the New Perspective’s pretty Reformed, Wright?

It’ll end up taking us back into Catholicism! I presume you’ve heard this accusation levelled against the New Perspective on Paul and N. T. Wright specifically (actually, the common pairing of ‘Wright and the New Perspective’ doesn’t have heaps to recommend it, if you take Wright’s own self-positioning at face value).

What’s interesting is that people who’ve read a lot more Tom Wright than I have keep suggesting that far from turning us all into Roman Catholics, he’s fundamentally Reformed — maybe even too Reformed!

Ben Witherington III says as much (h/t to Matt), and doesn’t pull any punches:

[A]t the end of the day, Wright is taking a very traditional view of the doctrine of justification, namely that Paul, when he uses the dikaios/dikaiosune etc. word group is largely referring to forensic righteousness, right standing with God established by grace and through faith in the dying and rising Messiah Jesus. Further, in very Reformed fashion he wants to argue that in Romans and elsewhere what the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ refers to is God’s covenant faithfulness to promises he made. Sounds like a good traditional Reformed reading of Paul to most of us.

I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every detail of Witherington’s account or his criticisms (I prefer Bird’s typically incisive comments).

The internecine nature of the dispute perhaps explains why there’s so much heat being generated for so little light…

an invitation

A number of people commented on the ‘density’ (I think that’s a nice way of saying ‘incomprehensibility’) of my Issues in Theology presentation on the doctrine of providence and climate change. I certainly found it difficult to condense my material — and leave lots of it on the cutting-room floor.


In view of this, I’m inviting you to help in hammering out a more well-founded opinion, as I try to lay out my case in a more leisurely and comprehensible way. But rather than hijacking this blog — which Natalie and I share — I’ve created another space devoted to opening up a conversation exploring the shape and texture of a genuinely evangelical environmentalism.

Thus [drumroll please], let me unveil … my new ‘side blog’, An Inconvenient Invitation. You can see the titles of the most recent posts in the top right-hand corner of the main page. Why not join the conversation?

jehovah jireh (i)

Jehovah Jireh, my provider
His grace is sufficient for me
For me, for me!
Jehovah Jireh, my provider
His grace is sufficient for me.

So we used to sing when I was a youngster. Asserting our unwavering confidence in God’s abundant and timely provision in a jaunty, Ned Flandersish kind of way.

It’s easy enough to sing (I suppose) when you’re young and healthy and upper middle class. But it doesn’t take much life experience to put a dent in:

  • Jehovah Jireh? Yeah right! Hasn’t exactly provided on any of those jobs I’ve applied for … I just want to work. Not be stuck in limbo like this.
  • His grace is sufficient for me? Pull the other one! I never signed up to climb this mountain — or uproot that persistent character flaw, change such a deeply ingrained habit of feeling and acting. You’re asking too much, Lord!
  • My provider? Surely you’re joking! I could have done with some provision when my world — all my relationships, everything — cracked open and dissolved under the pressure of that mental illness…
  • God cares for me? Well … maybe. Although the prospect of going to church or reading the Bible doesn’t exactly send a shiver of excitement down my spine. Praying just feels like talking to the wall. And God seems so distant, right now.

In the face of life’s roller-coaster, how can we make such a confession? How can we believe in God’s providence? Are we destined to look as silly as Voltair’s hapless hero, Candide, who hurls his iron-clad confidence that ‘everything will turn out for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ into the teeth of ever more desperate and irretrievable situations?

For that matter, how could Abraham make the original confession of confidence in God’s provision (his yireh — ‘seeing to’ the lamb for the burnt offering) on that trek up mount Moriah under orders to sacrifice Isaac, the long-awaited son of the promise?

The Jerusalem Temple mound -- traditional speculation identifies it with Mount Moriah, where Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac

The Jerusalem Temple mound. Traditional speculation identifies it with Mount Moriah.

It is here that we must begin as we probe the whys and wherefores of the oft-neglected doctrine of God’s providence.

keeping the Barthian in me honest

CalvinusThe time has come for me to launch into my final year project in earnest. I’m investigating the connection between the way Calvin welds the Old and New Testaments together and his Christology — an investigation I hope will shed some light on how this towering Reformer wove together what we might call biblical theology with systematic theology.

This warning sounded by Richard Muller (The Unaccommodated Calvin, p 14) will provide a touchstone for my investigation:

The sixteenth-century Calvin, the Calvin who was born a Catholic, whose theology was learned primarily in and through his work as a commentator and Reformer, whose work evidences the impact of humanist philology and rhetoric, of patristic study, but also, both positively and negatively, of the categories of medieval scholastic thought, and whose conclusions, together with those of a group of contemporary Reformed and Lutheran thinkers, became a basis for much of later Protestant theology — this Calvin cannot easily be accommodated to the needs and desires of modern Barthians or Schleiermacherians. Nor does this Calvin admit of intellectual or psychological bifurcation along the lines of twentieth-century prejudice. A reading of Calvin’s thought in its sixteenth-century context, in other words, yields the picture of a theology at once intriguing and intractible to twentieth-century concerns.

That’ll keep the Barthian in me honest!

cross-cultural connections (3)

Download a pdf of this series of posts HERE.

Openness, acceptance and trust. They sound a bit New Age maybe? Or perhaps they’re the catch-cry of the naive multi-culturalist? They’re actually the three personal characteristics that Elmer identifies in Cross-Cultural Connections that are fundamental to successful cross-cultural adjustment.

Elmer’s really upfront about the fact that in cross-cultural situations you will face frustration, confusion, tension and embarrassment. You will. But he suggests that if you can enter into those situations with openness, acceptance and trust you are more likely to observe closely, listen intently and inquire genuinely about what happened.

In contrast, if you walk into a cross-cutural setting fearful, suspicious and stubbornly holding onto the way you like things done, then he pretty much guarantees that you will be full of criticism for the new culture and will tend to withdraw into yourself (or a community of similar people).


I like the framework. I like the fact that these characteristics don’t necessarily mean having to give up your own culture. Although if you’re acting this way I think you’ll be prone to picking up new ways of doing things, I also think that openness, acceptance and trust are things you can really only do when you have a pretty strong sense of self, of your value and purpose. So, these characteristics aren’t about making you into something else in order to connect with others but help you transcend the barriers between yourself and others from where you already are.

See posts (1) and (2).

how to maintain the evangelical tension — evangelically

I’ve pointed before to one of my favourite passages from Oliver O’Donovan’s On The Thirty Nine Articles. There, he insists that the ‘evangelical tension’ — without which the gospel collapses — involves recognising that when we say ‘God suffered for me’ it matters that it’s God who suffered. How else could the One who suffered with and for us actually do something about it?

Newbigin (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p 225) observes that ‘While [Jesus], responded instantly to the touch of human need, he yet retained the sovereignty in his own hands. He chose the times, place, and manner of his acts.’ This is dazzlingly clear in John’s version of the passion narrative. Read again it — carefully. Asking yourself at each point, Who’s in control here? Who’s calling the shots?

Time and again, Jesus brings His divine apatheia (His impassible invulnerability to being forced in to anything) to bear even in the midst of His passion — the supreme moment in which something is (apparently) done to Him. For this is the One who has the authority to lay down His life and to take it up again (John 10.17).

Yet the cross is no suicide. It’s the culmination of Christ’s self-emptying identification with us, taking our plight upon Himself, draining it to the dregs, exhausting it in the depths of His own divine life. His apatheia is no silent stasis of death but the brimming and overflowing triumph of life and love.

The cross is thus the coronation of the King. The exaltation — the ‘lifting up’ — of the One who is high and exalted: the One Isaiah saw in his temple vision, the LORD, the living one.

Newbigin (p 226) puts it beautifully:

In serving human need, Jesus remains master. The servant who washes the feet of his disciples is their master and lord, and it is in serving that he exercises his lordship.

This is how to maintain the evangelical tension evangelically — on the basis of the gospel rather than smuggled in philosophical convictions about the impossibility of God suffering.