Month: April 2012

beyond Pentecostal Christology (i)

When I outlined the Christological basis for Edward Irving’s move into what today we would call Pentecostalism, I promised that alongside my appreciation of its merits (which are considerable) I would also share a couple of reservations. Although, maybe ‘reservations’ puts things around the wrong way.

Rather than a dead end that we should notice but not walk down (a sort of theological cautionary tale), I believe Irving’s Christology is an incredibly fruitful and necessary step along the way to recovering a richer understanding of Jesus — and, consequently, of the shape and dynamism of the Christian life.

Let me explain how I see this working.

As far as our understanding of Christology, Irving has highlighted the significant role of the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, life, and ministry — raising questions about his humanity and to what extent he might be a role-model for us and not simply God stepping in and doing what we can’t. Instead of backing away from this, I think we should embrace it.

What embracing this means, on the one hand, is that we must affirm the trinitarian backdrop that makes sense of classical formulations of the full divinity of Jesus.

That is to say, what it means for Jesus to be fully God (as well as fully human) is that he shares in the unique divine identity with Israel’s God — co-eternal, co-equal, and united with the Father in essence and will. And Irving’s close work in the biblical text helps us see that Jesus does this by the powerful agency of the Spirit.

On the other hand, embracing the role of the Spirit in enabling Jesus to walk the path he does in his ‘incarnate career’ helps us see his representative humanity as a full and genuine humanity. So we can admit that in his life — and supremely and climactically in his death and resurrection — Jesus does do what we cannot do. And yet he does it as one of us.

This means his work for us isn’t detached from us — something God goes over our heads to do, merely wielding Jesus’ humanity like some fleshly instrument. Rather, it’s carried it out in deepest connection with us and our being.

As a real human being, Jesus is able to deal with our plight from within — getting to its heart by the power of the Spirit, and becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Likewise, as a real human being, he now lives and stands before God for us — sharing his risen life with us by the power of the very Spirit he graciously pours out.

I’ll try to tease out how I see this shaping and energising Christian living in the next post.

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the roots of Pentecostal Christology?

Returning to my series on the fascinating theology of Edward Irving, I suggested in my introductory post that one of the things that propelled him out of the Church of Scotland and into his role as founder of a new Pentecostal denomination was his distinctive take on the Spirit’s role in the ‘incarnate career’ of Jesus.

That is to say, for Irving it all started with Christology — and with a desire to stick closely to the text of Scripture. So it’s worth asking what we can appreciate before I register a couple of my reservations.

(In case you think what follows is an automatic recommendation of Irving, let me remind you that Arius also began with issues of Christology — specifically a desire to secure a genuinely suffering Saviour — and a biblicist sensibility — “More Bible, less philosophy” seemed to be his mantra. And Arius ended up denying the Trinity.)

To begin with, Irving picked up on the significant — and often-overlooked — role the Spirit is given in all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, especially.

And if you think about it the Holy Spirit really does get big billing at pretty much all the decisive moments in Jesus’ life: in his incarnation and virginal conception, in his baptism, in his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, in public discussion of the significance of his mighty works, in his resurrection, and — tracking through into Acts — in the vindication of his ascended lordship as he pours out the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Irving concluded from this that Jesus was enabled to do his mighty works not so much by virtue of his divinity as by his Spirit-powered (or Spirit-perfected) humanity. Hence, Irving began to wonder whether this power might be available not just for the unique God-man but for all upon whom the Spirit was poured out.

And it’s at least worth considering this prospect, isn’t it? I mean, didn’t Jesus say that his disciples would do ‘greater works’ than him once he’d gone to the Father and left them his Spirit (John 14.12)?

let’s do a little thought experiment

OK. I’ve been avoiding the whole same-sex marriage issue. But I’d like to open it up. So I want you to do a little thought experiment with me…

Let’s image — as seems increasingly likely — the marriage arrangements in Australia are altered at some point in the near future so as make same-sex marriage equivalent under law with marriage as we know it.

What would happen? How should conservative, Bible-believing Christians respond? (Apart, of course, from wailing and gnashing of teeth — which may well be entirely appropriate, especially if churches who refused to solemnise such relationships would face legal sanctions.)

Should we opt out of the institution of marriage altogether — regarding it as corrupt and beyond redemption — perhaps setting up a parallel ‘Christian’ arrangement as an alternative?

Or should we mobilise, go on the war path, and seek to reclaim and ‘re-Christianise’ it?

I guess it’s clear from the way I’ve set up the alternatives that I’m not keen on either option.

Why not?

It’s because neither of these are the responses the Apostle Paul recommends Christians make to the corrupt and degenerate institution of marriage as it existed in first century Corinth.

I think we can glean from 1 Corinthians 7) that marriage in Corinth had been reduced to a formal shell of itself. An arrangement of purely economic convenience. So far out of touch with God’s original, creation-purposes that married people were in the habit of seeking sexual satisfaction anywhere except within the bounds of marriage!

But Paul doesn’t call for truly spiritual Christians to ditch the institution altogether. Nor does he say, “Let’s reclaim it”. Instead, he gives practical advice for engaging with this cracked and broken institution in a way that is good, God-honouring, and gives people a taste of God’s goodness in creation and salvation.

Briefly, he says:

  • If you’re married, your body isn’t your own — you owe it to your partner. So don’t deprive each other of sex or intimacy (except under very particular circumstances you both agree to).
  • If you don’t need or get the opportunity to get married, don’t feel you have to. You are not less human or ‘complete’ if you don’t get married (in fact you’ll probably find life less complicated).
  • If you’re married, hang in there and try to make sure it lasts — as much as this depends on you. This includes if your partner isn’t Christian (I think the situation Paul’s speaking into is mostly likely that of marriages in which one partner has become a Christian after getting married).
  • If you have a choice about who to marry (as widows/widowers did in the ancient world), then marry a believer — and stick to God’s script for how you go about it.

So I’m interested. Based on this, what advice do you think Paul might give to Christians in a context in which same-sex marriage was a reality?

a presbyterian and a pentecostal walk into a bar…

I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke (and given the possible scruples of our heroes maybe a bar isn’t exactly appropriate — a church hall perhaps, or if they’re the missional church planting variety of presbyterians and pentecostals then maybe a boutique microbrewery would be more suitable). But it’s the way I often feel in my work at La Trobe University.

Presbyterians and Pentecostals are by far the dominant two church backgrounds of members of our Christians Union group. We do have members from a smattering of other denominations, of course — including a steadily-widening stream of Australian Born Chinese from independent evangelical churches enriching the soil.

That’s why it’s particularly apt that my big task in preparing for our mid-year conference on the Holy Spirit is to get on top of the work of Edward Irving.

Irving was a nineteenth century minister in the Church of Scotland (the forerunner of today’s Presbyterians) who ended up establishing his own Pentecostal denomination — the Catholic Apostolic Church.

From what I’ve read so far, two broad factors seem to have laid the groundwork for this move:

  1. His intuition that the significant role of the Holy Spirit in the incarnation, teaching and healing ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus suggests that He did these things as a spirit-powered human being (and thus as a prototype for his people, now He’s poured the Spirit out).
  2. His dissatisfaction with the way regeneration had come to be understood as a matter almost entirely of individual inward renewal. This led Irving to distinguish regeneration from baptism in the Spirit, yielding what has came to be the traditional Pentecostal emphasis on speaking in tongues as the normal initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit (subsequent to conversion/regeneration).

I’ll try to let Irving speak in his own words as I explore these things in subsequent posts.

the Holy Spirit is my strategy?

It’s time to turn a corner and leave behind my recent reflections on ministry, strategy, and time management.

This is partly because I’ve run out of puff (having felt the need to process some stuff after a stupidly frantic February and March). And it’s partly because I’ve now got to put my head down and get stuck into preparing for our campus group’s mid year camp, Summit.

We’re tackling the topic of the Holy Spirit this year.

I’m really excited about this. Largely because one of my tasks is to wrap my head around the theology of Edward Irving, a ‘pentecostal’ theologian from 70 years before Pentecostalism hit the world-wide church scene.

So to mark this change of direction, I want to quote from Tom Wright’s recent appreciation of Rowan Williams (originally published in the Times and made available in abridged form at Fulcrum):

Rowan’s style has been private and unstrategic. Once, questioned about strategy, he responded crossly, “I believe in the Holy Spirit!”, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the Spririt might work through long-term planning.

My hope is that the Christian Union at La Trobe will emerge from a five-day soaking in what the Bible says about God the Holy Spirit not only believing more deeply and sharply in Him but also thoroughly energised by Him to take on the strategic and long-term challenge of being a mission fellowship on campus!

where ‘people not structures’ can sabotage you

“Christian ministry is about people not structures” is probably a fairly familiar imperative. A kind of evangelical Motherhood And Apple Pie statement.

The thought is that our structures should serve people. They should help them become disciples, grow in maturity, and make other disciples. And when they stop helping people like this we should stop pouring resources into keeping them running.

And it’s a great thought as far as it goes. I’ve certainly encountered ‘mothers’ groups’ full of octogenarians (I guess they’re still mothers) and ‘youth groups’ with an ever-expanding penumbra of young adults — as well as some not-so-young ones!

Someone’s got to start asking hard questions about these structures at some point — especially if they’re sucking up significant time and resources without helping anyone move forward very much.

But I suspect this idea could also sabotage us. Especially when it gets drawn into the ministry Time Management Vs Open-Endedness nexus I’ve been posting about recently.

This happens where it functions as a fig leaf to cover up our own failings in leadership, administration, or strategy — even justifying these failings to ourselves.

When we start saying to ourselves (as I have in the past): “Oh. Ministry’s all about people not structures. Making phone calls to newcomers is just a structural responsibility (one I don’t particularly relish or feel very good at). So it’s no big issue if I don’t get around to it — my plate’s already full enough of good ministry things like pastorally significant conversations with key leaders.”

What happens if we let ‘people not structures’ thinking like this side-track us from our structural responsibilities like calling newcomers? Before long there won’t be any people for us to do ministry with!

good ministry or bad strategy?

I want to continue poking around the dense underbrush of time-management in Christian ministry. Who knows what I might startle and flush out into the light?

If you’ve been involved in Christian circles for any length of time, I imagine you’ve heard people say ‘Good ministry always generates more ministry’ — or words to that effect.

I’ve definitely heard it. I’ve even said it myself.

But I’d us to scrutinise it. Because, as I noted in my previous post about working out our limits not by policing the boundaries but by focusing on the centre and making sure all the big and important things are locked in, the fact that ministry is open-ended makes it even more difficult to say No.

Perhaps it’s just because I wrestle with perfectionism, but there always seems to be another person to follow up, another person needing help, another task (or six) to do to wrap up the day.

And so the idea that good ministry always generates more ministry can console me and help me draw a line that says ‘Enough’.

On the other hand, it can also let me off the hook. In particular, if my strategy is bad — or if I’m not on top of my admin (as I would be expected to be in any other job) — then the ‘good ministry…’ mantra becomes self-serving.

Let me explain:

There may be too many people to follow up and push along the road to maturity because I’m being effective — ie. the ministry is multiplying as those I’m working with are involved in making disciples themselves. Or there may be too many people to follow up because I’m failing to do my job and aren’t touching base with newcomers, helping them connect in with others, or grab hold of Jesus.

Which is it for you?