Theology

does Christianity = discipleship?

Photo: 'pieds' 1 of 20, Devan Foster

Photo: ‘pieds’ 1 of 20, Devan Foster

My research on the theological significance of discipleship in the Reformed tradition has begun!

One of the big questions I’m faced with right off the bat is how to understand ‘discipleship’.

Is it coextensive with being Christian? Is it real Christianity — the genuine article (as opposed to, say, nominalism or ‘carnal’ Christianity)? Or something else?

Some are outspoken about this. Famously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (The Cost of Discipleship):

Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more nor less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.

In saying this, Bonhoeffer is making common cause with what has been described as the ‘Anabaptist vision’. That is, the vision of faith and life expressed by the equation: Christianity = discipleship.

And there is something clearly right about this. Again and again, Jesus summoned people to discipleship — to follow him rather than merely associating themselves with him from a distance, to embrace him on his terms rather than their own (after burying their dead or saying good-bye to their families, for example), to publicly ‘own’ him rather than secretly nursing some private conviction or experience.

More, there is something deeply appealing. I love Bonhoeffer’s Christocentrism. For him (as for Barth), Jesus has to define and shape our allegiance to him — not some system, principle or idea … even an idea about Jesus.

But things are just a little more complicated… (Obviously, right? Or I’d hardly think I could get a PhD out of it!)

For one thing, Jesus seems to not just call people to follow him — as many had done before and many would do after him — but also to rework, expand and give new content to what such following means.

I’m also not 100% sure that the simple equation of Christianity with discipleship can be made without some important remainder.

In the end, what I’m seeking is a more thoroughly Jesus-shaped vision of the Christian life.

And I’m happy to look almost anywhere for it. Whether to the Anabaptists and their heirs or the Magisterial Reformers (like Calvin) and their heirs — even if it means displacing discipleship as the central organising image for being Christian.

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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…

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’.)

what do the Virgin birth and the empty tomb have in common?

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“The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our understanding or our interpretation, but by itself. Marked off in regard to its origin: it is free of the arbitrariness which underlies all our existences. And marked off in regard to its goal: it is victorious over the death to which we are all liable. Only within these limits is it what it is and is it correctly understood, as the mystery of the revelation of God. It is to that mystery that these limits point — he who ignores them or wishes them away must see to it that he is not thinking of something quite different from this.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2: page 182.

instruments in the Redeemer’s hands

A friend recently handed me a copy of Paul Tripp’s book, Instruments In The Redeemer’s Hands. And it’s got me really excited.

I know it’s not exactly a new book. So it’s a good thing this isn’t exactly a book review!

I simply want to share what’s got me excited about it so far. And that is that it’s a practical theology of every-member ministry that’s word-focused and body-contextualised — a la Ephesians 4.

I’m going to try to break this down for you. But before I do, let me give you a little taste of it’s awesomeness:

We are too easily captivated by our self-centred little worlds. But Ephesians 4 propels us beyond a life consumed by personal happiness and achievement. Your life is much bigger than a good job, an understanding spouse, and non-delinquent kids. It is bigger than beautiful gardens, nice vacations, and fashionable clothes. In reality, you are part of something immense, something that began before you were born and will continue after you die. God is rescuing fallen humanity, transporting them into his kingdom, and progressively shaping them into his likeness — and he wants you to be part of it.

Why am I so excited by this?

1. It’s practical theology.

As you can hopefully see even from this brief excerpt, it’s neither a dense theological textbook nor a lightweight toolbox of pastoral counselling resources with the thinnest of theological groundings.

2. It’s all about every-member ministry.

Picking up on the clear emphasis of Ephesians 4 (not to mention the repeated refrain of the various church and ‘one another’ passages in the New Testament), each one of us is addressed by the ‘demanding comfort’ of this announcement that we’re part of something bigger — and called to live out this larger vision of being human.

3. It’s unashamedly word-focused.

Lots of every-member ministry stuff moves very quickly to the diversity of gifts. But that’s not what Ephesians does. And neither does Tripp. Instead, he majors on speaking the truth in love to one another as every-member ministry. Which is awesome.

4. It’s body-contextualised.

Balancing the previous point, it refused to rip its focus on word-ministry out of the context of necessary interdependence, mutual responsibility, and diversity that the body metaphor provides. This is how Tripp resists the tendency to slide towards a ‘one size fits all’ approach to bringing the word to bear on one another’s lives.

So stay tuned…

There’s much more to come!

maybe I’m more Lutheran than Calvinist

A bunch of critical questions about Calvinism have appeared in my Facebook feed lately — usually posed by people who consider themselves Calvinist/Reformed. (If you’re interested in catching up there was THIS, <a href="THIS“>THIS, and THIS.)

Co-incidentally (or was it predestined?) the next question I was asked to address in the church bulletin at one of my partner churches was this:

Last week’s reading in Acts we saw that Jesus’ death and resurrection were God’s plan from the beginning, however Peter holds the crowd responsible for that sinful act. How do we reconcile these things?

Here’s my response. You tell me — am I more Lutheran or Calvinist in my approach to God’s sovereignty?

Continue reading

information vs inclination

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I’ve been chewing on Luke 16.19-31 — you know, the passage where Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. And it’s really stimulating me as I think about the dynamics of spiritual growth.

I’m particularly stirred up by the response Jesus tells us Abraham makes to the rich man when asked if he can dispatch Lazarus to warn his family:

‘Father,’ he said, ‘then I beg you to send him to my father’s house — because I have five brothers — to warn them, so they won’t also come to this place of torment.’

But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:27-31 HCSB)

Talk about a shut down!

It’s possible to understand Abraham’s dramatic final shut down in terms of information.

Understood this way, Abraham’s response would travel along the lines of: “Unless they understand the Old Testament background and promise that would give significance to a person rising from death, they won’t be convinced to repent”.

However, I’m thinking that what Abraham’s saying is not so much about information as inclination.

That is to say, understanding ‘Moses and the prophets’ — ie. the Old Testament context — is barely even half the job. Far more important is believing what they say.

For the rich man, it’s not so much an issue of ignorance or misunderstanding as of hardness of heart. (Of course, ignorance and misunderstanding may be wrapped up with this hard-heartedness. But it’s ultimately a matter of trust.)

This lines up with the verdict the writer of Hebrew’s passes on the generation of Israelites who were rescued from Egypt but never entered the promised land — “they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3.19).

And this is so often still the case when we sin or fail to grow and mature.

It’s our unbelief that lurks behind it — even our unwillingness to believe.

It’s rooted in the fact that we don’t trust Jesus to provide those things we’re accustomed to getting some other way: our sense of completeness, worth, security, or acceptance.

We’re afraid that he won’t deliver. Or that he can’t. At least, not on schedule.

Because, ultimately, we’re not inclined to trust him. Which is why even a spectacular demonstration of his reliability — or his provision and attention to our needs — can fail to win our allegiance.

If we don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, we will not be persuaded — even if someone rises from the dead!

the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak

Last week I heard a terrific talk on Matthew 26.36-46 — Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This is the journey it took me on:

As we kneel beside Jesus in this moment of intimate prayer, we get an authentic taste of the cost God bears to reconcile us to himself.

Jesus falls apart at the prospect of draining the cup of God’s wrath against sinners. He’s broken and oppressed. Weighed down with grief and fear. Begging for there to be any other way.

But he also willingly chooses to trust his Father. He surrenders. And consents to walk the path laid out for him — the path leading to the cross.

As a result, he completes the mission the Father sent him on. And leaves us an example at the same time.

  1. An example of trusting obedience — “yet not my will but your will be done”.
  2. An example of honest wrestling in prayer — not hiding his dread at what awaits him but laying it before his loving Father.
  3. An example of transforming forgiveness — dealing gently with his wavering followers as he restores and summons them to renewed obedience.
  4. And an example of God-honouring response to suffering — not allowing the darkness to blot out his confidence in his Father’s goodness (and thus the goodness of the path before him).

In a sense, these are the two mega-themes of the Christian faith: God’s decisive achievement of reconciliation in Christ and the response it summons us to.

But what really gripped me about the talk — and what still grips me about this passage — is how it brings together these two themes.

It all hinges on the third point.

You see, Jesus invites his inner circle to share his agony — following at a distance, keeping watch and praying. And when they fail (not once but three times), he forgives and summons them to renewed obedience.

Verses 40-41 are where things get really interesting.

Notice first how Jesus won’t let them hide from their failure: “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?”

As always, God’s forgiveness isn’t a shrugging indifference — as though what we do (or don’t do) doesn’t really matter. That’s what makes is forgiveness.

Notice too how his gentleness and understanding in forgiving — “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” — goes hand-in-hand with a reiterated summons to obedience: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

This transforming forgiveness is what Christ willingly drinks the cup to secure for us.

Ultimately, Gethsemane opens a window into the cross not simply as the objective achievement of reconciliation — securing the possibility of salvation or whatever. It also gives us a glimpse of the ‘subjective’ goal of the cross — the flesh and blood reality of salvation.

For here we see our Saviour choosing to drink the cup we deserve to drink in order to call forth and enable our stumbling and faltering Grace Rather Than Fear-driven obedience

He surrenders to his Father’s will so we might obediently trust.

He pours out the grief and pain in his heart so we might bring our own to God in prayer.

He forgives and restores so we might become agents of transforming forgiveness.

And he clings to his Father so we too might know the light that shines in the darkness…

Lord – teach us to pray … again!

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Picture this:

You’re walking along — in transit between Point A and Point B (your home and your tram stop, your office and wherever you parked your car).

You’ve set aside the time to pray. Perhaps to start your morning with something important. Or review your day.

So you begin: “Loving God…”

You pray briefly for a couple of big picture things. This morning’s headlines. Uncle Ernest’s big operation. Stuff like that.

Then you turn your attention to the day, intending to offer up whatever crosses your mind.

There’s that looming deadline.

And some simmering conflict with a work colleague.

Yep — definitely pray about that.

And you need to call your parents. Better pray for that conversation! Oh yeah — and for them too…

And there’s the dry cleaning to pick up…

Whoa. Back on track.

“Maybe I should pull out my phone and check my appointments. Then I can commit my day to God — hour by hour.”

And before you know it prayer gets buried under the jumble of day planning — adding items to your To Do list, checking email, and scanning your Facebook news feed…

Sound familiar?

It happens to me all the time. All. The. Time.

Mind you, it’s not a new problem. Theologian John Calvin wrote about it back in the Seventeenth Century (minus the email and Facebook bit).

Here’s what Calvin says about the tendency of undisciplined prayer to collapse under the weight of random thoughts and recollections in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.xx.5):

No one is so intent on praying that he does not feel many irrelevant thought stealing upon him, which either break the course of prayer or delay it by some winding bypath.

What can be done about this?

This is where the Lord’s Prayer comes in.

Explicitly so in Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus’ disciples approach him and ask, “Lord, teach us to pray”, Jesus responds by outlining the What, How, and Why of prayer. And it all starts with the Lord’s Prayer.

For Jesus in Luke, this prayer is a solid and spacious trellis upon which his disciples can grow a healthy and fruitful prayer life.

Which certainly sounds to me like a pretty good place to start — or start again!

enjoyment is only the tip of the iceberg

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I think I was dimly aware that an entire theology of creation (and a theological anthropology as part of that) was lurking beneath the surface of my previous post.

But — a bit like rubbing detergent or saliva on the inside of your snorkelling mask — it took this dazzling gem from the Church Dogmatics III/4 to bring things into sharp focus for me:

[God] takes man so seriously in his vocation to be in covenant with Him that He calls him to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others. He calls him to find himself by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other. (Section 54.1, pages 116-117)

I find this so helpful. For one thing, it traces the same arc I’ve launched myself upon in beginning to flesh out a properly biblical notion of enjoyment (e.g., wrapping it up with other-regarding behaviour like giving and sharing — or, as Barth specifies it here, with affirming, honouring, and comforting).

But it’s the location of this claim within the sweep of the Church Dogmatics that really excites me.

You see, in Sections 52-56 Barth is busy drawing out the ethical implications of the theology of creation he has developed in Book III — which might be better labelled a Christology of creation.

This is exciting because it doesn’t only confirm my hunch that enjoyment is the tip of a much larger iceberg. It also suggests the kind of shape that this submerged theology needs to have in order to yield a distinctively Christian alternative to the reigning ‘ethics of otherness’.

In the ethics of otherness trailblazed by the likes of Immanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, difference is absolute. All we can (ethically) do is tremble before the claim of the other as other — in a kind of mirror image reversal of the revulsion supposedly characterising the sort of ethics Levinas et al rail against. The tyranny of the self — and people like me — is replaced by the tyranny of the other.

What Barth invites us to imagine by contrast is a way of placing the other beside the self.

It is only in doing so that we will find the conceptual freedom to forge well-differentiated connections between ourselves and others. Perhaps even allowing for the full range of ethically justifiable responses to otherness — between the extremes of knee-jerk exclusion and indiscriminate embrace…