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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 ordinary holiness of a church

Empty, expectant?

I’m glad to say I’m part of an ordinary church.

We meet in an ordinary building — a former Salvation Army Citadel (although it doesn’t look like it’s built to withstand much of an onslaught).

Things are neat enough. And functional.

But, as a physical space, it’s not exactly beautiful.

More down-at-heel. Boasting a tattered op-shop vibe. (A little like our congregation I guess.)

And yet it’s also cosy. Wadded with memories. Lived in. A family home.

The laughter and tears of children trodden into the carpet along with scattered glitter and crumbs.

When it rains, it’s soft. So insistently there — only a few feet away. Nearby. But not confined to that one location. (A little like our God I guess.)

Some days I wonder if I can almost hear the ghost of our prayers — ours and those of the generations before us. The inaudible echo of so much faith and doubt.

And during Advent I can’t shake the feeling that our bland and gnarled building is a cocoon — within which we slowly squirm and heave, waiting for transformation.

If this isn’t holiness, perhaps it’s its shadow…

a timely word

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve sung every traditional Advent hymn and Christmas carol thousands of times.

And yet as overdone and all-too-familiar as they can feel, the words still occasionally pierce the numbing cloud. This year these ones did it for me:

Wise men leave your contemplations!
Brighter visions shine afar;
Seek in him the hope of nations
You have seen his rising star.
Come and worship, Christ the new born King;
Come and worship, worship Christ the new born King.

Timely — especially for someone who finds it so easy to get wrapped up in my own contemplations…

who doesn’t want to be likeable?

I like to think of myself as a pretty likeable guy. I mean who doesn’t?

Of course, there are temptations wrapped up with this desire. Driven by pride and insecurity no doubt.

But when this summary of what makes a business ‘likeable’ landed in my inbox (courtesy of the #StartupLab mailing list I’m on), it made me stop short:

Likeable businesses live by 5 principles: listening, responsiveness, authenticity, transparency, and surprise and delight.

I guess wanting to be likeable can’t be all bad — especially if this is what it means.

Maybe I need to start asking some hard questions about the likeability of my ministry and the Christian groups I’m involved with.

What do you reckon?

the best 5 books I read this year

The gap between Christmas and New Year usually affords some time for reflection — as well as watching the cricket, lazing around with family and friends, and generally trying to recover from overindulging at Christmas!

In this spirit, I want to share with you the best 5 books I’ve read this year. Not all of them are new. But I’m sure they’ve all shaped my thinking, feeling and acting.

So, here they are (in no particular order):

  1. Karl Barth’s Earlier Theology by John Webster. Webster carefully draws out the key themes of Barth’s earlier theology (examining lecture cycles and published works dating from between the second edition of Barth’s commentary on Romans and the Church Dogmatics). He shows how Barth consistently returned to the knot of ethical questions left by the Renaissance — What does it mean to live a fully human life? etc — answering them on the basis of the Reformation’s radical recognition of God’s sovereign freedom and grace. Massively stimulating!
  2. Galatians Anchor Bible Translation and Commentary by J. Louis Martyn. Martyn’s translation (and explanatory notes) have the same invasive and subsequently illuminating character he claims Paul’s thinking in Galatians does. While not always convincing, Martyn is totally worth reading. And the whole ‘apocalyptic turn’ in theology and biblical studies sparked by this commentary is tremendously generative.
  3. To Change The World by James Davison Hunter. No surprises here I guess. I blogged enough about this when I was reading it. But even though some of my initial ardour may have cooled, I still believe Hunter’s project and approach is precisely what’s needed as Christians continue to wrestle with how to engage in the public sphere.
  4. Joined-up Life by Andrew Cameron. Not only is this take on Christian ethics deeply insightful and brilliantly constructed — each chapter makes a relatively simple point, but taken together they provide a remarkably nuanced map of what Cameron calls the ‘ethical field’. But the language Cameron chooses also has the capacity to bust through so many of the log jams in contemporary ethics and Christian living (my copy has “That’ll preach!” scrawled in the margins more times than I care to count).
  5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Yep, one of these books is not like the others. It’s a novel. And even though I didn’t manage to read many of the parenting books on my list before my son arrived, I’m sure Franzen’s riotous catalogue of family malfunctions convinced me that — no matter what we try — we all mess up our kids in our own unique ways.

Maybe you could share one or two of the books that have shaped you most this past year?

summer reading (2011-2012)

Summer’s arrived. And so has my summer reading!

As well as trying to reel in Moby Dick, I’m hoping to read:

In one way or another, the key theme is shaping up to be Christian formation — the why, what and how of seeing people matured as fully devoted, thriving and proactive disciples, disciple-makers, servants and children of the Father.

Basically, I want to figure out how to foster a culture that reflects and promotes the gospel.

So any suggestions for extending or deepening this list will be gratefully received!

newborn dreaming

Yesterday Natalie and I welcomed a new addition to our family — Benjamin John Hugh Swann:

Born at 5.09pm, weighing 3.8kg and measuring 50cm — for those who’re interested.

Lots of Christian fathers pontificate about life and the insights having a child can provide into God or whatever. And I’m sure I won’t be immune (although I’m intent on not making every sermon illustration for the next 18 months revolve around our new child).

At this point, my most pressing question is: What do newborns dream about?

Ben seems to dream a lot. At least that’s how I’d interpreted the random twitching and crying out he does while sleeping. And my suspicion has been confirmed by the information pack provided at hospital.

But without a mass of accumulated life experiences, what is it that runs through his somnolent mind?

what am I reading?

I know it’s a far cry from the high-minded goals I set for myself earlier in the year, but here’s what I’ve been reading lately. Some of it’s been online:

  • The first instalment of Matt’s exciting new series on the history of the church — 20 centuries in 20 posts (read his intro here).
  • Mark Sayers’ ‘cultural reading’ of Love Winspart 1, part 2, part 3. It’s about the phenomenon as much as the book. Having just finished the book, I’m increasingly convinced that that’s fair enough.
  • Dan’s recent PhD-inspired reflection on forgiveness, stories and principles.

But lots of it has been offline too:

  • Love Wins by Rob Bell
  • Atonement For A ‘Sinless’ Society by Alan Mann
  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
  • The Archer and the Arrow by Phillip Jensen and Paul Grimmond
  • Seeing With New Eyes by David Powlison
  • Galatians by J. Louis Martyn
  • And, feeling the lack of fiction in my diet, I’m about to embark on The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen…

Do you have any recommendations?

my ‘undercover Christian’ adventure

On the weekend Natalie and I attended the baptism of a child whose parents are not regular church goers. And it was something of an adventure!

You see, attending a church service as part of a crowd of mainly non-church goers meant that we were sort of ‘undercover Christians’ for the day (although anyone seated near us during the hymns, the prayers or the creed might have had reason to suspect at least some familiarity with church things on our part).

And just like an episode of ‘undercover boss’, there’s both good and not so good to report.

First the good stuff:

Several congregation members extended a friendly and amicable welcome to us — not just smiling but stopping to chat and see that we felt ‘at home’.

Better still, I can report that the service was unashamedly Christian, gospel-focussed and delivered genuine spiritual reality without compromising on accessibility for guests — very 1 Corinthians 14.

On the not so good side, the really interesting thing was the assumption that we weren’t Christian that seemed to underpin the way congregation members related to us.

The way this expressed itself was subtle. But we definitely noticed it — especially when it tilted towards an almost apologetic defensiveness or attempt at self-justification (about what happened at the service, etc).

I’m sure I’ve made this mistake myself. And I suppose there are worse mistakes to make. Like assuming that everyone is Christian and automatically ‘gets’ what’s being said and done without any further ado.

But I’m not 100% sure that not making this assumption should leave us assuming that any strangers who walk through our doors are either uncomprehending or potentially hostile.

What’s your feeling?

keen to explore alternatives to the New Atheism?

This one’s for my Melbourne friends.

Late last week, an email landed in my inbox telling me that the Hegel Summer School this year is offering a one-day exploration of ‘non-Deist alternatives’ to the kind of atheism Dawkins and Hitchens et al are serving up.

It’s called ‘The New Atheism: Just Another Dogma?’

So if anyone’s keen to explore alternatives to the New Atheism, I’m thinking about heading along!