The Possibility of Challenging and Transforming Culture with Christian Truth

In a previous post, I spoke of some of the inadequate approaches to Christian witness in the world. If you remember, I defended the permissibility of a wider approach to engagement with the surrounding culture, beyond the (utterly essential) task of proclaiming the heart of the gospel. Indeed, our mandate is transformation in this world, and not simply the salvation of souls for a life of disembodied bliss in the hereafter. Without wanting to minimize the absolute importance of proclaiming the gospel – from which all our other activities flow – there is a need for cultural, philosophical and social engagement with the world. Our call is to be salt and light, which necessarily entails all kinds of witness, and all types of ministry. This is so, whether one is speaking about evangelism, outreach to the poor, advocacy on behalf of certain causes, philosophical engagement with other beliefs or worldviews, or an apologetic defence of Christian truth and wisdom. (A quick note on terminology: when I speak of “Christian truth” or “Christian wisdom”, I am not simply referring to the gospel – though this is certainly included. What I am referring to is that sphere of ethical knowledge that flows out of a Christian perspective, and that provides people with a framework for living. This is what I have in mind when I talk about the transformation of culture).

What I want to do here is defend the likelihood of challenging and transforming the culture with Christian truth, which necessarily includes the work of evangelism and explicit Christian witness, but is not limited to those tasks. Of course, the ultimate goal of our witness is to create disciples who are devoted to Jesus. But as God’s people, living in his world, we are called – even commanded – to preserve his truth and righteousness, both private and public, wherever we find ourselves. What I am talking about here is public Christianity: the kind of Christianity that, at some level, influences and enriches the surrounding cultural, social, political and philosophical environments. At this point, I should pre-empt some questions, for my thesis may be a contentious one. If, as some would argue, Christian truth can only be received by those who are already believers and disciples, what is the point in trying to persuade others to our point of view? If, for example, we try and uphold the sanctity of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman (I choose this particular example, since it represents one of the flashpoints between two groups that possess widely differing worldviews), then how can we possibly do so in such a way without being told that our view – rooted as it is in Christian metaphysics, theology and ethics – has no relevance or resonance outside the faith? How can we, as God’s transformed and transforming people, possibly hope to submit an account of our ethical and metaphysical positions that have currency beyond the already-devoted? Is Christian truth for Christians only, or is there some way that it can resonate with people beyond the church?

These questions notwithstanding, I think we can argue that engaging in this sort of enterprise is not only warranted, it is possible. It is possible to conceive of a kind of Christianity that can take its place in the marketplace of ideas, doing the work of social and cultural transformation. It is possible that moral and ethical truths gleaned from Christianity can have epistemological credibility in the public square. What is more, I am persuaded that these things are so precisely because of the wisdom of Scripture. Let me explain what I mean. In the course of reading and studying the Bible’s wisdom literature on and off over the past couple of months, I have become convinced that not only are we called to effect wide transformation within whatever environment(s) we find ourselves, but that we can also believe in the broad efficacy of a Christian perspective or worldview, which resonates with society-at-large. In particular, the book of Proverbs gives us a new perspective on the possibility of successfully offering Christian truth to a world that is often starved of it.

The first nine chapters of the book, which together form the foundation for the rest of the sage’s work, give us some insight into the all-encompassing nature of wisdom. After spending several chapters warning his young charge of the dangers of folly and commending “lady wisdom” to him, the author reaches his great, poetical account of wisdom’s origins and her role in God’s world. He speaks of wisdom being the first of God’s works, “appointed before eternity” (8:22-23). In personifying wisdom, such words introduce us to the paradox of the divine nature: on the one hand, the author can speak of God’s wisdom as a distinct quality, something that he has, if you like, brought into being; but on the other hand, he waxes lyrical about the eternal nature of wisdom, existing with God before time’s commencement. A paradox indeed, but one that makes sense within a thoroughly Jewish framework. If we understand that the Jewish people grappled with the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of Yahweh, then we may come to recognize just what we read here. The sage is declaring the divine origins of the wisdom he commends to his readers, rooting it in the sovereign God whom he worships. God may be above all, unbound by time, space, and our limited earthen categories, but he is also intimately involved in his creation, which the writer of Proverbs lyrically describes in terms of wisdom. He then goes on to speak of wisdom’s formative and superintending role in the creation of the world: “she” was there when God set the heavens in place (v.27); “she” was present at the marking of the seas and the foundations of the earth (v.29); and “she” celebrated in the formation of humanity itself (v.30). In short, God’s world and the wisdom with which he created it are deeply intertwined. I am not suggesting that we follow the pantheist’s god. Heaven forbid! But what is abundantly clear, from this and other passages (one only needs to go to the opening chapters of the Bible – Genesis 1 and 2), is that this world – God’s creation – has been formed out of, and is laced with, wisdom and moral order. The creation itself, in its own way, declares the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), since it is, if you like, an incarnation of divine knowledge and insight.

How does this kind of creation theology relate to what I am talking about? Several points flow from such a positive account of God’s world. Firstly, this is still God’s good world. The writer of Proverbs knew all about the pernicious presence of sin and folly. And yet, he didn’t consign creation to the rubbish heap; he elevated it to the status of a divinely-ordained medium through which God’s image might in some way be reflected. Secondly, the sage clearly intends to connect the wisdom of daily living with the wisdom displayed in creation. The latter gives life to the former, since if the world itself was created through wisdom, then a life characterised by such a quality can be no bad thing! It will by nature be creative, enriching – life-giving. Such a life will be both ordered and dynamic, framed by purpose but filled with enriching freedom. What is more, if we read such passages within the overall context of God’s redemptive covenant with his people, then it becomes possible to see a life of wisdom, with its grounding in creation theology, as the “highest expression of God’s purposes: to redeem creation and culture to himself through his transformed and transforming people” (Mark J. Boda). Wisdom, since it touches every part of this world (including God’s image-bearers) is a noble and laudable goal.

Lastly, the fact that this world has been lovingly created through the wisdom of the one true God means that humanity, as an inescapable part of his creation, is infused with that same wisdom. We ourselves (and by “we”, I mean all people) have been fashioned out of God’s wisdom, and we ourselves exhibit the power of that wisdom to create and to fashion, to think and to reason, to order and to frame. And because divine knowledge touches every part of God’s creation, we are by nature privy to it, whether Christian or not. As inhabitants of God’s creation, we embody – albeit it in corrupted form – his knowledge and truth. There is a deep relationship between God and his creation, a relationship that is made incarnate, if you like, in those who have been made in his image. By nature, we are able to comprehend something of God’s wisdom; by nature, we are able to positively respond to it; and by nature, we are able to recognize what is right and good, since we contain within us the seeds of God’s own truth.

A theology of creation means that even prior to the reception of the gospel, people are intrinsically able (to an extent, at least) to discern something of God’s truth. Whether Christian or not, all of God’s image-bearers are by nature carriers and vessels of divine wisdom. I don’t want to press this too far, but Proverbs itself gives us a warrant for believing that at some level, and because of our own origins, divine truth can resonate with all people. Let us return to Chapter 8. There, it speaks of kings and princes making judgments and rulings according to the dictates of wisdom (8:15-16). They reign, whether they know it or not, according to the divinely-ordained order that envelops God’s creation. These verses are deeply significant, since the anonymous kings and princes mentioned are obviously not members of God’s people; they do not necessarily believe in him. And yet, the author of Proverbs can speak of them reigning with the same wisdom that God used to bring his world into being. Thus, we see the all-embracing nature of divine knowledge and truth, by which all are touched, and to which all have access.

Manifold implications flow from this kind of theological construction. Aside from reinforcing a positive conception of God’s creation – which I attempted to outline in my last post in this series – we may start to see how our public witness can actually bear fruit amongst all people. The foundational chapters of Proverbs – especially Chapter 8 – strongly suggest that the wisely-ordered nature of God’s creation can resonate with, and is reflected by, all people. The wisdom and truth that inheres in this world is, in theory, open to people of all stripes. What one might call natural law, public wisdom or even general revelation can indeed transform the surrounding culture, for it is open to people prior to their reception of God’s special revelation in Christ and the gospel (I don’t want to create too-artificial a distinction between general revelation and special revelation, but it will do for my current purposes). And that means that we as God’s people, who are called to bring his truth to bear upon all arenas of life, can hope to see people persuaded by the very same wisdom which has brought them into being and sustains this world. It means that despite the marring effects of sin, which can numb the mind and deceive the heart, the truth that we follow and obey can have an enriching effect upon society-at-large. This is the kind of thing that goes beyond the church and beyond the faithful, for it is something that is creational in nature as it reaches out to all those it has created. Divine wisdom, as a quality of the Creator God, is not bound by culture or time; it is not even bound by Christianity (and therefore privy only to Christians). On some level, divine truth invites universal access.

So, when we defend the biblical conception of marriage (for example), we ought to be encouraged that God’s conception of marriage flows out of his wise ordering of the world and its relationships, and the truth claims that we make regarding it can indeed resonate with all people. When we argue for the coherency of sexual complimentarity inherent within marriage, we should be encouraged that this is not simply a Christian view of things, but a creational reality that transcends cultural and social mores. That, once more, is the nature of God’s wisdom. When we make truth claims about how to live, or about ethics, or even about the nature of truth itself, we should be persuaded by the fact that because we speak with people who have been fashioned in God’s image and created according to his wisdom, we offer something that in some measure can have epistemological currency and transformative power. It is the kind of truth that has public (as opposed to merely private, Christian) value. Of course, we should be humble about the effects of sin and human misdeeds, and not neglect the opposing fact that various philosophical and ethical frameworks, which people have constructed around themselves, are often deeply entrenched and difficult to shift. However, at the same time, we should also be uplifted by the fact that the divine knowledge that has brought all of us into existence (again, I go back Genesis 1 and 2) is the same “stuff” that allows us to reflect our Creator in our own lives (consciously or not) and to discern the good (consciously or not). It is a boon to our efforts to transform our world, because it acknowledges the potential influence of godly truth, beyond the church. God’s wisdom has brought this world into being; as we witness to his ways, we call his image-bearers back to it.

A final note. Complete wisdom, it must be said, is always to be found in the context of a covenantal relationship with God. Thus, whilst we may commend the ethical and moral implications of a Christian worldview to a waiting – and sometimes sceptical – audience (encouraged by its potential ability to persuade those who, by nature, possess an ability to discern the truth of God) this kind of public engagement alone is unable to actually save people. It may enrich and preserve the moral character of a given society; it may help to ameliorate some of the excesses of a sinful world; it may even persuade those outside the faith of the efficacy and integrity of Christian moral positions, bringing them several steps closer to the gospel. But it can never, by itself, help people to cross the existential and spiritual chasm that lies between God and man. That is God’s business; and only then, when such a chasm is crossed, will one possess true wisdom – the wisdom of God – in all his fullness.

On Christmas

Well my faithful readers, I am back after a few weeks’ hiatus. It’s been rather busy, and this explains my absence. However, I thought that the imminent arrival of one of Christianity’s most important days warranted a new article. So here I am, bringing to you my thoughts on Christmas. Again, I was hoping to continue my exploration of how Christians should engage with this world, but that will have to wait.

Here, I want to make some comments regarding the nature and significance of Christmas. To some, its significance does not extend beyond the mad rush to find that perfect gift, or the seemingly interminable round of dinners and meals through which one has to go as one runs the gauntlet of little-known family members and awkward bouts of small talk and chit-chat around the table. Others may put a more positive, optimistic spin on Christmas time, but it is clear that the religious, spiritual and theological overtones of the season have been lost (or in some cases, deliberately ignored). That in itself demands a response, since I would argue that the marginalisation of any specific Christian references during Christmas (which, funnily enough, is a specifically religious term) reflects a wider process of neglect and exclusion, to which Christianity has been subjected, that has been occurring for some time.

However, it is not my intention to enter into that debate (not now, in any case). What I want to do is to focus explicitly on the theological and spiritual background to Christmas, which, when boils it all down, is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Although there are only two explicit references to Jesus’ birth in the New Testament (one in Matthew, one in Luke), it is a much-cherished doctrine within the church, and an important part of the question of Jesus’ identity and mission. And although brief and unvarnished, those two references contain within them the seeds of great theological reflection and understanding. My aim is neither to match that reflection or try and imitate that understanding. But by looking at these passages, I hope to draw out the theological significance of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us as his people. Along the way, I shall draw together various other strands of NT thought in an effort to do justice to the different images the theologians of the first-century church used to reflect upon the advent of the Son of God.

The first image that comes to mind is the royal advent of the king. This is especially apparent when one reads the birth narrative in Luke (2:1-7). The passage begins with Caesar issuing a royal decree, compelling all people who lived within the borders of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral homes in order that a census might be taken. And so, because of this decree, a young Jewish couple make their way to Bethlehem, whereupon a baby is born to them. Luke is making a subtle, subversive – and yet, when one reads the birth of Jesus in context, wholly apparent – point about the lineage and origins of Jesus. Already, when an angel of the Lord visited Mary to tell her that she would bear a child that would be known as the “Son of God” (Luke 1:35), we have the sense that this will be a royal birth. Remember, the term “Son of God” had kingly, royal overtones, and we should not miss its significance. What is more (and I must acknowledge that I picked up the following point after reading a piece by N.T. Wright), Luke has structured his narrative in such a way that the birth of John the Baptist (1:57-66) – the account of which constitutes an important part of the evangelist’s story – is meant to echo the miraculous birth of another individual in Israel’s long-line of prophets and royal heralds: Samuel. This may not seem apparent at first, but when one looks at the parallels between Luke’s account and the narrative in 1 Samuel, the point becomes clear. The barrenness of a righteous woman who, through God’s miraculous intervention, gave birth to a boy who would eventually grow up to be a prophet, a forerunner and a herald to royalty, are some of the parallels between the two passages. And when we understand that 1 Samuel is, at least in the beginning, about the advent of David, the true king, and Samuel, the herald who would announce him, we should also understand that Luke pictures the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus through this particular historical lens. For him, the birth of the Baptist is nothing less than the advent of the one who would prepare the way for the return of the king.

And so we come back to Luke 2:1-7, where Caesar lifts his little finger, forcing Mary and Joseph to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem (note the importance of Bethlehem as the birthplace of the true Davidic king). As I said earlier, Luke is making a rather subversive point. Although the earthly parents were compelled by royal decree to travel to Bethlehem, our evangelist is under no illusions as to who the true king really is. The one who ordered an empire-wide census was just another pretender; his power was illusory and fleeting. In an extraordinary reversal, Luke is suggesting that the real king – the real lord (Luke 2:11) – was the one born in a stable, in the dead of night, to a poor Jewish couple. This was, and is, the true king, the one who now rules over all the earth. Luke’s mention of Caesar is only significant insofar as it sets up a contrast between the pomp and arrogance of royal imposters, and the humility and sacrifice of true kingship.

The upside-down nature of Jesus’ royal identity is something that permeates the gospels, and to no greater extent than in the birth narratives. But the NT writers were not simply speaking of an earthly king who reigned over a merely earthly province. They were instead speaking of the cosmic universal Lord who reigns over all things in heaven and on earth, but who entered into the chaotic flow of time and human experience as one of us. Paul waxes lyrical about the great condescension of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-7. Now, Paul is well aware of the kingly nature of the one about whom he writes. At the end of the passage from which my quote comes, he speaks of Jesus in terms that ripple with regal overtones. There, in poetic form, the apostle speaks of Jesus “being in very nature God…ma(king) himself nothing”. Though he does not mention Jesus’ birth, Paul is adamant that this man was none other than the incarnation of the Creator God. Indeed, he proclaims that the equality between Jesus and God prior to the former’s earthly incarnation was total, complete, whole – indeed, not something that Jesus possessed by force or false claims, but by virtue of what he was, and is, by nature. And yet, he left his place of heavenly glory to take his place amongst sinful humanity; the king walking amidst his rebellious subjects. His birth focused and crystallised that act of sacrifice and humbling, as the true Lord began the final phase of his mission to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under him. This, finally, brings me to the second image with which I associate Christmas: that of divine sacrifice. Via his birth in a small Palestinian village, the one true king humbled himself in a manner, and to an extent, that is difficult to fathom. The life of Christ was one of constant sacrifice on behalf of humanity, and it began in Bethlehem.

The final image that comes to mind when I think of the Christmas period is the advent of Jesus as true humanity, which helps to make sense of the other two images. It was (partly) in order to give us a picture of true humanity that the true king condescended, giving up the glory of unfettered deity to humbly live amongst us. Here, the miraculous element to the birth story takes on new significance. What is striking is that both narratives do not spend much time on the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth; it is a simple, unvarnished fact. Nevertheless, there lie within these deceptively simple descriptions great truths that flesh out the already grand picture of Jesus’ identity. As with all the miracles recorded in Scripture, this one was not simply meant to be the divine equivalent of a spectacular magic trick. It contained within it theological meaning – meaning that not only goes to the heart of Jesus’ mission and identity, but also impinges upon our own end as God’s redeemed people. Part of the logic of Jesus’ miraculous birth was the fact that his advent effectively bypassed the sinfulness inherent in humanity. Rather than being the product of two sinful parents, Jesus came into this world as a product of the direct and sanctifying work of the Spirit. To be sure, he came in the likeness of sinful man (Romans 8:3), but that likeness did not include the intrinsic corruption that has afflicted God’s image-bearers. God was able to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak: on the one hand, he entered into the realm of human existence in a most profound and intimate way; on the other hand, he was able to avoid the apparent inevitability of human sinfulness as he sought to lead his image-bearing creatures out of that sinfulness as their model and representative. For Jesus was, and is, the incarnation – not simply of God, but of what humanity was always meant to be. That lies at the heart of passages such as Hebrews 2:5-9. It also lies at the heart of other passages, including John 1.

Indeed, if we read John 1:14, we find the evangelist, in his own version of Jesus’ entry into the world, speaking of the “Word” becoming “flesh”. Now, John’s depiction of the Word is clearly inspired by the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. And in those narratives, we find God’s creation climaxing in the formation of man. There, God breathed his Spirit into his image-bearer, and divinity and humanity came together. With the miraculous birth of Jesus, the natural and the spiritual – divinity and humanity – came together in an even more profound manner when God’s wisdom took on the fleshly existence of man, and a baby was born to a young Jewish woman. It focused the entire trajectory of Jesus’ mission in one spectacular act and set the stage for what would follow, culminating in the epochal events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If Jesus represented true humanity to the world – and by that, I mean the perfect union of God and man – then his birth dramatized that purpose and established the precedent for his ministry and the model he presented to sinful humanity. Thus, the birth of Jesus – in a word, Christmas – means the entry of true humanity into this dark world, a light shining in the darkness.

So much more could be said. For example, Christmas makes no sense without Easter. In other words, the Incarnation means little without Calvary, for Jesus did not simply model true humanity; he also gave his own life in order that sin – the one thing standing between humanity and God – might be defeated and man might enjoy reconciliation with his Creator. There is a strong link connecting those two events. But, since this is Christmas, I wanted to reflect on the events that set this ministry, this mission, in motion. Let us give thanks for the king who humbled himself twice: first, by adopting the likeness of sinful humanity; and second, by dying the perfect death for us so that we might be saved, redeemed, set free. We will celebrate the latter in a few months. Let us celebrate the former now.

Why the Canonisation of Mary Mackillop is Mistaken

This post was originally going to be a sequel to my last entry. However, I have been thinking about the recent hoopla surrounding the canonisation of Mary Mackillop. Whilst I greatly respect the work she did – helping the poor, ministering to the downtrodden – I was perturbed by the outpouring of emotion, even to the point of veneration, which went with this unprecedented event (unprecedented in the sense that Ms. Mackillop is the first Australian to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church). This is quite apart from the distorted theology that underlies the legitimacy of canonisation within Catholicism, which I will also touch upon.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that the Catholic Church has done some wonderful good in the community. It has established many charitable organisations that have alleviated the burdens with which the poor and broken-hearted have struggled. I had the privilege of volunteering with St. Vincent’s soup van for a time, which was originally a Catholic outfit (though it has become somewhat secularized). And unlike some of those snarling secularists out there, I am not criticising the veneration of Mary Mackillop because I hope to erase all traces of religion from public life. I read an article in The Australian at the time, written by Greg Sheridan, which argued that this was precisely the attitude that lay beneath much of the criticism levelled at the Catholic Church and its canonisation of this Australian nun. I am certainly not in that basket; indeed, the whole point of this blog is quite the opposite – to preserve Christianity’s position within the public square.

And yet, my criticism remains. It rests upon theological, ecclesiological and christological grounds, and I will tackle them in turn. First, the general theological issues. The Bible speaks constantly about the dangers of idolatry. It was one of the primary sins into which Israel constantly fell, the prophets condemned them for it. The New Testament does not shy away from this point either: Paul, for example, takes aim at human depravity by linking it to idolatry. Instead of worshiping the One who is sovereign over his creation, humanity instead decided to worship parts of the created order (Romans 1:21-25). Instead of giving obeying the source of all truth, wisdom and life, man gave himself over to bits of creation, substituting idols for the real deal. It’s a broad-brush approach that sums up humanity’s plight by placing it in the context of primal idolatry. The root sin of all the lesser sins we witness around us is, according to Paul, the sin of unseating God from his rightful place as sovereign Creator and placing something in his stead.

Now, is this occurring when a person is singled out for canonisation by the Catholic Church? I think it comes dangerously close to what one would call idolatry. It may not do so in some kind of deliberate, systematic way, but the kind of veneration we saw at the time of Ms. Mackillop’s elevation to sainthood threatened to unseat the primacy and centrality of Christ. I don’t remember hearing much at all about God or Jesus during that time, and it seems to betray a fundamental distortion of priorities. This is where the theological and the christological issues overlap. Thus, the second problem I have with the canonisation of Mary Mackillop and all that went with it is the fact that she seemed to take the place of Christ himself. Surely the church should be preaching Christ? Surely the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus should take pride of place in the life and witness of God’s people? For all the good work she did, I believe that Mary Mackillop’s canonisation, and all the attention she received because of it, did a great disservice to the church and to the world, since it drew attention away from the saving work of Christ and placed it on one of his servants.

A particularly acute example of this comes by way of the push to have Mary Mackillop’s miracles recognised. One such miracle was said to have been performed after a woman prayed to Mary Mackillop in order to be healed of cancer. Now, I don’t know whether this was a miracle or not. But one thing is for certain. We are not instructed to pray to fellow human beings, dead or alive. We are instructed to pray instead to the Creator God who is also the Redeemer God, and who made himself known to humanity in the most radical and intimate of ways – through the person of Jesus Christ. Mary Mackillop’s canonisation, and all the attention it garnered, completely did away with all of this, whilst at the same time making the fundamental theological error of attributing any miracles performed to her instead of God himself. As I said, the fact that such miracles were attributed to her is an especially obvious sign of a creeping idolatry that has unseated God from his rightful place of primacy and centrality. And in all the media attention and publicity the Catholic Church generated, it spectacularly failed to fulfil its mandate to bring the gospel to the multitudes. All that attention, all that energy, all that time – and none of it spent on Jesus. At the very least, it can only be called a failure to obey the explicit teachings of the One who has saved us and the One who has sent us.

The third criticism I must make, pertaining as it does to issues of ecclesiology, is the very fact of sainthood, as practiced in the Catholic Church. Sainthood, properly understood, is a good and biblical thing. The problem lies in Catholicism’s hierarchical reading of sainthood. It is emphatically not the case that there is a kind of spiritual hierarchy within the church, whereby some are elevated to the status of saint, whilst the rest wallow in the in the pit of ordinariness. The fact is that all those who have been called into God’s redeemed community are saints; there is no distinction. To be a saint is to be sanctified. To be sanctified is to be set apart and progressively set free from the corruption of sin. A quick look at, say, 1 Peter 2:9 gives us the strong impression that we are – all of us – saints. He says that we are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” The language here echoes Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. They were called out of Egypt – all of them – and set apart as God’s holy nation (“holy” is much the same as sanctified, for it refers to separation also). The Israelites – again, all of them – were to be a nation of priests, intermediaries between God and humanity. As members of the church, we take up that common identity, without distinction. All of us have been set apart, and therefore all of us are saints. Similarly, all of us have been called to be ministers, and therefore all of us are “priests” in some fashion. The canonisation of Mary Mackillop reflects a distortion of the radical egalitarian nature of the church of God.

My beef does not lie with Mary Mackillop. As I said, she apparently did some wonderful work in her obedience to God and her service to the poor. That is not at issue. However, for the reasons I have outlined, I am deeply troubled by the way in which an arm of the Christian church could have gotten all of this so spectacularly wrong. Why this is the case is not entirely clear. Perhaps it’s a carry-over from the Roman period, when empire and church made a fateful pact that would end up warping the nature of the latter. The canonisation process, at least, seems to betray a hierarchical model that is inimical to New Testament Christianity. Of course, it’s easy to sit back and criticise from afar, but we must remember that we produce and sustain idols all around us, whether material, ideological or conceptual. My own denomination, the ACC, seems to have turned that practice into a fine art. The obvious theological distortions that have been reflected in the canonisation of Ms. Mackillop should make us aware of the fact that all of us carry the potential to distort God’s truth, unseat him from his place of honour, and hinder our witness in the world. That should consistently humble us.

The Inadequacy of Certain Christian Approaches to Witness and Mission

In this post, I want to offer some preliminary remarks about one of the prevailing views regarding Christian mission and witness, and why I think it is inadequate. I then want to discuss – in very general terms at this point – about the way in which a comprehensive biblical picture of God’s creation and its destiny can actually broaden the scope of our witness in this world. It is an introductory post, and sets my view within a broad creational context that takes account of the prophetic and eschatological significance of what we are called to do, as well as the way in which our work fits into the God’s redemptive “big picture”. But let’s move on.

First of all, I want to critique the narrow view I have characterized – with the important caveat that in no way do I want to diminish the centrality of evangelism. In any case, I would argue that an exclusive commitment to evangelism (which rules out other forms of witness and engagement with this world) rests on a faulty assumption. Of course, there are many reasons for adopting any view in life, whether it’s one’s political persuasion or one’s choice of spouse. This view is no different, and I shall perhaps engage with other reasons for its persistence in later posts. For now, I want to concentrate on the poor theology that undergirds this narrow approach to Christian witness. Those who adhere to such a view adopt what I want to call a “sinking ship” mentality when they think about the world and its destiny. According to such a view, the world – much like the Titanic – is sinking slowly into the miry depths; it is only a matter of time before it disappears completely. All we can hope to do is to rescue a few souls from the doomed vessel, so that they may enjoy salvation in a place far from here; anything else – helping the poor, engaging in the political arena, taking part in public debates from a robustly Christian position – is akin to re-arranging the deck chairs after the great ship struck the iceberg.

Unfortunately, this is a deeply dualistic mentality that sees salvation in purely escapist terms. Quite where it comes from is still unclear (though I would hazard a guess and say that the Enlightenment split between the sacred and the secular probably has something to do with it), but what is clear is that it shifts attention away from this world. Moreover, it is unbiblical. The fact is, this world is corrupt; it is mired in sin. That much is true. But it is also true to say that God, far from destroying it, will in fact redeem it. His world is not irrevocably lost; neither is it inherently evil (despite being corrupted by sin), and therefore to be repudiated. One cannot read passages such as Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15, which speak about redemption in creational and personal terms, respectively, and not be struck by the way in which God is actually for this world. This does not exclude the necessity of judgment, but it certainly does include the notion that God is in the business of doing something redemptive in this world. Indeed, we should not be surprised by such a commitment, for even the Incarnation, where the Creator entered into the flow of his creation in the most radical of ways (see John 1:14 for example), points to God’s overarching faithfulness to his creation. And if that is true, then I think it also true to say that we are meant to act as agents of redemption – as agents of new creation – in the world in the present. In doing so, we anticipate and reveal (at least in a measure) the fuller redemption that will occur when God’s Kingdom comes in all its fullness.

The space created by the aforementioned attitude allows for the kind of witness about which I am talking. If we are acting and living in a prophetic manner, then it seems good and proper to effect change in the present as a way of anticipating, to some extent at least, the universal application of God’s redemptive rule throughout the entirety of his creation. This can include the influence of governments, ministry to the poor and the exploited, and engagement with the ideas of this world in order to transform the thinking of individuals and to challenge the intellectual and philosophical structures of, hopefully, entire societies. None of this can replace what God is going to do to consummate history and creation; he alone will completely erase the effects of sin from this world. But what we do in the present, whether it’s evangelism or challenging governments or ministering to the poor, ought to be set in a creational, rather than an escapist, context. It manifests the judging, saving, redemptive work of God in this world, rather than wooing people away from it.

Such a context applies to individuals as much as it does to societies and institutions. Just as God is going to actually redeem – as opposed to destroy – this world, so too is he in the business of redeeming the whole person. Again, we may point to 1 Corinthians 15 (not to mention Romans 8:23) as a warrant for this approach. When we read those portions of scripture, we ought to recognize the fact that our ultimate destiny is not some disembodied state, but resurrection – renewed, transformed, bodily life, of which Jesus is the firstfruits and the template (1 Cor. 15:23). Both his incarnation and his resurrection give us a powerful warrant for believing that our ultimate hope pertains to renewed bodily life. And given that our final hope is a new kind of bodily life, it makes sense to minister to the whole person. We have been created as people – physical and spiritual unities – and we will be redeemed as people. Christian witness needs to reflect this truer understanding of a person’s nature. To be sure, evangelism is vital, for no one can enter into God’s new world without first having received the gospel. Only the reception of the gospel will see someone receive eternal life. But, as noted, we are not attempting to save disembodied souls; we are attempting to save people. Anything less is a denial of the biblical witness, which defines personhood in a comprehensive physical-spiritual sense. That is why our witness needs to be manifold in nature, integrating evangelism, spiritual renewal, intellectual challenge, physical service and faithful ministry to the various manifestations of unrighteousness and brokenness – both spiritual and material – that we witness in our societies and our communities.

Despite the criticisms I have made, my hope is that this essay will be read in the conciliatory manner in which it has been written. In that spirit, I want to offer an encouragement to all who “labour in the Lord” – regardless of what that labour looks like. Read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58, which come at the end of his lengthy exposition of the meaning and significance of resurrection. Interestingly, Paul connects the present work of the Corinthians with the resurrection of Christ in the past, and the guarantee of the general resurrection in the future: “Therefore my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

And so it is with us. Amen.

Our Engagement With The World: Is It Necessary?

I have been thinking recently about the way in which Christians are to be salt and light in the world. Some would argue that our only task is to proclaim the gospel to people, telling them of the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ. All other concerns are, at the very least, a distant second (if they are considered legitimate at all). Those other concerns all relate to our wider engagement with the world, and may include such things as ministry to the poor, political lobbying, taking part in public discourse at whatever level, apologetics, and so forth. Christians who adopt a narrow view of how the church should expend its spiritual and physical energy suggest that all is needed is evangelism. The other forms of engagement I have just listed can only become a pernicious distraction.

There is, however, another school of thought, which argues that a broader approach is required. Without diminishing the importance or centrality of evangelism, such Christians also believe that wider engagement with the world is both needed and theologically justified. I side with this stream, which I will endeavour to explain. I think there is good reason, both biblical and theological, to think that God calls us to more than just the explicit proclamation of the gospel. Now, I don’t want people to get me wrong; I think that evangelism is a vital, essential – and altogether neglected – part of the church’s mandate and spiritual responsibility. The good news is our raison d’être, the message that has saved us, and has provided others with the opportunity to escape condemnation and alienation from God and enjoy his redemptive grace. However, to suggest this is all we ought to do as Christians would be a gross limitation of our responsibility. Hopefully, as I elucidate my reasons, they will provide some clarity of thought for those who are still wrestling with the exact nature and extent of Christian witness. My exploration of this particular topic will cover several areas, including the need for cultural engagement and challenge, the legitimacy of Christian political and social action, and the role of apologetics in preparing the ground for evangelistic proclamation. As this is such an expansive issue, I will serialize this post so as not to overwhelm (or bore!) you all. So stay tuned.

What Does the Bible Say about Homosexuality?

In a previous post, I spoke about a recent VCAT decision, which ruled against a Christian campsite and for a gay organisation. One of the main issues that I detected was the presiding judge’s comments that homosexuality is a fundamental part of a person’s being. This clearly runs counter to what Christians believe, but I did not give any detailed exposition of scripture to support that position. I mean, is it indeed true that the Bible forbids homosexual practice? I argue that those verses which speak about homosexuality do indeed prohibit it. But even if that is the case, is it possible to conceive of a coherent, integrated biblical perspective on human sexuality – into which any discussion of homosexuality specifically can be placed – rather than quoting de-contextualized bits of scripture to try and quash debate? That is what I aim to do in this post, and offer a theological statement that supports the political hue of the previous entry. Some may baulk at yet another essay that offers an interpretation of the biblical witness regarding homosexuality. However, if I am going to critique a judge’s position on the status of homosexuality, then I should be able to provide a theological warrant.

Let me therefore offer some remarks on the biblical witness, and why it is that Christians (at least those who consider the Bible to reliably convey the wisdom of God) take such a consistent stand against homosexuality. It should be said from the outset that homosexuality is not mentioned all that much throughout the Bible. There are some references to homosexual rape in Genesis and Judges, some Levitical laws that speak of male homosexuality, and a number of scattered references to the phenomenon in the New Testament. Now, space does not permit a full exposition of the relevant passages, so I will focus on just one: Romans 1:26-27. This is perhaps the most widely cited passage of Scripture whenever Christians offer a view on homosexuality, precisely because it sets homosexuality within an explicitly theological context. The condemnation of homosexuality that is found in Romans needs to be seen in this wider context, if the church is going to offer anything more than a proof-texted, piece-meal caricature of God’s ordering of sexual relationships. It is also important at this point in time, since the church’s view of human sexual relationships has been consistently challenged by an increasingly hostile culture.

The Apostle Paul, who penned the letter to the Romans, opens his letter by surveying – with broad brush strokes – the pervasive corruption and sinfulness of the human race. In order to point to the supra-historical nature of this predicament (in other words, the fact that this is a problem that has afflicted all of humanity throughout history), Paul sets his polemic within a creational context, hooking it into the Genesis narrative. By that, I mean Paul deliberately echoes Genesis 1-3, which speaks of God’s creation and man’s fall when offering up a theological explanation for the present sinfulness of humanity. His reference to God as creator in Rom. 1:19-20 is one such indicator. Similarly, his observation that man, though knowing God, committed the primal sin of idolatry and fell into darkness, is no doubt an allusive echo of the fall of the first man (Gen. 3). It seems that Paul is painting man’s present corruption as a kind of recapitulation of the rebellion of the first man. Of course, he will draw the curtain back in Romans 5:12, where he finally states plainly that all who are under sin are, if you like, “children” of Adam. But that is another story.

In any case, Paul begins to outline the pervasively disordered nature of humanity throughout Romans 1:24-32. Having given them up to their own sin, God allows humanity to go its own way. And that way is one of disorder and the frustration of God’s creative intent and design. This is where Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality finds its proper home. He does not use it as an example of human corruption because it is a particularly pernicious act. He does not use because of special hang-ups about sexuality. Instead, Paul observes homosexuality as an especially obvious manifestation of the disordered nature of humanity. We must always bear in mind that Paul’s opening gambit in Romans is hooked into the Genesis narrative. We should also bear in mind that one of the foundational aspects of that foundational narrative is the union between male and female as the proper expression of human sexual relationships (see Gen. 2:23-25); it is this sexual complimentarity that is key. For Paul, then, homosexual practice is a clear reflection of the fallen state of man, since it so blatantly goes against God’s created order. That order is outlined in the first few chapters of Genesis, and Paul uses that narrative to offer a structured, theological explanation for the general presence of human sin, and the particular presence of homosexuality.

It is thus that the Genesis narrative forms a crucial interpretive framework for Paul’s thought. It is not the case that he is simply castigating the sexual excesses of the Roman emperors. Nor is it the case that he is criticizing only one type of homosexual practice – namely, pederasty (of course, the fact that he also condemns female homosexuality tells against this argument). Rather, it is clear that Paul sets his polemic in a wider, creational context, arguing quite strongly that homosexuality – of all kinds – is to be seen as a clear violation of the divinely-ordained boundaries that have been established in terms of human sexual relationships. If I may refer to my previous post briefly, it ought to be clear why any Christian, provided they consider the Bible a reliable reflection of God’s wisdom, would reject the ostensibly normative status our society has seen fit to bestow upon homosexual identity and practice. Indeed, based upon this all-too-brief exposition of a relevant biblical passage, it should be abundantly clear why the Christian Brethren campsite rejected a request from a gay organization to use its facilities.

One final word: this post is not meant to make it even more difficult for those struggling with homosexual feelings and thoughts. We live in a time of sexual confusion, and I can only shake my head in sorrow and dismay when I think of so many people who are caught up in it. With that in mind, it is important to make a distinction between orientation and behaviour. Though both are products or reflections of humanity’s fallenness, it is the practice of the latter and the celebration of the former that are sinful. A young man struggling with homosexual thoughts should not see himself as a lone sinner who has been singled out for special condemnation by the Bible. But what is clear is the biblical witness in regards to homosexual practice. This can never be a point of compromise, even as we lay our lives down to love those who struggle in this area.

Communion and Worship

This post is not an in-depth exploration of the topic at hand; more a series of thoughts as they form in my mind. Thus, there may not be the kind of order that some crave (or that I crave).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the significance of communion in the context of worship. Much of that thinking stems from a book I am reading at the moment, called “Worship is a Verb”, by Robert E. Webber. It’s a good, theologically rich book on the biblical roots of worship – including the significance of communion. That in itself is an important statement, since some of us may think of communion as an adjunct to worship, rather than being a means of worshiping God in its own right. We need to be reminded that communion is a form of worship. By participating in it, we are making a declaration about what God has done in and through Jesus Christ. It may, of course, be a non-verbal declaration; but a declaration it is. True worship is declarative in form, since all worship worth its salt should tell the story of God’s gracious act of salvation through his Son, whereby he gave himself up for sinful humanity, making atonement, and being raised to life once again. That is a simplified version of the great narrative that is the gospel, but it is something that proper worship publicly declares through word, sign and song. And that is what communion does. In it, we are actually giving a sign to people that Jesus died for us; that he gave himself up unto death for our sin; and that in him, God condemned sin once and for all so that we might enjoy salvation.

This kind of thinking resonates with what we find in the New Testament. Think, for example, about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:26. It comes in the context of his criticism of the Corinthian church for their unholy attitude towards the Lord’s Supper. By eating it as they had been, the Corinthians had actually maligned the word of God and trampled on the sacrifice of Christ. Paul outlines all this, and chastises the church for its error. But in the particular verse I mentioned, Paul says that whenever one eats and drinks communion, one is “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes”. Thus, communion is not something private; it is not something done behind closed doors; it is not something that simply takes place between God and the individual believer. Instead, it is a public act, in which we (and I use the word “we” very deliberately) use symbol and sign to “speak” about what God has done. If worship is all about declaring God’s truth, then surely communion fits the bill?

That is why communion should be an integral part of every worship service, and why it should be integrated as such. We ought not to consider it as a separate part of our service, but as the natural visual companion to the verbal forms of worship that are embodied in song.

Another couple of points are worth mentioning. Speaking about communion as a form of worship should alert us to the fact that honouring God and offering him praise go beyond the singing of words. Although I do not want to go too far down this track (since it would provide material for a whole new post), it is important to remember that worship is conducted in all kinds of ways. Celebration through song is certainly important. I mean, that kind of worship is pervasive throughout scripture. From the singing of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt, to the myriad Psalms that honour God through music and the lyrical quality of song, it seems that singing is one (very important) way in which the people of God can honour him. But that should not define or constrain the boundaries of worship. The very fact that communion can be seen in this light ought to remind us that various forms of worship are legitimate. They may not necessarily use words, but they still communicate a message that is just as powerful and just as profound. And of course, what are our entire lives if they are not forms of worship before God, where every deed and act communicates and reflects something of the divine nature? I’ll leave that last point hanging, but it is something worth remembering.

I guess my goal in this post is to alert us to the fact that worship needs to be conceived in ways that go beyond our narrow, traditional definitions, and I have used communion as a kind of “window” that could help us do that. Words are vital, but our worship cannot be confined to those acts that make use of them. Communication is an act that is multi-faceted. That is true in all contexts, but it is certainly true when it comes to life with God.