21 September 2006

A call to an ancient evangelical future

I have just come across the following item on the Christianity Today website. Setting aside the ridiculous title and the fact that it is addressed to American ‘evangelicalism’, it struck me as a fairly good summary of the kind of radical orthodoxy that is needed in the Church today.

Prologue

In every age the Holy Spirit calls the church to examine its faithfulness to God's revelation in Jesus Christ, authoritatively recorded in Scripture and handed down through the church. Thus, while we affirm the global strength and vitality of worldwide evangelicalism in our day, we believe the North American expression of evangelicalism needs to be especially sensitive to the new external and internal challenges facing God's people.

These external challenges include the current cultural milieu and the resurgence of religious and political ideologies. The internal challenges include evangelical accommodation to civil religion, rationalism, privatism, and pragmatism. In light of these challenges, we call evangelicals to strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, and the evangelical awakenings. Ancient Christians faced a world of paganism, Gnosticism, and political domination. In the face of heresy and persecution, they understood history through Israel's story, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of God's kingdom.

Today, as in the ancient era, the church is confronted by a host of master narratives that contradict and compete with the gospel. The pressing question is: Who gets to narrate the world? "The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future" challenges evangelical Christians to restore the priority of the divinely inspired biblical story of God's acts in history. The narrative of God's kingdom holds eternal implications for the mission of the church, its theological reflection, its public ministries of worship and spirituality, and its life in the world. By engaging these themes, we believe the church will be strengthened to address the issues of our day.


1. On the Primacy of the Biblical Narrative


We call for a return to the priority of the divinely authorized canonical story of the triune God. This story—Creation, Incarnation, and re-creation—was effected by Christ's recapitulation of human history and summarized by the early church in its rules of faith. The gospel-formed content of these rules served as the key to the interpretation of Scripture and its critique of contemporary culture, and thus shaped the church's pastoral ministry. Today, we call evangelicals to turn away from modern theological methods that reduce the gospel to mere propositions, and from contemporary pastoral ministries so compatible with culture that they camouflage God's story or empty it of its cosmic and redemptive meaning. In a world of competing stories, we call evangelicals to recover the truth of God's Word as the story of the world, and to make it the centerpiece of evangelical life.


2. On the Church, the Continuation of God's Narrative


We call evangelicals to take seriously the visible character of the church. We call for a commitment to its mission in the world in fidelity to God's mission (
Missio Dei), and for an exploration of the ecumenical implications this has for the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church. Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from an individualism that makes the church a mere addendum to God's redemptive plan.

Individualistic evangelicalism has contributed to the current problems of churchless Christianity, redefinitions of the church according to business models, separatist ecclesiologies, and judgmental attitudes toward the church. Therefore, we call evangelicals to recover their place in the community of the Church catholic.


3. On the Church's Theological Reflection on God's Narrative


We call for the church's reflection to remain anchored in the Scriptures in continuity with the theological interpretation learned from the early fathers. Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from methods that separate theological reflection from the common traditions of the church. These modern methods compartmentalize God's story by analyzing its separate parts, while ignoring God's entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ. Anti-historical attitudes also disregard the common biblical and theological legacy of the ancient church.

Such disregard ignores the hermeneutical value of the church's ecumenical creeds. This reduces God's story of the world to one of many competing theologies and impairs the unified witness of the church to God's plan for the history of the world. Therefore, we call evangelicals to unity in "the tradition that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all," as well as to humility and charity in their various Protestant traditions.


4. On the Church's Worship as Telling and Enacting God's Narrative


We call for public worship that sings, preaches, and enacts God's story. We call for a renewed consideration of how God ministers to us in baptism, Eucharist, confession, the laying on of hands, marriage, healing, and through the charisms of the Spirit, for these actions shape our lives and signify the meaning of the world. Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from forms of worship that focus on God as a mere object of the intellect or that assert the self as the source of worship. Such worship has resulted in lecture-oriented, music-driven, performance-centered, and program-controlled models that do not adequately proclaim God's cosmic redemption. Therefore, we call evangelicals to recover the historic substance of worship of Word and table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God's saving acts.


5. On Spiritual Formation in the Church as Embodiment of God's Narrative


We call for a catechetical spiritual formation of the people of God that is based firmly on a Trinitarian biblical narrative. We are concerned when spirituality is separated from the story of God and baptism into the life of Christ and his body. Spirituality, made independent from God's story, is often characterized by legalism, mere intellectual knowledge, an overly therapeutic culture, New Age Gnosticism, a dualistic rejection of this world, and a narcissistic preoccupation with one's own experience. These false spiritualities are inadequate for the challenges we face in today's world. Therefore, we call evangelicals to return to a historic spirituality like that taught and practiced in the ancient catechumenate.


6. On the Church's Embodied Life in the World


We call for a cruciform holiness and commitment to God's mission in the world. This embodied holiness affirms life, biblical morality, and appropriate self-denial. It calls us to be faithful stewards of the created order and bold prophets to our contemporary culture. Thus, we call evangelicals to intensify their prophetic voice against forms of indifference to God's gift of life, economic and political injustice, ecological insensitivity, and the failure to champion the poor and marginalized. Too often we have failed to stand prophetically against the culture's captivity to racism, consumerism, political correctness, civil religion, sexism, ethical relativism, violence, and the culture of death. These failures have muted the voice of Christ to the world through his church and detract from God's story of the world, which the church is collectively to embody. Therefore, we call the church to recover its counter-cultural mission to the world.


Epilogue


In sum, we call evangelicals to recover the conviction that God's story shapes the mission of the church to bear witness to God's kingdom and to inform the spiritual foundations of civilization. We set forth this call as an ongoing, open-ended conversation. We are aware that we have our blind spots and weaknesses. Therefore, we encourage evangelicals to engage this call within educational centers, denominations, and local churches through publications and conferences.

We pray that we can move with intention to proclaim a loving, transcendent, triune God who has become involved in our history. In line with Scripture, creed, and tradition, it is our deepest desire to embody God's purposes in the mission of the church through our theological reflection, our worship, our spirituality, and our life in the world, all the while proclaiming that Jesus is Lord over all creation.

This call is issued in the spirit of
sic et non; therefore, those who affix their names to this call need not agree with all its content [Anyone who does want to sign up to the call may do so here]. Rather, its consensus is that these are issues to be discussed in the tradition of semper reformanda as the church faces the new challenges of our time. Over a period of seven months, more than 300 persons have participated via e-mail to write the call. These men and women represent a broad diversity of ethnicity and denominational affiliation. The four theologians who most consistently interacted with the development of the call have been named as theological editors. The board of reference was given the special assignment of overall approval.

15 September 2006

Creation and Double Chaos

This is a book review I have recently written for ESSSAT News:

Sjoerd L. Bonting, Creation and Double Chaos: Science and Theology in Discussion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. x + 275 pp. pb. $22.00. ISBN 0-8006-3759-3)

At first glance, this is yet another general dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences. What sets it apart is the author’s take on theology, arising from his rejection of a central feature of the Christian doctrine of creation, namely, creation from nothing. Instead, he opts for creation from primordial chaos, of which more later.

In his introductory chapter, Bonting sets out his methodology for bringing science and theology into dialogue. He sees both as ‘God-given worldviews of a single reality’(16), so that in principle there should be no conflict between them. Dialogue is possible because both disciplines seek a rational explanation of basic data: natural phenomena in the case of science and biblical data in the case of theology. Further, such dialogue can be direct without any mediating role for metaphysics, which he regards as essentially non-theistic and therefore unsuited for such a role. Interestingly, the role of religious experience is quietly marginalized to such an extent that the famous Lambeth Quadrilateral is reduced to a tripos (106) of Bible, tradition and reason (in that order).

After his methodological introduction, he moves on to give a brief overview of cosmic and biological evolution (the two aspects of the scientific world-view which he thinks most pertinent to the dialogue between science and theology). Inevitably, specialists in the various disciplines invoked in the course of this chapter will quibble with details but setting that aside Bonting has achieved a remarkably lucid non-specialist introduction.

He then turns his attention to the doctrine of the creation. Chapter 3 surveys a variety of creation stories from around the world (rather oddly, in light of his earlier insistence that the ‘data for the dialogue with science must be the canonical texts delivered to us’ (6)), before outlining what the Bible has to say about creation. He sees no evidence for arguing that the Bible offers any support for a doctrine of creation out of nothing. In chapter 4 he explores the origins of creation from nothing and concludes that the doctrine emerged from the Church’s conflict with Platonism and Gnosticism. While it may have had a certain apologetic value for the early Church, in Bonting’s view its introduction presented Christian theology with a number of serious problems, not least the problem of evil. He concludes his examination of the doctrine of creation from nothing with a brief survey of contemporary approaches. However, this is far too brief (13 theologians in fewer than 20 pages) to be helpful to the reader or fair to the theologians surveyed.

Over against the doctrine of creation from nothing, Bonting asserts in chapter 6 that God created from primordial chaos. God’s continuing action in the universe may, therefore, be seen as a matter of overcoming the remaining vestiges of chaos until complete order is achieved in the eschaton. While he denies that chaos as he envisages it bears any relation to gnostic evil matter, he suggests that evil may be seen as arising from the elements of chaos still present in the universe. In chapter 7, he explores how God acts in such a universe, concluding that he does so by influencing chaotic events in an undetectable manner.

The remaining seven chapters are devoted to various applications of Bonting’s chaos theology. He begins by addressing the problem of evil, which he has effectively dissolved by denying that God created the chaos from which evil arises and asserting that he is acting against evil continuously by reducing remaining chaos to order. Chapter 9 goes into greater detail concerning God’s action in the world, while chapter 10 focuses specifically on the cosmic Christ. He is critical of traditional doctrines of reconciliation, accusing them of portraying God as entrapped in divine justice when they assert that God cannot act in a manner contrary to God’s own nature. Apparently chaos theology offers an alternative, but he fails to explain how crucifixion and resurrection play a decisive role in overcoming residual chaos. Chapter 11, on genetic modification and cloning, really adds nothing to either his dialogue between science and chaos theology or current debates on biotechnology. Likewise chapters 12 (on disease) and 13 (on extra-terrestrial life) seem to add little to the dialogue.

Finally he turns to the future, contrasting the pessimism of scientific forecasts with the glorious promise of the Bible. Judgement there will be, but he re-presents this as self-judgement. Having said that, his doctrine of the last things seems to be more informed by the biblical vision than by his own chaos theology. Little is said about the implications of the final state being one of complete order and zero chaos.

Creation and Double Chaos
is well written and offers a refreshingly unconventional perspective on the doctrine of creation and the dialogue between science and theology. I must confess, however, that I remain unconvinced by his approach. In particular, I think the lack of serious engagement with contemporary creation theologies needs to be addressed if his thesis is to be taken seriously on the theology side of the dialogue.

14 September 2006

Novel? . . . Oh, that novel!

As you may have gathered from my stony silence on the subject, my novel has been stalled for some months. I passed the 100,000 word mark in January but since then have done so little with it that I have only just reached 105,000 words. This is not due to anything serious like writer’s block, but simply because of the unusually heavy demand for my editorial services recently. My workload now seems to be easing off for the first time in several months, and I am looking forward to getting back to the writing.

As an added incentive, I have decided to combine the final push to the end of the novel with a trial of yWriter, a piece of software designed to assist in the novel-writing process. I was reminded of its existence when Gary made a passing reference to it on his blog a few weeks ago. yWriter was written by Simon Haynes who is an author of science fiction as well as a computer programmer. Since I am always on the look-out for pieces of software to make my life easier, Gary’s reference to it made me go back and take a closer look.

First impressions are good: yWriter successfully swallowed my novel and painlessly dissected it into scenes. The main project screen offers an overview of the novel, chapter by chapter and scene by scene, with useful statistics (number of words in each chapter and a running total for the novel as a whole) and a screen in which you can view the outline and text of a selected scene. Most of the real work is done in a text editor that loads one scene at a time: it is very basic (no italics or bold text) but it gets the job done. I particularly like having the scene outline visible while working on the scene itself (previously I have kept scene outlines and other information in a database while working on the text in Word). yWriter also keeps track of point of view character and the time and duration of each scene (particularly helpful as I am working three major and two minor points of view, and sometimes their scenes overlap to give multiple perspectives on an event so there is plenty of scope for temporal inconsistency in the novel). And last but not least, yWrite is freeware.

12 September 2006

The Senility Prayer

Seen on the wall of a loo while on retreat last week:
O God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway,
the good fortune to run into the ones I do like,
and the eyesight to tell the difference.

11 September 2006

Advance from retreat

Last week I took a few days off to go on my annual retreat. I usually go on one of the guided retreats organized by the Third Order, but this year I opted for a slightly longer unguided break at Key House, Falkland. It was an opportunity to slow down, read and pray far from any possibility of interruption by phone or email. As usual I found the experience both relaxing and refreshing.

Key House is located in the centre of Falkland beside Falkland Palace. Apparently the house was originally the palace inn. From the back garden of the house you can get into the palace orchard and thence into Falkland Estate. There are some very attractive woodland walks in the estate and I spent several hours simply exploring.

My reading for this retreat was chosen from two very different traditions: A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by the Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke and Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen (Roman Catholic). Very different books written in very different styles for different readerships and yet they share an emphasis on the prayerful reading of scripture. Essentially both authors, from their different traditions, are both saying that we should approach scripture expecting God to speak to us through its pages; that we should read it contemplatively and obediently rather than critically. How different from some of the books I have been working on recently!

Of course, both books had far more to say to me than that. I imagine it will take some time for all the implications of what I have been reading to sink in. Perhaps just one other point is worth mentioning now: Nouwen reminded me that there is a certain lightheartedness to genuine Christian spirituality. The great saints of the Christian tradition never took themselves too seriously. How different from the deadly seriousness that seems to have infected the various factions currently threatening to fragment the Anglican Communion. I know I have been taking news and opinions on the tensions within Anglicanism far too seriously. One of the things I learned on retreat was that I need to sit more lightly to what is going on.