A Comparison of St Augustine and Karl Barths understanding of Salvation

1 Sep

Choose one theologian from before or during the Reformation and one theologian from after the Reformation. Describe, compare and contrast their understanding of salvation

Introduction

In this essay I will be examining Augustine and Barth’s understanding of salvation. For both Augustine and Barth, Christ is central to salvation. Both see Christ as a mediator between God and man, one in whom humanity’s sin is dealt with. For Augustine the ‘debt has been paid by Christ (A-204).’[1] For Barth Christ died for ‘man as created by him and fallen away from him.’[2] Secondly both agree Christ took upon himself the sentence of death, Augustine states so that ‘he might make null the death of the wicked whom he justified (A-251).’[3] Barth says Christ ‘tasted Himself the damnation, death and hell which ought to have been the portion of fallen man’.[4] Thirdly they agree the Christ event brings reconciliation between man and God, Augustine states Christ ‘dissolved the enmity (A-102)’ that exists between man and God.[5] Barth argues ‘There is no condemnation – literally none – for those that are in Christ Jesus.’[6] Whilst both theologians are synonymous in the spirit of their soteriology, nuanced distinctions can be made in their understanding, particularly for Barth who seems to reverse traditional perspectives on salvation.

 

Sin

In order to understand Augustine and Barth’s soteriology we will first look at their views on sin using Romans 5:12-21. Augustine’s theology on original sin developed as he sought to refute the views of his counterpart Pelagius who argued man was not affected by Adam’s sin and therefore could freely be obedient to God without divine intervention.  John D. Godsey argues Augustine’s exegesis of Romans 5:12-21 was crucial to his argument.[7] He interpreted verse 12 as humanity being in Adam and thus all humans have sinned. Sin is transmitted to all descendants of Adam and therefore all are guilty. He states, ‘Sin, then, was no mere breaking of a law or doing of a misdeed but a fateful wrong orientation of all human existence from which no one could free himself or herself … Out of the mass of sinful humanity God elects to save a certain number of humans.’[8] Godsey finds Augustine to label humanity as inherently sinful because of Adam’s sin in which only the elected of God can be saved.

 

In contrast Barth interprets Romans 5:12-21 quite differently. Christ rather than Adam is the head of true humanity and thus Barth reverses the traditional understanding of original sin that emphasizes the union of all sinful humanity in Adam. For Barth the relationship of man and Christ supersedes man’s relationship with Adam. There is no doubt that humans are sinners deserving condemnation and death, nevertheless Barth sees humanity as elected in Christ to salvation rejecting reformed traditions of ‘double predestination’. There seems to be agreement with Both Barth and Augustine on the sinfulness of man, however contrast begins to appear in how and who God acts toward in order to reconcile and save sinful humanity. Augustine’s primary focus is man in Adam, whereas Barth’s concern is Christological, man in Christ.

 

Election

Colin Gunton argues that Barth takes a different stance on election despite his heritage being Augustinian. Augustine taught that God’s grace was limited only to a few chosen for salvation; however Barth sees election as being ‘in Christ’. We are not elected outside of Christ, rather Christ is elected and therefore those ‘in Christ’ are elected for salvation in him.[9] For Augustine however, original sin committed by free will rendered man guilty, worthy of God’s wrath and liable for punishment, consequently man is the object of God’s wrath. Christ’s death is necessary to appease God’s wrath toward sinful humanity. Furthermore, God in his divine wisdom has destined some to life and others to certain death. Augustine states, ‘The potter has authority over the clay from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for contempt.’[10] Conversely, Barth strongly suggests Jesus Christ ‘made himself the object of wrath and judgment to which man had brought himself’.[11] Both Augustine and Barth are synonymous in their rendering of man as fallen from God, however the object of God’s wrath in their view differs, Augustine understands the recipient of God’s wrath to be man and contrariwise for Barth it is Christ.

 

Another view of Augustine’s theology on God’s anger is revealed by Mark McIntosh. He suggests that language of wrath should not to be likened to human anger, a disturbance of emotion, but is ‘the tranquil unfolding of God’s own plan for the universe, which we call justice.’[12] In Augustine’s view non fellowship with God is not about his anger or the demand for humanity to compensate for their sinfulness. There lies a problem with humanities falling into evil which is dominated by the satanic. ‘Augustine argues, god has to set humanity free from this satanic grip and to heal humanity’s consciousness.’[13] Here McIntosh interprets Augustine’s view on God’s wrath in terms of justice. God delivers man from the devil’s authority by ‘beating him at the justice game’. This view would seem more synonymous with Barth’s observation of God’s wrath directed toward something or someone else (Christ) as opposed to man, however in his confessions Augustine describes Christ as ‘dissolving the enmity’ between God and man, therefore implying some hostility or anger of God towards humanity.

 

Atonement

Emerging from Augustine (particularly in light of McIntosh’s observations) is a strong sense of ‘Christus Victor’ theology appearing from his understanding of the atonement and Christ’s accomplishments over evil during the cross event. In contrast to Augustine’s ‘Christus Victor’ doctrine, Barth perceives the cross event as ‘a monologue between God the Father and God the Son.’[14] McGrath argues for Barth the Christian faith concerns humans and their knowledge of God rather than the salvation of sinful humans being ‘caught up in the cosmic conflict between God and sin, the world and the devil.’[15]  However, for Augustine salvation is only achieved in God’s defeat over the devil through Christ’s death. Christ’s death is necessary to appease God’s wrath and therefore at conversion sins are forgiven. Augustine states, ‘The lords death was the devils mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.’[16] For salvation to be achieved, Christ’s death became the bait in which the devil was defeated. Whereas Augustine finds salvation is primarily concerned with God’s victory over the devil enabling sins to be forgiven, Barth is primarily concerned with God making himself known to humanity and does not entertain the idea of God battling and defeating the devil for salvation to be acheived.

 

Predestination

‘Predestination consists, then, in the assertion that the divine predestination is the election of Jesus Christ.’[17] Because Christ was rejected taking upon himself the negative aspect of predestination, Barth argues man is no longer rejected and therefore predestination becomes positive. In contrast to Augustine, the negative side of predestination due to man is directed to Christ. On the other hand Augustine believed salvation only to be possible by God’s grace. Without his grace we have no ability to believe and therefore be saved. Those who have not the ‘divine gift of understanding’ have not been allowed to believe, Augustine states, ‘however, because it was not given to them to believe, they were not given the means to believe.’[18] Whilst he sees salvation as a gift God gives only to the elect, it could be argued predestination in his view concerns only salvation, therefore omitting the condemnation of unbelievers. This would affirm Barth’s understanding of election, that those in Christ are saved, and refute Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination, that God elects some to salvation and elects others to eternal damnation.

 

Universalism

Barth’s theology of election in Christ points to the universal salvation of all humanity, sin has been dealt with in the death and resurrection of Christ and therefore humanity is no longer condemned. Barth’s interpretation of election compared to orthodox, Catholic and protestant tradition seems particularly controversial. For Hunsigner no other theologian since Athanasius has consistently done justice to the ‘universalistic aspects of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ as has Barth.’[19] Hunsinger is therefore suggesting that Athanasius’ view of Christ dying for all is Barth’s and this act of universal inclusion enacts the gift of salvation for every human being. However Mouw states, ‘Karl Barth and the Catholics Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, refuse to limit God’s grace and yet conclude that we cannot simply assume that all will be saved. They cautiously hope that in the end no one will be lost.’[20]

 

For Barth then, salvation is universally achieved. All human beings are included in the death of Christ, not just potentially but actually. It is not a matter of outsiders coming into Christ, all of humanity is in, however only those who belong to the Christian faith are those who appropriate this salvation by knowing they are already saved. Salvation for Barth is the acknowledgment of what has already been accomplished in the life, death and resurrection Christ. Though the guarantee that all will be saved is unclear, the Christian hope affirms that no one will be lost.

 

Barth’s emphasis on universal salvation is controversial, for example, Emil Bruner regards Barth to be ‘in total opposition to the Christian tradition’ and the New Testament teaching.[21] He argues the problem with Barth’s universalism is that the decision to salvation has been taken in Jesus Christ for everyone, whether they know it or not. The traditional ‘being lost’ to ‘being saved’ is nullified as it is impossible to be lost. For Augustin, those who are given the gift of God’s grace and are predestined to salvation will at some point transfer from darkness into light. There is a definite knowing of being ‘lost and found’ in his understanding of salvation. Barth leaves us with a sense that ‘being saved’ lacks meaning, for no one will fail to be saved, whereas with Augustine there is priority and urgency in the unbeliever’s conversion and salvation through Christ.

 

Grace

Is salvation influenced by man’s faith? Can humans contribute to the work of salvation? Hunsinger argues that there are two essential points for Barth in regards to salvation, ‘First, what took place in Jesus Christ for our salvation avails for all. Second, no one actively participates in him and therefore in his righteousness apart from faith.’[22] The event of salvation is not influenced or affected by human faith and is a miracle of grace. Barth’s view is similar to Agustine’s who saw no hope in a ‘human’s own assumed potential to be reconciled with God on the basis of the goodness of their nature and the strength of their natural skills.’[23] For both Barth and Augustine, we cannot contribute anything to affect our salvation, as previously discussed however they differ on how salvation is achieved and who receives it.

 

Conclusion

Though Barth’s heritage was Augustinian his theology often reversed traditional soteriological perspectives. There is mutual agreement on the fall and nature of humanity, the sentence of death Christ bore and the reconciliation the cross event enabled between God and man. However in order to gain a fuller and more informed picture of salvation their differing views are of significant value. Barth in the 20th century challenges the age old Augustinian ‘original sin’ tradition by claiming Christ rather than Adam is the head of all humanity, opposing the view that all sinful humanity is in Adam. For Barth the focus is Christ rather than Adam, which has important eschatological consequence. The object of God’s election and consequently wrath is contested by both theologians. There seems then to be a discrepancy over who prevails in and over man, Christ or Adam. Whilst Augustin holds ‘Christus Victor’ theology in high regard, Barth challenges this suggesting salvation concerns the knowledge of God rather than the God’s battle over the satanic grip on humanity. We can also conclude that both Barth and Augustine differ on their view of predestination and election yet there is similarity in the lack of condemnation due to those whom Christ has not been revealed.  Salvation in their eyes cannot be earned or contributed to by human faith or effort, it is the free gift of God. Barth and Augustine have at the essence of their soteriological understanding both mutual agreement and difference giving the study of salvation great depth and diversity.

 

Bibliography

Ashwin-Siejkowski, P., SCM Studyguide: Early Christian Doctine and the Creeds, London, SCM Press, 2010

 

Godsey, J. D., “The Interpretation Of Romans In The History Of The Christian Faith.” Interpretation 34.1 (1980): 3-16. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

 

Gunton, C., ‘Salvation’, in John Webster, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Bath, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000

 

Hunsinger, G., How to read Karl Barth, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991

 

McGrath A. E., ‘Karl Barth’s doctrine of Justification from an Evangelical Perspective’, in Sung Wook Chung, Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, Milton

Keynes, Paternoster Press, 2006

 

McGrath A. E., The Christian Theology Reader, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing LTD, 2011

 

McIntosh, M., An Introduction to Christian Theology: Divine teaching, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2008,

 

Mouw, R. J., ‘Where are we going?’, in William C. Placher, Essentials of Christian Theology, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003

 

Penguin Classics, St Augustine Confessions, London, Penguin Books LTD, 1961

 

 

[1] Penguin Classics, St Augustine Confessions, London, Penguin Books LTD, 1961

[2] Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing LTD, 2011, pp. 392-393

[3] Penguin Classics, Confessions

[4] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp.392-393

[5] Penguin Classics, Confessions

[6] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp.392-393

[7]  Godsey, John D. “The Interpretation Of Romans In The History Of The Christian Faith.” Interpretation 34.1 (1980): 3-16. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

[8] Godsey, The Interpretation Of Romans In The History Of The Christian Faith, pp. 8

[9] Colin Gunton, ‘Salvation’, in John Webster, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Bath, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 145

[10] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp. 350-351

[11] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp.392-393

[12] Mark McIntosh, An Introduction to Christian Theology: Divine teaching, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2008,  pp. 88

[13] McIntosh, Divine teaching, pp. 89

[14] Alister E. McGrath, ‘Karl Barth’s doctrine of Justification from an Evangelical Perspective’, in Sung Wook Chung, Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, Milton Keynes, Paternoster Press, 2006, pp. 181

[15] McGrath, Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, pp. 182

[16] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp. 294

[17] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp.392-393

[18] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp. 351-352

[19] George Hunsinger, How to read Karl Barth, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 108

[20] Richard J. Mouw, ‘Where are we going?’, in William C. Placher, Essentials of Christian Theology, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, pp. 334

[21] McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, pp. 395

[22] George Hunsinger, How to read Karl Barth, pp. 106-108

[23] Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski, SCM Studyguide: Early Christian Doctine and the Creeds, London, SCM Press, 2010, pp.187

Postmodernity and the Christian Bible

26 Aug

 

Following Derrida, what is meant by deconstruction? Show how the idea of deconstruction might influence a Christian reading of the Bible

 

What is meant by deconstruction?

Deconstruction is a term coined by Jaques Derrida in 1967 to mean simply, ‘destruction or criticism’.[1] To deconstruct means to take something apart, to dissect it piece by piece. Although the term deconstruction can be perceived as negative, it is actually intended to be positive and constructive.

 

Broadly understood, Derrida proposed that we interpret our world on the basis of language. He put it this way: ‘There is nothing outside the text’,[2] or putting it another way, ‘there is nothing outside context’. What Derrida meant by this, according to Smith, is in the context of interpretation. Most of the time when we read a text, the bible for instance, we seldom feel as though we interpret it. We may concede that we need an interpretation of a text such as to gain background information, but most of the time we merely read without thinking we are interpreting. Thus, ‘We assume that the text under consideration is clear and therefore doesn’t require interpretation.’[3] Meaning, most of us think that when we read the bible it is clear, we may need someone to interpret the context behind the text, however the text is transparent and needs no interpretation. Derrida believes we are influenced by Rousseau who suggests there can be a reading of a text without interpretation, that we can see the world ‘as it is’ in its purest form without a lens to mediate it. Smith argues that for Derrida, ‘this is a naive assumption because it fails to recognise that we never really get “behind” or “past” texts; we never get beyond the realm of interpretation to some kind of Kingdom of pure reading.’[4] In reality, we are unable to bypass language or a condition in which interpretation is not necessary. And so, ‘Interpretation is not a series of hoops we jump through to eventually reach a realm of unmediated experience where we don’t have to interpret anymore.’ On the contrary, interpretation is part of what it means to be human and experience the world, thus it is impossible to escape mediation.

 

For Smith, when Derrida states there is nothing outside the text, ‘he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language.’ Consequentially, everything must be interpreted to be experienced. Derrida does not deny the existence of material things; the material world has existence outside our minds, however all our experiences of those things are interpreted. Smith suggests interpretation is informed by a number of different things: the context in which the thing is encountered, personal history and background, presuppositions that are brought to the experience, and many others.[5] It is therefore possible to conclude that everything is interpretation, and for many Christians this is adverse to the Christian faith. If everything is down to interpretation, then the Christian scriptures are only an interpretation and therefore not ‘true’. If the biblical scriptures are simply an interpretation, how can we know if they are correct? Smith finds that the gospel is indeed an interpretation and therefore we cannot know if it is true, in the sense that we cannot access it in purity, the way things are, objectively. However, he argues that it is wrong to assume that this is antithetical to the Christian faith.[6] Asserting that because something is an interpretation, therefore it cannot be true, or if something is true it must be objective is unjust. Because something is subject to interpretation does not mean that it cannot be a true or a positive interpretation.

 

Can we assume then, that Derrida’s deconstruction and the postmodern idea of everything as interpretation is antithetical to the Christian faith? No, even if we had witnessed the events of the biblical scriptures first hand, we would still need to interpret those experiences. Even revelation, according to Smith, is subjective and does not guarantee that everyone will read experiences in the same objective manor.[7] What we need are the right presuppositions and horizons in order to interpret the world well, these right presuppositions and horizons are attained by grace and the renewal and regeneration by the spirit. In turn the world is mediated properly.

 

From modernity to postmodernity

One of the issues that postmodernity addresses is the notion that we can access in some way, an ultimate objective truth. Postmodernity asserts, as Middleton and Walsh argue, that ‘We can never get outside our knowledge to check its accuracy against “objective” reality. Our access is always mediated by our own linguistic and conceptual constructions.’[8] Therefore to the postmodern mind, it is impossible to access some sort of ‘reality’ in which we see things objectively, we can only mediate reality in our concepts and language. Middleton and Walsh also maintain that ‘many postmodern thinkers would go much further than admitting that life is perspectival or that reality is mediated to us by our worldview.’ We have no way of checking whether our constructions correspond to anything external and therefore there is a ‘growing postmodern tendency’ which questions ‘whether there is in fact any reality outside our constructions.’[9] Postmodernity therefore critiques the realism of modernity in that reality is mediated to us by our perspective and is a human construct.

 

Our obsession with objectivity is, as Jane Flax explains, a typically Western desire ‘to master the world once and for all by enclosing it with an illusory but absolute system’. This desire for mastery and control, and the claim to grasping reality as it ‘really’ is, ‘discloses our desire for another sort of mastery, that over human beings.’[10] In the modern era which esteemed reason and logic, and saw the rise of science dominate much of the western world’s thinking objectivity became central. Moving away from medieval chaos, modernity sought to embrace knowledge in terms of empirical facts and experience. Modernity needed something reliable, and ‘thus “objectivity” emerged as a way to fend off ominous chaos.’[11] Toulmin identifies several kinds of knowledge that qualify as real knowledge in the era of modernity: (1) a movement from oral to written so securing reliability, (2) a movement from the particular to the universal in which real truth is what is true everywhere, (3) a movement from local to general, therefore truth must be the same in all locations, and (4) a movement from timely to timeless in which real truth is unchanging.[12] Real knowledge in this sense meant that truth became secure and undoubtable, creating stability and control. Brueggemann argues that this project of modernity, which emerged out of anxiety in the seventeenth century ‘very much determined the church’s modes of certitude and its collusion in domination in this most masculine world offered by science.’[13] Toulmin finds that today we now see a reversal of modernity as we move from written to oral, universal to particular, general to local and timeless to timely.[14]

 

Brueggemann contends that old Euro-American modes of knowing no longer uphold respect and credibility as objective and universally true. Today our modes of knowing have changed and therefore objective assurance, mastery and control can no longer be our intention. In place of objective certitude, Brueggemann characterises our new ways of knowing. Knowing is:

  1. Contextual – it is now clear that ‘what one knows and sees depends upon where one stands or sits.’
  2. Local – the more we generalise the more we fail to recognise context. Localism means that it becomes impossible to voice ‘large’ truth.
  3. Pluralistic – the dominant centre wheedling objectivism is unable to impose its views on those with different opinions. Pluralism is therefore the alternative to objectivism.[15]

 

Thus the practice of Christian interpretation, as Brueggemann advocates, in preaching and liturgy (and one could also suggest scripture) is contextual, local and pluralistic.

The Contrast between modernity and postmodernity could be summed up as follows: ‘In modernity, the subject sovereignly and disinterestedly uses method to reach knowledge and truth. In postmodernity, the priority is for subjects to acknowledge their own situatedness and interestedness.’[16] For the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, modernity’s search for the right method was the problem itself. He pointed out that human beings only hold points of view from within particular histories, languages, and traditions, which he calls ‘horizons’. Our biblical hermeneutics are often limited by the fact that we have, as Gadamer proposed in his work Truth and Method, a ‘historically effected consciousness’ in which we are embed in a particular history and culture that has shaped us.[17] This forces texts to fit our pre-set categories of knowledge or argument. Meaning, we often find ways in which the text collaborates with our own background. As Vanhoozer states, ‘neither individuals nor cultures enjoy a God’s-eye point of view on the world.’[18] For Gadamer, in order to understand a text properly, we must firstly recognise that the ‘knowing and interpreting subject is never objective’. Secondly, to make meaning of a text we must translate it ‘into our situation so that the text can address an issue of our time.’[19] Hence, meaning is not objective, out of time; rather the meaning of a text is subjected to the present.

 

The postmodern way of thinking concerning the bible seeks to challenge modernity’s claim to the universality and objective reading. It critiques the ways in which a single way of viewing things is imposed, claiming it to be the only ‘way’. The postmodern biblical interpretation finds that the reading of a text concerning what and how it means are ‘inseparable from what we want it to mean, from how we will it to mean.’[20] However, biblical texts are not the issue; rather Moore suggests the problem lies with the ways in which we read them. The postmodern way and therefore deconstructionist way of reading the biblical scriptures is to situate them in contexts.

 

Absolute truth

In reality there is no perfect objective answer which can be formally adjudicated, and therefore we will always have and dwell amongst rival claims to truth from the other. Furthermore, ‘those who want absolutes tend to accept authority only if it speaks the absolute claim to which they are already disposed before anything has been said.’[21] Kenneth Gergen states, ‘When convinced of the truth or right of a given worldview … a culture has only two significant options: totalitarian control of the opposition or annihilation of it.’[22] Although Gergen writes in the context of Western thought in relation to totalising aspirations resulting in violence toward the other, such as racist and sexist worldviews, we can also see how this occurs within certain Christian cultures and consequentially their understandings of scripture. When certain Christian groups (such as Westboro Baptist Church seen recently in the media)[23] are convinced of ‘the truth’ two options are available: either you become a Christian and do as ‘we do’ or accept the fate of ‘eternal torment in hell’. Postmodern thought dismantles or deconstructs ‘totalising visions of reality’ providing a positive space for difference of the other, liberating the excluded under the ‘hegemony of modernity’.[24]

 

How can we take scripture seriously without making a totalising claim to truth? Can we take scripture at face value? Middleton and Walsh state, ‘There is a sense, then, in which genuine faithfulness to the authority of Scripture means that we must go not only beyond the biblical text but sometimes even against the text.’[25] Meaning, in order to take scripture seriously we must treat it as a narrative. Thus, ‘while the story the Bible tells is guided by God’s overarching purposes, the story is full of dead ends, plot conflict and narrative tension, which are not normative but interrupt plot fulfilment and go against God’s purposes.’ Being faithful to scripture does not mean submitting blindly to every scriptural text; rather it is about enacting ‘God’s redemptive purposes through discernment of the thrust of the entire metanarrative.’[26] There are many difficult and even offensive texts within the biblical canon which raise ethical problems. By focusing on the narrative of scripture rather than taking individual scriptural passages at face value, enables the reader to overcome some of the textual and ethical issues contained in scripture.

 

Does this mean that the traditional understanding of the biblical scriptures being divinely inspired is devalued? Not necessarily, B. Keith Putt argues that God has revealed himself through the biblical texts and that they are the product of divine inspiration. Nevertheless, this inspiration ‘does not void there also (1) being historical texts developing within certain contexts, (2) being transmitted through a tradition, and (3) having to be read and interpreted by each new generation.’[27] To limit texts to ‘cold objective’ documents would be to diminish their impact and even distort the gospel. This subjectivity ‘does not lead to biblical relativism but, instead, to an adventure of faith in which knowledge and truth result from the power of God’s spirit working in history, through language, and out of cultural traditions.’[28]

 

Is everything all ‘relative’?

What implications does this understanding of interpretation have on praxis? Can we make the bible say what we want, and is all scripture up for debate?

 

Stanley Fish, in his book Is There a Text in this Class? Identifies that the reader of a text produces their own meaning and therefore meaning is not an objective property of the text itself. Fish is aware of subjectivism and relativism, however his position asserts that the reader’s ‘interpretive strategies are governed by the interpretive community to which they belong.’ Dunn, in the publication Criteria for a Wise Reading of a Biblical Text, comments on Fish’s own recognition that ‘reading is not a wholly isolated, individual experience. In his most influential work, he has emphasised that any reading is conditioned to at least some extent by the reading or interpretive community to which the reader belongs.’[29] In order for the reader to make meaning of a biblical text, the reader along with the text becomes subservient to the interpretive community to which they belong. The reader is not a free agent and thus not just any kind of reading happens.

 

Returning to Derrida, a common Christian argument opposing postmodern thinking and more precisely deconstruction is that if all things are down to interpretation then meaning can be made up as we go along. Hence, the bible can be made to say whatever you want. Therefore, ‘Deconstructionism confronts us with the claim that all order is arbitrary, imposed on the world by human beings’.[30] Thus, there is a sense of disorientation, and the realisation that all things are up for debate, including scripture, can be unnerving. What happens to the authority of scripture if scripture is subject to the notion of deconstruction? On the one hand, it is true to say that many people do indeed interpret the bible in different ways making the bible say what they want, whether it is the justification of slavery or why Christians should be rich and financially prosperous. The bible is subject to interpretation; nevertheless, not all interpretations are good. According to Smith, deconstruction does not mean we can say anything we wish concerning any text, rather there are important ways in which legitimate determinations of contexts are made such as: ‘the context for understanding a text, thing, or event is established by a community of interpreters who come to an agreement about what constitutes the true interpretation of a text, thing, or event.’[31] This community consensus establishes the rules that will oversee good interpretation. As Rorty asserts, it is not that each individual is constrained to their own private individual reality because we can in fact engage in conversation with each other.[32] Pushing this further, Lindbeck advocates scripture can only be understood from within a believing community. He asserts that the Church’s tradition and ‘rule of faith’ is the basis on which members are taught how to use scripture Christianly, it is not about observing a set of ‘biblical propositions’ but continuing a tradition of interpretation.[33] These rules govern the life and language of the Church community and therefore authority lies within the tradition (interpreted by the community), not scripture autonomously. We find consensus then, among the minds of Smith, Lindbeck, Fish and Rorty that community hermeneutics are essential to the way in which scripture is used, authority is the hands of the interpreters and tradition which the community of faith is directed toward.

 

Conclusion

We have found then, that deconstruction concerns interpretation, and that rather than seeing the world ‘as it is’ we never really get past the ‘text’ to a kind of ‘pure reading’ without some sort of mediation. The way we interpret is formed by personal history and background, and presuppositions in which we view an experience. This thinking has caused problems for many Christians in that it challenges the way in which scripture is interpreted and understood. Although it is true to say that the bible is itself and interpretation, the assumption that this is antithetical to the Christian faith must be challenged. Rather than try to seek an objective truth, which postmodernity critiques as being impossible as we can never access ‘reality’ outside of our own conceptual constructions, the right presuppositions and ways of interpreting the world must be found so that the world is mediated properly. Postmodernity, and accordingly deconstruction, seeks to critique modernity’s assertion that there is a universal, objective truth that is the ‘only way’ of understanding the world. Therefore, the way in which we read scripture is to situate it in contexts. Totalising visions of reality do not provide a positive space for the difference of the other and therefore modernity’s objectivity and its control through the often use of hegemony can no longer be tolerated. Thus, scripture cannot be submitted to naively as if every word were an objective universal truth; rather, we must recognise that the scriptural text is a narrative which has developed over a large period of time in differing historical contexts, being interpreted by many generations. The bible is subject to interpretation, however in order to read the scriptures well, a community of interpreters is essential for a good reading and therefore scripture is not autonomously authoritative, however authority is found in the power of the interpreters to be used for the purposes of God and the Christian community.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Brueggemann, W., Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993)

 

Castelli, Elizabeth A. and Stephen D. Moore, Gary A. Philips, and Regina M. Schwartz, eds., The Postmodern Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

 

Dunn, J. D. G., ‘Criteria for a Wise Reading of a Biblical Text’, in D. Ford and G. Stanton, Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (London: SCM Press, 2003)

 

Flax, J., Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Femenism and Postmodernism in the Cotemporary West, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1990)

 

Gadamer, H., Truth and Method (London: Continuum Publishing, 2011)

 

Gergen, K. J., The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991)

 

Middleton, J., and Walsh, B. J., Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (USA: InterVarsity Press, 1995)

 

Putt, B. K., ‘Preunderstanding and the Hermeneutical Spiral,’ in Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture, ed. Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1966)

 

Rorty, R., Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1982)

 

Linbeck, G.A., The Nature of Christian Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984)

 

Smith, J. K. A., Who’s afraid of postmodernity?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucalt to Church (Michigan: Baker Academic: 2006)

 

Toulmin, S., Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: Chicago Press, 1990)

 

Vanhoozer, K. J., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Zehfuss, M., Constructivism in International Relations: The Politics of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

 

Wikipedia. (2015). Westboro Baptist Church. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westboro_Baptist_Church. Last accessed 23rd April 2015.

 

 

[1] J. K. A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernity?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucalt to Church (Michigan: Baker Academic: 2006), p. 34

[2] M. Zehfuss, Constructivism in International Relations: The Politics of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 239

[3] J. K. A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernity?, p. 37

[4] J. K. A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernity?, p. 38

[5] J. K. A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernity?, p. 40

[6] J. K. A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernity?, p. 44

[7] J. K. A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernity?, p. 48

[8] J. Middleton and B. J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (USA: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 32

[9] Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, p. 32

[10] Jane Flax, Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Femenism and Postmodernism in the Cotemporary West, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 34

[11] W. Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), p. 5

[12] S. Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: Chicago Press, 1990), p. 30-35

[13] W. Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, p. 6

[14] S. Toulmin, Cosmopolis, p. 186-192

[15] W. Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, p. 8-9

[16] K. J. Vanhoozer, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern theology p. 152

[17] H. Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Continuum Publishing, 2011)

[18] K. J. Vanhoozer, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 152

[19] K. J. Vanhoozer, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology p. 153

[20] Castelli, Elizabeth A. and Stephen D. Moore, Gary A. Philips, and Regina M. Schwartz, eds., The Postmodern Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 14

[21] W. Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation, p. 10

[22] K. J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p.252

[23] Wikipedia. (2015). Westboro Baptist Church. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westboro_Baptist_Church. Last accessed 23rd April 2015.

[24] Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, p. 34

[25] Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, p. 184

[26] Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, p. 185

[27] B. K. Putt, ‘Preunderstanding and the Hermeneutical Spiral,’ in Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture, ed. Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1966), p. 206

[28] B. K. Putt, ‘Preunderstanding and the Hermeneutical Spiral,’ in Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 206

[29] J. Dunn, ‘Criteria for a Wise Reading of a Biblical Text’, in D. Ford and G. Stanton, Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (London: SCM Press, 2003), p. 46

[30] Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, p. 36

[31] J. K. A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernity?, p. 53

[32] R. Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1982), p. 60

[33] G. A. Linbeck, The Nature of Christian Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), p. 115

Exploring the Gospel – The Gospel in Galatians

2 Aug

In the letter to the Galatians, we find the Apostle Paul amazed at the fact that many are so rapidly deserting Christ for another gospel (1:6), of which Paul emphasises there is not really another. There are some people who are seeking to disturb the Galatians and distort the truth they have received.

Who were these people seeking to distort the truth of the gospel? The Judaizers were ‘so called’ Christians who taught that in order to be part of God’s family and justified on the last day, followers must observe the Mosaic law, specifically circumcision (2:3), dietary laws (2:12) and calendar observance (4:10) which marked Jews out as the people of God.

Paul opposed vigorously the idea that gentiles must be circumcised and therefore wrote the epistle explaining the truth.

The question we may pose then is, ‘what is the different gospel Paul describes in Galatians 1:6?’

According to man

From man:

The false gospel Paul speaks of is from man and is contrary to the gospel the Galatians had initially received (1:9). He gives a long account of how the gospel he received was not according to man, rather it came ‘through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1:12).

To please man:

The reason the Judaizers wanted to distort the gospel was because they sought the favour of men as opposed to God. The desire to seek favour of someone often reflects an inner longing to be accepted. Chapter 6 verse 12 shows us that these men desired to put on a good show, compelling gentiles to be circumcised so that they would not be persecuted for the cross of Christ (6:12).

Even the Apostle Peter stood condemned because he separated himself from the gentiles. The reason for this behaviour was fear; he feared the party of the circumcision and therefore sought to please man rather than God (2:12).

The sobering words of Paul inform us that if we want to seek the favour of men, we are not servants of the Messiah (1:10).

Distorts

The false gospel presented in this epistle reveals how the true gospel is distorted. The word ‘distort’ used in Chapter 1 verse 7 means literally ‘to turn around’. The message the Galatians had received initially was now being turned around by the Judaizers. They were being led back to the message they had heard before the gospel had been preached to them, namely, that in order to be part of God’s family (or be a proselyte) you have to be circumcised, not only that, it is compulsory to observe dietary and calendar laws. Chapter 4 verse 9 and 10 describe how some had ‘turned back again to the weak and worthless, elemental things’, things they desired to be enslaved to once again.

Sons of God through faith or law:

Jewish circumcision was a sign that you were part of the covenant of God and therefore Abraham’s descendants. For Jews, eating with uncircumcised gentiles was also prohibited and therefore observing dietary laws reflected your covenant status. The gospel was so distorted by the party of the circumcision that even Peter was led astray, therefore withdrawing from the gentile Christians at meal times. The true gospel allowed Jew and gentile to eat together as one people; the distorted gospel led Jewish believers to withdraw from the gentiles believing themselves to be the true people of God.

The good news had been turned around so much so that surprisingly Peter compelled gentiles to live like Jews. Proselytising them as Jews had previously been customary under the old covenant in order to be in right standing before God.

The Galatians had begun in the spirit by receiving the true gospel, however, turning to a false gospel, they were now perfecting their covenant status by circumcision, being as Paul describes, ‘perfected by the flesh’ (3:3).

Paul addresses this hypocrisy by explaining that man is not put in right standing with God by ‘works of the law’ but through faith in the Messiah. In other words, circumcision and torah observance has no power to make you a son of Abraham (part of God’s family) because ‘cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law to perform them.’ (3:10). No Jew or gentile has ever held fast to the law completely other than the Messiah himself. Therefore the observance of torah is not an indicator that man is an heir of promise, for ‘the righteous man shall live by faith’ (3:11). Before the revealing of faith in the Messiah, Jews were kept under guard by the law until the fathers set date (3:23, 4:2). The law therefore became a guide to Christ, for the promise could only be given to those who believe in him (3:24). Consequently in chapter 3 verse 26 (which in my understanding is the central verse of Galatians) we become partakers in God’s family through faith in the Messiah who puts us in right standing with God. In Christ then, there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised. Those who belong to Christ through faith are all one, being Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise, not through ‘works of the law’ (3:28, 29).

Enslaves

Galatians 4 tells of Abraham having two sons, one by the bondwoman and the other by the freewoman, the first is a slave, and the latter is free. The bondwoman was born according to the flesh. Why? She bore her child by natural means apart from promise of God. The freewoman however, bore her child through God’s promise to Abraham. Therefore the child of the bondwoman became a slave and the child of the freewoman became free. Paul explains that those who are of the bondwoman shall not be heirs with the freewoman and therefore those in the Messiah are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.

Subjection to slavery

As a result, those who joined in with the hypocrisy of circumcision, Paul declares to be subject to a yoke of slavery and consequentially severed from the Messiah, no longer part of God’s family, fallen from grace (Galatians 5:3,4). He testifies that those who want to be circumcised must thus keep the whole law to be put in right standing before God (5:3). Before the Messiah, the defining sign that a Jew was a member of the covenant was circumcision, and if a member of the covenant, all other rules had to be obeyed.  Those who had not been tricked by the false gospel and relying upon circumcision, Paul says are by faith hoping for future vindication. Tom Wright states,

‘Paul speaks of the time when God will declare publicly and completely that all those in Christ really are his people. This is ‘the hope of righteousness’, the longing for the time when God’s vindi­cation and justification of all his faithful people will be made manifest, the time of the new creation ( 6.15).’

If the Messiah’s people hope for vindication though faith, verse 6 must be true, ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.’ His people are not defined by observance of torah, rather faith working through love.

Flesh vs Spirit

If God’s people are identified by ‘faith working through love’, how then is this defining marker outworked?

Paul encourages the Galatians firstly with their call to freedom, and secondly to walk by the spirit (5:13,16). This new creation in the Messiah is to use their freedom to serve one another through love. Their statement of faith is ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (5:14). Paul describes the contrasts of those of the bondwoman, who are not heirs of promise to the sons of the freewoman, those who are sons of promise. The sons of the flesh outwork their sonship in immorality, impurity, sensuality and so on (5:19-21). The sons of the spirit practice the spirit’s fruit, love, joy, peace and so on (5:22-23). Those who belong to the Messiah, the true sons of God, share in his crucifixion, being crucified to the fleshes desires and passions, no longer part of the bondwoman.

The false gospel in Galatians is that to be part of God’s family, heirs of promise and be justified on Jesus’ return you must be circumcised and observe works of the torah.

So what is the true gospel in Galatians?

The true gospel is that you are God’s family, heirs of promise through faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Conclusion

What does this mean for 21st Century Christians?

1/ According to man – we must be careful to ensure we receive the gospel through a revelation of Jesus Christ and not through man. Though we may hear the good news through man as a mouthpiece we have to be careful to discern it through the lens of the Messiah. One practical way of doing this is to follow Paul’s example. He didn’t rely on men’s understanding of truth, rather he went away. It is not clear what Paul did during his time away, and it would not be beneficial to isolate one’s self. However, it is beneficial to search the scriptures and consult with Jesus himself on truth. Relying on man can be naive and lead to distortion of truth.

2/ Distorts – For many reasons, one of which may be fear, we turn around to embrace false gospels and neglect the true gospel God wishes to reveal to us in the Messiah. In 21st century western society are not be being compelled to circumcision to be accepted by God, nevertheless I would suggest there are alternative gospels being declared and embraced. Here are a few:

  • Prosperity gospel: Believe in Jesus and he will give you all you ever wanted, the big house, the flashy car and a thriving Christian ministry.
  • Moralistic gospel: In order to be in right standing with God and earn his favour you better have ensured you did not harm anyone, gave to charity and lived a good Christian life.
  • Antinomian gospel: You’re saved by grace and faith alone and don’t have to live according to God’s ways, forget the law. Don’t worry, you can do what you want, you’re already in.

These are some of the many different gospels we are challenged with today.

3/ Enslaves – One of the many consequences of allegiance to false gospels is that those who submit to them become enslaved and therefore severed from Christ. God’s grace only stretches to those who obey the true gospel and its boundaries. For this reason those who are bewitched by alternative gospels cannot be part of God’s family. If we are to live in freedom then we must ensure we submit ourselves to truth. Here are some suggested ways of doing this.

  • Boast only in the cross of Jesus the Messiah and Lord (6:14)
  • Through love serve one another (5:13)
  • Seek the favour of God and not men (1:10)

The Church and Ethnic Jews

14 Jun

I love history, especially history about Ancient Roman architecture and construction. Great Britain is soaked in Ancient Roman history in terms of its structures and buildings. If I were to locate a marvellous Roman excavation and replace it with a modern building, I’m sure many historians, organisations and even government would be horrified at my dishonour and arrogance. The new building that I constructed has written off hundreds of years of history, society and great importance to the formation of contemporary Great Britain. The better option would be to restore it to be all it was created to be.

This is similar to the Church and ethnic Israel’s position. The Jewish people have great history and importance. Paul describes many of their attributes in Romans 9 as follows: ‘theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah’.

If the Church were to come along and say, ‘we don’t need any of that, we are now the new chosen people of God, and in fact we don’t even need to consider our history or founders of our faith’ then we would be committing a great crime, being arrogant and dishonouring. God would not be happy. Rather, the people of the Messiah (the Church) must honour and not write off their heritage, history and foundations. The architecture God used in the form of Israel to bring about his redeeming purposes for his people in Christ is highly significant and must be preserved. Not only must this history be preserved, but our attitude towards the ethnic Jews of our day must also be of honour and respect. We should not be arrogant, as Paul describes in Romans 11, toward the Jewish people, ‘If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches.’ The gentiles have been grafted into Christ (the olive tree) along with believing Jews to form the church. However, just because we have been grafted in to God’s family does not mean we are better or superior to the branches that are not currently part of his family (unbelieving Jews).

Using the analogy above (though not perfect), we might say that God is in fact restoring the ancient building (rather than replacing it) under new management, namely the Messiah. The new restored part of the building (God’s family through the Messiah) should not say ‘I am a new building, better than the old one that used to exist’. Rather it should say ‘I honour the previous existing building and desire it to be renewed to the requirements of the manager’. The new restored part of the ancient building is fulfilling its destiny to be the building the architect desired it to be.

In summary:

1/ the church must recognise, honour and respect its Jewish foundations and history ensuring it is preserved and understood

2/ the church must not be arrogant toward unbelieving Jews who are not yet part of God’s family, thinking of itself as more superior

3/ the church’s desire should be for God to restore humanity (Jew and Gentile) into a commonwealth through the Messiah to be all it was designed to be

Exploring the gospel – The gospel in the Old Testament

12 Jun

The gospel is often presented as a ‘New Testament’ phenomenon with a huge chasm between its counterpart ‘the Old Testament’. It is offered as a new message, bringing a seeming divide between the Ancient Jewish/Gentile and first-century Jewish/Pagan worlds. Was this the case concerning the gospel in the days of the likes of Isaiah? Is the gospel present in the Old Testament, and if so, is this the gospel message personified in Jesus the Messiah?

700 years before Jesus’ ministry on earth the prophet Isaiah emerges amongst an exiled Jewish people who desire desperately for God to vindicate them and to rid them of evil that manifested itself in forms of oppression, injustice and poverty. Their beloved temple had been desecrated and its creator God had seemingly withdrawn. Their world seemed to be in major disorder, their land desolate and government corrupt. Israel had failed to be a light and redeeming nation, there seemed to be no hope. This sets the scene for the announcement of ‘good news’. Isaiah proclaims as follows in chapter 40 and 52:

Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of good news,
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of good news;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (40.9)

How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who announces [b]peace
And brings good news of [c]happiness,
Who announces salvation,
And says to Zion, “Your God [d]reigns!” (52.7)

These scriptures speak of God returning to Zion and returning his people from exile. The good news is to be announced, declaring ‘here is your God’, ‘your God reigns’. God is creation affirming, he is coming to restore his earth by becoming King, by reigning on earth as he does in heaven.

N T Wright states, ‘When their [Israel’s] god, YHWH, acted within history to deliver his people, the spurious gods of the heathen would be defeated. If and when YHWH set up his own king as the true ruler, his true earthly representative, all other kingdoms would be confronted with their rightful overlord.’

The hope of the gospel had been proclaimed through Isaiah, that God would send his messenger to declare God King of all by bringing forth justice.

So is this the same gospel we see proclaimed in the New Testament?

The good news is announced in and through the Messiah to Israel as he gathers disciples unto himself. Jesus presents throughout his life the Kingdom of God through word and deed as he heals the sick and raises the dead, affirming God’s creation and restoring God’s people unto himself. As the climax of Christ’s death and resurrection unfolded, many of his follower’s hopes would have dwindled. Their longing for restoration, vindication, freedom from exile, oppression, and purging of evil had been dashed as they saw their beloved teacher and hopeful Messiah overcome, yet again, by the imperial pagan powers they longed to be freed from. But, the story did not end there.

This Messiah who looked in certain defeat, gloriously and authentically rose from the powers of death. The King could not be overcome by evil, rather the declaration that ‘God reigns’ was confirmed eternally. ‘God is King of this world you belong to, and as you follow this announcement your belief and confession grants you to become part of the King’s redeeming, earth affirming, and creation dwelling family.’ The gospel spoken by Isaiah of peace, happiness and salvation becomes very real as God continues to redeem his creation through his reign. The world that is in turmoil, conflict and chaos is reordered through the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

The gospel therefore is continuous throughout all scripture, New and Old. The good news is declared all the way through the Old Testament and points to the climactic appearance of the Messiah, who will one day return with an even fuller climax to establish his Kingdom, renew his creation and grant his sons and daughter’s peace, happiness and salvation from this present evil age.

Sources:

http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Gospel_Theology_Galatians.pdf

 

What is God doing amongst our Community of Believers?

10 Jun

I have been part of the Amblecote Christian Centre community from the age of three. During the many years I have spent involved in this community of believers God has been at work in a fundamental way.

Eight years ago there was a change in church leadership in terms of its structure and more traditional leadership style. The church community had previously relied and appointed one man as a pastor to oversee the church community, give direction and vision, preach sermons and many other duties involved in leading. However, the church leadership changed as God sought to challenge the way we thought concerning the purpose of his body. We no longer relied on one man; rather, we formed a leadership team to oversee the duties of the church fellowship. The mission and vision befitted God’s heart for our community and was ‘to equip believers to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven’. The whole community took up the mantle to be empowered to build God’s Kingdom as he looked to change the traditions to which we had become accustomed.

After a period of time God revealed in many ways our religiousness. He spoke to us clearly through scriptures such as Matthew 15:8, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” God revealed to many in the congregation that though they performed good works, were actively involved in community projects, giving and charity, their hearts were still in bondage to the world. We talked and acted like ‘good Christians’ on the outside yet inwardly our affections for self prevailed. Many also struggled with issues of self righteousness and even penance (though not overtly), trying to atone their sins by good works, therefore feeling more acceptable to God.

The further God revealed our helplessness, vulnerability and inability to keep his commandments, the more he unveiled his son Jesus to us. We slowly came to realise that our efforts and good works were no match for the work Christ had accomplished at the cross. Our need to be in control of our destinies and assurance were triumphed by Christ’s faithfulness and his suffering at Calvary.  Chapter three of Philippians promenaded itself within our midst as we understood more clearly that all our righteousness was likened to filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and our pharisaic ways were now being considered garbage (Philippians 3:8) as we sought ‘to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10-11). Our fundamentals had been shaken as God delighted in making the congregation’s foundation Christ rather than man.

As a church we embarked on a teaching series in the book of Romans as God captivated us with the truth of the gospel. The teaching could be summed up in four main categories:

1/ Individualism

Previously many had viewed the gospel and soteriology as individualistic. We believed God to be more concerned with saving individuals than vindicating his collective people. Failing to see Paul’s emphasis on community, we often risk endorsing a faith ‘that teaches our mutual interdependence into a religion of privatized piety’.[1]

Our understanding is now being transformed by the gospel that is much greater than my personal plan of salvation; the gospel affects society, politics, education, creation and us corporately as a community.

2/ Consumerism

Consumerism influences our society and culture tremendously. We pick and choose what we like when we like. Often this mentality influences how we approach Jesus and his word. As a community many would admit that our understanding of God was pick and mix, often selecting the scriptures and doctrines of Christianity we wanted to hear and discarded others that weren’t so pleasing, therefore giving us a warped view of the gospel.

Now, as we read scripture and walk together as a community we try to focus on centralising Christ and his word, ensuring we submit to the gospel holistically.

3/ Existentialism

Existentialism plays a huge role in our current world in which our individual existence thrives on feeling and experience to determine truth. God conversely challenged the church’s desire to determine truth through feeling and experience. Many of us looked for experiences of God on a Sunday morning but were duly disappointed when God ‘did not turn up’. Feeling and experience are important; however this became the sole focus.

God is currently helping us to ‘worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24), ensuring our understanding of the gospel is not shaped exclusively by experience and feeling but by God’s word and our faithfulness to it.

4/ Imperialism

Under previous models of leadership within the church, many believed that those in a leadership role were more superior and important, especially in terms of ministry. Many attended church on a Sunday morning and felt the position of the pastor was more important than the everyday congregational member’s role in society and working environment.

Through a change of leadership and understanding of the gospel we now seek not to construct an imperial, superior model of church membership, rather we endorse the gifting of all believers, and function to serve one another in building the Kingdom of God together under the headship of Christ who is impartial.

Conclusion

God has worked in many ways to bring the church community to the foot of the cross. We are being moulded into his image through his word. God uses many circumstances that are not always pleasant to bring us into submission to him. He is always gracious and merciful to us and we now understand more fully our ‘sonship’ and his loving ways of disciplining us as a father does his ‘son’.  God continues in Christ to bring us to the foundations of our faith, enlightening us to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. By no means are we perfect, however there is no doubt God is moving within the church community as he brings to completion the great work he started.

Bibliography

New American Standard Bible, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 1985.

Thompson, Michael B., The New Perspective on Paul, Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd, 2010.


[1] Thompson, ‘The New Perspective on Paul’, P.6

Paul’s perspective on Adam by N T Wright

9 Jun

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