The Bible is an extended argument over who counts as the people of God and what the implications are of that designation for our life and faith. To read the Bible as though we can simply see what is said about a particular action or belief and uphold that same view of sin and faithfulness is to undercut everything that the Bible is and does. Our goal as Christians is to embody the kind of faith-seeking-understanding that is played out in the pages of scripture – not to pull out the verses that happen to agree with what we already expect to be the case so that we can prove our list of sins or beliefs is the one, right, and everlasting truth. God’s love and relationship come first. Upon that foundation we must continuously seek the grace of God that leads to new understandings and embodiments of faithfulness.
The problem with labels is that they are both entirely insufficient to capture the reality of life and at the same time entirely necessary for us to say anything meaningful about the world.
The point is not to live “right.” The point is to live love. (Mark 2:27)
There is no list of don’ts. There is only God’s love. (Matt 22:37-40)
Luke 23:34a – Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’
64O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Do you really believe it when we say that God is big enough and strong enough and loves enough to forgive us for anything we could ever do? I don’t just mean are you willing to say the words or does it sound like the right set of beliefs for a Christian to have. I mean do you feel forgiveness? Do you know with all that you are that we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough no matter what we may have done or thought or said – no matter how often we fall short or turn away or fall into the same old habits that we’ve been struggling with for years. Do you really expect that God has and will forgive?
That’s a hard question to answer. On one hand I know the answer should be yes. I’ve read the stories, I’ve grown up in church, I’ve dedicated my life to leading a community called church – a community that is defined more than anything else by that very conviction. The church is the body of people that has not other reason for existing than the reality that the forgiveness of God through Christ sets all things right and makes all things new. Church is the invitation to take part in God’s mission to make it real – to spread love and forgiveness across the globe. If the church is not making the love and forgiveness of God real and present in the world, it has no reason to exist.
This is the life that I have chosen – to lead God’s people to experience that love and forgiveness that is our very reason to be here in the first place. And yet, I struggle all the time with the expectation that God really is that strong – that God’s love really goes that deep – that God really does set all things right and take every mistake I make or tragedy I face and reshape it in the palm of His hands to make something beautiful and new. I know it is true that God forgives, renews, brings healing and wholeness – but that doesn’t make it easy to feel forgiven and whole all the time. I’m just another person on the same journey together with you…
And one of the most common fears people have is the constant nagging in the back of our heads saying that we’re not enough – not smart enough, not accomplished enough, not thin enough, not nice enough, not generous enough, not musical enough, not tall enough, on and on down the list I could go. I’ll bet just about all of us could name at least one or two ways we feel like we aren’t something enough. And those stories we tell ourselves so easily take control of our expectations.
When we play the tapes over and over in our heads, I’m not enough, I’m not enough, I’m not enough, we often start to make that mantra a reality. It’s easier to fail on purpose than to risk the possibility that we might not actually succeed. It’s simpler to just make the story a part of who we are than it is to try and prove to the world that we’re more than our past mistakes. The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt says I made a mistake. Shame says I am a mistake. Guilt is something that can be forgiven and that can teach us how to live better. Shame is something that colors the very way we see our self in the mirror and shame only tears us down.
As a culture, we’re so good at shame that we rarely leave open the possibility for change or forgiveness. From time to time we see terrible accusations made against beloved public figures and we have no idea what to do with those accusations most of the time. Shame plays a profound role in why those reports so often seem to come out in clusters. Some of it is internal shame for victims – I should have acted differently OR I shouldn’t have put myself in the situation OR I should be stronger than this. Then, the shame game comes from the response toward victims – You should have worn something different! You shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation! You should have quit or left or run! The stigma around being victimized can feel worse than that of abuse itself.
On the flipside, you can tell quite often which of the accused feel the guilt that makes change possible and which do not. Shame may seem like the polar opposite of pride or arrogance, but it’s really more like the flip side of same coin. Shame is the internal arrogance to think you know how bad you are and arrogance is the external desire to shame everyone but yourself. And from certain of the accused, the shame and arrogance are unmistakable. Lashing out and demanding control is so, so often a symptom that there is something inside that we cannot bear to face. It’s easier to pretend that everything is OK than to face the stories our shame wants to tell.
If we are ever going to find health and healing, we have to learn to move beyond the cycle of shame – we have to learn to expect that forgiveness is not just a buzzword, but is a vital part of setting all things right and making all things new. It takes the humility of guilt to be able to admit when we make mistakes and be willing to learn from others how to move on. It takes the willingness to give up control and place our trust and future in the hands of someone else. In short, it takes the vulnerability of love to find healing and wholeness. And vulnerability is just about impossible when we don’t expect to be loved, if we are finally seen for who we are.
The stories told by shame keep us hiding our true self and longing to control every little thing – we should be better than this, we should be wealthier, we should have cleaner homes, we should never be late, we should never have to ask for financial help, we should, we should, we should…the list goes on and on. And by the time we’re done shoulding all over ourselves, we’re too tired and miserable to have anything left for anyone else. Shame tells a destructive story – but there is no shame in love – there is no should.
God’s people have always told a different kind of story – a story not based at all on shame and control, but on forgiveness and love. As we explore the bigger story into which God has invited us throughout the season of Lent, we start tonight with one small piece of that story. The prophet Isaiah lived and wrote in a time of great change and expectation. At the start of the book is a great deal more fear and sadness at the loss of God’s promise with this people. By the end of the book we start to see much more hopeful signs and reminders that God will never abandon God’s people.
Isaiah reminds the people time and time again that God will be faithful no matter how many times they fall short. Isaiah reminds them that God is big enough and strong enough and loves deep enough to overcome all our fears and failures and make us new each day. Prophecy, like the words we read from Isaiah, is often misunderstood as a simple exercise in future telling – a long time ago someone said “x” would happen and a not quite so long time ago “x” did actually happen. There can be some value to that way of thinking, but the vast majority of what makes prophecy so significant is that it teaches us how to see the bigger story that God is writing. Prophecy invites us into God’s bigger story no matter what stories we tell ourselves about the world around us.
In today’s reading, God’s people are offering hopeful words about the power of God to set things right and return to a place of power. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” The passage begins with these words of longing – desiring miraculous and incredible signs from God as a reminder that God is still in control. Just a little further on, we hear Isaiah say “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” God’s people have clearly seen what God is capable of and are longing to know the fullness of that power and presence again.
And then we come to the really remarkable part of the story. Isaiah says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” There is no pretense of righteousness or holiness here. No whitewashing of how far short God’s people have fallen from the life God desires. Isaiah goes on, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Iniquity is another word for wickedness, evil, sin. The depth of the ways they have fallen short are not hidden from God, but shown in the bright light of day.
And what does Isaiah hope for, but forgiveness – he concludes “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay. You are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” You don’t get to the point of speaking these humble words unless you expect that forgiveness is not only possible, but already a given. It is without shame or arrogance that Isaiah recalls God’s mighty works and prays that God would again forgive their sin and mold them into something beautiful.
The story we tell ourselves is far more often than not the story we will see playing out when we look at the world around. If we tell ourselves a story of shame and tell ourselves that we’re not enough, there will be little chance to find anything but reminders of how far short we fall. But if we learn to see through the eyes of Isaiah – if we learn to see the world through the story of all that God has done for us, then we may begin to find the healing and wholeness God desires for us each and every day.
We don’t have to hide all that we are from God as though we could ever be good enough to earn our way into heaven. Love is never earned. Forgiveness is never in our control. But when we learn to expect the wondrous love of God that makes even the mountains tremble, that is when we will be bold enough to let our deepest self be seen and heard and loved and forgiven.
It’s one of the hardest things in life to really and deeply trust that there is no room for shame in the love of God. I know what to expect from the deep and wide love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. But I still need to be constantly reminded that it is OK to be seen for the broken and imperfect child of God that I am. As we continue to prepare our hearts and minds throughout Lent, expect more from God by worrying less about whether or not you are enough. Through Christ, God offers healing and wholeness and forgiveness. In Christ, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Expect nothing less.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Nature of History in Lesslie Newbigin’s Thoughts on the Formation and Future of the Church
Lesslie Newbigin was a prominent figure in the world ecumenical movement and served as a bishop to the newly formed Church of South India. Through his leadership in both ecumenism and Indian mission work, he was challenged to explain and interpret the Christian faith in a variety of contexts. Newbigin believed that the Christian faith offered “the most comprehensive of clues to reality” in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. In light of this “clue,” he sought to explain and build up a church that holds Jesus Christ as the fundamental basis for knowledge and faith. To understand and appreciate Newbigin’s portrait of the church and its mission, one must recognize the distinct nature of history that is presumed in the works of Newbigin.
This paper will explore the connections between Newbigin’s understanding of history and his depiction of the formation and future of the church in the world. I will argue that both a linear and a circular conception of history are insufficient frameworks in which to interpret the Christian faith. To make this argument I will first explore Newbigin’s understanding of the relationship between the Triune God and history, and then explain the church in terms of its historical formation and eschatological future. Within this argument, I will clarify why both a linear and a circular view of history are insufficient for Newbigin. By analyzing history in relation to God and church, a third view of history will be made explicit as the foundation for Newbigin’s understanding of the Christian faith. Based upon this third view of history, I will finally examine four of Newbigin’s primary ecclesiological emphases to suggest the continued relevance of Newbigin’s conception of history for the church today.
Creation and Fall
At the beginning of biblical history, all of creation fell from the grace of God by the power of sin. Newbigin did not speculate much about the character of life before sin existed or after the eschatological restoration of creation. He believed that our present knowledge of and relationship to God is “only a foretaste of what He wills for us” and, thus, speculation would not yield edifying and complete truths about God or ourselves. Because Newbigin did not speculate regarding the time before and after sin except to inform the character of present worship and action, we must begin this analysis by looking to nature of the sin that separates us from God’s grace and brings humanity into a state of contradiction. However, references will be made to God’s intentions for creation when such references clarify the nature of history as we now experience it.
Human beings were created for relationship, both with God and one another. It was God’s purpose “that mankind should be one family bound to Him and to one another in love…” Humanity’s fall from God’s purpose in creation was a slide into contradiction in one’s relationships with one’s self, God, nature, and other humans. At the root of each of these contradictions is the refusal of humanity to be obedient to the will of God. Humanity was created “in love for love,” which necessarily binds its existence in “reflecting…the love of God.” Disobedience prevents one from expressing God’s love and, thus, prevents humanity from knowing its proper relationship to God. Apart from this relationship, humanity is blind to know its purpose and will hopelessly struggle forward towards its own improper ends.
The resulting state of contradiction is, then, not a removal of God’s presence and intentions from the life of humans, but the human failure to experience and respond to God’s purpose in and for life. This state of contradiction is the situation in which the story of human history is played out. History, as we are able to know and analyze it, begins outside the boundaries in which God created humanity to live. We must next ask, how and in what direction does history move?
The Authorship of the Father
The Father is the author of history. The Bible “sees the history of the nations and the history of nature within the large framework of God’s history – the carrying forward to its completion of the gracious purpose that has its source in the love of the Father for the Son in the unity of the Spirit.” God’s work in creation and in drawing creation back to Godself initiates the progression of time through history. History as we know and experience it is, thus, a result of the work of God the Father and subject to the authorship of God.
However, as fallen and sinful creatures humans do not experience history as being carried forward by God. Looking at the pages of world history at any given point in time, the glaring corruption and contradictions that are present in the human heart might rather lead one to believe that humans wander aimlessly through time. Some would argue that the consistency in human failure implies that history is of a circular nature. Circularity attempts to subsume all happenings under particular laws or formulas. Perhaps in posing the above view of human failure, one might say that God’s grace is a formulaic response to consistent human failure.
Newbigin’s problem with this view of history is that it begins to resemble the Hindu worldview, which allows for spiritual truths to exist without requiring historical evidence. For the Hindu, grace never has to respond to failure for grace to be a timeless truth. But were failure to appear, grace would necessarily come. To accept such works of God as mere instances of a timeless truth would be to do away with the significance of God’s acts in history, for events in history are not significant by their timelessness, but “in their full unrepeatable individuality.”
Moreover, if God is not free to act in new and distinct ways over time, then God would be subject to time rather than ruler over it. If God did not act in new and distinct ways over time, there would be no significant history to tell; there “is no point in a circle, and so there is no story to tell. There are only stories.” To believe that God is the author of history, working to effect God’s purpose for history, one cannot then explain history as a circular repetition of eternal truths and formulas. One must recognize that the progress of history is contingent upon actions of God that are external to the human mind and power.
If the Christian accepts that there is a distinct movement and direction to history, has he or she then placed Christianity in the hands of the historian? Is there any way to know what God has done apart from objective historical investigations? Newbigin would certainly answer in the negative if one presumes that objective history must operate according to the methods of Enlightenment rationality. Enlightenment rationality does not allow the possibility that God might be at work in a historical event. However, Newbigin wrote that interpreting God’s work in an event “is not something added to the experience of the event; it is the context for understanding the event.” The affirmation that God is at work in an event must come prior to the question of what has happened.
To ask the question of what “really” happened, one must presuppose the criteria by which the outcome is to be judged; one must presuppose what details of history are significant based upon the “tradition of rational discourse of which” one is a part. It is possible to interpret history, even as it is being made, in light of the Christian community and tradition. But it is equally possible to interpret history in light of Enlightenment thinking because there is no “disembodied ‘reason’ which can act as impartial umpire between the rival claims.” If we presuppose, in the line of Enlightenment thinking, that “God is not a factor in history,” then there will be no reason to finally conclude that there is any true significance to an event outside my personal feelings towards that event.
If, however, one presupposes that human life is wrapped up in “the action of God to bring history to its true end,” then a very different account of history is possible. One’s priorities in historical study shift from seeking “forces immanent within history” to finding history’s goal in “the promise of God.” It becomes possible to view the world not in terms of irrefutable law and formula, but in terms of the free and decisive actions of God to effect the salvation of the whole cosmos. To understand history as salvation worked out in creation is to place Christianity not in the hands of the historian, but in the light of God’s purpose. We must next ask, to where might one turn to find the enactment of God’s purpose in the world?
The Election of the Son
The Son is the clue to history. It is in Jesus that “the end has come. In him, therefore, history finds its meaning.” The meaning found in Jesus makes possible an alternate path to the aimless wanderings of a sinful and fallen humanity. God reaches out to humanity and overturns our sinful expectations and experiences of God and the world. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s light reaches into the world and effects God’s purpose for the salvation of the cosmos.
The gospel of Jesus Christ furnishes humanity with an alternate understanding of the life in which it dwells. Jesus “sets the human situation in a new perspective” and places human existence in the “true light” in which it may be properly understood. To make this claim is not to say that the gospel whisks one away to an alternate form of existence, but that “the gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure” in which the present form of existence can be experienced in a new way. The plausibility structure of the gospel does not discount the insights and ideas held by the rest of the world, but it places them in a proper relation to the truth, which God alone controls.
The gospel is, then, not opposed to rationality in general, but is itself the precondition for the rational mind to find truth in the world. There is no finite argument or set of observations out of which the gospel could arise. It is “the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience.” The rationality of the Son empowers humanity to see properly, but is something beyond the creative power of the human mind and experience. Jesus Christ, thus, provides the link between our sinful and fallen experience of the world and the perfect and truthful reality purposed by God in creation. He is both the center of God’s truth throughout the cosmos and the subversion of human attempts at otherwise coming to that truth.
To claim that Jesus Christ provides a distinct plausibility structure may seem to be either a modest or arrogant claim; modest if one assumes that Jesus is merely one of an infinite array of universal truths from which to choose, arrogant if one assumes that Christians are making an exclusive claim to the particularity of truth in Jesus. Newbigin would argue, however, that both possible views rest upon false convictions.
In the first case, to claim that Jesus is one of an infinite number of equal truths is a case of supreme arrogance or ignorance. To illustrate this point, Newbigin often referred to the parable of the king who asks several blindfolded men to feel an elephant and identify the animal they are feeling. Of course each man can only guess based on what little evidence is revealed to them by touch and only the king is able to see the elephant for what it really is. While the story is meant to imply that all religions can do is grasp at partial truths, Newbigin points out that no human is ever in the king’s position to remove the blindfold. To make the above claim regarding Jesus is a claim to know “the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.” If this claim is not made as an arrogant claim to knowledge higher than all religions, it must then be made from ignorance. One cannot doubt “except on the ground of beliefs which [one has] to hold in order to be able to doubt.” What may seem like a humble claim of intellectual openness is truly the failure to recognize on what grounds one is finally committed to the search for truth. If Jesus Christ is believed to be but one form of truth, one must rest this conviction on the perception of something more truthful and credible than Jesus.
If, as in the second case, Christians must believe that the particularity of truth in Jesus is unique, how can one avoid the claim of arrogance? Newbigin’s response to this question rests firmly within his understanding of election. The relation between the universal experience and salvation of humanity and the particular person and work of Jesus Christ “is God’s way of election.” The truth that, as I have argued above, must be uniquely found in Jesus is not a possession or right of any one person but is the way God has chosen to effect God’s purpose in creation. It is a truth that “binds the human race and all its history into one.” While election has often been misunderstood as a claim to special status or privilege with God, Newbigin consistently states that Jesus Christ “is the elect of God” and that humans “are not elect as isolated individuals, but as members in His Body.” The inherently corporate nature of election into Jesus Christ combined with the purpose of God for the restoration of all creation means that election is not for the sake of the individual but for the sake of all creation. To claim the particularity of Jesus is not an assertion of arrogance or privilege, but a commitment to the service of God’s purpose in union with Jesus Christ.
To this point it may be assumed that the recognition of Jesus Christ as the clue to history implies a direct progression from belief in Christ to the fulfillment of God’s purpose in creation. One may assume that if in Jesus “the point of the whole human story has been revealed,” humanity’s arrival at that point is merely a matter of diligent work and constant improvement. Such an assumption relies upon a linear view of history, which may move up or down at any given instance but creates an overall line of progress between the sinful existence of humanity and the realization of a right relationship with God. Newbigin notes that this view of history is popular with the social gospel movement, which seeks to bring the kingdom of God to earth in the near future. In this view, “ignorance and sin can be and will be gradually eliminated from human life until a time shall come when men shall live together in perfect brotherly love…”
Newbigin, however, does not believe that a linear progress from sin to perfection is possible because of the depth of human depravity and sin that still exist in the world. Death is the point at which one cannot help but realize “that all human life is so flawed and marred that it cannot lead straight to the perfect consummation of history which God has promised.” To assume that our efforts in this world are capable of effecting God’s full purpose is to ignore the glooming certainty of death and the impossibility of overcoming death by human power or ingenuity. Moreover, the progress that one finds in any human achievement is always ambiguous. Beside the “attainment of progressively higher goods” is the “equally real growth of evil.” One instance of the ambiguity in progress provided by Newbigin is the development of the atomic bomb. He writes that “men have even learned to harness the power of the atom for his use” but “this very power threatens to destroy him in frightful war.” Any achievement or progress by the power of humans is always subject to the perversion towards evil.
Only by the cross of Jesus Christ does God travel to the far side of human depravity to conquer even death itself. It is only by this uniquely real act in history that “the reign of God is manifested in what seems to be its defeat; the power of God, in weakness; the wisdom of God, in foolishness…” By raising Christ from the dead, God “exposed, illuminated, and unmasked” the present age and its structures. The cross and resurrection are not acts or events separate from who God is in this world, but glimpses into the depth of God’s love. They are the ultimate sacraments of who God is. As the transcendent God becomes immanent even unto death, the clue to history is given to humanity. We must next ask, how is it possible for humans to see the work of Jesus Christ in a manner that is not scarred by sinful perceptions?
The Revelation of the Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the power to see history. By the power of the Spirit one is able to turn and recognize the good works of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the continued presence of the Son of God in creation. The Spirit reveals Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, both in and through the world, thus illuminating the pathway through history that is not aimless but is directed toward the completion of God’s purpose in creation. Only by the power of the Spirit can history be seen as directed toward that completion.
Newbigin likens the revelation of the Spirit to the knowledge of a builder. If someone walks upon a construction site and sees people working, there is no way for that person to logically deduce what is being built. One may presume that a building or a strip mall is in progress, but without asking the builder to reveal what is coming, very few details can be known until the completion of the project. Similarly, Newbigin argues, we are in the midst of a directed history that has a definite end. If we hope to know that end, it must be revealed to us by the author of history. Jesus Christ is, so to speak, the blue-print of creation and the Spirit is the builder who explains to us what is to come. Without Jesus there would be no plan. Without the Spirit there would be no way for us to know that plan.
By this understanding of revelation, the spirit does not provide “steps on the way to the kingdom, but unveilings of, glimpses of that kingdom which is already a reality…” By the Spirit, we are enabled to see the election of Jesus as the restoration of creation, but not as a pass out of the turmoil of life. Revelation leads one to a faith that enables him or her “to see the goal and to rejoice in, and share in, its bliss because [he or she has] already in a measure the mind of God.” But these visions remain new and distinct ways of assimilating our present experiences of the world and are not forms of knowledge incompatible with the exercise of reason. As was mentioned in the previous section, every act of knowing takes for granted certain presuppositions. The claim that the Spirit reveals Jesus Christ is the starting point for Christian reason and not the abandonment of reason. One cannot set reason against revelation; revelation is the Christian framework in which reason is able to operate.
Having made the claim that the Spirit reveals Jesus, one may then employ reason to relate the message of Jesus with one’s experiences of the world. If one finds, for instance, contradictions between the gospel’s proclamation of the kingdom as a present and a future reality, this contrast is “not the difference between the incomplete and the complete; it is the difference between the hidden and the manifest.” The contradiction lies not in reason’s inability to uphold the truth of both views of the kingdom, but in the starting point at which one assesses the current state of the world. The power of revelation lies beyond the scope of the human mind and provides humanity with a proper view of the point at which God’s work intersects with human history.
I have argued that the Spirit reveals God at work in the world, but before moving on we must consider whether or not the Spirit is necessary for humans to see rightly. Is it possible for one, having been told the end of human history, to reveal that end to another person? As stated above, Newbigin argued that sin and contradiction are deep within the human heart. He therefore believed that if revelation is not “a work of the Holy Spirit,” it will be a work that distracts from and points to some other goal than the restoration of humanity’s relationship with God. A change in vision cannot occur apart from the restoration of one’s relationship with God, and there is no direct line between human’s sinful and fallen state and the salvation of all creation. Revelation is, therefore, a facet of the work of God effecting God’s purpose in creation and cannot be a work of humanity. We must next ask, how ought one to respond to the action of God in, through, and over history?
The Formation of the Church
The church is humanity’s response to history. The church does not see and respond to a special or unique salvation history, but to the universal history wrought by the actions of God in the life of the cosmos. Newbigin writes that “there is only one history. The question is whether the faith that finds its focus in Jesus is the faith with which we seek to understand the whole of history…” The church is that group of people who travel through history with their eyes, both in public and private, focused upon the cross of Jesus Christ. Such focus is only possible in response to the power of the Spirit, who reveals in Christ the clue to the history, which is written by the hand of the Father. To speak of the church as having its focus on Christ necessarily implies that the church both exist within and alongside the rest of creation and that the church challenge the presuppositions and foundations of those who do not see Christ as Lord. The church travels through the course of history along the path laid out by Jesus Christ so that all may believe and confess that Christ is Lord.
Newbigin consistently emphasized that faith in Christ and life in the church do not remove one from the “specificities and particularities of history” but instead call humanity to “bear through history to its end the secret of the lordship of the crucified.” The church’s life is understood as part of “the story which is being enacted under God’s providential control in the events of contemporary history, [the same history]…which is being chronicled with more or less understanding of its meaning in the daily bulletins in press and television.” To claim that the church can exist in a manner distinct from the everyday reality humans face is to posit a fundamental divide within creation. A divide between “church” history and “secular” history cannot be sustained if God’s creation is understood as a single entity. The lives of every person intersect in some fashion and the particular stories and events of one’s life cannot be understood correctly apart from the history which God has written over all creation.
It is the nature of the church to exist within the world, but the church does not simply recreate secular society. Rather, the church is a “sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” The church is “both the first-fruits and the instrument of God’s gracious election…” As the church walks alongside the rest of the world, it is and bears witness to the reality that is possible by the grace of God.
One might easily point to the flaws and failures of the church throughout history as evidence that it cannot truly be the kingdom of God on earth. However, in the church as with the cross of Christ, the “presence of the kingdom is a hidden presence…, but precisely in its hiddenness it is revealed to those to whom God through his Spirit grants the gift of faith.” One cannot see and understand the reality of the church apart from the power of the Spirit to reveal God in its midst. Unless the revelation of Jesus Christ is taken as the starting point for Christian rationality, the church will appear to be just as aimless as the rest of the world as it travels through history.
One might also point to the long history of the church’s inward focus as evidence that it does not bear witness to the kingdom in the world, but to an exclusive social club for those whom it desires to permit entrance. Newbigin accepts that the centrality of witness in the church has not always been obvious or accepted by members of the church, but emphasizes that becoming church entails incorporation into the election of Jesus Christ. Newbigin describes the faithful community that bears witness to the gospel as, in itself, the primary hermeneutic of the gospel. Only within a community living by the gospel can the reigning plausibility structures and secular arguments be challenged. Whether or not one clearly sees the church bearing the gospel to the world, the church in the world is the vehicle through which God has chosen to effect God’s purpose in the world.
The church, then, is necessarily the place wherein God’s purpose for salvation is worked out. But the church is not primarily for those inside its walls. Despite the Western church’s growing interest in the individual salvation of souls, Newbigin believed that the “urgent question is not: How shall I be saved? But: How shall God’s name be hallowed, God’s kingdom come, His will be done on earth as in heaven?” The church is not a place of privilege and exemption from the trials of the world but the locus of service toward the purpose of God in which all of creation is the recipient of God’s action. As the church receives by faith the “self-communication of God’s will,” it is empowered “to live in the light of its final goal” in which all will be able to share at the Lord’s Table in peace. It is not within the power or duties of the church to effect the goal of a new world order, but it is in the formation of the church that the gospel of Jesus Christ is shared for the sake of all humanity. It is through the church that God shapes the future of the whole world. We must finally ask, what is the future towards which the church is being drawn?
The Future of the Church
At the end of history, all of creation will be restored to its right relationship with the creator. The consummation of the kingdom of God “is the restoration of creation to its original purpose by the purging away of sin. It is the restor
ing of all men and all things to perfect harmony and perfect joy, through the perfect love of God.” Such restoration, as has been argued above, is both a real event in history and an unpredictable end to history as we know it. The eschatological end is, like the fall, a single point in history that forever changes the flow and meaning of history. It is an act of God that both defines the means by which restoration is realized and defies human attempts to predict its timing and reach.
The scientific rationalism that controls Enlightenment thinking focuses almost exclusively on efficient causality as a means to assess the present and predict the future. Science leaves no room for understanding or explaining God as the final cause of history. To view the end towards which creation moves as an act of God, our picture of history “must be shaped less by the idea of evolution than by the New Tes
tament Apocalypse.” Like a thief in the night the end may come and it is not something that can be effected by a church program or mission strategy. It is not a human power but the divine will. No historical process or scientific exploration can explain the end of history, but in Jesus Christ the purpose of God is revealed and the world is drawn toward the eschatological end. Because of Jesus Christ, the final cause of the church is hope; a hope expressed in the faith to live as the kingdom in the world and in the love to endure until God’s perfect timing is fulfilled.
The eschatological nature of the kingdom is the driving force behind Newbigin’s conception of the church’s formation. Although the end is not fully revealed on this side of the eschaton, he believed “the vision of it must control Christian action within history…” Without some vision of the end, there can be no purposeful action or evaluation of past actions. Only in the hope of the future
kingdom is the Christian’s faith directed toward the good and perfect restoration of relationship with God and the Christian’s life bound together in a community of believers. The coming kingdom, then, defines the character of God’s work in effecting God’s purpose in the world and the character of the church as a response to that work.
However, while the certainty that the kingdom would come was never in doubt, Newbigin was not willing to make claims as to when the kingdom would come or who would be saved. The timing of the kingdom can only be known in the fullness of God’s patience and it will always remain a temptation of the church to either expect the kingdom now or to lose hope that the kingdom will be better than t
he present. Falling into either temptation is a sign of unbelief and a failure to trust that God is in control. Attempting to pronounce who will receive reconciliation and who may finally be damned is equally problematic for Newbigin. To exclude the possibility of damnation would be to “depart completely from the gravely realistic teaching of the New Testament … that there is a broad and easy way leading to destruction and that many go therein.” Conversely, it is a matter of “arrogance” to presume that Christians are authorized to “inform the rest of the world about who is to be vindicated and who is to be condemned at the last judgment.” The timing and reach of God’s final judgment will be characterized more by “surprises,” “reversals,” and “astonishment” than by
the manifestation of the Christian’s imagination. The coming kingdom, then, defies a
ny human attempt to predict when or precisely how God will act.
Reflections upon the Implications of History for Church Life
History, for Newbigin, cannot be understood as the linear movement of humanity toward the fulfillment of God’s purpose in creation, nor can history be an eternal circle governed by spiritual truths or laws. History is the complex unfolding of God’s story. It is a story with a beginning and an end. It is a story under the control of God and a story of which we are all a part. I will conclude this paper by representing four of the primary ecclesiological emphases from Newbigin’s writings in reference to this conception of history. The four emphases to be considered are the Bible as authoritative history, the nature of doctrine, mission in the world, and human progress.
1) The authority of biblical history does not entail the adherence to an irrational history but the vision of a glorious future. In the Bible one receives knowledge of the builder’s plans for the future of the cosmos and is enabled to live in light of that future. Because history is real, we must find a lens through which to read that history. This lens is provided in the story told by the Bible. To use the Bible as history is not to rewrite the stories and acts of God in light of changing scientific discoveries, but to reinterpret all aspects of life in light of God’s revelation.
Living in light of this history does not require one to constantly relate the stories of the Bible to everyday life, but to develop the habits and skills necessary for the biblical vision of God to become determinative of one’s character. Newbigin likens the relation of biblical interpretation to life with the relation between practicing the piano and performing a masterpiece. The pianist must know and study the techniques of music, but the performance of that music will suffer if the pianist is attending to the movements of his or her fingers rather than the movement of the piece. Similarly, to affirm the authority of biblical history the church must indwell the story until it is formed in such a way that it becomes “the voice and the hands of Jesus for [its] time and place.” The church must know the story of which it is a part in order to bear faithful witness to the future that God has promised. Only by upholding this alternate view of history in the power of the Spirit can the church invite others to turn and see the glory of God in the midst of everyday life and in the fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation.
2) The nature of doctrine is not a matter of knowing facts clearly, but of loving God purely. As the church journeys through history it formulates doctrines to interpret and appropriate ever changing circumstances. These “so called eternal truths are the attempts we make at particular moments in the story to grasp and state how things are in terms of our experience at that point.” The church cannot claim to possess or contain the truth of God’s work in doctrine, but “it claims to know where to point for guidance (both in thought and in action) for the common search for truth.” Thus, the doctrines of the church are not contained within an unchanging formulation of words but must be expressed in the actions of a community of believers.
It is essential rather than accidental to the gospel that Jesus did not record a systematic account of right belief and doctrine. Jesus came to show the love of God in the building of relationships and the calling of disciples. The statements we make about what God has done are not unimportant but “what we do in the liturgy and life of the Church has an ontological priority and an enduring reality…” Statements of faith cannot bear the light of the truth, but like John the Baptist, they can bear witness to the light. Our distance from God and the direction in which we must travel toward God changes at every point in history and to rest in “dogmatic slumbers,” as though the truth of God had been formulated for all times and places, is to abandon the church’s commission to bear witness to the truth. As the love of God becomes manifest more perfectly in the life of the church, the truth of God will be evident not in traditional words on a page, but in the vision to see God at work throughout the history of creation.
3) The church in mission to the world is not an act of human obedience but an expression of the Spirit’s presence. Newbigin described the beginning of New Testament mission work as a “nuclear explosion” of “joy in the Lord.” Church mission work is the recognition that the gospel “is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told.” The overflow in the abundant good news of God is at the heart of the church’s ability and calling as God’s witness in the world. Both the church and the world are essential parts of the work of God and mission work must both bind the church to the world and transform the church in light of new encounters with the world.
As Newbigin emphasized, the longing of God is for “the salvation of the world” and not the repentance of some isolated individuals. The blessing wrought upon the cross “would be negated if it were not given and received in a way that binds each to the other.” By treating missions as a project of bringing Christ to the nations, one is in danger of perceiving the secular world on a different path of history that leads in a new and different direction. But the binding of the church to the world through missions necessarily implies that the fate of each is wrapped with the other. It is the church’s work to invite the world to see God in the midst of a common history and on the path of a common journey.
That common journey will both challenge the church and the world to change. Newbigin was emphatic that “mission changes not only the world but also the church.” To make this point, he used the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Through the conversion of Cornelius, Peter was forced to recognize that the gospel message was for both Jew and Gentile. This happening changed the spread of the gospel and the whole history of the church. If mission work is an expression of the Spirit’s presence within the world, neither the church nor the world can be unchangeable entities as humanity moves through history.
4) Finally, human progress does not mean that humanity will be better, but that it will see better. All empirically measurable signs of progress are ambiguous at best. Within the Enlightenment culture of progress, “development” is seen as the most effective measure of humanity’s capacity for good. Better schools, faster computers, running water, and effective medicines are all seen to be the signs that God is at work bringing about the kingdom in which war and death will be no more. One must recognize, however, that “all human causes are ambiguous and all human actions are involved in the illusions that are the product of our egotism.” The example of the atomic bomb was provided above, but even something as apparently noble as education can become the basis for a wholesale abandonment of the rationality that must be central to the Christian faith.
Training the world to see the “dark mystery” that Christ is present and active in the world is a more faithful means of church progress. Progress must be measured in the hope of the eschatological future in which the purpose of God will be known and fulfilled in creation. If we are to take the life of Jesus Christ and the witness of the cross as the clue to human history, nothing short of the power of God will be able to effect meaningful and lasting progress in creation. We should not ask “How can I be saved?” but “How can God be glorified?” Progress does not make us better people; the Spirit makes us better witnesses to the eschatological end toward which creation is being drawn.
By placing our hope in the limitless grace of God, we can take part in the history through which God has chosen to effect God’s purpose for the salvation of the world. We will be carried by the almighty works of the author of history to the restoration of our relationship with God and one another. We will be focused upon the clue to history that is and makes possible full restoration. And we will be empowered with eyes of faith to see all that God has done, is doing, and will do over the full course of history. Only by God’s grace will the church see and share in the hope of glory that is our Lord Jesus Christ. Only by grace will history be complete in Him.
*note – Since I wrote this paper, I have questioned whether it adequately expresses Newbigin’s true way of thinking or if I simply wrote out my own viewpoint in the words of Newbigin. To whatever extent Newbigin’s thoughts are represented, this paper certainly expresses my own. Also, footnotes failed to copy over from the paper and I have no idea how to add them in now. For the original paper with footnotes, click here.
These are just words on a page: words with no life and meaning of their own. Nothing specific or unique to the shape of letters or sounds of speech controls the interaction between these words and the mind. Theological writing shares the same deficiency in meaning. The most powerful and commonly used theological language can become a tool for self assertion and a perversion of the gospel message. Correlation between written or spoken words and theological truth only occurs when human words participate in the Word.
Participation in the Word requires that the work of God form, inform, and transform communication. God’s creative action forms the world in such a way that we are able to experience that world and share our experience through words; by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, those words are informed with meaning and power; and by the redemptive act of Jesus Christ, words transform the life of the individual and the community. Thus, communicating the Word of God, the task of theology, is the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This paper will first consider the current theological situation of the church and then explore the meaning of this Trinitarian understanding of theology in relation to God’s creation of the world, the Spirit’s presence in the world, and Jesus Christ’s transformation of the world. I will then argue that the true task of theology is identifying ways to hear the Word of God in the world, rather than explicating a permanent expression of the Word. The liturgy of the church is the proper posture from which to hear God’s Word and not the sufficient formulation of that Word. The Word of God is the Work of God in the formation, in-formation, and transformation of the world.
Theology in the Church
The Christian church stands in need of theological and liturgical renewal. In a time marked by uncertainty and an inability to define core beliefs and convictions, little clearly separates the life of the church from the wider society. One significant, perhaps fundamental, factor in this reality is the misunderstanding and misappropriation of the Word of God in Christian thought. Those who have constructed theological statements and systematically explicated the Christian faith are often met with stark opposition or uncaring apathy. The majority of church members tend to treat theological works as either mutually exclusive ideas or irrelevant mind games. Rarely are theological arguments resolved between different church traditions and even fewer such arguments are viewed by parishioners as an explicit foundation for church life. Theologians cannot agree and parishioners cannot see the benefit of endless argumentation.
A significant factor in the theological impasse of church leaders is the variety of presuppositions and assumptions brought to the table regarding the nature of God and humanity. It is likely impossible, for instance, to agree upon an understanding of how Christ’s death on a cross is effective for salvation without a common understanding of what humanity is saved from. The simple answer is sin, but the theological nuances regarding the nature of sin brought by various traditions necessitate distinct understandings of how Christ removes or forgives sin. To disentangle the complex web of theological affirmations and determine exactly where all differences occur would require a critique of cultural and social rationality that is simply not possible.
Recent movements toward greater ecumenical awareness and recognition have proven fruitful on various levels, but the church certainly has far to go before the theological reality of a unified church can be seen in a practical institution. This paper is an attempt to refocus the conversations of the church around an understanding of the Word of God as the work of God. Any self contained system of articulated beliefs and practices carries an implicit social and cultural shape that cannot express the fullness of God’s Word. Just as the gospel message cannot be harmonized into a single narrative depiction, the theological expression of God’s Word cannot be contained within a single culture, treatise, or doctrinal statement. Theology begins and ends with God. Only by focusing the conversation of the church on the work of God and not the products of human rationality can the church hope to overcome its divisions and factions.
The Formation of Words
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” These opening words to the Gospel of John present three basic points to ground our inquiry into the Word of God: 1) the Word was in existence even before creation, 2) the Word has an integral part in creation, and 3) the Word continues to act after creation.
1) One of Christian theology’s first affirmations is that God does not exist as the product of human reason, but that all the earth is the creation of God. To claim that the Word of God was in existence before creation is to claim its “objective, external reality that is prior to the description or narration of that reality…” The Word of God, whether or not it can be accurately represented by human words or grasped by the intellect and imagination, is prior to any form of communication or argumentation regarding that Word. Christians do not, however, believe that the Word is wholly other than or inaccessible to the world.
2) The creative power of the Word elicits a connection to the creation stories of Genesis. In Genesis 1, God “spoke the world into being…” God’s power to create relies upon the existence of the Word. To be sure, we must not equate this statement with the idea that somehow God could not create without being able to properly enunciate syllables or group together letters. To do so would be to imply that the reality of God’s speech is somehow linked to or subsumed by the particular ways in which humans speak. As beings created through the Word, we must begin with the opposite supposition; our words are somehow subsumed by or subservient to the Word of God. Being created in the Word implies that humans have “a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself…though in limited degree…” In some way, the creative power of the Word enables humans to have some form of access to that Word.
3) That the Word continues to be active after creation is integral to the Christian message. The opening of John’s gospel provides a glimpse into the power of the Word to overcome the “darkness” of death. The Word of God is active in the world providing continuity between past and future: “the one Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.” In as much as the Word of God is responsible for creation, the Word also affects salvation by drawing creation back to God.
It must be noted here that the term “word” has several different, though related, meanings in Christian discourse. One might speak of the Word as the second person of the trinity, as the entire collection of canonical scriptures, as the gospel message, or even as the content of a sermon. Moreover, it is possible to convey the Word through each of the five senses and not only through spoken or written words. I have intentionally left vague the distinction between particular forms in which the Word might exist or be communicated. For the moment, I only intend to argue that the Word, as a member of the Trinity Who was “in the beginning,” is the precondition for “word” to have any meaning at all and, thus, any relationship between the different meanings of “word” is necessarily founded upon and representative of the Word “in the beginning.”
The Word of God is the preexistent foundation against which all our words relate. What God did, does, and will do forms our lives and our ability to relate to the world and each other in such a way that we are capable of “dialogue with our Maker, rational use and enjoyment of the world in which God has placed us, and a community of men and women where the truth is spoken in love.” This ability is often thought to derive from the image of God in which humanity was created. The point here is not to identify exactly how or to what extent human speech is related to God’s, but only to establish the Word of God as the concrete, stable foundation upon which human speech is built.
Treating Scripture, for instance, as the Word of God certainly doesn’t mean believing a collection of paper filled with ink spots and bound into a book is precisely the source of the created world. To hold this view would be to treat one particular narration of reality as reality itself. Scripture is the Word of God as far as it records what God did in creation, it reveals how God acts in the present, and it reshapes the future toward the telos of creation. Scripture is the Word of God because it narrates God’s formation of the world through human words in response to and enactment of the creative Word of God.
All other forms of “word” are similarly subservient to that which created the heavens and the earth. Only in so far as words relate to the creative act of God do words present a foundation for theological communication. The Word of God is the work of God in the formation of the world, from creation unto salvation. Having considered the foundation upon which words are formed to narrate God’s work, we must now consider how the meaning and truth of those words can be grasped and conveyed by and among humans.
The In-formation of Meaning
God’s action forms our past, present, and future. The past is formed by God’s creation of the world; the present is formed by the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit; and the eschatological future is formed by Christ’s redemption through the cross. As finite humans, we can only receive knowledge about our past and future by means presently available to us. Thus, the task of understanding the meaning and truth of God’s Word will first focus on how humans receive and share knowledge and experiences of the world and then upon the means by which knowledge and experience might be considered true.
Augustine identifies signs and things as the two aspects of human knowledge. A sign is “a thing, which besides the impression it conveys to the senses, also has the effect of making something else come to mind” and a thing is that which does not signify something else. The above section dealt particularly with understanding things in proper relationship to God; we must now consider the role of signs as the means of learning about things. Although signs may be natural, like smoke signifying fire, signs are also used by humans to show “as far as they can,…whatever it may be they have sensed and understood.” Non-natural signs, or conventional signs, are the means by which humans share knowledge. The most prevalent conventional signs are words, although other signs such as body language or music can fall under the same category.
Conventional signs facilitate the exchange of ideas within a cultural or social setting. One might, for instance, say or write the term “brother” to denote someone who shares the same set of parents as herself. However, the term only ensures some degree of correspondence between the experiences and ideas of one individual and those of another. Paul, throughout the New Testament, uses the term “brother” to denote members of the church family rather than biological relatives. Thus, the use of the word “brother” is at the same time a useful means to signify the relationship between two persons and an ambiguous or perhaps misleading term that has different meanings within different settings.
The meaning of “brother” may be a trivial example, but, as one begins to search more broadly for how meaning is conveyed or defined, one finds that meaning, and even the ability to critique meaning, is culturally or socially conditioned. The intellectual ability to assess and critique presumptions about meaning and reality is only possible within particular traditions of rational inquiry. When concepts or ideas from two competing traditions clash, no self-contained rational argument will necessitate the adherence to one tradition over the other. The intellect’s ability to define something as ‘true’ is contingent upon a judgment of the correlation between the mind and the thing to which it refers. Such judgment is, however, only possible within a particular tradition and is subject to change or reinterpretation within other traditions and over the course of time.
To claim the truth of a word one must, therefore, refer to a standard outside the limits of human rationality. To speak of the true meaning of a word is to speak of its correlation with the Word of God. One might object that such correlation is only necessary or relevant in the case of theological language. Theological language is generally thought to be the particular group of words that in some way refer to God or the relationship between God and other things or creatures. However, such a distinction is insufficient to describe theological language because all language presupposes assumptions about the world which deny or necessitate some aspect or action of God. Even basic statements about the self or the world presume some stance on the existence (or nonexistence) of God and God’s part (or lack thereof) in creation. There is, therefore, no fundamental distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘theological’ language; all language is inherently theological.
The task remains to identify how to do good theology; or more specifically, to identify how words can be correlated with the Word. Augustine was hesitant to say that any words are “worthy of God.” Even in speaking about the relationships between the trinity, he writes that he only “wish[ed] to say something” and what he might have said “is not what [he] wished to say.” God has chosen to accept “the homage of human voices” but those voices cannot precisely express God’s Word. Aquinas writes that we can speak of things as being simple or subsistent, but “neither way of speaking measures up to [God’s] way of being, for in this life we do not know him as he is in himself.” Language, for Aquinas, can only imperfectly represent God because of our status as the imperfect creatures of the perfect Creator.
If it is not adequately possible to speak directly about God, one cannot assume that words will have a necessary correlation to the Word of God. Augustine warns against “bondage to … signs as though they were the ultimate realities.” Words such as Sabbath and sacrifice are intended to point to realities beyond themselves. To treat a word as though it only pointed to itself is to treat that word as an idol. Only the “substantive realities” to which such signs point set the worshipper free from bondage to the flesh. Thus, even words that are intended for a useful purpose do not necessarily relate to the Word of God by the ability of human rationality.
Correlation between our words and the Word of God is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit. Many theologians have recognized the power of the Spirit in theology. Augustine believed that “the assistance of sound doctrine provided by a human teacher is only then any good to the soul when God is at work to make it any good.” John Wesley wrote that “Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given.” Geoffrey Wainwright states that “without the divine assistance the message will not ‘come alive’ in the particular circumstances of the ever-changing present. With regard to both scriptures and sermon,…inspiration has been appropriately ascribed to the Holy Spirit.” Even Scripture itself attests to the Spirit’s role in teaching: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” Inspiration is the means by which the Spirit presently “breathes life” into the scriptures and gives content to the formation of human words. The Holy Spirit is crucial as the agent and meaning of God’s information.
That the Holy Spirit is necessary to understand the meaning of God’s Word can only be implied by the historical misuse and misappropriation of biblical texts. That the Holy Spirit does in fact reveal the Word of God can be seen most clearly in Acts 2. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The power and presence of the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in languages they did not know such that all who were gathered could hear about “God’s deeds of power.” Transmitting the Word of God between these persons was not restricted to or confined by human ability or rationality. Only the Spirit, moving into and through the disciples, was capable of informing persons about God’s deeds.
Linguistically, the Spirit’s transmission of the Word of God may be considered the Ursprache, or meta-language, which exists ‘between’ human languages and contains the full truth of the Word. The inability to speak this language, to speak by the power of the Spirit, renders one “a barbarian” in the life of the church. For humans to proclaim the Word of God in any manner, the Spirit must empower their speech; it is only possible to inform others of God’s Word in so far as the Spirit has inwardly formed one’s life. As God first breathed life into Adam, God also breathes life into the Word. The Holy Spirit represents God’s movement into the created world and the power through which God in-forms the meaning of God’s Word. The Word of God is the work of the Holy Spirit informing the world.
The Transformation of God’s Word
God’s movement into the world through the Holy Spirit necessarily elicits a movement back to God by the Son; that movement back toward God is the redemption of the world. Thus, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, necessarily implies the transformative character of God’s Word. The transformation of God’s Word occurs on two levels: Christ transforms that which already exists and Christ transforms human language and institutions.
One of the unique aspects of the Christian faith is its ability to communicate its message through a variety of human languages. Contrary to the Muslim religion, words are believed to be a means of conveying the gospel and not the gospel itself. Thus, it is acceptable to translate the Scriptural texts into new languages in order to share the message with people. Even the oldest manuscripts of the Bible are composed in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; Christianity “has no single revealed language.” The length of time over which the Bible was composed and compiled also means Christianity has no necessary link to a present cultural or social context; the Word of God is a transformation, rather than replacement, of the cultures in which it resides.
It may seem superfluous or arbitrary to make the claim that Christianity can be expressed in various cultures and languages, but this notion is embedded deep within Christian theology. The incarnation of God’s Word in the person of Jesus Christ implies a deep continuity, though certainly not equivalency, between who God is and what God created. Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine; a part and the agent of creation; the resurrected and resurrecting Savior. Jesus took on flesh and entered into the world in the form of humanity; if the Word of God could take on human flesh, we must affirm that the Word is capable of transforming our words into His Word.
The danger of denying that translation is both possible and indeed integral to the Christian faith is that it risks justifying cultural imperialism as necessary or sufficient in spreading the gospel. Translation is not a simple process of finding word equivalencies and transposing culture, but a dynamic process that reveals something “new and unexpected…about both the message and its new idiom.” Translation calls into question both the original and the new language or cultural context by making God “the rule and purpose of existence.” To be sure, the ability to overcome language barriers through the gospel does not guarantee that translation will unite distinct cultures. The crucial point here is that gospel translation works within the common language of discourse to transform human words and institutions into fitting worship of God. Translation is a reenactment of the incarnation wherein our words are transformed into the Word just as the flesh was transformed into the Word in Jesus Christ.
If the incarnation requires us to stress the continuity between God’s Word and our words, the resurrection highlights discontinuity. The redemptive act of Jesus Christ on the cross makes a real and fundamental transformation of creation and initiates a new reality that is beyond human rationality. Paul speaks of this change as the “wisdom of the cross” in 1st Corinthians; the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Through the resurrection, the Word of God is the power of transformation.
The affirmation that Christ ushers in a new reality implies that the Word of God presents a distinct foundation on which to stand. The wisdom of the cross does not simply shift Christian values and elicit a change of heart; the cross breathes new life into the mortal body and ushers in a reality in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. To be transformed by hope in the resurrection of Christ is to see the world with new eyes and realize the abundance of God’s gifts.
The great danger in not realizing the depth of Christ’s transformative action is the human ability to use similar words and ideological constructions for entirely distinct purposes. Merely speaking a ‘scriptural language’ and calling a gathered people ‘the church’ does not necessarily imply that the Word of God is being spoken. An example of this can be found in certain ‘prosperity’ churches in which language of blessing is used exclusively in terms of health and financial gain. To use the gospel in support of such prosperity discounts the prevalent theme of transformation that radically shifts our hope and values upon the Word of God. Jesus does heal the sick and people are blessed with riches, but many of his teachings are particularly poignant reminders that the meaning of health and riches are necessarily transformed by the Word. The categories of a fallen human rationality cannot comprehend the radical discontinuity initiated by Christ through the cross.
The work of transformation can be found on both levels in the story of Christ’s appearance after the resurrection. When Jesus appears to the disciples, his body carries the marks of the crucifixion. His hands and feet are scarred by the nails and his side by the spear. Feeling the scars helps Thomas to see and believe Christ has been resurrected. The Word of God took on the mundane flesh of a man and transformed the very concepts of life and death. A few verses later, the disciples are told to cast their nets on the other side of their fishing boat by a man standing on the shore. Although this is the third time that Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus until their nets are filled with fish. The Word of God is only seen after an abundance of fish is provided to God’s followers, transforming their expectations of what is possible in the world. The Word of God enters our world in the recognizable and mundane form of a human and ushers in a new reality that exceeds our wildest imagination.
When our thoughts and ideas are anchored by God’s formation of the world and informed by the power of the Spirit, it is possible to find blessing in all aspects of life; it is possible to see with eyes of faith. The Word of God enters the structures of this world and transforms those structures into fitting worship of God. The Word of God transforms the world beyond the limits of human rationality and can only be fully identified in the Spirit. The Word of God is the work of God in the transformation of the world.
The Liturgical Enactment of the Word
The liturgy of the church is the enactment of God’s Word. This means both that the church should regularly engage the recognizable forms of God’s Word as experienced in the tradition of the church and recorded in Scripture, and that the church must engage the imagination to enact the liturgy in ways beyond the recognizable forms of the historical and institutional church. The church must live in a “dialectical relationship” in which the church both forms and is formed by the liturgical enactment of the Word.
Recognizable forms of God’s Word are crucial in the life of the church because they facilitate communal participation in worship. While the ability to communicate the Word is certainly not contained within specific orders of worship or common prayers, the repetition and common use of certain words and acts construct a space in which the church might hear the Word. Scripture is the primary form of the church’s liturgy because it records the historical church’s interaction with the Word. The particular shape of the church’s liturgy is designed to faithfully reinterpret biblical history for the present situation of the church. Thus, both scripture itself and the regular liturgical practices of the church are types of anamnesis in which God’s formation of the world is made present in the life of the church.
The scriptural record of the church is a necessary component of liturgical enactment because it provides continuity between past and present. Scripture provides the authoritative account of God’s action in the world and basis for common representation of the Word. Humanity’s “share in the reasonable image of the very Word Himself” links our present with the Word’s part in creation and salvation, with the past and future life of the church in community. The reading of scriptures makes present the reality of the Body of Christ.
Other practices of the church, such as prayer, accountability, preaching, and teaching, are subsequent expressions of and participation in that original record. The distinction between such practices ought to be considered temporal or logical rather than fundamental. Each practice is only possible in response to God’s formation of the world; each practice is only meaningful by the power of the Holy Spirit; each practice is only effective through the transformation of the Son. The Word of God is enacted in church through the anamnesis of liturgy.
However, the recognizable forms of God’s Word are not sufficient to the life of the church. The work of the Spirit is not confined within the established structures of our worship and praise and to think otherwise is to deny the possibility of gospel translation. The ritual life of the church provides an important avenue for growth and understanding, but the imagination of the church is just as crucial in spreading the gospel throughout the world. The eschatological glimpse of a redeemed creation is the sufficient character of the liturgical enactment of God’s Word; not the continuity of action and word. In the epiclesis of the Spirit, even the most mundane aspects of life are potentially liturgical forms of worship.
The two central liturgical acts of the Christian church are Baptism and Eucharist. Baptism is the initiation into that new reality made present by the Spirit. The cleansing waters “mark the passing over from a narrative bound by birth and death to a narrative bounded by creation and eschaton.” Baptism is the mark of new discipleship in response to Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan. Eucharist is the telos of the church, which affirms its existence through the sustenance of God. The Eucharist marks a turn from the well to the water of life; it marks the desire to receive God’s manna in the wilderness of life. The Body of Christ is consumed as the community is reformed toward the eschatological reality of that Body. Between these two liturgical acts lies the entirety of the Christian life.
The Baptism of Jesus Christ is the definitive act of Christian initiation; apart from that act, no one has access to the Father or the redemption that Christ’s brings. Baptism reveals the truth about humanity’s fallen nature and establishes an entirely new identity that is formed by the cross of Christ. To live into the reality initiated by Christ is to see every moment as a chance for the Spirit to descend like a dove and empower transformation. Every opportunity and challenge, from receiving financial gifts and expanding church ministries to resolving internal conflicts and closing church doors, can be a chance for the church to renew its baptismal identity as Christ transforms the world.
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary is the definitive act of the Eucharist. Without Christ’s body being broken and his blood being shed, no one receives the bread of heaven or his cleansing blood. To live ‘eucharistically’ is to find the abundance of God’s gifts in the mundane regularity of life. The purpose of the church is not to stockpile or seek after the gifts of God, but to recognize and respond to the abundance of what God has already given. Through a transformed imagination, the church might realize God’s abundance in the sharing of a meal with friends; or in the kind gesture of a stranger; or the challenge of sacrifice. The cruciform imagination enables the church, by the Spirit’s power, to see daily God’s abundant gifts.
To this point, the term ‘church’ has been left intentionally vague because the church is often defined by only the former type of liturgical enactment. To define the church only in terms of a recognizable liturgy would be to deny the Holy Spirit’s role in constituting the Body of Christ. However, by focusing on the role of God’s work in the revelation of God’s Word, the church is found incarnate through both recognizable and imaginative liturgy, through anamnesis and epiclesis. These two complementary forms of God’s presence constitute the life of the church in the liturgical enactment of the Word of God.
One cannot attempt to define or understand the Word of God without humbly submitting to the entire work of God. Theological truths are not simply recorded and related through stories and statements of faith; theology is only given life and meaning through the past, present, and future action of God. It is possible to share the Word of God as creatures formed through the Word, but human rationality and desire are not sufficient to ensure that the Word of God is communicated. The Holy Spirit is the necessary bearer of meaning as the Spirit informs the world with its power and presence. But the Word of God cannot be defined or understood apart from what the Word does; the radical transformation of all creation is an intrinsic part of God’s Word. Theology is not an academic field of inquiry or a static explanation of God and humanity. Theology is the dynamic action of God constantly pressing in to creation and drawing creation back to God. Only God is capable of speaking God’s own Word and breathing life into the words of scripture, doctrine, and preaching.
To live as people of the Word, the church is called upon to live out the liturgical enactment of the Word. In continuity with past tradition and in recognition of a transformed identity, the church enacts the Word of God within the narrative portrait of scripture and re-imagines the liturgical potential of all creation. By submitting to the power of God and rotating around these two liturgical axes, the church may be better equipped to envision the theological and institutional unity that are attempted by ecumenical movements.
To be sure, treating the Word of God as the work of God is not a systematic or definitive statement of the church’s theological task, but a posture of humility from which the church might operate, deferring the bulk of theology to the action of God rather than the mind of a person. While we are called to action by the Word of God, theology begins and ends with God; we must affirm our Baptism into what God has already done and our continual need for the Eucharistic sustenance and support that only God can provide.
May God continue to form the church in the midst of His good creation; may the power and presence of the Holy Spirit inform all its thoughts and words; and may our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ transform the world into His perfect image, now and forevermore. Amen.
*Note: footnotes failed to copy over from the original paper and I have no idea how to add them in now. Original paper with footnotes intact can be viewed here.