The fourth in the Deep Church lecture/conversation series led by Professor Andrew Walker was a challenging evening. Andrew has kindly reviewed these notes and made suggestions to better reflect the points he was trying to convey in his lecture. I am very grateful to Andrew for his comments but as ever any errors in the notes are mine.
Conversations in this series:
1. The Spirit is Real but he is a person not a force: lessons from Pentecostal, Charismatic and Orthodox traditions. (Link to my notes). 2. Discovering the missing half of Christendom and stumbling across the Fathers of the early church. 3.Living with Ambiguity: facing up to difficulties in scripture and Christian doctrine. 4. On being a theological teacher: notes from the frontline. 5. The ecumenical vision of C S Lewis: moving towards a generous orthodoxy. 6. From certainty to hope: why I know less now than I did when I was 18.
Postcards from Americaâ€¦
In 1987 Andrew visited America expecting to find the nation of the statistics, one dedicated to God. What he found was a very different picture, from Methodists who had never heard of Charles Wesley to conservative bible churches who did not seem to be well versed in the bible, in fact liberal or conservative what Andrew found was that before he could engage with complex theological discussions he had to do the simple thing and find out if they knew the gospel.
In 1988 Andrew returned to Dallas as a teacher and posed the question to his students â€˜what do you think the gospel is?â€™ There was some answers like â€˜liberation theology,â€™ â€˜justiceâ€™ etc which Andrew said was something about the gospel but wasnâ€™t there more? Andrew discovered that the problem was that not the people in the churches and what they didnâ€™t know so much as the people he was teaching who would be pastors did not know what the gospel was.
Andrew suggested that it was like a story and maybe these students could write it down as such and soon discovered the first problem, issues like the virgin birth, the devil, miracles etc were just not believed by SOME OF his students. These students had been convinced by process theology, a form of modernisim, that captures the tradition and turns it into new ways going forward i.e. â€˜God is still in a state of becomingâ€™
Andrew wondered if his students might still tell the gospel story even if they didnâ€™t believe in it? No was the response. What about whether the people who they taught might like to know what the church thinks the story is? So Andrew set his students the task of going back to their parishes and find a way to tell the gospel story and report back in a post seminar written assignment. The one caveat was the story should not be full of theological notes, it is hard to separate the story from the theological questions that arise from it, for instance God is the start of the story a theological note might be was God created?
Building blocks of the story
Andrew took four weeks to teach his students the gospel story, trying to stay away from getting dragged down into the narrative, for instance how can put the Fall into the story if think Genesis 1 and 2 is myth rather than history. Andrewâ€™s encouragement is to remember that the bible is a canon therefore need to tell people the important things like creation and a relationship gone wrong rather than getting stuck in details of the garden of Eden (was it really an apple?). Andrew suggested that in telling the story would need of these: â€¢ Trinity â€¢ Creation/fall â€¢ Israel â€¢ Devil â€¢ Jesus o Conception o Virgin birth o Life/teaching o Death o Resurrection â€¢ Pentecost â€¢ Church â€¢ Second coming â€¢ Eternity
Recovering from Gospel Amnesia
Andrewâ€™s students came back from trying this out with a number of reactions:
1) people liked it â€“ wondered why they had not heard it before 2) some people asked if they could give their life to Christ 3) some of the students actually started to believe the story in the telling of it
Andrewâ€™s point was that it was not because he was a professor of theology that he could tell the story but because he is a Christian. Good theology is important but more so is knowing that at the heart of the Christian gospel is Godâ€™s redemption of the world through Christ.
Andrew reminded us of a phrase used by Brueggemann that as a result of modernism the church in places has â€˜gospel amnesiaâ€™ i.e. we have lost contact with our own traditions and need to learn them again. We can do so by viewing the story as:
1) Our story - as Christians, to that end evangelicals who share their testimony are a community of faith story tellers;
2) Godâ€™s story â€“ which in a sense is like the film â€˜a never ending storyâ€™ in which the boy of the tale gets drawn in â€“ we too get invited into the story.
Gospel â€“ context and content
Andrew thinks context is important, for instance in the question of how you do mission to know best forms of communication but also need to know content of what to communicate as well.
The aim of mission is not just to be relevant, yes we need to communicate the divine life but we are also here to invite people into the story â€“ if the gospel is not enculturated into the contemporary society it becomes domesticated by it.
There is a power in the gospel story which we have lost touch with as part of our amnesia and therefore we need to reconnect with the tradition/history of our faith. This is particularly the case in the modern age where our individual private views are dominant whereas in the early church they were not so big on individualism. For the early church the story was known and where issues arose it was thought about hard.
At the centre of the story that was the doctrine of God and the deity of Jesus Christ as man and God â€“ the early church called these essentials parts of the story dogmas, in other words it was essential that Jesus was both man and God, with one arm around the shoulder of man and the other rather round the shoulder of eternal Father.
Diversity within a common tradition
Other things were less important and could be disagreed on without leading to schism, in other words it was not uniformity of faith that was essential but diversity within a common tradition. These allowed even important differences, or theologumena which were differentiated from doctrine by the one church in communion.
Example of theologumena - Jesus Christ came in the flesh but was it a) the flesh of Adam i.e. untainted/unfallen flesh as some thought that if he took fallen flesh He would be a sinner or b) flesh of Real people as real flesh â€“ the stuff of you and me - was the only flesh around, in this version he had to fight against sin his whole life and was able to overcome it as a man who was 100% open to the Holy Spirit.
Pious opinions are also allowed to have bigger differences but the danger there is that we slip from such good practice as established by the fathers (who are basically commentators on the bible and interpreters of christian tradition) to our own personal opinions eg. a preference for spoken liturgy as opposed to sung liturgy.
Andrew suggested that it is important that as we tell the story we focus on the centre of the story i.e. Jesus is Lord is the centre piece of the story â€“ yes by all means let us share our own stories/testimonies but let us recognise that they only make sense as part of the epic story of God and his people.
As we tell the story we will raise questions which leads us to theological thinking as we explore â€˜faith thinkingâ€™/wondering.â€™ The level at which we will let these thoughts lie is the level at which we want to explore theology too.
This week we had a challenge in groups in 20 minutes to start trying to work out how to tell the gospel story for ourselves and to note the theological Qs that arose. In our group the 20 mins was over so quickly and we had not gone much beyond creation!
For the sake of offering full notes of the occasion here would be my answer to the Q of the gospel story (please feel free to offer your own version or comments on mine)â€¦
My version of the gospel storyâ€¦
God creates all things visible and invisible. Everything is good. Men and women are shaped in the nature of God, God has breathed something of his spirit into us and therefore we are mini creators.
God is communal by nature and exists in 3 persons, Father, Son and Sprit, a community of mutual submission/appreciation in an intertwining dance.
Humans created to commune with God and care and continue with ongoing creative work of God â€“ care for and subdue the chaos of the universe.
Rather than live within the community with God, humanity chooses to live outside, sense of self/I dominates the sense of us/we â€“ humanity free to make own way and does so through selfish, me first sinful living that breaks community, destroys relationships between God and humans and human and human as well as human and creation.
Godâ€™s desire to live in relationship with his creation â€“ chooses Abraham to work through â€“ Abraham is blessed to be a blessing, i.e. through him and his family God will bless the worldâ€¦
Abrahamâ€™s family grows into a nation, God shows that he is faithful to his promises to bless this nation who have now becomes slaves in Egypt. Supernaturally liberates them and leads them directly. As before within this nation/family sin enters in, selfish choices made which are contrasted with those who choose God over their selves.
God as King/leader uses contemporary law code structure to make covenants with his people â€“ he will protect/bless/keep them, find them a home, lead them etc they in turn will follow him â€“ ten commandments and other laws issued so that people clear of Godâ€™s expectations. As with Abraham, the people of Israel chosen to be a nation of priests who will reveal God to the world, will model what a community that chooses to be led by God will look like in a practical tangible sene etc
Rest of Old Testament is the story of God interacting/in relationship with his people, through good times and bad, highlights and low lights, good kings and bad kings, in familyâ€™s, individuals and nations. Continual cycle of rebellion, pride and spiritual exclusivism reflects ongoing echoes of fall, Godâ€™s continued intervention, challenge, correction reflects his non-abandonment of his creation project and ongoing hope for the world to be lovingly reconciled with him. Promises are made of this Messiah who will bring all nations back to God but then silence falls as occupying powers rule over the lands of Godâ€™s people and various â€˜Messiahâ€™ figures arise to fight these powers.
God continually calls His creation toward the future to draw it back toward its intended goal and purpose. In lovingly reaching out to His good creation, God ultimately incarnates himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The incarnation is the ultimate identification with Godâ€™s creation, and Jesus is the second Adam, fully human and fully divine. Christ is the second Adam who brings creation and humanity back on track and reconnects them to God. Salvation is about becoming more human in Godâ€™s image, participating in the creation project as an ecological and ethical reconnection (HT to Jase for this para which i pinched from here).
Jesus therefore both 100% man and God, hence born of the virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. Jesus lives a life without sin, dependent on the Holy Spirit. Jesus put to death on the cross an act of selfless love which overwhelms that of selfish human sin and allows us to rejoin the ongoing dance of the Trinity. Through the mystery of Christâ€™s death and resurrection we experience forgiveness, love and permanent eternal restoration/life. Christ is bodily resurrected from the dead and ascends back to the Father.
Godâ€™s relationship is now with people called to follow/be in relationship/believe in Jesus, who is the creator, co-habitor and completer of creation project. In our relationship through Jesus, Christians (re)co-missioned to live gospel story, focuses on living as a community of Godâ€™s people and replacing I living with a life of loving, giving, caring, suffering service to all of creation. Holy Spirit is the dynamic power/being in the church leading us into relationship with the trinity and the world, God at work in his creation, both inside and outside of the church. Mission of Godâ€™s people is in bringing/being Godâ€™s kingdom wish/dream/longing of love/peace/justice/mercy/grace on the earth.
Mission continues until Christ returns â€“ where he bring into fulfilment the Kingdom of God and where every tongue tribe and nation will dwell in harmony with God and each other, creation project will be fulfilled and the whole of existence will experience the fullness and beauty of unity with God. Christ will judge the living and the dead, who will be bodily resurrected. Those who pass Christâ€™s judgement by their choice of him will be welcomed into this heaven on earth. Those who have rejected Christ and chosen to lead a life based on separation and selfishness will be rejected themselves and left to live a hellish empty bleak fading twilight of an existenceâ€¦
Theological details/Qs arising from our group discussionâ€¦
What was apparent from our group discussion was how easy it is to get drawn into detail rather than bigger picture and the sorts of Qs generated e.g.: â€¢ Was there 1 or 2 creations â€“ visible and invisible? What order were they in? What existed if anything before visible creation? â€¢ Why did God create? â€¢ If Genesis 1 & 2 are literal why did God put something in the garden which would be a temptation? Why allow the devil in? â€¢ If Genesis 1 & 2 myth â€“ did evil/self action evolve along with men/women? â€¢ What does creation say about God and ourselves made in the image of God â€“ need/experience for community, creation, care for the world, evil/good actions etc? â€¢ Is the devil real? â€¢ Is man/woman post fall 100% fallen, how wretched are we? â€¢ Why did God not send Jesus then â€“ why wait so long? â€¢ Was the flood real? Was it local? What does that say about God