Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Church: A Proleptic Sign of the Kingdom of God Embodying a Eucharistic Piety

Lately I've been wrestling with the Luthern theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg's theological ecclesiology.

There are two important dimensions of his ecclesiology that have stood out to me so far: his view of the church as the proleptic sign of the Kingdom of God and his view of spirituality as "eucharistic piety".

It is important to note from the very beginning that for Pannenberg, theology is always a provisional enterprise. No one has a "pure" theology. We all embrace heresy in one sense or another. After the first advent of Jesus Christ we see dimly- after the second advent, the parousia, we will see more clearly.

(i) The Church as the Proleptic Sign of the Kingdom of God

Proleptic can be defined as follows, "the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished."

For Pannenberg, the church is the eschatologically proleptic sign of the Kingdom of God. I haven't read enough of Pannenberg to understand the full implications of this statement. But here are a few points I think Pannenberg may be trying to communicate.

(a) Within the eschatological "already/not yet" dimension of the Kingdom of God , the church is that entity which points forward to the day when love and justice embrace and the reign of God visibly covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.

(b) For Pannenberg, an important aspect of the Kingdom of God is the unity of humanity and the union between creature and Creator. Although always in a provisional sense, the church is that unique community where fellow men and women are reconciled to each other and reconciled to God. This unity is a living testimony to a watching world.

(c) Lastly, Pannenberg's theology of the Kingdom of God brings love and justice intimately together. The kingdom love is just; the kingdom justice is loving. The church should be that place where the difficult question of how to extend a loving justice/just love into a broken world is wrestled with and prayed over.

(ii) Eucharistic Piety

Pannenberg laments over the internalized pietism that plagues much of Lutheranism (and I would add much of contemporary Evangelicalism!)

Following much of church history (and his own tradition) Pannenberg argues that the Eucharist is at the center of the church's spiritual life. Not only worship, but our lives and relationships with others should be shaped by the Eucharist. Practically, what does this mean?

I have not read enough of Pannenberg to answer this question. The following thoughts are my own personal reflections (shaped by Catholic theologians William Cavanaugh, Hans Urs Von Balthassar, and Henri de Lubac).

We live in a world saturated by consumerism and violence. Every second we are bombarded by images of death, sex and distorted desire. We are told that we're not really alive if we don't satiate all our cravings and are warned that we will never flourish if we are kind- if we neglect to utilize force and oppression to get ahead.

These two contemporary virtues are unmasked at the table for what they really are: lies from the pit of hell!

In the Eucharist, we are not told that desire is a bad thing. Instead, our desires are re-oriented toward the One for whom they were created. In the Eucharist we feed on and enjoy the exuberant Triune God. We do what we were created to do. Not to aimlessly search and prod for the "next best thing" but to rest and commune with the maker of heaven and earth.

Violence is also "re-narrated" in the Eucharist. Violence is not the end all be all of human existence. Jesus Christ has experienced the violence and terror of Holy Saturday ("and he descended into the dead") to make an end of death and establish true and reinvigorating peace. Each time we receive the broken body and spilt blood of our Lord Jesus Christ we are reminded that peace, and not violence, is what causes a community to flourish. The Eucharist is that place where Jesus meets us- empowering us with his peace so that we might be led by the Spirit- bringing that very same peace to our friends, neighbors, and community.

Should Christians Be Involved in Movie Discussion Groups?

A common objection to movie discussion groups is that many of the most respected and sought after films are saturated with violence, profanity, and sexuality. Many of these movies are anti-God. How can Christians, who are called to be “different” from the world and its cultural patterns watch such morally questionable movies? I am not sure how to answer this question. It might be the best thing for some Christians not to watch some of these movies. But for those who think these movies can become platforms to discuss the gospel, I offer these two provisional insights.

First, it is always important to remember that God has not forsaken the most God-forsaken places. Even the face of a prostitute can exhibit the grace and glory of God. I believe that we, like God (albeit not in the exact same way), can never forsake the most God-forsaken movies.

Second, it is wise to remember that Christ is never simply “against” or “for” culture. Instead, he is dialectically “above and through” culture. Practically speaking, this means that God’s way of being in the world is never identical to our culture’s way of being in the world. The gospel will always challenge our culture in one way or another. But at the same time, God never operates in a “supra-cultural” sphere. This means that God always communicates his gospel within the forms and structures of a particular culture. This is a pattern we should emulate.

The real question we have to ask our selves is, “how can we be in the world but not of it?” I believe questionable movies can be interpreted as creative vehicles of God’s truth without endorsing them en toto. I don’t want to stretch this too far, but using movies like There Will Be Blood and Requiem for a Dream for movie discussion groups is actually a redemptive endeavor. We are taking sharp and jagged swords and converting them into creative plowshares for the endorsement and extension of the gospel.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Our Dialectical Identities

F. LeRon Shults, a contemporary theologian, has co-written a fabulous little book with Stephen J. Sandage entitled The Faces of Forgiveness: Seeking Wholeness and Salvation.

In one section of the book, Shults begins to talk about the Christian's "dialectical identity". In one sense, this "dialectical identity" is representative of all human beings.

Shults writes, "[the human] ego is both centripetally figured (self-centered) and centrifugally oriented (other-facing)". Because of this, argues Shults, human beings find it almost impossible to trust and develop healthy interpersonal relationships. Why? Because every one is trying to simultaneously balance two seemingly contradictory "modes of being". On the one hand, every individual in his/her centripetal figuration (self-centerdness) tries to find their identity and worth in their accomplishments, personal treasures, etc., while at the same time longing to be accepted and welcomed unconditionally by the community, the "we". On the other hand, every individual in his/her centrifugal orientation (other-facingness) seeks and longs to be accepted by the community, the "other" without being erased by the "will of the people", without being stripped of their unique individuality.
The outcome is bleak. One is caught in the endless cycle of being secure with oneself at the expense of being accepted by the community and being invited into fellowship at the expense of personal flourishing.

This is such a difficult predicament, argues Shults, becuase human beings were created to be individuals in relation, beings in community. Ideally, we should be people that flourish in our individuality within the rich context of diverse community. Is an "individual-in-community" a genuine possibility or an idyllic illusion?

For Shults, this is a genuine possibility only within the context of a relationship with the Infinite "Other"- the true Community of Persons (the Holy Trinity). The gospel, the good news that God affirms our individuality despite our brokenness and guilt empowers us to be comfortable with ourselves and look outward toward others. Becuase we know God will always be gracious to us, we don't have to fear rejection nor the obliteration of our unique personalities.

Christianity casts a beautiful vision of the individual maintaining his unique identity within a healthy participation in community. He/she needs others to flourish; the community needs plural individuals to be a place of "communion".

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Community, Cross, New Creation

For the past two months, I've served as the pastoral intern at Redeemer Sugar Land. This has been a very enjoyable experience. I've been challenged, stretched, discouraged, empowered, transformed, hurt and everything in between. This has been a great and realistic taste of ministry.

Last week I was at Panera Bread catching up on Barth's Church Dogmatics when I met two pastors from local churches here in Fort Bend county. Both of them were extremely nice individuals with some great perspectives on ministry. There was one thing they both agreed on that initially took me off guard. In fact it was something that quite honestly disturbed me. Both of them told me that I wouldn't be able to effectively communicate the vision of Redeemer to visitors/seekers if I could not do it in the space of a paper napkin. I was confused. Was this a form of savvy advertising? How could I boil the vision of my church into the space of a napkin?

Later that evening, I realized that I had overreacted. Despite what the two pastors had in mind, I began to realize that it wouldn't be a bad thing to encapsulate Redeemer's vision or "DNA" in a short and concise message. This would be a great thing if not only for the sake of clarity.

This past Monday, at the request of a friend, I picked up Richard Hay's The Moral Vision of the New Testament. As I was reading about abortion and pacifism, I was hit by Hay's New Testament paradigm for interpreting ethical issues: community, cross, new creation.

Although I am taking these three concepts out of their original context, I believe they are a very helpful way of articulating Redeemer's vision. And they create an alliteration-- which is nice.


*By emphasizing the importance of community, we are witnessing to the reality that we are ultimately created to experience and enact love in the context of relationships. In a culture and age of rampant individualism, we want Redeemer to be a place where we wrestle with what it really means to live "life together".

*By community, we also desire to stress that the church is the only organization that doesn't exist for the sake of it's members alone. We aren't being the authentic people of God if we are not reaching out to our local community with graciousness and love.


For us the gospel is absolutely central. Christ is our great prophet, priest, and king
who loved us so much that he gave his life that we may truly live. The gospel and the gospel alone shapes our identity. We are more broken and sinful than we would ever dare confess and yet more loved and accepted then we would ever dream possible.

New Creation:

This world is not all there is. God has an answer to all the present suffering and brokenness. His answer is a "new heavens and a new earth". Although we now live in the already/not yet tension between the cross and the second advent of Jesus Christ- there will come a day when all the broken and hideous things that flood our world will be transformed by grace into whole and beautiful realities. This is the world's hope.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Logic of Election

I know. We Christians do spend too much time thinking about and debating theology. It's not necessarily that theology is a bad thing; it's when theology becomes an end in itself and not a means to practice or worship that it becomes dangerous.

Let's take a classic Christian doctrine as a quick case study. All orthodox Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) have a doctrine of election. Many disagree on the theological particulars. Is election referring to the individual person? Is it a communal election? Both?

Lesslie Newbigin, a famous missionary to India, believed that while not all Christian traditions would agree on the particulars of the doctrine of election, there was a beautiful "logic" behind the doctrine of election that all Christians could get behind.

For Newbigin, the doctrine of election was inherently mysterious. We cannot fully understand it. And we shouldn't try to! Nor should we spend all of our time debating over it. Although he was not calling Christians to embrace some form of doctrinal agnosticism, like John Calvin and Herman Bavinck before him, he knew how dangerous it was to probe the depths of the mind of God.

So what is this "logic" behind the doctrine of election? Well, Newbigin is a firm believer that good doctrine must always lead to practice and worship. While Christians can't spend their entire lives obsessing over the depths of the doctrine of election, they can easily hone in on God's purpose for election.

God's election is never merely to save an individual. Taking Abraham's election as our hermeneutic, we see that God elects in order to transform communities who then communicate God's grace/blessing into the entirety of created reality.

Yes. It's very easy to dwell in the "ivory tower" But I think it's much sweeter to come down and practice what you preach.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Essence of Christianity

Bavinck boils Christianity down to the following sentence: 

"Christianity is no less that the real, supreme work of the Triune God, in which the Father reconciles his created but fallen world through the death of his Son and re-creates it through his Spirit into the kingdom of God"

(The Essence of Christianity)

Must Buy!

I just recently purchased Bavinck's collection of essays on religion, beauty, societal relationships, science, and many other topics. 

It is truly a gem. Biblically rooted; culturally sensitive. I am blown away at how Bavinck addresses issues that I am facing today in the 21st century. I haven't read all the essays yet, but I would definitely recommend the ones on Evolution and The Relationship Between Society and Christianity.