Archive for August, 2017


“The new birth, whose subject is the merciful and electing God (1:2), creates a two-fold distance.  First, it is a new birth.  It distances one from the old way of life, inherited from one’s ancestors (1:18) and transmitted by the culture at large–a way of life characterized by the lack of knowledge of God and by misguided desires (1:14).  Second, it is a birth into a living hope.  It distances one from the transitoriness of the present world, in which all human efforts ultimately end in death.  In more abstract theological terms, the new birth into the living hope frees people from the meaninglessness of sin and hopelessness of death…

Christian difference from the social environment is therefore an eschatological one [eschatos is a Greek word that means “last” or “final”, so eschatology refers to “the last or ultimate things” in reality].  In the midst of the world in which they live, they are given a new home that comes from God’s future.  The new birth commences a journey to this home.

Notice the significance of the new birth for Christian social identity.  Christians do not come into their social world from outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would).  They are not outsiders who either seek to become insiders or maintain strenuously the status of outsiders.  Christians are the insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again.  They are by definition those who are not what they used to be, those who do not live like they used to live.  Christian difference is therefore not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old.

The question of how to live in a non-Christian environment, then, does not translate simply into the question of whether one adopts or rejects the social practices of the environment.  This is the question outsiders ask, who have the luxury of observing a culture from a vantage point that is external to that culture.  Christians do not have such a vantage point since they have experienced a new birth as inhabitants of a particular culture.  Hence they are in an important sense insiders.  As those who are part of the environment from which they have diverted by having been born again and whose difference is therefore internal to that environment, Christians ask, ‘Which beliefs and practices of the culture that is ours must we reject now that our self has been reconstituted by new birth? Which can we retain? What must we reshape to reflect better the values of God’s new creation?…

Genuine Christian distance has ecclesial [ekklesia is the Greek word for “church”] shape.  It is lived in a community that lives as ‘aliens’ in a larger social environment.  The new birth is neither a conversion to our authentic inner self nor a migration of the soul into a heavenly realm, but a translation of a person into the house of God erected in the midst of the world…Wherever Christians find themselves–alone or with other believers–a Christian social difference is manifested there.  Communities of those who are born anew and follow Christ live an alternative way of life within the political, ethnic, religious, and cultural institutions of the larger society.  We get no sense from 1 Peter, however, that the church should strive to regulate all domains of social life and reshape society in the image of the heavenly Jerusalem…It did not wish to impose itself or the kingdom of God on the world, but to live in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same.  It had no desire to do for others what they did not want done for them.  They had no covert totalitarian agenda.  Rather, the community was to live an alternative way of life in the present social setting, transforming it, as it could, from within.  In any case, the community did not seek to exert social or political pressure, but to give public witness to a new way of life…

Though 1 Peter does not envisage changing social structures, Christians nevertheless have a mission in the world…The distance from society that comes from the new birth into a living hope does not isolate from society.  For hope in God, the Creator and Savior of the whole world, knows no boundaries.  Instead of leading to isolation, this distance is a presupposition of mission.  Without distance, churches can only give speeches that others have written for them and only go places where others lead them. To make a difference, one must be different…For people who live the soft difference [both like and unlike the culture around us], mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation.  They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation…Whether it takes place gently or not, colonization is colonization.” (Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relationship Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” pp. 18-20, 24)


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Calvin“To the resurrection is quite appropriately joined the ascent into heaven.  Now having laid aside the mean and lowly state of mortal life and the shame of the cross, Christ by rising again began to show forth his glory and power more fully.  Yet he truly inaugurated his Kingdom only at his ascension into heaven…For Christ left us in such a way that his presence might be more useful to us–a presence that had been confined in a humble abode of flesh so long as he sojourned on earth…He consoles them for his bodily absence, saying that he will not leave them as orphans, but will come to them again in an invisible but more desirable way…Indeed, we see how much more abundantly he then poured out his Spirit, how much more wonderfully he advanced his Kingdom, how much greater power he displayed both in both in helping his people and in scattering his enemies.  Carried up into heaven, therefore, he withdrew his bodily presence from our sight, not to cease to be present with believers still on their earthly pilgrimage, but to rule heaven and earth with a more immediate power.  But by his ascension he fulfilled what he had promised: that he would be with us even to the end of the world.  As his body was raised up above all the heavens, so his power and energy were diffused and spread beyond all the bounds of heaven and earth…

Therefore, we always have Christ according to the presence of majesty; but of his physical presence it was rightly said to his disciples, ‘You will not always have me with you’ (Matt. 26:11).  For the church had him in his bodily presence for a few days; now it holds him by faith, but does not see him with the eyes.  Consequently, these words come immediately after [in the Creed]: ‘Seated at the right hand of the Father.’  The comparison is drawn from kings who have assessors at their side to whom they delegate the tasks of ruling and governing.  So it was said that Christ, in whom the Father wills to be exalted and through whose hand he wills to reign, was received at God’s right hand.  This is as if it were said that Christ was invested with lordship over heaven and earth, and solemnly entered into possession of the government committed to him–and that he not only entered into possession once for all, but continues in it, until he shall come down on Judgment Day…Therefore, they are wrong who think that it [the ascension of Jesus into heaven] designates simply his blessedness…

Faith comprehends his might, in which reposes our strength, power, wealth, and glorying against hell.  ‘When he ascended into heaven he led a captivity captive’ (Eph. 4:8; cf. Ps. 68:18), and despoiling his enemies, he enriched his own people, and daily lavishes spiritual riches upon them.  He therefore sits on high, transfusing us with his power, that he may quicken us to spiritual life, sanctify us by his Spirit, adorn his church with divers gifts of his grace, keep it safe from all harm by his protection, restrain the raging enemies of his cross and of our salvation by the strength of his hand, and finally hold all power in heaven and on earth.  All this he does until he shall lay low all his enemies (who are our enemies too) and complete the building of his church.  This is the true state of his Kingdom; this is the power that the Father has conferred upon him, until, in coming to judge the living and the dead, he accomplishes his final act.” (John CalvinThe Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.14-15)

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“Those living in chaos are least able to tell a story, because they lack any sense of a viable future.  Life is reduced to a series of present-tense assaults.  If a narrative involves temporal progression, chaos is anti-narrative.” (Arthur W. FrankThe Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, Ethics, xv)

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The final point from a wonderful brief essay entitled “What Bonhoeffer Knew” by Sam Wells:

“Bonhoeffer did not expect immediate results. He died probably assuming his life had been a failure. We don’t see it like that. The distinction between being faithful and being effective isn’t an absolute one; they’re actually the same thing in different time scales.

He assumed that the shape of renewal is death and resurrection. The future of the church is not simply a matter of using social media or singing attractive music or getting our message right. Bonhoeffer knew the way that Christ renewed Israel: through incarnation, sharing joys and sorrows, facing the passion, being crucified, and being raised. He allowed his life to follow the same trajectory. That’s the way God renewed creation 2,000 years ago. That’s the way God renews the church today.”

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Yoder“Any [Christian] perspective is likely to have some way of distinguishing as well between levels or realms one of which is spiritual or religious or sacral and the other of which is material or worldly or everyday.  Different Christian traditions will make this distinction of realms of realms or levels in quite different ways, but almost every tradition finds it an illuminating division…

The expression of Christian concern for the shape of the wider society must take into account the fact that the participants in that society are not addressable from a perspective of faith in Jesus Christ…So it is right that we should begin at this point.  The definition of the gathering of Christians is their confessing Jesus Christ as Lord.  The definition of the whole of human society is the absence of that confession, whether through conscious negation or simple ignorance, despite the fact that Christ is (‘objectively,’ ‘cosmically’) Lord for them as well.  The duality of church and world is not a slice separating the religious from the profane, nor the ecclesiastical from the civil, nor the spiritual from the material.  It is the divide on this side of which there are those who confess Jesus as Lord, who in so doing are both secular and profane, both spiritual and physical, both ecclesiastical and civil, both individual and organized, in their relationships to one another and to others [i.e. in all of life].  The difference as to whether Christ is confessed as Lord is a difference on the level of real history and personal choices; not a difference of realm or levels or even dimensions…

The most important error of the Christendom vision is not first of all its acceptance of an ethic of power, violence, and the crusade; not first of all its transference of eschatology into the present providence with God working through Constantine and all his successors in civil government, not its appropriation of pagan religiosity that will lead into sacerdotalism and sacramentalism, not its modeling church hierarchy after Roman administration, nor any other specific vice derived from what changed about the nature of the church with the epoch of Constantine.  Those were all mistakes, but they were derived from the misdefinition of the place of the people of God in the world.  The fundamental wrongness of the vision of Christendom is its illegitimate takeover of the world: its ascription of a Christian loyalty or duty to those who have made no confession and, thereby, its denying to the non-confessing creation the freedom of unbelief that the nonresistance of God in creation gave to a rebellious humanity.

First, then: we can only have gospel social ethics if we let confession and non-confession make a difference.  Second, now: we can only be doing gospel social ethics if we are telling the story of Jesus.” (John Howard Yoder, “Why Ecclesiology is Social Ethics: Gospel Ethics Versus The Wider Wisdom,” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiastical and Ecumenical, pp. 107-09)

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GreeneGraham Greene’s celebrated masterpiece The Power and the Glory includes a wonderfully unique and dynamic portrayal of a zealously atheistic young lieutenant (never named) whose mission in life is to rid Mexican society from the church’s cruel, false deception of the masses.   Two passages in particular are memorable in their giving utterance and shape to this character’s ethos and aims:

“The lieutenant sat down upon his bed and began to take off his boots.  It was the hour of prayer.  Black-beetles exploded against the wall like crackers.  More than a dozen crawled over the tiles with injured wings.  It infuriated him to think that there will still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God.  There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly.  He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy–a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.  He knew.”

And a little later in the book:

“It was for these [uneducated common peasants] he was fighting [including killing some of them randomly to force the renegade priest to come out of hiding and surrender].  He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt.  They deserved nothing less than the truth–a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose.  He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes–first the Church and then the foreigner and then the politician–even his own chief would one day have to go.  He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.”

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“The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think–true as that is: we still sing, ‘O where are Kings and Empires now of old that went and came?’  It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.  One does not come to that belief by reducing social processes to mechanical and statistical models, nor by winning some of one’s battles for the control of one’s own corner of the fallen world.  One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb.” (John Howard Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology”, my italics)

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MacIntyre“To anyone who wishes to argue with one about religion one can then only take the argument in cogent, logical terms as far back as his own first principles will allow.  But because there comes a point at which such argument must cease, it does not follow that there is nothing more to say.  It is no accident that the religious autobiography is a classic form of theological writing for this shows us how a man comes by the premises from which he argues.  It goes behind the argument to the arguer.  St. Augustine’s Confessions are the classic document here.  Thus it is not mere pious moralizing which connects the rise of unbelief with a lowering of the quality of Christian life.  Where the Christian community is incapable of producing lives such as those of the saints, the premises from which it argues will appear rootless and arbitrary…What we know about God we do not learn from philosophy.  All that the philosophers can hope to do is to clear up misconceptions and by so doing partly neutralize the acids of skepticism.” (Alasdair MacIntyreDifficulties in Christian Belief, p. 118)

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