The Forgotten Ways: Ch. 3

The Heart of It All: Jesus Is Lord

By way of reminder, starting with this chapter we’re diving into the various components of Hirsch’s Apostolic Genius. The first is the christology at the heart of the proposal. To cut straight to the problem from my perspective, there is a strong tendency in both Restoration and evangelical Christianity toward reductive theology, especially where the little phrase “Jesus is Lord” is concerned. Thus, when I read the title of this chapter, I’m immediately on guard against an oversimplified message.

As it turns out, Hirsch participates ideologically in the usual reductionism, and at the same time he pushes toward a substantive construal of the idea “Jesus is Lord.” On one hand, under the rubric of “distilling the message,” he argues that persecuted Jesus movements (which are, the reader will recall, prima facie authentic missional Jesus movements in Hirsch’s narrative) discard the “unnecessary impediments,” “unnecessary traditional interpretations and theological paraphernalia,” and “unnecessary complexities” (85) in order to get to a “simple Christology” (85) the “simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior,” and the message “reduced to utter simplicity” (86).

On the other hand, he says (seemingly unaware of the contradiction) that the NT witness is “not just the simple confession that Jesus is our Master and we are his servants” (87) and goes on to explore OT theological backgrounds and Hebraic contextual issues. This is, even in his own words, hardly utter simplicity. It seems to me that Hirsch is at cross purposes in these pages, which is something I can sympathize with. While I am happy to read him suggest that the missional church needs to eschew some of the systematic and traditional baggage weighing it down, I am also committed to a scriptural construal of Jesus that cannot be pithy and easily communicable per se. Thus, when Hirsch suggests that the reason the gospel goes viral in missional movements is that it is an idea “easily grasped by any person, and in many cases illiterate peasants,” I have to chuckle (again, in sympathetic frustration) that he needs to go on for a few pages describing his understanding of “Jesus is Lord” in a way that is definitely not, in format or content, accessible to illiterate peasants.

Aside from the need for a more substantial Christology than one that meets the “easily transferrable idea” criterion, the problem with Hirsch’s argumentation is that it is not self-evident that persecuted or otherwise missional movements necessarily move in the reductive direction he claims. His only two test cases are, to review, the early church and the Chinese underground church. The former, by any account I’m familiar with, did not begin to have very sophisticated theological reflection and a very developed teaching tradition only when persecution ended. Rather, it was capable of something a great deal more complex than utter simplicity during persecution. Paul, if we were to take him as a representative of the early church, was persecuted quite often and yet found both “the time” and “the internal capacity” (85) for rather lofty theological reflection. As for the Chinese church, perhaps the gospel has spread virally because it was reduced to “essentials,” but I don’t think we know that, nor should we discount the teaching gifts of Chinese church leaders, underground or not.

And of course, considering Hirsch’s emphatic repetition of “unnecessary” in the quotes above, we have to ask that timeless question: “According to whom?” Now isn’t the moment to get into that discussion, but the question must be asked of his argument, because he is insistent that “simplifying our core messages, uncluttering our overly complex theologies, and thoroughly evaluating the traditional templates that shape our behaviors and dominate our consciousness” (99) is non-negotiable for Apostolic Genius. Restorationists will once again rejoice to hear him say that “in particular the primitive, unencumbered Christology of the NT church . . . lies at the heart of the renewal of the church” (99). Yet, we have well learned (haven’t we?) that primitive and unencumbered do not equate to easily agreed upon. One interpreter’s unnecessary complexity is another’s necessary inference.

Now for the strength of the chapter. “Jesus is Lord” in Hirsch’s presentation is a worldview. I don’t think he could be more right. His quick treatment of monotheism and its outcome—a holistic (contra dualistic) way of life—is a wonderfully succinct rendition of what is at stake. It is not theoretical christology but lived “christocentric monotheism” (93) that stands at the heart of Apostolic Genius. The “Jesus is Lord” worldview is a framework for everything, which affects theology undoubtedly, but results in so much more—namely a missional way of life.

I end with a relevant aside. “Christology must define all that we do and say,” writes Hirsch (94). What he is doing in the representation of Apostolic Genius and mDNA with christology at its center is a creative reiteration of a known position. He and Michael Frost somewhat famously advocated the theological ordering that goes christology-missiology-ecclesiology (http://missionalconversation.wordpress.com/2008/10/09/christology-missiology-ecclesiology/). David Fitch has prominently taken issue with the linear priority of missiology over ecclesiology, and for good reason (http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/missiology-precedes-ecclesiology-the-epistemological-problem/). But see these links for come clarification: http://bobhyatt.me/2011/05/christology-missiology-ecclesiology/ and http://churchplantingnovice.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/hirsch-vs-stetzer-on-ecclesiology/. What is not in dispute, however, is the centrality and priority of Jesus. Recalling that this is a book about ecclesiology, it is worthwhile to note what Hirsch is effectively demonstrating. Theologically, “Jesus is Lord” precedes all else. The way that is does so in The Forgotten Ways, namely, as worldview, is a helpful addition to the conversation. Interestingly, the relation of missiology and ecclesiology (being included in the rest of the “components” of Apostolic Genius) is in no way linear and may be taken as Hirsch’s corrective (or maybe just clarification).

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