Review of 2 Articles on Churches of Christ Scholarship

In the short period of time from the fall of 2006 to the first quarter of 2007, both the Stone-Campbell Journal and Restoration Quarterly featured articles on Church of Christ scholarship.  Their proximity suggests a significant, conscious concern about the role that Christian scholarship will play in the Churches of Christ during the initial part of the twenty-first century.

Hamilton, Mark. “Transition and Continuity: Biblical Scholarship in Today’s Churches of Christ.” Stone-Campbell Journal 9, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 187-204.

Mark Hamilton opens his article by noting the transition from “an earlier stage of intramural scholasticism” to “the current period of maturity” (187).  After briefly enumerating some factors contributing to this transition as well as some current challenges to said maturity, Hamilton zooms in on his main concern: “This paper focuses on one aspect of biblical scholarship in Churches of Christ, namely activities carried on by persons who participate in the larger academy and who retain some connection with their ecclesial context” (188).  This is the particular biblical scholarship that merits attention.

A couple of paragraphs reflect on “how we got here,” mentioning some of the early scholars most respected in the wider academy.  Considerably more space is given to describing “where we are.”  Hamilton achieves this by listing a litany of Old and New Testament scholars and their publications.  As he introduces this overview, an interesting point emerges:

Though pockets of insularity remain at schools associated with the most conservative elements of the movement, the intramural scholasticism of past generations has lost its former allure as schools aspire to greater academic respectability and sectarianism becomes increasingly untenable (191).

It is an important fact that academic respectability and sectarianism appear to be, in some sense, mutually exclusive.  Scholarship plays a vital role in terms of restoration, given that fact.  It may be just as important to note that academic respectability is externally defined and hardly pursued because of its intrinsically de-ghettoizing effects.  Those effects are happy consequences that must not blind the Christian academy to the question of the price to be paid when secular accrediting agencies define academic respectability.  Perhaps nothing, but the question must be asked.  It would be ironic, to say the least, if the scholarship that taught the Stone-Campbell tradition about the cultural conditions that shaped it were oblivious to the forces exerted by the the postmodern academy.   For example, to what extent is the academy promoting relativism rather than unity?

At the end of the discussion about the current situation, Hamilton mentions a special project of his own—a one-volume collaborative commentary on the entire cannon (http://www.acupressbooks.com/).  Describing the tome, Hamilton writes:

The commentary thus exemplifies what should be possible for the future: theologically oriented biblical scholarship that allows Scripture to function in more vigorous ways than is possible under the regime of the lingering fundamentalist-modernist controversy (201).

He envisions a reentry into the arena of inter-denominational exchange on the basis of such scholarship.  Again, scholarship serves to remove barriers that might impede the work of a truly restorationist unity program while at the same time giving it a solid basis for proceeding.

Finally, Hamilton asks, “What’s next?”  Making explicit mention of “the church’s ongoing identity crisis,” he suggests some specific ways in which scholarship can contribute to the movement’s restorationist impulse: through (1) a prophetic role by way of informed application of Scripture, (2) a self-critical role that scrutinizes restoration itself, (3) an interdisciplinary role that moves beyond mere exegesis, (4) an ecumenical role as boundaries are more easily crossed inside the academy, and (5) a coaching role as the church enters the post-Christendom era (202-3).

He concludes with an assertion that merits reproduction here:

Scholars, who are equipped to evaluate our traditional use of Scripture, are vital in the goal of retaining what is valuable in the reshaping of Churches of Christ that is already in process (203).

Thompson, James. “What is Church of Christ Scholarship?” Restoration Quarterly 49, no. 1 (2007): 33-38.

James Thompson asks in his essay what Church of Christ scholarship is.  He also begins by observing the movement from “intramural” concerns to an expressly “ecumenical, international” scholarship.  The issue then, given that Church of Christ scholarship has the quality that Hamilton attempted to describe and advocate, is how that scholarship is particularly influenced by the tradition (32).  If it is simply subsumed in the general academy, it will struggle to serve the restoration agenda as Hamilton envisions or to serve the academy in any unique way.  This is the essential complementarity of the two articles.  How can scholarship serve the tradition on one hand and how can the tradition serve scholarship on the other.

There are problems facing Church of Christ scholarship shaped by its tradition, however.  One, the emergence of a common language that in some way bridged the distance between traditions was a real accomplishment of the academy, and reemphasizing a confessional slant threatens to undermine that bit of ecumenical headway.  Two, scholarship proved to a be a vital corrective force for traditional views that could not bear the weight of scrutiny.  Three, scholars were exposed to the views of others, which enriched the tradition in some theologically impoverished areas.  Four, due to the “centrifugal forces that are separating the Churches of Christ at the present time,” the tradition itself is ill-defined and therefore difficult to employ confessionally (34-35).

Appropriately, Thompson next discusses four facets of the tradition that he believes should shape its scholarship regardless of such challenges: (1) high ecclesiology, (2) the Church of Christ’s particular canon within the canon, (3) the worthier aspects of restoration, and (4) a commitment to rational inquiry (36-37).  The third point may be the most significant—certainly so for neo-restoration.  But what are the worthier aspects of restoration?

Although the restoration of a blueprint is not tenable, I suggest that aspects of restoration are worthy of our consideration.  If restoration means an appeal to the precedent of the early church as a standard, it involves the recovery of aspects of Christianity that have been lost.  Restoration is not limited to forms, but to the recapturing of the love, vitality, compassion, and mission of the early church.  Furthermore, those aspects of restoration that have been central to the Stone-Campbell movement—believer’s baptism, congregational polity, the authority of elders—are legitimate forms of ecclesial life(37).

Undoubtedly, the re-articulation of restoration generates a particularly Church of Christ contribution to the round table that is the academy.  Interestingly, approaching the task from that angle is also a much healthier disposition than the tradition has often enjoyed.  Restoration as confession, as contribution, rather than restoration as the only voice allowed at the table, is a hopeful vision.

The article ends with a few generalized stabs at answering what Church of Christ scholarship is.  Church of Christ scholarship is scholarship that recognizes the difference between Enlightenment-bound epistemology and the church’s ways of knowing.  It is scholarship that distills its own tradition, keeping the good and throwing out the bad.  It is scholarship that consciously allows ecclesiology to frame biblical interpretation.  Lastly, it is scholarship that is concerned with questions raised by the particular life of the Churches of Christ.

It may be worth asking whether something like a preoccupation with ecclesiology is a contribution of Church of Christ scholarship or an overemphasis that Church of Christ scholarship needs to balance.  But that is demonstrative of the interesting tension the two articles highlight.  Putting the pieces side by side also underscores the significant agreement between the two authors in terms of both the ecumenical and self-critical dimensions of scholars’ ministry.  And, of course, the early Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement did nothing if not call Christians to be ecumenical and theologically self-critical.

John 5

It is always interesting to compare John with the Synoptics, and in the case of John 5, the comparison and the contrast are important. Even among the minimalists and deconstructionists, there are a handful of things that no one argues about when it comes to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. One of those is that this particular rabbi had a beef with Sabbath as the Jews of his day were practicing it. Some evidence for that is born out in John 5, as yet another healing turns into a Sabbath dispute. In fairness to Jesus, it seems that his opponents were actually the ones with the beef; in fairness to his opponents, Jesus seems to have been a salt-on-wound kind of guy, though I’m sure he had the right of it. In any case, there was a fight over Sabbath that contributed to the plot against Jesus, and all of the Evangelists thought to put it in writing.

The contrast is important, though: “he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” That is an especially Johannine view of things that only snowballs in subsequent verses.

  • “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”
  • “just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes”
  • “that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father”

It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of such statements on Jesus’s lips, the last in particular. John’s Christology remains high, Jesus claims for himself straightforward. For many Bible readers, that doesn’t mean much, either because John and the other Gospels must be harmonious, no questions asked, or because the contrast doesn’t affect the final conclusion, so the details along the way are practically irrelevant. For my part, I can’t help feeling that an issue like Jesus’s relation to the Father, hotly debated as it has been across millennia, merits scrutiny when the biblical authors take such distinct tacks.

Our problem is that we tend to want to answer our questions. In this case, too many of our questions have to do with some very old phrasing in the context of some very trenchant advocacy of those phrases. I’ll be direct: I’m not interested in those, at least not here. Not to say that the claims don’t have implications for the ontological kinds of questions that get the most press. I just don’t think John is interested in them (or Jesus for that matter). So what is their concern?

The thought sequence suggests that there is some justification offered for calling God his own father and some affirmation of the Jews’ understanding of the implications (note: this is an important point if only because there are other places where one can easily interpret Jesus’s use of “Father” in less drastic terms; John clues us in to something more than a mere messianic claim in the Jewish perspective—a redefinition of Messiah in retrospect).

It is where the discussion is headed that gives us more insight, however. Jesus is not trying to explain exactly how the relationship works or the nature of his being. He is driving at a point that John has already been pounding: revelation. Notice the switch that Jesus’s explanation allows him to make.

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life . . .”

Because of who he is in relation to the Father, to hear Jesus’ message and believe it is in fact to believe the Father. Jesus doesn’t care whether people believe him, per se. The end he is driving toward is that they believe the Father. Incidentally, to hear Jesus is to hear the Father, to see Jesus is to see the Father, and to put trust in Jesus is to put trust in the Father. That is Jesus’s saving function.

The rest of the chapter is indicative of the section’s revelatory shtick, listing off a number of heavy-hitting bits of revelation: the Baptizer, the Father himself (through Jesus’ miracles), the Scriptures, and Moses in particular. The point: How are you not getting this?!

I often ask myself that same question.

Review of A Gathered People

Hicks, John Mark, Johnny Melton and Bobby Valentine. A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter. Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2007.

A Gathered People is the last installment of the series that John Mark Hicks refers to as his “Stone-Campbell sacramental trilogy” (12), the other two volumes being Down in the River to Pray and Come to the Table.  True to his description, A Gathered People focuses on the mediation of God’s presence of grace through the sacrament of assembly.  Hicks states plainly:

My prayer is to reorient our thinking from an anthropocentric, human centered understanding of these events as mere acts of human obedience to a more theocentric understanding of these events as divine acts of grace through which God encounters obedient believers to transform them into his image through the presence of Jesus in the power of the Spirit (11).

Furthermore:

I would prefer to reorient the discussion [away from historical emphases] under a future (eschatological) horizon toward the notion of “practicing the kingdom of God” for the sake of transforming community and creation.

Practicing the kingdom of God is pursuing communal and individual habits (a discipled lifestyle) through which the reign of God breaks into the world, gives apocalyptic status to the community of God (we are resident aliens in the fallen world), and by which we experience the future into which God is drawing us” (14-15).

These two statements about “reorientation” highlight important themes of the work: theocentrism and presence, eschatology and kingdom.  The book presents a convergence of two major concerns: a biblical theology of presence and the context(s) of the Churches of Christ.  Another way to look at this convergence is to note the basic movement in the book between biblical theology and hermeneutical approaches.  Overall, the book progresses from a brief description of the predominant Churches of Christ understandings, through two chapters of biblical theology (one OT and one NT), on to two chapters with a historical perspective on the traditional hermeneutics applied to assembly, and finally to another chapter of NT biblical theology leading into some broad hermeneutical suggestions.

As for the Churches of Christ contexts, the first chapter unpacks a simple dichotomy between two fundamentally anthropocentric views of assembly that have dominated historically.  The first, the “Five Acts Model,” assumes assembly is something we do for God, and the second, the “Mutual Edification Model,” that it is something we do for each other (18).  Thus, the theocentric shift to what God does for us in assembly is a significant contrast.  Both standard views have their own issues, which the book addresses throughout.

The biblical theology in chapters 2,3, and 6 proves to be a solid foundation for “revisioning” the understandings of assembly common to the Churches of Christ.  At the same time, however, the chapters raise some unanswered questions—due in part, it seems, to their brevity.  The authors’ essential assertion, for which these chapters bear the burden of proof, introduces the OT chapter: “We believe we come ‘into the presence’ of God when we gather” (36).  It is not particularly clear what is at stake in that claim until the conclusion of the chapter, which makes an assertion of vital importance: “There is a difference between God’s omnipresence and his redemptive presence” (58).  This “redemptive presence” seems to be synonymous with the “sacramental presence” (15), “transforming encounter” (16), etc. that is supposed to characterize the assembly as a special means of grace (i.e., a sacrament).  What remains to be seen, at this point, is what the difference between omnipresence and special presence actually entails and, particularly, how it plays out in the NT drama.

The NT chapter, however, moves away from the theology of presence to consider some of the particulars of Christian assembly in Luke-Acts and 1 Corinthians.  The discussion returns to the notion of “practicing the kingdom,” and it takes on a bit more substance by virtue of Acts 2.  “Practicing the kingdom of God, therefore, involves the public proclamation of the kingdom of God (the apostle’s teaching) and the fellowship of sharing food, resources and prayer” (64).  The Lukan material in particular brings the assembly into conversation with themes from Come to the Table.  One one hand, the table seems inseparable from the assembly, but on the other hand, the authors advocate the “appropriateness” of the Lord’s Supper during the weekly Sunday assembly.  That is, although the book is addressing the sacramental significance of “any assembly intending to gather in God’s presence” (12), and despite the “daily rhythm” in Acts 2 (67-68), the sacramental dynamic of the Table-Assembly convergence seems relegated to Sunday.

As attention turns to the Corinthian assembly, an important exegetical caveat about the occasional nature (over against the legal nature) of the document sets the tone (70).  It is clear that the difference between the OT and NT chapters is rooted, in part, in the need to overcome some Churches of Christ tendencies when approaching these NT assembly texts.  The emphasis on context addresses the Five Acts Model’s tendency to see the examples in (some of) these passages as timeless laws (cf. 20).  As the alignment of the 1 Corinthians material with the notion of practicing the kingdom unfolds, there is a strong resemblance to the Edification Model’s view of these passages.  Thus, the authors add that “assembly is not fundamentally about edification” (77).  The conclusion of the chapter culminates in a definition of assembly:

Assembly—a praise-saturated Table where the Word is delcaired in word and deed—manifests the unity of the body of Christ as a community; it is the visible presence of the body of Christ as a community dedicated to the glory of God.  It declares the presence of the kingdom of God in the world and sends disciples into the world to participate in the mission of God (79).

This has a feeling of conclusiveness about it, but the NT work in chapter three simply does not extend theologically the OT chapter’s claims about presence.  In particular, the Spirit’s role as presence warrants more discussion.

The next two chapters are historical in nature, one dealing with the general history of church practice and the other with the “formative history” of the Restoration Movement.  For the earliest centuries, there is a recounting of what little is known, and selected liturgies represent the Eastern and Western traditions of the imperial era.  A deepening of interest marks the section on the Reformation period, due to the influence of the Reformed tradition on the RM, particularly Churches of Christ (96).  Here the authors introduce a vital hermeneutical key: the Reformed regulative principle.  “In simple terms, the Reformed-Anabaptist tradition believes that whatever God has not authorized is forbidden and the Lutheran-Anglican tradition believes that whatever God has not prohibited is permitted” (96).  Of particular importance for understanding the early RM milieu is the way the regulative principle is carried out in the Puritan tradition and in the Westminster Confession.  Herein the reader finds the roots of the disputes about “good and necessary consequence” (“necessary inference” in Restorationist lingo) and “circumstances” (“expedients”).

The subsequent survey of Restoration viewpoints on the assembly brings together of a number of strands from previous chapters.  There is a section that highlights the importance of “special presence” for Campbell, though in relation to the Lord’s Day rather than the sacrament of assembly.  Then a further discussion of the regulative principle as Campbell’s “assumed understanding,” which gives the reader insight into the legal orientation of the of the historical RM that is at odds with the contextual reading of Scripture advocated earlier.  The chapter also suggests Campbell understood the assembly ordinances to “communicate grace”—that is, Campbell is conscripted into the service of the sacramental position on assembly, though this is a dubious conclusion (112).  A short review of the development of the “five acts” follows, accompanied by an explanation of the typical service.  Then final historical section deals with the emergence of the assembly as “the primary means of faithful obedience”—a test of fellowship (125).  The regulative principle is again at issue as its use develops in relation to the emphasis on “positive law” and the sanctity of the assembly.  Overall, the two historical chapters seem rushed and oversimplified, though the authors are aware of this to some extent (103).  This was perhaps the best choice for a general audience, yet while important issues were brought to the reader’s attention, some of them remained unexplained, to the detriment of the book’s objective.  Having used A Gathered People in a classroom setting, this reviewer encountered a general lack of understanding in regard to the regulative principle, for example, after students read the chapters.

Seemingly, the last two chapters are an attempt to answer the question, “Given biblical theology, our history and our present context, what is a God-honoring theology of assembly for Churches of Christ today” (125)?  As noted above, however, chapter six is laden with more biblical theology.  Thankfully, the chapter considers the role of the Spirit at length.  Unfortunately, while claims are made about the Spirit indwelling us (136) and mediating the presence of God in the assembly (143), at no point does the chapter touch on the difference between the two.  If there is a distinction to be made between the omnipresence of God and the special presence of God—and this is a critical point for the sacramental claims of the book—then must we not also consider the distinction, if there is one, between the Spirit’s constant indwelling of the believer (certainly a special kind of presence) and the asserted function of mediating an even more special presence in the assembly sacrament?  Instead, the chapter focuses on the eschatological experience of the assembly through the Spirit.  While the argument for the “proleptic experience of eschatological existence” seems sound enough, readers may tend to wonder what “experience” means.  Does the language imply a tangibly supernatural encounter with God and dead loved ones (148) or something more on the cognitive level?

The final chapter, as it turns out, does not attempt to provide a theology of assembly for the Churches of Christ, but, even better, attempts to substantiate a more helpful hermeneutic than the historical alternatives.  The readers are left to work out the question themselves.  The hermeneutic hinges on a “gospel criterion” that replaces the concern with Scriptural particulars.  As Scripture does not function to furnish the particulars, then, the next section deals with the nature of Scripture.  In essence, the authors appropriate the notion of “regulating” and put it to work through more general principles such as glorify God, serve others, and evangelize (154).  “Thus, assemblies are regulated by the principles embodied in the life of Jesus rather than by the specifics of ritualized covenantal legislation” (155).  The contextual nature of Scripture again arises.  Going a step further, however, the task is not simply recognizing and dealing with the occasions of Scripture but replicating the process that led to Scripture’s contextual conclusions—rather than replicating the conclusions themselves.

Consequently, what we really do is not so much apply Scripture so as to reproduce what is there but apply the theology that Scripture teaches so that we embody the gospel anew.  Thus, the task of restoration is not the reproduction of the historic practices of the early church but the reaplication [sic] of its theology—as discerned through its narrative and letters—in our own context.

Is is clear, therefore, why the authors opted not to produce a theology of assembly for all Churches of Christ today.  This hermeneutical model, built upon the groundwork of the previous chapters, is the pinnacle and major contribution of the volume.  The bold redefinition of restoration in terms of this interpretive task is vitally necessary.  The following section on contextualization demonstrates the place of missiology in the conversation.  The theological move toward contextualization is taking its cues from missiology, and the conclusion of the book depends on the viability of contextual theology, yet the section on contextualization wants badly for greater depth.  The authors have at least done us the favor of pointing out that a topic such as the assembly cannot be adequately addressed without a missional voice at the table.  The final pages of the chapter amount to an annotated list of gospel “principles” for the assembly:

Theocentric
Christocentric
Table-centered
Word-shaped
Praise-saturated
Gospel-enacted
Gospel-emobided
Communal-consciousness
Transformational
Missional
Authentic Encounter
Doxological Evangelism

These are, perhaps, a helpful indicator of the kind of theological substance that needs to be contextualized, though the principles themselves do little in terms of a coherent conclusion to the book.  As a whole, the chapter starts strong and ends with a bit of a fizzle.

The epilogue is a brief acknowledgment that a book on the assembly did not partake of the usual polemics pervading the “discussion.”  The list of issues not addressed and the comments on their relative lack of importance appears to be an attempt, by virtue of saying, “We know,” to forgo pointless criticism.  Good luck to the authors.

As for the layout of the book, this reviewer will never be happy with endnotes.  Two or three short quotations introduce each chapter, and discussion questions, a prayer, and suggested reading round out each chapter, all of which is quite engaging.  If the progression of the book is not entirely clear, it is still a unique and valuable resource for members of Churches of Christ thinking about the assembly.

John 4

John 4 may be my least favorite chapter of the book. I know, I’m not supposed to make those kinds of judgements, but I’ll have to live with the consequences.

In the first place, the chapter is too long—it should have ended with the extended woman at the well ordeal. Who made up those chapter divisions anyway? I guess the real problem is that I’m fatigued by the time we’re done with the Samaritan. It’s one of the most over-interpreted passages in the NT. Then, amid my effort not to buy what everyone is selling, Jesus goes overboard on the metaphors. Spiritual water, spiritual food, spiritual harvest. So what does he mean?

You have to feel grateful for the comic relief, but in truth it’s that nervous laughter that gives away our uncertainty. We’re laughing with the woman as she quips: “Dude, good luck without a bucket.” We’re laughing at the disciples as they come back from grocery shopping in awkward silence at finding Jesus exchanging pleasantries alone with a strange woman. We laugh more when, at a loss themselves over Jesus’ persistently cryptic language, the disciples wonder whether Jesus found a snack somewhere else. Yet, all the while, we’re laughing at ourselves, we who don’t have any better idea what is going on here. Well, maybe in hindsight we see a little.

I suppose what really stands out as the heart of the passage is not the meaning of all those little bits of ambiguity but rather the fundamental transition that we witness at this moment. It is a pivotal story in the mission of God, and it’s no small thing that it happens in John’s Gospel. There is plenty out there about Christianity’s recasting of the covenant and the way that hinges on Jewish believers overcoming the distinctives of Judaism. But John does not tend to stand at the center of those discussions. Nonetheless, we have here a vital theological underpinning for the wider mission to come.

The question is posed from the Samaritans’ point of view—their own theological struggles with how to worship a God hemmed in by exclusivists—but the answer is distinctively Jewish, if equally Messianic (read: out of the box). Worship in the covenant has to do with God’s presence, which is why the Jews are on some level justified in the debate the woman references. What Jesus reveals, in keeping with John so far, is that it will continue to be about presence, though not location. The unexpected “gift of God” and “who it is” speaking to her are the vital issues. God is, essentially, making himself available so that anyone anywhere may worship “in spirit and truth” (in contrast to “in the temple”).

Astoundingly, then, Jesus tells his disciples to look around Samaria and see fields ready for harvest and seed planted that will soon require harvest. In Samaria? Say what?! That’s right, “salvation is from the Jews” not just for the Jews—a missional articulation of things that gets far too little press. In one fell swoop Jesus reveals that everyone in the worship argument who is not thinking missionally is wrong, whatever their position. The point is not that we shifted from the where to the how, so that now we entrench in one understanding or another of the how instead. The point is why the shift happened and what it implies.

Anyone want to help me explain what it implies?

Neo-Restoration is . . .

NR is . . .

A call for community discourse among members of Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

Many members of Churches of Christ (CofC), particularly younger members and perhaps especially students preparing for ministry, are faced with growing uncertainty about the legitimacy of the Restoration Plea and the shape, limits, and direction of the CofC inasmuch as those are results of that Plea. The recent proliferation of publications focused on the identity and characteristics of the CofC past, present, and future has heightened self-awareness and allowed questions about the legitimacy or appropriateness of Restoration to become more focused and demanding. These writings provide many points of departure for the dialogue among members of the CofC, but other factors contribute to the urgency of the need for substantial community interaction.

  • The general, rapid movement of CofCs toward mainstream Evangelicalism, for better or worse, is one such factor.
  • The cultural milieu of postmodernism that is, in many ways, divergent from the modernist context in which CofC were planted and flourished raises many more questions
  • On a similar note, the steady decline of the CofC in the U.S. gives cause for rigorous self-evaluation as well.
  • Amid many other possible factors, one more certainly increases the need for dialogue

A significant portion of the future leadership of the CofCs stands poised to make decisions about what it means to minister among God’s people and what it means to be the church in light of often reductionistic, arrogant, and sectarian tendencies among the CofCs on one hand and many wholesome and hopeful options outside the RM on the other. Loyalty to a tradition is an insufficient basis for this decision. Commitment by way of loyalty is out of step with the RM in any event, for if there seems a “better” way of being the church, the Restoration impulse is to pursue it at all cost, including tradition.

In one sense, then, if future leaders (and others) are leaving the CofC because the tradition is unwilling to continue the work of restoration, they are not leaving the RM but rather the CofC has left it. This all begs the question: What is Restoration? That question stands at the heart of the NR dialogue, as does the assumption that what it has been is not necessarily what it should be. The answer(s) will clarify what value or contribution the RM has within greater Christianity, what distinguishes and will distinguish it from non-Restoration branches of Christianity, whether it is capable of engaging the postmodern world, what its steady decline signals, and many other important matters.

A vision for the future of the RM.

Inherent in the concept of NR is a tension between what is and what should be, between tradition and vision, between already and not yet. “Neo” is indicative of a passionate, unrelenting pursuit of greater coherence to the kingdom that has broken in with Jesus of Nazareth and is breaking in through God’s ongoing initiative. This is not a backward-looking, precedent-bound way of being. Instead, NR is the struggle to discern and participate in the new thing God is doing. It is the eschatological orientation toward “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) that redefines Restoration for us in terms of what God has yet to do.

At the same time, “Restoration” is necessarily rooted in what was. Even in regard to the eschatological dimension, God’s unfulfilled intention is his initial intention. For NR, there is necessary and appropriate continuity with the historical RM. Thus, in the very act of acknowledging the RM as a legitimate church tradition, NR reshapes the restorationism with which it is continuous—a restorationism that sought to reject all tradition and would not (or could not) admit its own tradition. By claiming continuity with the RM, NR creates discontinuity.
This is merely demonstrative of the many healthy tensions that characterize NR. NR, therefore, is not an attempt to separate from the RM but a hopeful vision of reforming it—of restoring it. It is a vision predicated on the many positive facets of the RM—some of which were actualized in history, some of which have been obscured, and some of which merely remained dormant potentialities. It is a vision inspired by the hopeful progressiveness and adaptability inherent in the RM’s commitment to pursue God’s original, ultimate intentions at all cost.

John 3

There are pieces of the Nicodemus story that usually get a lot of press. If you’re from my tradition, what’s he saying about baptism? If you’re a “born again” Christian, the passage has some critical language for you. And the place of 3:16 goes without saying—after all, it outsells even “Footprints” in the realm of wall art.

Yet, if we step back and look at the story in relation to the whole narrative, there is more to discern. Jesus has just had his first clash with “the Jews” in ch. 2. But we don’t know where this is going, and on other fronts, the signs are serving their purpose (2:23). Enter Nicodemus: Pharisee and known leader. Iconic, to say the least. He comes by night, so he not a political moron. Now, Jesus faces a real and powerful temptation, and the way he handles it is fascinating. Nicodemus comes with a conciliatory, if presumptuous, opener. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (3:2). On one level, Nicodemus gets what John’s narrative has claimed up to this point: the signs are indicative of the presence of God. On another level, he whiffs badly. “Jesus, we get it [wink, wink]. You’re a teacher who has come from God.” Temptation: just leave it at that, Nazarene. Or more subtly, how about an olive branch; a “good progress, Pharisees”; a good-willed, “let’s journey together on this road of discovery.” Or how about a “you’re very near the kingdom”? Or at least a “you’re getting warmer”? Wouldn’t that be politically and pastorally savvy?

No, instead of bringing Nicodemus gently along, Jesus implicitly asserts that he doesn’t understand a thing. After the well-known exchange, the Pharisee has moved from “We know” to “How can these things be?” (3:9). Then Jesus discloses the issue that causes him to draw the line in the sand: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” If revelation is critical for John, recognition and reception is the other side of the coin. The Pharisees, above all, should fully recognize who Jesus is—much the way the Baptizer did. Not merely a teacher come from God but the key to Israel’s redemption.

Note the contrast between Jesus’s claim and Nicodemus’s. Whereas Nicodemus claims “we know” (3:2), Jesus says, on the contrary, what matters is what he knows and consequently makes known (reveals): “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” This is the transition to the usually excised 3:16 material. But that claim about belief in Jesus should not be separated from the Nicodemus story, because the critical question is what it means to believe in Jesus. Here it has everything to do with what Nicodemus does not yet believe, what the prologue and the Temple logion have claimed, what the Baptizer has testified, what the signs point to. Jesus is not interested in a limping half-confession. That is not the faith that is bound up with birth from above.

The Nicodemus story appears to be the continuation of an idea mentioned briefly in the prologue: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1.12-13). With Nicodemus, saving faith has taken center stage.

So, Christians, what does it mean to believe in his name? Are we ready for Jesus to suggest that we don’t quite get it?

John 2

In chapter 2, John is setting us up nicely for the rest of the book. A critical eye trained on the Gospels leads us to the conclusion that John has relocated the “cleansing of the Temple” from the end of Jesus’s ministry to the beginning. If we can reconcile ourselves to the evidence (I’ll let you check out some good commentaries for yourselves), it should loosen our view of John a bit and let him speak to us in broader terms than just historical retelling. Indeed, the most important question is one that we can only ask once we have come to terms with the fact that John (like the other Evangelists, only more obviously) has a theological agenda. That question is “Why?” Why has John given such prominence—and I do take it as prominence—to this story?

After all, he has told the Cana story in relatively historical terms. It is told as the first of Jesus’s signs because, well, it was. I don’t see an incredible amount of significance in the miracle itself, though many have made an effort at finding one. Rather, I see John, who was there, remembering the beginning of it all and recalling the significance of sign even then: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). It reveals his glory (remember, revelation is key), and it is the foundation of faith. So, John will go on to make much of sign in the rest of his Gospel . . . that we may believe (20:30–31).

So what’s with the Temple scene? In many ways it sets the tone for the story. Jesus is sort of contrary all along, but more on that later. In another sense, it highlights a saying that I have often underestimated. The more I stare at the Gospels, though, the more Jesus’s little sayings stand out, and John has gone to some trouble to give this one a special place. Naturally, it is the response to no other question but “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus said much more, I’m guessing, but the heart of it was apparently this: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

If you read that and think, “I’ve heard better,” then we’re on the same page. It doesn’t go on my Top Ten Pithy Sayings list. And if you read that and think, “Neat, he’s gone and predicted the resurrection,” then you’re in the mainstream—fine company, I’m sure. While that prophetic aspect is undoubtedly an important part of it, there is something anticlimactic about God incarnate knowing the future. We were all expecting it, right? We shrug and read on. But there is much more to the claim, something that John thinks we just have to get, something that jives beautifully with the prologue. To get it, though, we have to know just a bit about the expectations of the day. While they were a mixed bag, and oft in need of correction, there were some key elements to the Messianic faith of Israel. One of those was the real restoration of the Temple—that which made Israel Israel. While the second temple was mostly finished—forty-six years in the building, the Pharisees inform us—the sense among some (maybe many) was that things weren’t set right yet. The temple was about the presence of Yahweh, and everything else followed. Whatever other expectations were in that mixed bag, any Jewish theologian worth his salt knew that you could forget about all of it if Yahweh didn’t return to Jerusalem. Presence was critical, and you can read all about it in the Prophets. The promises Israel clung to through destruction, exile, and return, were essentially about the return of Yahweh.

Jesus is making an astounding claim, you see. Against the backdrop of his own judgement on the temple farce—and his own zeal for the sanctity a place that even claims to be the house of his Father—the upstart from Nazareth claims to be the place were the Glory resides. It’s not just about the resurrection. It’s about the claim to be the true Temple, to be the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for full redemption. Yahweh has returned to the Temple Mount (with a whip and an attitude)! How’s that for a theological statement?

John 1

A couple of things stood out as I read John 1 this time. Having just finished Mark, with his very gradual and inductive conclusion about Jesus’ identity, John strikes me as opening with a lightening offensive on the identity of the story’s main character: the Logos incarnate, the true light, God the one and only, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the Son of God, him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, the King of Israel, the Son of Man. Yeah . . . “exhaustive” comes to mind.

The other is that John’s primary notion of what is happening in Jesus is “revelation.” Some have even said that revelation is John’s fundamental redemptive category—not forgiveness of sins but revelation. The Word became flesh and thus the true light was in (seen by) the world. His glory has been seen. No one has ever seen God, but God the one and only who was at the Father’s side has made him [the Father] known.

The Baptizer’s role is seen as a subtype of this category. It centers on “witness,” “testimony,” “to testify,” and so forth. Specifically, “so that all might believe through him” (1:7) and “that he [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel” (1:31). And the Evangelist himself adds “we have seen his glory” (1:14). Insofar as Jesus’s purpose is to reveal God, those who testify to Jesus participate in that redemptive vocation.

Review of The Jesus Proposal

Rubel Shelly and John O. York, The Jesus Proposal: A Theological Framework for Maintaining the Unity of the Body of Christ (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2006). 

Shelly and York have put forth a unity program based upon “relational faith.”  This phrase divides nicely into the two primary facets of their proposal, one salutary and one rather dubious.

1. The relational facet pertains to our priorities as Christians interacting in ecumenical fellowship.  The authors play up the vaunted postmodern value of meaningful relationship in community over against the modernist tendency to strive for truth or rightness (in modernist scientific terms) to the detriment of all else.  They write:

We believe the divisive attitude of Christians toward one another that dominated the past couple of centuries has been more a cultural phenomenon demanded by the worldview of Modernity than a righteous phenomenon demanded by Scripture.  Specifically we believe it was an inevitable result of an institutional view of Christianity and a distinctively American way of reading the Bible.  We want to propose instead a more relational model for how those who profess love for Jesus should relate to him and to one another (20).

Essentially the authors would have us reorient to a relational priority, modeled on Jesus, as the basis for our ongoing dialogue.  The two problems they mention—institutionalism and a particular hermeneutic—remain key issues throughout.

Expanding on the contrast with Modern Christianity’s priorities, York asks:

But what if the church is not a machine?  What if objective truth isn’t so scientifically objective at all?  What if the goal is not to have all the right answers to Bible trivia questions?  What if the goal is not to be doctrinally sound?  What if, in a relational model, people once again focus on the Christ instead of each group’s particular set of proof texts and practices?  What if all that looks so random actually is relational (31)?

Simple though the relational point may seem, it has practically escaped us often enough to make Shelly and York’s rearticulation of the relational priority a welcome contribution.  Their ability to communicate in an accessible and understandable way benefits the proposal greatly.  A slight caution comes to mind regarding the tendency to caricature the modernist mind and church, but the rhetorical value of the approach is evident, and their points remain valid.

2. The faith facet is the more problematic one.  The authors desire to create an inter-denominational consensus, seemingly by force of will, on a “bare minimum” (179) of theological or doctrinal agreement.  Various biblical and traditional phrases—”confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God” (20), “faith in Christ as Savior” (87), etc.—are used to delimit the “faith.”  Shelly and York have not dealt with the reality, however, that the vacuousness of these phrases when merely recited undermines any attempt to build unity upon common creedal confession.  That is, even if Shelly and York are theologically on solid ground as they boil down to the essentials—which is doubtful—the assumption that everyone means the same thing when they confess Jesus as Lord is a exceedingly detrimental to the project.

The authors attempt to address this by asserting that there has historically been no disagreement on their core points:

Doctrinal heresy is to deny either the deity or humanity of Jesus.  It is to abandon the need for or ground of salvation.  It is to repudiate the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection for human redemption.  It is to demolish and flatten the gospel message of redemption through Jesus Christ.  The desire to maintain the unity of the church must never be an excuse for tolerating such points of view.  But these are not the issues that have divided the body of Christ across the history of the church (153).

A few observations are needful.  One, by definition, heresy means division.  Therefore, it is nonsensical to call something heresy and then assert that it has not caused division.  Two, Christological heresies have indeed plagued the church throughout that course of history.  That is no bit of secret church lore, and it is somewhat shocking that these two authors would say otherwise.  Three, it is questionable at best to redefine “heresy” to suit their point.  At least in historical and commonly accepted use, the word encompasses much more than the the authors allow.  Lastly, one must ask how they have come to their conclusions about the points listed.  Their initial statement above sounds very much like third and fourth century creedal formulations morphed into theological assumptions.  For a book that is rejecting a particular way of interpreting, it would be helpful to demonstrate at least how the bare minimum of necessary theological conclusions are being reached.  The authors appeal to orthodoxy at various points, but one must ask what that means and how they decided (20; 79; cf. “heresy” on p. 32 and “the earliest confession” on p. 73).

It is evident from their creedal summaries that both the identity and role of Jesus are central to their proposed “core belief.”  The role is given particular emphasis, as Shelly and York lean heavily on the centrality of atonement:

So long as the core gospel message of sin and salvation, of our in adequacy and Christ’s sufficiency, is taught, why can we not apply Paul’s counsel [that other issues are unimportant] to our discussions of ecclesiology, eschatology, and pneumatology?  So long as repentance and faith in Christ as Savior is proclaimed as gospel, can we not grant that intelligent people of goodwill may come to contrary conclusions about nuances of baptismal theology?  Although every item of of Christian theology is important, not every item is equally important.  The gospel defined as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners is of “first importance” to biblical theology (1 Cor. 15:1–4).  But this is the fundamental message passed on by those who take Scripture seriously in all Christian denominations (87–88).

1 Cor 15:1–4 is, for the proposal, a “theological anchor point for believers concerned with preserving the unity of the church” (152; emphasis original), seemingly because of Paul’s own claim of “first importance.”  While is would be pointless to argue that death, burial, and resurrection do not stand at the heart of the Christian story, it is surprisingly biblicist (Modern?) of the authors to draw their conclusions about the “core gospel message” in this way.  The gospel, in fact, deserves a good deal more nuancing than their summary entails.  An appreciation of Paul and the Corinthian’s own circumstances would likely make provision for other points of first importance as well.  In other words, it doesn’t seem that Paul was trying to make a statement that would be used in they way Shelly and York are employing it.  The underlying issue is also reflected in a hypothetical portrayal of someone coming to faith on the Jesus Proposal’s terms:

In a teaching event, she learns that God’s love became flesh in pursuit of her in Jesus of Nazareth and that his death on Calvary was in her place.  Christ Jesus was made sin for her so that she might become righteous in him.  In hearing that message, her heart is captured by God’s love.  She now has faith that Christ alone can save her (137).

This, then, is representative of what it means to confess Jesus as Savior.  The essential difficulty with such a portrayal of faith or the gospel is that it does not do justice to even the variety within the total Christian concept of atonement, much less Scripture’s richer notion of God’s good news.  The above is a firmly substitutionary model of atonement, which, while popular in the evangelical world, does not account for the variety of the NT’s witness to the work of God in Christ.  Why, then, should this be the common denominator upon which Christianity unites?  Shouldn’t a book offering a “theological framework for maintaining the unity of the body of Christ” deal with the gospel more thoroughly—particularly when the theological aspect of the proposal consists of this supposed bare minimum?

Despite these difficulties, the authors’ desire to move the focus from knowing doctrines about Jesus to knowing Jesus personally is a welcome counterbalance to Modernistic tendencies (164).  There are other positive sub-points to be mined from the the Jesus Proposal as well.  Some of these are undeveloped pointers toward the promised but undelivered theological framework, and some are more like pastoral or relational wisdom.

A significant corollary to their quest for the bare minimum is the intention to focus on commonality rather than differences.  Returning again to the contrast between the institutional church and the relational church, Shelly explains, “The former is church presently experienced with its emphasis on separation rooted in distinctive beliefs and practices; the latter is the Jesus proposal which pleads for unity that affirms common beliefs and ministries” (78).  This is undoubtedly a necessary shift.

A similar reorientation is seen in the author’s recognition and advocacy of the individual’s faith journey.  The diagram used to represent this is highly similar to missiologist Paul Hiebert’s “Open Set” (81).  “What if we looked for direction rather than perfection in one another’s spiritual lives,” asks Shelly (125).  He suggests that salvation is “a process with distinct events that will be expected along the way” rather than a moment or event (130–31).  He concludes that it is better to include and encourage one who is “‘near’ the kingdom” than draw hard lines (138), which he rounds out with a section on grace for flawed obedience (139–40).  These pastoral insights are invaluable for the discussion in which Shelly and York would have us engage.

Echoes of lessons learned from a more theological type of reflection are scattered throughout the book.  For example, one might hear Tillich’s Method of Correlation in the contention that our answers do not line up with the world’s questions (42), and perhaps it is Lindbeck’s Postliberalism shining through when York decries the reduction of Scripture into a series of propositions (43).  The latter reference in particular begins a thread of “story” language that runs throughout the book.  The authors are obviously, though indirectly, endorsing a narrative theological framework of some sort, but, alas, it remains unexplained.

The work as a whole does succeed in contributing toward its stated goal, but it falls short of delivering in terms of a workable proposal.  On one hand, it would be virtually unbelievable if York and Shelly did manage to overcome Christianity’s greatest problem in two hundred large-print, quotation-infused pages; that they did not is no real criticism.  On the other hand, the direction The Jesus Proposal propels us, and the spirit with which it does so, is hopeful enough to cause the reader to dare another step in the church’s journey toward salvation.