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.