Thursday, March 31, 2011

Biblical Backing for the C&MA View of Hell, Part 2

This is part three of a series investigating the statement of faith of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada (my home denomination) specifically as it regards its fifth article regarding hell, seen in part here:
The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment, but that of the believer is everlasting joy and bliss (Matthew 25:41-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).
This analysis will be the context for my own response to Rob Bell's Love Wins. Check back for the intro, an exploration of the statement, and the first part of my assessment of its biblical backing. What follows are my reflections on the last two passages cited in support of the above article.
  • Matthew 25:41-46
(41) Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (42) For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, (43) I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ (44) They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ (45) He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (46) Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
This is from the end of Jesus' famous parable of the sheep and the goats, in which Jesus tells the story of a King who divides the nations up and then tells those on the right: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." The parable is referenced in the third article of the C&MA statement of faith to support the affirmation that Jesus "will come again to establish His kingdom of righteousness and peace" (referencing his promise at the ascension as well). In the fifth article the concern appears to be a bit more for the people on Jesus' left (since only verses 41-46 are referenced).

Missing from the first footnote but implied in the second are the above verses which tell us that those "blessed by the Father" are the ones who give food, drink, clothes, and visitation to those in need, because basically they did so to Jesus himself. In the parable Jesus (once again!) identifies with those who are suffering and makes the blessing of His Father's Kingdom dependent upon those who show mercy and compassion. I tend to think that Jesus is giving this parable not to add fodder to end-time speculation but to call out a certain discipleship and mission in this world. He is calling for the life that lives in accord with this apocalyptic vision of reality. People are broken and needy. God is about overcoming that fissure. We are either for Him or against him.

By referencing this parable in support of the fifth article, then, the C&MA (at least subconsciously) holds in mind a thicker concept of the type of "believing" that corresponds to "everlasting joy and bliss." Once again, the C&MA's roots as both a holiness and a social gospel movement are shining through the white spaces of the text. Of course we would say that one is not saved by works but by faith. However, it is clearly part and parcel of belief to turn in love to one's neighbour. This puts some focus on what eternal life (and everlasting destruction) look like in this space and time.

Narrowing in on the specific topic at hand, however, in the verses cited above we are told that those who did not help the hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned would be the ones to "go away to eternal punishment". This in support of the statement that the "destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment." Do the verses support this?

In verse 41 we have Jesus saying "depart from me you who are cursed" and the description of their destination as the "eternal fire" which is "prepared for the devil and his angels." This is filled out further in verse 46, where we are told that "they will go away" into "eternal punishment" (κόλασιν αἰώνιον) rather than "eternal life" (ζωὴν αἰώνιον). What is all this telling us?

A lot seems to hinge on how we interpret the word αἰώνιον (eternal). Would Bell be right to lean harder on a qualitative rather than quantitative interpretation, taking it as an indefinite time period rather than one which is necessarily of an infinite duration? (I'm not sure he denies the latter, but he definitely stresses the former). And if this is one of the legitimate renderings, does the C&MA statement of faith nonetheless mark it out of bounds?

Other important words are the nouns for which αἰώνιον is the adjective: κόλασιν (punishment) and πῦρ (fire). Assuming "eternal" refers to a quantity of time, is the punishment eternally experienced or eternally binding? Is the fire literal or metaphorical? Since the statement of faith takes a step back and talks about "torment" in general, it clearly does not wish to make the literal/metaphorical question one of dogma. However, it does suggest that the punishment is experienced over an infinite duration, whether the fire is literal or not.

We'll deal with αἰώνιον (eternal) in the next passage. What about κόλασιν (punishment)? The word appears in this form twice in the New Testament, and a good smattering of times elsewhere in ancient literature. On its own I don't see it requiring a necessity of duration, but it could certainly do so with the adjective "eternal". In 1 John 4:18 the word makes an interesting appearance: "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." Not sure what to do with that at the moment so I'll leave it there.

If we expand our search of NT usages to include other forms of the word we also find the religious leaders trying to figure out how to "punish" the early Christians in Acts 4:21, and we find the Lord keeping the "unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment" in 2 Peter 2:9 (NASB). In the latter reference it seems that the punishment ends rather than begins at judgment, but I am not sure how much to make of it. The context is a reminder that if God sent sinning angels to hell (ταρταρόω, the underworld), sent the ungodly ancients a flood, and burned Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly and punish the false prophets. Reference is also made to the rescues of Noah's family and of Lot, who, curiously enough, was "tormented" during his life in Sodom by all the lawless deeds around him. All this 2 Peter uses to encourage the readers that they can trust God to preserve them in their trials and to administer justice in time.

  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10
(7) This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. (8) He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (9) They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (10) on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
This passage does double duty for the C&MA statement as well. Article ten talks about "a bodily resurrection of the just and of the unjust" which is "for the latter a resurrection unto judgment," and it references these verses again.

The verses cited come in the context of Paul's encouragement of a church in Thessalonica which is suffering at the hands of its "own countrymen" what churches in Judea were suffering from the Jews (1 Thess. 2:14). Acts 17 tells us that Thessalonica is the place Paul and Silas had to escape from because their initial preaching started riots and got church members thrown in prison. Paul did not leave for his own safety but for the sake of that church. They were safer if prominent members of the Christian mission were not in their midst throwing the city "into turmoil" (Acts 17:8). Paul later sends Timothy to check how the Thessalonian church is doing under persecution, and 2 Thessalonians is Paul expressing both his pleasure at the news of their resolve and his encouragement that they not lose heart.

Thus in verses 7-10 we see Paul assuring them that, despite appearances, when "the Lord Jesus is revealed" there will be "punishment" for "those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus." The word translated "punish" here is δίκη, which refers more to the sentencing than its result. Despite the doubts and discouragements disheartening the faith of the Thessalonians, they should expect that the cause of Jesus in the world will be vindicated. Verse 6 assures them that "God is just."

Verse 10 says that one day Jesus will "be glorified in his holy people" and "marveled at among all those that have believed." With that Paul turns his attention to the present day and prays for Jesus to be "glorifed in" the Thessalonians so that "he may fulfill every good purpose" and "act" which has been "prompted by" their faith (11-12). He wants them to keep on in faith, hope and love even though their movement in the city is met with harshness and oppression.

In verse 7 we see that God will pay back the oppressors and give relief to the oppressed "when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (v. 7). The literal translation of verse 6 indicates that their "pay-back" is commensurate with the affliction that they have been inflicting. The image provided calls to mind a second coming with judgement and wrath for that which is opposed to Christ's purposes for creation.

Interesting that Jesus is "revealed (ἀποκάλυψις) from heaven" in verse 7 and "comes to be glorified in" people in verse 10. This doesn't necessarily contradict the images of descent from the sky that take place in other passages, but the image is, here at least, more a matter of revelation, apocalypse, or perhaps realization. The NICNT notes that the retribution that the verses talk about is not necessarily subsequent to but part of the revelation of Jesus Christ. It also notes that where other apocalyptic literature would have gone on in gory detail, this account seems more reticent, preferring instead to talk about this apocalypse coming "from heaven", "with the angels", and "in blazing fire" (NICNT 1991, 201). Some hold that the 'blazing fire' describes the punishment, but this commentary reminds us that it more directly describes the revealing of the Lord Jesus. These may not be mutually exclusive, mind you, but this verse is not giving us a literal description of hell. Fire is not uncommonly a "symbol of the divine presence" (202).

Basically I think Paul is paraphrasing Jesus' saying in Matthew 10:28: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."The contrast between the immediate threat of death and the ultimate destruction of hell gives a Buckley's-dose of perspective, but the fear is reserved for the Person on whom such determinations depend. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to keep on with grace and love (presumably even to their enemies) in the faith that justice is in the hands of God, and will supersede any suffering they may be undergoing now.

But let's deal with the description of judgement that is given (v. 8). The word used here does not imply "vindictiveness" but "unwavering justice" for those who "do not know" and "do not obey God"; who are "culpably ignorant" of the Lord Jesus (203). Their sentence is "everlasting destruction" (ὄλεθρον αἰώνιον) wherein they are "shut out", or "away" (ἀπὸ) from the presence of the one they oppose.

When we read of "eternal destruction" we get the point that it is the frightful alternative to "eternal life". The word used for destruction is ὄλεθρον, and at first glance the word seems to be repeated in the next chapter of Thessalonians, but there the word is καταργέω, which can mean to bring to an end. Here we have a word implying utter ruin. What kind of duration it has is perhaps not a point for speculative detail about end-times scenarios, but we have no reason to doubt that it wishes to carry all the force of a heavy indication of the life-paths open before us. The point is that "life here and now has a high and serious dignity" and "facing up to the gospel invitation is a choice fraught with the most solemn and lasting consequences" (205). But what do we mean by "lasting"?

Let's get to this word αἰώνιον (eternal). The NICNT says that here, as elsewhere, it is an adjective meaning "age-long", recalling that the New Testament doesn't ever really bother saying whether that age has an end (204). The Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Early Christian Literature indicates that αἰών is often used to refer to "a long period of time without reference to a beginning or end" (32). However, the word can also refer to a specific age of history and be taken to imply an infinite span of time. So I'm not sure how to decide which meaning applies here, aside from context. The lexicon places both the texts we're dealing with in the category of a "period of unending duration" (33). But if Rob Bell wants to suggest that the word does not necessitate a picture of infinite duration (which I'm not sure he does), I suppose he has some license to suggest it just refers to an frightfully indefinite "after-time" (my words). The C&MA statement of faith does not seem to leave this option open.

Whether the word study leaves us with the idea that a period of infinite duration is in mind here, we still have to ask whether it is being literal or metaphorical. What if, when it applies to that which follows our time on earth, it is using a time-bound analogy to represent that which is unmeasurable according to time as we know it?

Let me put it another way. 1 Timothy 1:17 says: "Now unto the King eternal (αἰών), immortal, invisible, the only wise God, [be] honour and glory for ever (αἰών) and ever (αἰών). Amen." I get the impression that these are apophatic rather than kataphatic descriptions of God being given here. We are being told that God is not bound to mortality, visibility, or time as we know it. God transcends these things. I doubt we want to say that alongside God there is this thing called "time" by which He can be measured. God created time as we know it when God created the world.

Difference is, there we're talking about God and here we're talking about people. People who are, according to the statement of faith, raised bodily for the judgement incurred. If they can have bodies, presumably they can have time. Nonetheless, if the New Testament is in any case using spatial/temporal images to convey realities that are beyond them, and if ancients and medievals pictured hell according to notions of immortal souls or subterranean underworlds, I wonder how legitimate it is for moderns to translate that into contemporary cosmology or metaphysics? Or, considering the amount of speculation this would involve, perhaps to let it stand as a mysterious and staggering apocalyptic imagery meant to convey theological truths about ultimate reality?

I don't know. But I also don't think I'm being unfaithful to the biblical text by asking. On its own it kind of seems to beg such questions, doesn't it? I mean, imagine a "destruction" which never ends. Isn't that kind of an oxymoron? What if it is meant as a metaphorical hyperbole? We seem happy to take some of Jesus other statements that way. Couldn't the point be to drive home the seriousness of the path-ways before us without engendering speculation into geography or chronology of the after-life? One would be wise not to give either a hard-sell or a soft-sell to that apocalyptic imagery. The language kind of speaks for itself. Does it need the C&MA's "existence forever in conscious torment"? What does a doctrinal statement of faith need to specify, and leave unspecified?

However we answer that, the take-away point of the passage seems to be that those doing the afflicting are ultimately returned to the source and end of their own afflictions. When Jesus is revealed they will be away from (rather than enfolded in) "the presence of the Lord" and "the majesty of his power" which "comes to be glorified in his holy people and marveled at among all those who have believed" (v. 9-10). Other apocalyptics may have dwelt on or marvelled at the destruction to be avoided, but here it is the glory of God's majestic intentions that is the marvel. So we see that there is a new creation coming in Christ and that you have to believe it to see it. The point is, Thessalonians, don't stop believing! This particular passage is not one which was preached on the street corners of Sodom or Ninevah, but a letter to the persecuted from their pastor-at-large. Paul has given his fellow-sufferers reason to hope for the victory of Jesus, despite present appearances.

  • What shall we say then?

Based on these two passages, does the C&MA statement find the support it needs to affirm (1) a finalized "destiny" which entails (2) "existence forever in conscious torment"? In the first case it seems the answer is Yeah, it seems like it. In the second, Not necessarily.
  1. What else can we picture in terms of "destiny" when the one passage has Jesus tell those on his left to "depart" for "eternal punishment"? Whenever this takes place, that seems pretty binding. In the other passage, I think it entirely possible to read it in terms of a day of reckoning amongst other possible days of reckoning during our time on earth, but even then there doesn't seem in these verses to be any option left open for repentance, as Bell has been reputed to suggest. We'll have to deal with that later. Suffice it for now to say that the C&MA has indeed pointed to passages which seems to support its rendering of things in terms of a sometime-finalized 'destiny'.
  2. However, when we see that the punishment and the destruction are eternal, I think based on these two passages we have to leave open the possibility that, while it could involve (a) an infinite duration of self-aware suffering, it could also refer to (b) an eternally binding decision in which the person is separated from the life of God and either (b.i) destroyed or (b.ii) punished in some eternal "moment" with no duration of the sort we'd be familiar with. I'm not saying I know what interpretation to land on (if any), but I am saying that these particular verses alone do not themselves necessitate a belief in "existence forever in conscious torment".
Where does this leave us? I think another post is merited to tie up some loose ends and transition to an assessment of whether Rob Bell's Love Wins really asks for anything different from what the C&MA would have its members and pastors affirm. Thanks for reading this lengthy post. I would value your feedback thus far.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Biblical Backing for the C&MA View of Hell, Part 1

This is part three of a series investigating the statement of faith of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada (my home denomination) specifically as it regards its fifth article regarding hell. This will be the context for my own response to Rob Bell's Love Wins. The book is still out on whether I will prefer his interpretation to the C&MA's or vice versa, but I do want to explore their compatibility. If you are just joining me, please observe the instructions to the reader in part one, and catch up with my exploratory ramblings in part two.

In this post I am going to analyze the biblical passages referenced explicitly by the statement of faith in order to assess not only the accuracy of my prior interpretation of it, but also to get a sense of its biblical credibility. I do not pretend that the biblical passages footnoted by the statement are meant to provide comprehensive proof, but they seem the best place to start. If I am unsatisfied with the biblical support I may have to delve deeper. We'll see.

So, without further adieu, here again is the fifth article of the statement, followed by some inquiry into the texts which it cites:
Humankind, originally created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), fell through disobedience, incurring thereby both physical and spiritual death. All people are born with a sinful nature, are separated from the life of God, and can be saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:8; 1 John 2:2). The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment, but that of the believer is everlasting joy and bliss (Matthew 25:41-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).
In the last post my preliminary exploration of the plausible interpretations convinced me that the most probable intent of this article was to say that the God-enacted destiny of impenitent fallen humanity involves a state of being with infinite duration wherein persons have the ability to be conscious of pain. But let's look up those passages, shall we?

  • Genesis 1:27
So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
When utilizing this verse to describe humanity, why does the fifth article insert the word "originally"? Because this part of the statement is about our broken condition. I doubt the statement wants to say that humanity no longer bears the image of God or is no longer God's good creation. I think it means that humanity no longer images God as it once did or ought to do. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. What the statement indicates is that this fall from grace occurred "through disobedience", which has incurred a seismic disruption in the proper Creator/creature relationship.

We might fill this out by saying that the mutual fellowship between humans (and between humans and creation) has hopelessly spiraled into discord. Everything needs restoring and reordering. And the Son of God is the one who brings the image of God in its fullness by his incarnation, death and resurrection in human flesh as the prophesied Son of Man who fulfilled the hopes of Israel. There is yet life for humanity (and creation), and it is according to the work of Jesus Christ. This is how I describe what the statement of faith is tersely indicating.

  • Romans 8:8
Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
  • 1 John 2:2
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Two short verses are footnoted to support the line: "All people are born with a sinful nature, are separated from the life of God, and can be saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ." This should tell us that the footnotes are not meant as full depictions of the statement's intent or comprehensive detailing of its biblical support. We proceed toward tentative conclusions.

These verses continue the theme of humanity's problem and its salvation. The problem is that it has fallen victim to a disobedient sinful orientation. The 'nature' language of the statement is a bit more static than I'd prefer, but I see no problem reading into it the dynamism in the NIV of Romans 8:8 - emphasizing the verbs "controlled" and "please" in order to talk about the problem in terms of the aforementioned "disobedience". The problem is that our human disposition is out of communion with its Maker and "separated from the life of God." Of course, the NASB says "those who are in the flesh cannot please God." So it isn't like we can get out of this on our own, whether we think of it in static or dynamic terms. No one is born immune to this problem or able to overcome it, as the statement makes clear.

Coming to the second part of the statement we see that humanity's salvation is provided by "the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ." The fulcrum of our shift from a hopelessly sinful situation is the saving freedom of a reoriented relationship to God provided by Jesus' "atoning work." Once separated, God and humanity are joined in this One. The problem of our sin is dealt with in what He does for us. But how exactly do we describe the atonement? The Bible gives us plenty of metaphors, many of them drawn from God's covenant with the Jews, in order to understand what Jesus accomplishes. And, as mentioned in the last post, the C&MA statement of faith doesn't go out of its way to spell out one atonement theory as more explicitly important than the others. That, I think it is a strength of the statement of faith.

Of course, the 1 John 2:2 reference to sacrifice does bring the typically evangelical emphasis on the penal-substitution theory front and center, and I'm comfortable with that. But the dogmatic focus is on Jesus is Saviour, not on the "mechanism" of salvation (to borrow Rob Bell's word).

In this regard it is worth noting here that the C&MA statement itself spends far more time on sanctification than justification. Without decreasing the importance of the latter, it does seem to want to describe the former - the new life Jesus brings - at greater length. Instead of speculating as to how exactly God does all this to us, it focuses more explicitly on what God intends to do with us now. And if we come back to Romans 8 for a moment, we see that the verses surrounding it support this sanctification-heavy emphasis. The emphasis there is on the fact that the Spirit of the risen Christ "lives in you" and can be "lived according to" despite the ongoing pull of sin. The life of God is breaking into the world even now. What an honour to be a part of it.

Getting back to 1 John 2:2, however, we note another really interesting bit, which is that right there in our statement of faith we have a verse which says that Jesus' salvation is "not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." This is really important to the C&MA. It is a missions movement which believes that Jesus is for everyone. Its founders were, I believe, post-millenialists. This meant that they looked forward to an earthly reign of Jesus Christ wherein the kingdom of heaven came on earth in full. This view of the "end times" isn't written into the statement of faith - nor should it be - but we still do well to pause and reflect on the traces of the C&MA's "motive for missions".

As the eleventh and final article of the statement indicates, the C&MA has historically put a good deal of motivational weight on the "blessed hope" of Jesus' completed great commission. One finds in the old sermons and hymns of A.B. Simpson (pictured here) and others a good deal of mention of the perils of hell, but the statement of faith rightly references more assertively Matthew 24:14, which says "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." This ends up being a pretty important counter-balance to the insistence on hell-fire as a motive for missions. The Missionary Alliance has been mostly about seeking the just and loving reign of Jesus in the world.

Interestingly, at Bell's webcast-interview promoting his book, it was the Dean of the Alliance Theological Seminary at Nyack who asked Bell from the audience about the "motivation of Christian mission" inherent in his view of hell. Bell seemed to satisfy him with his answer that awareness of the hellish reality of sin is an important part of what the gospel brings to light but it is the "great story" of what God wants for the world in Jesus Christ that is the primary impulse for the Great Commission.

Another thought in relation to all this: The way 1 John 2:2 is used here suggests that the C&MA believes that the scope of the atonement is unlimited. This is potentially more problematic for so-called "five-point Calvinists" in the C&MA (if there are any) than for full-fledged Arminians like Rob Bell (if there are any). Wherever a doctrine of limited atonement (the "L" in the famous TULIP anagram which says that Jesus atoned only for the sins of the "elect") is held, it may be in contradiction with the view of atonement implied by article five of the C&MA's statement of faith, at least if its footnoted verses are taken as indicative of its central impulses.

That said, even though I strongly lean toward a view of unlimited atonement, I would be willing to entertain a certain freedom of interpretation on this point since the statement itself doesn't spell it out explicitly, and since I think a statement of faith should leave some room for those views with which it can work. I say this as someone with deep reservations about limited atonement. Very deep. Which I hope tells you that I want a statement of faith that is generous to those of Bell's persuasion as much as to those of Piper's. I think we are better off having these people in the same congregation discussing their differences on these matters than having them dismiss each other from across an evangelical divide with the twitter-fingers of a million popes. I highly value each word of the name Christian and Missionary Alliance.

And with that, I'll take an intermission. This is already long, so I'll post it and pick up the second half of the biblical analysis in a couple days. Let me know if you've got bones to pick with what I've done thus far. I can't pretend that I've done a comprehensive exegesis here, but I do feel like I'm making some headway. Please comment if you can help me out or if you are tracking with me at all.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What has Lotso to do with Bashir?

It is no secret that Rob Bell's recent re-picturing of the standard idea of hell has got a lot of people hot under the collar. One of the common refrains from Bell's critics has been that he has merely dressed up the gospel and hidden away all the uncomfortable parts about judgement and final justice. Whether that is totally true or not (and I don't think it is), what I find most interesting is the frequent charge that Bell is cavorting to the culture.

We see this when the Gospel Coalition's Justin Taylor approvingly quotes Christianity Today's Mark Galli to the delight of thousands of readers and hundreds of blog-commenters - denouncing Rob Bell's Love Wins as one more instance where "liberals have striven to make the gospel relevant." More famously, msnbc's Martin Bashir, in a tirade cleverly disguised as an interview, said to Bell:
"You’re creating a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture. . . . What you’ve done is you’re amending the gospel, the Christian message, so that it’s palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of hell and heaven very difficult to stomach. So here comes Rob Bell, he’s made a Christian gospel for you, and it’s perfectly palatable, it’s much easier to swallow. That’s what you’ve done, haven’t you?"
This is a common evangelical trump card which is often quickly taken to mean someone's theology has gone to the dogs. It usually assumes that the work of discerning whether the culture is right or wrong is already done: The culture is wrong. Do not love the world. Argument closed.

That's another discussion. The crazy thing to me is that in this case I'm not even sure Bashir, Galli or Taylor are even right about contemporary culture.

Even if Bell said that there was no hell and no divine judgement (which he does not say), would this really be just a symptom of the stories our culture likes to tell itself? When the 'culture' tells its stories about good and evil - particularly when it comes to end of a long story arc and shows us the fate of either side - what kind of narrative does it weave? It wouldn't be hard to test this. Taking inspiration from Bashir's depiction of Bell's gospel, let's look at a widely popular, inter-generationally acclaimed, trilogy-finishing film which was nominated for best picture at the 2010 Academy Awards: Pixar's Toy Story 3.

Spoiler alert: In what follows I am going to ruin the ending for you. I assume if you haven't seen it by now you don't care. If it will help, you can see a six minute version of the film here.

The genius of the Toy Story series is the pleasure viewers get when they learn that when they aren't looking their toys have a life of their own. It is fun to watch. More amazingly, however, viewers also learn that despite these animated periods of autonomy, the toys' true freedom is found when they are putty in their owner's hands; weaved into his narrative and serving their created purpose. As the trilogy begins its finale we see that the owner is headed for college and the toys are headed for a melancholy, limbo-esque fate in the attic, where they will have years together to reminisce about the days they will always treasure most - the days of joy when they were living to their full potential as toys. Of course, things go desperately wrong.

The next thing we know Toy Story 3 is coming to its climax with this fellowship of toys stuck on a conveyor belt about to dump them into a flaming trash incinerator outside the city. When we watched it my kids were visibly gripped and on the edge of their horrified little seats. Fortunately, when death looms largest their leader shows himself willing to self-sacrifice for the sake of the group. In fact, when things are looking dour Cowboy Woody even tries to save the enemy - the one who had got them in this trouble in the first place - Lots-O-Huggin' Bear. Lotso, you see, was the oppressor who had ruled the other toys to his own advantage in the less-than-ideal state of life that had become the daycare environment.

Lotso is not pure evil, of course. He was once an innocent stuffed bear bringing joy to his owner, when tragedy sent him skidding. In a flashback we learn of the day he was lost. We see as he searches unsuccessfully for his owner his heart grows hard and cold. "Something snapped," we are told, and we empathize.

But the film and its audience still hold him responsible for his ensuing actions. Embittered and resilient in self-protection, Lotso manipulates the day-care toys to his advantage. Predictably, a small band of toys plans an escape with Woody at their lead, but they are caught by Lotso and he aims to have them destroyed. Things go badly for him, however, and he gets caught along with them in a conveyor belt headed for the flames. As he and Woody clamour for freedom, Lotso is shoved to safety by one he had tried to kill. Safe because of their mercy, Lotso has the chance to extend the favour and rescue them all. All eyes are on him - he could easily do it - but he does not. He leaves them there to die.

The film does not end sadly for the fellowship of the toys, of course, but has them pulled out at the last minute by three aliens to whom they are eternally grateful. Returned to their owner, they give us a touching denouement: The toys are not even put in the attic, but are given a new life of true toy freedom in a brand new home. Adults and kids alike have been known to leave the film with tears and happiness both. It is indeed a satisfying end to the trilogy.

But what about Lotso? Interestingly, we do get one last look at him.

The last we see of Lotso he is being tied to the front of a truck in the dump, where a bug-riddled toy advises him to keep his mouth closed because, it is implied, he could be there for quite awhile. The truck moves off and Lotso's fate is sealed. Annihilation in the incinerator would have been better than this.

Obviously, Pixar is too good to go with the cheesy ending. Or maybe it wants to leave kids with a sense of the consequences for evil or something. I don't really want to make too much of this finale, other than to point out exactly what kinds of stories the culture actually seems content to tell itself and its children. It seems pretty happy to have the oppressive villain judged indefinitely for his crimes, especially if he has been extended mercy and refused to have any part of it. It seems to me that the last thing it can bring itself to imagine is total justice and reconciliation. Or, where it could imagine it, it can only imagine it being phony and melodramatic.

I'm not trying to suggest that this proves anything, either way. It would be interesting to reflect on this further. I'm also not trying to advocate carte blanche for everything said in Bell's book. (I'm not done yet). My only point is that, at the critics prodding, when I actually look at the so-called 'contemporary culture' I find something other than what they seem to think I'll find.

I imagine I've made such generalities on my own blog before as well. But maybe we should call a moratorium on this evangelical trump card and actually talk about nuts and bolts.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Examining the C&MA Statement on Hell

As explained at length before, I am setting out to analyze the statement of faith of my denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada, as it applies to the doctrine of hell. Although I haven't finished his book yet, I am doing this in order to ask whether one who was convinced by or open to Rob Bell's recent take on these matters could sign on the dotted line as a member in good standing.

This is where things get a bit hairy. Although I intended to begin by examining the biblical references provided in the statement itself (and beyond as necessary), I found myself mulling over the statement at great length just to understand fully what it could mean. Thus below, following the relevant point of the statement in question, you will find ten reflections exploring the range of interpretive options available.
5. Humankind, originally created in the image and likeness of God, fell through disobedience, incurring thereby both physical and spiritual death. All people are born with a sinful nature, are separated from the life of God, and can be saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:8; 1 John 2:2). The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment, but that of the believer is everlasting joy and bliss (Matt. 25:41-46; 2 Thess. 1:7-10).
1) 'originally created' > 'sinful nature'

It seems to me that one's understanding of hell is going to be informed by one's understanding of what is entailed in sin and the fall. What happened here? The statement of faith deems it necessary to say that something did happen, and it was very bad. Humankind 'fell through disobedience'. And now, whatever the original 'image and likeness of God' might have been, all are born with a 'sinful nature'.

It is not specified whether the statement has in mind a change of the actual nature of humankind or the addition of the adjective 'sinful' to it, indicating a thorough tarnishing or self-contradiction or deprivation of some kind. In the one case you'd have a new kind of human born into the world by sin. Evil would have a radical kind of positive force to it. In the other case you'd have a good humanity but tainted to the core. Evil would have no force or being of its own, but would only have a privative, parastic kind of negation to it. The latter view is the preferred one, and I believe that orthodox Christianity for many centuries has born this out. The C&MA statement's further description of that fall in terms of people's estranged relation to 'the life of God' should probably lead us to think of the fallen sinful nature more primarily in these terms as well.

Whether the 'sinful nature' is inherited by physical genealogy, social contagiousness, or by virtue of an ontological separation effective for all is not clearly delineated by the statement of faith. It is now simply something we are 'born with'. That's okay, I think. Statements of faith should not be needlessly specific.

2) 'physical and spiritual death'

The human stands estranged from God and from its own humanity because of the state of disobedience into which it has fallen. Thus it has incurred both physical and spiritual death rather than 'the life of God' (characterized by free obedience) for which it has been made. This death is the result of the creature's deluded stab at an illusory autonomy. It is neither soul-death nor merely physical death. Both have been incurred.

[A note to Dennis pertaining to his comment on the prior post: It would indeed be tough to get around the statement's suggestion that physical death entered human experience at the fall into sin. Thus I imagine that one who believed in a divinely created evolutionary process would either have to (a) deny that physical death entered the human experience with sin, thus putting the emphasis on spiritual death as the real problem, or (b) say that physical death took on a new found finality or character because of sin, or (b) imply that the evolving humans were yet-to-be declared and constituted human in the image of God until the Spirit breathed that likeness into them at the alpha-point to which Genesis refers (i.e. some moment within the metaphorical 'day' six, after the creation of non-human animals).]

3) 'existence'

Having read about our 'physical and spiritual death', we might then ask what is meant by the 'existence' which follows. Is this form of existence physical or spiritual or both? The statement itself doesn't say exactly, although in what follows we get some indications of what it thinks is important to say about this existence.

4) 'forever'

Is 'infinite duration' the way to understand the word 'forever'? It seems pretty clear. If one wanted to say that conscious torment came to an end at some point, surely one would have left out the word 'forever'. Furthermore, if one wanted to say that it was binding forever but was not experienced as the passing of time in duration, then one would leave out the words 'conscious' and/or 'torment'. The statement has not wished to leave those options open to us, as far as I can tell.

The only way I could maybe see one reinterpreting this would be if 'forever' was defined as a placeholder for that realm which is outside of time as we know it. 'Existence forever' uses our earth-bound language to indicate a state of being which is outside our experience of measurable space and time. This is not outside the realm of interpretive possibility. (After all, when the Bible calls God 'Everlasting' does it really mean to say that there exists something called Time within which God lives and moves and has his being? No, God is the Creator of Time as we know it. 'Everlasting' indicates his transcendent quality as such.)

Even if the 'forever' refers to duration, perhaps one could imagine an existence in a state that lasts forever but is not felt as such by the one who is conscious within it. Just the way that for God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, perhaps a state of eternal torment could be to the one experiencing it (outside of time as we know it) no different than a moment.

I suppose one could read it one of these ways. However, it seems clear to me that the framers of this statement meant no such thing. We are to understand the maximal frightfulness of our destiny apart from the 'life of God' and we are to be mindful of the extremity of the situation for those creatures hell-bent on their inherited state of disharmony with God. When it comes to the details we are left with the question whether it is the authorial intent or the reader's intent that is authoritative on such matters. We will leave that question for a later time. Right now we are just exploring the interpretive options.

5) 'conscious torment'

What does it mean for that fall to end in 'existence forever in conscious torment'? Is physical death a temporary transition on the way to an everlasting existence in another mode of physicality? What are we to imagine here? If this existence forever is disembodied, or 'spiritual' only, what does one do with the biblical language ascribing to it a physical painfulness? We'd be in the realm of metaphor in that case for sure.

However, we might be in the realm of metaphor in the physical reading as well. Are we to imagine a post-mortem physicality that can withstand torment without ever succumbing or losing consciousness? Like Moses' burning bush, is the person burning without ever burning up? Is the body being somehow sustained at the brink of perishing in order to feel forever the pain of the fallen human condition? I'm not trying to dramatize the statement as either unsettling or absurd. As I look for what is deemed important, these questions arise.

The statement, here, doesn't spell out every detail. However, a later point in the statement of faith leads me to believe that the C&MA wants us to think of this as an embodied reality for which the person is resurrected by God.
10. There shall be a bodily resurrection of the just and of the unjust; for the former, a resurrection unto life (1 Corinthians 15:20-23); for the latter, a resurrection unto judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).
Taken together, these points suggest that the 'conscious torment' seems not to be simply the natural result of the impenitent's fall into sin but the reality for which God actively and purposefully resurrects them. Thus the statement pictures for us a divine granting of 'post-mortem' existence in which the eternally binding judgment is not only passed, but felt in all its eternality.

To sum up, then, it seems that the important thing for C&MA members to affirm is that the God-enacted destiny of impenitent fallen humanity involves a state of being with infinite duration wherein persons have the ability to be conscious of pain. I haven't investigated the biblical texts that are footnoted yet, but having grown up in the C&MA I have little doubt that this is how the statement is meant.

6) 'destiny'

Is the word 'destiny' meant to indicate 'final fate' or is it more of a descriptive word, connecting the fallen state with the 'after-life' that can be expected as long as that fallen state continues? As should be clear by now, I have little doubt that 'destiny' is meant to suggest 'final fate'. Not only that, but God is the active agent in passing judgment and issuing that final fate.

In other words, though the fall into sin has already incurred physical and spiritual death, the moment of physical death seems to imply passing the brink into that God-declared destiny from which there is no return. In that case the real sting of the physical death is that it represents the end of all opportunity for repentance.

Of course, one could, theoretically, read this statement as descriptive of the kind of existence that an unbelieving and impenitent person should expect to have as long as they remain impenitent and unbelieving. In other words, this is what fallenness looks like, when the turn to God is resisted ad nauseum. Again, I hardly think this is what the statement's authors meant. We will have to discuss the authoritative weight of authorial intent later on.

7) 'saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ.'

Clearly there is an emphasis here on the need for Jesus' atonement of sin in order to save the human from this 'sinful nature', this 'separation from the life of God', and this 'destiny' of 'conscious torment'. Whatever the extent of salvation and the population of heaven, no one gets there apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ. Herein is not bad news, but good news. Indeed, 'all people ... can be' rescued.

8) 'impenitent and unbelieving'

Of course, the statement fills in the 'can be' with the requirement of belief. Interestingly, in the case of unbelief it qualifies it with the other descriptor of impenitence, but in the case of belief the penitence is either assumed or deemed too misleading to include. Does penitence bring too close to mind the legacy of penance and the Pelagian idea of salvation by works? Interesting that this door is reopened slightly in point 10 of the statement of faith anyway, where the parting of ways is not rendered according to 'believing' and 'unbelieving' but 'just' and 'unjust'.

The point is that one needs to repent and believe in Jesus, turning from the injustice of a humanity steeped in sin and enmity to the justice of a humanity reoriented to God. This is rather sensible, if you ask me. As per #1 above, if sin incurs a disorientation of the creature away from the free obedience to God for which it was created, then it makes sense that belief and penitence and justice characterize the reorientation of the human enabled by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Belief and justice characterize a redeemed humanity, just as they would have an unfallen humanity. Penitence is, of course, required because of the fall into sin. Anyone who is unbelieving and impenitent is, by nature, still in that fall and experiencing all that it entails.

But here are some nagging thoughts. Why is the turn from God into disobedience and injustice sustained forever? What is the rationale or the purpose of that 'existence forever' in the 'conscious torment' of 'separation from the life God'?

Is it the case that being made in the image of God means being made to last eternally, whether one is born into a sinful nature or not? Is it the case that our inheritance of and participation in that sinful nature in time merits the punishment that lasts for eternity? There would be some who would scoff at such a thought, and yet in history there also have undoubtedly been some who have prayed for eternal punishment on their tormentors. In either case I think it best to trust justice into the hands of God. However, I have to admit that I am squeamish at some of the possible answers to these questions. I'm not going to answer all of these. But I do want to explore their importance for the statement of faith. What does seem clear is that the C&MA has felt it warranted and important enough to say that members and pastors must sign the statement that there is 'existence forever in conscious torment' for all of us who remain unbelieving and impenitent to the point of death.

9) 'joy and bliss'

Before we come to some final thoughts, I have to ask: What is the meaning of 'bliss' here? If there need be a second word besides joy, why not something like 'love' or even 'life'? These seem more biblical and more commendable alternatives. Perhaps 'bliss' makes a fitting opposition to 'torment', driving home the point that, despite the harsh words about the fate of the disobedient impenitent, it doesn't have to be that way.

10) Is there any variance of interpretation available here?

For instance, would a C&MA pastor or member be free to imagine or hope that there would be an annihilation of the impenitent unbeliever rather than an existence of unending suffering? Does the statement leave open the possibility that the fire of hell could at some point be 'consuming'? that one might actually perish, in the most final sense of the word? Whether or not this view can find exegetical biblical credence, on the statement's own logic it would undoubtedly be tough to support. I don't know how you could interpret 'existence forever in conscious torment' in a way that allowed for annihilation.

But there is another question, and it is the one which Rob Bell has apparently sent ringing in the ears of evangelicalism: Could one be a C&MA pastor and hold a reasonable hope for the possibility that 'existence forever in conscious torment' is conditional upon the 'existence forever' of impenitence and unbelief? In other words, would one be free to imagine a so-called post-mortem repentance? Again, this may or may not be tough to sustain biblically. However, in this case on the face of it I actually think the statement of faith would allow for such an interpretation, even if it would undoubtedly go against the grain of the original authors' intent.

Of course, we haven't looked at the verses which the statement footnotes. If they recommend to us an understanding of the statement which excludes any 'post-mortem hope' whatsoever, then I think we'd have to conclude that such a reading might be rendered highly questionable if not eliminated. We'll have to get into that in the next post, when we examine the biblical passages cited by the statement itself.

For the moment I am not sure what to think about all this. I would at least like to consider the possibility that the C&MA could have a statement which was more inclusive of either or both of these latter positions, simply because I feel like a good rule of thumb for a statement of faith is 'less is more'. But then again, I haven't done the textual background study all the way yet. Maybe there is warrant for the exclusive position that has been taken. I'm just saying that at this point I find the specificity on this point a tad uncomfortable. But I am sure I am missing some things. Can you shed light on any blind spots for me thus far?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The C&MA Statement on Hell

Surely the world doesn't need one more blog about Rob Bell's Love Wins but, given the controversy it instigated within evangelicalism, once I've read it I'm probably going to want to say something about it. We can always theologize about headlines, but it isn't every day that theology itself makes headlines!

However, for reasons mentioned in the last post, I want to have some contextualized purpose to my reflections. No sense one more person deciding (on what authority?) on the internet whether Bell is or is not a heretic, evangelical, or what have you. What I want to ask is whether someone convinced by his book could sign my denomination's statement of faith. I have not read the book yet, but this and the next post are my re-familiarization with that statement. Although Bell reputedly touches on a variety of issues, I am going to focus primarily on the doctrine of hell (with sideways glances at other things as they come up).

Before I get fully into it, however, let me set out some guiding rationale, declare my (rather ad hoc methodology), and give some guidance on how I'd like this to be read.

1. Rationale and Approach:

In the preamble to its local church constitution of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada, the spirit of the guiding document is tied back to its founder, A.B. Simpson, whose charge to the General Council of 1912 is considered "as relevant today as when he gave it in his address." In the few short lines which are quoted, Simpson says the following about his wishes for the movement that would build upon his work:
"God grant that this work may never lose its old simplicity, self-sacrifice and separation, not only from the secular but from the religious world in its spirit and practice. But at the same time, we must keep abreast of the progress of our age and be men and women of today in our message and ministry to our generation."
Much could be said about this quote alone. (Surely "progress" is not assumed in every age? How does one decide when to be separate and when to adapt? What is the "religious world" that he has in mind? And so on.) But the point is that Simpson thought the movement should stay simple, unbound, and self-giving in its spirit and practice, but not that it should at any point lose touch with or be uninvolved in the society in which it moves and ministers and speaks. Thus, I would suggest, it must always be about the work of both theological communication and re-appraisal -- not so as to stifle but to free and to assist the church in its service to the others in the love and grace of Christ. Theology serves the mission, and it does so not oblivious to but right in the thick of each generation.

It is with this spirit in mind that I take to heart the questions Rob Bell has raised (but not invented) and I inquire not simply into the general appropriateness of his answers but into their appropriateness and/or usefulness within my particular stream of the wider evangelical 'tradition'. If this is to be fair I must both scrutinize Bell's answers as well as the answers that have tended to be the denominational default. Having not read his book, I am yet unsure how much I'll agree with Bell, but I can state up front that I begin with the agreement that his questions are not irrelevant, unimportant, or finally settled. In fact I find them to be intriguing and even in the best sense nagging questions in their own right. I think this is so not simply for curiosity's sake but for the sake of understanding the gospel and the biblical witness as a whole.

In coming to our statement of faith with this sort of open-ended questioning I am contradicting neither the original spirit of our denomination nor the letter of its policy. Indeed, written right into the local church constitution of Canada's C&MA manual, which includes the statement of faith, it says: "This constitution may be amended at any regular business session of the General Assembly of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, written notice having been given prior to the General Assembly."

Thus isn't just lip-service either. I was present at the C&MA General Assembly of 2004 when this document was amended to remove the insistence on believer's baptism from the statement of faith. Interestingly, this was not a turn to the practice of infant baptism, since the constitution elsewhere asserted that it was C&MA policy to practice believer's baptism; rather, the amendment was passed because the denomination did not wish to have the exclusion of infant baptism written into its statement of faith, thus implying that it regarded such a thing totally unorthodox and ecclesiastically unacceptable. It was an ecumenical and practical move for which I heartily voted. Statements of faith should not be too long, if they are to exist at all.

I take this as precedent, then, for the kind of analysis I want to explore. Although my exploration will be not exhaustive, it seems to me that there are four provisional conclusions one could reach. The Statement of faith could either be:
(1) Left as is, thus excluding certain views.
(2) Expanded to include an alternate view.
(3) Amended so as to allow more variance.
(4) Left as is, with ample room for local interpretation.
I operate under the assumption that if our statement of faith means anything then we actually want it to say what is of necessity in order to be a member of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada, and nothing more.

Basically, I'm trying to figure out whether a person with Rob Bell's view of hell (presuming it can even be known and articulated) could with good conscience sign the statement of faith. Put the other way around, I am asking whether such a person could be refused membership or credentialing in the C&MA on such a basis. As I write this I have neither read the book nor formed a solid opinion in any direction.

2) Methodology:

There isn't much to tell here. Essentially, in the next post I intend to take the immediately relevant portions of the statement of faith, look at the biblical passages they footnote, and get a good sense of the rationale and the credibility of the statement on its own terms. After this I may do some further exegetical and theological reflection in order to determine whether I've got a handle on what the statement is saying and how it might possibly be interpreted. By then I should have finished Bell's book and will likely have some things to say about it by comparison. In particular I will look at its view of hell (and its potential population) and try to determine how well this fits with my denomination's stance, if at all. Depending on how things go, I imagine I will either have a critique to levy against Bell's book or an amendment to consider proposing to the family of churches to whom I belong.

3) To the reader:

I will say here what I say on my page devoted to the issue of gender roles in the C&MA: I will gladly accept critique or input from an outside perspective, and indeed truly hope that this blog can help its interested readers to think through the issues involved, but I do not wish to drag my denomination's issues in the public simply to make a spectacle of them. Please don't take it like that and, if you have your doubts about us, assume the best until you know otherwise.

Furthermore, my goal in this is not to set myself apart from or above the particular church context which is my home. Anyone who reads out of or into this a spirit of division should please note that my desire is to contribute to my denomination's ongoing work of theology and biblical interpretation and application, not to detract from it. I believe we are enabled by our common convictions in the grace, love, and truth of Jesus Christ to discuss and re-evaluate the things that we believe. We do so not in a spirit of confusion or fear but in truth spoken in love - operating under the trust that ours is a living Lord.

Also, anyone in my denomination who is looking to eavesdrop on my thought process so they can fade away quietly having labelled me according to some preconceived notion of orthodoxy should please communicate any reservations to me personally. I would like to work in the denomination upon completion of my PhD and this is a place for me to publicly work through some things which I think important. It does not mean that my mind is made up or that I would not welcome conversation. If you are hear to blacklist me, please tell me so and be ready to back up your claims.

At this point I will declare my prior leanings openly: I found Bell's promotional questions to be over-the-top provocative but still important and even good. Turned out I was hearing them a little different than others, and so I have been in the odd position of defending the questions in principle for a couple weeks even before having read Bell's answers for myself. I have been able to piece together a sense of the book from the many excerpts I have read, and gather that I will have some reservations of my own. However, I also grade enough papers to be able to tell when someone is being misused or even misrepresented in quotation, and so I remain skeptical that Bell has been given a fair reading. As mentioned before, I also don't think that the hastily applied 'universalist' label necessarily made Bell a heretic. But my book comes in the mail today.

4) The statement:

For now, I leave you with this. Though other parts of the C&MA's eleven-point statement of faith will be relevant, the primary point in question is #5:
Humankind, originally created in the image and likeness of God, fell through disobedience, incurring thereby both physical and spiritual death. All people are born with a sinful nature, are separated from the life of God, and can be saved only through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:8; 1 John 2:2). The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment, but that of the believer is everlasting joy and bliss (Matt. 25:41-46; 2 Thess. 1:7-10).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Best Response to That Book

Last time I posted about Love Wins I had not yet read the book (and still haven't), and was commenting more about the instant reaction to the book than anything else. Turned out my post was pretty opportunistically titled and tweeted and it got me ten times the readers I usually get, even putting my blog atop the google searches for about a day or so. That was kind of fun, but I have no such ambitions.

(I mean, have you seen the comments the popular bloggers have to weed through? I wouldn't mind a bit more interaction on my blog, but I prefer to keep it kind of manageable, and I like that I tend to have some kind of personal or contextual connection with pretty much anyone who is dropping by. That's not to say I don't invite the interaction of strangers, but I don't really relish the thought of refereeing mass disputes unless it is my full time job!.)

Anyway, now that it is has been a couple weeks, my readership is back to normal, and my copy of the book is currently waiting at the post office to be picked up, I have to ask myself if there is any reason to add one more blog-review to the mix. Certainly I had this in mind when I talked about "occasions for theological self-absorption" last week. Indeed, I've not only been holding off from commenting further on this platform because I want to read the book first (what a novel concept!), but also because I want to stifle the reactionary mode of theology that I find so tempting. With that in mind I've been reading the many reviews hoping someone else would do the job necessary and leave me with nothing more to say than to offer a link. Considering the incredible amount of response that the book has garnered, I thought I'd find it a bit sooner than I did. But alas, it did come! I will link to it below. But first let me say a few more things, and also explain why it is (so far) the best review going.

First, a few more thoughts. It will be no surprise to some of you that I have spent far more time writing comments on people's facebook statuses than my own blog (and unfortunately, maybe even my own dissertation!). Which reminds me: In the last year I've also done just as much if not more theological conversation via email and even handwritten letter than ever before. I don't wish to sound a death-bell for blogging, but I will say that I'm more and more attracted to and interested in theological conversation that is tied to a context -- be it relational, denominational, situational, or what have you. In my blog, too, I want to take to heart the fact that, even if I garner a wide audience somehow, I might do the ideas their best justice if I address them with at least one eye on how it matters in a particular context.

We all have contexts in which we have our part in the discussion, and I think it defensible to want to have that discussion where it hits home rather than always in the abstract and unconnected. Honestly, I'll be just as happy if I read the book and feel like the link below has done the work for me. I sure hope the guy sees the thing through.

Thus, at the very least I think I'm going to do a post or two on my denomination's statement of faith concerning hell, since I'd like to think through and address the degree to which the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada could or could not be okay with its pastors adhering more or less to the view Bell espouses. At the very least I owe it to myself and the church to which I belong to think seriously about such a thing. I don't think it is my place to deem Bell or his opponents heretical or to make a claim to the deposit of evangelicalism, but I think I can seek a responsible conversation within my church movement that tries to assess itself properly in its time. So look for that in the near future, and by all means come and take part in the discussion, if indeed there is one to be had. I will welcome your input from outside the C&MA, and would indeed welcome new readers from within the C&MA who could care less for my blog but would like to think this through along with me.

Okay, I think I'm done with that part. Now let me move on to the reason why the link below is the best review going. Until I saw it I was leaning toward David Congdon's five part response to the Christianity Today article about the book in question. I still recommend you read it, because it is excellent, but what I'm looking for is a review of Bell's book itself, and in that vein I think the link below is just the thing. So now let me (finally!) explain why. (I'm basically cutting and pasting this from a facebook conversation. Thus a few poor souls will recognize it from a previously hijacked status update, but they can rest assured that I'm not dragging them into my blog by name.)

I think the best way to approach this Bell episode is not by way of an Emergent Church/Gospel Coalition polarity. Now, from what I can tell (still having not read the book myself), Bell contributes to this polarization with some of the ways he communicates himself. But nonetheless, I really don't think that the reaction to him should play along 'party' lines, even if Bell does it himself (which, for me personally, remains to be seen). Here's why:

1) Bell's answers may or may not end up being entirely orthodox, or, where they shift to the area of interpretive variance and not core doctrine then maybe they will be highly critique-worthy. However, his questions have a long long history and I would suggest that his questions are indeed orthodox in the most important way possible (if a question itself can be considered orthodox). Throughout church history there have been tensions that have had to be held in play, and perennially re-brought up, in order for the doctrine to do justice to the revelation of God which is from beyond us all and confronts us in our worldviews and our interpretations. Bell's questions need to be addressed with something more than reassertion of the original position, even if the original position is still held. I do not see this happening and that is why even before I've read the book I have been quite vocal in calling for a better hearing and a better response.

2) Bell may have positioned himself against a certain reading of the Bible which may or may not coincide with Gospel Coalition commitments, and thus may have pushed this into a 'competitive' mode himself. However, from what I gather he has not named names but has dealt with the ideas that he is questioning. Thus there is opportunity to transcend the us v. them mentality and actually give a constructive response. This is what I think is called for, not because I think it is more culturally palatable or because I am a big fan of tolerance and fluffy sentiments, but because the very gospel with which we wrestle calls for it. We are one church by one spirit. We need to act from that belief for as long as is humanly possible. And then we can act from it for as long as is Christ-ianly possbile too.

This is why I found DeYoung's review so unhelpful. And I read stuff on the other side, like at Patrol magazine, and find it highly unhelpful too. And if Bell has been overly polarizing in his approach then we can say the same. But whatever the case, we can do better than that. Jesus says so.
So, in that vein, I highly recommend a response to Bell that comes from neither 'camp', but from a British theologian who is as readable as he is knowledgeable (and relatively aloof to the whole American side-taking). I won't pretend that he is simply a dispassonate and neutral observer (nor that I am either), but I sure hope he carries it through because I think it has a lot going for it that will be helpful for us all.

Now go read See Steve Holmes' Shored Fragments.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Leadership and the Christian Imagination: Always the Host and Never the Hosted?

In The Christian Imagination, a book I've been reading and blogging about lately, Willie Jennings talks about the problem that can arise when we treat every instance of engagement with another person as an opportunity to underline (or even modify) our own views rather than to really engage. I have been thinking about whether I am guilty of this when I treat current affairs as little more than "occasions for theological self-absorption" (150).

Jennings tells the story of a 19th century English bishop to the colonialist settlement of South Africa named John William Colenso who set out on a mission to translate the Christian gospel into the language of the African tribes with the added motivation (and this is crucial) of bringing them "civilization" as well. Hopefully we've all considered the problems of this colonialist attitude already. What I'm interested in here is the way Jennings probes deeper.

In his book Jennings suggests that where Colenso's translation efforts were to be all one-way the very dynamic of the Christian gospel was subverted and ultimately all but lost. When push came to shove, the greedy and arrogant colonizing impulse won the day. What is remarkable about this story is that when push finally did come to shove, Colenso himself realized this and sided with the African, at great cost to himself (159-165). The gospel he meant to translate ended up translating him.

With this inspiration, Jennings digs deeper into the problem. Theologically speaking, it seems that the Christian European had inserted himself into the gospel in the role of the Jew, so that those in the new world were now perceived as the Gentile. This forgot the fundamental point that in fact they were all Gentiles grafted into God's people by way of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ (160). The Gentiles ought to be engaging each other under the ministry of Christ and discovering more and more how the gospel is not only for all people but actually reconciles them as well (166).

Though Colenso had himself contributed to the violence of South Africa's colonization, it was the very impulse of the Christian gospel which, despite being utilized for colonialist purposes, ended up leading him into self-giving communion with those he had been unwittingly sent to oppress. As Jennings puts it, Colenso came to discover that colonialist Christianity offers "a gospel that is for everyone of necessity but joins no one of necessity" (166-167).

It is easy to criticize the past and assume we'd have been different. The point here is to learn from it. So I am left to wonder how much I do this. For all my talk of the gospel of Christ and the community it creates and the kingdom for which it strives and hopes, is it the case that what I really have in mind and at heart is the spread of my own ideas and the validation of my own perspectives?

Is the gospel a detachable thing we can possess and pass on, or is it in the very dynamic of our engagement with one another and the heart of our discussion?

I am reminded of a time when my wife and I were privileged to have over for supper a leading thinker in the church "leadership movement" that captured so much of the attention of evangelicalism in recent decades. This kind and eloquent man was in town to speak to our Bible College students, and did a really good job describing a leader as one who was able to be hospitable in the best possible sense of the word. In pastoral situations this meant that a leader would seek to effectively"host" the discussion for the common good of those gathered. Sounded good to me, and much of it still does.

Anyway, of course around our supper table this warm and friendly and engaging man illustrated all of this beautifully with his charisma, self-confidence, and indeed his graciousness and his friendliness. Even though he was in our house around our dinner table he was able to "host" the conversation in a very amicable and enjoyable way - and if I recall correctly we all would have left that dinner table feeling that he had done so (more or less) to our common benefit.

What sort of stuck with me, however, is that it had actually been my wife and I who were the hosts. I'm not speaking from petty jealousy here. It has been ten years, and I was honestly more than happy to have someone else carry the conversation. But it struck me then and it strikes me now that there is a danger in such a "leadership" posture and such a "host" mentality. I think it has something to do with what Jennings is talking about.

It was this constant "host" mentality which was precisely what Colenso had to overcome. Jennings pushes us to consider the possibility that whenever the Christian assumes the role of host only, even if it is for the spread of the gospel, perhaps that Christian is in danger of subverting and usurping that very gospel! All this for the sake of modes of communication, understanding and living in which the gospel has become (legitimately or illegitimately) enshrined!

This leads me to wonder: Perhaps when I am merely a proclaimer of the good news and not also a minister of reconciliation who is in turn open to being ministered to, then I let the good news be "for everyone" without actually let it "join everyone". Do I stall out Christ's new creation if I package it and pass it on rather than carry on as if I am a co-recipient of its work in the world?

To go back to our supper table that evening, I must say that I don't think the whole "hosting" or hospitality idea presented by this dynamic Christian leader was completely wrong. Indeed, where it aimed at the common good it probably got at one of the key things that Christian leadership ought to do. But didn't Jesus, by calling disciples and birthing a church, implicitly (if not explicitly) also call for a mutuality befitting the gospel that was to be preached?

How does this change the way I go forward, not only as a theologian of sorts but also (potentially) as a pastor and leader? Surely I have not done 9 years of education in order to sit at every supper table and stand at every pulpit and teach nothing; or lead nowhere? Ultimately, no. But at any given moment should I not be willing to let that be the case? When I accept a church's call to lead or to minister or to preach, I take seriously the notion that God has asked me to bring something to the table. However, I can never assume that I am always the bringer and not the accepter, or that I have something to pass on that is for us without joining us, something we can exchange like a consumer good without being changed by and participant in.

What am I leading, if I am always the leader and never the servant; always the host and never the hosted? I may be leading a movement, but I have to always ask myself whether it is the movement of God's kingdom in this world.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Multi-culture and the Christian Imagination

As previously mentioned, I've been reading Willie James Jennings' The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race for a seminar here at university, and have been finding it very thought-provoking. In a chapter following the trail of a Jesuit missionary and theologian named Jose de Acosta Porres in his travels to the "new world" of 16th century Peru, Jennings tells us some of the ways that the seafaring Europeans altered the landscape of South America. Despite the fact that they thought they brought civilization and salvation to these aboriginals, we see that the new settlers and colonizers brought a lot more:
'By the end of the sixteenth century, only eight decades after the Spaniards arrived, the picture had changed. The Indian populations were decimated and their fields reduced... The processes by which sheep grazing displaced agriculture, and sheep displaced humans, resulted in the formation of a new and far less hospitable landscape within which the indigenous populations were marginalized and alienated, their traditional resources degraded or lost, and their access to the means of production restricted.'...

This meant that the skills and abilities of native peoples to work the land were rendered null and void even as the Andean peoples tried to continue their own pastoral practices. It also meant that they were forced to place their 'products' into new economic networks alongside new alien crops and produce. The reputation created by this transformation meant that the native peoples' agricultural practices were perceived as backward at best or of poor stewardship of the natural resources at worst.

This gives a bit of an insight into what happened when the assumption was that it was the settlers who could teach the aboriginals a thing or two about how to use the land rather than vice versa. The settlers may win the day, but at what cost? And why the assumption that all the learning is one way? Here the aboriginals are going out of their way to be hospitable, and are being extinguished for it. All under the settler's assumption that it is they who are the hospitable ones; it is they who must civilize and convert these barbarian hordes. As we see next, even in the face of the dreadful results of these assumptions, the settlers could not seem to rise above this basic premise: That it was they who brought salvation and civilization, and it was the aboriginals who were the problem. Even the theologian Acosta was pulled into this colonialist frame of mind:
Acosta failed to acknowledge the [aboriginal] miners' humanity because his theological vision was overdetermined, drawn into a circular logic energized on the one side by [new problems] and on the other side by the need to assert [presumably Christian, European solutions]....

In an astonishing statement in the Historia, Acosta ... speculates that the reason for the rapid depopulation of many areas and the massive deaths of natives is their own fault:

'In our time the population of these coasts or plains is so much diminished and impaired that twenty-nine out of thirty of its inhabitants have disappeared; and many believe that the remaining Indians will disappear before long. People attribute this to various causes, some to the fact that the Indians have been overworked, others to the changes of food and drink that they adopted after becoming accustomed to Spanish habits, and others to the excessive vice that they display in drink and other abuses. As for me, I believe that this latter disorder is the chief cause of their reduced numbers.'
I am not sure what is more shocking: That 29/30 aboriginals were dying, or that it was blamed on the fact that they drank too much.

Of course, Jennings' argument is not for the complete innocence of the aboriginal population, nor is it for the untruth of Christianity or evil of the church. Things are undoubtedly more complex than all that. The argument is basically to show that when the social imagination is not intent on seeking to be truly Christian, it can be usurped by a great many of forces. In this case the assumptions of "civilization", racial superiority, colonial progress, the logic of the "free" market, and so on. The theological assumption that gets into bed with all these other assumptions is also quite intriguing.

Faced with differences in this new world, rather than look for ways that the Creator God and Holy Spirit might have been present among the indigenous population all along (perhaps preparing them to learn of Christ), the Christian settler
imagines the demonic work to be far more extensive, expressive, and operative than the work of God could ever have been had the Spanish not been in the new world.... Acosta is cut off from a simple Gentile remembrance [i.e., the recollection that he, too, had been grafted into the one people of God in Christ] that would enable a far more richly imagined possibility of movement toward faith from within the cultural logics and spatial realities of Andean life.

The point of all this is not to raise the guilt-level, but to ask how the Christian imagination could be corrected, especially in an exponentially increased multi-cultural society. We encounter difference all the time. What do we do with it? Are our assumptions the same as those taken on by Acosta? How many of our cultural norms get thrust into the heart of Christianity when in fact they are simply activities and ideas that Christianity was able to work with (both in subversion and redemption)?

I am reminded of a paper I wrote in seminary examining the residential schools in 19th and 20th century Canada and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has been set up to come to grips with this dark history. I had always suspected that the usual rhetoric about the problems faced within Canada's aboriginal population (which sounded much like Acosta's above) were misguided, but did not realize to what an extent this was the case. In research I learned that the United Nations had actually determined that the Canadian government (with the assistance of some of its churches) had committed decades of 'cultural genocide'. I saw that the ramifications of this were not confined to past decades but continued to live on and affect future generations, not only of aboriginals but of non-aboriginal Canadians. I realized that though we had not committed the original crimes we could later still be complicit in past evils simply by (ignorantly) perpetuating the myths that allowed those evils to take place.

So it was that I was faced with the possibility that the only way to true healing would be to face up to the truth of our past and take responsibility not only for the conditions of society but for the reshaping of our social imaginations for the future. Furthermore, I was convinced that it is indeed the Christian social imagination that is best equipped for such healing and reconciliation, and yet convicted by the fact that in many cases it probably has not troubled itself to wrestle with such possibilities and has considered this either a past or a political problem that did not touch its own missional goals.

So I post this as a challenge to myself and my churches. What do we actually think is our mission? Are we merely about the salvation of souls or are we also (and more fully) about the ministry and the ambassadorship of reconciliation? Are we always the teachers, or do we ever have something to learn? Might we witness to Christ not only in proclamation but also in confession? What posture does the gospel require of us? What social imagination does it inspire?

What has Pentecost to say to Babel?

How much of what we equate with Christianity is actually a product of cultural assumptions? How often do we guard against going along with 'culture' in its present and future trends without analyzing the ways we may have already (and wrongly) gone along with it in the past? Is it possible that sometimes there is a 'cultural' repentance in regard to the past that is more Spirit-led than our own resistance to such a thing?

It occurs to me that what our multi-culture needs from the church (and what God asks of it) is neither a bed-fellow nor a strict-resistor but a community of people who confess the Lordship of Christ and endeavor to follow His ministry of reconciliation in the world - even where it calls for our own repentance and our full engagement with the problems of our society in a posture of truth-seeking, justice-seeking, graciousness, and love. Truth is, I can hardly imagine such a society or such a posture, except for the revelation of God and humanity that has come to us in Jesus Christ.

(Excerpts from Jennings, Christian Imagination, pp.. 77, 94, 98, quoting Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep, pp. 39-40.)