Posts Tagged ‘evangelism’

Anselm on Theology: Faith seeking understanding

February 17, 2010

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum (German original 1931 – English translation London: SCM, 1960). There seem to be plenty of points of affinity between Barth and Anselm: the discussion of whether Barth is influenced by Anselm or just portraying him in a Barthian light I’ll leave to those who know better. There’s a lot of direct quotation of Anselm in the book though, so the points of affinity are probably genuine.

One of the things I found most arresting was Anselm’s portrayal of the role of theology. His famous statement credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I may understand) is well known, but reverses the order that we’re brought up to assume. Post-Enlightenment philosophy teaches us that we should understand in order to believe. It’s what, amongst other things, Scientific method is based upon. For Christian theology, Anselm argues, this is inappropriate because faith can never be argued to on neutral grounds (Proslogion 1:100, 18) and that “the aim of theology cannot be to lead men to faith” (Barth, p.17). Anselm does not seek to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, but to understand it (Barth, p.14). Faith must come from hearing the “Word of Christ” – Anselm’s term for the message from Christ, which can authentically be conveyed in human words about Christ, and by accepting this message, which is the work of the will, enabled by divine grace. (Thus, Barth points out, it is completely inappropriate for Schleiermacher to have put Anselm’s credo ut intelligam on the title page of his On the Christian Faith (p.26 n.1) – since Schleiermacher in fact took the opposite approach to theology!)

There are fundamental parts of the Christian proclamation – what Anselm calls the Word of Christ -which are mysterious and cannot be established a priori by reason alone. The Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Resurrection would be examples of these. As Tertullian said of them, they are certain precisely because they are impossible (De Carne Christi 5.4: Certum est, quia impossible est), and to be believed because they are absurd (Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est). This is not to say they are irrational, or super-rational – because these are misleading categories – but to highlight that one can only understand these things when one believes in them.

It’s easy to see how this could be lampooned by atheists – held up as examples of Christians sacrificing their intellects or just generally being stupid. If I remember correctly, Dawkins (mis)quotes Tertullian on this point with great glee in The God Delusion. I don’t think Anselm (or Tertullian, or Barth – or any other Christian theologian who takes this line) is committing intellectual suicide, but rather recognising a truth about faith and knowledge that has been obscured by the Enlightenment: What we believe affects what we understand and how we make sense of the world.

Furthermore, since Anselm sees belief in God and assent to the Word of Christ as thinking correctly about reality, we can add that Christians claim to be speaking truth about reality, rather than retreating into subjectivism: If it seems different to you, it must be that you hold a distorted picture of reality because of unbelief. Is this arrogant? One might think so; but it derievs from a position of intellectual humility in the face of God’s revelation. As Barth writes of Anselm’s definition of faith: “Intelligere [understanding], the intelligere for which faith seeks, is compatible with a reverent ‘I do not yet know’ or with an ultimate ignorance concerning the extent of the truth accepted in faith. But it is not compatible with an insolent ‘I know better’ in face of the ‘that…’ of this truth.” (p.27). Theology must position itself so that it claims to seek and to speak truth about God, while recognizing that this truth is given to it in grace and not by right. It should be bold but not arrogant; humble but not equivocal.

What implications does this way of thinking have for evangelism? Does it call into question a common method of apologetics – seeking to argue something along the lines of “If Jesus rose from the dead, his claims to be the Son of God are true. Historical investigation validates the New Testament accounts of Jesus rising from the dead. Therefore his claims are true – and therefore also the gospel, so you should believe it.”? Or indeed things like the Cosmological or Teleological arguments for the existence of God? I think it might. So if we accept this picture of the relationship of faith and understanding, might it not free us in evangelism to say what we know to be true without having to defend it on “neutral” (hostile) territory? Instead of accepting “I understand in order that I might believe” and fighting a losing battle to argue people into the Kingdom, one could recognise the message of “I believe in order that I maight understand” freeing us to challenge this assumption and to present the gospel on its own terms. It’s a challenging thought, and one that brings up (for me at least) worries of becoming unintelligible to those outside the church, subjectivism and the other theological “F Word” (“Fundamentalism” being the number one) of Fideism. What I’m wondering, and invite comments upon, is whether these are justified concerns or manifestations of a lack of trust in the transformative power of the Word of Christ?

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Prayer and evangelism: Colossians 4:3-4

January 27, 2010

Today I was studying Colossians 4 at the CU small groups leaders’ bible study and was struck by what Paul asks the Christians in Colossae to pray for him:

“And pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.”

First, Paul asks for prayer that he might be able to share the gospel, whether or not he is released from prison. It wouldn’t be wrong for the Colossian church to pray for his release – and verse 18 might hint at that too – but for Paul, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ takes precedence over his legal rights.

Second, there’s a real stress both on the sovereignty of God in calling people to faith (“pray that God may open a door for our message…”) and on the need for Paul to communicate this accessibly and meaningfully (“pray that I may proclaim it clearly…”). Sometimes Christians who (correctly) stress that nobody can properly respond to the gospel without the enabling of the Holy Spirit – and indeed that our hearts and minds are “blind” to the truth of the gospel until God acts on us (2Cor 4:4-6), emphasising the need for what Reformed theologians call “prevenient grace” – sometimes these Christians can downplay the need for the gospel to be presented in culturally appropriate and accessible ways. If people need God to work to “unblind” them to the gospel, it doesn’t matter much if most people don’t understand our gospel presentation, because they’re just not ready to hear it yet. God hasn’t opened their eyes, and when he does, the Christian jargon, seventeenth-century language, and exclusive terminology we use just won’t be a hurdle. But Paul doesn’t draw this conclusion from the sovereignty of God in evangelism. Here he puts both God’s initiative and the need for clarity and communication side-by-side.

I think here we have a justification for thinking carefully about how to explain the “mystery of Christ” to the culture we find ourselves in today. How can we communicate it clearly and faithfully? Perhaps blurting out “Two Ways To Live” isn’t appropriate for every (or almost any!) situation. But lest we skip too quickly to debating methods and approaches – notice that Paul asks for prayer for this skill. It’s something we’d do well to pray for, too. I know I don’t find it easy – because I’m used to talking about the gospel to Christians where we share common terminology and attitudes and understandings (to a large degree!) and much less used to talking about the gospel with people who don’t know what “grace”, “redemption”, “reconciliation”, or even “God” means in a Christian context.

The Importance of Being Honest

October 6, 2009

A few things that have happened to me this week have acted to grow in me a conviction that Christians need to be very honest about what they are doing when they invite others to evangelistic events, or talk to others about the gospel.

Yesterday, I came across some people with a stall and some flyers in our Students’ Union building at Nottingham University. I took one of their flyers, which I at first assumed was a flyer for a club night, as it invited me to come and “enjoy the music” and “feel the passion” somewhere on Sunday. Reading a bit closer, I noticed that there was the word “church” as part of their name and web address. It was an advertisement for a new church starting in Nottingham, but apart from the word “church”, there was no religious or Christian content on the flyer at all. No mention of Jesus, God, faith, sermons, the fact that the “music” would be Christian… I felt a bit concerned that all the church in question was claiming to be able to offer was an experience or a concert – not a life-changing message and encounter with the living God.

In addition, we in the CU have been reminded to make it clear that there will be a presentation of the Christian message at evangelistic events we invite people to – not just to advertise the availability of free food or entertainment. This is a perfectly fair point – we do not want to get a reputation for luring people in with food, freebies or fun and then “trap” them in a Christian meeting they do not want to be a part of.  Such tactics seem to fall into the “deceitful and shameful ways” mentioned by Paul in 2Corinthians 4, which he says he and his co-workers have renounced. Instead, says Paul, they “set forth the truth plainly”. An important part of this is because it befits the actual message of the gospel to be communicated plainly and not deviously. The message is one of light, not darkness, and should be communicated openly and without falsification or manipulation.

More than one kind of privatism

July 8, 2009

Most Western cultures view religion as belonging to a “private sphere” rather than the “public sphere”. I’m not convinced this is the right way to divide up the world into spheres of life anyway, but I’ll concede it forms part of our thinking as modern Westerners. There are dangers with privatism in Christianity, but the biggest danger is not that the Christian voice is not heard in political life, but that we shirk our evangelistic responsibility. John Piper, summarising Jonathan Edwards (no apologies at all for the Americanocentrisms; God has called Piper to pastor a church in Minnesota!):

If there is a problem today with privatistic religion, the worst form of it is not with pietistic evangelicals who don’t care about block clubs and social justice and structural sin. The worst form is with evangelicals who think they are publicly- and socially-minded when they have no passion for millions of perishing people without the gospel that alone can give them eternal life, and without a saving knowledge of the Light who can transform their culture.
So the first message of Jonathan Edwards to modern evangelicals about our public lives is: Don’t limit your passion for justice and peace to such a limitied concern as the church-saturated landscape of American culture. Lift up your eyes to the real crisis of our day: namely,
several thousand cultures still unpenetrated by the gospel, who can’t dream of the blessings we want to restore. That is his first message.
John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998) pp.102-103.

How does God feel about you?

June 13, 2009

Today Rico Tice came to Beeston Free Church to talk to us (and other East Mids church people!) about the “Passion For Life” mission initiative and posed a great question to us to illustrate the gospel:

“Write down one word which sums up how God feels about you this week”

What do you think people might have written? Rico didn’t get us to read them out, but instead told us what we should have written in response to it. If we really believe the gospel, we would know that the word that sums up how God feels about us is delighted – because he delights in his Son, Jesus Christ, and because we are united to him we relate to God on the basis of Jesus’ merits and righteousness, not on the basis of our good works.

This is great news – in the gospel we have the promise of Christ’s own righteousness given to us, so that God genuinely delights in us. If you know Christ as your saviour, God is not disappointed or angry with the idolatrous and  half-hearted life you’ve lived this week: he looks at you and sees Christ’s merits. This is bold stuff to say; and easily forgotten, but it is what it means to be saved by grace alone.

Really great stuff to be reminded of as we try and get the church behind the mission, and share this amazing, life-giving message with those around us.

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As an update to this, I found myself at the NUCU Grill-a-Christian event last night after the Ropewalk quiz was “rained off” (not sure how that works, either!) and somebody (I think a non-Christian student) asked the question: “If God can forgive all our sins, why don’t you just do whatever you want and enjoy yourself, then ask for forgiveness?”. I have to say that I think this is exactly the question you ask when you have begun to understand the gospel – forgiveness really is free and salvation really is by grace alone, through faith alone. This kind of question should be met, at least initially, with commendation for having understood what the gospel’s offer of grace really means.

Of course, it is more than that – and I’m glad that the Christians who were being “grilled” pointed out both the moral perversity of such an approach, and that, in the words of one of them, “I can’t think of a single sin from which I would gain a lasting benefit.” Obedience and Christlikeness are essential to the Christian life, and so there is more to Christianity than what I’ve posted above. But there is more than, not less than that. I think if we preach the biblical gospel, the “but that means you can do anything you want and then be forgiven” objection is one we will hear a lot.

CT: Speak the Gospel… use deeds if necessary

June 2, 2009

There’s an excellent article from Christianity Today in relation to the oft-quoted phrase “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary” attributed to Francis of Assisi.

The writer, Mark Galli, who has written a biography of  St. Francis, raises serious doubts as to whether he would have ever actually said such a thing – and what the contemporary popularity of this phrase says about our attitude to truth and the gospel. I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion that the good news can no more be communicated by deeds than can the evening news. Shame this is only in the web-edition of CT rather than also in the hugely-circulated print edition…

NUCU-ers and anyone else who has ever heard Roger Carswell preach may know of his (only half-joking) comment that, when he gets to heaven, he plans to punch St. Francis for saying that. Perhaps he won’t have to!

What sin isn’t, and why it’s important

May 30, 2009

To paraphrase Wolfhart Pannenberg, a misunderstanding of what sin is gives us a deficient and sometimes dangerous misunderstanding of the gospel. It is important to make sure we understand what sin is, and communicate it clearly, if the gospel is not to be misunderstood or even distorted. I realise this even more given a couple of discussions I’ve been in this week about whether certain actions are sinful or not without reference to what sin is, at the level of its essential nature.

The sunday-school definition of sin I learned was that sin was the bad things we do and the good things we don’t do – but I think this really is insufficient. In the Bible, sin is spoken of more often in the singular (“sin”) rather than the plural (“sins”) – the problem of human sin is not primarily ethical (in terms of some totting-up the actions we do or don’t do) but ontological – we are sinful at the deepest levels of our being and need a rescue from this. Sin is also relational – it has no meaning outside of the terms of relationship to or alienation from God. Perhaps Anselm was onto something when he defined sin as “not giving to God what is due to him”. Anselm was talking primarily about homage, but his point can be developed to include opposing idolatry, unbelief and self-worship in all of its forms. Sin is much, much more than our actions.

Ignoring this can lead to all kinds of deficient presentations of the gospel – if we imagine the problem of sin as primarily ethical then we are likely to end up with a moralistic gospel where salvation is primarily about us doing good works (or even where it is primarily about enabling us to do good works). It may lead to a legalistic approach to the Christian life where we judge ourselves and others based on our external actions, and end up in moral dilemmas when we find that certain actions we think of as inherently sinful are permissible or even necessary in some situations.

A different distortion of the gospel can be seen in the analysis of sin found in some Liberation theology: sin is seen as oppression or unjust social structures. This has the distorting effect both of locating sin outside of ourselves (sin is something done by other people, or impersonal forces) and thus failing to recognise that our own hearts are corrupted by sin; and of equating the defeat of the power of sin by Christ with social justice and political liberation. This is far too small a horizon within which to encapsulate redemption!

Both the legalist and liberationist definitions of sin also fail to be relational – in fact, they do not have to mention God at all to function as ethical or political guides for action. Our problem in these models is not shown to be as serious as it is – alienation from God and hostility towards him. We may be seen as moral failures, but not as rebels. Or we may be seen as victims only, rather than seeing God as the most aggrieved party in all human sin. When we do this, we minimize the scale of our problem and end up looking at salvation in correspondingly insufficient categories. What the proclamation of the gospel needs is a correct theology of sin which shows what it is. We need to be honest about how bad the wound of humanity is, and not attempt to treat it with moral or political first-aid kits. Only when sin is seen to be as serious as it is can the full glory and wonder of Christ’s rescue for us be seen.

Lunchbar: How Can You Be Sure God Exists?

May 15, 2009

The topic of Lunchbar today was the question “How can you be sure that God exists?” – quite a big issue, as the speaker pointed out!

Our speaker began by questioning the position that is held by atheism: that God definitely doesn’t exist. The problem with such a position is that it is very, very hard to prove a negative statement. To know that something does not exist means that we have to know every piece of knowledge in the universe; when in fact most of us would not even claim to know a hundredth of a percent of all the available knowledge there is. The claim “God does not exist” is a problematic one; and the strong version of Atheism is epistemologically very hard to maintain.

What about the opposite claim – that God does exist? It is easier to prove a positive than a negative – so what is the positive evidence for God’s existence? Christians do think that there is evidence for God, even if they do not think that they can prove him to a mathematical or logical standard of proof. Some evidence the speaker mentioned included:

  • The explanatory power of the hypothesis “there is a God” with respect to our suspicion that there is a meaning to life. Almost all of us implicitly or explicitly believe that there is a meaning and a purpose to life; as shown by the way we live it. But where does this meaning come from?
  • We are also aware of a “religious instinct” or desire to worship something greater than ourselves. Augustine taught that God “has made us for [himself] and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [him]”. C.S. Lewis employed the analogy of a need corresponding to something that can fulfil that need: We are hungry because there is such a thing as food; we are thirsty because there is such a thing as water; might we not be religious because there is such a thing as God? There is a “God-shaped” hole in our lives which suggests that there is a God who can fill it.
  • Morality – We instinctively feel that there are objective standards of morality; as shown by our appeal “that’s not fair” when we feel we have suffered an injustice. This gives the lie to the common idea that morality is entirely a matter of personal preference. But, if there is no God, then what is the basis for morality? Evolution? – But “the survival of the fittest” is an ethic which produced the Holocaust and Eugenics. Social consensus? But the “tyrrany of the majority” easily becomes oppressive. Economic utility? But multi-national corporations have repeatedly shown themselves able to exploit the planet and other people in the pursuit of profit. There remains the possibility that there is a “transcendent Other” (i.e. God) who is the source of morality in that he is the personal embodiment of goodness, righteousness, justice and truth.
  • There is the need to explain the transformation of lives by the gospel – as witnessed to by the atheist Matthew Parris of The Times. Christianity changes lives for the better; and Christians claim to experience God in their lives. This, too, is at least a clue that there is a God.
  • Finally there is the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which vindicates his claims and his teaching (Romans 1:3). This claim can be tested historically from the gospels, whose evidence is trustworthy and (based on) eyewitness testimony.

 

I agree with our speaker that all of these things might be clues that there is a God – but I would be very reticent myself about claiming that any of these give any grounds for certainty that there is a God. I don’t think we are capable of knowing God in a meaningful way without him revealing himself to us – which he has done in Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m just in Christological mode at the moment, but it seems to me that the main point to make in answer to the lunchbar title is that we can be sure about the existence of God because of the deity of Christ. It was really great that the speaker made this point, and placed it as the crescendo to his argument – but I’m a little uneasy about the way in which the self-revelation of Jesus is portrayed as something which we find out about primarily through the historical method.

One of my friends from CU calls this approach “Case for Christ evangelism” – the approach to evangelism that promotes historical investigation of Jesus from the gospels – “take a Gospel of Mark, read it, and decide for yourself if it is historically true”.

What do you think? Is this a convincing and/or faithful way of sharing the gospel? Is the way to see God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ through dispassionate historical investigation?

Mark’s Big Question

April 15, 2009

Today I’ve been working on an essay on Mark’s gospel. The question at the centre of Mark’s gospel is the identity of Jesus – and the gospel seems to turn on the episode often referred to as “Peter’s confession of Christ” in chapter 8:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Jesus himself asks this question, and Peter answers that he is the Christ. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Christ; the Messiah. But is this really the answer Mark is hoping we’ll get at? Are we supposed to applaud Peter’s statement here?

In light of what follows, and Mark’s wider narrative of the way to the cross, I’m not sure we should. Peter’s answer to the question “You are the Christ” (8:29) is true, but it’s not the whole story: before we can applaud Peter’s faith, Mark continues the same episode with a shocking exchange of mutual rebuking between Peter and Jesus, culminating in the suggestion that Peter’s denial of the divine necessity (δεῖ – “must” or, perhaps better, “it is necessary”) that the Christ will suffer means he is playing the role of Satan! Just before this, we have the account of the “botched” miracle (8:22-26), which serves as an “acted parable” of faith. Mark uses the restoration of sight as a metaphor for spiritual “seeing” things throughout his gospel. By placing this two-stage restoration of sight miracle just before Peter’s confession, perhaps we are supposed to understand that Peter’s confession and then rebuke of Christ show his eyes are only half open – that is, he only comprehends half of the truth about Jesus. Peter does not understand the necessity of Jesus’ death, and won’t finally understand until after the crucifixion.

Richard B. Hays points out in “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” that the whole “narrative strategy” of Mark “challenges the reader to… answer the question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ by acknowledging Jesus as the crucified Messiah” (p.79). This is an insight I’m becoming more and more convinced about. There’s just so much in Mark that points to the cross, and that Jesus isn’t the Christ the people are expecting, but the one they need, who must go to the cross. From the rest of the New Testament it is clear that both Jews and Gentiles had big problems with this idea – in 1Corinthians 1:23 it is a stumbling-block (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρία) to Gentiles, and an “offence” (σκάνδαλον again) in Galatians 5:11 and 1Peter 2:8. The idea that the Christ would be crucified was literally scandalous, and if you think about it – it still should be! The idea has become perhaps too familiar to us, and to our culture, if people aren’t shocked by this message.

So, if the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” isn’t just “The Christ” but “The Crucified Christ”; “The Messiah who must suffer and die”, how do we get this across when using Mark’s gospel evangelistically? I think the Free gospel project UCCF are running at the moment touches on this scandalous theme a little – the ‘graffiti’ on the page with 8:27-30 raises the question of why Jesus has to die – but doesn’t major on it, concentrating more on affirming the divinity of Jesus. (Which is something Mark thinks is important, too, but which only intensifies the scandal that Jesus should die on a cross!) Maybe there’s room for presenting this more explicitly – because if the “real Jesus” we want people to find in Mark’s gospel is the crucified Christ then we should tell them about that – and also why Jesus died. “Free” does do a very good job of raising the “why did Jesus die” question in the comment on 10:45 and the endnotes, actually. But perhaps it tones down Mark’s emphasis on the cross, and on the corresponding need for those who want to follow Jesus to be prepared to suffer as they do so (8:34-38). If CUs are about “making disciples of Jesus Christ in the student world for the glory of God” then we don’t want to hide the nature of Christian cross-shaped living from those we reach out to. Maybe it’s possible to draw these two ideas together more that I have done previously, in evangelism using Mark’s gospel… something to try out anyway.