The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, by Patrick Oden

I recently finished reading an exciting new book relating Moltmann’s theology to what is going on in the church today: The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, by Patrick Oden. It doesn’t hit the streets until next month, but the author was kind enough to hook me up with an early digital copy.

In this book, Oden explores the practices of a broad array of movements that he calls “transformative churches” (Emerging, Missional, Fresh Expressions, Neo-Monastic), and puts them into conversation with the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. He builds a case for a “program for liberation of the oppressor that can inform transformative churches”, in hope that in such contexts “a transformative messianic life can take shape.” (65) Continue reading The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, by Patrick Oden

Allah: A Christian Response (Miroslav Volf) – Ebook Deal + Lecture Video

Miroslav Volf. Image Source: Wikipedia

Miroslav Volf is certainly one of Jürgen Moltmann’s most famous students. He is best known for Exclusion and Embrace, and I personally found the way that he intertwined his own story into a very straightforward telling of the Gospel to be very powerful in Free of Charge (his book on public theology was pretty darn good too). Readers of this blog will recognize him as Moltmann’s conversation partner in the recent video on A Theology of Joy. Volf’s most recent work, diving into the world of inter-religious dialog between Christians and Muslims, is Allah: A Christian Response.  I haven’t read this book yet, but I have watched a very helpful lecture that he gave on this topic (embedded below), which was enough for me to put it on my wish list. And now is the time to get it, because I learned today that HarperOne is offering the Kindle version for $2.99 through October 12.

Not quite as exciting as a free Moltmann book, but I still thought it was worth passing on! Continue reading Allah: A Christian Response (Miroslav Volf) – Ebook Deal + Lecture Video

Getting Started with Moltmann

Jürgen Moltmann

When I discovered Jürgen Moltmann a few years ago, the first book I read was The Trinity and the Kingdom, followed by The Crucified God and Theology of Hope. Those are still three of my favorite Moltmann books to date (I’ve read about fifteen of his books total now), but they aren’t easy reading, especially for anyone who is not used to reading thick theological books (i.e. most normal people!).

So here are a few of my personal recommendations for people interested in checking out Moltmann.

Continue reading Getting Started with Moltmann

Judaism as a Religion of Time – Heschel on the Sabbath

Abraham Heschel, second from right

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time” (Abraham Heschel)

Earlier this week I read a wonderful little book by Abraham Heschel called The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. I became aware of this book through Moltmann’s use of it in his chapter on The Feast of Creation in God in Creation (GC). Readers familiar with The Crucified God will recall that Moltmann there used Heschel’s book, The Prophets, to develop the idea of the pathos of God. Moltmann loves to use Jewish theologians like Heschel in his work; perhaps this is because for Moltmann the first great schism in the people of God was between Christian and Jew.

I’ve included the passage where Moltmann uses Heschel at the bottom of this post. First, here are some of my favorite quotations from The Sabbath: Continue reading Judaism as a Religion of Time – Heschel on the Sabbath

How I Caught the Barth Bug

As I mentioned in a previous post (I know, ages ago), I’ve begun a journey into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (CD). It started innocently enough last fall with an electronic version of the first volume (I.1), which turned into a pre-Christmas petition that the CD set be my present (and it was! best theology nerd Christmas present ever!). At this point I’m just over halfway through the second volume (I.2), and hope to have it completed in the next month or so. Barth is by far the most difficult reading task I’ve ever undertaken. His thought is meaty… and he quotes many original sources in Latin and Greek (yikes!).

I’m intending to do a series of posts exploring Barth’s thought and its initial impact on me. Mostly, this will be simple “take homes” that I’ve found helpful or wrestled with (in hopes that processing this way will help me internalize them). If you, one of my two blog followers, get something out of this, even better. 🙂 We’ll talk about his Christocentric hermeneutic; his take on the idea of “religion” (“the revelation of God is the abolition of religion”… what’s that all about?); and (I hope) much, much more. This hinges, of course, on whether I “get around to it,” and we have every reason to be skeptical, as I rarely follow through on such intentions.

By way of introduction, I wanted to start off by briefly explaining why I started reading Barth. Which means, of course, talking about Bonhoeffer.

A year ago, bothering with Barth would have been the last thing on my mind. I would have recognized the name, and could probably have told you that he was a 20th century Neo-Orthodox theologian (though I’d have been a little rusty as to what that meant). That’s about all the Barth I was exposed to in my Evangelical/Pentecostal Bible College training: A sidebar in a Doctrine textbook, and maybe a partial segment in a Church History course. Barth was not worth the serious attention of a committed evangelical called to preach the Word.

My friend Wyatt had already beaten me to Barth… but I really caught the Barth bug last spring via Eric Metaxas’ biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), previously reviewed on this blog here. This is an incredible book telling the story of a young German academic and pastor who stood against Hitler (in a variety of ways) during the rise and dominance of the Third Reich in Germany… and whose theology was shaped most profoundly by (drum roll, please!) Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer first encountered Barth through his writings. According to Metaxas,

[Barth’s] groundbreaking 1922 commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, fell like a smart bomb into the ivory tower of scholars like Adolf von Harnack, who could hardly believe their historical-critical fortress pregnable, and who were scandalized by Barth’s approach to the Bible, which came to be called neo-orthodoxy, and which asserted the idea, particularly controversial in German theological circles, that God actually exists, and that all theology and biblical scholarship must be undergirded by this basic assumption, and that’s that. (p. 60)

Metaxas continues:

Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was “unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him. (p. 61)

I’ll comment more on Barth’s understanding of revelation in a future post (or two), as the subject  is one with which Barth is most preoccupied with in CD I.1/2.  Barth’s “Deus Dixit” (God speaks) stood in stark contrast to what Bonhoeffer perceived to be dry liberalism at institutions like Union Seminary in New York.

Barth and Bonhoeffer met multiple times between 1931 and 1933, while Barth was teaching at Bonn and putting the finishing touches on the first volume of Church Dogmatics.  At that time Adolph Hitler was ascending into power, and Barth was among a group of Confessing believers who still believed the national leader could be reasoned with. In 1934 Barth penned most of the Barmen declaration, rejecting the influence of Nazism on German Christianity. Upon its completion (which was, according to Barth, “fortified by strong coffee and one or two Brazilian cigars”), the declaration was mailed personally to Hitler by Karl Barth himself.

It is against this backdrop of crisis for the church that CD born. Far from being a detached philosopher, Barth was rubber-meets-road thinker whose theology was very relevant in a time when the church of God was having to fight for its unique identity.

Metaxis summarizes one of Bonhoeffer’s pastoral take-homes from Barth this way:

Anything good must come from God, so even in a sermon that was poorly written and delivered, God might manifest himself and touch the congregation. Conversely in a sermon wonderfully written and delivered, God might refuse to manifest himself. The “success” of the sermon is utterly dependent on the God who breaks through and “grasps” us, or we cannot be “grasped.” (p 81)

Or as I would put (not so eloquently): “I don’t have to get everything right for God to do His thing.” In all, Barth is mentioned 85 times in this biography, as a theologian, a leader in the Confessing Church movement in Germany (though his involvement was from afar after 1935 when he was forced out of the country for refusing to swear allegiance to the Führer), but most of all as a sort of mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was an outstanding pastor and theologian in his own right).

I found that every mention of Barthian ideas in this book seemed to resonate with me. Barth presents a credible and vibrant theology for ministry that neither retreated to fundamentalism nor capitulated to modernity (as many theological liberals did). I had to get to know this Barth more….

Initial Reflections on The King Jesus Gospel

Have you ever heard someone complain of a church that “they just don’t preach the Gospel enough”? I have. And since I’ve been around Christians for a very long time, I know exactly what is meant by such a statement: That the church in question has not regularly, publicly, and explicitly explained what an individual must do to “get saved.”

Because “how to get saved” is the Gospel, right?

In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight argues that Christians (particularly American Evangelicals, though this extends well beyond this segment) have been driven by a Salvation Culture instead of a Gospel Culture. We’ve assumed for too long that the Gospel is all about how an individual “gets saved” and have then read the Bible through that lens. This makes the Gospel this “basic message” that persuades people to become Christians, usually including a bare minimum of Biblical factoids. Your sinfulness separates you from God; Jesus died for you, taking on the punishment due for your sins; respond to Jesus’ sacrifice with faith to be made right with God. 

All these things can be established using Scripture. That’s not the point. No one is calling into question justification by faith, or the importance of salvation. The question is: Are these things the Gospel? 
Years ago I was one of the leaders of a student-led worship ministry at a local church, called “The Summit.” What was the Summit, you ask? Well basically a group of young people including myself decided we needed more church (since, you know, twice Sunday plus Wednesday wasn’t enough in a given week!). So we started something Saturday nights. Seriously though, we were hungry for more of God and wanted to engage him in extended periods of worship. We were all about exalting and knowing Jesus, week after week.  I got to test the waters in leadership and in teaching with a group of young people that was regularly around 30-40 bodies strong (at peak times as many as 70), with individuals representing a variety of church flavors. I was just out of high school.
One week we were advised that there was a Mormon in attendance. A Mormon! Definitely not saved! So as a leadership team we knew what this meant. This week, we had to do something we didn’t normally do: Preach the Gospel (in addition to the planned talk). If we didn’t, this person’s blood was on our hands. Anyways, I drew the short straw, so it was up to me to give the Gospel-spiel. And let me tell you, it was not pretty. I had received training that outlined the bare minimum of info that had to be included in a Gospel telling (something like what was outlined above). I think I squeezed it all in, despite my awkwardness. It was sincere too. 
But it was also flat and storyless. I began to question how much I really related to it. I’m sure the Mormon didn’t. And even though I (probably, mostly) got the facts right, I’m not sure the Gospel got through.
What if the Gospel is about a bigger story? Bigger than resolving my sin problem. Bigger than me being justified by faith or getting into heaven. Bigger than me getting to be God’s friend.
McKnight makes the case the Gospel is about the grand sweep of the Bible, the good news that the story of God and Israel (and by extension, the whole world) has found its fulfillment in Jesus as Lord and Messiah. It’s a proclamation about a person. Jesus preached and embodied this Gospel. The apostolic fathers preached this Gospel. Even the first Creeds tell this gospel. 
And yes…of course…. this Gospel includes a call to respond. How could it not? A declaration that Jesus is “the King” has implications for my life and yours. And for our world. Indeed, the result is salvation. 
The problem is that we’ve had the cart (salvation) in front of the horse (gospel).  We have been focused primarily on “getting people in” and have crafted our message with that primary goal in mind.  As McKnight argues, we’ve been preaching a weak Gospel and getting weak results.
Our need is to return to Scripture and allow the original “King Jesus Gospel” to capture our imagination. McKnight’s book is a great start, and deserves a wide and thoughtful reading. 

Some Jesuses Should be Rejected (Reflections on Love Wins)

Yeah I read it. Finished it about a week ago, but needed some time to chew (not that anyone has been expecting a real blog post, since its been a couple years). Quite a lot of people (many of whom I respect) have been fairly critical and/or dismissive of it. I’ve “overheard” conversations (mostly online) that range from “Did you hear that Rob Bell isn’t a Christian anymore?” to “I’ve known he had fallen into heresy a long time ago.”

It probably didn’t help that Bell seemed evasive when people have tried to “nail him down” on this or that propositional biblical truth during his media blitz. I get it, Rob. Your answer to the “Do you believe in Hell?” question is that you see hell all over the place. And your answer to charges of departure from orthodoxy is that “orthodoxy is a wide diverse stream” with room for differences on things like, say, eternal destinations. Pretty sure today’s “keepers of orthodoxy” aren’t buying that one. Even I cringed in frustration at moments. The FAQ’s on his church’s website were much more direct. 

I’ve personally spent more time in the twitter-blogosphere reading what everyone else thinks about Love Wins than I actually spent reading the book. The conversation has been interesting. But my time actually reading the book was much better spent. I’d much rather read Bell going a bit overboard in the “love of God” department than a lot of the reactionary orthodoxy out there.

So, here goes. My initial reaction: This is the best work that Rob Bell has put out. Brilliant. Love Wins presents the “good news” in a way that could be heard as “good news” by people I care about.  Not because he “compromises truth so as to make Jesus palatable to people on the fringe” (a common thread I hear). More like he paints a picture of God that is beautiful. Attractive. He introduces the reader to a Jesus worth following. With a vision for living that embraces the fullness of God’s purpose and that pushes back against the hellish realities of our world.

That said: Rob Bell would probably make a pretty bad systematic theologian (and I do like systematic theology; call me a nerd). Which makes me glad that he really doesn’t try to be one.  He’s really good at painting word pictures. And telling stories.  Love Wins is filled with both. But in the theology department, Bell majors in deconstructing, not systematizing.

Some of the theology he deconstructs is bad, and needs to be seen for what it is. As he puts poignantly in Love Wins, “Some Jesuses should be rejected.” (p. 9) Not just heretical pictures of Jesus. Also the “Jesuses” of authoritarian religion or abuse or church-sanctioned war and persecution. Mean Jesuses and casual “Jesus-is-my-homeboy” Jesuses. 

On the flip side, some of the theology Bell deconstructs is more or less good, but could use some analyzing, second guessing or re-articulating. This isn’t all bad.  Sometimes even “orthodox” theology paints a pretty poor picture of God. Take the suggestion that “Jesus saves us from God,” which Bell reacts against in the “trailer” for the book. Not an uncommon sentiment, given how the Gospel is often preached. You know, the “bad news, good news” approach, which goes something like this: “You are a sinner and God is holy, therefore respond to Jesus’ sacrifice with faith or else: hell for eternity.”

Wait. Isn’t that the simple Gospel? Isn’t that what substitutionary atonement is all about?  To which Bell might say something like, “Well, sort of. Problem is, when you have to always say it this way, you are telling a pretty poor story about God. Let me tell you a better one.”

Traditional articulations sometimes come off as being about a “God the Father” (the hard-liner) who was really peeved off at our rebellion and sin until Jesus (the “love” part of God) came to save the day. When this happens, not only are we looking at a “poor story,” we’re faced with an inconsistent (and unbiblical) type of God-talk.

Which brings me to (what I perceive to be) the center of any truly Christian theology. And why, with this as my focus, I’m not particularly bothered by Love Wins.  Jesus said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Jesus. The center. Our entire understanding of God, framed around what we know of Jesus and his mission. Biblical texts interpreted through Jesus-colored glasses. Life. Human history. Centered on Jesus.

So, any picture of God which tells a story that is incompatible with the love of God poured out through Jesus can use to be reevaluated. No need to get prickly because this reevaluation steps on my toes or doesn’t jive with the story as I’ve heard or told it.

I’m not going to get into where I agree or disagree with Bell point by point (maybe later).  Or the dicey question of whether Bell is a “universalist” (Greg Boyd did a solid job on that question on his blog).  I do share some of the more moderate concerns out there (most recently, this one). Could Rob’s picture of Jesus (and heaven, hell, etc) use evaluating? Certainly. But is he preaching one of those “Jesuses” that should be rejected? I don’t think so. 

I think it more likely that people will encounter the real Jesus —  the Biblical Jesus, the risen Jesus, the welcoming Jesus, the turns-your-world-on-its-head-Jesus — though this book, than will be led in to deception by any of its shortcomings.  

That’s all I got for now. Rob Bell can still be in my club.