Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Three Cheers for the Trinity!

Mark Sandlin, an influential progressive Christina blogger, is presently blogging on the theme of:  This Collar Is Too Tight: Heresies From a Southern Minister.  The second installment is titled “No Trinity for Me, Please.”

There is nothing new in the case Sandlin makes against the Trinity.  It’s been standard fare from the time of the early church to today.  And I respect his right to state his views.  And he holds no brief against anyone who believes in the Trinity nor is he trying to “convert” anyone from belief in it. However, there is an agenda beyond a personal faith statement at work here.  Sandlin wants “a larger acceptance of theological diversity in the Christian Church.”

Two questions frame his desire to promote this diversity:

-why do we make it (the Trinity) so important? and

-Why is it a dividing line of who is in and who is out?

And he goes on to say “Frankly, I am not deeply interested in the answers to those questions. I’m much more interested in the validity of those questions.”  And he then seems to claim that because valid questions can be asked about the Trinity, this reduces it to a category of a “theory” and, thus, not something that should divide the church, if I understand him aright.

Since he’s asked these questions in the interest of “heretical” (his own category) answers to stretch the church’s theological parameters, it does not seem out of place to offer a responses from my perspective as one who does hold the Trinity to be important and believes it is a nonnegotiable demarcation between Christian views of God and all others.

Nothing in my response will surprise Mark, I’m sure.  I have nothing new to add to the church’s understanding of the Trinity even as Mark’s case against it brings forth nothing new.  I’m not interested in waging a debate with Mark.  I simply think it appropriate to reaffirm the Church’s theological tradition based on its reading of Scripture in a similarly public way as Mark has stated his beliefs.

Mark questions the importance of the Trinity for its “lack of biblical witness.”  Neither Jesus nor the biblical tradition have anything “Trinitarian” about it in his estimation.  He concludes, “. . . if the Trinity is that important, doesn’t it seem like Jesus or the book of Acts or Paul or James or Peter or John would have talked more directly about it?”

Well, not really.  No one claims that there is a doctrine of the Trinity in the biblical material. There is the raw material of such in it (e.g. Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:13), but no “doctrine” like what we find in the Nicene Creed of the 4th century. 

The reality of the Trinity, however, is the heart of Jesus’ lived experience.  When we say his name, we invoke the Trinitarian reality of his life.  He lives in conscious dependence on his Father and in the power of the Spirit.  He is who he is, as the Bible presents him only in this Trinitarian context.  We may think he is wrong or misguided, or that the Bible misleads us at this point, but there can be little question, I believe, that this is the way the Bible presents his life. 

In truth, there’s very little “doctrine” about anything in the biblical tradition.  That’s why doctrines arose – to summarize, clarify, and analyze the assumptions and implications of biblical “raw material.”  The Bible doesn’t teach doctrines in that form; it tells the stories of faith concerning God’s involvement with humankind as the writers experienced and/or remembered it.  The church developed doctrines to help it order itself and respond to the challenges of its time and place.  That’s painting with a broad brush, I realize, but I think it’s basically what happened.

In the course of those first four centuries, however, the church realized its identity was at stake around two particular “doctrines” – the Trinity and the Incarnation of God in, with, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth.  The outcome of all these discussions and debates (admittedly, not all of which are very edifying) was that these two “truths” became recognized as dogmas, that is, the foundational and definitional basis of the church.

These dogmas answer the questions of “Who is God?” and “Who is Jesus” in such a way that to deny either is to be thinking outside the realm of Christian Faith.  For good or ill, the church staked its ground at these points, based on its reading of its scriptures, and thus established the parameters of legitimate Christian theology.

To wind this up, it’s entirely possible to query every element of this development as Mark and many before him have done.  What it doesn’t seem possible to do is to change or deny them and still be thinking Christianly.  I don’t claim that those who do this are not Christians, that neither my place or within my ability to make such a discernment.  We often believe better than we say or think.

Mark asked:  “Why do we make it (the Trinity) so important?” and “Why is it a dividing line of who is in and who is out?”  I hope my brief response here at least makes it clear why the church has done so.

Where is True Christian Faith Found?

True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feelings but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to grips with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian. The result will be new forms of man-made religion that embrace recycled heresies.

For almost two thousand years, Christians have lived the mystery of the apostolic faith and passed it on through personal stories, sermons, creeds, and common practices. But American Christians have a unique predilection to approach the Christian faith as if what we know is vastly more relevant than what pervious generations knew. To do so is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. It has led a generation of Christians to assume that they know perfectly well who Jesus is, apart from any instruction in ancient Christian tradition.

John Armstrong, Your Church Is Too Small, p. 18

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rambling through Romans (5): 1:16-18

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

To not be “ashamed of the gospel” means that we know what the gospel is.  One way I remind myself of the gospel I believe is to spell it out:  G-O-S-P-E-L.  I try to define it by using each of the letters of “gospel.”  Here’s one way it might look.  I assume that God is the author and prime reality of the gospel so I don’t use the “G” to refer to God – that’s too easy! J  But you can use it if you like.  (Makes for a good sermon or educational exercise.)

G – Good News 

The gospel is the announcement of what God has done to set right what is wrong in the cosmos through Jesus Christ.  It belongs on the front page of the newspaper, not the religion or op-ed section.

O – Openness

The gospel is good news for all (“Jew” and “Greek” in our text) – that pretty much covers everybody.  Openness is best illustrated by Jesus hanging on the cross his arms spread as wide as possible to embrace the world.  While we might not be able to open up quite as much as Jesus, through the good news we find it possible to open up a bit more than heretofore, especially to those who are different from or threaten us in some way.

S – Sin and Salvation

The gospel is about “salvation” (v.16).  But since we can’t understand salvation without understanding sin, we need a double “S” – sin and salvation.  And it’s crucial to note that it is sin (in the singular) not sins (in the plural).  For the latter are but the symptoms of the former.  Sin (in the singular) is an alien power that has us in its grip from which we cannot extricate ourselves.  Sin is best spelled s-I-n.  The imperial “I” is the heart of sin.  Our hearts “curved in on themselves” (according to Luther).  The good news is that the imperial “I” has been slain, its grip fallen slack, and our hearts may again unfold into their proper shape – toward love of God and others.  In the words of Charles Wesley’s great hymn “And Can It Be”:

                                    Long my imprisoned spirit lay, 

                                    fast bound in sin and nature's night;

                                    thine eye diffused a quickening ray;

                                    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

                                    my chains fell off, my heart was free,

                                    I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

P – Passion


“What our age lacks is not reflection, but passion.” (Soren Kierkegaard)


Paul lacks no passion here.  But we often do.  The gospel is a power for change (v.16).  When we are caught up in the gospel we have passion for it.  When we use or try to control the gospel we become pragmatists.  We grow a passion that does not rise to the level of the real thing – a passion for what works.  And we inhabit a little kingdom of our own making that at the end of the day is but a cruel parody of God’s kingdom, his gospel.


E – Evangelism


To proclaim the gospel is to announce that in Jesus Christ God has set all things right.  Evangelism, this gospel announcement, is fundamentally about idolatry – who or what we serve and live for – not morality – what we do.  The good news of the gospel is not that my life is a mess and Jesus can clean me up and straighten me out.  The good news is that Jesus is Lord and he has laid claim to my loyalty and love.


L – Love


Oily word in our society.  Doesn’t mean much till we say what we mean by it.  This story about Moses Mendelssohn, a well-known philosopher of the German Enlightenment, says “love” for me.  A love that reflects the love of the triune God for us wayward creatures.  A love worthy of the name!


   In 1762, the 33-year old philosopher visited Hamburg. There he met a 24-year old blonde, blue-eyed girl named Fromet Gugenheim, the daughter of a merchant. According to the story handed down in the family, he was much taken with her; and she, of course, knew of his reputation— her father, who was eager for the match, had seen to that. However, when she laid eyes for the first time on his stunted, misshapen figure, she burst into tears. Afterward, Mendelssohn sat down with her alone. “Is it my hump?” he asked. She nodded. “Let me tell you a story, then,” Mendelssohn said. “When a Jewish child is born, proclamation is made in heaven of the name of the person that he or she is to marry. When I was born, my future wife was also named, but at the same time it was said that she herself would be humpbacked. ‘O God,’ I said, ‘a deformed girl will become embittered and unhappy. Dear Lord, let me have the hump, and make her fair and beautiful.’”


Good News, Openness, the victory of Salvation over Sin, Passion, Evangelism, Love – that’s how I spell “Gospel.”  But that’s not really how it’s spelled.  It’s really spelled J-E-S-U-S    C-H-R-I-S-T.  He is all that the Gospel is in person.


Late in his life, the great theologian Karl Barth was asked what was the most profound theological thought he’d ever had.  This wise and learned man, author of more than ten thousand pages of profound theology, thought for but a moment and answered, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”


Karl Barth understood.  He knew the power of gospel of the victory of Jesus over all that opposes or hinders God’s way and will for his world.  Do we?

The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail


by christena on August 17, 2014

[Content note: discussion and photos of lynching and other forms of brutality]

Young protestors lighting and preparing to launch a Molotov cocktail at Ferguson police
Young protestors lighting and preparing to launch a Molotov cocktail at Ferguson police

Can you see the Imago Dei in these young men? Can you see the suffering Christ in their rage?
This morning at church, the black female preacher said aloud what many of us have been thinking: that Ferguson could have happened in our community. It could still happen in our community. Our north Minneapolis neighborhood is so much like Ferguson, it’s scary. Both communities are lower income and predominantly black. Both have overwhelmingly white police forces. Both have a history of police misconduct toward people in the community, especially lower income black men.  And if you hang around long enough, you’ll feel the rage that many blacks carry in response to long-standing injustice.

Yesterday, my neighbor broke down while we talked about the realities of police brutality toward young black men. Her hands trembled and tears showered her face. Experiencing the unique mixture of rage and sorrow that black moms know well, she described the numerous ways in which the local police have already treated her 8 year old son like an animal.

Based on data from communities all over the U.S., a recent study found that local police officers kill black men nearly two times a week. Beyond this, black men suffer from the crushing indignity of being regularly stopped and frisked, harassed by the police for simply “driving while black”, and generally assumed guilty before proven innocent.

Describing the way black men were treated during the lynching era (1880s -1960s), historian Joel Williamson wrote, “Their blackness alone was license enough to line them up against walls, to menace them with guns, to search them roughly, beat them, and rob them of every vestige of dignity.”[i]

Williamson might as well have been writing about the way black men are treated in 2014. The present-day experience of black men is not much different that the experience of black men who
lived and died during the lynching era.


Four Rhythms I Learned from Jesus


My forty–first birthday was one I would rather forget.
I spent it flat on my back in a hospital thinking I was dying. During my long recovery, I wondered: “Could I have avoided this?” My body was rebelling at the abuses of my fast paced, high stressed lifestyle. My life was out of sync with God’s rhythm and I hadn’t noticed.
Unfortunately, I am not alone. Our world is full of stressed-out, burnt-out church leaders who don’t know when to stop. Our culture ratchets up the pace constantly and we think we need to follow. Many Christian leaders I speak to have little personal space for God. They only pray when working on a sermon.

Exploring Jesus’ Four Rhythms

So what rhythms did Jesus live by? If he truly offers abundant life, then his life rhythms must provide the best model for church leaders to follow. He carried the weight of the world on his shoulders yet rarely seemed overloaded.
Missionary statesman E. Stanley Jones calls Jesus the “revealer of the nature of life.” He believed the way of Christ is written into our blood, nerves, tissues and relationships so life “works in his way and only in his way. If we are not in step with God then we are working our own ruin.”
Jesus modeled four basic life rhythms – sacred rhythms – for us. At the center was his spiritual life, rooted in an intimate, personal relationship to God, and providing the focus for all else he did. Jesus’ prayer pattern resembled that of Muslims more than that of most Christians. He stopped throughout the day to listen to God and directed his actions according to God’s instructions.He never made major decisions without at least a night listening through prayer.
How much less stress would we suffer if we gave prayer this kind of priority and allowed our times with God to shape our other commitments?

Pause . . .

Rowan Williams: how Buddhism helps me pray


Former Archbishop of Canterbury reveals intense daily meditation ritual influenced by Buddhism and Orthodox mysticism

Rt Revd Rowan Williams
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has disclosed that he spends up to 40 minutes a day squatting and repeating an Eastern Orthodox prayer while performing breathing exercises as part of a routine influenced by Buddhism.

He also spends time pacing slowly and repeatedly prostrating himself as part of an intense early morning ritual of silent meditation and prayer.

The normally private former Archbishop has given a glimpse of his personal devotions in an article for the New Statesman explaining the power of religious ritual in an increasingly secular world.

Lord Williams has spoken in the past about how in his youth he contemplated becoming a monk as well as joining the Orthodox church.

He explained that he draws daily inspiration from the practice, common to both the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, of meditating while repeatedly reciting the “Jesus Prayer”, which says: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”.              

Biblical Interpretation and the Eunuch’s Shadow



I can’t believe the reaction I’ve gotten to yesterday’s post about the old cliché about “making the Bible come alive.” I’ve gotten some significant response and you readers have got me thinking. So I want to think with you a bit more about how biblical interpretation in the church ought to work.
When I was in graduate school almost 30 years ago, I read an essay by George Steiner that burned down my world as an aspiring scholar. In the quotation below, substitute “interpreter” or “scholar” or “preacher” or “teacher” for the author’s word “critic”
When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could wield an inch of the Karamazovs, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow? …The critic lives at second hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel, or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of others’ genius.… It is not criticism that makes the language live.  These are simple truths (and the honest critic says them to himself in the gray of morning).*
At first, I thought, “That’s harsh… a eunuch’s shadow?” I mean, we teachers and interpreters, we “critics” (in the liberal arts sense of the term) are committed to the great texts, like the Bible. We keep people reading these texts, we breathe new life into them for each successive generation… don’t we?
And then I started noticing something. So many aspiring scholars, including preachers who wanted to be serious interpreters, like myself back in the middle 1980′s, seemed less interested in the actual text of the Bible, and more interested in “scholarship.” The preparation for a paper, or sermon, began not with the close, mutual scrutiny of reader and text, but with the generation of the bibliography, the framing of a suitable research question, the need for a sermon idea.