Theology for the Long Haul

Friday, July 16, 2010

What's the point of being a Christian?

It seems to me that we as Christians (yes, even evangelical Christians) all too often lose sight not only the point of being a Christian, but of what it means to be a Christian. There appears to be two (at least) ruts we manage to fall into on either side of the proverbial road. On the one hand is the hardcore evangelical thinking that it's all about salvation in terms of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (I'm not saying it isn't). So in this rut the point is to get people converted, and then to begin the process of doing Christian things (usually reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, serving, and evangelizing--all good things!). On the other hand is the thinking in much of the emergent church movement in which the greatest emphases seem to vary between extravagant worship and righting social injustice (also good things!). The depth of the ruts come when, in the first, being a Christian means you experience a conversion to Christ and then set about merely doing Christian things; and in the second, when being a Christian becomes merely about your social activity and Christ becomes optional. In brief, I suppose, one could describe the ruts as the tradtional "faith" vs. "works," however each involves faith and works, but in different spheres.
Now, I have often heard that the solution to avoiding the ruts is to find a balance of each: you know, equal portions of faith and works. I'm not so sure that's been working for us. It seems that we as a people keep finding ourselves in one rut or another (or am I the only one who sees an uncanny resemblance to the emphasis on social justice today and the social gospel of the early 20th century? Or the intellectualized gospel of much Reformed theology today and Medieval scholasticism?).
Instead, I think we need to focus on the road itself to avoid the ruts. Jesus called Himself the road (well, ok, the "way"), so it seems logical to focus on Him, eh? But often focusing on Christ simply becomes learning about Jesus, or at best exploring and deepening our relationship with Him as Lord, Master, Teacher, Guide, etc. These are all legitimate expressions of our relationship with Christ, but fail to hit at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
Our relationship with Christ as Christians is more than an external relationship. 1 Cor 6:17 says that the one who joins himself to the Lord becomes one [spirit] with Him. There is a union of the believer's spirit with the Spirit of God which creates an essential transformation in the life of the believer. A Christian is truly crucified with Christ and lives in a true (not merely symbolic) life with Christ (Gal 2:20). This is what (at least one thing) Paul means when he talks about Christians being "in Christ."
In my experience, far too many Christians are unaware that the point of being a Christian is not just to be saved from our sins, or to be with God in heaven when we die, or to have a constant companion and guide here on earth: it is to walk in communion with God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is to experience a oneness with God in Christ that transforms us from the inside-out. This model of Christianity thus includes both ruts, but by spanning them rather than dividing time and energy between them. To view "being a Christian" as communion with God in Christ incorporates conversion, faith, and the spiritual disciplines as well as the outward expression of our union with God through acts of service, love, and justice. The danger of reducing Christianity to a dead "faith" or a Christ-less social justice is reduced, because the focus is on walking by faith through the Spirit with a living and active Lord, who leads and moves us toward loving action of others.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How Much is Sola Really Sola in Relation to Scriptura?

Sola Scriptura, well know among the other sola slogans of the Protestant Reformation, is a bit of an awkward proposition if taken completely literally. If taken in this way, the teaching might seem to imply that scripture is the exclusive material for all things Christian. To translate such a view into spirituality and theology could mean for the church that all worship should be taken directly from scriptural passages and all theological reflection should express itself in a string of scriptural quotations. Such a reductionistic and wooden view of sola scripture was in fact never embraced by Luther or Calvin, who were quite comfortable drawing on the ancient ecumenical consensus of the churches in the east and the west. They certainly disagreed on the level to which ancient traditions should be integrated into the life of the church (Luther more accepting of them than Calvin), but both were certainly not ready to start anew with only the scriptures in mind. That is what set them apart from the more radical figures of the reformation era: they were trying to reform something that already existed not strip away the greater part to restore some primitive ecclesial reality. For this reason their understanding of sola scriptura needs to be articulated very carefully.

The term sola is an adjective in Latin for: “only, single, alone, or unique.” Of these meanings I would like to suggest that “unique” captures best the thrust of Luther and Calvin’s use of the term. Scripture is a unique authority for Christians, holding the primary though not exclusive place in the life of faith. Many of the traditions passed down from the early church (e.g., the ecumenical creeds) were of enduring value for Luther and Calvin, who were attentive to the Christological and Trinitarian language of Nicaea and Chalcedon. With this in mind, Luther and Calvin were able to maintain some sense of continuity with the ancient churches while at the same time critique other historical developments in the traditions of the western church. If this element of continuity is not taken into account then the critiques remain of figures like Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) and Matthias Scheeben (1835–1888) that Protestant biblical interpretation is susceptible to arbitrary and infinitely individualistic judgments. After all, if scripture alone as interpreted by each Christian (apart from any historical awareness of what the church has taught and lived out over time) is to result in the fullness of understanding of God’s revelation for humanity then how can one account for the multiplicity of interpretations of what the biblical texts mean? It seems to me that one needs to admit that the consensus reached by the majority of Christians throughout church history is relevant to one’s reading of scripture. This is to say nothing of the Spirit’s work in guiding the church throughout history.

To return to my initial question: how much is sola really sola in relation to scriptura? I am inclined to say that it is sola up to the point of implying uniqueness and primacy. The scripture is a sure and reliable source for Christians. It holds an irreplaceable place of authority in the Christian community. It cannot be read in a vacuum however by hermeneutically neutral interpreters, therefore awareness of the ancient ecumenical heritage of the churches as well as reliance on the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit are necessary means to transcends the limits of individualism and sectarianism.

Posted by Jacob, who regularly blogs at Inter Christianos.