All posts tagged “Reformed

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Michael Goheen on worldview and mission

This one might not be of general interest, I’m warning you now.

Yesterday Michael Goheen was in town, speaking at a Surge Network event for a bunch of Phoenix church planters and at least one blogger whose presence was akin to a fly on the wall. Goheen’s talk was both autobiographical and theological — I guess you could say it was the autobiography of his journey through different Christian traditions in five stages. In showing the reasons why he has moved from tradition to tradition, including the pitfalls he discovered along the way, he spoke charitably about the traditions he has left behind, which I really appreciated.

In my own theological journey, lately I’ve been reading some stuff by Abraham Kuyper and folks with a Kuyperian take on things (for example, this, this and this), and I’ve found it deeply encouraging and instructive. So yesterday’s talk with Goheen was just what I needed: he too has been shaped by a Kuyperian framework, though he has also recognized what he perceives to be some of its weak spots. It’s some good food for thought. So, as I’ve done once or twice before, I offer you a blog post consisting of lecture notes, most unvarnished. This is Goheen’s journey — not mine — though it’s a journey I’m grateful to learn from, and I hope it’s helpful for you too.

1. Born again into Pietism, which consisted believing and confessing the right things and being born into the church; not much concern for a warm, deep relationship with Christ or the ethics that follow. It was largely cold, cerebral orthodoxy. It was very individualistic and very other-worldly, without appreciation of the resurrection of the body or the new heavens and new earth. The mentality was getting people onto a lifeboat and off the sinking ship of Creation.

2. Became interested in Calvinism as a theological system after stumbling upon the Westminster Catechism, and went to study reformed theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. There, he found two traditions at work: Scottish and Dutch. While he deeply appreciated the Westminster Catechism, and continues to value it contextually, he found it to be a dated document that was still very individualistic, whereas Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and other Dutch theologians were onto the bigger picture.

3. In the Kuyperian/Reformational stage, he was seeing that the Bible is one big story, which stood in contrast to Pietism’s individualism and other-worldliness, which he found refreshing. It seemed to him that systematic theologians had taken the story and turned it into a system; basically saying the Bible got its form wrong, and they were finally getting it right. His belief was reinforced that the gospel wasn’t just about Jesus saving individual souls, but about the gospel of the kingdom. Its cosmic scope challenges our individualism and other-worldliness, and the concept of covenant helped him see the importance of community. As a pastor at this point, he wanted those in his church to believe the right ideas; they in turn started asking what it meant for every area of life: what does the gospel of the Kingdom have to say about literature, business, education, and all kinds of social, economic and political issues? He wasn’t sure, but together they started trying to find out.

4. The next stage was rediscovering Kuyperianism not as a theological system but as a worldview. Kuyper saw the Enlightenment/modernism as a pagan force that shrunk Christianity down to individualism, which he saw as a direct threat to the gospel and the church. Further, he saw modernism as a religious worldview, and a dangerous one; it wasn’t spiritually or morally neutral as many claimed. Christ is Creator, Reconciler and Lord of all, and as such he is concerned about individuals but also cultures. Therefore we need a rigorous all-of-life worldview recognizing the Lordship of Christ. In this stage, Goheen began to understand the importance of creation and its goodness, and how that understanding shapes our worldview, and in turn, all spheres of life.

5. The fifth stage began when he was introduced to the work of missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, who was deeply rooted in both scripture and tradition, and what he said was relevant to all of life. Newbigin showed him that mission is central to the whole biblical story. He began to see that mission is as wide as creation. Newbigin was radically Christocentric and saw the relevance of Christ to every area of life. Kuyper started with creation and moved toward Christ; Newbigin started with Christ and moved to creation. Realized that if he’s going to understand the biblical story, he needs to start with Christ. Mission was not for a chosen few in the church; rather, it’s for laypeople in the context of “secular” workplaces. Newbigin, however, didn’t have a full doctrinal appreciation for creation, so it excited Goheen to do synthesis with these two mutually enriching traditions. Kuyper spoke of transformation a lot, but not of suffering (we can learn from Pietism on this point); he learned about that from Newbigin as well. He also gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of spirituality, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, good preaching, fellowship and meditation on Scripture. Without that deep rootedness, you’ll give up or you’ll get arrogant, using any methods necessary to reach your goals. Finally, he learned from Newbigin the indispensability of the local congregation; in emphasizing the importance of all spheres of society in God’s plan, Kuyper had minimized (intentionally or not) the uniqueness of the local church. This fifth stage, and the present one, is what he calls missional Kuyperianism.

Some various scribbles from the Q & A time…
– Christ is central to mission, and the church is indispensable
– Worldview studies is helpful in preparing us for mission
– “Story” is more than biblical theology; it’s the true story of the whole world
– Worldview is a servant to help us open up that story and equip us to be faithful in all of life
– Mission is as wide as life: we witness to the good news that Christ transforms marriages, politics, etc. – every area of life
– Is there a preference given to personal evangelism? We do need to speak, but our lives and our actions need to back it up. Nietzsche said something like this: “If I’m to believe in their Redeemer, they’re going to have to look a whole lot more redeemed.”
– Asked who else is along similar “missional Kuyperian” lines, he said there are pockets here and there, but Richard Mouw and Tim Keller are two prominent ones, though neither necessarily use that term.
– The already/not yet tension keeps us from being triumphalistic and also keeps us from defeatism or escapism.
– Overwhelmingly, critiques from Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America are that the Western church is too rationalistic, individualistic and dualistic. We’d do well to listen to them humbly.

Is there any congruence between Goheen’s journey and yours? Do any of his conclusions along the way strike you as particularly insightful — or worrisome, for that matter?

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Until Justice & Peace Embrace (Part 2/3)

Yesterday, in the first part of this series, I summarized Wolterstorff’s appropriation of the world-formative Reformed/neo-Calvinist tradition, how it is both similar to and different from the liberation theologies of Latin America, and how Scripture calls us to shalom — a world-formative vision related to, but beyond, both. Now for some of shalom’s ramifications, again in relatively bite-size chunks.

The rich & the poor
During the colonial era, Wolterstorff writes, it was the norm for Westerners to view poverty in other countries as “a natural condition for certain kinds of people.” After World War II, however, there was new-found excitement about the possibilities of development (the field of work, incidentally, to which I belong). Wolterstorff writes of that enthusiasm:

All that was needed was technology and capital; both of these could be painlessly supplied by us. A new self-serving explanation! But development has not occurred as we expected. The poor are with us in greater numbers than ever before. And now we can no longer ignore their existence.

So if not colonial feelings of superiority, nor naive enthusiasm about quick-fix solutions that don’t cost anyone anything, what does Wolterstorff propose? Well, first, he echoes the liberation theologians in saying that God has a special concern for the poor. To support this claim, he points to a series of passages from the Gospel of Luke (1:46-53; 4:16-21; 6:20-21; 7:18-23), and concludes with conviction but nuance:

If we consider Jesus to be God incarnate, and these teachings from the book of Luke to be God-authorized, as I certainly do, then we cannot but conclude that God has taken sides with the poor… On the other hand, the poor are not romaticized: they are not praised; they are blessed. And, yes, they can turn aside the blessing. Blessing is pronounced on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not all the poor do so.

God-given rights
Scripture teaches that every human being is made in the image of God, and that’s what forms the basis for Wolterstorff’s insistence on affirming the rights of the poor. “I want to say, as emphatically as I can,” he writes, “that our concern with poverty is not an issue of generosity but of rights.” Therefore, if we don’t care about the poor, “we are violating the God-given rights of the poor person.” He goes into more detail about the definition of rights, and the duties that correlate to them, but in the interest of both time and space I won’t spell that out in detail here.

Nations & nationalism
If one desires to be an instrument of shalom, one must be concerned about the power of nationalism. Nationalism, Wolterstorff says, is basically “a nation’s preoccupation with its own nationhood.” A sense of woundedness, of having been wronged, is often at the root of a rise in nationalism. And it’s not long before that kind of nationalism becomes, as he puts it, cancerous:

When a nation suffers from nationalism unchecked, the life of its members is twisted and distorted, and the nation becomes a menace among nations because it accepts no standards for international peace and justice. It acts solely in its own self-interest, breaking treaties when it sees fit, waging wars when it finds the advantage, thumbing its nose at international conventions and organizations. National self-assertion is the only goal. All that restrains it is a balance of terror… We in our century have seen, and continue to see, that there is nothing more destructive of shalom than such nationalism.

But for Christians, the alternative is clear — or it should be:

What unites us as bearers of the image of God is more important than what divides us as members of nations.

I’ll have a third and final post in this series, probably next week, taking a look at Wolterstorff’s thoughts on what shalom looks like in a city; the relationship between justice and liturgy; and his call for scholars and academics to embrace the world-formative vision.

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Until Justice & Peace Embrace (Part 1/3)

Two weeks ago I posted a video of Nicholas Wolterstorff speaking on the topic of justice in Scripture. At that time I mentioned being in the middle of his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace, and that I expected to finish reading it in about three years. Well, I’m happy to say I finished ahead of schedule. I had every intention of keeping this brief, but the book is simply so full of such rich material that I had to turn it into a three-part series. For anyone concerned with the intersections of faith, development, justice and peace — as I am — Wolterstorff gives us a lot to chew on. Here is some of what I found most helpful, broken down in bite-size pieces.

Appropriating the Reformed tradition
The book began as the Kuyper Lectures at the Free University of Amsterdam thirty years ago, and as Wolterstorff explains in the preface, the ideas he presented were an attempt to appropriate the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition to which he and many in his audience belonged. “Appropriation of one’s tradition implies neither uncritical acceptance nor total rejection,” he writes. “It entails a discriminating adaptation of its features to one’s own situation.”

World-formative vs. avertive traditions
The Reformed/neo-Calvinist tradition at its best, he says, is a world-formative tradition, as opposed to an avertive one, such as the predominant Medieval expression of Christianity. He spends a chapter articulating the difference between the two kinds of traditions, but in a nutshell, world-formative traditions (Reformed and otherwise) believe that faithfulness to God requires active involvement in society.

Lima, Amsterdam and beyond
Liberation theology emerged within the Catholic Church in revolutionary Latin America during the second half of the twentieth century. It too is a world-formative tradition, focused on theologizing through the eyes of the poor, and working for political liberation from rampant injustice — even, if necessary, through violent means. Liberation theology and neo-Calvinism have some similarities beyond the fact that they’re both world-formative, Wolterstorff says, but they also have a key difference, and it’s a fascinating one to me: one (liberation) views societal problems through the category of sin; the other (neo-Calvinism) through the category of idolatry. Which is right? Can you pick one?

We do in fact live in a world-system in which the core dominates the periphery, characteristically out of greed and a lust for power. What is that but sin? We do in fact live in a world-system shaped by the practice of treating economic growth as an autonomous and ultimate good. What is that but idolatry?

Both frameworks have validity, Wolterstorff argues, and both correct deficiencies in the other. And this is where I am so impressed with him for appropriating his own tradition, just as he said. He doesn’t uncritically accept it or totally reject it. But he called his audience in Amsterdam, and he calls you and me today, to a vision beyond either of these two world-formative traditions. What is that vision?

Shalom, he writes, “is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling.” It’s “intertwined” with justice but distinct from it:

In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships… But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships… To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, toenjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.

Because shalom is about right relationships, it’s about ethics and responsibility. But if enjoyment and delight are missing, it’s not shalom. That’s a pretty compelling vision, if you ask me. We’ll explore some of its ramifications tomorrow.