Thursday, November 30, 2017

Out of Adventism (Jerry Gladson) -- A Review

OUT OF ADVENTISM: A Theologian’s Journey. By Jerry Gladson. Foreword by Edwin Zachrison. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017. Xx + 306 pages.

People’s experiences of religion are not monolithic. For some participation in a religious community can be very positive and life affirming. They can also be destructive spiritually, emotionally, and physically. For some a particular community can be supportive, while that same community can be spiritually abusive to others. In other words, we need to take seriously the testimony of those who have been abused, while recognizing that not everyone in a particular community has had the same experience.

This book is the testimony, the story, of a person who was deeply involved in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Jerry Gladson was a theological educator, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, who taught at one of the Adventist’s colleges. He was an ordained minister as well. At one point, early in his career, he was a rising star, but in time he ran afoul of the leadership, some of whom he had counted as friends, and of the church’s theology. After several decades of service, Gladson was forced out of the church, but not before his own family suffered from exclusion and abuse. Among the casualties was his marriage and the faith of his children. Why did he run afoul of the church’s leadership? In part it had to do with structures that sought to control the lives of its people to such an extent that freedom to think and challenge authority was not allowed. The boundaries in which one could live were narrowly defined. When you colored outside the lines, you became a problem to either be corrected or evicted. When Gladson proved not to be correctable, he was evicted. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Restore Us O God! a Reflection on Psalm 80

Psalm 80 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
    the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
    and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
    so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
    and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
    look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15     the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
    may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
    the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Disciples of Christ and the Nature of Salvation

 With this essay, I am picking up my ongoing exploration of Disciples of Christ theology (knowing that Disciples have struggled with the entire idea of doing theology). With this post I explore in brief the concept of salvation, a posting that picks up from the previous conversations on sin.  


               The Disciples of Christ identity statement defines the Disciples as a “movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” This identity statement is understood to be a reframing of the Disciple commitment to Christian unity to envision a broader commitment to engaging in ministries that bring healing and wholeness to the world. Without naming sin as a problem, this statement embraces both the reality of sin (brokenness) and the call to be witnesses to God’s gracious provision of salvation in Christ, a provision we celebrate at the Lord’s Table. This vision is missional in intent, and connects the call to the table with Peter’s invitation to repentance and baptism as expressed in Acts 2:38, a passage that has deep roots in Disciples experience. The message is simple, if one wishes to be saved, then one is called to repent, be baptized, so as to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

                If the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world, and if this identity statement is an expression of God’s provision of salvation, what might this look like? I’d like to explore three biblical images that might help us better define what salvation might entail: new creation, restoration, and healing. this might mean for us.

Remember Your People - A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1B (Isaiah 64)

Isaiah 64:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

64 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
 as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.    
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

                “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” With these words we begin the season of Advent, a season that is easily subsumed in the rush to Christmas. If we’re honest, even the most liturgically pure among us find it difficult to resist the lure of the upcoming season. But there is a message here that shouldn’t get lost in the rush. We may have to be alert to it, but it is there. Yes, it is thee in the words of Isaiah, who always seems to have a word to say during this Advent season.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Church in Ordinary Time (Amy Plantinga Pauw) - A Review

CHURCH IN ORDINARY TIME: A Wisdom Ecclesiology. By Amy Plantinga Pauw. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Ix + 188 pages.

I've never liked the liturgical designation ordinary time, preferring to speak of Epiphany and Pentecost as extended seasons. I’ve not even bothered to learn the numbering system, preferring to refer to the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost (excepting Trinity Sunday) as further expressions of those two days. Epiphany marks the earthly presence of Jesus and Pentecost the outworking of the Spirit’s presence in the church. I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my current practice, but Amy Plantinga Paw has given new meaning to the designation “ordinary time.” She does this in the context of working out what she calls a wisdom ecclesiology. In this book "an ordinary-time ecclesiology emphasizes that the church lives in the gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the last things as God's creature." (p. 1). That would mean that we currently live in "ordinary time," no matter the liturgical season that is being observed at this moment.

I wanted to read this book for two reasons. First, my own scholarly interests focus on ecclesiology. That's what I wrote on in my doctoral dissertation in historical theology (18th century high church Anglican ecclesiology). The other reason is that the author of this book was a M.Div. classmate at Fuller Seminary back in the mid-1980s. So, I set about to read the book that explored an area of great interest to me. I will admit that it took longer to read than I expected. It's not a long book—just 164 pages of text. It’s also thoroughly readable. Pauw is a good writer. But there is a certain theological density present in the book that requires close reading. Thinking about the church in conversation with Wisdom theology (and the Bible’s Wisdom literature) is something different. Instead of thinking in terms of the church’s divine nature, that is, our existence as Christ’s ongoing body, Pauw invites us to consider more clearly the creaturely nature of the church. This is something of a paradigm shift in ecclesial thought. Thus, it requires more reflection.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Judgment Day - a Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday (Year A)

Matthew 25:31-46

We’ve  all faced a judgment day or two. It might be a call to the principal’s office or maybe the boss’ office. Whomever it was who called you in, you knew that it wouldn’t be good news. The day I got called into the President’s office at the college where I was teaching, I knew something was wrong. After all it was June, and school was out for the summer! 
Here in Matthew 25 we encounter an apocalyptic vision of humanity’s judgment day. The Son of Man comes in glory and gathers the nations, separating the sheep from the goats. This scene has its roots in the visions of Daniel and Ezekiel. Jesus picks up on these visions to point us toward the day of judgment, when the reign of Christ will be fully established, and things will be set right.  

Today is the last day of a church year that began with the promise of Advent and continued on through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and then into the days of Pentecost. This last, lengthy season ends by looking forward to the day on which Jesus will finally reign in glory. In this reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that event is marked by a day of judgment. I realize that the Christmas shopping season has already begun, but as a church we need to first finish the race, before we start the next cycle.  

Thursday, November 23, 2017

All Good Gifts -- A Thanksgiving Blessing

It is Thanksgiving Day, and while there is much brokenness in the world today, there is also great abundance. Thus, it is appropriate to stop and give thanks. This past week, I have been blessed to share an early Thanksgiving meal with my friends at the Turkish American Society of Michigan. I give thanks for their hospitality and welcome! I got experience once again the gathering of the Troy-area Interfaith Group on Sunday evening, in our annual Thanksgiving Celebration. This community, in which I live is truly diverse, and that was expressed well in this celebration. Then, on Tuesday evening, there was a distinctly Christian gathering for a Thanksgiving Worship Service sponsored by the Troy Clergy Group. Now that the Day of Thanksgiving has arrived, I wish to share one of my favorite Thanksgiving songs: "All Good Gifts," from Godspell.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Introverts in Worship

As a pastor who is by nature an introvert, I found this piece by my seminary friend and now a professor at Fuller Seminary's School of Psychology very interesting.  Dr. Cameron Lee is Professor of Family Ministries at Fuller Theological Seminary. He blogs regularly under the title Squinting through Fog.   

Sometimes worship seems fit for extroverts. Indeed, we seem to prize extroverts as preachers. Such a person is not me, though like Cameron I have figured out how to be extroverted professionally. But, like Cameron I need to get away from the crowd afterwards. I invite you to read and reflect -- You will need to click through to read the entire piece.  But come back and offer thoughts!!


In some ways, I’m a pretty public person, as a teacher with a writing and speaking ministry. But I’m also an introvert by nature. A fairly strong one, in fact. I’ve learned to adapt to the demands of my role, the vague (and sometimes not so vague) expectation that I should be more extraverted and outgoing (and yes, I spell “extravert” with an “a”). At the end of the day, however, when I’m done being public, I need time alone to recover the energy I’ve expended.

That’s typically how it is with introverts. And it’s perfectly normal.

Maybe that sounds defensive. I don’t mean it to be. But introverts appear to be in the minority (and typically don’t draw too much attention to themselves anyway). Extraversion is often the expected norm. Someone who doesn’t readily volunteer his or her thoughts and opinions may be labeled “shy,” leaving others to wonder how that poor soul came to be that way.

And sometimes, extraverted norms play out in the church, too, even in the context of worship.

A believer may encounter culture shock moving from one church to another. If you were raised in an emotionally buttoned-up liturgical tradition and a friend invites you to a more charismatic church, you might suffer a kind of worship whiplash. But make no mistake: there are extraverts in high-church congregations and introverts in Pentecostal ones. The question is whether the spoken and unspoken norms of those congregations leave some worshipers feeling like there’s something wrong with them

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Flock Restored -- Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday (Ezekiel 34)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24   New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. 

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

                It is Christ the King Sunday (or Reign of Christ Sunday). The long season of Pentecost/Ordinary Time has come to an end, and before long we will restart the cycle with a season of longing for the coming reign of Christ. We will continue this cycling through seasons until that time when the realm of God comes in its fulness. For now, we experience that interregnum when signs of the realm are present but not fully present. We live in hope, even as we seek to live out the values of the realm. If the churches calendar begins with a season of longing, when, as Amy Plantinga Pauw suggests, “church longs for what lies beyond earthly life and beyond history, for the day when ‘mourning and crying and pain shall be no more’ (Rev. 21:4). But that does not translate into indifference to earthly flourishing here and now” [Pauw, Church in Ordinary Time, p. 121]. On this day, which brings to a close the cycle, we stand before the shepherd, and reflect upon what has transpired in the here and now. How have we lived in the interim? How might the shepherd view our lives?

The gospel reading for the day is the parable of the sheep and goats, who are judged by the king based on how they treat the least of the king’s family members (Mt. 25:31-46). That parable draws imagery from this prophetic word in the book Ezekiel, in which the prophet offers a word of hope to a people living in exile. The land is occupied by a foreign power. The beloved Temple is destroyed. The monarchy has ceased to exist, and the leading citizens of the nation have been transported to a foreign land. The people feel lost and alone, and the prophet offers hope that God, the shepherd of Israel, will seek out the lost and restore them to their proper home.

                In my reflections this Pentecost season, I have followed the semi-continuous readings, which stretched from the call of Abraham to the call of Deborah. In these readings, which took us from Genesis to Exodus and Deuteronomy and then on to Joshua and Judges, we have been reminded of God’s covenant promise to be a blessing to the nations through the presence and ministry of God’s covenant people. You could make an argument that the “least of these” referenced by Jesus is Israel. How the nations treat the covenant people is the basis of judgment. Blessings come to those nations who bless the covenant people. I will leave that possibility to your own reflections, and return to Ezekiel and the focus of his attention—a people living in exile, sheep who have been pushed aside by seemingly stronger sheep.

One key component of this narrative arc is God’s ongoing presence, even when God seems absent. For Christians living in the interim between first and second advent, hope can dissipate. We may feel compelled not only to make peace with the culture, but to allow it to form us in ways that lead us away from God’s promise. The story of Israel is that it is not a rich and powerful nation. It is not like Egypt, Babylon, or Persia. Yet, it perseveres, because God is faithful, even when Israel strays. Thus, the promise of the prophet. Israel is scattered, but the shepherd will seek out and restore the flock. Exile is not its permanent state.

                In this prophetic word, there is a word of judgment between righteous and unrighteous.  Symbolically, this is a judgment not between sheep and goats (as in the parable) but between sheep and goats. Those that eat well at the expense of the others will face judgment, while those who have be pushed aside will in the end be blessed. Here we have an expression of God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized. Babylon, of course, is rich and powerful. They have pushed aside the smaller and more vulnerable nations, like Judah. 

                If might makes right, then Babylon is the poster child. At least that is true for the moment. That’s because, as God shares through Ezekiel: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (Ezk. 34:16). God will find the strays, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. On the other hand, those that are fat and strong, they will be destroyed. Babylon might be big and powerful, but it is no match for the God of Israel, the shepherd, who reigns as sovereign judge.
                This promise might be attractive, but we live in a society that has bought into the Social Darwinism, a philosophy that borrows imagery from biology, but is not the same thing. Social Darwinism took the idea of “the survival of the fittest” and ran with it. It is a philosophy celebrated today in the visage of reality tv, and found its most visible expression in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and in the genocidal policies of Adolph Hitler sought to create the master race, which meant that anyone not fitting his vision had to be removed one way or another. Thus, Jews, Gypsies, those with disabilities, gays and lesbians, all had to be exterminated.

On the day of judgment, the shepherd will rule against the “fat sheep” that pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.” These sheep will be culled from the flock, so that the others might thrive. We see this vision expressed in the principle of God’s preferential option for the poor, otherwise known as the “least of these of my family.” The promise of Ezekiel is that a day will come when David’s throne will be restored, and all will be fed and nourished. As Christians, we see this promise fulfilled in the promise of the advent of Christ, who will come in glory as judge and sovereign. In the words of Brian Wren: “When all is ended, time and troubles past, shall all be mended, sin and death outcast? In hope we sing, and hope to sing at last: Alleluia! Alleluia!” [“When All Is Ended,” Chalice Hymnal, 703]. 

Picture Attribution: Verboeckhoven, Eugène-Joseph, 1798-1881. Shepherdess with Her Flock, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved November 20, 2017]. Original source:,_A_Shepherdess_with_her_Flock.jpg.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Building the Good LIfe for All (L. Shannon Jung) - A Review

BUILDING THE GOOD LIFE FOR ALL: Transforming Income Inequality in our Communities. By L. Shannon Jung. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Vi + 125 pages.

The rich keep getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class is getting squeezed downward. The gap between the salaries of CEOs and the wages of workers is difficult to comprehend. Much has been said of late about income inequality and the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States. Politicians argue that tax cuts are needed for the “job creators” so they will be willing to invest in jobs in the United States, but there is little evidence that “trickledown economics” works as advertised. At the same time investment in infrastructure and education dwindles. Thus, the gap continues to grow wider every day, and we’re left to wonder if anything can be done to rectify the situation. More specifically, is there something that the church can do?

One who has some ideas that could bear fruit within the church is L. Shannon Jung, Professor Emeritus of Town and Country Ministry at Kansas City's St. Paul School of Theology. His focus is on the working poor, people who live paycheck to paycheck, and have little hope that the future is bright. Some are African American and Hispanic, but many are white men and women. This group of lower income people might not be officially listed as living in poverty, but its numbers are twice that of those officially defined as poor. He writes that “increasingly the middle class is becoming the working poor, and the economic plight of millions of Americans has become a major national concern” (p. 2). Jung refers to this group of people as Alec and Alice—with Alice signifying "Asset-Limited-Income-constrained, Employed." The implication of the book is that there are a lot of people working hard, but can’t seem to move beyond living amid economic uncertainty. The so-called American dream is further and further out of reach. People are angry. They’re “frustrated, overwhelmed, immobilized,” and politically, they are “encouraged to look after their own self-interest” (p. 3).

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Wise Investments - Sermon for Pentecost 24A/Thanksgiving Sunday

Matthew 25:14-30

Since today is Thanksgiving Sunday, we gather to “raise a song of harvest home” for “all is safely gathered in.” Yes, “God our maker does provide for our wants to be supplied.” So we “come to God’s own temple,” to “raise the song of harvest home.” [Henry Alford, "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come," Chalice Hymnal, 718]

We will have a number of opportunities over the next few days to give thanks for God’s abundance. Last night Brett and I attended the Turkish American Society of Michigan’s Thanksgiving Dinner. We got to share in fellowship with our friends from Turkey, and help them celebrate the season. Tonight there is the annual Troy-area Interfaith Group Thanksgiving Service, and then on Tuesday evening there is the Troy Clergy Group service. Then on Thursday many will gather with family and friends to share in fellowship, offering thanks for God’s provisions. Let us, therefore, “make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.” Let us “serve the LORD with gladness”; and “come into God’s presence with singing.” Why? “For the LORD is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, God’s faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 100:1-2, 5). 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Calvin, for a Change -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

While we commemorate October 31, 1517 as the beginning point of the age of Reformation in Western Christianity, it was only a passing moment. Much more would come as time passed. Luther would be joined by others who often had differing emphases. Among them was John Calvin, the renowned Reformer of Geneva who has left his mark on not only Christian history, but also world history. Like Luther he has a complex legacy. My own tradition, the Disciples, are rooted in the Presbyterian tradition, a descendant of Calvin's movement. While the founders by and large rejected Calvin, we still bear many traces of his influence. Martin Marty, who is by tradition Lutheran, notes that his people stem from a community in Switzerland that was and is Reformed in orientation. Thus, he finds it appropriate to take note of Calvin's legacy as we continue our commemoration of the Reformation's 500th anniversary.  Take a read and offer your thoughts. If you find Calvin someone to honor, why?  If you think he should be criticized, why? 


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Calvin, for a Change
By MARTIN E. MARTY   November 13, 2017
John Calvin by Georg Osterwald (1803–1884)
Recovering, as many of us will and must, from massive doses of Lutherana—after media, scholars, and the pious both among them and beyond their range are doing following October 31 observances—we at Sightings do our scanning of headlines, twisting of dials, and conversing with kindred souls in order to locate and study new topics. One article, dated October 31 (“Reformation Day”), piqued interest: “Is Reformed theology for black people?” asked Jemar Tisby for Religion News Service, and the question he posed stays with us. Historically, black people have not found the Reformed—a.k.a. Calvinists—to regard them positively, we read and already knew; some, indeed, were slaveholders. But now, surprise! “The rise of Christian hip-hop has played a role in a recent surge of interest in Reformed theology among African-Americans,” a fact Tisby documents (see “Resources”).

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Disciples of Christ and the Problem of Sin – Part 2


    In part one of this discussion we looked at several texts that speak of the problem of sin within the human community. While the opening lines of Genesis declare that all of God’s creation is good, when we get to Genesis 3 the dynamics seem to change. The question is why?  One way to look at the question is to compare the differing perspectives of two theologians who lived at the turn of the fifth century CE, and who engaged in debate on the question of sin and free will. As Disciples, we might ask, which of these perspectives seem to be the most compelling? Do we lean in one direction or the other, and what does that mean for us when it comes to how we live in the world?  

Pelagius or Augustine?

            Pelagius (ca. 350-ca. 424) was a British ascetic and monk who came to Rome around 390. He was a strong advocate for moral reform and the value of asceticism. In espousing these two themes, he argued that humans have the freedom and the ability to choose the good. Not only that, but if humans are expected to change for the better, then they must have the ability to fulfill their moral obligations. That is, doing what is right is a matter of the will. Starting from the premise that the goodness of humanity is rooted in the premise that humanity has been created in the image of God, he believed that God gave humanity the ability to choose between good and evil. For Pelagius, sin consists of freely choosing to do evil. Since sin is a matter of the will, a person should be able to progress toward a sinless life; that is, if one chose to do so. Putting things in more modern terms, the universality of sin is explained environmentally, rather than genetically. We tend to sin, because we live in a sinful context.  [S.v. "Pelagius, Pelagianism," by Joanne McWilliam, in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990). Pelagius, "Letter to Demetrius," in Theological Anthropology, J. Patout Burns, ed. and trans., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 41, 48-49].

            Pelagius’ most significant opponent was Augustine. His response to Pelagius was rooted in his reading of Paul, but also his own struggle to live a holy life. Based on life experience, he came to believe that that holiness was a gift of God, and not a matter of human will. While Pelagius insisted on the perfectibility of humanity, Augustine could only think about his own inability to overcome temptation.  Although he longed to love and serve God, this always seemed out of reach. So, he writes:  
            Instead, the mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire. Both boiled confusedly within me, and dragged my unstable youth down over the cliffs of unchaste desires and plunged me into a gulf of infamy. Thy anger had come upon me, and I knew it not. I had been deafened by the clanking of the chains of my mortality, the punishment for my soul's pride, and I wandered farther from thee, and thou didst permit me to do so.  I was tossed to and fro, and wasted, and poured out, and I boiled over in my fornications--and yet thou didst hold thy peace, O my tardy Joy!  [Augustine, The Confessions, quoted in Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed., (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 54.]
You might call Augustine something of a realist. He tried but failed to live a holy life. To give further definition to his struggles, he describes an incident from late adolescence.  He stole fruit from a tree, not because he was hungry, but for the fun of it.  He acted out of a "contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity." 
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree.  We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.  Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart--which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now lit my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error--not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but the shame itself. [Augustine in Kerr, Readings, pp. 56-57.]
With a background such as this, having struggled long and hard against sin and temptation, yet failing to overcome sin, it’s not surprising that he found Pelagius' positive view of humanity unthinkable.    

            Pelagius and Augustine agreed on one thing—in the beginning, before the Fall, humans were endowed with free will. Adam could choose both good and evil. Augustine, however, did not believe that this freedom was a natural endowment; it was a gift of God, a gift compromised by the Fall.  
For it was by the evil use of his free will that man destroyed both it and himself.  For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so when man by his own free-will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.
Once Adam exercised his free will and chose to sin, that choice affected his descendants’ ability to choose. [Augustine, The Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, Henry Paolucci, ed., (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1961), pp. 36-37].

            This first act of sin removed the assistance of divine grace that enabled free will. Now humanity was unable to control the will and was driven toward the fulfillment of desire. Instead of desiring the good, humanity was compelled to sin. While Pelagius offered a rather positive picture of humanity, Augustine insisted on total human depravity. This inability not to sin was then passed on to the posterity of those who were “driven into exile.” Therefore, from then on, the whole human race experienced corruption and suffered a sentence of death. 
And so, it happens that all descended from him, and from the woman who had led him into sin--being the offspring of carnal lust on which the same punishment of disobedience was visited--were tainted with original sin, and were by it drawn through divers errors and sufferings into that last and endless punishment which they suffer in common with the fallen angels, their corrupters and masters, and the partakers of their doom. [Augustine, Enchiridion, p. 32].
Reading Romans 5:12, in light of his own life experience, he believed that Paul taught that that sin entered the world through one man’s disobedience, and then spread from there to all, therefore all sin. 

            While Augustine painted a dark picture for humanity, he also affirmed the reality of God's grace, which was revealed to humanity in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus is the Second Adam, whose mediatorial work restores humanity's broken fellowship with God. While God's grace does not remove sin from human experience, by God's grace the rupture between God and humanity can be healed. While Pelagius believed that human merit might pave the way for salvation, Augustine believed that only God's grace could bring salvation to a depraved humanity. Though humanity can do nothing good without the assistance of grace, the regenerative work of the Spirit will enable a person to do what is good. 

            Because humans are unable to save themselves, God must act, and in Augustine’s mind – and that of many of his theological descendants – God chose to rescue some from the penalty of their sin, though not all. Therefore, God has predestined some to experience God’s grace and receive salvation.  Those who are so chosen will not fall away – those who are not chosen, even if they convert, they will eventually fall away.  Augustine defended God's righteousness in choosing some and not choosing others by pointing out that everyone stands under judgment. Therefore, God has chosen to have mercy on some of those under condemnation.  God needn’t do this, but out of mercy, God has chosen so to act.

Disciples and the Pelagius/Augustine Spectrum

            If we pursue this question of sin and free will as Disciples, it might be worth exploring how Alexander Campbell dealt with this question. He lived long after Augustine and Pelagius, but the debate continued to rage well into his day. As he approached this question, Campbell took into consideration the writings of John Locke on human nature. For Locke, humans are born with a blank slate, upon which experience and the senses write.  To Campbell, God created humanity as a "free and a responsible agent, capable of maintaining his estate and paying his rent; and consequently, was susceptible of virtue and of vice, of happiness and misery." Campbell went on to write that God placed a law on humanity to test its character—that is, humanity is to refrain from eating one particular fruit. [Alexander Campbell, Christian System, (New Salem, NH:  Ayer, 1988), pp. 26-27.]

            Campbell agreed with Augustine and with John Calvin that the Fall changed human destiny by allowing the animal within to triumph over the human. As the glory of God left Adam, he "felt his guilt, and trembled; he saw his nakedness and blushed." Campbell might not have gone as far as Augustine in affirming the principle of total depravity, but he did believe that Adam’s descendants are stained by sin and cannot attain to "primitive purity and excellence."
We all inherit a frail constitution physically, intellectually, but especially morally frail and imbecile. We have all inherited our father's constitution and fortune; for Adam, we are told, after he fell "begat a son in his own image”; and that son was just as bad as any other son ever born into the World; for he murdered his own dear brother because he was a better man than himself. [Campbell, Christian System, p. 27].
Campbell, however, broke with Augustine and Calvin, rejecting their definition of original sin. To Campbell, the universality of sin can be explained by the children of Adam choosing, of their own free will, to disobey God. He recognized that humans seem universally to sin, but he didn’t believe it was necessary.  At this point he almost embraces Pelagius: 
Still, man with all his hereditary imbecility, is not under an invincible necessity to sin. Greatly prone to evil, easily seduced into transgression, he may or may not yield to passion and seduction.  Hence the differences we so often discover in the corruption and depravity of man. All inherit a fallen, consequently a sinful nature, though all are not equally depraved. [Campbell, Christian System, 28-29].
All are fallen, but we don’t have to sin—we have a choice. Only those who with their own volition sin against "a dispensation of mercy" provided for them are condemned. The emphasis is on freedom of the will and the freedom of the individual to choose to follow or deny God. 

            The perceived danger in Pelagianism is that it downplays the seriousness of sin and that it gives a false hope to people. It can be overly optimistic and naive. Augustinianism, on the other hand, may be more realistic, but it can be seen as overly deterministic. In many ways Campbell tried to find a happy medium between the two. But, living as he did in the early years of the American republic with a vision of God’s realm being laid out in the American context, he might have been too optimistic. So, we might heed theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr who remind us that human nature has serious issues to deal with. Ronald Osborn picks this up clearly when he writes that “despite our sentimental self-esteem, human nature is seriously flawed by its innate tendency to self-love. We pursue our own interests at the expense of others.” [Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, p. 49]. As we move on to the question of salvation, it may be worth contemplating who had the better argument as to the extent of sin in our world – Augustine or Pelagius?  

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Disciples of Christ and the Problem of Sin – Part One

Below is the next offering in my attempt to forge a foundation for a theological conversation among members of the Disciples of Christ community and beyond. This is part 1 of 2, with a conversation about salvation to follow.


The creation story begins with a resounding “It is good,” but what began well soon went off course.As we read the unfolding biblical story, we discover that humanity has chosen the wrong path, one that leads to alienation, death, and destruction. It is the story of sin.  As we read the story, we discover that God is not content to let humanity continue down the wrong path. Like a good parent, God seeks to restore a broken relationship. This is the story of salvation. Both issues stand prominently in the biblical story, though the various Christian traditions have placed differing emphases on them. For some, this is the primary issue, while for others it is just one aspect of the story. As Ronald Osborn notes, Disciples have, in general, put the emphasis elsewhere—on the goodness of creation rather than on the presence of sin. Thus, as Osborn writes:   
Without denying the reality of sin, they have usually given more attention to other aspects of the human condition which also indicate the need for God.  Often Disciples worship centers on one or more of these rather than always focusing on sin. [Ronald E. Osborn, The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs ofDisciples of Christ, (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 1979), p. 49].

But, even if sin, and thus salvation, is not a Disciple preoccupation, it remains part of the conversation— especially at a popular level. This is seen most explicitly in Disciple circles in the prayers at the Lord’s Table and in our hymnody. Sin is also an important topic of conversation in the biblical story.