Friday, January 27, 2012

Academic Witness Within the Church

Earlier this week I made a presentation on the program of a conference on Christian Life and Witness: From the Academy to the Church sponsored by the Center for Christian Discernment and Academic Leadership at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky (January 23-24, 2012). As member of a three-person panel that addressed the theme "Academic Witness to the Church," I spoke on "Academic Witness Within the Church: 'Excluding No Light from Any Source.'" The text of my remarks appears below:

Academic Witness Within the Church: ‘Excluding No Light from Any Source’

In 2004 I participated in a conference at Baylor University not unlike this one. The theme of that conference was Christianity and the Soul of the University: Faith as a Foundation for Intellectual Community. Its focus, then, wasn’t on academic witness to the church but rather academic witness within the academy—which could also be construed as the church’s witness to the academy, for it was the faith of the church that was under consideration as a foundation for intellectual community.

In my contribution to the conference and the book that grew out of it, I contended that constructive conflict located within a tradition grounded in the practice of worship is vital for the integration of faith and learning in the postmodern context of today’s Christian university. I drew heavily on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre on the inescapably traditioned nature of rationality in general and moral reasoning in particular. In his book After Virtue he defines “a living tradition” as “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” MacIntyre explains, “when an institution—a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital—is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.” If a tradition does not embody this continuity of conflict, he says, “it is always dying or dead.”

It seems to me that the applicability of MacIntyre’s take on robustly contested communal traditions to the academic community of the Christian university can be extended to the ecclesial community of the church and to the complex web of interrelationships between these academic and ecclesial communities. Each academic and professional discipline of the university has its own distinctive ongoing argument about the good that constitutes the tradition of that field or profession. But the community of the Christian university and the community of the church have in common the Christian tradition. The Christian tradition, even in those Christian traditions for which there is an authoritative articulation of the tradition, is not a static body of fixed propositional truths, but “an historically extended, socially embodied argument.” Take a look at the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, for example, or even the Council of Trent—what one finds there is a fascinating account of passionate intra-Catholic debate about the good that constitutes the tradition. Any church has a “living tradition” and not a dying or dead tradition only to the extent that it participates actively in this ongoing argument. The academy of the Christian university has as part of its vocation the furthering of this argument, to which the academy has distinctive and indispensable contributions to make—but this argument is the living Christian tradition, and therefore it is first and foremost the argument of the church about the good that constitutes its tradition rather than the argument of the academy.

That raises the question of the location of the “church” to which “academic witness” should be directed. It has multiple locations. The students in the university belong to churches—the churches from which they came to the university, the churches they attend while enrolled in the university, and the Christian organizations in which they are involved on campus which, though not church proper, are extra-congregational expressions of church and function as ersatz church for many students. The faculty as well represents the church in a way that is not neatly separable from the academy, for members of the faculty are also members of churches. Finally, there is the church in the form of the constituency of the Christian university—the churches of the sponsoring tradition as well as other churches whose members enroll in the university or are alumni of the university as well as the Christian public in general that is served by the university in its vocation for furthering the argument about the good that constitutes the Christian tradition.

This also raises the question of the location and identity of the academy that does this academic witness toward the church. We shouldn’t conceive of the academy that bears academic witness to the church as something external to the church that knows better than the church and therefore instructs the church. Members of the academy who bear academic witness to the church are first and foremost members of the church who bear academic witness within the church as their distinctive way of participating in the “historically extended, socially embodied argument…about the goods which constitute [the church’s] tradition.”

I humbly suggest that the “gathering church” ecclesiology of my own Baptist tradition has a helpful way of making ecclesiological sense of how the academy has a place in the church’s contestation of the Christian tradition. In this tradition what it is that makes a community a church is not its identity with its bishop (though Baptist churches have their own way of doing oversight), nor is it the right preaching of the word and right administration of the sacraments (though, hopefully, we do that, too). Rather, the church is the community in which two or three or more are gathered in order to bring their life together under the rule of Christ. That is church proper, but the same principle extends an ecclesiality to gatherings of Christians beyond the local church for the purposes of bringing their extra-ecclesial communal life under the rule of Christ. The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder from the broader free church tradition to which Baptists also belong thought this made good sense of what happened beyond the local church in ecumenical assemblies. In The Royal Priesthood he wrote, “This view gives more, not less, weight to ecumenical gatherings. The ‘high’ views of ordered churchdom can legitimate the worship of a General Assembly or a study conference only by stretching the rules, for its rules do not foresee ad hoc ‘churches’; only thoroughgoing congregationalism fulfills its hopes and definities whenever and wherever it sees ‘church’ happen.” This sort of extra-ecclesial expression of church “happens,” I think, not only in ecumenical assemblies but also in the community of the Christian academy to the extent that members of an academic community are seeking to bring their life together as Christian academics under the rule of Christ. So there’s a sense in which the church to which the academy witnesses is “happening” within the Christian academy—in the faculty senate, in faculty committee work, in cross-disciplinary faculty collaboration, in discussions and debates across the table in the faculty dining room, as well as in faculty relations with students.

The Christian academic also has a distinctive voice of witness within the church proper in its contestation of the Christian tradition. Again, I point to a Baptist perspective on how this happens within the community gathered to bring its life under the rule of Christ to suggest how this might work. Many of you are familiar with the statement on “Re-envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America” issued in 1997 by my fellow panelist Philip Thompson and Beth Newman of our conference, along with others. This “Baptist Manifesto,” as it came to be known, functioned as a sort of Barmen Declaration for Baptists who resisted the pull toward the perilous ideological polarities of the denominational controversy then raging in the Southern Baptist Convention. The first of the Manifesto’s five affirmations regarding the nature of freedom, faithfulness, and community was this:

We affirm Bible Study in reading communities rather than relying on private interpretation or supposed ‘scientific’ objectivity....We thus affirm an open and orderly process whereby faithful communities deliberate together over the Scriptures with sisters and brothers of the faith, excluding no light from any source. When all exercise their gifts and callings, when every voice is heard and weighed, when no one is silenced or privileged, the Spirit leads communities to read wisely and to practice faithfully the direction of the gospel.

Every academic and professional discipline of the Christian academy is a potential source of the light that should not be excluded by the church in its deliberation over the Scriptures, which is another way of speaking of the church’s contestation of the good that constitutes its tradition. And every Christian academic who exercises his or her gift and calling is a voice within the church that the church must hear and weigh and not silence. Along the same lines, Paul Fiddes of our conference has written in his book Tracks and Traces, which is available in our book display, about what it means for the whole congregation to seek together the mind of Christ in what British Baptists call “church meeting”: “Upon the whole people in covenant there lies the responsibility of finding a common mind, of coming to an agreement about the way of Christ for them in life, worship and mission. But they cannot do so unless they use the resources that God has given them.” While Professor Fiddes mentioned as specific examples among those resources the church’s pastor, deacons, and elders, these resources also include Christian academics in their academic witness within the church.

As a theologian teaching in a university-related graduate-professional school of divinity that prepares students to exercise ministerial leadership in the church, I have some more obvious ways of bearing academic witness within the church. Besides educating theologically the future ministers of the church, I do frequent preaching and teaching in local churches and do some writing for general ecclesial readerships in which I “translate” my other published scholarship in academic theology for lay members of the church. But Christian academics in all other university disciplines will have their own ways of bearing a distinctive witness within the church. Each field or profession has a potential witness to make in light of core Christian convictions about creation, the incarnation in which the divine embraces creation, and the sacramental nature of a creation-affirming, incarnational spirituality. All fields of academic inquiry and professional practice have light to offer the church in its contestation of the Christian tradition, for they all deal with dimensions of creation—God’s good creation, and God’s good creation gone awry. The witness of the academy is to offer this light within the community of the church in its various expressions, trusting that the church will neither exclude the light that comes from the source of the academy nor silence the voices of those who offer this light. May it be so.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Christian Unity: Christ's Victory, Our Task

My second and third speaking engagements in Louisville, Kentucky on Sunday (January 22) were an afternoon workshop on grassroots ecumenical engagement based on my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity sponsored by the ecumenism committee of Eastern Area Community Ministries in Louisville (a story about the workshop has been posted on the web site of the Kentucky Council of Churches--click on hyperlink) and the homily for the evening Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service, also sponsored by Eastern Area Community Ministries. The text of my homily appears below:

Christian Unity: Christ's Victory, Our Task
(1 Corinthians 15:51-58)

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think I’m fairly safe in assuming that if you’re here this evening, you think that Christian unity is a good thing and that it’s a good thing to pray for it. And it goes without saying that if we’re gathered here to pray for Christian unity, then we’re agreed that we don’t yet have Christian unity, at least not in its fullest, most visible sense.

The theme for the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity expresses a truth that we who are grieved by our divisions and pray earnestly that we might yet be visibly one desperately need to hear: “We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This hopeful word from 1 Corinthians 15 gives us the encouragement we need to persist in the quest for the visible unity of the church at a time when its divisions seem to be going from bad to worse and apathy regarding these divisions is widespread. As Presbyterian ecumenist and Louisville resident Joseph Small puts it so well, our progress toward visible unity is paralyzed by “the scandal of a division that ceases to offend.” It’s a difficult moment for summoning the energy to do something to move people to make things different. But tonight we hear this word that things will be different: “We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In context, Paul’s hopeful word has to do with what folks in my profession call “individual eschatology”—the “last things” that have to do with God’s goals for every single person. Paul’s writing about the transformation of our bodies through the resurrection—God’s transformation of our whole selves into the fullness of everything God intended humanity to be from the beginning. Resurrection is all about change—what perishes is changed into what lasts; what is dishonorable is changed into what is glorious; what is merely physical is changed into what is also fully spiritual; what lives is changed into what also gives life; what comes from the earth is changed into what also comes from heaven; what dies is changed into what lives forever. Paul is confident that God wants this change for everyone: “we will all be changed.” Which is to say—“we will all be converted.”

And who in particular was it that Paul was so confident would be changed, converted, by the resurrecting power of God? The Corinthian Christians—those quarrelsome, cliquish, divisive, schismatic Corinthians Christians to whom Paul announced his reason for writing this letter: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” We’re therefore not doing violence to Paul’s hopeful word in chapter 15 if we hear it tonight as a word about the eschatology of Christian unity. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: we will all be changed. We will all be one in a way the world can see. Division will be changed into unity; discord will be changed into agreement; separation will be changed into communion. Where, O division, is your victory? Where, O division, is your sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We can receive that hopeful word only in light of the eschatology that belongs to the core of the Christian vision. The basic premise of the hope for the realization of God’s creative purposes in the victory of Christ is this: the reign of God that has come near in Christ is already a present reality, but it isn’t yet fully realized. That’s the biblical framework for the quest to realize the unity Christ prayed for his church in John 17. We already have unity, for we belong to the one body of Christ, and we’re indwelt by one Spirit. But as the current divisions of the church attest, this unity is not yet fully realized, for its fullness is not visible. Visible unity requires change, our conversion.

How do we know when our unity is visible? In our workshop this afternoon we discussed one particular definition of the unity sought by the modern ecumenical movement, approved by the World Council of Churches at their 1961 assembly in New Delhi, India. It’s stood the test of time as the clearest statement of the goal of the ecumenical movement. According to the New Delhi definition, if all churches don’t recognize baptisms performed by other churches as expressions of the one baptism that belongs to the one body of Christ, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If all Christians can’t celebrate the Eucharist together in one another’s churches, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If all churches can’t confess together the essence of the apostolic faith, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If our churches don’t accept the ministers and members of one another’s churches as their own, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If we can’t share the Gospel and serve the needy and work to liberate the oppressed together, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If we can’t speak prophetic words to the world with a unified voice whenever God calls us to do so, we don’t have a unity the world can see. We don’t yet have that kind of unity. We all need to be changed, converted, by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. The unity we seek is not yet.

It’s true that our unity is already a present reality. There is—present tense—one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. That’s already true of the church, even in all its divisions. But if we conceive of this unity primarily as an already-realized spiritual reality, we may see little reason to devote our energies to the hard work of contesting earnestly the issues of faith and order that continue to divide us.

Likewise if visible unity is only fully realized in the age to come, we may decide there's little or no reason to seek it in the present age. Many of my fellow Protestants have insisted that the four “marks of the church” in the Nicene Creed we’ll confess momentarily, including its affirmation that the church is “one,” are eschatological marks of the church—fully realized only in the final victory of Christ. That’s true enough. But one legacy of this insistence is an aversion to efforts to realize these marks in the present, especially the mark of visible oneness. Even if the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church will fully be realized only in the end, that doesn’t mean that the church shouldn’t seek to attain to those marks here and now.

It’s helpful to think of the eschatology of the quest for Christian unity in light of our quest for holiness of life. Even now in this earthly life, the saints already are just that—“saints,” “holy ones,” who are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places,” in the language of the letter to the Ephesians. But in this earthly life the saints are not yet fully holy. We’re on a lifelong journey of conversion, a lifelong journey of becoming more and more fully the holy ones that we already are. The full completion of sanctification comes only at the end, when we will be changed, converted, into the holiness that belongs to God.

Just as our already-present holiness in Christ doesn’t warrant our refusal of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the present, and just as the deferral of our glorification until the resurrection shouldn’t de-motivate the present pursuit of the sanctification that will be completed in the life to come, so it is with the already-but-not-yet nature of Christian unity. Because we’ve already been entrusted with the lasting reality of oneness in Christ and in the Spirit, we must seek to make this oneness visible to the world in advance of the age to come. Our conversion to visible unity is Christ’s victory, but it’s also our task.

Because visible unity is a vision of the last things disclosed by Jesus himself in his prayer that we might be one, we can be confident that when we take action to seek the visible unity of the church, we’re joining God in what God intends to do in and through the church in the culmination of God’s goals for all things in the victory of Christ. Tonight we make Christian unity our task by praying together that Christ’s victory may change us all by making us more visibly one in him.

The task of praying for unity gives us a proper perspective on our other forms of human participation in the quest for visible Christian unity. Praying for unity reminds us that unity is ultimately God’s gracious gift. It comes about as the divided churches are converted to Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Such conversion is the work of the Triune God, but we must be receptive to it and participate in it. Praying for unity teaches us the ecumenical virtue of patience. One day we will be one, but we’re not there yet. Getting there may require centuries of patient commitment to the quest for Christian unity—maybe even millennia. Praying for unity keeps the church from losing heart in what increasingly seems to be a losing struggle from a human point of view.

In January 2006 I participated in a consultation convened to examine the factors behind the failure of plans for a Second Conference on Faith and Order in North America that was to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1957 Oberlin Conference on Faith and Order. That gathering seemed like a funeral for the death of an ecumenical dream. And yet when we joined in common worship each morning and evening, singing TaizĂ© chants and praying together for the unity of the church, we experienced the rekindling of a hope that didn’t seem warranted by the circumstances. At the end of that same year I served as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to a five-year series of conversations with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The mood of these conversations was far from somber, yet we were acutely aware of the inevitable impasses that lay ahead. But when we gathered for morning and evening prayer each day, even though we weren’t yet able to be united at the Lord’s table, we shared a powerful experience of unity in praying together that we might be one through the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we continue to pray for unity, as we confess the apostolic faith we share in common, as we engage in other acts of worship that embody our unity, may we be encouraged by another hopeful word of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Verse 58: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” May it be so, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Baptist biblicism as a gift to the church

On Sunday (January 22) I had three speaking engagements in Louisville, Kentucky connected with the observance of the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the first of which was serving as guest preacher in the morning worship service at Lyndon Baptist Church. In that sermon I pointed to a healthier sort of Baptist biblicism (there are less healthy sorts) as a gift that Baptists at our best have to offer humbly to the rest of the church as we move toward more visible forms of Christian unity through the mutual exchange of the ecclesial gifts stewarded by the currently divided Christian traditions. The text of the sermon appears below:

Let the Bible Be the Bible
(Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8)

Twelve years ago seems like an entirely different era to me. The year 2000 was pre-9/11, pre-parenthood, and pre-all sorts of other things. Back in that bygone era my wife and I watched more television than we have since becoming parents, and our newly discovered favorite TV series was “The West Wing.” In an episode that year titled “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett,” it’s midway through the first term of the Bartlett administration, and things aren’t going too well. In two years the administration’s only victory to speak of is the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee. President Bartlett’s approval ratings are sliding into un-re-electable territory, and things are getting worse: the press has gotten hold of a memo written by a White House staffer underscoring all the weaknesses of the administration, staff morale sinks to a rock-bottom low, and everyone’s painfully aware they’re accomplishing nothing. Near the end of the episode, the chief of staff confronts the president. He convinces him the root cause of their ineffectiveness is that President Bartlett has spent two years trying to be and do what it seems the public wants him to be and do. He’s not being himself. He’s not leading from his strengths. His administration’s being driven by the expectations others have instead of the presidential vision, and it’s not working. They’re not winning anyone over with this strategy, and they’re starting to lose the party base, too. The President and White House staff decide they’re going to “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett,” and, this being the idealized world of a television drama, it works. Two episodes later, the polls go up, legislative victories start happening, and two years later there’s a second term.

Real life is rarely quite that neat. But that “West Wing” episode serves as a parable for what we’ve all too frequently done to the Bible. Modern Christianity hasn’t always done a good job of letting the Bible be the Bible. We’ve imposed on the Bible expectations God never intended the Bible to fulfill. We’ve battled over whether or not it’s historically accurate or consistent with modern science. We’ve advanced ever more precise theories of how God inspired the Bible. We’ve wrangled over what words best describe the Bible’s inspired and authoritative status. Words like “infallible” and “inerrant” became politicized litmus tests that some used as theological billy clubs to enforce orthodoxy. I should hasten to add that if people choose to use those words to communicate their belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and if what they mean by those words is that we can count on the Bible to tell us the truth about how God saves us and how we should live in light of that salvation, I can go along with that. But if the intent behind those words is to impose on the Bible expectations the Bible can’t deliver on because God never intended Sacred Scripture for those purposes, and if the intent behind those words is to build fences that separate people who supposedly “really believe the Bible” from people who allegedly don’t, then I respectfully have to offer a dissenting opinion.

It just won’t do, though, to say the opposite of whatever we might deem an inadequate way of affirming the Bible’s inspiration and authority. If we decide words like “inerrant” and “infallible” don’t quite say what needs to be said, we don’t want to say instead that the Bible is “errant” or “fallible.” For as today’s Epistle lesson says, Scripture is nothing less than something that comes from God: it is “inspired by God,” which is a somewhat wimpy way of translating into English what the text says in Greek. All Scripture is theopneustos, God-breathed, breathed by God—or God-spirated, which gives us the words “inspiration” and “inspired”—and which is not coincidentally related to the word “Spirit,” for in the Hebrew Scriptures God’s Spirit is the breath of God. When 2 Timothy calls the Bible “inspired,” it’s not so much an affirmation of some quality Scripture possesses—it’s about something God does. God breathes the Scriptures. God breathed the Scriptures back then when God did things for Israel and the church that made known God’s salvation, and God breathed the Scriptures then when God moved people to tell and write about those things God did. God breathed the Scriptures then, and God breathes the Scriptures now when God speaks to us through the Bible and breathes life into us.

When we think about Scripture as something that God breathes, we ought to think of the language of the creation story from Genesis: God’s Spirit is the breath of God blowing across the face of the waters at the beginning of the story, and later in the story God’s Spirit breathes life into the nostrils of humanity. The same God who breathes creation into being and breathes life into humanity breathes the Scriptures, and through the Scriptures God breathes into being our Christian existence and the community of the church and breathes into it life. When we read the Bible devotionally and study it together in Sunday School and hear it read and proclaimed in worship, we’re not just reading and hearing and talking about words—we’re having a life-changing encounter with the creative and enlivening breath of God. We rightly revere it as Sacred Scripture, the Holy Bible. In this season of Epiphany when we celebrate the light God gives to the world in Jesus Christ that shows us things about who God is and who we are that we’d never have known apart from the light of God’s revelation, we give honor to the indispensable role the Bible has in God’s act of making these things known to us.

Scripture is something God did and does, and God-breathed Scripture does something. In the world in which Timothy ministered, people had much the same perspective they have today on the practicality of knowledge. An idea or a philosophy had usefulness if it did something—if it resulted in living the good life. So in addition to portraying Scripture as something God does, the text emphasizes what it is that God-breathed Scripture does. It’s useful; it’s good for something. In particular, Timothy’s told in chapter 3, verse 15, it’s good for instructing us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The Bible shows us that God is a God who wants to save us from what’s gone wrong with the human condition; it shows us that God has located salvation in the person of Jesus the Christ; and the Bible shows us how to live the life that belongs to the salvation God’s given us in Christ. In other words, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

Verse 16 lists four things for which God-breathed Scripture is useful, but they really boil down to two. The first and fourth phrases express the Bible’s positive functions: it teaches the way of salvation and trains us, the way a child is trained toward maturity, to embody God’s own just character. The second and third phrases express the Bible’s negative functions: it reproves us, which means the Bible makes us painfully aware of our shortcomings, but it also corrects us, which means the Bible lets us know when we’re on dead-end paths and steers us toward the path that leads to life. The Bible does something. It’s useful. Its usefulness lies in the way God uses the Bible to bring us into saving relationship with God, with one another, and with the world, and its goal is to make us skilled at this saving relationship—“so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible does the saving thing God gave us the Bible to do especially when we read, hear, and heed the Bible in the context of worship. Thus Timothy’s told in First Timothy, “Give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” When we read and hear the Bible in a worship service, that act of worship makes present the biblical story so that we’re not just reading about something that happened long, long ago in a faraway land. Those events become present when we gather on Sunday around the reading of Scripture, in such a way that we’re invited to participate in that story. A Baptist theologian named James Wm. McClendon, Jr. tried to capture in a brief formula exactly what it is that happens when Baptists in particular read the Bible and participate in its story. McClendon’s formula goes like this: “This is that, and then is now.”  “This is that”—this thing that’s happening right here in the life of the present-day church is that very thing that we read in the Bible happened with the people of God back then. “Then is now”—then, that day in the future the Bible tells us about when God will make all things the way God intended them to be from the beginning, is also happening right now. The church here and now is a foretaste of the community of heaven in which we’re fully reconciled with God and fully reconciled with one another. “This is that, and then is now.” That gets at the heart of the best of the Baptist vision and the place of the Bible in it. But lest we get too arrogant about that, it should be said that this really expresses the Christian vision and the Bible’s place in it. It just happens to be something Baptists at our best have emphasized.

What’s the Bible trying to do in this service today? The Epistle reading isn’t only addressed to a young pastor who served the church in Ephesus 2,000 years ago. It’s addressed to us. We’re not all pastors, but we’re all called to fulfill the ministry of the church as a kingdom of priests, ordained to Christian ministry by virtue of our baptism. We’re the ones who are encouraged to continue in what we’ve learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom we’ve learned it. We’re the ones who are encouraged to let the Bible be the Bible as we proclaim its message and carry out our ministry fully. Baptists at our best have been that sort of radically biblical people, and it’s one of the gifts we have to offer humbly to the rest of the church. This is that.

The lesson from Jeremiah wasn’t merely reporting Jeremiah’s encouragement to the exiled people of Judah in Babylon way back in the sixth century B.C. We’re the people living in exile, whose true home is not this present order of things, who belong to another city but whom the prophet encourages to seek the good of this city where we live in exile. We’re the people who hope in the midst of exile for the full realization of the new covenant God’s already made with us—when God’s law will be within people, written on their hearts, and all will know God, and sins will be forgiven and remembered no more—and yet that’s already happening right here, right now, with us. Baptists at our best have had that kind of vision for a new order of things that comes from God’s future and not through some establishment of Christianity by government or culture, and that too is one of the gifts we can humbly offer the rest of the church. Then is now.

And in the Gospel lesson from Luke, we’re the people Jesus is talking about, who cry to God day and night for justice in this unjust world. We’re the people who know that God is infinitely more responsive to our cries than the unjust judge who grudgingly and grumpily grants justice so he won’t be bothered anymore. We’re also the people who know that the justice God will one day fully grant is the justice we’re called to seek in the world right here and right now. Baptists at our best have passionately sought justice for the oppressed and the marginalized, for once upon a time Baptists were oppressed and marginalized, and in many places in the world that’s still the case. That’s yet another gift we have to offer the rest of the church, with great humility. This is that, and then is now. That’s what happens when we let the Bible be the Bible when we gather for worship.

It isn’t only through the reading and preaching of the Bible that worship makes present the biblical story of the Triune God and invites us to participate in it and embody it. Every act of worship in this service has that function. The singing of choir and congregation throughout the service is rich in words and images that come straight from Scripture, and in our singing we participate in Scripture’s story with voices and ears and bodies. In confessing our sins and receiving God’s assurance of forgiveness, we enter into the heart of the biblical story. The Bible’s story of salvation is nothing less than the story of receiving ourselves and granting to others the forgiveness God gives us in Jesus Christ. The conclusion of worship sends us out into the world to embody the Bible’s story throughout the week.

That points to how we let the Bible be the Bible beyond what happens in worship. The Bible does what the Bible is supposed to do when we embody the biblical story in the way we live our lives. God helps us learn how to embody the biblical story by giving us examples—sisters and brothers in Christ who throughout Christian history and today, and even here in this congregation, show us what it means to live the life the Bible teaches. The Bible tells us we ought to be merciful. How do we have any earthly idea what it looks like to show mercy, other than some abstract idea of what we imagine mercy to be? When we read about mercy in the Bible, we know what that is because we’ve seen merciful people show mercy to others and show mercy to us. That’s why the church throughout history has honored certain Christians as saints, exemplary role models for living the Christian life. Timothy had his saints—at the beginning of this text he’s told, “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” Earlier in the letter, Timothy’s reminded that he learned the faith through the faith that lived in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. He learned how to live the life of faith because they and others who were before him and beside him in the church modeled the Christian life for him. Like musicians and artists and writers and athletes, we learn the Christian life through imitation, by looking to good examples and seeking to do likewise.

One of those exemplary Christians from the church’s past is Saint Vincent of Saragossa, an ancient Christian deacon from Spain who died early in the fourth century AD. We may not talk about St. Vincent much in Baptist churches, but on January 22 many churches throughout the world commemorate his life and martyrdom. We don’t know much about the life of Vincent, apart from the fact that during a major persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 304, Vincent was arrested for his devotion to Christ and put to death. According to early Christian tradition, Vincent was tried along with his bishop Valerius, who had a speech impediment and had Vincent speak for him. Vincent testified to his bishop’s faith and his own faith so passionately that he enraged the governor, and Vincent was condemned to being tortured to death, roasted alive on a gridiron. Martyrs like Vincent of Saragossa remind us that embodying the biblical story means taking up our crosses and following Jesus, and that bearing the cross costs us everything. It always involves a death to self, and it sometimes involves the death of our self.

A few years ago I wrote a hymn text that gave voice to some of the things divinity school students ought to be committed to about Christ, the Bible, and the ministry of the church. The second stanza was about the Bible, and in that stanza I tried to say something about what it might mean to let the Bible be the Bible in the life of the church. I’m not going to sing it, but the words go like this:

Through the Bible God has spoken
Pointing us to Christ the Word.
In its story of salvation
Still the Spirit’s voice is heard.
As we learn to teach the Bible,
Its great message to declare,
May we each embrace God’s story
That in God’s life we might share.

That applies not just to divinity school students preparing to be vocational ministers. Every follower of Christ is responsible to embody the biblical story in word and deed, to teach and declare it, but we can’t do that on our own. As we embrace the story of the Triune God told by the Bible, that story becomes our own story to such an extent that we’re participating not only in a story—we’re participating in God’s very life, and God’s life participates in us. When we let the Bible be the Bible, that’s precisely what happens. And when it happens, we find ourselves moving toward the unity for which we pray during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Will you let the Bible draw you into God’s life and God’s life into yours? May it be so, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Baptist World reviews Ecumenism Means You, Too

The current issue of Baptist World magazine (published by the Baptist World Alliance) includes this brief review of my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity:
In his usual lucid style, Harmon offers an accessible book full of informed, wise and helpful insights for anyone who cares about our Lord's prayer for the unity of the church. This is a book every Christian ought to read (Baptist World vol. 59, no. 1 [January/March 2012], p. 30).

Interested in the book? Order Ecumenism Means You, Too directly from Cascade Books or via Amazon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Doing ecclesial theology in Kentucky

Next week I have a succession of speaking engagements in Kentucky that in various ways will be exercises in "ecclesial theology" as explored in this blog: "doing theology in, with, and for the church--in the midst of its divisions, and toward its visible unity in one eucharistic fellowship."

On Sunday, January 22, I will be the guest preacher for the 10:45 AM worship service at Lyndon Baptist Church in Louisville. In connection with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25), my sermon "Let the Bible Be the Bible" (Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8) will challenge my fellow Baptists to embrace and embody one of the gifts our tradition has to offer the rest of the church--a radical biblicism that at its best draws us into participation in the Triune God of the biblical story--even while acknowledging that we have received the gift of the Scriptures from the church that has preceded us and share in common with the rest of the church today this normative source of authority for Christian faith and practice.

Sunday afternoon from 2:30 until 5:30 PM I will lead a workshop for Eastern Area Community Ministries in Louisville based on my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (workshop meets at Lyndon Baptist Church).

Sunday evening at 7:00 PM I will preach the homily for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service sponsored by Eastern Area Community Ministries (also held at Lyndon Baptist Church). My homily "Christianity Unity--Christ's Victory, Our Task" (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; John 17:11-23) will develop the theme of the 2012 observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: "We Will All Be Changed By the Victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

Monday and Tuesday (January 23-24) I will participate on the program of a conference on "Christian Life and Witness: From the Academy to the Church" sponsored by the Center for Christian Discernment and Academic Leadership at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. I will speak as a member of a panel scheduled for Tuesday at 9:30 AM addressing the theme "Academic Witness to the Church" that also includes Philip Thompson (Sioux Falls Seminary) and Christopher Hall (Chancellor, Eastern University), chaired by Brad Creed (Provost, Samford University).

I'm looking forward to these opportunities to do theology in, with, and for the church. Later this month I'll post material from some of these presentations here at Ecclesial Theology.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christian unity as Christ's victory, and our task

Associated Baptist Press has published my opinion article "Christian Unity as Christ's Victory, and Our Task." An excerpt from the beginning of the article appears below; click on the hyperlinked title for the full text on the ABP web site.

The theme for the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25) is “We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Based on First Corinthians 15: 51-58, the theme encourages Christians to seek visible unity of the church at a time when divisions seem to be worsening and apathy about those divisions increasing.

The basic premise of New Testament eschatology -- the doctrine of hope for the realization of God’s creative purposes in the victory of Christ -- is this: the reign of God that has come near in Christ is already a present reality, but it is not yet fully realized.

That’s the biblical framework for the quest to realize the unity Christ prayed for his church in John 17. Christians already possess unity in that they belong to the one body of Christ and are indwelt by one Spirit. But as the current divisions of the church attest, this unity is not yet fully realized, for its fullness is not visible. (continue reading article)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Eucharistic sharing and living into unity

A church newsletter column by Alan Combs, pastor of Lane Memorial United Methodist Church in Altavista, Virginia, kindly references and quotes from Ecumenism Means You, Too in calling the congregation's attention to the observance of the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25 (click on hyperlink to read the full column). Rev. Combs then introduces plans for Lane Memorial UMC to "live into the unity for which Christ prayed" through a joint celebration of the Eucharist with a neighboring Episcopal church, authorized by the churches' respective bishops, as a grassroots implementation of the commendation of "interim Eucharistic sharing" in the 2006 report of a national bilateral dialogue in the United States between the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church. I'm delighted to know of this, for I'm convinced that national and international ecumenical dialogues ultimately accomplish little unless their results are received and implemented at the local level.

For what it's worth, Rev. Combs led a study group at a previous parish he served as pastor, Heritage United Methodist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, to take up a multi-week discussion of Ecumenism Means You, Too. That's just the sort of use I envisioned for the book, and I hope other readers of Ecclesial Theology will consider doing likewise.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition" online in PDF

Good news--the full text of the World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order study document One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition. A Study Text (Faith and Order Paper no. 210; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2011), published late last year in hard copy, is now available online in PDF on the WCC web site (click on hyperlinked title). Printed copies may be ordered directly from WCC Publications, Rte de Ferney 150, P.O. BOX 2100, CH-1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland; e-mail:; Tel. +41 22 791 60 18; Fax. +41 22 798 13 46.

I hope all readers of Ecclesial Theology will take the time to download and read "One Baptism," ponder its implications, call it to the attention of others, and take up discussion of the questions posed by the study document in their own Christian communities. (I've encouraged my own Baptist tradition to do so in my Baptist World article "'One Baptism': A Study Text for Baptists.")

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Christian unity--already/not yet

The January 2012 issue of Baptists Today (vol. 30, no. 1) includes in its Quotation Remarks section on p. 8 a quote from me: "Christians already possess unity in that they belong to the one body of Christ and are indwelt by one Spirit. But as the current divisions of the church attest, this unity is not yet fully realized, for its fullness is not visible." --Steven R. Harmon, Baptist theologian and author of Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (Cascade Books), urging participation in the Jan. 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity promoted by the World Council of Churches

The quote is extracted from a forthcoming Associated Baptist Press opinion article scheduled for publication later this month; details will be posted on Ecclesial Theology when the full article appears.