American Prophet?

Below is a review I wrote that was published in a recent issue of Church History, the quarterly journal of the American Society of Church History. Many fascinating individuals shaped American Christianity in the 19th century and this book looks at one such figure who emerged out of Restorationism and who was somewhat out of the mainstream.

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. Edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Landand Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ix + 365 pp. $34.95 paper.

This book grows out of a 2009 conference of historians and scholars affiliated with the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians held in Ellen Harmon White’s birthplace, Portland, ME. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Adventists in general and Ellen White in particular were seen as inhabiting the margins of protestant Christianity despite their dramatic growth in the United States, Australia, and much of the developing world.

The 44 scholars who gathered to mark the 165th anniversary of the Adventist “great disappointment” included contributors to this volume. Ellen Harmon White wrote over 70,000 pages during her long career, and since her death a voluminous apologetic literature about her has been produced within Seventh-day Adventism. But little historical and theological scholarship has emerged until recently, and this work represents the fruit of the emerging field of Ellen Harmon White studies as a distinctive subset of Seventh-day Adventist and Adventist studies.

The eighteen chapters are framed by historians Grant Wacker and Jonathan Butler. Wacker reminds readers that the nineteenth century in which the major portion of Ellen White’s ministry took place was a time when “Victorian America witnessed a degree of change . . . that progressed from the effervescence of the Second Great Awakening to the stable ordering of the Industrial Revolution,” a transition from “a pre-modern to a modern way of life” (ix).

In that context, Butler emphasizes that Ellen White cannot be understood apart from her roots as a “shouting” Methodist, “whose upbringing had predisposed her to charismatic phenomena” that would shape the essence of her ministry (7). She would become a “prophet” whose charismatic utterances and voluminous writings shaped Adventism “into a domestic religion with her concern for child nurture and education, diet and health, marriage and family” (12).

Early Adventist lecturers were known for their rationalistic explanations of William Miller’s teaching that Christ would return to earth in 1843-1844. Ann Taves describes how Ellen White’s shouting Methodist upbringing framed her response to Millerite prophetic failure and its disastrous impact on Adventist followers.

Theologically, according to Graeme Sharrock, White and her husband James “proposed that [William] Miller was right as to the date, but wrong regarding the event” (54) October 22, 1844 marked not the return of Christ to earth, but “the start of Judgment Day—a complex event centered not on earth but in heaven.” This is a theme that I explore in the first chapter of my book, Adventism Confronts Modernity: An Account of the Advent Christian Controversy Over the Bible’s Inspiration (Wipf and Stock, 2017), and a theme that framed Seventh-day Adventist teaching regarding the “investigative judgment.”

White’s published testimonies read by Adventist individuals and congregations were at the heart of her prophetic identity and “wielded an extraordinary spiritual power among antebellum Adventists” (69). In Ronald Graybill’s words, Ellen White’s “Spirit of Prophecy” allowed Sabbatarian Adventists to “see themselves as the remnant of God’s true church” (79). While Ellen White never held formal denominational office, there is little doubt about her formative role in Seventh-day Adventism both in North America and in Australia, where she lived for nine years from 1891-1900. Her prophetic utterances and writings were supplemented by an extensive speaking schedule. Hence, “most of the medical, education, publishing, and other institutions of the Seventh-day Adventist church,” according to Floyd Greenleaf and Jerry Moon, “are traceable directly or indirectly to counsels of Ellen White” (139).

The chapters at the heart of this volume address Ellen White’s theology. While she was not an academic theologian, three matters were especially important to her. First, according to Fritz Guy, she parted company with most nineteenth-century evangelicals with her claim that biblical inspiration was not verbal but dynamic. “It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired,” in White’s words quoted by Guy, “but the men who were inspired” (149). In her interpretation of Scripture, she was traditional, even fundamentalist, in some ways (for example, her literal reading of the King James Bible) and progressive in others.

Second, in Bart Haloviak’s words, Ellen White identified “the Sabbath as the final testing truth that would pit the obedient children of God against those who instead followed the “beast,” interpreted as a prophetic representation of the papacy” (167). This “third angel message” helped form the unique identity of Seventh-day Adventism. Third, Ellen White reinterpreted the Millerite message of the return of Christ into “a non-falsifiable event,” according to Jonathan Butler. Instead of returning to earth, Christ “had stayed in the sanctuary of heaven and as ‘our High Priest’ moved from the ‘holy’ to the ‘most holy’ place” (182).

Several chapters explore Ellen White’s attitudes toward society, culture, gender, war, slavery, and race. Perhaps most important is her understanding of the relationship between science and faith, a subject explored by Ronald L. Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin. Ellen White saw “true” science as harmonious with faith, but viewed the evolutionary work of Charles Darwin and others as “science falsely so-called” (196), and declared that “the Bible is not to be tested by men’s ideas of science” (197). While her “influence on the [young earth] creationist movement was almost entirely posthumous and largely accidental” (217), it is not surprising that later Seventh-day Adventists like George McCready Price pioneered “flood geology,” an idea that became foundational for 1960s young earth creationist writers like Henry Morris.

Numbers and Schoepflin illustrate this vital aspect of Ellen White’s legacy both in Seventh-day Adventism and in the larger world of American Christianity. It is one reason why this is a valuable collection of essays that historians interested in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will want to read and engage. Ellen Harmon White needs to be seen as a restorationist figure in her own right alongside Francis Asbury, William Miller, Barton Stone,  and others who established uniquely American versions of Christianity.

The writers help us see that much of Ellen Harmon White’s work involved reinterpretation of the Adventist message in the aftermath of the October 1844 disappointment. She offered an interpretation that reshaped Adventist eschatology and merged it with Sabbatarianism, a move that gave Seventh-day Adventists a distinct advantage over other Adventist groups who understood Adventism solely in theological terms. This point allows this reviewer to note one substantive error where the writer indicates that the Advent Christian Church was founded in 1845 (38-39). Actually, the Herald (Evangelical) Adventists organized then, while the Crisis Adventists (called that because of the name of their publication, The World’s Crisis) would later form the Advent Christian Church in 1860.

This collection of essays offers fresh thinking about Ellen Harmon White and points toward the need for a scholarly biography of her life and work. It helps us understand Ellen Harmon White in the context of her time and appreciate her significance in American religious history.

 

Churches in a Distracted, Ideological Age

Last week, I found myself watching Netflix and decided to watch one of their original programs, a series that had moved over from one of the major networks after being unceremoniously removed last year. I thought the premise was fascinating so decided to watch what the streaming service had done to it.

Was I ever surprised. With the transition to Netflix, the characters–men and women both– were now using the F-word so liberally that it made it hard to watch. Everyone was channeling their inner Howard Stern. Then came the portrayals of deviant sexual behavior and acts of gratuitous political power. The remote got a workout fast-forwarding through all of this garbage. And I thought, “Why take a good story premise and ruin it with all of this stuff!”

Coarseness now dominates American life

This was one instance of what I see as a dangerous pattern emerging in American life. Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and others have told us that visual media like television cause us to see life and all it contains as entertainment designed to amuse our individual selves and arouse our individual desires. And, with so much distraction, with so much competition for our shortened attention spans, what catches our attention is shock value.

I think that now frames almost every other aspect of life, and in an age dominated by social media it is almost impossible to escape. Now you can read and hear the President of the United States and his political opponents in the other party spew out expletive after expletive on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Even preachers are getting into the act as witnessed by the gratuitous tawdry attack on Pastor David Platt after he tried to do what is right in terms of praying for a politician who showed up as his Sunday service with little notice. (I won’t name the guilty party as he doesn’t deserve the publicity.) American evangelicals have jumped into their own food-fight over how politics and faith should intersect.

American culture has always struggled with this. It didn’t start in the 1960s, and if you don’t believe me look at the writings of prominent Americans throughout our history. We like to idolize the American founders like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and others. But go back and read their thoughts about each other as well as about their fellow citizens. Don’t forget to read what they wrote about slaves and native Americans while you’re at it. Look at the rhetoric throughout American history and you will see it.

Coarseness has always been part of American culture, but now our postmodern technological world means that we confront it every day on television, on social media, even in our workplaces and out neighborhoods. It’s like the old adage of the frog in the kettle. All around us, the temperature is slowly almost imperceptibly being turned up and we don’t realize it. Meanwhile, the things that actually matter are lost in webs of distraction and we’re unable to think clearly, feel appropriately, and live well.

Living differently and living well

I don’t claim to have all of the answers for how we confront this. Like you, I’m trying under the guidance of the Triune God to follow Jesus both individually and in the various communities in which God has called me to live and work. But I think that one big place where we can begin to address these matters is within our congregations among the people whom God has called us to worship with. Whether you go to a numerically small or large congregation, whether you go to a rural, small town, suburban, or urban church, whether your’re in New England, the Midwest, the American South, the mountain states, or the west coast, our congregations are key to helping us live faithfully and well in a world filled with coarseness and destructive tendencies.

Richard Foster has written that most sin falls into one of three categories: money, sex, and power. All three are on regular display in the media we consume and they form a world-view that when combined with American individualism is a destructive brew whose coarseness destroys any sort of human flourishing. I’m convinced that this wicked brew has become so ubiquitous that only the work of communities driven by a different way of living and working in American society can help people flourish as they follow Christ.

Andy Crouch has called this work “culture-making,” the creation of an alternative way of life that functions as an outpost of the Kingdom of God in a corrupt culture. I think that must be the work of the church in congregations throughout Canada, the United States and Europe. Stanley Hauerwas has argued that Christians must be described as “resident aliens” who live in our technological, materialistic society with allegiance to God alone.  But I wonder if we are up to the challenge? We’re driven by theology turned into ideology where viewpoints become weaponized and used to distinguish “us” from “them.” We treat other Christians who disagree with us about some secondary piece of theology with the same coarseness we find in society.  Our churches, small and large, seem driven by values alien to God’s kingdom. We approach church with a “what’s in it for me” view of life. Our worship either recreates a modern rock-concert or yearns for 1954. We have desacralized Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the point where many Christians would be shocked to realize that our Lord actually commanded us to practice them with regularity. We’ve even fallen for what Jacques Ellul has termed “the political illusion” where we think that all of our problems will be solved if only we can get “our people” into office.

Christ-centered and person-centered

I think our congregations need to become more Christ-centered and person centered, and less institution centered. Size doesn’t matter much here. Churches, large and small, are often institution centered and the results of that are things like the cover up of clergy sexual abuse in many Catholic and Protestant (even evangelical) settings. The reputation of the church becomes more important than the dignity and worth of the abuse victim.

Being Christ centered and person centered in my view means that congregations are there to provide a fellowship where all of us learn to follow Jesus in the course of our daily lives. This culture has been very hard for many people. it can be a welcoming place if you have enough money to engage in its pleasures, but by the time you realize that those things have done deep harm to your soul it is often too late. I think our congregations need to be places where lonely and broken people can learn to flourish in Christ. That means congregations offer not only love, acceptance, and forgiveness in Christ, but that we help people come to terms with the harmful effects of a sinful world and learn to follow Christ. That is one reason why I think the exposition of Holy Scripture combined with prayer and the care of souls is so vital to pastoral ministry. It is another reason why well-run small groups are become places where Christians can learn to practice Christian koinonia to others.

Let me ask you a question that I have asked my pastor on more than one occasion Would members of the Democratic party feel welcome in your church? I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, but in hanging around churches for much of my adult life I get the sense that in many evangelical congregations most of those who attend are Republican in their political orientation. A couple of Sundays ago, when my pastor was on vacation the individual who filled the pulpit in the midst of his message took a swipe at the British national health system and proceeded to claim that having lived there for a couple of years as a young adult, he hoped that something like that would never come to the United States. I happened to disagree with him (I have heard other anecdotes from those who think the British and Canadian systems are great) and I wondered how many others in the church disagreed but were afraid to say anything. The point is not an argument over the merits and demerits of American health care health insurance reform, the point is using our congregations to foster partisan political views on which well-meaning Christians might disagree.

This is what I am getting at: Being Christ-centered and being person-centered means that our primary concern is not the preservation of an institution, an agency, an ideology, even the organizational form of a congregation. The church does not exist to preserve itself, that is the work of the Spirit. Organized congregations have come and gone for 2,000 years and the church is still alive and proclaiming “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The church does not exist to baptize whatever political party or leader currently is in power. The Deutsche Christen made this mistake in Germany and acquiesced to Hitler’s mad destruction of Europe and ultimately of Germany itself. The church does not exist to fight over tertiary theological matters like the mechanics of how God created the heavens and earth, whether premillennialism or amillenialism is the best teaching regarding the return of Christ, whether God’s providence is meticulous or general, even whether an individual is  conscious or unconscious during the intermediate state. When our theological views become ideological, the “good news” of the gospel becomes the bad news of human intolerance.

Our congregations are filled with people who struggle with the brokenness of sexual sin, the lust for power, the fracturing of family and other human relations, the love of money and things. They need our congregations to be places where they hear every week of a better way,  the way of Christ and the path toward human flourishing in Christ. They need our congregations to be good listeners as they process these things. They need our congregations where to be places where the real presence of Christ is experienced in the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. (If your church does not celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least monthly, I challenge you to do so in obedience to our Lord’s command.) They need congregations who declare that the things of this world, including political leaders, are merely temporal and that only the eternal Kingdom of God is worthy of our allegiance.

Above all, they need congregations and people that are faithful to Christ, and who flourish as they follow him no matter their economic, ethnic, or cultural background.

 

 

 

 

Was Nero Caesar “Left Behind?”

 Since the Second World War, biblical prophecy has driven Christian book sales especially in the United States. With each new decade, a new best-seller promises to solve the puzzles and offer us a reliable countdown to the end of history. Moreover, the best seller of all best sellers in the 20th century was none other than The Late Great Planet Earth.[1] To be honest, in my early years in the faith I was captivated by the prophetic speculations of Hal Lindsey and others. Fortunately, my engagement with Christian theology leads to the rest of the story.

The book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret and for 1,900 years Christians have been wrestling with how to make sense of the visions and dreams reported by John the Elder. This writer does not pretend to have the book figured out, not even close. Moreover, the more he reads and engages with the text, the more questions emerge. So these reflections are based on several recent readings of the text along with interaction with the work of Gordon Fee, N.T. Wright, John Stott, and others.

As one who affirms the inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture, this writer thinks that understanding the text must begin with trying to get at the author’s original intentions (something that is not as easy as it might seem).[2] What was John the Elder attempting to communicate to his audience, the church leaders and congregants of the seven Asia Minor congregations that the author lists in chapters two and three. The entire book of Revelation was written to address their concerns, concerns rooted in the opposition and selective persecution they faced from Rome and its governing authorities. That reality must shape how we understand the book in our day and time. Revelation cannot be understood apart from its first-century context.

In the aftermath of the modern Enlightenment, several interpretive schools of thought have emerged concerning how to interpret the book and its content. While each has positive things to contribute to understanding Revelation, too often they lead us away from the text and what the author was attempting to communicate to his original listeners. The book of Revelation has at least three literary genres that shape its interpretation. The book is a prophecy (1:3), a declaring of the Word of God by John. Revelation is also an example of apocalyptic literature. The proper title is “The Apocalypse” and this form of Jewish literature was common in the first century and focused on conflict between God and the forces of evil (which Christians believe is rooted in Satan, the devil and the enemy of our faith) in language that describes a global and heavenly confrontation.[3] Finally, the book contains letters written to seven specific congregations which were written to be read during worship, probably with the contents of the entire book.

What does the text say?

While this cannot be an exhaustive exposition of the entire book, there are several keys that shape how we understand and interpret the book. First, while the author identifies the book as “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), he does indicate that the book is written to the “seven churches in the province of Asia (1:4) that are identified in chapter one, verse eleven. John follows the same pattern as the Apostle Paul in his letters, and this tells us that the book of Revelation in its entirety is addressed to Christians in these seven congregations, not only the letters of chapters two and three, but the visions of the 24 elders in chapters four and five, the visions of the conflict described in chapters 6-18, and the return of Christ and the eternal kingdom articulated in chapters 19-22.

Second, more than any other New Testament document, the book of Revelation cites or alludes to images found in the Old Testament, especially from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah.  For example, John liberally uses the number “seven” and speaks of seven churches, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven trumpets, and so on. The allusion to Genesis 1:1-2:3 is apparent where “seven days” is used to indicate that all of creation is the result of God’s creative activity. Even in the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls, we see a parallel to the seventh-day in Genesis 2:1-3 where God rested. In the same way that the number seven alludes to the perfection of God’s creative activity, so the same number offers an indication of God’s consummation of his Kingdom, or what N.T. Wright terms “new creation.”[4] Scripture offers a Christian understanding of human history through its sequencing of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (or “new creation”) and the book of Revelation is integral to that.

Moreover, understanding the text of Revelation means grasping the significance of the many Old Testament allusions found throughout the book. This reflects what the evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington sees as foundational to understanding New Testament teaching in its entirety.[5] Witherington remarks that the New Testament represents the efforts of its writers, indeed of all first century Christians, to come to grips with the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and how all of the Old Testament is fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is so significant that for the New Testament writers, everything has changed. In the face of the first-century Roman religion of emperor worship, Christians can no longer say that “Caesar is Lord.” Now they proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” and this proclamation has deep implications for how they live in the midst of a hostile Roman society.[6]

Third, because all of the book of Revelation is addressed to hearers and readers in the seven Asia Minor congregations, they will naturally understand the images found throughout the book. For example, they will understand the use of gematria in Revelation 13:18 where John identifies the “beast” with the number “666” (more on this later, but this writer is convinced that they knew the meaning of this number in terms of the identity of the beast).[7]They will understand the significance of the number “144,000” found in Revelation 7 as representative of the people of God. They will grasp the meaning of the measurements of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21. The visions articulated by John are not meant to be mysterious to his readers. Instead they are to provide concrete hope to the people of God who face political and religious opposition from the Roman Empire. As strong as Rome now appeared, it was temporal. But God’s kingdom is eternal and will be fully revealed by Jesus Christ at the end of history when he returns to earth. In other words, God wins!

Finally, while in the eyes of John and his readers the book represents both present and future events, for those of us reading the book 1,900 years later the book represents past, present, and future. This is where the various schools of interpretation often lead us astray. Preterists often see the book as almost entirely taking place in the past (even for some the return of Christ). A number of Historicists see the images of the book as representing specific historical events over the past 1,900 years.[8] Futurists see everything after Revelation 3 as located entirely future to our 21st century historical location.[9] None of these views do full justice to a historical, grammatical, literary, and cultural reading of the text. Our goal in reading is not to adhere to a specific school of thought but to read the text on its own terms.

This writer suggests that a proper reading of the text leads to an interpretative schema that sees chapters 6-18 as having past, present, and future dimensions with its ultimate goal reflecting the bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth and the “already but not yet” Kingdom of God being fully realized in a “new heaven and new earth,” ie, “new creation.”

Two interpretive issues

The brevity of this paper only permits time for exploration of two interpretive issues that shed light on how we read the text. The first is the tendency of some scholars to identify the second beast of Revelation 13 with the term “antichrist” identified in 1 John 2:18-23. The term “antichrist” is only used in 1 John, and he offers a clear biblical definition of the term. “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Earlier in the passage John indicates that his readers have heard that the antichrist is coming, but “even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). John seems to indicate that the term “antichrist” does not refer to a single individual but to multiple persons who deny Christ and who despite outward appearances have not gone out from the people of God (1 John 2:19).

This biblical understanding of antichrist as describing multiple individuals frames this writer’s interpretation of Revelation 6-18. Before we get there, we need to return to Revelation 13 and speak to the identity of the second beast in that chapter. Insight into that identification is actually found in Revelation 17 in the identification of “Mystery Babylon the Great.” Babylon is described as “the woman who was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (17:6). That woman rode on “the beast which has seven heads and ten horns” (17:7).

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Anyone who attempted to force Christians to proclaim that “Caesar is Lord” is an antichrist because Christians could only claim that “Jesus is Lord.” And John shows why by linking Rome to Babylon and describing its destruction, while showing that the Kingdom of God transcends all temporal empires. 

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This beast is identified in two ways. First, “the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits” (17:9). Rome has always been known as the city of seven hills, and this is an obvious reference to that city. Moreover, it is not surprising that John would equate Rome with Babylon. In Daniel 2 and Daniel 7, Babylon and Rome are two of the four great world empires, each of which stand in opposition to God and his purposes. The second way the beast is identified is through the curious phrase “who once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction” (17:8). This is a play on the phrase found in Revelation 1:8: “who is, and who was, and who is to come,” a phrase that clearly identifies Jesus Christ.

So if this identifies Jesus Christ, then who is identified by this strange phrase in chapter 17. Assuming that John wrote the book in AD 90-95, this writer suggests that it refers to Nero Caesar. Nero was probably the most feared emperor of the first century and most likely the man responsible for the deaths of the Apostles Paul and Peter, as well as hundreds of Christians whom he blamed for the fires that swept Rome as part of his failed efforts at urban renewal (“who once was”). He had been dead for over 20 years at the time of John’s writing (“now is not’). Now a new Nero would return in the person of the current emperor Domitian and in future emperors who would bring opposition, even death, to those Christians who refuse to take the mark of the beast (which in my view simply means their refusal to confess that “Caesar is Lord”). So Revelation 17 helps us understand the gematria of Revelation 13:18 and make a primary (but not a sole) identification of the second beast as Nero Caesar.[10]

The second interpretive issue is that John’s intent is probably not to identify the second beast exclusively with Nero Caesar but with the theological character of Roman state religion. In the first century B.C. Rome began to identify their emperors with deity at their death. But beginning with Nero the identification of deity with the emperor happened while the emperor was still alive. Nero, Domitian, and their successors were now seen as objects of patriotic worship.  Anyone who attempted to force Christians to proclaim that “Caesar is Lord” is an antichrist because Christians could only claim that “Jesus is Lord.” And John shows why by linking Rome to Babylon and describing its destruction, while showing that the Kingdom of God transcends all temporal empires.  This fits nicely with John’s description of multiple antichrists that we noted earlier in 1 John 2, and suggests some fresh ways of interpreting the book of Revelation that are relevant to the people of God in the 21st century.

An interpretive schema

In thinking about interpretation, it is important to grasp the difference between exegesis and interpretation. Earlier, we described the importance of authorial intent for understanding the message of Scripture. Exegesis involves just that, in that we strive to determine what the author attempted to communicate to his original hearers. Only after that can we engage in hermeneutics, toward interpreting and applying Revelation (or any biblical text) for our contemporary context.

This is where the various schools of interpretation come into play. The various forms of preterism, historicism, and futurism are mostly questions of hermeneutics as opposed to exegesis in that they address how the text speaks to contemporary Christianity. The interpretations that draw around Reformed amillennialism, Dispensational premillennialism, parallel historicism, ,and other schools of thought speak primarily to how we interpret the text in our present day. But for any of those interpretations to be valid, they must be grounded in what the author desired to tell his readers and listeners.

This writer seeks to build his interpretive schema on the conviction that Revelation speaks to past, present, and future. Some argue that properly interpreted, the New Testament must been seen as teaching there are two distinct peoples of God. This is a complex argument that cannot be described here, but the point is that only chapters one through three are seen as applying to the church, while chapters four through eighteen are viewed as applying only to a national Israel.[11] The fundamental problem with this viewpoint in this writer’s opinion is that it reads a theological schema on the biblical text that the author did not intend. In Revelation 1:10-11, John indicates that while he was “in the Spirit” he was commanded to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.” Moreover, what he writes is “what is now and what will take place later” (1:19). From this passage, it is clear that the message of entire book is for those seven churches, not just one portion of it. Everything in the entire book of Revelation is written for Christians in those seven congregations (and by extension to us).

An important corollary to this conviction is that because the entire book is written for these followers of Jesus who face significant opposition from the Roman government, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, the apocalyptic images and references in chapters four through eighteen speak of Rome as a political entity. In other words, the evil described in those chapters finds its initial fulfillment in the Roman Empire itself. As John weaves vision after vision, image after image, followers of Jesus knew exactly what he was speaking about. They faced incredible opposition from a powerful force about which they could do nothing. But as powerful as Rome was, a day would come when it would be smashed by the eternal God. Caesar thought he was god, and indeed Caesar was powerful. But like all human empires, Rome would fall in the face of the eternal God who was working out his purposes in human history.

Moreover, the sequencing of the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls found in chapters 6-18 points toward an intensification of opposition. For example, notice that each of the sequences ends with activity in heaven. The opening of the seventh seal in Revelation 8 leads to silence in heaven followed by the inauguration of the seven trumpets. The blowing of the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11 is followed by worship in heaven followed by even more significant destruction on earth. The seventh bowl is poured out with the cry, “It is done” (Revelation 16:17) and followed with unprecedented destruction visited on Babylon/Rome. This intensification can be seen in the all of the seals-trumpets-bowls.[12]In terms of our exegesis, we discover that chapters six through eighteen primarily reference first century Rome and that the beast (or “antichrist”) referenced is the office of the Roman Emperor. The question then becomes whether or not the seals-trumpets-bowls schema in Revelation speaks to future periods of Christian history as well.

Many preterists would answer “no” and argue that Revelation 19 speaks to something other than a literal return of Christ to earth. Historicists will see Revelation 6-18 as speaking to a progression in human history leading up to a future return of Christ. Futurists see everything from Revelation 6 on as referring to events still yet to take place.

What is John the Elder attempting to communicate in these texts? How should we read Revelation 6-18 as the people of God today? Can we make sure that our reading takes into account the intent of the author in terms of his historical and cultural context, and in terms of the grammar and literary forms found in the book?

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Evil will continue to intensify. But we take courage in the same way that Christians did during John’s time. No matter how evil the times seem, no matter what happens, we have confidence that the Triune God is present with us, and that we will see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face at his return. Amen. Come Lord Jesus Christ.

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I think the literary structure suggests good ways to read the text and make the following observations:

  1. The seven churches found in the first three chapters are real congregations and all of the book is addressed to them. Moreover, John has written to them in language that they would readily understand given their personal, political, and cultural contexts.
  2. The heavenly scenes communicate the nearness of heaven and earth. Modern people are used to thinking of heaven as something far distant and ethereal and not connected to the reality of earth. But for John, heaven is a concrete reality that will be fully realized on earth at the return of Jesus Christ.
  3. John’s understanding of multiple antichrists in his first letter fits well with his identification of Babylon with Roman emperor worship. Even after the fall of Rome, antichrists will continue to appear in human history right up until the return of Jesus Christ. Mohammed, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and others fill the bill, and historically the number of antichrists can be expected to grow and intensify leading up to the end of this age.
  4. The seals, trumpets, and bowls convey an intensification of evil from the time of the resurrection until Christ’s return. They are parallel accounts of this intensification of evil, and while we cannot equate specific historical events with the pestilences described, they do demonstrate that evil will grow stronger as world history moves toward the return of Christ. This “parallel historical” description fits the intentions of the text better than the preterist, continuous historicist, idealist, and futurist schools of interpretation.[13]
  5. This interpretative schema leaves open the possibility of a future singular antichrist who will dominate the political, cultural, and religious landscapes of the world. While the text does not require a future singular antichrist, it certainly leaves room for it but refuses to be dogmatic. This is a matter that well-meaning Christians can and should disagree over and it certainly is not central to the faith.
  6. A parallel historical schema reflects the entire New Testament teaching that the return of Jesus Christ will be personal, visible, and not subject to any secret prophetic knowledge that some may claim. Too many people have argued about various prophetic interpretations, and attempted to make certain images and symbols fit with historical or future events to the point where the people of God have been distracted from their mission in the world. The reality is that only the Father knows the day and time of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36-37) and useless speculation is harmful.

In no way do I pretend that this is the final word on understanding and interpreting the book of Revelation. I think this is the best way to understand the book in terms of reading the text on its own terms, but I recognize that well-meaning Christians will disagree. Our interpretation of Revelation should not be a test of Christian orthodoxy unless that interpretation denies the core of Christian faith and the Christian understanding of history in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. I simply offer this as my understanding as I try to be faithful to the author’s original intent.

All of this to say that we can be confident that evil will continue to grow and expand during this age when the Kingdom of God is “already but not yet.” Christians are not immune from suffering, persecution, and death. Indeed, even today Christians are suffering and facing death for their faith in places throughout the world. Evil will continue to intensify. But we take courage in the same way that Christians did during John’s time. No matter how evil the times seem, no matter what happens, we have confidence that the Triune God is present with us, and that we will see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face at his return. Amen. Come Lord Jesus Christ.

Notes

[1] Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970). Ironically, the title was a take-off from Curt Gentry’s 1969 novel titled The Last Days of the Late Great State of California, a description of events that might occur if a massive earthquake destroyed everything west of the San Andreas fault.

[2] Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart make this this important point in How to Read the Bible for All its Worth 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 23-24; 249-50. David Bebbington in Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought 4th.ed. (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2018) describes the impact of Postmodernism on historical and literary research and points out that characteristic to postmodern interpretation is the assertion that authorial intent is essentially undiscoverable and therefore, all interpretation is “reader-response” meaning that each reader “interprets” the text apart from any historical context. See 139-141 for discussion.

[3] For a description of this literary form, see Leon Morris, Apocalyptic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972).

[4] N.T. Wright uses the term “new creation” when he speaks of this fourfold movement of God in human history. See N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 67.

[5] Ben Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[6] The second-century text, The Martyrdom of Polycarp offers a dramatic illustration of Christian unwillingness to practice emperor worship. In 167 AD, when Polycarp is ushered into the stadium to either deny Christ or face certain death, he replies “For eighty-six years, I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” cf. Michael W. Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 317

[7] See G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 174-77).

[8] This is characteristic of the continuous historical school of interpretation. While the continuous historical school of thought has few modern-day adherents, a strong intellectually sound defense can be found in Oral C. Collins, The Final Prophecy of Jesus: An Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007). Parallel historicists would disagree with the continuous historical interpretive schema though both schools argue that the seals, trumpets, and bowls describe the period of time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return to earth in the future.

[9] For a scholarly commentary written from a dispensationalist futurist point of view, see John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, Moody Press, 1966).

[10] For a further explanation of gemetria and its usage in this passage, see Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2d.ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 757. Keener points out that the term translated as “mark” in 13:16 “is among other things, the regular term for the imperial stamp on documents and of the image of his head on coins.”

[11] Known as Dispensational-premillennialism, this school of thought originated with John Nelson Darby in the early to mid-19th century and had its ablest 20th century defenders in C.I. Schofield, John Walvoord, and Charles Ryrie. See, Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965). A more recent view called “Progressive Dispensationalism” offers a different reading of the Kingdom of God and embraces the “already but not yet” idea of the Kingdom of God while still holding for a distinct future for Israel as a political entity. See Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Bridgepoint, 2000).

[12] J. Scott Duvall, Revelation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 126.

[13] For a chart that demonstrates the interrelationship between the seals, trumpets, and bowls, see Duvall, 126. According to Duvall, “The three series of judgments cover much of the same ground but also increase in intensity….Revelation moves forward in cycles of judgment rather than a neat, linear, sequential progression. Perhaps this slow movement hints at God’s patience in wanting people to repent.” In this writer’s view, this is the reading that is most literal because it allows the text itself to shape the interpretive schema and does not seek to impose a school of thought on the text.

A Third Theological Revolution

Two times in my adult life, I have experienced dramatic change in how I understood and practiced Christian faith. The first occurred in my early twenties with a transition away from a more emotionally based faith (that even included some association with classic Pentecostalism) that could not address the intellectual questions I was wrestling with in college. The catalyst was a little book by John Stott titled Your Mind Matters and the heft was delivered by Os Guinness’s powerful tome titled The Dust of Death published by InterVarsity in 1972. Guinness not only help me to grasp the significance of the 1960s but offered an evangelical faith that spoke to the hard questions sparked by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the various social revolutions that had emerged in the United States.

Finding a faith that spoke to the modern world

So, I found a biblically-based understanding of faith that served as an anchor for a season of deep emotional pain and stress that I experienced in the mid-1970s. If you are like me, you know that the stresses of our early young adult years can play all kinds of havoc on our persons, especially when we need to struggle with how our faith relates to the modern world. And, my introduction to the modern world of working in a Christian school for a couple of years was not a very happy one. In fact it was bad enough to drive me into therapy.

But Stott and Guinness were good guides, especially as I went off to Fuller Seminary to finish my first advanced degree and serve the Advent Christian Church with my vocation. Eventually, I wound up in Charlotte and found a whole set of new challenges–especially adjusting to how Christianity was practiced in the American South. I remember seeing my first public Ku Klux Klan demonstration in broad daylight at the corner of Independence Blvd. and Idlewild Road five months after we had moved. “You’re not in Kansas (or California) anymore,” I thought to myself.

Moving away from rationalist faith

Seeing the Klan do their thing was only part of it. I witnessed some pretty tough church fights and struggled to come to terms with how Christians could be so cruel to each other. I had seen the same thing in California, but this time it touched off the start of another important transition in how I looked at the faith. But the challenge reached a crescendo in 1989 at a theological conference I attended outside of Chicago. Here I saw the dark side of American Evangelicalism. The evangelical elite was attempting to draw doctrinal boundaries and a few presentations got pretty ugly, especially when one of the views I held was denounced as heresy by a TV evangelist. (No, it was not Jim Bakker.)

I didn’t react very well and looking back, I should have simply folded my tent and walked away. Driving home, I realized that I had pretty much bought into the standard Evangelical way of thinking. Believing the Bible, but analyzing it using the canons of logic and human reason. I was a Carl Henry evangelical, and all of a sudden I realized that would no longer work, and that I had become what the UNC Chapel Hill historian Molly Worthen would later describe as an “Apostle of Reason.” Richard Foster had opened my eyes to the affective dimension of faith, and now it was time to jump in. And, out of that, my faith came to a point where the cognitive and affective could be integrated in a way that would draw me toward what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 6 as “union with Christ.”

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Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us.

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And there I have lived for the past 25 years,  learning to read Scripture through a different lens and devouring works by Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and especially  Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard, and a number of writers on the spiritual life. So I reached my sixties thinking that all was well–that is until 2016. It was a rough year–another back surgery,  the demands of a busy academic schedule, the death of my 95-year-old mother whom we had moved from New Mexico in early 2012, and a season when it seemed like the United States and American evangelicalism were coming unglued. I wasn’t looking for it, but I should have known. It was time for another major transition in the way I understand the Christian faith. This one has been sparked with my dissatisfaction with the sad state of American evangelicalism in America 2019.

Life in the Trinity

Anyway, I’m still working this one out, but I want to communicate its broad strokes. It has to do with a fresh reading of the early creeds and confessions, especially the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and my growing conviction that much of American Christianity has cut itself off from the historic Christian faith especially in terms of how we grasp the Triune existence and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Western Christianity seems to have reduced Christian faith to a transaction–a decision that somehow makes one right with God without the ongoing work of the Spirit. But the more one reads Holy Scripture, the clearer it becomes that the essence of Christian faith is relational–relationship with God and as a result learning practices that deepen that relationship and enable us to express it among the people of God and among people outside of the faith.

First the best way to read Scripture is through the the bifocal lens of the early Christian fathers and the creeds and confessions.  Scripture grounds the gospel in human history– in concrete events surrounding our Lord’s death and resurrection. Moreover, Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God frames the Christian faith in the biblical symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and consumnation (what N.T. Wright calls “new creation”).

The early Church Fathers (and mothers) understood this far better than we do. I do not claim that these early Christian writers spoke with one voice on all matters. But I am saying that if we read early Christian writers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine we discover an understanding of faith far more biblical than our modern encrustations allow us to see, especially because how we understand things is clogged by our addictions to technology and American individualism.

Even more, the sixteenth-century reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, understood this and their work reflects a love for the early Christian creeds and the value of the early Church fathers. They were in touch with the early Christian writers in ways that we are not. The Catholic scholar, Robert Louis Wilkin, argues that what emerged from early Christian writing was much more than mere teaching and writing. They crafted an intellectual and affective understanding of life and worship in all of its dimensions that was grounded in what the church taught about Jesus Christ.

Second,  adoption is the key metaphor in understanding the essence of Christian salvation. What happens when we commit to following Jesus? We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. In John’s gospel, over and over Jesus reflects on his oneness with his Father. It is the essence of his identity. Then, in Romans 6 Paul reminds us that followers of Jesus are “united with Christ” meaning that our very identity is shaped by our ongoing relationship with the risen Christ. Through Jesus Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God and through our adoption we are united with Jesus Christ in ongoing  relationship. Just as Jesus is the Father’s natural Son, so we are adopted sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ. This leads to the following.

Third, the Christian life is “life in the Trinity,” where we learn to relationally participate in the Triune life of God as his adopted sons and daughters. I think I’ve known this intuitively but since 2016 it has come front and center especially as I’ve watched so many evangelicals sell their souls to the political idols of our day. About 250 years ago, Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us. Even when we find agreement with others in different groups on 90 percent of what we believe, we become like those evangelicals at that 1989 conference I attended ready to go to theological war over things that we perceive as a threat.

My Christian friends in eastern churches like the Coptic Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox churches see the goal of the Christian life in far different terms. This is not to say that they are anywhere near perfect in following Christ or that they don’t have conflict over theological and political matters. Or that they have no need for reform. But while Western Christianity sees faith as transactional, Eastern Christianity sees it more in relational terms. Nowhere is that better seen than in how Eastern Christians understand the Christian life, what the theologians call “sanctification.”

Western Christians given their transactional approaches to faith see the Christian life reflected in outward practices. Catholics see outward participation in the sacramental life of the church as the ground for Christian life. American Fundamentalism has viewed it in terms of avoidance–non-participation in practices defined by their leadership as “worldly.” Mainline Protestants see it as participation in activities related to their approved understandings of “social justice.” Evangelicals have tended toward the need for theological precision, an impossibility given the conflicts between Baptists and Pentecostals, Methodists and Presbyterians, and a host of disagreements about how best to frame Christian teaching. Eugene Peterson describes all of this for what it is: “Spiritual pornography is prayer and faith without relationship, intimacy with Jesus reduced and debased into an idea or cause to be argued or used” (Tell it Slant, 2008).

Eastern Christianity (and not just Eastern Orthodoxy) tends to view the matter differently. The Christian faith involves learning to participate in the divine life of the Trinity as his adopted sons and daughters. One of my Gordon-Conwell colleagues commented about the importance of this discovery for his own faith. “Oftentimes, I would wake up and wonder how I could find Christian community. Now, I wake up and realize that I don’t have to go find Christian community, because I am already living in community with the the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Exactly.

For a few years back in the 1980s, I subscribed to USA Today. Then I stopped for this reason: Every time I read their editorial page it presented a new “issue of the day” for me to worry about and for me to “virtue signal” that I was fired up and concerned about their flavor of the day. That is an exhausting way to live. What is better is learning to know God and participate in his Triune life. From that posture, I can then live with purpose while recognizing my human limits. I cannot fix America or the world. I cannot even fix myself. But i can align myself with the Triune God because he is sovereign and he sustains me as I live in community with him simply because I am a recipient of his amazing grace.

As I said above, I’m still working out all of this especially as I witness the decline of American Evangelicalism. Perhaps that decline is best because we can stop with the “virtue signaling” and allow the Spirit to draw us deeper as individuals and communities of faith into what actually matters–the Triune God himself.

Death and Martyrdom in Sri Lanka

Yesterday, as many of us prepared to mark the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, Christians in Sri Lanka had gathered to do the same thing. As the worshiped the risen Christ, it happened. Suicide bombers detonated their horrible wares and killed hundreds. The attacks were well coordinated and timed for maximum death and suffering.

I don’t know who did this, and it doesn’t really matter. I do know that what happened must remind North American Christians that we are outliers in the realm of suffering and martyrdom. In Nigeria, Lybia, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and other parts of the world, followers of Jesus often worship under the threat of persecution. The Apostle Paul understood exactly that kind of world, and he penned these appropriate words to the church at Rome:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

We mourn with the followers of Jesus in Sri Lanka. At the same time, we are struck with the reality that Jesus calls us to “come and die” as we follow him. We die to self, to our own agendas and self-interest. We are even willing to lay down our physical lives to our Risen and coming King.

We do this knowing that our allegiance is to Christ alone, and no earthly king, power, or authority. We seek to be good citizens of whatever nation-state we find ourselves a part of, and being a good citizen means that we “seek the welfare of the city” and advocate for policies that allow human beings to flourish. At the same time, we speak the gospel and invite people to give their allegiance to Jesus Christ because we know that the very truth of reality is embodied in him.

And we are very careful with giving temporal allegiance to any person, political party, or institution. When those conflict with our eternal allegiance to Jesus Christ, we reject them. And when we reject them, we will most likely suffer in one way or another. Our fellow Christians in Sri Lanka are suffering today. Join me in praying for them. At the same time, ask what they have to teach an American church that is so distracted and so willing to sell its soul to the illusion of politics.

The World Upside Down

This morning the congregation where I worship, Calvary Church in Charlotte, NC, started their week-long annual missions conference. For me, this is the highlight of the year in terms of Sunday-morning worship. The music emphasizes world missions, and the 25 or so missionary families that the congregation brings to Charlotte for the week parade into the sanctuary holding the flags of the nations in which they live and work. We hear testimonies from several, and our pastor, John Munro (a native of Scotland who speaks with a delightful Scottish accent) issues a challenge for all of us to consider our role in the Great Commission.

The worship service is the first of an entire week of missions activities. The congregation contributes to the support over over 80 missionary families, and brings a third of those to Charlotte every year for the conference. It’s an opportunity for us to interact with those whom we support, and an opportunity for the missionary families to get a needed break from their busy lives and allow our congregation to express our appreciation for their work. Several of those who come back for the conference each year are believers who responded to a call to world missions they received 20, 30, even 40 years ago while at a missions conference.

All of this takes me back to my childhood at the little Advent Christian congregation (Parkside Community Church) on the corner of 24th Ave. and Ulloa St. just up the street from my house in San Francisco. Like Calvary Church today, that little congregation emphasized world missions too through missions Sundays, through visits from missionaries like Austin and Dorothy Warriner, Marion Damon, and Howard and Anna Mae Towne who would tell us about their work in far away (to this young person) places like Japan, India, and the Philippines. We supported Advent Christian missionaries, missionaries from evangelical agencies, and local mission efforts like the rescue mission and Young Life.  Pretty impressive for a congregation that averaged 55 in attendance on a good Sunday.

Global shift

While I didn’t become an overseas missionary, it is safe to say that those missions events in my little church not only gave me a passion for the Great Commission that Jesus describes in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but pointed me toward investing my adult life in vocational Christian service. I don’t think I would have spent the last 22 years of my life involved in theological education without those early world missions influences. And, that work has provided opportunities to meet Christians from around the world and hear what God is doing as center stage for world Christianity has shifted to the global south. Imagine with me the drama of that shift. In 1910, 80 percent of Christians on earth lived in Europe and North America. Now, in 2019, 80 percent of all followers of Jesus live in the global south–Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Moreover, half of the Christians who have ever lived have lived in the last 100 years.

I thought about those realities as I listened to missionary families describe their work this morning. That work is often difficult. Serving as a missionary requires long hours, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to struggle with our own imperfections as well as the vast economic and cultural differences that confront those who live and work outside of North America. I have also heard many missionaries describe how their call was not well received by their own parents and others whom they love. In addition, in our own society, following God’s call to missionary service is controversial. What gives you the right to tell others to change their religion? Aren’t you just contributing to the destruction of indigenous culture and replacing it with American culture (and, yes, American culture has huge faults and problems). I remember reading a Charlotte Observer editorial written sometime during the early 1990s where the writer was complaining about the lack of good salaries for teachers. “After all,” he wrote, “this isn’t missionary work,” implying that missionary work wasn’t worth much.

Those struggles raise theological questions as well. For example, what are we to do when we see injustice embedded in political and cultural practice? How do we live in societies where poverty is endemic? (This morning, a medical missionary described how Burundi, the African country where she serves children with little access to medical care, is viewed as “the hungriest place on the continent.”) What does it mean to call people to follow Christ when their families threaten to disown them because another religion (Islam, Hinduism, or a form of tribal religion) is considered integral to tribal and  national identity? Is what I am teaching the gospel meant for all or some Westernized form of Christianity that shrouds the Christian message in cultural imperialism?

Human flourishing

The list could go on, and missionary theologians like Lesslie Newbigin, John Stott, Lamin Sanneh, and Miroslav Volf have wrestled long and hard with them. I think that we can learn from their work and from the work of veteran missionaries who have lived with these questions over a lifetime of missionary service. Let me add a couple of notes to that, notes that are not original with me by any stretch of the imagination. First, our call is to make disciples for Jesus Christ wherever God places us. We are to speak the gospel and call men and women, boys and girls from throughout the world to follow Jesus.

Second, integral to gospel proclamation is the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us that in Mark 1:14-15. Central to the gospel is that the “kingdom of God” is literally “at hand.” The biblical scholar George Ladd described it as “the presence of the future.” Making disciples means helping others learn to live as citizens of a new kingdom, a new order that through Jesus Christ is breaking into our world as we speak. Of course, that new order will not be fully realized until our Lord returns. But the Kingdom of God is entering our world now in a way that the future is just as real as the present.

Third, a biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God expands our understanding of what God is doing in our world even now. As I read the Old Testament and New Testament narratives, I see God concerned about the flourishing of his creation and about our flourishing as human beings. We live in a world overwhelmed by drugs, poverty, violence, racism and prejudice, hatreds of all kinds, and a general sense of despair. Human relationships are broken and fractured. Government corruption is rampant and even in the United States, millions experience alienation from the very institutions that are supposed to strengthen us. Technology has contributed to that alienation to the point where we cannot even carry on civil conversations with those with whom we disagree. Human depravity is not a pretty picture.

Andy Crouch suggests that what Christians are involved in is what he terms culture-making. Culture-making involves establishing outposts for the Kingdom of God in a world where hope is nearly non-existent and simple justice is illusory. Culture-making does not involve partisan politics nor creating elaborate institutions,  both of which lead to more disillusionment. Instead we build families, congregations, and communities (locally and globally) that begin to reflect the presence of the future.

In other words, the Spirit uses us to turn the world upside down. That in my view is what the Christian life is about and what world missions is about. We speak the hope-saturated message of the Christian faith centered on the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. We establish outposts of the coming Kingdom of God, the “already but not yet,” where we learn to live a new way of life in relationship with the Triune God. We seek justice for the poor as the prophet Amos calls us to do, knowing that our efforts will be imperfect but knowing that a time is coming when our Lord will establish a world of perfect justice.

Come to think of it, how about we add missions conferences back into our congregational life. What better way for North American Christians to be counter-cultural in a society mired in hopelessness, despair, and injustice?

“Meanings Will Change”

Forty-five years ago, I listened a lot to Noel Paul Stookey’s first solo album titled, Paul and…. Then I loaned it to someone and never got it back, and forgot about it. Last year, I happened on the CD in an online ad and decided to purchase it. It was like meeting a lost friend, and renewing that long-ago acquaintance. And it has been fun to ponder my life in the early 1970s and compare that to now.

One song especially has given me pause. I hear it far differently now than I did in 1971. And I want to share the words with you, and let you ponder them. The song is titled Meanings Will Change:

Meanings will change as you learn to grow,
And all that is known becomes suddenly old.
And that which you had to last you ’til the end,
Turns out to be just a passing friend.
And would you spend your life away
Collecting great treasures.
So you’d be safe someday?
And when you’re old, and when you’re gray
meanings will change; life’s just that way.
When you’re finally sure
You think you understand,
All about living and life’s demands.
Someone will touch you and you’ll see again,
Meanings will change; you just can’t win.
So don’t you worry ’bout your money friend
Don’t you worry ’bout your fame.
It’s all a conspiracy; all part of a game
And you’re the conspirator; the silent enemy,
and you’re the victim. You finally see.
After you get to where you have to be,
After you own everything you see,
When meanings don’t change
About the things you knew,
You might as well die, it’s all over for you.
If you’re wise and if you know,
What few things are real which never grow old.
Then take them now and make you a start,
With a simple life and a simple heart.
Songwriters: Noel Paul Stookey and Billie Keith Hughes
Meanings Will Change lyrics © Glass Sea Music Inc. % Noa Noa Music Inc.

“Evangelical”–A Word Whose Time Has Gone?

For all of my adult life, I have identified with the word “evangelical” without apology. Now, I am wondering if the term has outlived its usefulness given that the movement it identifies is now one sick puppy. Perhaps it is time for a new movement, one that retains the historical/theological character of early evangelicalism without all of the baggage that now comes with it, baggage that has come because of the bizarre beliefs and actions of many of its most recent advocates and so-called leaders.

A movement of individual and church renewal

Let me explain. Evangelicalism is not a church, a denomination, or an organization. It never has been, until recently. At its best, evangelicalism is a renewal movement. By that I mean that early evangelicals and their Anglo-American descendants sought renewal of individuals, congregations, denominations, and organizations through emphasis of four historical/theological characteristics.

First, evangelicalism at its best practices a healthy biblicism. The source for Christian faith and life rests not with church traditions (as important as those can be), the preferences of its leaders and academics, or what is deemed culturally relevant. What Christians believe and teach, and how they live are grounded in Holy Scripture, rightly interpreted.

Second, for evangelicals the cross of Jesus Christ lies at the center of God’s plans and purposes for humanity. Through the cross, the penalty for our disobedience is provided, the power of our enemy is broken, and our broken relationship with the Triune God is healed. Without the cross, Christianity is reduced to another human self-help scheme.

Third, evangelicals stress conversion. Faith in Christ is not a passive acquiescence to ritual. Evangelicals teach that authentic Christians are those who make an intentional commitment of faith and life to Jesus Christ and seek to practice that commitment in the ways that they live.

Finally, evangelicals are activists. Christianity is a faith that engages the world through calling men and women, boys and girls to active faith in Jesus Christ. Its emphasis is both missionary and social. It sees Jesus’s words in Matthew 28 18-20 as applying to all Christians and it seeks to reform social practices such as slavery, child labor, and other social realities that harm human flourishing.

A movement of Word and Spirit

These four markers have been codified by the research of the British Baptist historian David Bebbington based on his study of the First Great Awakening of the early 1700s. Not only is evangelicalism a renewal movement within the larger Christian church, in its Anglo-American form, it is now approaching its 300th birthday. But, as I look at and celebrate its past, I find myself wondering if the American evangelicalism we now see has abandoned the very historical and theological roots that gave it vitality as a renewal movement. Obviously, evangelicalism has never been anywhere close to perfect because it is a human movement. But evangelicals at their best were people of both Word and Spirit. They studied and believed what Holy Scripture taught, and sought their guidance from the Holy Spirit.

I wonder if that is the case anymore, especially with three pernicious trends that have infected the movement over the last 40 years. The first is the rampant spread of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a faith grounded more in American greed and individual lust for wealth than in what the Bible teaches. What is obscene about this false gospel is that it baptizes our greed as God’s will, to the point where its advocates claim that to be without either material prosperity or physical health is a clear signal you are out of proper relationship with God.

Then there is our unwillingness to confront the evil of continuing racism in American culture. For 250 years, many evangelicals acquiesced to slavery, Jim Crow, segregated housing patterns caused by government action, and the violence that so many African-Americans suffered even after a 19th century Civil War that was fought to eradicate slavery. And you know what? We’re ignorant of how many of our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ still suffer from the legacy of these practices.

One of the most important books that I have recently read is The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In it, the social historian Richard Rothstein documents how the American government from 1900 through 1970 through its housing policies and other means willfully excluded African Americans from schools, from public housing, and from neighborhoods that were predominately white. The source documentation is overwhelming, and the book left me to face the reality that Jim Crow was not just a few segregation laws in southern states, but a national policy that excluded African Americans from public life and economic well-being. The descendants of those policies continue to suffer today. And frankly, I wonder if white evangelicals even care. (If you think I am wrong, then I challenge you to read it!)

Finally, contemporary American evangelicalism has sold its soul to a witches brew of politics and religion. This has been gaining steam ever since the emergence of the Religious Right in the 1980s. Frankly, I am a bit stunned that evangelicals made the same mistake as the theological liberals of the 1960s, but there it is. Now, many who claim to be evangelical take their political cues from a President who makes Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson look like tinker-bell.

I don’t believe the polls that indicate that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. But I wouldn’t be surprised if almost half did. And the endorsements from self-designated evangelical leaders who should know better are the icing on a cake ruined in the oven. Personally, I don’t care who you vote for. Most of us try to do the best we can, but sometimes later wish we hadn’t voted for whom we did. (I know I have on more than one occasion.) But when we pretend that someone who is a sexual libertine, who is greedy beyond imagination, who is narcissistic, who traffics in hypocrisy, and who in his business dealings has treated others cruelly and with malice is somehow the candidate ordained by God, then I wonder if I want to be identified with a movement where many of its self-identified adherents view him as God’s man for the hour.

A new word for a fresh movement

I’m starting to think it is time to retire the word “evangelical” only if to redeem the historical and theological qualities that gave evangelicalism its strength in the first place. I have a new phrase to suggest (actually an old phrase renewed for our day and time). How about we simply identify ourselves as “gospel people?” Or, “gospel Christians?” The word “evangelical” is now too political and too nefarious to be used. I want a word or phrase that identifies more with Global Christianity than with the politics of the religious right, with the Christian faith more than with a political crusade, with world missions more than with efforts to keep all immigrants out of the country, with the Apostle’s Creed more than a gospel of wealth and greed.

How about it. Is it time for us who have long identified with American evangelicalism to write a new story, a story grounded in Holy Scripture, moved by the Holy Spirit, and attendant to  bringing the gospel to bear in the lives of people and societies? is it time for us to articulate a fresh narrative of God’s mission in the world, a mission that is moving all of creation to the culmination promised in Romans 8 and Revelation 21? i think it is. Will you join me?

MLK and Human Life: A Divided Church on the Third Sunday of January

This tells us an inconvenient truth about American Christians: that every one of us has some group of individuals whom we designate as other.

We’re just through the Christmas season (and our fellow Anglican and Orthodox Christians celebrate a bit longer than the rest of us do). Winter break is over for schools. Most of us are trying to get back to normal and deal with holiday debt. Congregations begin to look ahead to Easter, which comes a bit later on the calendar this year.

Then we come to the third week of January and an interesting juxtaposition of events.  The third Sunday of the month is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with an annual pro-life march in Washington, DC and events that call attention to the destruction of human life through abortion. The third Monday of January is the Martin Luther King holiday, a national holiday signed into law by President Ronald Reagan to call attention not only to Dr. King and his work, but to the stark reality that for most of our national history, African-Americans were brutally treated through chattel slavery and the horrendous discriminatory practices through what came to be termed “Jim Crow laws.” And our fellow citizens who are African American continue to face the generational impact of that brutality.

One or the other?

I could go on about both of these hideous practices. However, my purpose is to think with you about something curious that I find in American Christianity when it comes to these two events. I have observed that most congregations will call attention to one of these commemorations but not the other. Most predominantly white churches of an evangelical bent will commemorate Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with special sermons and participation in anti-abortion events designed to call attention to the thousands of human lives brutally ended through abortion. But I’m willing to bet that few of those same congregations, especially in the American South where I live, even mention the King holiday despite that Dr. King led a deeply Christian movement to end the disenfranchisement of an entire people.

Not to be outdone, most white churches of a more liberal bent often commemorate the King holiday with similar activities—special sermons that call attention to the brutality of racism and participation in activities that invoke the need for continuing the struggle for full inclusion of African Americans (and other persons of color) in the mainstream of our society. And there is little doubt that racism has morphed into something more subtle but just as pernicious. At the same time, I’m happy to wager that in most of these congregations, little if any mention is made of the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, despite the reality that the Christian faith places human life at the center of its Christian ethic. I wonder if the discomfort those folks feel when abortion is mentioned is the same discomfort their forebears felt when the topic turned to slavery. (My African American Christian friends mostly care about both, and they don’t draw bright lines between them.)

Who is the other for American Christians

Yale theologian and ethicist Miroslav Volf has written a profound book titled Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon, 2001). In it, Volf demonstrates how in any society there are always those we see as other. Those classified this way by the larger group are the ones who are bullied on the school-bus, the ones whom we think nothing of killing with drones, the ones for whom we find excuses to deny full humanity. We do it in our day and time through vehicles like politics and theology. You have heard it before. The ones who embrace Dr. King’s work are the liberals and liberals deny the essence of the Christian faith. Or, the ones who protest abortion on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday are nothing more than narrow-minded fundamentalists who want to tell everyone else how to live.  Our political and theological ideologies shape whom we see as other.

This tells us an inconvenient truth about American Christians: that every one of us has some group of individuals whom we designate as other. My guess is that this is true for almost everyone, Christian or not, around the globe. It is as true for the movers and shakers gathering this week in Davos, Switzerland. It is true for many of those who want to outlaw almost all immigration in this country. It is true for many evangelicals who want to pretend that we fixed all of the civil rights problems in the 1960s. It is true for theological liberals who deny humanity to those children waiting to be born.

I think Christians, no matter their persuasion, need to reach beyond these ideologies. We start by identifying who is other for us as individuals and as communities. That does not mean we always agree with how they see the world, but it does mean that they are individuals for whom Christ died and who need to hear of his forgiving love. I’ve been asking who is other for me, and I must confess that the answer I hear is one that I don’t necessarily like. But, my Lord Jesus Christ did not tell me to love everyone else except for those I see as other. I think the gospel is for people of a variety of political persuasions—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Socialists, Libertarians, and the list goes on. We now live in a world so fragmented that many see those who disagree with them as other.

We will not address this overnight, and I don’t pretend that this is easy. But here is a way that we might start. How about next year, January 2020 as the presidential primaries begin, we mark both the King holiday and Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in our churches. Some folks will get mad, but that is fine because oftentimes our anger is an important first step toward unmasking our idolatries.  That leads to conviction of our sinfulness in this matter. Why don’t we use both to address this matter of the other and the overt and covert ways we dehumanize those whom we categorize this way. Both events teach us that throughout American history, groups of human beings have been denied their full humanity as people who (imperfectly, as with all of us) reflect the image of God. Wouldn’t be great if on the third Sunday of January next year we would mark both of these events by using Martin Luther King’s haunting words from Memphis on the night before his death to call attention to the work we have to do as the people of God?

Now that would be something I think the Triune God would bless.

Jesus, the Fullness of God’s Glory

“In the beginning…” With those words the Apostle John links Jesus Christ to the creation of heaven and earth described in Genesis One. Jesus Christ, the very Word of God, was “with God in the beginning,” and through Christ “all things were made.” Moreover, Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God has taken on human form through Christ, and through him not only do humans have opportunity to see the very nature and character of the Triune God, but “grace and truth [come] through Jesus Christ.”

Note how John 1:14-18 parallels Exodus 33-34. First, God’s word is revealed through the Torah, and then even more fully in Jesus Christ. Second, Moses tells us that God dwelt among his people in the tabernacle (Exod 33:10-16). John teaches that Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “tabernacled” among us (Jn 1:14). Moses beheld the glory of God. Jesus disciples beheld the glory of the Son, and in both instances that glory was full of grace and truth. While no one can see all of God’s glory (Exod 33:20), it has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Recently, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around a staggering reality: that the God of the universe became a human being, lived among us, died, and was raised to life so that each of us would have the possibility of reconciliation with our Creator. When we embrace that reality, nothing can ever be the same in our lives, in our relationships with others, and how we live in the world. The New Testament scholar Ben Witherington suggests that the entire New Testament can be seen as its writers struggling to come to grips with this reality.

I wonder if this has become so familiar to us that it no longer amazes us. So many evangelicals live their lives as if God doesn’t exist, or if he does, that he needs lots of help from us to accomplish his purposes. Perhaps we need to step back and once again ponder what it is we claim to believe and teach. Perhaps we need to consider what God desires for his followers, and that is simply that we learn to participate in his Triune life as his adopted daughters and sons. That is a journey that begins now and will stretch through all eternity.