This blog is written by Jonathan R Wilson, Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College, Vancouver, BC. Its primary aim is to create a common theological conversation among Canadian Baptists of Western Canada. Canadian Baptists in western Canada come from such varied backgrounds that we do not bring a common theological heritage to our mission. This diversity enriches us, but it also means that we have to work hard to understand one another and join with one another in our mission. Of course, others are more than welcome to join in with us here.
March 26, 2007
Jonathan R. Wilson
Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology
Carey Theological College
If this would opening you and written have syntax it great grammar is understanding then you proper wouldn’t with sentence difficulty?
No, I have not become incapable of grammatical writing; I do still know how to write an English sentence. But those words that lead off this essay will eventually help me “make sense” of the doctrine of the Trinity.
For many years as a Christian—even after several years of theological education—I regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as something that the Bible taught and the church confessed, but I didn’t understand. It made no sense to me and made no impact on my faith. I suspect that many Christians are like that—accepting the doctrine, confessing it, and having no idea how it might have an impact on their lives of faith.
That is how I was; but today I know and teach the doctrine of the Trinity as “an eminently practical doctrine.” (Catherine Mowry LaCugna) This change in my understanding came as I learned to approach doctrine as I described it in my previous article: as the means by which the church teaches us the Biblical vision and the practices of discipleship. Then the doctrine of the Trinity began to make sense.
MAKING A START
Before I try to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity I must make clear what Christians mean by “Trinity.” That term confesses that there is a threeness and a oneness to God. One common misconception that I hear among Christians is the belief that “Trinity” refers only to the threeness of God. Trinity is actually a contraction of tri-unity, so that it combines both threeness and oneness in one term. Christians have agreed over the centuries that the most basic way to state the oneness and threeness of God is to say one God in three persons. But such statements only define what we mean by “Trinity”; they do not tell us how the doctrine “makes sense.”
A few preliminary comments will move us a bit closer to making sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. First, let us remember that our salvation does not depend on our getting the doctrine of the Trinity right and being able to explain it. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ; not by right doctrine. Many wonderful followers of Jesus Christ have been saved without “knowing” this doctrine. Since the doctrine of the Trinity was stated by theologians sometime after the second century, we may even list the NT authors as examples of this observation. Their faith was Trinitarian, we may say, even though they did not have the actual term “Trinity.”
Secondly, however, the doctrine of the Trinity is central to Christian faith. It was adopted and confessed by the church because it made sense of the biblical teaching and their experience of salvation. Although the NT does not explicitly use the term “Trinity,” we do see in its witness the outlines and foundations of the doctrine. Accounts of the baptism of Jesus and the great commission (Matthew 3; 28, for example) are Trinitarian in their content. Paul’s thinking is also Trinitarian in its shape—his prayers, his benedictions, and his account of salvation depend upon a Trinitarian understanding of God (Eph 1, for example).
Third, we will never fully comprehend God nor will we ever fuller grasp this doctrine. To be sure, we can know God through God’s gracious revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, that knowledge can be trusted and relied upon. But if we could fully comprehend God, then that would make God . . . human-sized. In other words, the only way for us to know God fully would be for God to be no bigger than we are. Paul himself recognizes this after eleven chapters of Spirit-inspired truth, Paul exclaims:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
“Who has ever given to God that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36; TNIV)
This attitude of Paul is one that we will adopt as we seek to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Finally, there are many ways to unpack and celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity. In this short article I will offer one approach that I hope will be fresh and helpful to Christian discipleship. It should be set alongside other approaches that you have found helpful.
THE GRAMMAR OF FAITH
Now back to the first words of this article. Did you understand them? Certainly not at first. I suspect that some readers who delight in solving puzzles figured out what I was “trying” to say. Here it is again, with some revision: “If this opening sentence is not written with proper grammar and syntax, then you would have great difficulty understanding it, wouldn’t you?” Now it is clear isn’t it?
The contrast between these two sentences illustrates the place of the doctrine of the Trinity in Christian faith: the doctrine of the Trinity is the basic grammar of our faith. That is, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us how to organize the various elements of our faith and state them clearly in worship and witness. In the same way that a language like English has rules that enable it to function properly, so our faith has rules or doctrines that enable it to function properly.
This comparison illuminates a number of things about the doctrine of the Trinity. First, to be properly Trinitarian doesn’t require constant thinking about the doctrine. This is true of grammar in our speaking and writing. To speak and write grammatically I don’t have to be thinking constantly about which grammatical rule to apply. I have been trained well enough that I usually speak and write with proper grammar. And most of the time people understand me. But sometimes I may get the grammar or syntax wrong. When I do get it wrong, either I or someone else needs to know the grammar well enough to correct my misuse. Can you imagine what our communication with one another would become if we neglected or forgot grammar?
BAD TRINITARIAN GRAMMAR?
These same observations may be applied to theology and specifically to the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s an example of bad Trinitarian grammar: the Father is more God than the Son because the Father did not become incarnate; and the Holy Spirit is less God than the Father or the Son. This statement introduces “ranks” in God—a teaching rejected by the church. Here’s the proper Trinitarian grammar: the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in their divinity. Here’s another example of bad Trinitarian grammar: the Father is angry, the Son is merciful. This divides the character of God among the persons of God. Here’s the proper grammar: the Father, Son, and Spirit are equally angry at sin, equally loving toward sinners, and equally merciful toward the repentant.
The early church reflected this “grammatical” approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. The teaching of the NT is shaped by Trinitarian grammar even though the term itself never occurs. With the exception of the Athanasian Creed, the creeds of the church do not use the term “Trinity.” Rather, they follow the rule of Trinitarian grammar by confessing one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and by using various means to assert the equality of the three.
GOOD TRINITARIAN GRAMMAR
Today, if we are well-trained, we also use good Trinitarian grammar, even if we don’t think about it very often, just the way we speak grammatically without giving it much thought. Most of the time, we English speakers use the pluperfect tense in our speech even though most of us haven’t a clue what the pluperfect sounds like. In the same way, most of the time Christians observe good Trinitarian grammar even if they cannot name it and haven’t thought about. Both of these practices depend upon some people being skilled in grammar (both in language and in faith) so that they model for the rest of us how to use proper grammar.
THE GRAMMAR OF SALVATION
This means that the doctrine of the Trinity best makes sense when we actually use it. So think with me know about the Trinitarian grammar of salvation. Who saves us—the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? Trinitarian grammar teaches us that while it is proper to call the incarnate Son our Saviour, he does not act alone for our salvation, as if the Father is surprised by what the Son does. No, Jesus tells us that he does only what the Father has commanded. And he teaches us that the coming of the Holy Spirit will continue and even extend the work that he has accomplished (John 14-16). So a Trinitarian doctrine of salvation could be stated something like this: the Father sends the Son; the Son becomes human, dies in our place, and is raised to new life; the Spirit convicts us of our sin, brings us to faith in Christ, unites us with him, and guarantees our future with Christ in the new creation. In all of this we are reconciled to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If we leave out any step in this account of salvation, we have violated the Trinitarian grammar of our faith. Without the Father’s sending, the Son is not a manifestation of the love of God. Apart from the Son’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, the human condition is not redeemed. If we leave out the work of the Spirit, then we are left without the power of God for our transformation.
Perhaps you may see ways that your own understanding or the teaching of the church has fallen short of a fully Trinitarian grammar of salvation. We have fallen short if we think that God the Son loves us more than God the Father. We may also fall short by thinking that the human condition really isn’t so bad. Does God the Son really have to die for us to be reconciled? Surely the Father loves us so much that Christ’s death wasn’t really necessary. Or we may think that Jesus shows us that we are saved and how we are to live, but we must come to faith and live as Christians by our own effort. All of these reflect bad Trinitarian grammar.
THE GRAMMAR OF CREATION
A more difficult area of Christian faith for Trinitarian grammar is God’s work of creation. Here the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that creation is the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The biblical teaching here is sparse and I don’t have the space to defend and explain this Trinitarian doctrine of creation, but it goes like this: the Father plans creation, the Son implements the plan, and the Spirit sustains its life. In everyday language we might say (cautiously) that the Father is the architect, the Son is the contractor, and the Spirit is the custodian of creation.
As with the Trinitarian doctrine of salvation, the Trinitarian doctrine of creation can also become distorted and ungrammatical. If we do not begin with the plan of God the Father, then creation may seem disorderly and the first, most important thing that we would believe about it is that it needs redemption through the work of God the Son. In making this mistake—neglecting the plan of the Father—we run the risk of forgetting or denying the original and essential goodness of creation.
If we have only the plan of the Father as our doctrine of creation, then we will end up teaching that God originally created the world, then left the world to run on its own according to laws that God designed into the creation. When we make this mistake, we remove both the astounding grace of God that continues to sustain even this fallen rebellious creation and the marvellous mercy of God that redeems this creation through the creative work of the Son.
Finally, if we fail to recognize and teach the continuing work of the Spirit in sustaining and caring for creation we will devalue the present world in which we live. We will fail to give full weight to the passages in the prophets of the OT that announce God’s judgment upon Israel by withdrawing the Spirit that gives life to all creation. And we will fail to see that the present environmental crisis in which the world finds itself is not first of all a failure of our technology but God’s judgment upon our greed and our abuse of God’s world.
So, does the doctrine of the Trinity “make sense”? I have been arguing in this article that the doctrine make sense if we approach it as the rule for how we think about God and God’s work in the world. We make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity not so much by thinking about it as by thinking with it. Much of that time we think with the doctrine of the Trinity without actually thinking about the doctrine. That’s the way it should be. But we should also be aware of ways that we can go wrong when we quit thinking with the doctrine.
As I come to the end of this essay, I am acutely aware of how difficult the doctrine of the Trinity is and how much I have not said or said poorly. I take some comfort in C.S. Lewis’s typically wise observation that a made-up God could be easy to understand. (Mere Christianity, Book IV.2, “The Three-Personal God”) But we have to do with the one true God, the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe, whom we can know truly but never fully. And I take my final comfort in J.I. Packer’s reminder:
“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when His care falters.” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, IVP, 1974)
This is a wonderful example of Trinitarian grammar bearing witness to the grace of God the Father, incarnate in the Son, to which we are united by the work of the Holy Spirit.
February 16, 2007
Who Needs Doctrine?
Jonathan R. Wilson
Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology
Carey Theological College
In a book that Stan Grenz and Roger Olson wrote, one of them describes the warning that he received just before heading off to graduate study in theology: “Don’t let that theology professor destroy your faith!” (Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, Who Needs Theology? p. 50) This concern may be found throughout the church, including the tradition in which I grew up. It’s in the church because there is some element of truth in it. Indeed, from the beginning of God’s people, ideas about God and life before God have gone wrong. Think of the many condemnations of idolatry among Israel in the Old Testament. Isn’t idolatry an expression of “bad theology”? Think also of the church in the New Testament and Paul’s many warnings about false teachers. So the warning that we should guard against theology that destroys faith is an important one.
But then think about how God’s people in the OT and NT met the challenges of idolatry and false teaching: not by giving up on theology but by making theology faithful to God and to God’s work of revelation and redemption. Israel’s idolatry was confronted and corrected by those theologians whom we call “prophets.” Paul’s answer to false teaching was not “no teaching” but “sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God . . . .” (1Timothy 1:10-11) So the answer to false teaching is faithful teaching.
In the NT the term for teaching in the church is the word that we translate “doctrine.” So although “doctrine” may sometimes sound harsh to our ears and to our culture (we’ll come back to this), it is a useful reminder that the church has a long heritage of teaching the good news of Jesus Christ. And that’s the order that we should observe: the gospel comes first, then doctrine follows and conforms to it.
So the immediate answer to the question, “Who needs doctrine?” is “All those who believe the gospel and seek to be faithful to it.” But this question and answer really only serve to bring us to a more significant question: “What is doctrine?”
WHAT IS DOCTRINE?
For some, doctrines are a list of statements that followers of Jesus Christ assent to. For others, doctrines are a set a symbols that represent our experience. Both of these views have their place in the teaching of the church, but they must be subordinated to another understanding of doctrines. The best way to understand doctrines is to understand them as the means by which we learn to see the work of Christ in the world, bear witness to Christ’s work, and enter into its reality. In this view doctrines do not draw us away from faith; rather, they help us to enter in and grow in faith. A doctrine may be as simple as “Jesus is Lord and Saviour.”
This understanding of doctrine has been present throughout the history of the church, though many different words have been used to represent this understanding. We can find this approach to doctrine in Augustine of Hippo, whose views contributed significantly to the Protestant Reformation. We can find this approach in the teaching of reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Menno Simons. It is present in the imaginative work of John Bunyan and the sermons of John Wesley. More recently Baptist theologians such as James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and Stanley Grenz make use of this understanding of doctrine.
SEE AND HEAR
This understanding of doctrine that I am endorsing may be summarized as “teaching the vision of God’s work in the world as revealed in the gospel so that we may become participants in it.” More succinctly, we may call this the “visionary-practical” approach to doctrine.
This description brings doctrine into faithfulness to Scripture. The words of Scripture, brought to life by the Holy Spirit, teach us to see and hear. To see means having our eyes trained to see God’s work continuing today. To hear means to obey God’s word, to practice it.
This “visionary-practical” approach enables us to incorporate the two views that I briefly named earlier. The notion that doctrines are a list of statements to which Christians give their assent is right in thinking that doctrines have propositional significance. The word “propositional” simply means that a statement makes a claim to truth. It is not a meaningless statement or merely an expression of feeling. So this approach to doctrine is right in representing Christian doctrines as claims about reality.
The problem with a propositional approach to doctrine is not in what it claims but in what it neglects. It fails to say clearly that doctrine is not just truth for thinking but also truth for living. Doctrine is not just about how to think, it is also about how to live. Since we Christians believe that truth is found ultimately in Jesus Christ and in following him (John 8:31-32), we cannot be content merely with ideas.
DOCTRINE AND TRUTH
Now, it is important not to separate Jesus as the truth from statements about Jesus as the truth. Sometimes, teachers in the church have made the mistake of setting the truth of the person of Jesus over against propositional truth. Some have fallen into the trap of arguing that relationships are more important than truth, or vice-versa. That’s an unfortunate over-reaction to the separation of truth from the person of Jesus. If our doctrine submits to the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we cannot separate truth from the person of Christ, his teaching and his work.
The visionary-practical understanding of doctrine recognizes that to learn to see the gospel continuing to work in the world, we must make true statements about that work so others can see it, believe, and enter into new life. For example, to teach that “Jesus Christ is Lord” makes a claim about the identity of Jesus Christ but it also commits us to living in a certain way.
EXPERIENCE CONFORMED TO GOSPEL?
The other major approach views doctrines as symbols that represent our experience. This view is right in recognizing the connection between experience and doctrine. But its limitation is that it almost always elevates experience over doctrine. The “symbols” of the faith that we express in doctrine are the product of our experience. This means, then, that we are free to discard the doctrines when they no longer have symbolic value for us. In other words, our experience interprets doctrine.
But this is precisely the error that Paul often warns against—the error of conforming doctrine to what we want to hear. To correct this, the visionary-practical approach to doctrine recognizes that doctrine cannot be separated from our experience if we are to be faithful to the gospel. But in visionary-practical teaching, the order of authority between doctrine and experience is reversed. In the visionary-practical approach, doctrine guides and interprets our experience. Certainly we may come to faith in Jesus Christ before we know much doctrine. And for many our doctrine may never become very well developed. But we must have people in the church who do know how to interpret our experiences in light of Christian doctrine.
In our experience-centered culture, we have to work hard to grasp this biblical truth. Yes, experience of Jesus Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit are inseparable from the gospel. Therefore, teaching that conforms to the gospel must be concerned with our experience. But our experience does not have authority over the gospel and doctrine. It is, rather, the opposite. If my experience seems to teach me something contrary to the gospel, then I need to rethink how I have interpreted my experience. For example, if I think that I have found “liberation” in an experience that the Bible identifies as sin, I am not free to reinterpret Scripture. Instead, I must be willing to reinterpret my “experience.”
The gospel teaches us that one aspect of Christian faith is “the way.” This way is, of course, found in Jesus Christ. In its inclusion of the practical as an integral part of doctrine, the visionary-practical approach incorporates this central biblical truth—that Christianity is the way.
Thus, Christian doctrine teaches us the truth of the gospel so that we can see it at work in the world and enter that work by faith, which incorporates us into Christ and his body. This work is “visionary” because it teaches us how to see God at work in the world and how to see the world as the place where God is at work. This is hard work—learning to see in this way—because we are constantly being taught lies about how to see the world. We are taught these lies by our own sin as well as by the world that is in rebellion against God. Daily, hourly, often by the minute, we are being taught to see the world through distorted lenses that twist and cloud our vision of God’s holiness and love at work to redeem this world.
Teaching and learning Christian doctrine is also hard work because the distorted vision of the world also distorts our lives in the world. We have ingrained habits of sin that are not only patterns of thinking and feeling but also patterns of living. So, to learn to practice the gospel requires a lot of discipline and commitment. All of this is possible only because God is gracious. We cannot see or live truthfully in our own power, but only by God’s Spirit who brings us to life in Christ.
If we understand doctrine as the teaching of the church that helps us to see through the lies and illusions of sin to the truth and reality of the gospel, then we must acknowledge that we all need doctrine. If we recognize that Christian doctrine teaches us how to practice the way that is Jesus himself and not the way of the world, then once again we will acknowledge that we all need doctrine.
IS DOCTRINE INTOLERANT?
Such recognition of our own need and our submission to another authority runs directly against the way we are taught to see the world and live today. To contemporary ears, “doctrine” sounds like the imposition of one person’s opinion on another, or one community’s imposition on another.
So to complete our exploration of our need for doctrine and what it is, we must take one more step. That step is to realize that we do not have life within ourselves or within our own reach as human beings. To be left without the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be left to die. Our condition is not that of a people choosing from among many different ways to live. Rather, we humans are a dying people whose one opportunity for life is found in Jesus Christ. It is not kind, nice, or loving to withhold the message of life from those who are dying. Christian doctrine teaches us the life that is made possible by the good news of Jesus Christ. The message of the gospel has always been foolishness to those captive to human wisdom and a stumbling block to those longing for human power. But to those who believe, it is life abundant: in the midst of sin and death, the God of goodness and life has come to us. When it is faithful to gospel, doctrine is not an imposition that suppresses life; rather, it teaches us the good news that invites us to life found only in Jesus Christ.
A VISION FOR LIFE
Visionary-practical doctrine seeks to be faithful to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. Such teaching has been woefully lacking in the church. Many in the church know more about national history, a favorite sport, or passionate hobby than they do about the teaching of Christian faith. My own passion is to correct that failing in future posts as we turn directly to the teaching about Jesus Christ and the Triune God.
November 23, 2006
At a recent pastor’s conference, I presented a lecture on “Christian Public Witness in a Postmodern World.” The title is a bit misleading because the lecture covered more than what I characterize as “postmodern.” [Here’s what I use “postmodern” to identify: everything is about power. That’s reality—a continual battle for power. Anything else that someone claims (truth, progress, pleasure, fulfillment, freedom) is just another disguised attempt at gaining power for that individual or community.]What was most instructive for me was the discussion with people after the lecture. I realized that people heard my presentation in many different ways depending upon their previous education and reading. I haven’t done a lot of lecturing to audiences like this, so I learned a lot. As a result, I am writing this essay to fill in some of the background to my earlier lecture. For those who were present at the pastor’s conference, this may help us focus more of our conversation. For those who were not present, this should serve as a good foundation for further conversation.My title, “The church doesn’t have a social ethic”, is the first half of a quote by Stanley Hauerwas. (For those of you who don’t know him, check him out here.) Here’s the full quote: “The church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.” (Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 99). This quote represents much that Hauerwas has argued for many years. It is rooted in deep convictions about the gospel of Jesus Christ and has only become more pertinent to the context of the church’s mission in recent years. Although the assertion comes in this memorable form from Hauerwas, it is a mistake to think of it as “his position.” Rather, the quote concisely witnesses to the gospel, the church’s calling, and the cultural context in which we find ourselves.
Against Reducing the Gospel
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the redemption of all creation by the Creator of all things. This means that all of life falls under the category of “redemption.” That is, we do not have two separate realms in which God works: (1) creation, and (2) redemption. So we distort the gospel if we divide the Christian life into two parts, one part where we assign Christian discipleship solely to an inner disposition or a realm of private life and another part where we look to the state or common sense or shared nature for a guide to public life. It is not only practically impossible to make this distinction, it is theologically mistaken and thus unfaithful to Christ. (In my next essay, I will explore the notion of “preservation” as a description of another work of God rooted in the Noahic covenant.) So “the church does not have a social ethic, the church is a social ethic” stands against a reduction of the gospel. In contrast to understandings of the gospel that reduce it to a private or spiritual realm or to a public and material realm, this assertion claims all of creation for Jesus Christ (“things visible and invisible . . . .”). In this way it echoes the famous quote from Abraham Kuyper, “there is not one square inch of creation over which Christ does not cry, ‘Mine!’” (But there are also many differences between Kuyper and Hauerwas.)
For the Mission of the Church
The mission of the church is also captured well by this claim. Since Jesus Christ claims Lordship over all creation, the display of that Lordship is the mission of those who believe the claims of Christ, even if they do not perfectly practice them. The church is the community of disciples that God has called together to display the claims of Christ.
In displaying those claims, the church is a social ethic. That is, the church displays in its life the cosmic claims of Christ. So the church carries out its mission in the way the church organizes her life in economic, political, educational, sexual, and all other realms. We do this when we give thanks to God in times of blessing and faithfulness, when we suffer judgment, confess our sin, seek forgiveness, and repent in times of unfaithfulness, and when we follow the way of Christ and his kingdom in a world that is in rebellion.
So instead of the church recommending or campaigning for a national government to adopt a particular economic, political, or sexual policy (as examples), the church should be seeking its own policy to practice as the people of God. This is not a prescription for an easy and trouble-free church life. It is, rather, a commitment to the church being the church and bearing faithful witness to the gospel, even in our disagreements and conflicts.
For the Sake of the World
In this context, “the world” is that part of creation that does not believe in and has not submitted to the redemptive, life-giving rule of Jesus Christ. What this world needs to know is that our only hope is found in the full redemption and abundant life that is given to us in Christ. As long as the church simply tries to make the world a better place, the church fails to bear witness to the truth of our cosmic situation: we are lost without Christ.
So this message is the age-old message of salvation in Christ with two essential additions: (1) the salvation that we have in Christ is the redemption of all creation, not the rescue of our souls from a world that is going to hell; (2) the life of the church must embrace the wholeness of this salvation.
In living this out, we must break our dependence upon the state. No state is the primary agent of God’s redemptive work in the world; nor is the state called to be witness to God’s work in the world. We cannot expect the state to live by the redemptive work of Christ. We must not leave matters that we often identify as “public” to the state. These public matters are indispensable parts of God’s work in Christ, but the place where that work is known and served is the church.
Two More Things
(1) In most of these discussions, I find that we leave out a third reality that is neither ‘world’ nor ‘church.’ That reality is ‘kingdom of God.’ The church is called to serve that kingdom and bear witness to it. Since that kingdom is a reality and not an idea, we serve it and bear witness to it by displaying the practical force of Christian convictions in the life of the church. Since the mission of the church is directed toward the kingdom, our life and the way that we pursue that life must conform to the kingdom not the world. The world is not redeemed or ruled by those who use the weapons of this world. In the very act of taking up the weapons of this world (political power, military might, marketing strategies) we are defeated by this world. But the church is also not the kingdom. For this reason, we can argue vigorously for a visible church and against an invisible church without being embarrassed by the impurity of the church. The holiness of the church is located in its participation in the kingdom of God not in the church itself.
(2) We must recognize that “church” names a people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation in which there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. So when we speak of the economic, political, sexual, and other aspects of the “life of the church,’ we should be thinking in relation to worldwide Christianity. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the church in Canada saw its primary conversation taking place not in relation to the government of Canada but in relation to our brothers and sisters in the church in other parts of the world? From there, of course, we would need to address the place where we live and called to faithfulness. But such thinking leads to the next essay that I will write.
Jonathan R. Wilson
Carey Theological College
November 5, 2006
Bearing Faithful Witness:
Unchanging Convictions in Changing Times
Jonathan R. Wilson
I write this essay reluctantly and with some difficulty. We have reached a point in our society and in our discussions of homosexuality that make it almost impossible for us to understand one another. Communicating clearly about homosexuality is a hard process that requires ongoing discussion about our disagreements. Knowing this, I choose to write because my calling as a theologian is to help the church witness faithfully to the good news of Jesus Christ.
That’s what we all need to be concerned with: bearing faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although the traditional interpretation of biblical teaching on sexuality has sometimes been stated naïvely, I believe that traditional teaching is faithful to God’s plan for human living. I am persuaded that even a more sophisticated understanding must acknowledge that the trajectory of Scriptural teaching identifies sexual activity outside a covenanted relationship between a man and a woman as falling short of God’s design, as straying from God’s instruction, and as rebelling against God’s intention for human flourishing.
I do know that we have sometimes “over-interpreted” the biblical passages that refer to various kinds of same-sex relationships and activities. I also know that revised interpretations have been proposed. The sin of Sodom is violence and the sexual violation of others, both same and other sex. The proscriptions of Leviticus are set within the purity regulations of the OT, many of which we have casually set aside. Paul’s description in Romans 1 may be interpreted as referring to the unnatural “thrill-seeking” of heterosexuals rather than the natural longings of homosexuals. And his vocabulary in the Corinthian letters may refer to specific cultural practices and not “same-sex marriage.”
I am not convinced of these interpretations; but even if I were, I am struck by the fact that every biblical reference to same-sex activity interprets that activity as contrary to human flourishing. I find this trajectory of biblical teaching compelling. So even if I accepted the revised interpretations (which I do not), the trajectory of biblical teaching in specific passages and more general themes identifies same-sex activity as contrary to human flourishing.
In the rest of this essay I am more concerned that as we bear witness to this biblical teaching we must understand the times in which we live and the ways in which we may miscommunicate our witness.
Two changes in our society present us with challenges in communicating our witness: the rise of expressivist morality and the end of Christendom.
One change that challenges us is the rise of expressivist morality. In many parts of Western culture, this change is already complete. In many parts of Canada and generally in Western Canada, however, I think that we are in the midst of change. What I say here will apply to different degrees in various parts of Canada.
The change that is taking place is a change in our understanding of the nature of morality not just the content of morality. The traditional understanding viewed morality as conforming our lives to the way we were designed to live. This did not mean that everyone agreed on the content of morality. Aristotelians, Atheists, Communists, and Christians disagreed on the content of morality. And even Christians might disagree among themselves. But they all (well, almost all—one can always find an exception) agreed on what it was they were arguing about: what were humans made for and how best to line up our lives with that conviction.
In our society, morality is seldom viewed as the means by which we conform to that for which we are made. Today, morality is increasingly understood as the unfettered expression of my individual identity and the exercise of my individual lifestyle choices. In this situation the one basic immoral act is inhibiting or prohibiting my personal expression. Any such opposition is a direct personal attack and an attempt to suppress or prevent my flourishing as a human being.
With these developments taking place in our society, our Conventions and Unions face enormous challenges in bearing faithful witness. Our statements on homosexuality and same-sex marriage will appear to many to be not merely a disagreement about moral judgments but profoundly immoral acts that threaten the freedom of expression that is basic to being human.
So if we are to be faithful in our witness, we must not merely make our statements, we must also explain the reasons for our statements. We must identify and challenge the basic moral (and theological) error of our times, namely the erroneous belief that human beings are free to choose how we will live. Our Scriptures are filled with the declaration that life is found on one path, the Way of Jesus Christ. All other paths are death.
But once we have arrived at this insight, we must also recognize that none of us follows that way in perfection or by our own strength. We live by grace through our relationship to Jesus Christ, who alone is faithful to the Way of Life. So in our witness we must always find ways of pointing to him through our statements. Christian ethics is a means of bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in those places where the lives of his followers intersect with the lives of those who have not acknowledged him as the Way, the truth, and the Life.
The End of Christendom
As we seek to bear witness in a society marked by expressivist morality, the second challenge that faces us is the end of Christendom. “Christendom” stands as a convenient label for the period of time when the church seemed to be (and often, perhaps, was) a dominant social institution. When the church spoke, people listened.
Although there are pockets where that is still true, it has changed in many places and is changing rapidly in most other segments of Western culture. We must learn to live with this history, come to terms with the changing circumstances, and discern how to bear faithful witness.
We must not be bullies or appear to be bullies. When Christianity was the dominant moral force in Canadian culture, the church could simply announce its judgment and that judgment might not be liked or even accepted by everyone, but it would be regarded as the morally proper position. So people who lived contrary to the church’s teaching simply accepted that they were immoral or sinners.
Today the situation is changed. People now merely want various social institutions to make it possible for them to maximize their expression of personal freedom, identity and choice. When the church mistakenly thinks that it is still the dominant moral force in society and simply declares its judgments, the church appears to be a moral bully seeking to impose its preferences on the larger society.
Bearing Witness in a Changing Culture
We must not bully, not because we want people to like us or even because we want our views to be heard, but rather, we must avoid bullying so that we faithfully declare the gospel in a changing culture. The gospel and the life that it calls us to does not change. It is the path to human flourishing (the abundant life of John 10:10) for all times and places. But to communicate that gospel faithfully, we must know the times in which we live and what must be done in those times. Paul proclaimed the same gospel in all places, but he proclaimed it differently, depending upon the place. The prophets of the OT all served the same God, but they proclaimed that same God in different ways for different times (comfort from Isaiah, judgment from Jeremiah; love from Hosea, justice from Amos).
In our times, we must learn how to bear witness to the biblical teaching that homosexual practice is contrary to human flourishing in such a way that we convey our passion for human flourishing, not “disgust” at a particular community or practice. When we make our statements on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or any other moral issue, we do not do so to throw our weight around or arrange society to our liking. Rather, we do so because we believe that the church is called together by God for the purpose of bearing witness to the good news that in Jesus Christ human beings can become what we are meant to be.
Our primary aim and disposition must be love. And that must be true even when some homosexual activists revile us and persecute us. Let’s recover the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:11; and let us repent of those occasions when we have betrayed our master by reviling, persecuting or lying about others.
When we announce “our position” on any particular moral issue, we may be perceived as simply expressing our feelings about that issue. But we are not announcing our likes and dislikes when we take moral stands, nor are we establishing who is in and who is out. Rather, when we declare a position on a moral issue, we are bearing witness to what we believe to be God’s intention for the lives of all human beings.
So, to say that homosexual practice is wrong is to say that as we have gathered around Scripture, we have been led by the Holy Spirit to the conviction that such practice is contrary to God’s intention for humankind.
The Path of Human Flourishing
Given these convictions that I have just articulated, certain implications follow for how one lives. I recognize that our culture resists moral advice to others and that what I am going to say will seem like a power play and moral authoritarianism to many. But I do not believe that our culture is right at this point. If there is one way to live before the Creator and Redeemer, and if that one way to live is the path to human flourishing, then I also have the difficult responsibility of bearing witness to that life that leads to human flourishing. Of course, I must not be too dramatic here. The argument that I am making is not one that costs me a lot, though I would rather remain silent.
So, given the convictions that I set out above, I also believe that GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered) persons should strive to live celibate lives by God’s grace. This means bearing the burden of one’s unfulfilled sexual longings in this life. This is not easy to bear in our culture, because our culture has made the physical fulfillment of sexual longings central to human fulfillment. However, while the Bible teaches that sexual identity is central and fundamental to humans made in God’s image, the physical completion of our sexuality in orgasmic experience is not central or fundamental. So, I believe that as GLBT followers of Jesus Christ commit themselves to bearing the burden of unfilled sexual longings, they will have much to learn and to teach us about God’s grace and mercy. And in those times that they fall short of that commitment (as we all do in various ways—heterosexual lust, adultery, divorce), they may also learn something about God’ mercy and forgiveness.
This is not to place higher expectations on celibate homosexual disciples of Jesus Christ. Celibate, single, heterosexual disciples will have their own lessons of grace and mercy. And faithful, married, heterosexual disciples will as well.
The Challenge for Churches
Our convictions and the changing culture in which we live will present particular, local challenges in our communities and congregations. How can we be places of welcome and hospitality when our disagreements are so deep? How can we recover some sense of discipline in relation to other sexual expressions that are contrary to human flourishing? How can we extend grace and mercy to one another across these divisions?
As a church we are called to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ for all creation. Christian ethics is the means by which we do that in the places where our lives intersect with those who are not Christians. In this mission we bear witness by declaring God’s intention for human flourishing as taught by the Holy Spirit through Scripture in the church. When we fall short of full faithfulness, the church still bears witness as we confess our sin and depend upon God’s mercy and forgiveness. May God be with us as we seek to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to our world.