The Trinity and Mission

These are musings brought upon me by my friend Rick (who blogs over here) in an e-mail today as I plan some seminars on the Fathers. One of the hard sells these days can be the deep theology of the Church Fathers. What does homoousios have to do with me? I already know why Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong; why discuss the patristic discussions of Christology? Isn’t it more important just to accept Jesus in your heart? This is all so impractical.

But Rick just sent me an e-mail challenging all of that. Where do we evangelicals tend to get our vision of mission? The Great Commission. What do we see happening there?

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus has appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Mt. 28:16-20, KJV)

This should be one of our foundational texts for Christology and Trinitarian theology (as Rick said to me in his e-mail). I have usually seen it quoted only in part, ‘Go ye therefore … and of the Holy Ghost.’ But the beginning of the passage is of the utmost importance because we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the therefore there for?’ Jesus says first, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.’

If you know the Christological debates of the fourth century, you will know that those words alone pose no problems for an Arian. This is an important point, if we want to encourage people to read Sts. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and of Nazianzus (‘the Theologian’), Ambrose, and Augustine for their Christology. For us, in a post-Nicene, post-Reformation, post-Christendom world, it is ‘obvious’ to many a believer that when ‘all power is given unto [Christ] in heaven and in earth’ he is, therefore, fully God.

But an Arian would tell us that the authority was given to Him by the Father.

So we need to go farther up in the passage.

What did the Eleven do when the meet Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him.’ True, ‘some doubted’. But the Evangelist here seems to me to be commending the worshipful action of the Eleven. When they worship Jesus, the word is proskunésan, from the verb proskuneo. It is a word for worship used throughout Christian literature to refer to that kind of reverence and honour given to God alone. When people in the Bible give proskunésis to someone other than God, it is condemned.

This is an argument normally used on Jehovah’s Witnesses; no doubt it can work with the sly neo-Arians in your midst.

If Jesus is God and — working from the logical context of the day — there is only one God, when Jesus comes to the discussion of baptism, how can it be that people baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son (let alone the Holy Spirit?).

Now we enter into the mystery of the Trinity. Here’s the usefulness of the Fathers.

When the fourth-century Fathers were confronted by the Arian complaint that Jesus cannot be entirely God because that makes us at least dyotheists if not polytheists, new ways of thinking about Jesus’ divinity and his relation to God the Father needed to be found. The earlier Fathers had all asserted Jesus to be divine (so did the Arians). They had said things such as the Son and the Spirit being the Father’s hands (so did the Arians). They had even used the word Trinitas (first attested in Tertullian). Some had said that the Father and Son were homoousios or consubstantialis (the Arians did not).

These last terms were taken by the Fathers of the fourth century and they built on the preceding tradition, using this theological framework as well as the internal arguments above to combat the Arian argument for the Son’s createdness. And when we decide that Father and Son are co-equal and co-eternal, why neglect the Holy Spirit? Is he not also one of those in whose name the disciples are called to baptise?

This brings us full circle to mission. Embedded in a passage used on a regular basis to assert the importance of mission and the call to preach to the nations is Trinitarian theology. It is explicated as being Three Persons who share a single Essence or Substance, and eternal communion of being.

Jesus tells His disciples to go forth and make more disciples. They are able to do this because Jesus is God. And they are to baptise people in the threefold Divine Name(s). Because of His Divine authority, we can feel confident telling people Jesus’ teachings, even the hard ones, knowing that He is with always, to the very end of the age.

And, having made disciples, they are to be baptised, to be washed clean of their old life through the symbol and sacrament of water, in the Name of these three Persons who are One God. They enter into the Divine Life, then. They enter as participants by grace (not nature, and not ontologically) into the everlasting communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as we go forth, we are ourselves living as part of that communion, an everlasting love and joy that lies as the basis for all creation.

As a member of this Divine Communion, how will you live your life today? As a person called to teach all nations by God Himself, how will you relate to the world around you? These are the questions the Trinity poses us as we look at mission.

Don’t forget, I have a page (probably outdated by now) of Resources on the Holy Trinity.

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Christianity and Eastern Religions

I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).

One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).

This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).

Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.

We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.

It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.

But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!

Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.

Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?

If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.

All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.

This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’  Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).

The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.

Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.

So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!

*The secularists, atheists, agnostics, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Confucians, Native North Americans, Maori, Aborigines, African animists, Zoroastrians, Sumerians ……

**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).

Empty Churches

When we first moved to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, one of the first churches we encountered was St. John’s “Tollbooth” Highland Kirk. Except, actually, we didn’t. Instead, we met the Hub, a cafe, art space, event venue, and headquarters for the Edinburgh Festival.

The Hub's doors

Since then, we have seen many “empty” churches. Some are actually empty, such as the Tron Kirk:

The Tron Kirk: Empty

or that church on Lauriston Place:

The Paint-peeling Door of an Empty Church

Others have found second lives as nightclubs such as Sin:

Note: Not my photo of Sin Nightclub

or as theatres, such as the Bedlam Theatre:

Note: Not my photo of the Bedlam Theatre

or as street-health clinics:

Church reborn as hospice

or as the brass-rubbing centre:

Me at the Brass Rubbing Centre, formerly Trinity College Chapel

or as beautiful venues, such as the Mansfield Traquair Centre:

The Mansfield Traquair Centre, Chancel

St. John’s Highland Kirk is probably the highest spire in the city, in part due to its location on the same hill as the Castle — it’s the spire to the left of Edinburgh Castle if a friend ever sends you a postcard. Yet it and the Tron Church are not churches anymore, and they are two out of the three notable spires in this view:

The Royal Mile

The explanation for the abandonment of two of the Royal Mile’s churches is the fact that the Old Town of Edinburgh, which boasted 52 400 people in the late 1800’s has but 4000 residents today. Most of its space is shops, restaurants/bars, and offices with the odd tourist attraction thrown in for good measure.

Thus, St. Giles’ (the “crown spire” visible between St. John’s and the Tron Kirk) together with Carubber’s Church, Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal, and Canongate Kirk along the Royal Mile are able to serve the Old Town, along with St. Columba’s Free Church and St. Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal on Johnson Terrace, St. Augustine’s United on George IV Bridge, and Greyfriars Kirk. There is also St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church down on Cowgate.

That’s a lot of churches for the Old Town.

Yet if you tally the worshippers on any given Sunday in the churches of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I doubt you will get anything near 4000 congregants assembled.

The dome of West Register House, Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square, home of a beautiful old parish kirk that is now West Register Office, along with the rest of the New Town, has suffered a similar fate as the Old Town. People just don’t live there anymore. The churches have very few congregants, although Charlotte Baptist Chapel is able to pack ’em in like sardines.

Another cause of un-kirking in this city is the death or amalgamation of some denominations. This was the case for Mansfield Place Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The Catholic Apostolics thought the Second Coming was due in the 1920’s, so they made no plans for succession for their Apostles. By the 1950’s, Mansfield Place Church was closed.

When the bulk of the Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland, the Free Church’s “High Kirk” become the library at New College, which means that students of New College get to study amidst some lovely stained glass!

However, when we recall my statement that even with so many churches in the Old Town, the 4000 inhabitants still don’t fill them, we return to the main cause of un-kirking, and it is that people are no longer warming or filling pews.

Mansfield Traquair Centre Wall Painting

At a certain level, this makes Phoebe Traquair’s angel cry.

People’s butts keeping pews warm as they did ever since they put the first pews in European churches in the centuries following the Reformation is not really what Christianity is about. Getting lots of people into your church doesn’t mean a thing in some ways.

Yet those butts warming those pews are human butts. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to become one of them. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to die for them. They are the butts of people who need to hear and know the message of the greatness of the glory of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

At least if they are at kirk each Sunday, they stand a chance of hearing this message and being transformed by it.

The un-kirking of Edinburgh and Europe is a phenomenon that, I understand, has been going on since at some point in the 1960’s. People just stopped going to church. Fewer and fewer people go to church every year. Even in the USA, which is imagined by many to be a “Christian” nation, the average Sunday attendance in 2005 was 80 persons — the megachurches are not offsetting the exodus.

My friend Rick, pastor of an international, multicultural, “evangelical” church in Cyprus, says that the European church has entered a phase of exile. Our mission and ministry have different needs than ministry in places where the church is exploding in size, as in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Our churches are dwindling, and people need the Gospel.

Maybe we don’t need David Wilkersons per se in Europe. But we do need people who are willing to invest in these cities and the people who populate them. People willing to walk past the empty spires and remember the One Whose Cross is raised high above.

People who are willing to love their unkirked friends to the bitter end.

People who are willing to live across from drunks and junkies and love them ceaselessly and endlessly.

People who are willing to truly befriend atheists and agnostics and take them seriously as people, not projects, not simply arguments with bodies.

We need Columbas and Ninians. (Too many reservations to want another Knox, really.)

David Wilkerson, 1931-2011

David Wilkerson went to sleep in the Lord on April 27 this year. And since any Christian in such a state is up for grabs to be Saint of the Week, here we go.

There is a good chance that you don’t know Wilkerson’s name. However, you probably do know the name of one of his books — The Cross and the Switchblade, which was also made into a film.

In 1958, David Wilkerson moved to New York City to bring the Gospel to the inner city gangs. He engaged in the risky business of outdoor, open-air preaching in the concrete jungle. And, unlike the guy I saw on Princes Street the other day, people actually stopped to listen. In fact, a couple of gang leaders came to Christ.

One of these early converts was Nicky Cruz, whom you may know from his book Run Baby Run. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of Rev. Wilkerson, Nicky was freed from heroin addiction and went on to become an evangelist himself.

As Wilkerson’s ministry amongst Nicky and his ilk continued, they discovered that they had to find a way to help all of these gang members and street kids that was of a more material nature than simply answering an altar call. So, having established Teen Challenge, Wilkerson and his team took over some old houses and provided places for the teens to live, to learn some skills, to go through withdrawal — that sort of thing.

If I remember correctly (the reference would be Twelve Angels from Hell), Teen Challenge also started a farm ministry for these kids who knew naught but the city to and experience God’s creation as part of the work.

One problem Wilkerson faced as the numbers of new converts grew was the fact that often people would be on the straight and narrow for a short while but eventually return to crime, drugs, and gangs. He asked Nicky and some of the first converts, who were now sort of senior members of the Teen Challenge community, and they said they were able to stay away from their old life after their baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Now, you may not be a Pentecostal like Wilkerson, but the experience of being overcome and overflowed with the Holy Spirit is something many a Christian can attest to, Pentecostal or not. This is the event that they learned was very important in helping these young people with broken lives and broken worlds become fully fixed by the living Christ.

Teen Challenge still exists to this day, working among the broken teens of the inner city.

In 1987, Wilkerson founded the Times Square Church, bringing the Gospel in a permanent way to New York City.

And Wilkerson, who prophesied doom and apostasy for the western Church back in the 80’s, was calling us all to repentance right up to the end (thanks to Rick Dugan for posting the video first):