Monday, February 29, 2016

Church buildings

Some churches own buildings.  Some do not.  The church of which I have been a member for the past decade owns a building which is too small for its congregation; it would like a larger building.  The church of which I have just become a member does not own a building at all, and does not particularly aspire to own one; we might not take one if it were offered for free (although we might - if you have a building going free, let me know, and we'll see...)

It's all just irrelevant, right?  Just a matter of preference and pragmatics.  Certainly I've never really read anything discussing the theological or ecclesiological importance of church property (except in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 1179-1186; it is the usual quasi-sacramental stuff that characterises much Roman theology).

Except buildings become symbols, and symbols take on significance they may not have had in original intention.  Because church buildings are not particularly gospel things, they are also not particularly controlled when it comes to their symbolism.  Being a long way from the heart of the Christian faith and its practice, they can take on different meanings very easily; they are not tied closely to any particular interpretation of the faith.  So a building could become a fortress; in here we are safe, in here it is holy, in here the world will not get us.  Or it could become a temple; in here God is present, in here God is working, in here prayers are heard.  Both of these would be very unhelpful symbolism.

I would guess that the most useful symbolism you could apply to a church building would be that of an embassy.  An embassy is the sovereign soil of another country, and so in a way the church building, by dedicating a particular portion of the Earth to the service of God, becomes an embassy of heaven.  It is a strange embassy in one sense, because part of its central message is that this ambassadorial role is temporary; there will come a day when all of the Earth will be similarly consecrated.  As such, the church building can have a prophetic role.  Like an embassy, it can also aim to display something of the kingdom it represents.  Obviously that will mainly happen through the people who gather there, but it can also happen through the architecture, the liturgy, the sheer ambience of the place - and, given that we have a Servant King, perhaps also the regularity with which the building is available to others to use.

Of course people in the church will only think of the church building that way if the general culture of the church leans in that direction.  It is easy for error to creep in here, and I wonder whether the way that church members think about their building might be a good indicator of how sound their grasp of the gospel is overall...

One thing I have seen a lot of recently is the idea that the church building is inherently detrimental to mission.  If we have a building, people say, church members will start to feel disconnected from the wider community; they will start to think that evangelism just means inviting people in on to our territory and not going out on to theirs.  Well, to this I can only say pish, and perhaps also tosh.  It is true that people might start to feel that way, but it will not be the building that makes it happen; it will be the preaching and teaching, or lack thereof.  Moreover, where do you think the congregation are for the 90% of their lives when they are not in the church building?  They are scattered, hopefully being salt and light in all of the places God sends them.  I'd also like to ask whether it might not work the other way around - whether lacking a church building might not symbolise a total lack of boundaries and distinction between the church and the world..?  Mightn't it?

Some churches have a building.  Some don't.  It doesn't really matter, although there might be important reasons why at a particular moment in a church's life a building will be a huge blessing or a great liability.  What really matters is what sort of symbol we allow it to become, and to what extent we see it in the light of the gospel.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

What should evangelicals REALLY make of Karl Barth?

Earlier this week, the Gospel Coalition carried an article by Justin Taylor, reporting some brief comments of Don Carson's on the theology of Karl Barth, particularly as it relates to the doctrine of Scripture. There is a lot to like about Carson's comments, especially the fact that the major misunderstandings that seem to characterise a lot of American conservative reading of Barth (I'm thinking of Van Til, Schaeffer, Frame) seem thankfully absent. Even the disagreement is done in an irenic style, as one would expect from Carson. This is all good.

Having said that, I did (of course) have a few thoughts, and since it is good to share, here they are.

Firstly, let me say something about contradictions. Sometimes reading Barth it feels like his thought is heading off on two parallel lines, and it is difficult (impossible?) to see how they will ever be brought into contact. I think the doctrine of Scripture is a clear example of this: Barth insists strongly on the mere humanity of Scripture; he insists equally strongly that Scripture is the place we turn to hear the authoritative word of God. Is it just that Barth is being unduly 'extreme' about either of these positions? I don't think so. As far as I can see from my reading of Barth, this sort of structure springs from the fact that his theology is genuinely 'eccentric', meaning simply that it has its centre outside itself - in the reality of God himself. When it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, the humanity and divinity of the witness it bears are genuinely contradictory from a human point of view, and at no point can they be logically brought together or co-ordinated; they are brought together only in the act of God himself working to bring them together. In other words, if God doesn't exist, Barth's theology will be self-contradictory - but then, of course, it will also be meaningless.

I think this sort of structure can be seen in various aspects of more traditional theology without causing any disturbance. Consider, for example, the Biblical truth that God is a god who punishes evil, and the equally Biblical truth that God is a god who forgives. These are two parallel lines stretching to infinity, apparently without ever touching. They are brought into contact only at the cross of Christ; the action of God makes two apparently contradictory statements to be in fact identical (in the sense that they have an identical referent). If this is "dialectical thinking", it is more Biblical than Hegelian, and I don't think we need to feel threatened by it.

Secondly, it is true that Barth affirms that there are errors in Scripture, although he does say at one point that Scripture's errors are more illuminating than the truths of other books (can't find the reference for this one right now). It is not clear to me that Barth ever makes use of the idea of errors in Scripture; he doesn't build anything on it. It feels to me that he thinks himself obliged to affirm the presence of errors in order to assert the true humanity of the Scriptures, against what he regards as a dangerous fundamentalism which overlooks this aspect of Scripture or at least minimises it. I think he is right to see this danger, but wrong in his defence. Although to err is human, not every human errs in every single thing they do. It should be entirely possible for Barth to affirm that Scripture is free of error in what it affirms (propositionally), but that it is still a human book, not in itself divine revelation unless God brings the human and divine together in the event of the Spirit's illumination.

I suspect this is related to Barth's Christology. Barth claims that Christ's human nature is thoroughly Adamic, that is to say fallen - it is like our nature in every way. This is a substantial departure from mainstream orthodoxy, but it is worth noting that he is also clear that Christ did not take on our fallen nature in order to do in that nature what we ourselves habitually do - i.e. he did not actually sin, but carried our sinful nature in obedience to God. Might he not, in parallel, have affirmed that the humanity of Scripture meant it was thoroughly capable of error, without in fact erring?

Thirdly, it is worth highlighting that perhaps Barth's greatest concern in all his theology, and certainly in his doctrine of Scripture, is that the church must continue to rely absolutely on God, and on his present day activity. There is no sense in which God, having acted in the past in Christ and in the inspiration of Scripture, now leaves his revelation in the hands of the church and the world. No, revelation is always God's personal activity. Although Scripture and preaching (and even the human nature of Christ?) constitute the locus of revelation, they are not themselves revelatory unless God acts by the Spirit to make them such. God is in control, always the subject of his own becoming object. In practice, that means whenever we turn to Scripture, or stand up to preach, or sit to hear a sermon we are genuinely driven to prayer, that the impossible would happen in the grace of God, and the words of men would be to us the true and living word of God .

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sort of news

This won't be news to all of you, but by way of an explanation for the slow rate of blogging (which is likely to persist for the next couple of months), I have tidings of life, and broadly the tidings are that there is change afoot.
Cowley Church Community
Most of you will know that I have been serving as a lay elder in Magdalen Road Church for some time.  What you may or may not know is that for the last few years MRC has been working on establishing a church plant in the Cowley area of Oxford.  That plant is Cowley Church Community, and since the beginning of January I and the family have been members - and I have been serving as one of two part-time pastors.  At the moment I'm doing that alongside my full-time job at the University, but that job will be coming to an end at the end of March.  CCC currently meets every other week on a Sunday, and in two mid-week groups.  We're not yet independent of MRC, but we're working up to it, and part of that plan is that we'll be meeting every Sunday from Easter - hence my stepping away from the day job.  I'm looking forward to being able to preach more regularly, and to having the time to put into getting to know people within the little church better - as well as getting to know the Cowley area and its residents better than I currently do.  Although we live very near to Cowley, in some ways it is a very different part of Oxford, and there is definitely going to be some adjusting to do.

Alongside helping to lead CCC, I am back at school!  Specifically, I have begun studying for an MA in Contemporary Church Leadership at WEST (or at least, it was called WEST when I enrolled; now it's part of the Union School of Theology - and what's more, the course I am doing has been dropped from the offerings of the new School, so if you thought you might also like to do that sort of course I'm afraid you're too late).  The hope is that the combination of study and practical ministry will mean theory informing practice and practice being subjected to critical reflection - and therefore hopefully growth.

This feels like a huge, and yet decidedly daunting, opportunity.  If you're the praying sort, we'd very much appreciate your prayers.  We will be sending out proper 'prayer letters' shortly, so if you'd like one and you haven't already asked for one, do get in touch.  In the meantime, the blog will be updated as and when there is time and energy...