The Role of Experience in the Life of the Christian

The people called Methodists have always recognized the importance of experience in the Christian life. It is the common privilege of the children of God to personally and authentically appropriate the loving forgiveness of God in Christ and the redemptive embrace of God’s own Holy Spirit. The authentic experience of being rightly related to God brings the truth of God revealed in scripture to life in each of us. At our best, we Methodists have understood this and made it a priority in our preaching and teaching.
As with many things, we must exercise caution to avoid allowing experience to do more than it was ever intended. Unfortunately, experience is sometimes granted ultimate authority over reason, tradition, and, at times, even scripture. We are tempted to think that if something feels right, then it must be right. We Methodists are reminded, though, that we must “interpret experience in light of scriptural norms” (2008 Book of Discipline, para. 104). Experience is not always a reliable guide, and it is an ongoing necessity to discern between personal preference and the genuine experience of being led by the Spirit. This is why the scriptures must be the norm. When experience and the Bible contradict, experience must surrender to scripture. The Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures will never lead anyone in a manner that contradicts those scriptures.
Experience is not an authority above or even on par with the Bible; rather, experience functions to make the truth of scripture a real factor in our lives as disciples of Christ. Experience is that authentic knowledge that God affirms our faith and obedience. It is Wesley’s warm heart. It is the feeling of forgiveness and the assurance of God’s love for us. Experience is not to be granted authority to contradict or trump the Bible; rather, it is the conviction of the Spirit when we stray from truth. An authentic experience of God’s love and grace are essential to the Christian life, but like every aspect of life, experience needs to be conformed to the image of God in Christ as revealed in the scriptures.
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Pelagius Redivivus

As hard as I tried, I was unable to resist the temptation to write about this. It would seem that the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta hasn’t much important to do given their intent to vote on the reinstatement of the 5th century heretic Pelagius at the upcoming 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta which meets November 4-5, the last such meeting to be presided over by Bishop Neil Alexander.
The move to reinstate Pelagius is being led by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta. You can read all about it in this article at Virtue Online, which summarizes Pattison’s motivation:
According to Pattison, the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire and their ecclesiastical dominance. “An understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition.”
The article also cites the disdain of retired Bishop C. FitzSimmons Allison:
As one considers the theologically inept accommodation to the secular world there should be no surprise that Pelagian doctrine of the will’s freedom without grace would be dug up again. A world losing its trust in God will compulsively trust in the human will to obey if it is sufficiently rebuked, exhorted, threatened and scolded. No wonder Richard Hooker and St. Augustine called it a ‘cruel doctrine’.
There are so many things that could and should be said about this. And while I’m tempted to spell out precisely what I think, I suspect you already know. Try to imagine my red-bearded chin dropping with incredulity and then shaking, back and forth, praying this is someone’s idea of a little good-hearted ecclesiastial prankish fun. Yes, at any moment someone will pop out from hiding with a camera that has recorded the look of shock still on my face and tell me that this whole thing was cooked up to add a little humor to my day, and then we’ll share a hearty laugh and talk about how silly such a proposal would be. I’m waiting.

Theory or History? The Difference is Important

It has become common in theological circles for historic doctrines related to the work of Christ to be described as “theories.” Different aspects of the atonement have been commonly referred to in terms of models or theories for some time (e.g. penal substitution, Christus victor). Now, especially it seems since the release of Douglas Campbell’s latest book, justification is being increasingly discussed in terms of “justification theory.”
It’s one thing for this to be the language of professional academic guilds, but I hope this language doesn’t work it’s way into the Church. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s important because atonement and justification have to do with how we come into a right relationship with God. And from a pastoral perspective, I don’t want to leave that up to theory.
Paul wrote of sinners that, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). And whatever that means, it is no mere theory. It is history; it is simply what happened. How do we gain access to God? Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. How are we justified? By his grace as a gift. These are not theories for Paul. They are theological truths grounded in the historic event of Christ’s death and resurrection. I don’t want my relationship to God through Christ dependant on someones theory; I want it dependent on something that Jesus actually did.
The language of theory grants competing interpretations of atonement and justification some level of mutual credibility. The problem is that not all competing interpretations are credible. Not all are to be believed. Did Jesus propitiate the wrath of God or didn’t he? Does God justify sinners or doesn’t he? And the matter of whether and how he does that is not simply a matter of theory; it is an issue of what actually happened. It is a matter of what transpired on the cross, of what happens when a person believes the gospel. We must do the hard work of understanding what scripture means when it speaks of what Jesus actually did and what actually happens to us. Theories are of limited help; history is the key thing. There is a difference, and the difference may very well bear eternal significance.
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Context Counts: Conflict Resolution in Philippians

Philippians 4:4 is a well-known verse: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It’s brief. It’s happy. It is easily recalled. There’s even a song about it that we all learned as children. And that’s good. It’s a worthy exhortation to be committed to memory.
But in Philippians this command to rejoice in the Lord does not come without context. There was a problem in the church in Philippi. There was some element of divisiveness. To what extent, we are not sure. But we can be certain that Paul felt it important enough to publicly call out the two parties at the heart of the disunity: Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).
Paul’s exhortation to rejoice comes on the heels of his call for the Philippians to resolve their differences and maintain the unity of the church, and in many translations it is marked by the beginning of a new paragraph. I wonder whether this is helpful. It gives the impression that Paul is moving on to some other topic. It seems to signal that he is finished with the call to unity and is moving on to more general instructions about rejoicing, gentleness, and gratitude (4:4-7).
But what if that’s not what is happening at all? It is worth remembering that the original manuscripts did not contain paragraph breaks. So, in the original text, Paul’s instruction to pursue and maintain peace was immediately followed by his command to rejoice. What if the commands to rejoice, be gentle, not worry, pray, and be grateful were really intended as keys to resolving the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche? If that’s the case, verse 4 is probably not the best place to begin a new paragraph.
Context matters here. Paul doesn’t command unity and then leave the Philippians to figure out how to implement it. If the Philippians were focused on rejoicing in the Lord, they are less likely to be antagonistic towards one another. If they are acting with gentleness, it will counteract the easily enacted harshness that comes with conflict. Recognizing the presence of the Lord should lead them to think twice about their bickering.
So, while the verse with the double command to rejoice is commendable as a memory verse, we would do well to remember it’s original context and original application. Rejoicing in the Lord is at the heart of maintaining the unity of the local church.
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Image: Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Homiletic Task

The task of the preacher is to proclaim the glory of the triune God, revealed in the cross of Christ and experienced in the communion of the Spirit, such that the Church gains an ever-enlarging vision of the trustworthiness of God, in order to foster a constant increase of confidence among the people of God, which results in obedience that transforms the world and fills the earth with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Embracing Eschatology

J. R. Daniel Kirk posted recently on the importance of embracing the biblical vision of the future; his exhortation: Don’t give up on eschatology. He writes:

With great confidence (and financial expenditure), May 21, 2011 is declared to be the day of Jesus’ return. Or the rapture. Or whatever.

But, of course, it wasn’t.

Neither was 1994 or 1982.

When the obsession with eschatology (ideas about “the end”) produces such crazy results, it’s tempting to leave eschatology aside altogether. Let the obsessed have their little obsession while the rest of us get on with the business of real life, and real faith.

But it would be a mistake to give up on eschatology altogether.

Kirk is addressing this post to many who have simply given up on eschatology because of being overwhelmed and exasperated by some of the unusual and unbiblical eschatological constructs out there. The post struck me because it resonates with my own experience. There was a time in my own theological journey when I, like many, simply avoided eschatology. There was too much; it was too confusing; too fearful.

I soon realized, though, that a pastor who avoids eschatology won’t have much to say to the Church about our certain hope, and I finally gave myself to the study of the biblical vision of the future. What I discovered was deeply satisfying and mysteriously wonderful. I soon learned that God’s plan for his world was not one of doom, gloom, and destruction but hope, joy, and redemption. Eschatology was not a fearful thing; it was the glorious reality of Christ’s promise to come and restore all that has been tainted or damaged by sin. I fell in love with biblical eschatology, and it has even become a significant portion of my own research in New Testament. Kirk’s post is much needed and right on target.

Read the rest here.
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Image: Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What About Justification?

After reading this recent post, someone may wonder, “If ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans 3:21-22 is God’s own righteousness and not the righteous status granted to believers in justification, then what about justification by faith?” If we take “the righteousness of God” to be an attribute of God rather than God’s justification of sinners, have we lost justification? The certain answer is that we have not. Μὴ γένοιτο.
We don’t lose justification because the doctrine is clearly taught in the very same paragraph that we have been considering. Paul says that sinners who believe in Jesus are justified by God’s grace as a gift (Romans 3:24). And it is because of God’s own righteous character that he grants justification to sinners as a gift of grace through faith in Christ. Even if we take the controverted πίστεως᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ (3:22) to be “the faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ”, we do not lose justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Paul is clear that God’s action to justify, which is the fruit of his own righteous character, comes by his grace as a gift (3:24a) in Christ Jesus (3:24b) through faith (3:25). It’s right there.
So, in taking “the righteousness of God” to be a description of the divine attribute of righteousness, we haven’t tossed justification by faith out the window. It’s a both/and rather than an either/or. I would even venture to say that a more robust doctrine of justification emerges that is exegetically grounded in God’s eternally consistent righteous character.