Monday, November 28, 2016

A statement of faith - for Advent?

Recently I spoke at Wesley Uniting Church, Geelong, on the statement of faith I published on this blog earlier this year. The statement was the result of some initial musings by me and input from quite a lot of people. This process of input continued during the discussion at Geelong when local UCA minister Peter Gador-Whyte suggested that the statement could be modified for particular seasons of the church year. This would involve deleting some of the sub-clauses and leaving in those that were more oriented to the particular season. Such reduction in length would also make the statement a lot more user-friendly in contexts of public worship. Following Peter's suggestion here's a possible Advent version.

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We trust the one God.

We trust the Love and Life who is the source and sustainer of all that was, is and will be.

We trust Jesus Christ, Loves Beloved, Life's Light, Eternal Wisdom, Israel's Messiah, God with us.
Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus became human in the womb of Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth, befriending outcasts, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, confronting falsehood, and showing mercy to enemies, Jesus proclaimed the long-promised reign of God.

We trust the Holy Spirit, the loving and lively breath of God, who blows where she wills: in, around and through the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, animated Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, which, like Jesus, is called to serve; it is an instrument through which Christ continues to command attention and awaken faith.

This is the churchs faith. It is the faith we confess. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live and hope. Amen.
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 The above image is Igino Giordani's "Mercy in the Magnificat" and is reproduced from this website under a Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, November 26, 2016

What to expect of a theological education

There are many concerns about the relationship between faith and theological education. Some regard it as a sure way to lose one's faith. Some find it a pathway to liberations from the piety of their church or family. Some find it a way into the intellectual riches of the Christian faith they were previously unaware. The fact is a theological education produces all sorts of outcomes in those who venture into it. Pilgrim Theological College (the College where I teach) has recently posted this reflection from one of our students on what it means to take the risk of being theologically educated. It's definitely worth a read. And there's a good chance it will persuade some readers that it is well worth enrolling in a theological college. If so, think about Pilgrim.

Check out the piece here on the Pilgrim website.

And if you're in the vicinity visit us at out our physical home at the Centre for Theology and Ministry (below), 29 College Crescent, Parkville.

And this earlier post by me might also be of interest.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Letting go of 'contextual' theology

It was again my turn to contribute the Pilgrim Faculty column in our Synod's monthly magazine, Crosslight. I argue that it is time to let go of the discourse of 'contextual' theology and work instead with the idea that all theology is contingent. I think this would help us to be less preoccupied with (but not indifferent to) method and to more focused on theology in every context being a spiritual discipline. Near the end of the piece I write this.
As such, theology is as much a spiritual discipline as it is the implementation of a method.  Yes, it requires the self-awareness and discipline of method. It also requires the theologian – be she or he an academic teacher of theology or a congregational minister preaching sermons – to cultivate those contingent practices by which we live the Christian life: repentance, thanksgiving, praise, proclamation, speaking prophetically, love and mercy. Such practices and dispositions can’t be put on hold as we do the technical theological work of reading, interpreting, writing and speaking. 
The full piece can be read here. (It is a (very) short summary of the longer argument I make in Chapter 5 of Disturbing Much Disturbing Many, "'A unity which transcends': What's 'contextual' and what's 'theological' about 'contextual theology'?")

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

John Flett's Apostolicity

Today it was my pleasure and privilege to launch the latest book of my Pilgrim Theological College colleague and friend, John Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016). The following is the text of my comments on the occasion. It was one of five books being launched at the University of Divinity's Learning and Teaching Day, so I had only five minutes available. So much more could be said about the book, but I hope even these brief remarks generate interest in what is a very important book.

In 1959, the Joint Commission on Church Union, the body whose work led to the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia two decades later, published its first report. In it the Commission wrote this about apostolicity: “Succession in ministerial order is good; succession in apostolic faith and life is essential.”
I have always been encouraged by this contrast and have often used it as a springboard to defend a concept of apostolicity not determined by ministerial order. 
Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective has, however, woken me from my apostolic slumber and made me realise that I wasn’t being anywhere near as radical as I thought I was when affirming a an alternative notion of apostolicity.  
This book is the published version of John’s Habilitationsshcrift which he completed in Wuppertal in 2015. It follows his earlier ground-breaking work on Missiology, The Witness of God, published in 2010.
John’s meticulous, broad-ranging and impressively-documented argument confronted me with the fact that the concept of apostolicity in which I had put such confidence was, firstly, a reflection of a binary produced by Catholic/Protestant polemics and, secondly, completely uninformed by the realities of world Christianity.  
By ‘world Christianity’ John means a polycentric, culturally plural and institutionally diverse communion. The pluriformity of this communion does not simply represent accidental and diverse manifestations of a stable universal.
Rather, this pluriformity is itself of material theological significance. It informs an ongoing  and dynamic view of apostolicity rather than being measured for its faithfulness to some pre-existing definition of apostolicity.
John threads various strands of evidence and argument together to reach this position. There is a close reading of key ecumenical documents beginning with the 1971 text, Apostolicity and Catholicity and extending to the recent 2013 text, The Church: Towards a Common Vision.
There is a sustained rejection of the idea of Christianity forming a fixed culture, a rejection that is built around, to a large extent, a vigorous critique of  Robert Jenson’s claim that there is. There is also a fascinating political analysis of apostolicity when John brings colonisation and apostolicity into dialogue.
John’s constructive argument builds on, among many other elements, the cultural diversity and cross-cultural encounter evident in the New Testament. 
Above all, however, he develops a Christology as that to which any concept of apostolicity must be subordinate. He argues that Jesus Christ himself is the foundation of the plurality of apostolicity.
Let me illustrate some of the strands of this argument with just a few quotations.
On the link often drawn between the church’s visibility and the apostolic universality of its structures, John writes as follows:
…isolating  the discussion of apostolicity from cross-cultural engagement permits an abstraction of ecclesiology from the concrete conditions of the church even whilst grounding the apology for that abstraction within an account of the church as a continuous visible social reality. A fundamental inconsistency is in play here. The logic of the livedness of the church community, if rigorously applied, needs to account for the richness of structures evident in world Christianity and by extension their richness through Christian history. (p.101)

John refers to Bolaji Idowu’s analysis of the Nigerian church and its deep sense of needing to become Western in order to become Christian. This leads John to reflect on the link between the ‘foreignness of Christianity’ and the process of colonization – and the ecumenical movement’s apparent blindness to this link.
It is difficult to shake the conclusion that the dominant ecumenical model for apostolicity, that of cultural continuity, mandates colonization as the method of cross-cultural missionary transmission with all that this entails for uneven power relationships, paternalism, building relationships of dependence and, finally, maintaining a state of Christian infancy (p.181).

Finally, in a wonderful chapter on the Christological foundation of apostolicity, John draws heavily on the claim that the centre and identity of church lies outside of itself precisely because its centre and identity is Jesus Christ. I quote:
The church finds its identity beyond itself, in the history of Jesus Christ. In this resides the possibility of conversion, the possibility of multiple Christian histories (p.320).
…diversity is a direct correlate of the apostolate’s Christological ground and calling – not secondary or accidental, but part of the full stature of Jesus Christ’s body (p.326).

This is a fine book. It is bound to generate controversy – and so it should. The questions are pressing ones and to neglect them would be to risk ignoring the challenges of world Christianity.
I hope, too, that this University, drawing together different traditions with diverse understandings of apostolicity, might also find ways to engage the issues which John raises. We need to do so, I believe, as the Australian church inevitably find its own life shaped to an ever greater degree by the polycentric and pluriform Christian communion of which John writes so powerfully.
It is delight to have John as a colleague and one who I’m sure, both through this book and the others which will come, will provoke and encourage us in our faith and scholarship. I warmly commend the book to all of you.