Christ, Community, Mission – an Ancient and Modern Routine

My students in Church History are well pleased with Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language.  I was please to revise and update the book furnishing its 4th edition.  It serves, especially beginning students, very well.  It gives the student stories of key events and persons in Shelley’s warm conversational style.  Students also read Robert Louis Wilken’s The First One Thousand Years. As an avid Wilken reader, I knew I would admire  it.  Master level students have frequently enjoyed Wilken’s other works.  But what about the undergraduates?  They noted that the book is not as easy to read as Shelley’s, but the students sense that it is “well- written,” “deep,” and “it tells a good story.”  I add “it is beautiful, artful.”  It is artful because it helps the contemporary reader more fully appreciate the topic.

Two examples from the chapter on monasticism will illustrate.  Wilken reviews some of the key figures of monasticism, including Anthony.  Anthony and others sought to do battle in the wilderness with the demons.  Wilken remembers another monk had taught that the demons “fight through people and things” when in the world, but “in the desert they assault us through our thoughts.”  The desert is a place of frightening clarity.  Here the demons exploit the weaknesses the monks have brought with them.  Wilken reminds students it is not an easy victory.  Suffering and loneliness persist.  Only the slow, deliberate, and costly disciplines lead one nearer to tranquility.  Wilken shows how even solitude had a dimension of service and connection with others (100-101).

Wilken also portrays Macrina, the older sister of Basil of Caesarea.  Macrina influenced her brothers –three of which become bishops.  She pioneered a new style of monasticism, which was inspired by her routines of prayer, a simple diet, and the work of making a home.  This style seemed naturally suited for service to the community – such as the care of orphan girls.  Basil’s considerable influence encouraged a more social vision for monks, which joined solitary prayer with a life engaged in service.  Macrina illustrates the higher standing women enjoyed in the church.  She precedes the famous women of the church, such as Catherine of Siena (104-105).

My students begin as strangers to the peculiar and distant world of monasticism.  The student’s world is given to comfort needs – to embracing and enhancing pleasures.  The monks’ deny themselves in order to enhance the clarity necessary for spiritual warfare.  Students discern that it is the disciplined life of the monks that more naturally lead to love and service to others.  They also recognize that the trendy new methods in mission are actually the manner of witness exhibited long ago by the monks; the monks pursue Christ in the life of discipline, they model a more noble community with respect for one another, kindness for the stranger and mercy for the sick and weak.

[Charismatic] Christianity and Wealth

It has been my privilege to spend a good portion of last year editing Bruce Shelley’s remarkably popular Church History in Plain Language.  The 4th edition is due in December.  I have ventured a humble effort to describe the nature of the Christianity which is expanding at an astounding rate around the Globe and especially in the Global South and China.  This expansion or revival is typically charismatic.  A recent conference may have strayed off course from critiquing the prosperity Gospel to offering a general condemnation of Charismatic experience; a panel discussion did strike a note of caution calling for patience for two evangelicals who were strangely open to the movement, John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  The following observations may be helpful.

1.  There are very grave challenges faced by the “new Christianity” sweeping around the globe; some are deficient in the doctrine of the trinity; some may be overly emotional and naive; some offer crude and manipulative instruction concerning money, indeed there are many other concerns.  I am not a charismatic but I am humbled to report a magnificent working of God across the globe.  Almost every revival has had similar criticisms and corresponding false and deviate versions of genuine Spirit phenomena.

2.  The biblical case is admirably summarized by John Piper; he cites I Corinthians 14:29 (instructing prophets be allowed to speak but be evaluated), I Thessalonians 5:20-21 (ordering the church not to hold prophesy in contempt but to evaluate it), I Corinthians 11: 4-5 (stipulating proper decorum for men and women prophets – Piper cautions about women exercising authority), and I Corinthians 13:8-10 (teaching that these disputed gifts would be in place until Christ returns).  The presumption that prophecy is unbiblical is unwarranted.

3.  Our concerns for Charismatic teaching and practice hold strange ironies for “first world” evangelicals.  One example will suffice.  I am deeply troubled about how many charismatics talk about money.  Too many times their teaching is crude and appeals to the worst kind of greed.  But I fear North American Evangelicalism has too little to teach them and too weak an example to give witness to a better way.  Are they much more sick on this issue that we?  They teach the Gospel carries with it the notion that believers who have nothing (especially the oppressed and abjectly poor) will receive reward; we teach the Gospel includes the caveat that wealthy believers need change little about the way they live or handle their money.  The desire for worldly wealth seems to drive both.   Jesus warned in Matthew 6:24 that Wealth / Mammon can endanger those who have wealth (Matthew 6:19 – 24) as well as those who have nothing (Matthew 6: 25-34).  We need a better way forward.

Pentecost, Pesher, and the People of God

 In sum: “to be saved” in the Pauline view means to become part of the people of God, who by the Spirit are born into God’s family and therefore joined to one another as one body, whose gatherings in the Spirit form them into God’s temple.  God is not simply saving individuals and preparing them for heaven; rather he is creating a people for his name, among whom God can dwell and who in their life together will reproduce God’s life and character in all its unity and diversity.

                                                                                                                                        Gordon Fee

                                                                                   Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God

This passage serves as an epigraph for my epilogue to the 4th edition of Bruce Shelley’s popular work, Church History in Plain Language. Revising Shelley’s work was an honor but also a humbling undertaking.  The most humbling challenge by far was the charge to offer a new conclusion to the work taking note of the remarkable growth of the church in the “Global South.”  Trying to picture the changing face of Christianity in a couple of chapters was daunting; I could work for 10 years to tell the story of the faith in the last 100 years and have only begun.

I hold a modest confidence toward other revisions concerning Gnosticism and early theology, but one of the very satisfying things about the project is the epigraph.  I found these words not only a faithful rendering of Paul’s teaching about the church but also fitting and prophetic when considering the church today.  The awakening of Christianity around the globe has awakened my own convictions about the church.  An almost pesher quality permeates my reading. Like Peter I declare “this is that” – this great global embrace of Christ is that church one sees in the New Testament.

Peter declared the Pentecost phenomena of Spirit- outpouring and tongue- speaking was that which Joel had prophesied (Acts 2); in this event the Spirit had overcome geographic, cultural, and language barriers to form his people; but so as not to miss the point, the Spirit also falls on the half- Jew in chapter 8 and the non- Jew in chapter 10.  The Spirit gathers the church from across racial lines.  Reconciliation requires a transforming of persons, but this transforming involves the forming of the people of God from every people and nation. Reconciliation apart from reconciliation with his people seems out of step with the Spirit’s work in the first century and in our own.

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