Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hell, Salvation and Universalism

Seems quite a few people have been thinking around this topic recently. Jon Swales has summarised Tom Wright's view on final loss, as expressed in his recent book, Surprised By Hope:
here, here, and here.

Jason Clarke who has previously done a survey on who gets saved, has been hosting Hell Week with contributions from Gregory MacDonald (a pseudonym) who has written a book called The Evangelical Universalist, followed by responses by Kevin Corcoran, a philosophy lecturer at Calvin College, and finally Dr Justin Thacker from the Evangelical Alliance.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

who will be saved?

This will be my penultimate Lesslie Newbigin post (well, for now). The question of who will be ultimately be saved has generally had three or four main responses within Christian theology: exclusivism - only those with explicit faith in Christ will be saved, inclusivism - salvation is through Christ but not limited to explicit faith in Him, pluralism - God has many salvation projects, there are many paths to God etc, and universalism - everyone will be saved in the end. I wrote a very basic essay on this question a few years back. Richard Sudworth picks up these categories in his book Distinctly Welcoming arguing that we need to move beyond them. Here is some more classic Newbigin touching on these issues:

'We must look first at the strictly exclusivist view which holds that all who do not accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour are eternally lost. We shall look later at the question of whether this is in fact what fidelity to Scripture requires us to hold. There are several reasons which make it difficult for me to believe this. If it were true, then it would be not only permissible but obligatory to use any means available, all the modern techniques of brainwashing included, to rescue others from this appalling fate. And since it is God alone who knows the heart of every person, how are we to judge whether or not another person truly has the faith which is acceptable to him? If we hold this view, it is absolutely necessary to know who is saved and who is not, and we are then led into making the kind of judgements against which scripture warns us. We are in the business of erecting barriers: Has she been baptised? Has he been confirmed by a bishop in the historic succession? Or has she had a recognisable conversion and can she name the day and the hour when it happened? We are bound to become judges of that which God alone knows.' p173

He then argues again that we have usually asked the wrong question:

'I believe that the debate about this question (how should we regard other faiths) has been fatally flawed by the fact that it has been conducted around the question "Who can be saved?" It has been taken for granted that the only question was, 'Can the good non-Christian be saved?" and by that question what was meant was not "Can the non-Christian live a good and useful life and play a good and useful role in the life of society?" The question was, "Where will she go when she dies?"... The quest for truth always requires that we ask the right questions. If we ask the wrong questions we shall get only silence or confusion. In the debate about Christianity and the world's religions it is fair to say that there has been an almost unquestioned assumption that the only question is, "What happens to the non-Christian after death?" I want to affirm that this is the wrong question and that as long as it remains the central question we shall never come to the truth' p176f

He offers 3 reasons why this is the wrong question :

1. 'it is a question to which God alone has the right to give the answer... nothing could be more remote from the whole thrust of Jesus' teaching than the idea that we are in a position to know in advance the final judgement of God.'

2. 'it is based on an abstraction. By concentrating on the fate of the individual soul after death, it abstracts the soul from the full reality of the human person as an actor and sufferer in the ongoing history of the world...the question we have to ask is not 'What will happen to this person's soul after death?" but "What is the end which gives meaning to this person's story as part of God's whole story?"'

3. 'it is a question that starts with the individual and his or her need to be assured of ultimate happiness, and not with God and his glory.'

He summarises his view thus :

'The position which I have outlined is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian Church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.' p182f

Monday, February 25, 2008

Creative Genius

Someone has way too much time on their hands. Those who are unfortunate enough to have to use Windows XP or 98 will recognise the crappy sound effects. There is something God-like about taking these useless and annoying noises and weaving them into a piece of music.

Thanks to bigbulkyanglican for the link.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Evangelism/Social Action within the Mission of God

I realise that it is not necessarily good blogging to just quite huge chunks of what other people have written, but I find Newbigin saying exactly what I want to say but can't. Here he is on the Mission of God, and the false dichotomy of evangelism and social action within that:

'It seems to me to be of great importance to insist that mission is not first of all an action of ours. It is an action of God, the triune God - of God the Father who is ceaselessly at work in all creation and in the hearts and minds of all human beings whether they acknowledge him or not, graciously guiding history toward its true end; of God the Son who has become part of this created history in the incarnation; and of God the Holy Spirit who is given as a foretaste of the end to empower and teach the Church and to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgement. Before we speak about our role, the role of our words and deeds in mission, we need to have firmly in the center of our thinking this action of God.'

Having this view saves us from 2 wrong concepts of mission :

'On the one hand, there are those who place exclusive emphasis on the winning of individuals to conversion, baptism, and church membership. The numerical growth of the Church becomes the central goal of mission. Action for justice and peace in the world is a secondary matter. It is not the heart of mission. The gospel, it is said, is about changing people, not about changing structures. (...this neglects the very important biblical teaching about the principalities and powers..) The emphasis here is exclusively on the salvation of the individual soul and the growth of the Church. The primary task is evangelism, the direct preaching of the gospel in words - spoken or written. Action for social justice and peace may be a way of drawing people to hear the gospel, but it is not an intrinsic part of the gospel itself. The preaching of the gospel of salvation from sin and of the offer of eternal life is the primary business of the Church.

On the other hand, there are those who condemn this as irrelevant or wrong. The gospel, they will say, is about God's kingdom, God's reign over all the nations and all things. At the heart of Jesus' teaching is the prayer: "Your kingdom come; your will be done, as in heaven so on earth." The central responsibility of the Church is indicated by that prayer. It is to seek the doing of God's will of righteousness and peace in this world. A Christian community which makes its own self-enlargement its primary task may be acting against God's will. In societies such as India where good men and women seek to overcome interreligious strife and to build up the common life, the Church's program of aggressive evangelism is threatening. What is needed -it will be said- is not evangelistic preaching but action by Christians along with all people of goodwill to tackle the terrible problems of the nation, to free the oppressed, heal the sick, and bring hope to the hopeless.

If I am not mistaken, the conflict between these two ways of understanding mission is profoundly weakening the Church's witness. The conflict continues because both parties have hold of important truth. And I am suggesting that both parties are inadequately aware of the central reality, namely that mission is not primarily our work - whether of preaching or of social action- but primarily the mighty work of God. What is true in the affirmation of the evangelical side of this debate is that it does matter supremely that every human being should have the opportunity to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, that without a living Church where this witness is borne neither evangelism nor Christian social action is possible, and that the gospel can never be identified with any particular project for justice and peace however laudable and promising. What is true in the position of the social activists is that a Church which exists only for itself and its own enlargement is a witness against the gospel, that the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God, and that it is impossible to give faithful witness to the gospel while being indifferent to the situation of the hungry, the sick, the victims of human inhumanity.'

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On the Point of Mission

Trinity has a little tag-line on its brochures 'A Mission-Shaped College for a Mission-Shaped Church'. I find this idea exciting, but I'm not sure we're quite there yet. There is actually very little discussion of what mission is, or why we should do it. (This is being addressed with several new courses being written on missiology). In conversations around the college I am surprised by how often I still come across the equation of mission with evangelism. Here's Newbigin on the point of mission:

' is obvious that the centre of the picture is not occupied by the question of the saving, or the failure to save, individual souls from perdition. That question has dominated Protestant missionary thinking at many times and places. Clearly it cannot be left out of the picture, but I do not find that in the New Testament it occupies the center. If this were the central question, St Paul could not have said that his work in the Eastern Roman world was finished. However many local churches had come into being through his ministry, only a tiny minority of those who had died during the years of his ministry had died as Christian believers. If this is the criterion by missions are to be judged, then plainly they have been and still are a colossal failure. Not only today, but through all the centuries, the great majority of human beings who have died have died without faith in Christ. The missionary calling has sometimes been interpreted as a calling to stem this fearful cataract of souls going to eternal perdition. But I do not find this in the center of the New Testament representation of the missionary calling. Certainly Jesus tells us that God seeks the last lost sheep, and Paul is ready to be all things to all people in order that he may by all means save some. And he goes on to say, "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings...

There is no room either for anxiety about our failure or for boasting about our success. There is room only for faithful witness to the one in whom the whole purpose of God for cosmic history has been revealed and effected, the crucified, risen, and regnant Christ.'

'It will be clear from what I have said about Paul's eschatological vision of salvation that I am not placing at the center of the argument the question of the salvation or perdition of the individual. Clearly that is part of what is involved, but my contention is that the biblical picture is distorted if this is put in the center. But it may be asked: if it is true that those who die without faith in Christ are not necessarily lost, and if it is also true that those who are baptized Christians are not necessarily saved, what is the point of missions? Why not leave events to take their course? In answer to that question, I would refer again to the word of Paul which I quoted earlier, "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." Jesus said as he was on his way to the cross "Where I am, there shall my servant be". The one who has been called and loved by the Lord, the one who wishes to love and serve the Lord, will want to be where he is. And where he is is on that frontier which runs between the kingdom of God and the usurped power of the evil one. When Jesus sent out his disciples on his mission, he showed them his hands and his side. They will share in his mission as they share in his passion, as they follow him in challenging and unmasking the powers of evil. There is no other way to be with him. At the heart of mission is simply the desire to be with him and to give him the service of our lives. At the heart of mission is thanksgiving and praise. We distort matters when we make mission an enterprise of our own in which we can justify ourselves by our works... the Church's mission began as the radioactive fallout from an explosion of joy. When it is true to its nature, it is so to the end. Mission is acted out doxology. That is its deepest secret. Its purpose is that God may be glorified.'

Monday, February 18, 2008

Election to a purpose, not to privilege

One of the areas in which I have found Newbigin to be most helpful is around the doctrine of election. I had always struggled, to say the least, with the idea that God chooses some for salvation and by implication others for eternal damnation. Newbigin argues that this is a false view of election which is unacceptable to many Christians as well as to others. We are chosen, as Israel was chosen, to be the bearers of his salvation for the world.

'It is the universality of God's saving love which is the ground of his choosing and calling a community to be the messengers of his truth and bearers of his love for all peoples.' p85

'God's electing grace, his choosing of some to be the bearers of his salvation for all, is a matter for awe and wonder and thankfulness: it can never become the ground for making claims against God which exclude others. God does no choose to save some and to destroy others. ( He has consigned all to disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all.) His grace is free and sovereign, and there is no place for an exclusive claim on his grace, a claim by which others are excluded. This obviously has a great importance when we come to consider the relation of the gospel to the world religions.' p85f

'To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are lost. To be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God's saving purpose for his whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all. It means therefore, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, to take our share in his suffering, to bear the scars of the passion...It means that this particular body of people who bear the name of Jesus through history, this strange and often absurd company of people so feeble, so foolish, so often fatally compromised with the world, this body with all its contingency and particularity, is the body which has the responsibility of bearing the secret of God's reign through world history.' p86f

Relating to this tension between particularity and universalism he argues

'It seems to me that the whole nature of the gospel requires us to maintain this tension and not to try to resolve it either by a rationalistic universalism which denies the possibility of finally missing the mark, or by increasingly fruitless arguments about who will and who will not be saved.' p88

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Newbigin on Resurrection, Worldview and Story

First up, here is Newbigin on the resurrection as a worldview defining event within our history and the Christian dogma as a story:

'It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point. That is, indeed, the whole point. What happened on that day is, according to the Christian tradition, only to be understood by analogy with what happened on the day the cosmos came into being. It is a boundary event, at the point where (as cosmologists tell us) the laws of physics cease to apply. It is the beginning of a new creation - mysterious to human reason as the creation itself. But, and this is the whole point, accepted in faith it becomes the starting point for a wholly new way of understanding our human experience, a way which - in the long run - makes more sense of human experience as a whole than does the reigning plausibility structure. That the crucified Jesus was raised from death to be the firstfruit of a new creation is -in a proper sense - dogma.' p11f

'The dogma, the thing given for our acceptance in faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story. Moreover, it is a story which is not yet finished, a story in which we are still awaiting the end when all becomes clear. Here, I think, is the point at which we may well feel that the the eighteenth-century defenders of the faith were most wide of the mark. The Christian religion which they sought to defend was a system of timeless metaphysical truths about God, nature, and man. The Bible was a source of information about such of these eternal truths as could not be discovered by direct observation of nature or by reflection on innate human ideas. Any valid defense of the Christian faith, I believe, must take a quite different route. The Christian faith, rooted in the Bible, is - I am convinced - primarily to be understood as an interpretation of the story - the human story set within the modern story of nature....The Christian faith is - as often said - a historical faith not just in the sense that it depends on a historical record, but also in the sense that it is essentially an interpretation of universal history. Its defense therefore, will be as much concerned with how we act with what we can say.' p12f

Lesslie Newbigin

I have begun reading Distinctly Welcoming by Richard Sudworth, It is an excellent read and chapter 2 'Give me back my mission' reminds me very much of the work of Lesslie Newbigin, who I'm sure must have been influential in Sudworth's thinking.

I am more and more convinced of the importance of Newbigin for mission in our country and I'm glad that people are making his thought more accessible. I know he has been a key influence on Brian Mclaren and others in the emerging church, but people may not realise that Tom Wright acknowledges his debt to him.

Here is Tom Wright on Leslie Newbigin from a conference I went to in Birmingham in 2006: (mp3)

I thought over the next couple of posts I'd mine a few quotes from 'The Gospel in a Pluralist Society' which have helped me in my thinking on salvation and other faiths.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Fair Trial?

Steve Bell's cartoon from today's Guardian

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lonnie Frisbee

I just received a new DVD in the post:

It's a fascinating and tragic documentary about the life of Lonnie Frisbee. Lonnie was one of the key figures of the 'Jesus Movement' amongst the hippie counter-culture in '60s West Coast USA. He also played a key part in the early days of both the Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movements.

I am intrigued by his story for several reasons :
i) He seems to have been a catalyst in a genuine move of God amongst a sub-culture who were completely outside the church. Lonnie claims to have received his calling when he was on acid in the desert. He originally had some strange ideas which mixed up Jesus stuff with UFOs and other mysticism but upon meeting other Christian hippies became more orthodox in his views and went on to baptise hundreds in the pacific ocean.

ii) I'm interested in the place of experience in conversion and the Christian life, and what happens when this becomes a main focus.

iii) His place in the Vineyard movement which has been a big part of my life. In the Vineyard, the way they do ministry is to pray 'Come, Holy Spirit' and then wait and see what happens. (this has continued into New Wine etc). Now, 'Come, Holy Spirit' is an ancient prayer of the church, but as far as I can make out, its modern use in this way of ministry goes back to Lonnie. When he prayed this on Mother's Day 1980 in John Wimber's church, people fell about, shook and began to speak in tongues. Wimber cites this occasion as being instrumental in his ministry and the growth of the Vineyard movement.

iv) Lonnie was homosexual in orientation. Although he apparently always claimed that homosexual behaviour was sinful, he evidently did have homosexual affairs at times in his life, though there is debate to what extent. When this was discovered, he was removed from public ministry in the Vineyard. He felt extremely bitter towards John Wimber about this and perhaps never really recovered. He eventually died of AIDS in 1993.

The sub-text of the film is that both the Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movements have written Lonnie out of their history, due to his homosexuality. In the Vineyard, I'm not sure this is completely true. Although he is referred to just as 'a young man' in John Wimber's Power Evangelism book he appears on the Vineyard USA website and he is mentioned extensively in Carol Wimber's biography of John.

Now some people may just think that Lonnie was just a fraud from the start, like a hypnotist or something, but I don't think this makes sense of the testimonies of the fruit of his ministry. For my money I think he's a classic example of how God uses broken and messed up people. Like I say, a fascinating and tragic story.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Justice Mail

I don't know about you but I'm one of those people who claims to be concerned for social justice but rarely makes time to do any campaigning. My former employer John Hull helps to lead a group called Justice Mail. They send out requests for action (usually twice a month) on issues which you can respond to by sending an email or a letter. Here is the blurb :

"Justice Mail is for busy people who want to be active on issues of social justice but have not time to do the research. We send you brief information including a link to a site where you can send an email message. This will take only five minutes, and we send you our suggestions for action every week or two. You are not expected to act on them all; you make your own decisions.

We select for action only issues from current campaigns of major social justice organisations such as Oxfam, World Development Movement, Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, Jubilee Debt Campaign and Amnesty.
We have two administration centres, one in Birmingham at All Saints parish church in Kings Heath, and the other in the Church of the Martyrs in Leicester. We hope to create other local groups.

Although one of our aims is to increase awareness of social justice issues in local churches, we are open to all people both religious and secular, who share our hopes for a fairer world."

I thought that for Lent I would try and make a bit more of an effort to take action on some of these issues. The early February action is for Jubilee Debt Campaign.

"Dear Justice Mail Friends,

Although responses from the UK government to our earlier messages indicate that the category of illegitimate debt is not recognized by our government, we must keep up the pressure. Jubilee Debt is asking us to protest at the £525 million incurred by the dictator Suharto during his period of office more than 10 years ago. This loan enabled jet planes and tanks to be bought from Britain and were used for the suppression of the people in East Timor. Indonesia is still repaying this debt in spite of the fact the more than half the population lives in poverty. Follow the link below.

Yours Faithfully,

If you would like to join Justice Mail, and there is no charge, send a message to John Hull (West of Britain).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Back once again...

Well, the blog has been given a spring clean and once again here I go with an attempt to write something on a semi-regular basis. Given my track record, I don't hold out much hope. My goal is to improve on the grand total of entries for my blog last year - four. No point in setting my sights too high. I am spurred on by my buddies from Trinity, Mr Barnes, the philosopher poet, and Mr Swales the future Archbishop of Canterbury.

Speaking of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I hope that most people have managed to get their knickers untwisted after realising that he didn't actually say what he is being made out to have said. Then again, our best-selling newspaper is the Sun, so I won't hold my breath. Tom Wright has written an excellent letter to his clergy, which has been posted on the fulcrum site, as has this piece by Andrew Goddard (somewhat lengthier). Richard Sudworth at Distinctly Welcoming is also well worth a read. (He's coming to Trinity soon to speak on our Islam course).

On a less controversial note, check out the ABC on the emergent church over at emergent village.