October 20, 2016
By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler
Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics
The relationship of Christian faith to political life is part of a larger theological issue: namely, the relationship of God’s Kingdom to the kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world include various social institutions (i.e. economics, education, entertainment), but clearly the political sphere is the one with the greatest power in society by virtue of its ability to enact and enforce laws, and to preserve order and peace.
Through the ages Christians have had varying views on how to relate the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, particularly the political dimension. Some have seen the two spheres in such opposition that withdrawal or non-involvement is the only recourse. Others have believed that the kingdoms of this world, including the state, can be transformed towards the values and virtues of God’s Kingdom. And still others have held the two kingdoms in some kind of creative tension.
Wherever we land on that spectrum several observations can be made from a biblical perspective. First, the ultimate hope of Christians is not found in the state and the political process, but in the Triune God. Second, we do belong to both kingdoms, for Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17). Moreover, we are called by Christ to be light, salt and leaven in the world, and that includes the kingdoms of this world. There are various ways that Christians carry out that leavening process, but in a democracy voting in elections (national, state and local) is clearly one of them.
So the question naturally emerges for Christians, “How should I vote?” I would suggest three sets of criteria to guide believers as they go to the voting booth on election days.
The Character of the Candidates
Scripture clearly lays out specific criteria for Church leaders, and character is at the heart of those requirements (I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). But can we expect the same for political leaders operating in the sphere of the earthly kingdoms? History and experience certainly point towards the significance of character virtues for political leaders, such as: integrity, trustworthiness, personal morality, courage and kindness. These character traits are significant because leaders by nature are an example to others, and thus the tone of a whole society is set by the virtues or vices of its leaders. In addition, good governing requires trust among the various constituents of a society, and trust cannot be established without high character among those governing.
Aristotle, the ancient philosopher argued that character was one of the primary means of persuasion. In his classic work on Rhetoric he saw persuasion established by three elements: ethos (character of the speaker), pathos (emotional influence) and logos (logical arguments). If indeed the character of a person is essential to persuasion, then its applicability to political life is evident. Personal virtues inevitably manifest themselves in actions and are essential for all forms of leadership, including politics.
The Positions of the Candidates
When we explore the positions of political candidates we quickly recognize that as Christians we must often break with conventional politics. As believers we must hold together commitments that frequently are not held together by the major political parties. For example, Scripture is clear that followers of Christ must care for the poor and for the intrinsic dignity of human life from beginning to end. Similarly Christians must be committed to justice, including racial justice, and to freedom of religion. Christians believe that the family, as defined by Scripture, is a bedrock of society and also believe that personal freedom flows from being made in God’s image. These kinds of commitments are not frequent bedfellows in today’s political world.
In sorting through these issues we should recognize the difference between our ethical commitments and the strategies for attaining them. For example, Christians may agree on the importance of poverty alleviation, and yet may recommend differing strategies for attaining their goals.
All of this demonstrates that politics is complex in discerning our commitments, the best strategies to achieve those commitments, and in deciding on which candidate best reflects the positions we hold dear. Rarely will we get everything we want in a single candidate. This should not surprise Christians, for we believe that humans are finite and fallen, and our best efforts (even righteous and just ones) fall short of God’s designs. In politics we make not absolute moral judgments, but prudential judgments, discerning the best we can get, but frequently accompanied by positions we reject.
The competencies of the Candidates
A final set of criteria in how we vote is the competencies for the job. Here we explore skills, past experiences, knowledge, and temperament to carry out the vast, complicated requirements of political life. Christians care about competencies, because God desires that humans flourish in all dimensions of our existence, and political aptitude is essential for enabling the political process to function well for the common good. Competencies for public life are particularly essential in today’s world because foreign policy, domestic challenges, and the political process are highly complex, requiring vast understanding, astute leadership qualities and a temperament to work with varying and even opposing parties and positions.
One issue that arises in the competency criterion is whether Christians should favor fellow Christians in how they vote. This question was posed to the late Chuck Colson in a lecture he gave at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the eve of a national election several elections ago. Colson, I believe, responded wisely when he said, “You should never vote for someone simply because they are a Christian, because they may be totally incompetent to carry out the job. Being a Christian does not ensure political capabilities.” No one person will ever have all the capacities needed for the job, and thus part of their competency set should be the ability to draw on the wisdom, experiences, and knowledge of others.
From these sets of criteria it is clear that Christians will never get all they hope and pray for in any single candidate or political party. It is frequently noted that politics is the art of compromise, not necessarily of our most deeply held principles and virtues, but of the strategies for achieving those commitments, including sometimes the lesser of two evils in our voting. In politics there is frequently ambiguity and ambivalence in how we should vote. But that after all reminds us that politics is not the main thing in the Christian agenda. Our primary allegiance is to a Kingdom that far transcends the kingdoms of this world, but nonetheless gives us a framework and motivation for engaging the world--even the messy, embattled, yet noble world of politics.
Note: This essay was first presented in a forum on Christianity and Politics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on September 29, 2016. Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D. is the President and Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell.
October 17, 2016
By Anne B. Doll,
Senior Communications Advisor
Approximately one in four women worldwide has suffered physical abuse by an intimate male partner, such as a husband or ex-husband. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S., an estimated 1300 women die each year as a result of domestic violence, nearly 5.3 million incidents of interpersonal violence occur and approximately 2 million women are injured.
For churches, the statistics are equally sobering. Domestic violence “happens within and beyond communities of faith in approximately the same prevalence rates,” says Nancy Nason-Clark, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada.
Dr. Nason-Clark is also creator of the RAVE Project, a web-based series of resources that provides information and training for families of faith impacted by abuse. She has studied contemporary Christianity and violence for 20 years. “The numbers tell us there’s a significant problem that
we need to be positioned in the churches to do something about,” she notes. “But if one woman in one church is having this problem, then we need to be a safe refuge for her…“…There continues to be a holy hush that permeates many churches, and it only takes a few people to shatter that silence.”
In October of 2008, Pastor Timothy P. Philabaum, awakened to the gravity of domestic violence when Nancy addressed his Gordon-Conwell D.Min. residency. Returning to Zoar Lutheran Church in Perrysburg, OH, a congregation of some 650 worshippers that he has served for 31 years, he resolved to shine the light on domestic violence and enlist his members to help address it.
“I know there are abuse problems in my church,” the senior pastor says. “I have met with families experiencing domestic abuse. But what really galvanized me was when Nancy Nason-Clark came to the residency. Her web page (theraveproject.org) has a wonderful collection of resources for clergy and for women who are abused. I thought, ‘Here’s one way to put my faith and care into action.’”
To counter the “holy hush” surrounding domestic abuse, he has addressed this issue in sermons and the Sunday School throughout the year, when appropriate. “I really try to verbalize the word ‘abuse’ because it is such a hidden word, an unwanted word,” he says. His intent is to raise the consciousness of church members about domestic violence, and about resources that are available locally.
Behind the scenes, Pastor Tim maintains connections with leaders of domestic violence shelters in the Greater Toledo area, and has invited representatives from several shelters to his church to “share their issues—their people with our people.” This year, his church hosted an Unveiling Ceremony, during which officials from a local abuse shelter displayed full-size plywood silhouettes of women in Wood County who had died from domestic abuse. “We had a worship service, unveiled the silhouettes and read the names and stories of each of these women with all their families there. We have also had people from the Cocoon Shelter come to our place on an annual basis. They bring…their silhouettes, tell their story, raise money and keep connection.”
Members of his congregation have also stepped up to the plate to help the local shelters with material support, including money, food and clothing. One member has served on a shelter board. “There are people in our church who know about problems of abused women, and people who have family members [with abuse issues],” Pastor Tim explains. “Some already knew about the shelters and had some contact with them. I think our church has made a very caring response to this ministry.”
In addition, Zoar Church has instituted a practical alert system for women suffering abuse. Behind the doors in each stall in the women’s restrooms are small pieces of paper designed to be unobtrusively inserted into a woman’s shoe. Entitled “Do You Feel Safe?” the papers contain the name and phone number of a shelter, phone numbers of Pastor Timand the church’s female pastor, the RAVE Project website and other resources.
“What my staff and I still find intriguing is that I always put six papers behind each stall, and they disappear. None show up in the trash cans or are thrown around… We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re being taken, which is valuable…what I hope for. They’re obviously meeting a need. I have no idea who takes them. They’re designed to be anonymous.”
Dr. Nason-Clark says that it’s wonderful when pastors “shatter the silence” about domestic violence, because this gives immediate credibility to DV as an important issue, and also gives women permission to come forward. Moreover, “It says to those who would be violent that this will not be tolerated. It gives incredible support to those who are helping other victims, and it really changes the world of survivors because it says the church is walking with you.”
She notes that many women and men are very frightened to talk about domestic violence “because it challenges the notion that families of faith have it together… Somehow, people can cope with the notion that cancer can eat away at the body of a believer, but they have a lot of trouble understanding mental health issues and…issues of abuse. I think there is a resistance, and when I say that in Christian seminars and conferences, it gives a challenge to religious leaders to speak clearly and unequivocally that God does not support this kind of behavior.”
Nancy’s research has shown that women of faith often stay much longer in abusive relationships than those who are not. She encourages pastors to address this issue with women, because often they will say, “Until he touches the children, until he hurts the children, I will not leave.”
“When women are enduring abuse themselves, it is hurting the children. You cannot be a victim of domestic violence living in a household with your children and not have it impact them… If women are encouraged to see that the children are already being impacted, they’re more likely to believe that they should seek safety for themselves and the kids.”
Regarding the practice of some church leaders who insist, on scriptural grounds, that a woman must remain with an abusive husband, Nancy quotes her colleague and Gordon-Conwell professor, the late Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger, with whom she collaborated on several books. “I can tell you how Cathy would handle that. I have been with her many times when she would say, ‘What do you do with the body bags?’ That would be her response.”
According to Pastor Tim, “Women [who are abused] feel powerless and unable to make a change. Or they are fearful of what might happen… In counseling women, my biggest issue is to trust the woman who has been abused. I need to listen carefully to her story and provide mercy. Safety for the woman and the kids is paramount.
“A pastor also needs to know what kind of resources are in the community, to know who to call when someone calls you and says, ‘I’m having problems with my husband. Where are the contacts for the shelter or the YWCA or the safe houses?’” Dr. Nason-Clark says that “when pastors listen to women, they can respond to the questions that women are asking: ‘Why has God abandoned me?’ ‘I promised forever ‘til death do us part. Why is this taking place?’ ‘How can I be a better Christian?’ …Pastors need to be in a position to listen to what the heart cry is and respond with the toolkit that is available to them as a result of their training and knowledge of Scripture.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as praying with the victim without placing blame... Sometimes it’s giving them a selection of five or six passages to look over and think about… When pastors have an awareness of some of the dynamics of abuse, they are able to listen with ears that are attuned. And then they’re able to harness their repertoire of spiritual helps to offer a woman spiritual counsel. Some pastors do that. And when they do, it augments a survivor’s journey towards healing.”
Pastor Tim says that most of his counseling about domestic violence occurs with non-abusive, soon-to-be married couples during pre-marital conversations. And while he has experience in counseling congregants, the RAVE website gave him helpful resources on how he could better help a woman who is in trouble. He advises pastors to check out this website, and take some of its online training courses. “Of course, most pastors are not skilled in abuse counseling, so knowing what your referral possibilities are is vitally important.”
Can change and reconciliation occur when each individual in an abusive situation receives professional domestic violence counseling? “It takes a lot of work,” he contends, “but we’re gospel people. There’s always hope. “And, for me, I would say clearly to my people, ‘God never takes delight in abuse of women, of children, of anyone…God never takes delight in abuse.’”
For nearly 10 years, Anne was the director of communications at Gordon-Conwell. Before making the trek from Ohio to Massachusetts, she worked in senior leadership positions in the health care field. Anne also co-founded a public relations firm that worked with major companies and hospitals across the country. As senior communications advisor, Anne manages the production of Contact and the Annual Report.
October 11, 2016
By Anne B. Doll,
Senior Communications Advisor
When a Gordon-Conwell graduate returned to his native Ethiopia after completing his degree in New Testament, he knew full well he would face religious persecution. He had lived in its shadow for most of his life. “If you follow Christ, you should expect suffering,” he comments matter-of-factly. “We are all called to bear our cross. If our Lord was persecuted, who won’t be persecuted?”
Now the leader of a Christian school in Ethiopia, he accepted Christ in high school during Communism’s grip on Ethiopia. Throughout those perilous years, all churches were closed, and government-sponsored persecution prevailed.“ For 17 years, the persecution from the Communist regime was very, very difficult,” he recalls. “So many people were tortured, imprisoned and beaten. They were attacked because of their faith so that they would recant and say, ‘There is no God.’”
Those who refused to recant “paid a high price,” he adds. “So many people died during the Communist time.” As a university student, he and fellow Christians experienced intense persecution first-hand, especially from the Communist student association. “Because of the Communist ideology, we were not allowed to declare our faith, to worship God openly,” he explains. “We were not allowed to pray in the cafeteria or in our dormitories. We could not sing, or do anything that was religious, and we were highly followed by the student association.”
As a freshman, he faced a defining moment in his faith journey when he and several fellow Christians were called before the dean of students to face charges by the student association that they were “anti-Communism, unpatriotic and had been hired by imperialist America.” The purpose of the charges was to have the Christians dismissed from the university and even sent to prison. The night before their meeting with the dean, the students gathered to pray. Many were frightened, particularly because some of their friends, facing similar harassment, had abandoned their faith. The believers also knew that university expulsion would forestall any future opportunities for employment.
“That was scary personally for me,” he says. “At that time, I was a younger man. I trusted in the Lord. I believed in the Lord. I knew he was my Savior, and I did not believe in the Communist ideology. But now I was in a situation: to follow Jesus or deny my faith. The next day, when the group appeared before the dean, she looked at the list of accusations by the Communist student association and finally asked, “What are you going to say about this?” The students replied, “We will not deny your faith. We will not deny Christ. You can expel us from the university, but we will continue worshipping the Lord.”
Impressed by the students’ response, she commented, “I know that you are very faithful and honest students, and they are jealous of you—jealous of your performance. So the only thing I would advise you is: please be wise in your worship and don’t expose yourself to these dangers.”
The alumnus suffered yet another assault when he graduated from the university. Included in a standard reference letter affirming that he had met all requirements was an addendum: “But we want to mention that he is a follower of a cult.” Evangelicals were seen as cultists. Looking back, he says that growing up under Communism “was good, because it refined our faith. It purified us. At that time, we were worshipping underground. Many people lost their eyes. Their arms were amputated. Some paid their lives. We have experienced all of this.”
When Communism fell in 1991, millions of Ethiopians came to the Lord—approximately 14 percent of the population. But persecution did not end. Today in Ethiopia, two religious groups are recognized as official religions: the35 percent comprising the traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the 35 to 40 percent who are Muslims. Persecution is waged by both groups when their members convert to Christianity. As he says, “The two groups call it ‘sheep stealing.’”Converts from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are ostracized, threatened, attacked and beaten, and their homes are burned, especially in rural areas. Converts from Islam face even harsher persecution.
“The Lord is bringing thousands of Muslim converts into his Kingdom,” he explains. “When these Muslims become Christians, they experience serious persecution from their family members and friends.” Persecution can include ostracism—a hardship in a country where identity is found in the community. Converts may also suffer loss of property such as cattle, destruction of their harvests and the burning of their homes. “If again they endure,” he says, “the radical Islamic fundamentalists tell the local authorities that the converts are anti-government so that they can be imprisoned. All this so that people will abandon their beliefs.
“New believers are cautioned not to expose their faith and immediately join a local evangelical church, and some continue to attend services in their mosques, becoming part of what he calls an “Insider’s Movement.” But if new believers are identified, they are warned by Christians not to stay in the area because some converts have been poisoned. Others have disappeared and are assumed dead.
“Islam is a very, very strong religion,” he comments. “People are like in iron bars. It’s very hard to penetrate. But what is happening in Ethiopia is that some people are coming to the Lord through dreams and visions. Sometimes the Lord himself appears and tells them this is the right way.” He says this happened recently to a young college student. “She was tied with a strong rope and somehow the Lord untied her in the night, and she escaped through a window. She took a bus and came to the city and asked the Christians for shelter.” Eventually, her new Christian friends may be able to send her back to college.
“Muslim converts in Ethiopia nowadays are paying a high, high price,” he says. “The most important thing is to help them endure through this persecution. It’s knowing the truth. Once they see the light, it is very hard for them to turn their backs. So when they come out of Islam, our graduates who are ministering to Muslims tell them that following Jesus has a cost. They warn them, ‘You will be persecuted.’ But compared to knowing Jesus and the price they pay, it is nothing.”
How do Ethiopian Christians like this Gordon-Conwell graduate hold firm under such persecution? “The Holy Spirit helps you to stand in those difficult circumstances,” he replies. “When you make that decision [to stand], you know that there is nothing above the Lord, that if they take your property, they kill you, absolutely your life is in the hands of the Lord. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8, ‘nothing will separate [you] from the love of Christ.’ “So it’s knowing God. It’s knowing His love and what He paid on the cross, the price He paid for us in redeeming us. It’s having a Heavenly mindset, knowing that you are in God’s Kingdom, that this earthly kingdom is temporary and that this persecution will pass.”
He urges fellow Christians to pray for their brothers and sisters in Eritrea, where severe persecution by the government is rampant, and 3,500 are imprisoned for their faith in Jesus. He also seeks prayer for his school. Many students come from poor churches that cannot support them, and occasionally go for several days without food. After graduation, they return to the same poor churches and serve without pay. Teachers at the school also suffer privation. But what sustains them, he says, is “the fruit we see. Our graduates go out, and they minister the Lord. And when we see the Kingdom of God stretched across Ethiopia and other countries because of the ministry of our graduates, it keeps us going. We need your prayers.”
For nearly 10 years, Anne was the director of communications at Gordon-Conwell. Before making the trek from Ohio to Massachusetts, she worked in senior leadership positions in the health care field. Anne also co-founded a public relations firm that worked with major companies and hospitals across the country. As senior communications advisor, Anne manages the production of Contact and the Annual Report.
October 04, 2016
By Raymond Pendleton, Ph.D.
Director of the Clinical Counseling Program & Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling
Recently, I had the privilege of reconnecting with an old friend and former student. As we sat at lunch, he told me what had taken place in his life during the past few months. He is a man in his early fifties, married with children, and a pastor for many years since he completed seminary. As I listened to his story, it became all too familiar.
In his most recent pastorate, he had served for several years with a good measure of success and satisfaction. He recounted that for most of his life he had experienced bouts of depression but had always been able to put his head down and charge forward. Eventually, the depression would lift, and he would be able to go on as before with the work of ministry. However, this time it was different. After a long holiday season that seemed to require more energy than usual, he experienced a return of the depression that was more serious and debilitating than any previous episode.
In conversation with the lay leadership of the congregation, they agreed together that he should take some time and get some professional help to work through the depression. He found a very helpful counselor who was able to help him identify a series of traumatic losses and disappointments throughout much of his early life. He described several “breakthrough experiences” that became the source of relief and healing. He was feeling free and able to move forward with ministry again. In fact, he felt that he was more ready than ever before to engage the tasks of the pastorate.
The bombshell came when he sat with the leadership of the congregation and they asked him to resign, feeling that they wanted a more energetic presence in the pulpit and as a leader of worship. He was stunned, to put it mildly, but he had no choice but to capitulate to the irrequest/demand. As a testament to his recent healing experience, he was able to deal with this body blow with a sense of balance and reasonable calm but without sinking into a depression.
It would be a wonderful thing if this pastoral experience was unique, but it is not unusual for untrained people to see depression as something to be avoided and to be judged as a malady that disqualifies a Christian from service. A mythology is often extant that Christians should not be depressed. These folks should not read the life of Haddon Spurgeon, the famous English preacher, or the lives of many biblical characters who suffered from this mood disorder.
As a teacher of Pastoral Counseling, I spend a significant portion of the introductory course talking about depression, its etiology and the various approaches to treatment. Students need to be prepared to deal with depression in their own lives as well as the experience of depression in the lives of the congregations to whom they minister, since it is clear that pastors are a primary source for caregiving. When a person comes to consult with a pastor, it is important that the pastor be able to recognize the issues with which this individual is struggling and be able to make appropriate intervention. At the same time, I tell my students that they are always responsible for the spiritual nurture of those in their care.
In their recent book, New Light on Depression, David Biebel and Harold Koenig describe four types of depression: (1) situational depression, (2) developmental depression, (3) biological depression and (4) spiritual depression. David Biebel is a teacher, speaker and seminary graduate with a Doctor of Ministry degree. Harold Koenig is a board certified psychiatrist. Their book is a very helpful treatment of the varieties of depression and the possibilities for help that are available. The reality, I tell my students, is that anyone can become depressed. The issue is to recognize that depression is not a statement of spiritual failure. Depression happens! Pastors, lay leaders and those who provide counsel to individuals and families must be well trained to recognize the symptoms of various levels of depression and have sufficient knowledge of the resources available to respond to the particular needs of the person.
Dr. Raymond Pendleton, Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Director of Mentored Ministry, is President of the Willowdale Center for Psychological Services in Hamilton, MA. He chairs the board of FOTOS (Fish On The Other Side), a ministry to people struggling with gender identity, and is a board member of Hagar’s Sisters, a ministry to families experiencing domestic abuse. He teaches on marriage and family life for conferences and congregations. He holds an M.A. from Auburn University and a Ph.D. from Boston University
September 28, 2016
By Dr. Patrick T. Smith,
Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy
A well-known and well-worn joke shared regularly when I was in grade school goes: "How do you clean Dracula's teeth?" The response: "Very carefully." When I think about the question, "How do we make ethical decisions in a complex world?" the response of the childhood joke somehow seems appropriate.
To be sure, there are many moral questions whose answers are very clear. For instance, we must not torture innocent people just for the fun of it. The immorality of this activity ought to be beyond dispute. Yet, we face many pressing ethical questions in our contemporary context that are difficult, and defy simple and unreflective responses. Unfortunately, we live in an age where many important ethical discussions are not thought through carefully and too often are reduced to clichés. When this happens in the Christian community, we are woefully unprepared to help ourselves and equip others to make good ethical decisions in a complex world.
Many orthodox Christians correctly affirm the Bible, first and foremost, as the inspired narrative of God’s loving plan of redemption for His creation. Does the Bible also help with ethical decision-making? Certainly. Divine revelation through Scripture has a primary role in Christian ethics. We must, however, take care not to misunderstand the nature of Scripture, nor to misuse the Bible in ethical decision-making. We must not think of the Bible as simply a book of moral precepts to be mined for making ethical decisions. If we do so, I think we miss its point.
Further, this approach increases the likelihood that we will err or misuse the Bible in ethics. The moral prescriptions of the Bible are authoritative for the Christian community when they are properly interpreted and appropriately applied in our contemporary setting.
Even with the high view of Scripture held by most evangelical Christians, many matters are not nearly so straightforward that one can find a verse or passage containing direct instruction on what to do in a given situation. Take, for example, the medical treatment of terminally ill or imminently dying patients. On one hand, Christian theology recognizes that human life is valuable and a tremendous good of which we are to be faithful stewards. On the other hand, it also recognizes that our human existence this side of the new heavens and new earth is not the highest good and that there is a time to die. Hence, it is often complicated to determine on purely biblical or theological grounds exactly when someone should forego various kinds of therapeutic treatment at the end of life.
Further, “there are no direct discussions about war, genetic engineering, environmental pollution” and a number of other contemporary issues. So there is a deliberative process that must take place to discern how prescriptive biblical principles may be applied in complex situations. This is why the discipline of hermeneutics is so important in all facets of Christian discipleship. Regardless, Scripture has a prime place in Christian ethical reflection.
Ethics is complex for several reasons. First, we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world (Gen. 3). As Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. notes, “sin distorts our character, a central feature of our very humanity. Sin corrupts powerful human capacities—thought, emotion, speech and act—so that they become centers of attack on others or of defection or neglect.” This certainly in no small way affects how we live and the ethical decisions we make.
A second factor is that “we sometimes encounter competing ethical claims” (more on this below). Third, our individual decisions are often affected by a “plurality of publics.” In other words, a number of people or groups have a legitimate stake in ethical decisions. To whom is one primarily responsible in making decisions? Last, the empirical facts may not be easy to discern or ascertain. It is widely recognized that in applied ethics many moral judgments hinge on non-moral facts.
To illustrate this last point, consider the ethics of organ transplantation. Of course, many take it to be morally unacceptable to harvest the vital organs of people who are not yet dead for the sake of saving others’ lives. Since, “successful transplantation requires that organs be removed from cadavers shortly after death to avoid organ damage due to loss of oxygen, there has been keen interest in knowing precisely when people are dead so that organs can be removed.” And determining this is an empirical matter once the theoretical criteria have been established. Therefore, the empirical facts are crucial in assessing the morality of organ donation in a particular case.
In the midst of such complexity, the real, perhaps inevitable, possibility exists that ethical dilemmas will arise. An ethical dilemma can be understood as “a conflict between two or more value- or virtue-driven interests.” In such circumstances, it is important to have some tools that can assist us in making sound ethical decisions. The following model represents just one such framework.
1. Gather the facts
In many cases, issues are resolved by becoming clear on the details of thecae. We need to ask, “What is the context of the ethical deliberation?” Given that we make ethical decisions in specific circumstances, if we don’t have the facts, moral assessment is not possible.
2. Determine the ethical issues
Sometimes we face situations that present personal and professional difficulty, but may not constitute an ethical dilemma. Here, it is important to identify as specifically as possible what are the competing moral interests that stand in need of resolution.
3. Determine what virtues and principles have a bearing on the case
If the conflict we are addressing actually is an ethical dilemma, then, of course, there are competing values or principles that underlie it. After identifying these principles, the task is to determine which ought to be afforded more weight in the context where unavoidable moral conflicts emerge. This approach, sometimes known as graded absolutism or ethical hierarchialism, sees moral rules and principles as prima facie. This simply means that at first glance or all things being equal, these rules carry moral obligations in most situations, but maybe overridden by other ethical considerations insinuations where there are genuine moral dilemmas. “Clearly,” for a Christian ethic “biblical principles are to be weighted more heavily.”
4. List the alternatives
A very important part of this model is to ask: “What are the courses of action that may be taken?” When this is done, we’ll see that some decisions eliminate themselves. We should always strive to be as creative as possible to get around a moral dilemma. The more alternatives that can be generated, the better likelihood we have of discovering an option that minimizes the potential negative consequences of our decisions.
5. Compare the alternatives with the virtues and principles employed
It may well be the case that most, if not all but one or two alternatives, can be ruled out when we apply the relevant principles and values to them. “In order to make a clear decision, [we] must weight one or more virtues/values more heavily than others.” One worry with the graded absolutist approach or ethical hierarchialism is that some may simply “use the notion of prima facie rules as a smokescreen for picking and choosing which rules [they] wish to adhere to in any situation.” In order to avoid this scenario, certain conditions must be met when overriding a prima facie rule: (1) Justifiable public reasons must be offered in favor of the overriding principle; (2) It should be done as a last resort; (3) “We should seek the action that least violates the principle being overridden;” and (4) The overridden principle should leave “moral traces,” which is an awareness of the moral weight concerning the decision being made.
6. Consider the consequences
If one has not been able to completely rule out possible alternatives when applying the rules, then the positive and negative consequences of the decision should be determined and assessed as well as can be done.
7. Make a decision consistent with a Christian ethic
We must avoid the “paralysis of analysis” and make a decision. Sometimes this means choosing the best available alternative even if not ideal. Whatever decision is to be made, it should be as consistent with a Christian ethic as humanly possible given the unique features of the scenario.
To consider how these steps can be applied in a concrete situation, take the example of a man hiding Jews during World War II. The facts are that soldiers are tracking down people of Jewish background and unjustifiably executing them. The man is asked in a very forthright manner if he knows their whereabouts. That individual has the opportunity to protect human lives by concealing the location of Jews on his property. The ethical issue here is that there is a moral conflict between telling the truth and saving a life when it is in one’s power and ability to do so.
In determining what virtues and principles bear on this case, it is important to reflect on the biblical teaching that God is a God of truth. He expects His people to be truthful and lying lips are an abomination to God (Proverbs 12:22).Also, God places a high value on human life and expects us to do the same (Matthew 22:37-39). When we have an opportunity to save the life of another or to prevent evil from coming upon others, we have a responsibility to do so.
What are the alternatives for a person in this situation? To tell the truth or deceive in order to protect human life, it would seem. (For the example employed here to illustrate how the criteria may be used, let’s assume no other alternatives are available.) When comparing the alternatives,
it seems that there is an unavoidable conflict. The question now becomes, “Which of the moral principles, both deeply ingrained in Christian ethics, ought to be afforded more weight?”
When one considers the consequences, it is almost certain that human life will be lost unjustifiably by revealing thelocation of the Jews. Some may decide that while lying is not ideal, the principle of saving a life through some form of deception is morally permissible, given the situation. However, these same individuals should also stress that it is morally imperative not to make this a common practice for the sake of mere convenience. Deception should only be chosen when there is an unavoidable conflict with grave consequences in the balance.
It is important to know that ethical decision-making cannot be reduced simply to identifying and applying rules and principles. A crucial part of Christian ethics is about determining what we ought to do in this way. Applying guidelines, while important, is only part of a proper Christian response. Just as important is reflection on, and development of, the kind of persons we are to be. Christians must strike a balance between what some have labeled decisionist ethics and virtue ethics. The former category provides answers to the question, “What ought I to do?” whereas the latter addresses the question, “What kind of person should I be?” Most certainly, character counts.
Moreover, ethics is a profoundly communal exercise. We are created as social beings. Certain shared moral responsibilities and moral bonds are moral requisites of genuine community. It is difficult, indeed, to overstate ourinterdependence with one another. Therefore, we most often do not make ethical decisions in isolation. Nor do we grow in character apart from the community that helps form and shape it. Kyle Fedler describes these points nicely when he writes:
“[T]he development of Christian character is absolutely central to the Christian life. To be a Christian is to be shaped by the values, commitments, and worldview of the community of faith to such a degree that one begins to internalize certain virtues and dispositions….While belief and action are vital to being a Christian, one must also allow oneself to be shaped and molded into a particular kind of person, to develop a set of virtues that reflect what we as Christians claim to believe about the world.”
This is why being a member of a local church body is so important for followers of Christ. In the context of the Christian community, we can see the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of God’s people. Making ethical decisions in a complex world is not merely a deliberative process, though it is certainly no less. We make ethical decisions in the midst of complexity in a holistic way that includes with our mental deliberation the appropriate kind of character that is developed by reflecting on God’s Word and His world amidst the community of believers (Romans 12:1-2).
September 19, 2016
By Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
"Go" Most people have heard, correctly, that the only imperative in the passage is the command to lead the nations to be Christ’s disciples. The participle that comes before the verb is rightly translated “go” (not “going”). It is a participle of attendant circumstance, which means that it is not stressed as much as the imperative but still carries an imperatival force. It is to be understood as action that must be done if the command given in the main verb (“make disciples”) is to be accomplished. We cannot accomplish the task that Jesus has given us if we stay on the mountain, or stay in Jerusalem, or stay wherever we might find ourselves. If everyone in the world is to learn of the one who has authority over them and who has given commandments for them to keep, then the Church must be intentional about bringing that message to all people everywhere.
"Make all the nations/peoples my disciples" This is the clause that has the one imperative in the passage. This is the main point. Going is a necessary precursor to the accomplishing of this task and, as we shall see, baptizing and teaching are specific parts of how this task is to be carried out. What does it mean to make someone a disciple of Christ? Despite some of what has gone on from time to time in the history of the Christian Church, Christ does not condone or warrant the use of physical, political or other kinds of force. This is not a justification for the Crusades or forcible conversions. No one becomes a disciple against his or her own will. Christ calls people to follow him, and only those who freely decide to follow him are his disciples.
To be a disciple is to be one who is committed to learning from, and obeying, the teachings and example of one’s master/teacher. Since Christ was committed to proclaiming the need for repentance and the good news of the Kingdom of God, and sent the 12 and then the 72 out to do the same (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1), his disciples understand that they must be committed to that task as well. Since he was known for ministering to those who were marginalized and rejected by mainstream society, his disciples recognize that they also must be committed to an inclusive approach to ministry. The disciple learns the teachings of the master and passes them on to others.
Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes he rejection of all self-serving and self-promoting behavior and the rejection of self-justifying interpretations of Scripture in favor of behavior and interpretations that reflect ruthless honesty about our own moral and spiritual failures (especially our failure to respect our proper obligations to God and others). We are to unequivocally place God’s honor and agenda above our own. For followers of Christ, this also means following Christ by taking up the cross each day. The cross is at the center of the message of each of the four Gospels, and it was at the center of Christ’s teaching and mission. Those who follow Christ may expect to be rejected and persecuted just as he was. To follow Christ is to be prepared to suffer the loss of all things for the sake of gaining Christ and the life that he offers.
"Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," This clause points to a key initial step in making disciples. Christian baptism is associated with faith in Christ (Acts 8:12-13; 16:15; 18:8;19:4). To be baptized in someone’s name is to “become the possession of and come under the dedicated protection of the one whose name they bear.” The baptism of an individual in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit suggests that this person is being brought into intimate relationship with the Trinity; now belongs to, and stands under the protection of, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and lives in intimate relationship with them.
Christian discipleship, according to Jesus, is about living out a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is about living out the relationship established by God’s covenant (the new covenant in Christ’s blood) which introduces the believer into the eschatological salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Father has sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, and the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to our lives and communicates Christ’s presence to us.
"Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you." This passage is filled with uses of the adjective “all”: “all authority,” “all nations/peoples,” “all have commanded,” “always” (literally, “all the days…”). The relationships between the first three uses of the adjective are particularly important to note. Jesus does not inform his readers that he has been given all authority in heaven and earth just so that they will obey him when he tells them what to do, but so that they will understand why it is that all nations/peoples should obey everything he has commanded.
The key logical relationship is not between “I have all authority” and “You should go and make disciples” but between “I have all authority” and “Everyone everywhere should obey everything I have commanded (so go and work toward that end).” Jesus emphasized his universal authority so that his disciples would understand why he should be universally obeyed. To be a disciple of Christ is to understand who he really is, the Lord of all creation, and to live one’s life out with a passion for other people to come to know him and to recognize his absolute, loving and gracious lordship as well.
The obedience that Jesus describes here is referred toby the Apostle Paul as “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 6:26). Christian obedience will never be perfect this side of the resurrection, but the life of discipleship is a life marked by both continual learning and continual practice of the teachings of Christ (cf. Matt. 7:21-27).
"I will certainly always be with you, to the very end of the age." Jesus, “God with us” (cf. Matt.1:23), reminds us that none of what he calls for in discipleship can be accomplished with our own resources. It is only because Christ is with us—because he goes with us into the world—that we can possibly dare to step out to follow the discipleship agenda that he set for us. Christ’s presence and power are the keys to Christian discipleship. We are not disciples of some ancient teacher who has merely left us his teachings. We are disciples of the living Lord who walks with us and who teaches, nurtures, restores and empowers us as we go into the world in his name and his power.
Jesus probably had Daniel 7:13-14 in mind when he gave the Great Commission. There, we are told that the Son of Man was given authority—an everlasting dominion—so that all nations would serve and worship him. Christ is the Son of Man, the Lord of all. He has been given universal authority which ought to be universally recognized and radically respected (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). What would our lives look like if that truth were to truly penetrate to the very core of our being?
Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament, Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies, and Director of the Th.M. Program in Biblical Studies. He also served for 12 years as a missionary with Greater Europe Mission in Portugal, teaching at two theological schools. He maintains close ties to Portugal, serving as a translator/reviser of the Portuguese Bible Society’s contemporary translation of the Bible. He received an M.Div. from Denver Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
September 12, 2016
By Dr. Edward Keazirian,
Assistant Professor of Greek and Director of the Greek Language Program
In recent years, our nation has experienced more than a seven-fold increase in bank failures. In such uncertain economic conditions, one might be advised to seek a more heartening metaphor than a bank to express the security of our hope. We might consider Ben Franklin's proverbial “death and taxes” as an alternative to the banks for expressing dependability, certainty and permanence. However, in a culture that confuses true hope with wishful thinking, optimism, positivism and other attitudes about the future, even the certainty of death and taxes falls short of the security of the hope we see proclaimed in Scripture. Death and taxes have have their temporal limits, but true hope trumps even death and taxes because true hope is eternal.
The best working definition of biblical hope that I have ever heard is simply “faith extended into the future.” Like our faith, our hope is grounded in the unchanging and absolutely trustworthy character of God. And like our faith, our hope is based on three expressions of God’s faithfulness: God’s word, God’s action and God’s promises.
Abraham epitomizes faith because he believed and obeyed God when he had nothing more to go on than the word of God. When God said, “Go,” Abraham trusted and went. In the same way, Abraham also stands as the archetype of hope. Because he was fully convinced that God could do what he promised, Abraham never wavered, but in hope–against all the evidence, humanly speaking–he believed he would become the father of many nations, just as God had promised. His faith fueled his hope, so that what he knew of God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness in the present became his assurance for the future as well. Abraham lived with the expectancy–the hope–that he would inherit all that God had promised him. Although he did not see his hope completely fulfilled in his lifetime, we are told that he saw and welcomed those promises from afar. Even death did not quell his hope, for he was convinced that God could raise the dead if necessary in order to fulfill his promises.
Long before Jesus ever addressed the doubts of Thomas, Abraham was blessed and honored for believing without having seen. For Abraham, hope is vindicated not on the basis of what he has seen, but because of what God is. True hope is rooted in God. This is a foundational theme of hope throughout Israel’s scripture, but it is especially evident in the raw expressions of the soul in Job and the Psalms.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long (Ps. 25:5).
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD (Ps. 31: 24).
I trust in God’s unfailing love forever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good (Ps. 52:8-9).
Whether the psalmist’s hope is in the LORD or in his name, the meaning is the same. His hope is rooted in the being, character and reputation of God, for the name embraces the very essence of the person. Therefore, true hope–that sense of confidence and expectation that good things will happen in the future–depends on the reality that God is sovereign, in control of all that happens and thus able to direct all circumstances and events for the accomplishment of his purposes; that God is good and loving , certain to purpose only what is good and loving for all creation; that God is compassionate and merciful, sensitive to and patient with the limitations of His children in understanding, accepting and submitting to His purposes; that God is righteous and just, committed to vindicating the innocent and punishing the guilty, righting the wrongs that people have suffered, and restoring what was lost or stolen in the unfolding of His purposes from beginning to end; that God is trustworthy, faithful to keep His word and to fulfill His promises; and that God is true, consistent in word and deed with all the perfections of His nature.
Therefore, the godless—those who forget God—have no hope. Just as reeds depend on the water of the marsh for life, so hope must be rooted in God to survive (Job 8:13). When we are cut off from God, whether by our own initiative or God’s, all hope is gone (Job 27:8), for hope not only resides in God, but also derives from God.
Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge (Ps. 62:5-7). Because God protects and delivers, we can rest securely in Him, regardless of our circumstances. Whether our physical security, our emotional stability or our public reputation is threatened, God provides refuge and stability. We must not forget this. So much of our experience in life seems contrary to what we would expect of a sovereign, loving God that we are tempted to doubt God, to see ourselves as victims of evil, injustice and ignorance rather than beloved children of a sovereign God. Indeed the evil one is there at every turn in a crisis to sow seeds of doubt and to ask “has God really said…?”
Job exemplifies this struggle for all believers. As strong as his hope is—stronger even than death itself —he nevertheless experiences the silence of God in the crisis. And it seems as though he were uprooted and cut off from all hope, no better off than the wicked and cut off by the very God whose character he trusts more than his own life.
Though He slay me, yet will I hope in him (Job 13:15)…. He has blocked my way so I cannot pass; He has shrouded my paths in darkness. He has stripped me of my honor and removed the crown from my head. He tears me down on every side till I am gone; He uproots my hope like a tree. (Job 19:8-10)
However, because God is the guarantor of true hope, Job’s hope does not fail. Despite all the contrary circumstances swirling around him, Job can still affirm, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).
Though true hope is focused on the future, it sustains us in the present. We know that no matter what happens, our hope will endure. It will transcend death and it will ultimately prove to be redemptive simply because it is guaranteed by the God who fulfilled His promises to Abraham—and indeed to all who believe—through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that, dear friend, is a hope even better than anything you can take to the bank. As we eagerly await in hope the ultimate consummation of all that God has initiated in word, act and promise, let these affirmations of the psalmist be our own:
We wait in hope for the LORD; He is our help and our shield (Ps. 33:20).
But, as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more (Ps. 71:14).
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word
I put my hope. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption (Ps. 130:5-7).
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—
the LORD, who remains faithful forever (Ps. 146:5-6).
DR. EDWARD KEAZIRIAN, Assistant Professor of Greek and Director of the Greek Language Program, joined the Gordon-Conwell faculty in 1995. He is involved in multiple ministries through his local church, the First Baptist Church of Danvers, MA, including SundaySchool, the worship team, church boards and spiritual mentoring. He is also currently a member of Balikatan, the U.S. support organization for InterVarsity ChristianFellowship in the Philippines, and has participated in several short-term missions trips there and in Alaska. Dr. Keazirian is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and Phi Alpha Chi honor society at Gordon-Conwell. His forthcoming book ison peace and peacemaking. He is an avid fan of Boston sport teams.
September 07, 2016
By Dr. John Jefferson Davis
Chair of the Division of Christian Thought; Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics
"What is the role of theology in the life of the church?" Some busy pastors in American churches today might be tempted to answer, "Honestly, not much. I haven't thought much about 'theology' since I left seminary. I'm too busy preparing sermons, attending committee meetings and dealing with conflicts and problems in my church to give much attention to theology."
However, I would like to suggest that for even such busy pastors, a more accurate image of the role of theology in the life of the parish would not be that of a neglected textbook on the pastor’s shelf, but rather that of a back bone in a healthy body. The backbones in our bodies, like the foundations and electrical and plumbing systems in our homes, are usually taken for granted–until something goes wrong. Like a healthy backbone in a healthy human body, sound biblical theology can provide support, shape and stability to the Body of Christ.
In the early church, the development of Christian theology was shaped by four important functions it served in the life of the church: the catechetical, the apologetical, the polemical and the homiletical. All four of these functions of theology in the early church are still vital for the ministry of the church today. In its catechetical function, theological instruction prepared converts for church membership and participation in the Eucharist, instructing them in basic Christian doctrine. This process of catechesis is often referred to as “discipleship” or “discipling” today. Converts were instructed in the “rule of faith,” a summary of Christian doctrine that formed the basis of the later Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Such early summaries of Christian belief are found in the New Testament itself, e.g., Paul’s summary of the kerygma in I Cor. 15:3-5: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve…”
Augustine’s Enchiridion, or On Faith, Hope, and Love (c.421), was prepared as such a catechetical manual, following the outline of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the two “Great Commandments.” In the preface to his 1560 French edition of the Institutes, John Calvin stated that it was his intention to provide a summary of Christian doctrine that would help Christians in their reading of the Old and New Testaments. Today, new converts and new church members still need to be catechized and instructed in the fundamentals of the faith. Books like John Stott’s Basic Christianity or R.C. Sproul’s Essential Truths of the Christian Faith can assist the pastor in this historic task.
The apologetic task of theology in the early church was to defend and explain the faith to outsiders (cf. I Pet. 3:15, “Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you”). Early Christian apologists such as Aristides, Diognetus and Tertullian responded to misunderstandings and accusations from the pagans, and Justin Martyr responded to criticisms from the Jews of his day. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa contra Gentiles defended the Christian faith in the face of Muslim criticisms. In today’s religious climate of religious pluralism and the “new atheism,” the need for informed Christian apologetics remains as relevant as ever. Several generations of Christians have been helped by classics such as C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Miracles. Tim Keller’s The Reason for God provides cogent responses to many of the criticisms of the faith in our own day. In its polemical function, Christian theologians defended and expounded the biblical faith against heretical threats from within the church. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in his massive Against Heresies (c. 185), defended the biblical faith against the threat of Gnosticism, which denied the goodness of the physical creation and placed the biblical story into an alien context of Gnostic cosmological speculation.
In the face of the Arian threat, Athanasius vigorously and tenaciously defended the full deity of Christ, and together with the Cappadocian fathers of the 4th century, laid the basic foundations of Christology and Trinitarian theology that have guided the church ever since. In the modern period, orthodox theologians have labored to preserve the historic Christian faith from the attacks of Enlightenment biblical criticism, deistic denials of miracles and Unitarian denials of the Trinity, original sin and substitutionary atonement.
More recently, revisionist readings of biblical sexual ethics, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, feminist criticisms of the “patriarchal” language of the Trinity and “Open Theism” have questioned or rejected historic orthodox belief. The Pauline admonitions to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (I Tim. 4:16), and for believers not to be “blown about by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14) but to grow mature in the faith, are just as relevant as ever. The fourth function of theology in the life of the early church was the homiletical one: assisting preachers and teachers in the exposition and teaching of Scripture (cf. I Tim. 4:13: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching”). The church leader is to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit. 1:9).
Knowledge of sound doctrine aids in preaching and teaching not only by the avoidance of heresy, but also by enabling the preacher to place the particular text in the larger context of redemptive history: creation, fall, redemption and new creation. This was precisely what the Gnostics in the early church failed to do, wrenching the biblical texts out of their biblical contexts and placing them in the context of an alien system of thought.Heterodox religious movements today such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons can distort the biblical teachings in the same way. Sound teachers in the early church such as Irenaeus, and effective preachers today such as John Stott, John Piper, John MacArthur, Haddon Robinson, Timothy Keller, Gordon Hugenberger, Mark Dever and others have robust theologies that enable them to place the biblical text in its wider redemptive-historical context, and so preserve the distinctive Christian identity of the message.
In addition to these historically recognized functions of theology in the life of the church, a sound biblical theology can provide vitality, vision
and standards for assessment in the local congregation. Church history shows that a robust biblical theology can contribute to church growth and vitality. The opposite is also the case. Churches and denominations that tolerate doctrinal erosion tend to have tepid worship and declining memberships. During the decades between 1965 and 1999, for example, the PC(USA), the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church lost, respectively, 40 percent, 29 percent, 26 percent and 24 percent of their total memberships. Growing churches were generally those committed to an orthodox and biblical theology.
As the leader of the flock, the pastor is responsible for casting a vision for the church. The biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption and new creation provides the theological framework and context for such a vision. Salvation itself is not only forgiveness of sins and hope of heaven in the future, but also an experience beginning now of entering into the life of the Triune God. Because of Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension to the right hand of the Father and sending of the Holy Spirit, we—as adopted sons and daughters in Christ—can begin to experience the love of Jesus’ Father for his beloved Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to its culmination and never-ending deepening in the presence ofGod in a gloriously beautiful New Creation (Rev. 21, 22). Such a theological vision can energize and unify a congregation, just as John F. Kennedy’s famous vision casting of May 1961,to a joint session of Congress—“A man on the moon by the end of this decade”— energized NASA and the nation for the Apollo space mission.
Finally, sound theology provides a standard for congregational assessment, a basis for asking and answering the question, “How are we doing as a church?” For example, the biblical doctrine of the church, that specifies worship, discipleship and mission as the three God-ordained purposes of the church, then provides the basis for asking questions such as “How well are we worshipping God?”“ Are we as a people growing deeper and more mature in our relationships with Christ and one another?” “How effective are we in reaching out to others—in service and proclamation?” “Are we growing as a church that is ‘deep, thick and different’—deep in our worship and knowledge of the Triune God, ‘thickly’ committed in love and service to one another and distinctive from the secular culture in our beliefs, lifestyle, values and hopes?” “Are we growing both in our obedience to the ‘Great Commandments,’ and in our fulfillment of the Great Commission?”
And so it is that theology now, as in the New Testament and subsequent centuries of church history, can play a vital role in the life of a healthy church. As pastors, teachers and lay leaders, may we continue to “teach and admonish with all wisdom, so as to present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28), and so be able to say with the Apostle Paul at the end of our ministries, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:8), in the expectation of that crown of righteousness to be awarded by the Lord to his beloved church.
John Jefferson Davis, Ph.D. a member of the faculty at Gordon-Conwell since 1975, is professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, and serves as Chair of the Division of Christian Thought. His most recent book is "Worship and the Reality of God: An evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP Academic, 2010).
August 30, 2016
By Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.
Paul was chained to a Roman soldier, awaiting his day before Caesar, knowing that his life might soon be “poured out like a drink offering” (Phil. 2:17). And yet, he says in the very same verse, “I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” In fact, in the same letter he mentions “joy” or “rejoicing” 14 times! That is more than I’ve probably ever mentioned “joy” on a good day with the sun shining and things going well for me!
Of course, hardships were a constant part of Paul’s life. In 2 Corinthians 6:4- 10 he speaks of having experienced, among other things, troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, hunger and dishonor. Did you notice his use of plural forms? Not a beating, but beatings. Not imprisonment, but imprisonments. And that was before he wrote any of his “prison epistles.”
Later on in that letter he gave more details. He says he had been in prison more frequently than other believers the Corinthians knew and had been “flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (11:23). He says,
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked (11:24-27).
Typically, however, when Paul thinks of the hardships he has experienced (or is experiencing), he thinks at the same time of God’s strength, support and grace. The hardships are reminders of the power of death. Paul knows full well death’s power and its impact on his life and the lives of others. It is seen not only in failing bodies and funerals at the end of earthly journeys; it is also seen in the trials, tribulations and deprivations that are experienced along the way. Paul, however, knows a power that is much stronger than the power of death. It is the power of God and of the resurrection life that will not only be his and ours on resurrection day, but is already manifest as the Spirit provides life in ways that help him—and us— continue on despite death’s power in the here and now. That point is made over and over in 2 Corinthians 4:8-18.
Note below how Paul alternates back and forth between references to his (and others’) challenges and difficulties on the one hand and references to God’s sustaining grace on the other. He then ties these to what we know about Christ’s death and resurrection as the pattern that makes sense of our own experience as Christians.
4:8a We are hard pressed on every side... ... but not crushed;
4:8b perplexed... ... but not in despair;
4:9a persecuted... ... but not abandoned;
4:9b struck down... ... but not destroyed,
4:10 We always carry around in our
body the death of Jesus... ... so that the life of Jesus
may also be revealed
in our body.
4:11 For we who are alive are always
being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, ... so that His life may be revealed
in our mortal body.
4:12 So then, death is at work in us, ... but life is at work in you.
4:14 ... we know that the one who raised the
Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us
with Jesus and present us with you in
4:16a ... Therefore we do not lose heart
4:16b Though outwardly we are
wasting away... ... yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that
far outweighs them all.
4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
preludes to the glory.
In 4:16a and 4:18 Paul breaks away from the alternating pattern to indicate how it relates to his own understanding of Christian hope and endurance. A comparison of 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 with what Paul says in Romans 8:18 reveals that this is Paul’s constant way of thinking about the issue:
8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us
“Our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17), that is, “our present sufferings” (Rom. 8:18) are “what is seen.” But this “is temporary,” not that on which we fix our eyes (2 Cor. 4:18). Rather, our focus is on the “eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17), i.e., “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18), that “is unseen” and not temporary, but “eternal.” God's grace is sufficient to overcome our present sufferings, which are preludes to the glory.
We don’t lose heart because, although we can’t help but notice the former, we fix our eyes on the latter, and live mindful of the fact that death comes before resurrection glory, and that God’s grace is sufficient (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10) to overcome our present sufferings, which are preludes to the glory. In the strength God gives us to persevere despite our difficulties, we see the promise of the ultimate victory of resurrection life and glory.
Is there any evidence that this is the same way of looking at things that undergirded Paul’s tenacious faith while in Roman chains, and that allowed him to write the Philippians a letter so marked by the theme of joy? What was the pattern of thought that Paul urged the Philippians to adopt? Their attitude, he said, “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). How did he face suffering? He “humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him” (vv. 8-9). Christ was obedient in suffering even unto death, and then was raised to glory.
Of course, Christ’s obedience and glory both outshine any Christian obedience and glory, but the pattern is the same. It is in light of that pattern that Paul can speak, later in that same chapter, of looking forward to “the day of Christ” (v. 16) and of being glad and rejoicing with the Philippians even if he is being “poured out like a drink offering” (v. 17). And he calls on the Philippians to also “be glad and rejoice with me” (v. 18).
This is confirmed in Philippians 3:8-11 where Paul says he considers all the losses1 experienced in this life “rubbish” (or garbage, or dung) “that I may gain Christ and be found in him” with the righteousness that comes from God by faith (vv. 8-9). Then he explicitly mentions suffering and relates it to the theme of Christ and his resurrection (vv. 10-11): “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul’s tenacious hope, his joy in the midst of the challenges he faced as a follower of Christ, was founded on his understanding that as he followed Christ, his sufferings entailed sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in death, and that it was the power of the resurrection— at work in Christ and now in him—that would see him through his challenges all the way to the ultimate goal of his final resurrection and the glory that awaited him.
For Paul, it was now impossible to think of death and its friends (e.g., difficulties, trials and suffering of various sorts), without being reminded of the resurrection and the power of resurrection life in the present (to get us through the challenges we face) and the future (where we will experience the final victory), with, and thanks to, Christ our Lord. That was a key to his tenacious faith and joy in the midst of trials.
Dr. Roy E Ciampa is Professor of New Testament, Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies and Director of the Th.M. program in Biblical Studies. He joined GCTS after 12 years of cross-cultural experience, teaching at two different theological schools in Portugal, and collaborating with the Portuguese Bible Society in the revision of its contemporary translation of the Bible. He is an ordained minister and serves on the Board of Overseeing Elders at Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA. Dr. Ciampa is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research and the Evangelical Theological Society. He is also on the Advisory Council of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship of the American Bible Society and a regular participant in the annual Nida School of Translation Studies. He is co-mentor of the Gordon-Conwell Doctor of Ministry track in Bible Translation.
August 23, 2016
By Kenneth Swetland, D.Min.
Pastors tell me that they have never received a call in the middle of the night that was good news. When the 2 a.m. call comes, pastors brace themselves for hearing bad news, and are then relieved when sometimes it’s only a misdialed number or someone playing a joke.
But, when the call is serious, it’s time to act. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen all that often for most pastors, although some say that a younger generation apt to keeping late hours and used to instant gratiﬁcation or help available 24/7, are often the ones making the middle-of-the-night call to their pastor. An older generation tends to wait until 6 or 7 a.m. unless they are so devastated that they need pastoral care immediately or know their pastor would want to respond quickly.
Pastors can help educate their parishioners by informing them (often more than once) that they are available at anytime if there is a crisis. This kind of availability is part of the call to be a pastor. Not wanting to help when people hurt raises the question of whether one has a genuine call to pastoral ministry, which at its biblical base reﬂects a desire to minister grace and comfort from a Triune God to people in need. I know a pastor who did not want to be bothered outside of the 9 to 5 ofﬁce routine and had an unlisted phone number at home. It’s not surprising that he did not last more than a short time at his ﬁrst church and is not a pastor today.
On an accreditation visit to a seminary in Costa Rica afew years ago, I was touched with the sign on the practical ministry department door: “Pastoral Accompaniment.” That’s what pastors faithful to the biblical model of pastoring do—accompany people when a crisis comes. So, what do you do when the 2 a.m. call comes and it is indeed bad news? First, determine whether you need to go immediately or wait until later. For example, if individuals calling are under the inﬂuence of alcohol or drugs and you determine in talking with them that they are safe but would be unable to “hear” what you have to say if you responded in person, it may be best to afﬁrm your love for them and concern for their well being, but ﬁrmly advise that it would be better for them and you if you visited later in the day. Then keep your word. You can certainly pray with and for them on the phone. And, when you hang up, hope they do not call right back. It may be wise to phone a family member to report what happened and enlist that person’s help as needed.
Sometimes unstable persons, such as those with Borderline Personality Disorder or in a manic phase of Bipolar Disorder, call in the middle of the night, insist on talking at length and want you to be with them right now. Responding by going along with their request often does not help them towards spiritual and emotional health and it can be intensely frustrating and time consuming, not to mention tiring for you. But, not going along with their request often causes them to become angry and accuse you (often to others) of not caring. And, there’s nothing that strikes pain in a pastor’s heart like the accusation that he or she does not care. It is wise, therefore, to have a plan of action in mind for when emotionally unstable persons call. For example, assure them of your concern on the phone, pray with them, help them recognize that they can make it without seeing you immediately and hold to your decision not to get out of bed to go visit them. You may also need to call a family member to provide assistance. If a person is suicidal, you need to call the police and report what has transpired.
Once a woman I had been counseling who had Borderline Personality Disorder called me to say that she had taken a bottle of pills in order to kill herself. Since she had agreed to contact me if she was suicidal (“suicide contract”), she made the call and told me what she had taken. I then called the Poison Control Center for our region and learned that she had taken a potentially lethal dosage and needed immediate hospitalization. My next phone call was to the police who broke down her door and got her to the hospital where she was revived (and for several weeks hated me). I also called an elder in the church to accompany me to the hospital since I did not want to be alone when I visited her. This brings up the question of whether to see someone alone in the middle of the night or take someone with you.
My rule of thumb is that if the person I am going to see is a woman and is alone, I want someone with me so there is no appearance of anything improper. The same principle holds for female pastors visiting male parishioners. If other family members are going to be present, then going alone may be the best course of action. Here’s where it’s good to have aboard of elders trained and ready to assist you in a crisis.
Other words of advice:
Kenneth L. Swetland, D.Min., is Professor of Ministry and Campus Pastoral Counselor at the South Hamilton campus, providing pastoral care for students and graduates, and served as Academic Dean of the Hamilton campus from 1992-2002. He has pastored churches in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, was a chaplain at Penn State University and for nursing homes in the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, and has worked as a psychotherapist at Gordon-Conwell Counseling Center, Health Integration Services in Peabody, MA and Willowdale Center for Psychological Services in Hamilton. He has also taught in Eastern Europe, and has an interest in helping European seminaries in their development. Dr. Swetland continues as a supply speaker for many New England churches.
August 18, 2016
By Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics
In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study on religious affliation, beliefs and practices in the United States. One of the significant findings was that 70 percent of all Americans believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, including 65 percent of all self-identifying Christians. Perhaps the most surprising finding was that 56 percent of all Evangelical Christians believe that there are many paths, other than faith in Christ, to God and eternal life (See http://pewforum.org).
Many were so shocked by these numbers that the Pew Forum went back and did further polling to make sure that by religion, respondents did not have in mind other Christian bodies or denominations. Their earlier results were essentially confirmed. In this most recent study, large numbers of Americans believe that actions or a combination of beliefs and actions can lead people to God. Even among the 30 percent of Americans who say that eternal life depends on one’s belief, nearly half designate belief in God, a higher power or other generic beliefs as sufficient for salvation. Among Evangelical Christians, only 45 percent clearly affrim that a personal belief in, or relationship with, Christ is essential for eternal life.
Increasing numbers of Americans, Christians and even Evangelicals are questioning the long held commitment of the Church that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. Among all Americans affiliated with a religion, 52 percent believethat Islam leads to eternal life with God, 53 percent believe that Hinduism leads to God and 42 percent even believe that atheism leads to God. Among Evangelicals, the numbers are 35, 33 and 26 percent respectively. Clearly in recent years, in the midst of growing cultural and religious pluralism, large numbers of Christians are troubled by, or ignore, the claim of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). What are we to make of all this? Is Jesus really the only way to God? In a pluralistic world, why shouldn’t we accept an inclusivity that embraces multiple ways to salvation? Isn’t it arrogant to believe otherwise?
Our Pluralistic Context
The perspective that there are many ways to God is essentially one variant of universalism, the belief that ultimately all humans will be embraced by God and experience eternal life. To be sure, it is an old belief that was occasionally found early on in Christianity. In the 3rd century, the theologian Origen contended that in the end God would restore the whole of creation, including Satan, to a perfect state. This meant that people who never trusted Christ would be saved. Origen’s beliefs were condemned by a Church council in the 5th century.
Over the years, and in our own time, there have been many arguments for a universalism, or at least religious pluralism, which question the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. Some argue that it is arrogant and triumphalistic to believe that any one way is essential for salvation. Others contend that surely God is a God of love and mercy who will accept people into his presence who don’t believe in Christ. The mercy of God trumps all other characteristics of God.
Some contend that all religions are essentially the same, simply using different names for the divine and different emphases in following the divine path. Still others attempt to articulate a religious pluralism or universalism on biblical grounds, citing texts such as Colossians 1:18-19, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross;” or Romans 11:32, “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” But perhaps the most significant factor for the growing belief in many paths to God is the pluralism of our social context. By pluralism I don’t mean merely the existence of multiple nationalities, races, ethnic groups or religions in a society. More fundamentally, pluralism means that varying worldviews, belief systems and moral frameworks exist side by side in a given culture.
With pluralism, we now rub shoulders daily with people who put their world together in vastly different ways. Thereare varying perceptions of God, the good life, salvation and human nature. There are varying ways of life reflecting these worldview assumptions. As we daily live with a plethora of worldviews, we experience these folks to be exceptionally fine people, who often reflect integrity, high morals and outstanding contributions to our communities. For a democracy to work, we recognize that these multiple frameworks all need to have a voice in the public square, and all religious and moral frameworks need to be assured of essential rights under the law.
In the milieu of social and legal pluralism, it is quite easy to glide into a religious pluralism which questions the uniqueness or truth claims of Christian faith. When we experience people of other religions as good, moral people, it becomes increasingly difficult to entertain any notions other than multiple paths to God and salvation. When we encounter the plurality of the public square, it becomes almost second nature to believe that such plurality must exist with regards to truth and paths to eternal life. Moreover,when we look around us, many who are exclusive in their beliefs often appear to be arrogant and intolerant. Religious pluralists appear to be kind and accepting, and exhibit a tolerance needed for a pluralistic world.The reality of this sociocultural pluralism makes it difficult to maintain a belief in, and commitment to, Christ as the only way to God. Our context of multiplicity tends to undermine the long-held belief that salvation is found only in Jesus.
How Do We Respond?
Given the contexts of our time, what do we do with the question, “Is Jesus really the only way to God?” As we respond to this question, we need first to note that Jesus thought himself to be unique and the only way to a personal relationship with God. In Jesus’ teachings, he made very direct claims about himself and his work which clearly reveal his own identity:
Such statements may not sit well with a postmodern mindset which is squeamish about truth, and particularlyany claims to truth. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, many are willing to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher but not his unique claims to be God. In Lewis’ memorable words he responds:
"That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God" (Mere Christianity, p. 41).
Not only did Jesus himself believe that he was the only way to God, being one with God the Father, the early followers and apostles believed the same. Peter, in one of his early sermons, said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The apostle Paul had hated Christians before he became one. After his conversion, he spoke frequently about Christ with clear conviction that he was the only way to salvation. Speaking of Jesus he said, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10, 11).
In similar fashion the apostle John wrote, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is born of God…God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I Jn. 5:1, 11-12). Since the days of the apostles, the historic Christian Church has affirmed the uniqueness of Christ in his identity and in his role as the only savior for human sin. There has, of course, been substantial variation regarding particular doctrines among the various families and denominations of Christianity. But Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism have historically been in agreement that salvation is found in no other than the person of Christ. The recent trends are contrary to those convictions.
The growing number of Christians who are troubled by Jesus’ claims to be the single course to salvation indicates how much the world has come to live in us as we attempt to live in the world. We easily allow the push and pull of our culture to define our beliefs, commitments and way of life, even while giving lip service to the name of Jesus. Perhaps the Pew Forum poll will be a wake-up call as to how much Christians have allowed the world to shape their sentiments.
Affirming the uniqueness of Christ for salvation and eternal life does not, of course, answer all our questions.There is much that God has not told us about the mysteries of life, death and eternity. We naturally wonder what happens to those who never had opportunity to embrace Christ. To such quandaries, we must simply trust in a Savior who is both loving and just, and whose understandings are far beyond ours. We must acknowledge that from Scripture we know relatively little about heaven and hell. What we do know is that Jesus, the apostles and the historic Church in all its variations have affirmed that Jesus is the only true way to God. And it only makes sense that if a person didn’t want Jesus as Savior and Lord on this earth, they would hardly want to spend forever with Him.
To affirm the uniqueness of Christ for salvation is not cause for arrogance and boasting. In fact, Scripturally it is exactly the opposite. Our salvation has nothing to do with our attainments, efforts and native beliefs. In salvation we do not find God through our own ingenuity. Rather, God finds us as we respond to his loving mercy in Christ as evidenced on the cross. The embrace of Christ as Savior and Lord can never be touted as cause for human triumph, smugness or self-assertion. It is not a sign of our superiority, or cause for triumphalistic efforts in society. The uniqueness of Christ is a sign that the triune God of the universe cares so deeply for his wayward creatures that he mercifully provided a path to forgiveness—a way to the Father’s embrace. It is in the Father’s embrace through Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we come to realize that we can never pull the Triune God apart. For indeed to know Christ is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know the Spirit, who enables us to stay true to the One Savior in the midst of a pluralistic world.
Dr. Dennis P. Hollinger is President and Colman M.Mockler Professor of Christian Ethics. He formerly served as President of Evangelical Theological Seminary; as Provost, College Pastor and Professor of Christian Ethics at Messiah College; and as a professor at two additional seminaries. He has also been a visiting professor at seminaries in the U.S., Ukraine, Russia and India, and a full-time pastor at three churches, including an urban church on Capitol Hill. He speaks extensively in the U.S. and internationally, has written or co-edited eight books, and has authored more than 65 articles. His Ph.D. is from Drew University.
August 04, 2016
By Bruce Herman, MFA
I love that memorable line in the film Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell’s sister confronts him with his duty as a missionary for Christ in China, admonishing him and scolding him for his “frivolous” participation in the pagan Olympic games in Paris. His reply: “Yes, of course! I am indeed a missionary—but God made me fast, and when I runI feel His pleasure!"
Giving God pleasure—imagine! This has to be the heart of glorifying the Lord—a desire and capacity to give our Maker pleasure. I also love Augustine’s famous paean of praise: “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” It may be a bit cheeky, but I’d revise this just a little for the purposes of my article: “You are our Maker, and You made us to be makers. Our hearts are restless until we make something—something beautiful like what You have made.”
And the beautiful is at the heart of all that God has made. Open your eyes, and even a superficial glance at the night sky or the fields of wildflowers below our feet reveals this: God loves beauty—in its full range, from the awesome raging of the thunderstorm to the fragile petals of a rose. One might even be bold and say that just as God is Good and God is Truth, God also is Beauty—true beauty in all its multivalence and grandeur—God’s kabôd . And this is where I begin as a painter, desiring above all to give my Lord pleasure in the works of my hands.
My heart has been restless since my earliest days—restless to make something that would point toward my beautiful Maker—and by His grace I cannot remember a day when I didn’t feel this way. I have always made art, and I’ve nearly always wanted it to please God. Except for a brief interlude in my life during which I was confused about how to serve God as an artist, I’ve always at least intuited that God takes pleasure in the works of our hands and hearts and imagination—when it is done unto Him and for His glory.
What does it mean, in real terms, to make art to the glory of God?
First, I believe that because God is the author of all things beautiful and significant, it is a natural desire of all children to make beautiful and significant things. Children can, and do, distort this urge in order to simply garner attention for themselves. But adults are always disappointed to see this in their child. And that is because we all value the unselfconscious joy of making that we witness in children. The famous artist Pablo Picasso once memorably quipped, “I spent four years in the academy learning to draw like an old master. I’ve spent the rest of my life learning to draw like a child!” And what he was pointing toward, I believe, is the very principle being discussed: childlike, unselfconscious making—which naturally glorifies God just as the rest of God’s creation does, merely by being what it is.
It is easy for a child to make art to the glory of God—just as the sunrise or sunset, the thunderstorm or wildflowers glo-rify God without vanity or self-consciousness. But how is a fully grown person to do so, much less a professional who is paid and must always be promoting her works in order to gain exhibition space? Are we to copy the work of children and make clumsy, charming little works that show no knowledge or sophistication? No, of course not. This would be to indulge in even greater self-conscious posturing. But I do think there is a principle here to be noted: the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows. To make art to the glory of God requires that we give our all in the process of making—holding nothing back. But the difference between the child and the grown artist is that knowledge, technique, experience, even a kind of artistic “wisdom” is operating as we mature and practice art over a lifetime.
Yet the requirement that a work of art be free from pretentiousness or self-conscious posturing is a good one—and the artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted. In his seminal work I and Thou , Martin Buber says:
This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.
Buber has uncovered something deeply signifcant here. There is in the creative process a certain mystery. His phrase “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him” indicates that there is a dimension of authentic art-making that involves assent to a certain loss of control, a certain giving in to the form itself. This idea about art might sound at first quite romantic: mysterious forms jos-tling to be made into works of art independent of the artist, etc., etc. But I believe that Buber is simply describing the reality of the artist’s situation.
When an artist truly desires to be a servant of God, she relinquishes some of her autonomy. There is no room for prima donnas or dilettantes in God’s service—nor is there room for the artist to over-determine outcomes. In that case we are not talking about art but something else. Perhaps propaganda? There is at the heart of the authentic creative process a tacit acknowledgment that we are derivative creatures ourselves. We have not created ex nihilo. And the “form” that Buber speaks of here is nothing less than the artwork of God upon which we must draw in order to make our own works.
Moreover, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in his famous Mars Hill speech, there is an echo of God’s own voice in the poetry and philosophy of even the pagans—whose culture was rich with reference and patterning derived from the natural world. Plato’s concept of the pure forms is one of those echoes, and it is fairly obvious that Buber is referencing that platonic idea of form. The sensitive artist perceives those forms that our Maker employs in His own making. And those forms call out to us for a response of praise.
The most fitting praise for the works of our Maker is to be found in our earnest creative work. We were made by a Maker to be makers. Scripture tells us that we are formed in the image of God—the Imago Dei—and the first thing we learn of God from Scripture is that God creates. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we are restless until we engage in creative making ourselves. Buber’s thought is that we must give our all in our making—all our talent, skill, knowledge, feeling, intellect, love—holding nothing back. In this same passage from I and Thou he goes on to say:
The deed [making a work of art] involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one’s perspective has to be exterminated; none of it may penetrate into the work; the exclusiveness of such a confrontation demands this. The risk: the basic word can only be spoken with one’s whole being; whoever commits himself may not hold back part of himself; and the work does not permit me, as a tree or man might, to seek relaxation in the It-world; it is imperious: if I do not serve it properly, it breaks, or it breaks me. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. - Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.
Again, he emphasizes that wholeheartedness is a prerequisite. But an additional requirement is glimpsed: there is a risk and a sacrifice in art making—and the artist must resist the tendency to objectify the form that “wants to become a work” through her. What does this mean? Buber’s entire book is predicated on the idea that human beings always assume one of two postures in relation to each other and to God’s creation: either we treat the creation as objects to be used and experienced (“It”) or we relate to the creation as “Thou”—that is, as being worthy of love, respect and care rather than possession, use and objectification.
We may seem to have wandered far from the question of how to make art to the glory of God. But this is the connection I am trying to make for us: to glorify the Maker, we must become makers. The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God’s own character in our creative process. Just as God imbues his human creatures with autonomy and dignity and loves them rather than manipulating or possessing them, human artists are to serve the forms they create—endowing them with a certain freedom and autonomy. And this is what Buber is at pains to express, namely that human creativity involves the very same risk that divine creativity engenders: the risk that the created work might break or break the maker. And if there is any doubt that God’s creatures have the capacity to break their Maker, simply remember the Cross.
Where have we come to in our attempt to investigate the connection between human art and God’s glory? I believe that the spark of divine creativity that is within the human imagination is deeply connected to the principle I have been attempting to elucidate. It is in our very capacity to make works that outlive us—works that seem to exist independently of their author’s interpretive grid—that we most echo our Maker. The element of risk and sacrifice is also at the core of that resemblance to our God. In a very real sense, the Lord engaged in a cosmic risk by creating human beings. The possibility that we might rebel and refuse God’s love was there from the beginning. And that very capacity of the created thing to resist its creator is what eventually calls forth a sacrifice.
To make art to the glory of God, the human artist must imitate this “deeper magic” of God’s own creativity: risk and very real sacrifice must accompany our making process. If we avoid these and play it safe in our art making, we will always fall short of glorifying our Maker. To conclude let me recount a passage from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings :
‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder. ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. - Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Fellowship of the Ring (p. 482). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
So then, as the Elves put the thought of all that they love—all the beauty and mystery and majesty of Lothlórien, their lovely land—we are called to put the thought of all we love of our own dear Lord’s handiwork into all that we make. Perhaps then He will be glorified and we will feel His pleasure
Bruce Herman, MFA, is the Lothlórien Distin-guished Chair in the Fine Arts, Department Chair, and a professor of painting and drawing at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He joined the faculty in 1984 and became the first Chair of the Art Department in 1988. His primary focus as a teacher and artist is figurative painting. He received the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award in 1992 and was awarded the first fully endowed Distinguished Chair at Gordon in 2006. His art has been exhibit-ed internationally and is housed in museums such as the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Armand Hammer Collection in Los Angeles and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.