Gordon-Conwell Blog

A Tale of Three Battles | Faculty Blogger

May 01, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

Dr. Fairbairn authors a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here; Part 15 here.

It is often said—correctly—that the Battle of Tours in 732 changed the course of history. It took place exactly a century after Muhammad’s death, during the great wave of Arab expansion that re-drew the political and religious map of the world. Arab Muslim forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and then over the Pyrenees into France. Had they been able to continue their advance, they would likely have overrun all of Europe, but they were defeated by Merovingian forces from northern Europe under the command of Charles Martel and forced back into Spain. Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne would go on to solidify his control over the region and start a great renaissance of learning in the ninth century, and Western Europe would begin its slow rise to world prominence.

As we tell that familiar story, we often forget that another, equally fateful battle took place at about the same time. In 717–18 in Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his forces narrowly defeated Arab invaders, forcing them back into what is today Turkey. The close call led to an enormous amount of social and theological soul-searching in Byzantium (among other things, the Iconoclastic Controversy arose out of the ideological battle with the Muslims), but it would be more than seven centuries before Muslims (Turks, not Arabs) would conquer Constantinople in 1453. The siege of Constantinople in 717–18 could easily lay claim to having “saved” Europe just as much as the Battle of Tours fifteen years later.

But not long after the Arabs failed to take Europe from either the West or the East, a third, far greater clash took place halfway around the known world. For we need to remember that the two great powers in the world in the eighth century were the Arabs and the Chinese, and the Arabs were much more interested in expanding eastward along the Silk Road than westward or northward. (In fact, it is likely that part of the reason they failed to take Europe was because they devoted much more energy to taking Asia.) After the resolution of an internal conflict brought unity to the Arab forces, they squared off with the Tang Chinese army in 751 at the Battle of Talas, in what is today Kirghizstan. The Arabs were victorious, and China began its slow decline from world power to isolationist kingdom. The Arabs solidified their hold on most of Central Asia, and the region became solidly Muslim.

These THREE almost contemporary battles—not just the one we Westerners are familiar with—changed the course of history. But what about CHURCH history? The picture is varied and complicated, but it may not be too much of an over-simplification to say that the churches in most parts of the world at that time were too closely tied to the local kingdoms. In Western Europe, the church rode the coattails of the victorious Merovingian kingdom to increase its stature and prominence. At the same time, it is surely fair to say that the church adopted too many of the traits of the worldly kingdom, leading to an increasingly militant form of Christianity that would ultimately produce the Crusades. In China (yes, there WAS a church in China then), the church was equally tied to the local kingdom and suffered greatly as the kingdom became more isolationist and xenophobic in the ninth and tenth centuries. By the year 1000, Christianity had disappeared from China.

In between Europe and China, though, something different began to happen. In the Middle East and Egypt, the churches learned to adapt to a lack of power, to a second-class status in society, and for the most part, those churches have endured and maintained their witness during the long centuries of Islamic governmental control. They suffered through the vicious Islamic backlash against Christians in response to the Crusades and the even more vicious Islamic purges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those churches have accumulated many problems in their checkered history, and they are far from perfect. But they have also learned something about what it means to bear witness to the gospel through suffering. As Christians in the West face the reality of our declining influence on an increasingly post-Christian society, perhaps we will find that the churches that have stood their ground in hostile territory for over a millennium have something to teach us today. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger

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Finals Week Rest | Seminary Student Blogger

April 30, 2014

Amy Gannett

We’re in the middle of finals week, and I can’t help but take a little break to reflect. As things stand now, I have one final down, one to go and a serious exegesis paper to finish and turn in. This past week, I’ve had strep throat and a cold on top. Add to that some long days at work that don’t pause for finals like the Hamilton campus does and just enough stress to make sleep less refreshing, and life gets a little out of control.

I get sick every finals week. Seriously, every single semester, when this time of year comes around, my body crashes like it’s Y2K. And it doesn’t seem to matter how much EmergenC I take or how religiously I alternate between DayQuil and NyQuil, life slips just beyond the grasp of my control.

I’m starting to think my God’s up to something.

In an already trying season of more work and less play, or more thinking and less sleep, relationships become more strained, words come out more biting, and it seems as if all graciousness is gone. And no matter how much effort I put forth into holding my tongue, studying my Greek flashcards, balancing time between my relationships on campus and my relationship with the library, getting to bed at a promising time, finishing the reading due last week, and still getting all the little life-things done that make us human, too…I fail. I can’t. They don’t get done, relationships are strained, and the fill-in-the-blank answer escapes me.

Having things beyond my control is semi-unfamiliar territory, if I’m honest. I’ve put a lot of effort into keeping my schedule manageable and organizing my time. I like everything to be do-able. I like to be able to manage everything on my own, and I put a lot of pride in my ability to handle my world well.

And then the semester begins to spin towards an end…

And I wake up with a sore throat…

And I stay up too late…

And I snap at my husband…

And I get a cold…

And I’m too tired to study…

And I’m reminded that I never was in control all along. I’m reminded that there’s a pertinent way that our Lord is supposed to be needed in our dailyness.

One thing I’ve said repeatedly to those around me is that I don’t want to be needy. When I say it I mean that I don’t want to be overbearing or a burden. But I think there’s something that reeks of independent western culture: I don’t want to need. I don’t want to need someone or something. I want to do it on my own.

And I’ll try.
And try
And try
And try…

Until all the world seems to be slipping away from me. When all my best-laid plans crumble and fail, I’m reminded that I am inherently needy. That I was created to need, and when I come to think that I am not or I convince myself that I am self-sufficient, then I am not living into who I am to be as a child of God.

We are needy beings. We are people who are not in control, people who weren’t made to manage and organize and get by. We were created to trust and lean and depend on the God who gave us challenges and exams and relationships. We are to do what He has given us to do, but to do it from a posture of resting in the knowledge that He is in control.

At the end of the day, no amount of vitamin C is going to be my helper. Only He, the One who knows all my needs and savors my neediness, is my Helper.

“Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.”
Psalm 54:4
 

Hi, friend. I'm Amy. Mostly, I’m just another twenty-something trying to figure out the stuff of life. I am a nerdy seminary student who loves the smell of old books and early mornings in the library. I am an artist wanabee, a liberal to the conservative and conservative to the liberal, guilty social justice groupie, and a recovering Bible know-it-all with the unreal ability to put my foot in my mouth an astonishing number of times each day. I am a sister to eight of the most hysterical creatures ever created. Good theology, used book stores, and autumn make me giddy. I preach passionately, think deeply, and ask too many questions. I write prayers, poetry and prose. I write about preaching bad and good, gender roles in the Church, the sacraments, stupid things we do on Sunday, politics, and almost everything else that you are not supposed to discuss in polite company. I also blog at oneyellowbird.blogspot.com. Welcome to the journey.

 

Tags: Author: Amy Gilbaugh , current students , student blogger

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Imagine | Seminary Student Blogger

April 29, 2014

Kate Hightower

No light have I alone
It’s darkness that I tread
No hope to ever change that
Now that my Christ is dead.

For everyone heard the stories

Isaiah was never wrong
He told us that he’d suffer
He didn’t say how long.

But death has overcome him
I watched him breathe his last
And down came a thunderous storm of sorts—
Earth’s grief that He had passed.


Imagine our tear-streaked faces
Imagine how we fell-the-floor
When we lifted our eyes to see
Him simply cross through the door

The holes were in his hands
The edges even scabbed!
He didn’t have long to stay
But He told us of His plans

It was after that heaven took Him
The mission was complete
His instructions to us were simple
Tell everyone you meet.

We couldn’t help but tell them
Of wonders did this story tell
Of the Death-Master, Messiah-Jesus
Who for Love through darkness fell. 

Kate Hightower is writing to you from the middle of her Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Thought pursuit at Gordon-Conwell—Jacksonville, where she is also a Byington Scholar. She’s an avid Bob Dylan fan, and can always be counted upon for decadent French cooking. And she’s madly in love with her giant, brilliant golden retriever, Stella.

 

Tags: Author: Kate Hightower , current students , student blogger

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New Old Lessons | Seminary Student Blogger

April 15, 2014

Amy Gannett

Finals week is quickly approaching, and with it there's much to say, think, feel, and yes, do.

Finals week is a peculiar beast for me, and I know I’m not alone. The nerdy side of me absolutely loves every single minute of it—seriously, long days in the library reading, reciting, reviewing. Sigh...heartthrob. But the free-spirit side of me is getting weary by the long days indoors while the trees are budding outside where sunshine replaces florescent lighting.

Though my mind and heart are strapped to the pendulum perpetually swinging between the two extremes, the Lord is reminding me of an old familiar truth I've long neglected.

He's here.

Elementary? Maybe. But it struck me afresh when...

I was reading a commentary for my exegesis paper and He stopped me and reminded me that the Book was written about Him, and me and Him.

I was sitting in the sunshine trying to read (and failing epically, I might add) and a spider on my quilt fascinated me—the way it moved with agility and grace and the meticulous way He must have designed it.

I was talking with a friend about Hebrew exegesis and we were reminded that soon it will all be over, and His Spirit pulled me aside and said, "Yes, one Day, it will all be over...all of it. And it will just be the beginning."

I was translating Psalm 51 and was actually starting to get a smooth translation and was filled with awe that we serve a God who articulates Himself to us so well and so intentionally.

I was talking to Him on a quiet morning and asking Him to remind me of His presence and instantly a flood of these memories came to mind...

He's here. And He wants us to know it. There's something about the busyness of this season that has made me forget that He wants to intrude every moment, and that inviting Him turns an intrusion into an intimate moment shared with Him. I've asked for open eyes and I'm beginning to see Him...

In the way the tulips relentlessly push back the winter earth and insist on newness.

In the constant way my husband forgives the rough edges in my spirit and, in doing so, preaches the gospel to me.

In the way my friends consistently show me grace when I still haven't figured out how to love them well, and even when I've given up trying.

In all this and more, He's here. He's pushing towards us, prompting us, calling to us in every crevice of the day. He's catching us unexpectedly, reminding us of His love, taking our breath away by the wonder of His constant love. And all we have to do is notice. 

Hi, friend. I'm Amy. Mostly, I’m just another twenty-something trying to figure out the stuff of life. I am a nerdy seminary student who loves the smell of old books and early mornings in the library. I am an artist wanabee, a liberal to the conservative and conservative to the liberal, guilty social justice groupie, and a recovering Bible know-it-all with the unreal ability to put my foot in my mouth an astonishing number of times each day. I am a sister to eight of the most hysterical creatures ever created. Good theology, used book stores, and autumn make me giddy. I preach passionately, think deeply, and ask too many questions. I write prayers, poetry and prose. I write about preaching bad and good, gender roles in the Church, the sacraments, stupid things we do on Sunday, politics, and almost everything else that you are not supposed to discuss in polite company. I also blog at oneyellowbird.blogspot.com. Welcome to the journey.

 

Tags: Author: Amy Gilbaugh , current students , student blogger

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 15

April 08, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here.

It is often claimed that “history is written by the victors,” that those who won the battles (whether military, political, or theological) got to dictate the way those battles were described subsequently. And it is certainly true that the story of the great theological battles over Christian orthodoxy in the early centuries of the Church have—for most of Christian history—been described from the point of view of the belief that came to predominate.

Accordingly, more recent scholars have argued that we need to look at the same controversies without prejudice toward the “losers,” and over the last 200 years a new history of the great theological controversies has been written from perspectives sympathetic to the poor “heretics” who had been maligned by earlier historians. These heretics, the new history alleges, were not actually “wrong.” They were just on the wrong side of the political power plays that dominated the early church. Their only crime was that they lost the war, and they were painted falsely by the victors as malevolent souls intent on destroying the church.

In some ways, the new history does give us a more complete view of the past. It tends to focus on political and social issues more than theological ones, and as such it reminds us that there is always more than theology going on in theological controversies. The new history also reminds us that the victors—the “orthodox”—sometimes twisted the words of the “heretics” or took them out of context to make the losers seem worse than they were. Even more important, the new history reminds us correctly that the heretics did not SET OUT to destroy the faith. No serious Christian tries to ruin the church on purpose.

At the same time, the new history is beset with serious problems of its own, problems that are rarely acknowledged. First and most important, this new history is ALSO being written by the victors. If the traditional history was written by the ANCIENT victors, this new one is being written by TODAY’S victors—the scholars who represent the assumptions and perspectives that are in the ascendancy today. Those assumptions are generally naturalistic (discounting the action of God in history and understanding all events solely in terms of human actions) and relativistic (discounting the notion that there is such a thing as “truth,” and therefore discounting the church’s long-standing insistence that it MATTERED whether, for example, Jesus was fully divine as Athanasius said, or semi-divine as Arius implied).

Put simply, the view that is “winning” today has no place for theological truth at all, and so it sees “Christian orthodoxy” as an arbitrary construct developed for political reasons and imposed on the church by force. This view is scarcely able even to conceive of a world in which people’s salvation actually depends on whether Christ is like this instead of like that. Scholars who hold to this new relativistic view see nothing earth shattering about the great debates of the church, so they assume that Christian leaders were just being mean when they suppressed the writings of those who disagreed with them.

Another serious problem with this new view of history is that it purports to be objective. Scholars consistently give the impression that by treating the “heretics” sympathetically, they are removing the biases of the ancient victors who dictated the first writing of history. But rarely do those scholars acknowledge that in the process of doing that, they are also introducing biases equally great. To assume that it matters not at all whether Jesus is fully God or semi-divine is CERTAINLY NOT to be objective. Rather, it is to make an extreme value judgment, exactly the opposite of the value judgment the early church made when it declared that it makes all the difference to people’s eternal salvation whether Jesus is fully God or less than God. Indeed, NO ONE in the early church—least of all Arius himself—would have agreed with the judgment that it makes no difference whether Jesus was like this or like that. The new history calls itself objective, yet at the most basic level it carries an assumption with which no one at the time—and indeed no real Christian at any time period—could agree. It is a sad kind of logic indeed that enables one to operate from a fundamentally ANTI-Christian perspective while still claiming to be unbiased and objective.

“History is written by the victors.” True enough, but history is also RE-written by TODAY’S victors. And those of us who think the great truths of theology actually matter—indeed that the salvation of the world hinges on them—need to be very careful about the way we read and utilize the version of history that today’s scholars present to us. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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Spring Morning | Seminary Student Blogger

April 03, 2014

Kate Hightower

Thy glory fills the morning
Awake with spring’s gentle glow
Thy handiwork stirs around me
The birds sounding their know

Thy hands art strong and skillful
What detail they define
How I forget my life among it
That fault is ever mine

Thou promised thine presence beside me
As thou went into the sky
How often I forget this
When everything goes awry

So this morning I reachest to thee
I surrender my day anew
I sound this know around me
Thine love stands ever-true

The world will knowest how thou rescued
Me from my own darkest pit
My life a breathing testament
To thou and thine priceless gift 

Kate Hightower is writing to you from the middle of her Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Thought pursuit at Gordon-Conwell—Jacksonville, where she is also a Byington Scholar. She’s an avid Bob Dylan fan, and can always be counted upon for decadent French cooking. And she’s madly in love with her giant, brilliant golden retriever, Stella.

 

Tags: Author: Kate Hightower , current students , student blogger

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Fragile | Seminary Student Blogger

March 27, 2014

Melissa Zaldivar

In his short-but-mighty book, Weakness is the Way, J. I. Packer writes, “…if people who at present have no sense of weakness were more careful and restrained in the way they talk of others and to others, the world might be a less painful place.”

I underlined those words when I got a copy of that little book a number of months ago and I had no idea that my then-present state of “no sense of weakness” was about to come crashing down.

As I write this, I am in bed, recovering from an over-the-weekend bout with a virus that completely destroyed me. Up all night and struggling with fevers all day, I felt, in a word, weak. My friend Anne came to sit with me yesterday and as I struggled to be comfortable with an aching body, I winced and said into my pillow, “I just want to be done.”

I have been feeling that way a lot lately. I’m ready to be okay again. I’m ready to be healed. I’m ready to get back into normal life—whatever that means—as soon as possible.

You see, this weekend was a 48-hour manifestation of how my spirit has stumbled its way through the past six weeks. I’ll write now what I’ve been avoiding talking about for a month and a half because I’m learning that it’s necessary to be honest about weakness. 47 days ago, I had a panic attack. The kind where you lose your hope and your vision of the future and everything feels like too much. The kind where you wonder if perhaps you’ve gone mad, because nothing feels right.

It took me days to recover from the adrenaline surge that left my muscles weak and my heart exhausted. It launched me into twice-a-week counseling. But it also sent me into a place where all my worst fears would have to be faced.

I’m a controller by nature. I like to have a say in my day-to-day activities as much as possible. For a living, I edit things—words, photographs, films—because I love to have a creative vision and see it realized. And while it make my clients very happy and it gives me a sense of purpose, it also tricks me into thinking that I can edit my own life. Sure, we have the ability to make choices that are key in our development, but we truly control very little about our lives. I guess this is one of the things that we forget—and that makes us forget how great the grace of God is (and how strong the gospel really is.)

I’ll be honest: sometimes I sit in front of my counselor and I tell her, “I’m ready to be done. I’m ready to be fine. I’m ready to be finished with this process.” She smiles and nods. She knows that we’re headed somewhere better, even when I’m frustrated with my own weakness.

I told my friend Anna a few weeks ago that I understood why I was in pain. I said, “I know that I’m a sinner and I live in a sinful world and that’s why I have to figure out all of this. So that I can get better.”

She looked at me with an honest shaking of her head and said to me, “Melissa, you keep telling me about how you’re broken, but what you are forgetting is that Christ died to heal you. And you are not, first and foremost, a broken, lost sinner. You are redeemed. And it may be that you never overcome anxiety and you lose all hope, but that does not mean you are outside of the reach of the gospel. You cannot break the gospel.”

One thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is how much of my life I’ve ignored anxiety. I’ve ignored fears and insecurities and damage that I’ve encountered in the last 24 years to the point of, well, panic. I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I can control enough of my life to not actually have to deal with the true heart of my weakness: trust. The reason that I don’t trust God to come through is because I tend to think that I control the gospel. If I can be put together, the gospel will hold together. If I fall apart, the gospel must have broken.

This is a flawed way of thinking, but I think it’s something we fall into quite often. There is no glamour in weakness. There is no glory in saying, “I can’t.” And, as a dear friend said to me recently about her own struggles with anxiety and ministry, “It feels like failure.”

Perhaps that’s what I’m getting at. Perhaps that is what this hard, hard season of processing through my own fears and anxiety is about: failing. But knowing that by the grace of God, I am not first-and-foremost a failure. No—I am redeemed. I am not broken. I am not losing it. I am not a mess. I am in the “now” of the “now but not yet” and it’s terribly messy, but the gospel is not ruined by it.

People tell me to just stop being anxious. To just let go and be fine again. To steer clear of medication. To just not think about panic. But what has spoken to me the most has been the truth. It has been the friends that sit with me in my pain, not unlike Job’s friends. It has been the words of support and the sensitivity of others. J. I. Packer is right: we must be more careful.

For we are, in Christ, fragile, but we are not broken. 

Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.
 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Melissa Zaldivar , current students , equipping leaders for the church and society , student blogger

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Melissa, I don't even know you but just wanted you to know how encouraged I am because of this! I'm a photographer too, and was just talking with my best friend yesterday about control being an idol of mine. Thank you thank you THANK YOU for your honesty in weakness and for the reminder that Jesus is my only real savior...
Audra 8:30AM 03/28/14

The Backwardness of True Empowerment | Seminary Student Blogger

March 18, 2014

Joelinda Coichy

This blog was going to be about gender dynamics at Gordon-Conwell.

I wanted to write about how my excitement over finally being in a school with more men than woman turned to frustration. About how I recognized that the complementation circles with which I readily identified seemed to create a subtle culture in which people of the opposite sex were objects—either to be pursued for marriage or set aside for the sake of “guarding hearts.”

I wanted to note that despite having discussed the challenges of being a woman ad nauseam in college, I found myself having to re-enter that conversation in seminary. That the issues re-surfaced in ways that were new to me—like the debate about women in church leadership.

All of these things were discouraging to me, and I was going to blog against them…

And then I attended the screening of the film Girl Rising. The compelling message about educating girls in the third world moved me. I wanted to do something to help those girls. I always had—which is why I came to seminary.

But the reality was that there I was, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, with not only a college, but a graduate education AND a ministry job at a church, itching to jump into the ring to fight for yet more rights…for myself.

Grasping for things that would make me feel more empowered, I had forgotten my dream of advocating for those without a voice. And worse, I had become blind to the fact I had a sphere of influence (albeit smaller and more broken than I would prefer) to make a difference.

And I realized this grave irony: you can miss your call when you are too focused on fighting for yourself.

Now, I am not advocating that we forget the injustices that we face as individuals (often those are the very areas that we are called to address). And after all, we cannot speak about someone else’s worth if we have abdicated our own.

Yet, I cannot help but hear the faint echo of Jesus’ backward economics: whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Matt. 10:39).

And I realize that true empowerment is not fighting for more for me but losing myself and what I have been given, no matter how large or small, to serve the least of these.

So the reality is, though they sometimes drive me up a wall, this blog isn’t about the gender dynamics at Gordon-Conwell.

This blog is about the women around the globe who:
Are the silent victims of unimaginable injustice and crime.
Cannot read or write.
Have been given no worth outside of their roles as bearers of children.

…And are denied the rights that I take as a given.

And to use my voice and energy to serve them is really the most empowered thing I can do. 

Joelinda is a second year M.Div. candidate. She currently serves as the Student Ministries Director at Grace Chapel’s Watertown campus. She is a lover of all things beautiful including theater, fall days in New England, chick flicks and the mountains. She counts bargain-hunting her sport and enjoys singing loudly while driving. Above all, Joelinda’s passion is to build relationships that help others understand the transformative power of the gospel.

 

Tags: Author: Joelinda Coichy , current students , student blogger

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 14

March 13, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here.

One of the words that tend to rub contemporary evangelicals the wrong way is “mysticism.” When we hear stories of people who went out to the Egyptian desert in order to fight demons (St. Anthony the Great in the early fourth century), spent decades perched atop pillars in Syria (St. Simeon the Stylite in the fifth century), or spent their lives gazing at their navels while reciting the Jesus prayer (the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos in Greece, in the late first and early second millennium A.D.), we tend to think that the mystics were the class-A kooks of Christian history. And some of the mystics certainly were kooks, although none of the examples just above were actually as odd as we make them out to be.

But according to the definition of the word, a “mystic” is one who is not satisfied with mere association with the church or with knowledge about God, but who instead longs for a deep, direct, intimate experience of God. By that definition, evangelicals are mystics too, or at least we should be, because we of all people should long for direct experience of God. And if some of the practices of the ancient and Medieval mystics in their efforts to grow closer to God seem weird to us, we have to admit that evangelicalism has also produced some strange practices as well, from tent meetings to Azusa Street to the Toronto Blessing. When we assess a phenomenon like mysticism on the basis of whether it is bizarre, we should recognize that bizarre is in the eye of the beholder, and what seems bizarre to us may seem normal to others.

A better way to assess mysticism—in all its expressions—might be to ask the fundamental question of whether mystical practice constitutes an attempt to establish contact with God, or whether it is an attempt to deepen a relationship with God that one has already been given. In my (admittedly subjective) opinion, the best of Christian mysticism follows the latter pattern.

One of the great names in Christian mysticism, and I think one of the best examples of mysticism at its best, is the fourth/fifth century monk John Cassian. He spent over a decade among the Egyptian desert fathers and then founded two monasteries in southern France around the year 410 A.D. Cassian wrote a long work (the Institutes) on monastic practices and a massive work (the Conferences) of alleged conversations between two neophyte monks and various Egyptian monastic fathers. Through these works, Cassian exerted a major influence on Benedict in the sixth century, who in turn shaped all of Medieval Western monasticism.

Cassian’s thought has been variously interpreted, but in my opinion, the foundation of that thought is that we are united to God as a gift through adoption and that our mystical practices constitute an effort to deepen that previously-established salvation. (See chapter 5 of my book Grace and Christology in the Early Church for my explanation of this foundation.) If I am right about this, Cassian presents us with a model for the Christian experience of God that is somewhat similar to that of evangelicalism—God acts first to establish the relationship, but he then calls us to foster that relationship through our spiritual disciplines. Cassian and other mystics like him may thus be valuable resources for us as we seek to know more fully the God who has brought us to himself. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 13

February 18, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here.

There is a famous passage in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in which the (unnamed) communist police lieutenant expresses incredulity at the possibility that he might have a soul. The main character, the (also unnamed) “whiskey priest” corrects him, saying, “No, you are a soul; you have a body, temporarily.” With these words, the priest encapsulates what has been a common belief throughout Christian history—the soul is permanent and ultimately all that is important; the body is temporary and inconsequential. Perhaps no mistaken attitude has had more staying power, or been more dangerous to the faith, than this relegation of matter and the body to second-class status. From the second-century Gnostics who denigrated the entire physical world to modern scholars who re-interpret “resurrection” to mean merely the soul’s survival after death, these ideas have had a long history and currency.

It should not surprise us, then, that the task of affirming the importance and redeemability of the body was job one for the early church, and among the church fathers who most insistently argued this point was the North African Tertullian at the end of the second century. He may have overdone it when he famously asserted that even the human soul is corporeal, but be that as it may, his arguments for the importance of the body in the Christian scheme of redemption are worth our attention. Among them are the following: 

  • He points out that in Genesis 2, the man starts out as clay and then becomes a living soul when God breathes into him. The physical component comes first and is indispensable. Human beings are meant to be bodies and souls, not souls that merely possess bodies temporarily (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, par. 5).
  • He argues that as God created man, he had in mind the form that he would give to his Son at the incarnation. The goodness of the body implied in the incarnation is anticipated in the original creation of humanity as bodily (par. 6).
  • He argues that no soul can receive salvation unless it believes while it is in the flesh. Thus, bodily existence is the very condition on which the soul’s salvation hinges (par. 8).
  • If one’s soul were really the only part to be saved (as the Gnostics alleged), then one could not even regard the person as saved. Only half of a person would be saved, and the other half condemned. The Bible could not even speak of the salvation of a human person in that case (par. 34).
  • If Paul’s references to “resurrection” in Acts 17 had meant only the continuation of the soul after death, then the Athenians would hardly have noticed. Their philosophers had been saying that for centuries (par. 39).
  • Paul could not have asked us to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12) if our bodies were ultimately going to perish, or holy sacrifices if our bodies were soiled beyond redemption, or acceptable and pleasing to God if God had peremptorily condemned the body.


These arguments and others like them remind us just how unique a message the Christian faith offers to the world. History has been full of philosophies that exalted the soul at the expense of the body, and even more full of religions (and non-religions!) that glorified the body to the detriment of the soul. Christianity, the church fathers correctly recognized, is almost alone in affirming that we are meant to be both material and immaterial, that God is concerned about us as whole persons, and indeed that we will spend eternity with him not as disembodied spirits, but as persons on this (reconstituted) earth. These most fundamental of Christian truths have wide-ranging implications for all aspects of life on this planet, yet for much of Christian history, we have obscured them with a popular theology that has exalted the spiritual to the detriment of the physical. We would do well to take a page from Tertullian’s writings and to recognize anew the importance of being in the flesh.

 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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Redefining “Success:” Getting Better [Read: More Godly] Metrics | Seminary Student Blogger

January 30, 2014

Joelinda Coichy

I am the youth ministry director at a campus plant. We are about 13 weeks into our life together as a church. Pretty exciting, but it pales in comparison to the 3,016 weeks that our first campus, affectionately called the “mothership,” has been in action.

Every week—sometimes in the middle of a game involving moving an Oreo from my forehead to my mouth without my hands—I do the perfectly normal thing for a ministry leader to do: I take a quick head count.

These have been some my numbers the past couple weeks:

3 students
7 students
3 students
4 students

In my previous life I was a social media analyst, so the week we had 7 students, I took pride in saying we had experienced 133% growth!

But the numbers were down the following week. And the week after that. I hung my head and secretly considered scrapping our Wednesday night youth program. But that was until Steven piped up.

Steven and his wife are on the youth ministry leadership team at our campus. They are relatively new to the area and have gotten involved in the life of the church through our campus plant. One evening, I was having a conversation I had had before about “our strategy for growth,” and Steve said, “I wish we would stop talking about the numbers…It’s worth being here even for one student.”

Duh! And the Lord spoke. And I kicked myself.

In my days as a social media analyst, I had created reports that helped brands understand their success on Facebook. I had walked marketers through all the different metrics that I would report on: Likes, Comments, Clicks, Shares, Friends of Fans, People Talking About, Reach, Impressions, Fans by Country, Fans by Age Group…just to name a few.

Most brands, by default, tracked the Likes metric. This was a perfectly normal thing for a marketer to measure.

But, I had noticed that the smart marketers zeroed in on metrics better suited to their business. For instance, one brand measured clicks because as far as their business was concerned, people liking their Facebook page didn’t matter as much as people clicking into their online store and actually making a purchase.

Duh!

In my ministry, I, by default, had been tracking Likes. And though perfectly normal, my head count was the wrong way to measure youth ministry growth.

So now, I keep attendance. The difference is slight, but the implications immense.

Instead of measuring the high level mass of warm bodies that have given youth group/church/God a tacit Like by being in the room, I am measuring for depth of engagement with God.

And you know what finding a better, more godly metric has done?

It has taken my focus away from seeing my kingdom grow, and has helped me see the incredible work that God has been up to in developing His Kingdom.

So, these have been my real numbers the past couple weeks:

7+ deep, authentic conversations about faith and spiritual matters
3 new students drawn into a warm community of faith
5 students serving in the larger church body
10 sessions discussing the redemptive, providential work of God unfolding in history

And suddenly, I don’t care as much if we have 3 students or 30. 

Joelinda is a second year M.Div. candidate. She currently serves as the Student Ministries Director at Grace Chapel’s Watertown campus. She is a lover of all things beautiful including theater, fall days in New England, chick flicks and the mountains. She counts bargain-hunting her sport and enjoys singing loudly while driving. Above all, Joelinda’s passion is to build relationships that help others understand the transformative power of the gospel.

 

Tags: Author: Joelinda Coichy , current students , equipping leaders for the church and society , student blogger

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Comparison, Christmas and Crimson | Seminary Student Blogger

December 12, 2013

Melissa Zaldivar

It’s Christmastime—which means that we get to spend time celebrating Advent, attending church services and singing carols. It also means that we dress up in wintery colors and make our way from the chilly weather into warm homes to trim trees and eat together. We don our Christmas sweaters and drink eggnog and Instagram things too much.

There is something spectacular that happens when we enjoy one another’s company over food. We are fed physically, but also relationally. I’ve always adored the idea of dinner parties and the chance to spend the season of Advent with people that I care for.

I arrived in Cambridge right on time, which meant that I was the first one there (fashionably late would have, perhaps, served me better socially in this scenario) and made my way inside. Beautifully and festively decorated, I found it to be something very familiar to me. The house of a host at Christmas.

What was different about this house was that it was the house of my professor who serves as the Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. It was a gathering for the students in the class that I took this semester called, “Peasants and Proletarians: Black Religions and the Social Sciences in the 20th Century.”

As a part of the Boston Theological Institute, Gordon-Conwell students have the opportunity to take classes through other grad schools and seminaries in the Boston area. My friend from Gordon-Conwell and I decided to take one at Harvard Divinity School. While I will admit that much of the allure was the promise of Ivy League education, I soon found that the education I had the chance of experiencing was something new that would change the way that I learn completely.

When other people (especially outside the Gordon-Conwell community) hear that I’m taking a class at Harvard, they assume a few things. First, that I’m unrealistically brilliant; second, that I’m somehow more intellectually worth something for gaining a “legitimate academic experience.”

This view of BTI is harmful because it degrades the seminary and it glorifies one college experience (based, I’m sure, on movies like “Legally Blonde” and “The Social Network”) over another. It divides us into groups of “them” and “us.”

I had that mindset going into this class. I was intimidated and overwhelmed by something different and during the break on my very first day, I called my brother-in-law. A seminary graduate himself, he reassured me as I blurted out, “These people are brilliant! And I don’t know what on earth I am doing here. I know nothing about black sociology and I feel like I can’t do it.”

He lovingly said, “If you are in this class, you can do it.”

He was right. These students, while more well-versed in the topic of the class, were still fellow students. They were still learning and eager to do so. I swallowed my pride and continued on with my class.

It became clear to me that what was keeping me from fully pouring into the BTI experience was a division between academia and humanity. These were students with more intellectual experience than I, but they have parents and histories and passions and dreams and personalities. As weeks went on, we learned to understand one another better and from a different perspective than that of Gordon-Conwell and I believe that it made me a better person. And isn’t that the point of education?

C.S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I realized that I was robbing myself of truly connecting with other pilgrims by acting like I was a Gordon-Conwell student who was sitting in on a class at Harvard Divinity School. Instead, I needed to fully invest myself into being a part of that class as a peer and fellow traveler.

More guests arrived at the house and I felt myself relax a little more with every familiar face that entered into conversation. I asked if I could capture a few images and felt a little mom-ish asking everyone to get together for one group photo, but I am so glad that I did. It reminds me that the people we once knew nothing about can become peers, daresay friends. It reminds me that there is a great deal of unnecessary pressure that we can put on ourselves when we see things through a lens of stereotypes and ignorance. And it reminds me that one a cold night in December, I celebrated the holidays and the pursuit of knowledge in true holiday fashion.

We laughed and we engaged in good conversation and we ate food. We took pictures and we trimmed the tree. And while some of these souls are the most brilliant I may have encountered, the great honor of knowing them does not come from their GPA’s or their aspirations. The honor comes from the realization that we learn best when we learn from one another.

Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.
 

 

 

Tags: Author: Melissa Zaldivar , biblically-grounded , current students , student blogger

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