Realistic expectations of what the church is and will be

Realistic expectations of what the church is and will be

In a really well written article in Themelios by Uche Anizor that draws together various ecclesiological strands of Colin Gunton’s thought from multiple sources, we see some really practical outworkings of what the church is and should be and will be in the light of a robust doctrine of the Trinity.  Anizor writes, “Gunton’s relentless attempt to root the nature and calling of the church in the being and action of the triune God opens up a way for a more concrete and realistic perspective on the church than is common, while offering a potentially more fruitful starting point for ecumenical dialogue regarding the nature of the church.”

“a more concrete and realistic perspective on the church than is common.”

We all know things could and should be better; some are disillusioned to the point of desertion; others remain but function in a spiritual wilderness akin to the effects of Ritalin; whilst yet many more recognise a “concrete and realistic perspective” is the only way to live in reality and eschew fantasy.

Thus Anizor opens with these words,

“Conflict in relationships is often rooted in inappropriate or unmet expectations. This commonplace wisdom regarding everyday relationships is no less true of one’s relationship to the church. Our conduct and feelings toward the church are governed largely by our expectations of what the church should be. These expectations, furthermore, are rooted in our understanding of the church’s nature. Ministers who weekly find themselves disappointed with the failings of their congregations would do well to attend to their understanding of what the church is. Laypeople who find themselves regularly frustrated with their community’s shortcomings are advised to do likewise. Disappointment (among other negative feelings) often flows from unrealistic expectations, which sometimes betray an unbalanced view of the church. Therefore, a healthy understanding of the nature of the church is of utmost practical import. Is the church the kingdom? If not, what is it? In what ways, if at all, is the church (and actual churches) a sign of the new Jerusalem? How can we theologically describe this imperfect reality we call the “church”? Colin Gunton provides one helpful response.”

The way forward is offered positively thus,

“First, we examine three related areas that contribute to a fuller understanding of the trinitarian heart of his ecclesiology: (1) the ontology of the church, (2) the place of pneumatology, and (3) the role of a proper Christology.  Then we provide a constructive appraisal. The hope here is that Gunton’s contribution might help free pastors, teachers, and congregants to live and serve in the church with a love and compassion rooted in realistic expectations of what the church is and will be.”

The essay really weaves a fantastic theological tapestry integrating the Pneumatological, Christological and Ecclesiological threads.  We need to know who this God is before we build on ecclesial foundations.  That is why I enjoyed the comments right at the end just before the conclusion, aimed at those pastors and lay people who are tempted to disillusionment at the ontology of the Church:

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An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

What follows is part of a wider response to various questions that theologian Rob Knowles has responded to.  Here, after writing a thorough response and critique of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, to which the opening of the article below refers, Rob proceeds to outline the actual biblical view(s) of what is associated with biblical notions of judgment and hell.

This debate suffers from the worst kinds of crappy-Christian polemics, historical amnesia and hermeneutical foreclosure, and dare I say, the real possibility that many Christians are going to be really cheesed off if God does indeed save everyone! Similarly, if God does or will save everyone, would that constitute what my brother refers to as ‘a pleasant hostage situation’?

If someone of the scholarly stature of A. C. Thiselton can confidently and unashamedly assert that within the Bible there exists three contradictory traditions, the interpreting community that is the Church had best sit up and pay proper theological attention!  At the very least, this would make an interesting discussion actually worth listening too, if our three traditions named in my title ever got into that pub!

Anyway, enjoy.  Cheers….

gbbf-glass

How could hell be just?
I have already said a lot on this question in my earlier theodicy on “the problem of evil”. There I offered a highly modified version of C.S. Lewis’s theodicy in his book, The Problem of Pain (see above). The theodicy went into some detail on the question of hell, and broadly rejected C.S. Lewis’ thinking on the matter in favour of A.C. Thiselton’s view, which we might call the “deliberate ambiguity” approach to hell. Lewis’s theodicy, in my view, was at its strongest in describing how, given that God had decided to create “persons” with (at least some measure of free will), then this was impossible without (a) some kind of neutral background – creation or “nature”, and (b) the possibility of us deciding to do wrong. These two factors explained 80% of the suffering in the world: that is, when it comes to the question: “why is there so much suffering in the world?” our answer is – roughly speaking – about 80% in agreement with the atheists. They say: there is no God; there is suffering; so humankind must have caused the suffering. We 80% agree that humankind must have caused the suffering – with the qualification that demonic influence on humanity also has to be accounted for.


The main exception to this was (c) what Lewis referred to as remedial suffering – suffering associated with God’s disciplining intervention into our lives, and with our going “cold turkey” on sins once we had decided to follow God – a “cold turkey” experience that Lewis, rightly, likened to crucifixion, since Paul speaks of the crucifixion of the sinful nature in the Christian.


In my view, though, Lewis’s theodicy was at its weakest in its depiction of God as being less than able to fully resolve the problem of human sin – as though the Almighty God was threatened by sin, and could only partially guarantee a partial salvation that heavily depended on our co-operation and works. The effect was to leave the reader exhausted, thinking that his or her works could be the deciding factor in his or her salvation.
To my mind, this view, whilst rightly stressing human responsibility, fails to present the biblical picture of God’s sovereignty. Yes, God is the crucified God, who suffers with us in weakness. And, for God as a man in Jesus Christ, nobody can under-estimate the suffering of the cross, and the difficulty God faced at that point, given the parameters that he had placed upon himself.

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The Great Illusion

illusionThe potential, indeed, for evil and for disaster is immeasurably extended [by the secular optimism of mankind].  The Christian will witness to this with a realism that measures both ‘the greatness and the wretchedness of man.’

self-confidence is still as deceiving and as dangerous as ever.  To base one’s hope, to ground one’s eschatology, in man and his perfectibility is the great illusion that prophets and reformers have known it to be.  It is always the end of God, rather than the ends of man, that provides the surety.

But this is no reason for depreciating the great secular hopes of twentieth-century humanity.  Indeed, The Christian with his awareness of what real, eternal, life is meant to be, must say even to modern man:  ‘Your hope is too small.’ And that may be the most effective way of saying: ‘Your God is too small.’

For at this point transcendence, the infinite horizon of life, encounters man in his strength and maturity and responsibility – in other words, in what the Bible speaks of as his call to ‘sonship,’ which is its figure not for childish dependence but for the freedom of adult manhood (see Galatians 4:1-7 and John 8:31-36).

Bishop John Robinson (1919-1983)