The difference between “ what would Jesus do” and “what IS Jesus doing”! You may be familiar with the popular fad that was revived in recent years that sought guidance for Christians in daily decisions by answering with WWJD. Like so many fads in Christianity, I always felt that though the intent was a sincere attempt to influence life’s decisions by reference to the historical Jesus, this version of what it means to be a disciple of Christ completely missed the heart of the Biblical Gospel.

In the last few days, I have been reading a book which confronts this misunderstanding in the American churches with a fresh exposition of the doctrine of the Ascension of Jesus. The book which was published in 2004 by Gerrit Scott Dawson, is entitled –

Jesus Ascended: the meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation“.

I read a lot and have considered myself a full-time student for over 50 years. It has been a long time since I have been as profoundly moved as I have in reading this book about the present life of Jesus of Nazareth now in His heavenly session as our King-Priest. The fact that I have been celebrating the Festival of the Ascension for over a week now was the preparation needed to be able to profit so much from this author and the mature understanding he has of this neglected part of the Biblical narrative. I would love to recommend this book to everyone but I won’t because of one principle that is a priority here at E4Unity and that is the recognition that each individual is unique and in no way would the many be able to profit in the same way I have from reading any book. In the area of what is called “spiritual formation” that means that real progress is made only when we are able to see these things for ourself, through the “eyes of faith”, and that means we must be patiently brought in life’s experiences to desiring such things as this present world can never give or satisfy our inner spirit with.

I want to leave you with some quotes from Dawson. He is an excellent writer and this book is very “reader friendly” in the sense that he tells you what his topic is, tells you how he is going to approach it, and even gives you upfront a short direction on “how to use this book”. I will tell you that he is a Presbyterian pastor and so he is thoroughly pastoral- that is he concerns himself in the end with the purpose of this doctrine in living here on planet earth, the life of Christ in heaven transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit as we learn to live, not in the flesh, but by faith in God’s abundant provision in His beloved Son Jesus.

He has included some of the rich comments from past teachers in the churches, both from the Patristic fathers as well as men like John Calvin,  Andrew Murray, and Lesslie Newbigin. He has a robust exposition of what the the Ascension of Christ has meant to the Church in the past as well as how it can be instrumental in reviving us in the challenge we are now facing in our own generation.

“We have such difficulty conceiving how, or even believing that, the body of Jesus went to heaven that we may want the doctrine to remain in obscurity” (p.3)

“In no way, then, did the ascension signal simply a return to business as usual between God and humanity. Rather, the ascension of Christ is a vital hinge on which turns the work of the Mediator, the incarnate Son, our Redeemer in all his offices.” (p.8)

“My premise is that the church- our local church and the churches of the west-needs to recover the meta-narrative of the gospel as a counter-story, indeed a better story to the one the world tells. . .one of those episodes, the ascension, has been sorely neglected in the church’s telling of the story. The silence. . .cuts us off from the present work of Christ in heaven and from the conclusion of the story. . .recovering a proper and robust doctrine of the ascension can reconnect us to a sense of our true citizenship in heaven and the implications of that identity for life in the world.”(p.25)

Dawson’s book is divided into three parts, and we haven’t even reached the second one yet. But I don’t want to impose on you so I will close for now with one more, this time, a quote from Andrew Murray. Murray has also been one of my favorite devotional writers for a long time. Dawson may be the first Presbyterian writer that I can think of among contemporary ones that utilizes the treasures in Murray so often and so freely. He says here, that ” the church can reclaim the fullness of its story, with spectacular results.” And then quotes Murray-

” Faith has in its foundation four great cornerstones on which the building rests- the Divinity of Christ, The Incarnation, the Atonement on the Cross, the Ascension to the Throne. The last is the most wonderful, the crown of all the rest, the perfect revelation of what God has made Christ (to be)for us. And so in the Christian life it is the most important, the glorious fruit of all that goes before.” (p.26)

In part two, one of the highlights for me was his discussion of Calvin’s interpretation of the Lord’s Supper as one of the means of grace directly connected with the ascension. We will have a great deal to come back to on another occasion. For now, we must get ready to celebrate once again another Festival: The Day of Pentecost.

The link to the book is the on-line edition where you can read most of it at Google.books.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God 

” IN the present world situation it is natural that mankind should long for some sort of real community, for humanity cannot be human without it. It is especially natural that Christians should reach out after that part of Christian doctrine which speaks of the true, God-given community, the Church of Jesus Christ… It is natural that men should ask with a greater eagerness than ever before such questions as these:
  • Is there in truth a family of God on earth to which I can belong, a place where all humankind can truly be at home?
  • If so, where is it to be found, what are its marks, and how is it related to, and distinguished from, the known communities of family, nation, and culture?
  • What are its boundaries, its structure, its terms of membership?
  • And how comes it that those who claim to be the spokesmen of that one holy fellowship are themselves at war with one another as to the fundamentals of its nature, and unable to agree to live together in unity and concord?

I think there is no more urgent theological task than to try to give them plain and credible answers.” (Household of God, 1953)

Household of God (1953)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

THE OPEN SECRET- Lesslie Newbigin

One of the most common metaphors used in the New Testament to describe  the relation of the church to the gospel is that of stewardship. The church, and especially those called to any kind of leadership in the church, are servants entrusted with that which is not their property but is the property of their LORD. (see Paul’s own recognition of such in  I CORINTHIANS 3:1-4:14)

That  which is entrusted is something of infinite worth as compared with the low estate of the servants in whose hands it is placed. They are but mud pots; but that which is entrusted to them is the supreme treasure (see 2 Cor.4:7). The treasure is nothing less than “the mysteries of God”, “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19), “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and…made known to all nations…to bring about the obedience of faith”(Rom.16:25-26). It is “the mystery of His will…to unite all things in Him”  (Eph.1:9-10).

It is the open secret of God’s purpose, through Christ, to bring all things to their true end in the glory of the triune God. It is open in that it is announced in the gospel that is preached to all nations; it is secret in that it is manifest only to the eyes of faith. It is entrusted to those whom God has given the gift of faith by which the weakness and foolishness of the cross is known as the power and wisdom of God. It is entrusted to them not for themselves but for all nations. It is Christ in them, the hope of glory.

peoples.jpg Excerpts From Geoffrey Wainwright’s, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford, 2000)

How might my generation’s fellow theologians benefit from attending to Lesslie Newbigin’s work? He has affected my theological life in many, surprising ways (an offhand comment inspired my formal study of Islam, which has transformed my appreciation of both it and Christianity!). Newbigin’s contributions are so many and so impressive that I could not do justice to more than a few here. Instead of even trying, I recount one basic contribution that drives my appreciation of the others. Before my exposure to Newbigin, I had a fairly typical attitude towards Christian denominationalism: First, that political differences between denominations are by and large adiaphora, no more relevant to Christian life than the differences between California’s and Nevada’s political structures are relevant to American citizenship. Second, that theological differences (defined of course in terms of “doctrine” rather than mere “polity”) between denominations necessitate a search for the One True Church and emigration to it (after all, God must have provided one for diligent seekers to find).

Many of my fellow evangelical Protestants at Fuller Seminary were engaged in similar quests for the ultimate denomination. Our role as enquirers was to study the traditions’ various polemics, in order to declare a winner of the ecclesiological debate. (The search was especially urgent for those on the ordination track. “Check out the Covenant Church,” I overheard one say to another. “They’ve got it all!”) Some found what they were searching for. One friend’s laborious search led him powerfully to the fundamentalistic Reformed tradition, then to a reformed Episcopalian splinter group, then finally into Eastern Orthodoxy, where he lives an entirely satisfied life in the priesthood. Others have never quite finished their quest, and remain unsatisfied with both their present location and their other denominational options. Still others have given up, concluding that there simply is no One True Church. For these the greatest temptations, both fatal to Christian theologians, are either to settle for ecclesiastical mediocrity or to give up on organized Christianity entirely. I myself switched allegiances many times in my heart. But unlike my Orthodox friend, I could never find a tradition with which I was entirely comfortable.

Newbigin’s ecclesiological vision, developed in The Household of God and elsewhere, saved me from my search for the One True Church, by offering me an alternative I had never considered. “The Holy Catholic Church has not ceased to exist, defaced and divided though it is by our sin,” he claims in The Reunion of the Church (113). However, like the Corinthian body, circumstances have divided the universal Church not into one true fellowship and many counterfeits, nor even one Church and other mere “ecclesial bodies” or “vestiges of the Church,” but into mutually compromised factions with continuing, legitimate ecclesiological claims on each other.

Schism does not annihilate God’s presence to the divided fellowships, for “God in His mercy has not allowed our sinful divisions to destroy the operations of His grace” (113). By deifying their divisions, the factions’ ecclesiological justifications even preserve their hard-won strengths. Yet schism does compromise God’s presence throughout the Church, for no denominational camp can live up to the full promise of the Church of Jesus Christ. So the factions’ ecclesiological justifications afflict their internal health and their external witness. Furthermore, as Newbigin brilliantly argues in The Household of God, they frustrate the very divisions they seek to justify, by revealing the Holy Spirit’s work in supposedly illegitimate rivals and pointing the factions beyond themselves and towards each other. My fellows and I were feeling the effects: Appreciation of the partly incompatible insights of more than one tradition, frustration at each tradition’s own inadequacy, and restlessness at the prospect of accepting the failings of any one of these as God’s will, when life together in Christ seems to promise so much more than the status quo.

My fellows and I had failed to understand that these flawed Christian fellowships were compromised not simply because of the positions they had taken, but in part because of the way they had taken up these positions against others. We took the parties for granted when they contended they were Johannine children of light and darkness, rather than childish Corinthians. We had bought into their common claim that one tradition could be entirely right, or even simply be fundamentally sound, apart from the resources of the others. This mistake led us either into the overrealized eschatology implicit in the various denominations’ claims to be the One True Church (even those of traditions that in other respects championed futurist eschatologies!), or to its abandonment for an utterly futurist eschatology where the current institutional fellowships of Christians would have only a weak relationship to the invisible Church of Christ (an easy move for those of us with strong premillennial heritages).

Newbigin’s diagnosis decisively refutes these false opposites. It resists the smug exclusivism of any one position — Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox), Magisterial Protestant, and “Pentecostal” (Free Church) — while simultaneously resisting both the facile inclusivism that simply adds all these traditions up into one pseudo-ecclesiological umbrella, and the convenient pluralism that considers each of them self-sufficient or essentially commensurate. After Newbigin, I have stopped searching for the One True Church, for he has helped me see that I already belong to it.

( to read more of Geoffrey Wainwright’s, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford, 2000), courtesy of post at TELFORD WORKS  site.
 

For an example of the kind of wisdom I search for, and sometimes find, see”THE TRUE CHURCH” by J.C.RYLE.  For a partial list of his many contributions to the mission of the true church, and why many of us respect him so highly, see LESSLIE NEWBIGIN.