I’m only just now finally reading this superb volume, and I am struck by several things. First, in all of my biblical studies classes, the focus has always been on historical critical interpretation. Citing theological sources, or biblical commentaries that were more than 20 10 years old was considered bad research. Newer was always better. I think this methodology feeds into the problem I identified in yesterday’s post that the modern age suffers from a self-centred historical amnesia in which we are the enlightened generation and we are the first and only to consider the “obscure” passages of Scripture and we read them, or “recover” them because no one else before us has, supposedly.
Second, in my context, very often the attitude is “all we need is the Bible and nothing else.” This then sidelines theological reflection and historical reflection, and we end up with an anemic theology of Scripture, one that forgets that the same Spirit who is the author and inspirer of Scripture is also the author and inspirer of the Church community. Reading Scripture should be an ecclesial and communal endeavour.
Third, what would it have looked like if in some of my biblical studies classes, the professor had included some sort of historical interpretation text so that students could see how Christians throughout the ages of read the Bible? Would I have been more likely to gravitate towards biblical studies rather than theology?
This is where this new volume comes in handy. Taylor and de Groot have gathered excerpts from thirty-five nineteenth century women who commented on eight women in the Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges. These excerpts are short enough, and have a good basic introduction to the life of the female interpreter, that a professor could easily create reflection exercises, group discussions, or student presentations, that integrate, rather than supplant, the main biblical text of an OT class, either on Joshua & Judges specifically, or an OT historical books class more generally.
My favourite section is Clara Balfour‘s reflection on Deborah. Here Balfour attempts to make sense of how a woman could be a leader in ancient Israel, looking at the text through the lens of a discussion of the nature of masculinity and femininity:
…It may be considered another proof of the essentially feminine character of Deborah, that Barak should have laid so much stress on her appearance among the children of Israel at that time. The human mind is far more affected by contrasts than similarities. Had Deborah been a fierce, stern, masculine woman, she would have aroused no enthusiasm, her character would have approximated too closely to their own — she would have ben a sort of second-rate man, instead of being as she was, “A perfect woman, nobly plann’d/To warn, to comfort, to command.” It was the presence of a thoughtful, spiritual, intellectual woman as a leader of the armed host, that awakened energy and strengthened hope… (pg. 70).
When I was in seminary, there was a theology professor who insisted on calling me “the feminist theologian.” At first I thought it was just a joke, but I eventually realized that he was serious. One day, as we were passing in the hall, he greeted me in his typical manner, and I turned, very politely, with a laugh in my voice, and replied, “Actually, I’m not a feminist theologian, I’m a theologian who just happens to be a woman!”
I tell this story because it is emblematic of how I understand my faith and my identity. My primary calling, before being a wife, a mother, a woman, a Canadian, a geek, etc., is that I am a Christian. Any other designation is simply a modifier or adjective that is secondary to my primary calling. It is an ordinary and yet extraordinary calling. It is ordinary in that to be a Christian is not based on works, social status, or culture, but is the identity of all those who profess faith in, and heed the call to follow, Christ. This ordinary calling is broadly equalizing, making distinctions and signifiers secondary, if not outright irrelevant, in light of the extraordinary work of the One after whom we are named, and in whom we are being moulded and fitted for glory.
It is from this context of experience and understanding that I came into my first semester of PhD studies and Marion Taylor’s course, “Reading Scripture through the Ages.” Throughout the semester, both through the weekly class gatherings and the course readings, I was struck by the ordinariness of the interpreters and their interpretative work, especially the female biblical interpreters. These women did not interpret Scripture primarily out of some sort of feminist agenda (whatever that means), but were first and foremost responding to the Divine Word. They were compelled to translate, interpret and share (be it teaching, preaching, or writing) because of their encounter with the revelation of God in Christ, because of their identities as disciples of Jesus, and because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit who is the author and sustainer of Scripture.
Through twelve weeks of reading entries from the Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters, I was introduced to women from diverse walks of life, across cultures, historical periods, life situations, and socio-economic statuses, who all published, preached, taught and interpreted Scripture. I read about women like Dhouda, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I, and Marguerite de Navarre, who came from families of wealth and/or political power and made use of their connections to find a platform for their interpretative work. There were women like Magdalena Beutler and Elizabeth Smith who lived in poverty, and women like Elizabeth Hands, who worked as a domestic servant. There were women like Catherine Booth and Mary Cornwallis, and Esther Copley, who were married to ministers; women like Briet Bjarnhjedinsdottir and Christine de Pizan who were widowed; and women like Hannah More, Elisabeth of Schönau, and Rebecca Jackson, who were single either because of choice or life circumstance.
What unites these ordinary women, regardless of denomination, is that they are all examples of the biblical image of the priesthood of all believers. They all demonstrated that the Holy Spirit calls Christians, regardless of other identity markers like gender, class, and culture, to respond to, wrestle with, and share the message of the Gospel as recorded in Scripture.
Take for example, Argula von Grumbach, who is probably my favourite female interpreter. She was compelled to speak out because she believed in the final authority of Scripture. She had no formal teaching, and even though she came from a noble class, she was title-rich but financially poor. She knew that 1 Timothy 2 says that women are to keep silent, but the calling of Christ in Matthew 10 to confess Christ, gave her the authority to speak, not from her position as a woman (noble or otherwise), but from her identity and calling as a Christian.
It is this calling that also drives both men and women, from different ages, cultures, and social positions, to wrestle with even the most difficult texts. The modern age suffers two problems when it comes to biblical interpretation. First, it suffers from a self-centred historical amnesia in which we are the enlightened generation and we are the first and only to consider the “obscure” passages of Scripture and we read them, or “recover” them because no one else before us has, supposedly. The second problem is that the modern age suffers from an exaggerated form of political correctness, in which only women can speak to texts about women, and only special interest groups can properly speak into, and claim authority over, difficult parts of Scripture.
In Reading the Bible with the Dead, we see how incorrect these two problems are. The reality of the Christian identity and the importance of Scripture drove interpreters and theologians to wrestle deeply with texts like the narratives of Hagar and Ishmael, Jephthath’s foolish vow and the death of his daughter, and Gomer and Hosea’s marriage. As well, there are the imprecatory Psalms, examples of “heroes of the faith” doing dishonourable and/or villainous things, and social/cultural practices that appear to no longer make sense in a 21st century context.
What characterizes all of this is wrestling. Because of their encounter with the revelation of God in Christ, because of their identities as disciples of Christ, and because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, who is the author and sustainer of Scripture, these interpreters throughout the history of the Church wrestled with, and tried to make sense of, the whole of Scripture, even the uncomfortable parts. Thompson argues that the difficult passages of Scripture “are actually made more accessible, not less, by consulting the commentators of our distant past.” In his discussion of the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Thompson argues that modern feminist readings of this text are not new and that they can actually be strengthened by “an awareness of how our forebears received and read the story.” This does not mean that the commentators of the past always interpreted Scripture perfectly. For example, Origen, in trying to make sense of Abraham’s polygamy, ends up over-allegorizing Hagar so that she becomes a “virtue of wisdom” and since “a man can never have too many virtues!,” Abraham’s polygamy is virtuous rather than problematic. The danger of over-allegorizing Hagar is not just a danger in the past, but modern feminist scholars also run the risk of over-reading Hagar, even if it is not done allegorically, to the point that she becomes something wholly distinct from the original narrative. By recognizing the ordinariness of interpretation in the past, we can learn to be aware of our own cultural and hermeneutical foibles, and to approach all interpretation with charity, patience and humility.
Related to this, it is also possible that the interpreters of the past may actually have a better experiential lens with which to read Scripture. We can see this in Origen who, though he badly mangles Hagar in an attempt to explain Abraham’s polygamy, offered a sensitive reading of Jephthah’s foolish vow, because he read it through the lens of being the son of a man martyred for his faith. This life situation allowed Origen to wrestle deeply with the apparent gaps or silences in the narrative, and he attempted to make sense of what appears to be a senseless death. For Origen, Thompson notes, martyrdom was a senseless act, but, while “the martyr’s crown may be visible only to faith…it is visible to faith.”
History judges the validity of interpretations. Some, like Augustine’s attempt to make sense of Jephthah’s daughter’s death by saying that Jephthah’s vow was okay because he was expecting his wife to be the first through the door to greet him, do not stand the test of time. But it does teach those of us in the 21st century that one day future interpreters will look at our attempts to interpret difficult passages and some of our explanations which we now consider cutting-edge, provocative, or the ultimate solution to the theological or exegetical problem, and may conclude that our interpretations are nothing more than curious footnotes to be dismissed as quaint, overly simplistic, or even too fringe.
Along with this, reading the ordinary interpretations from the past, warts and all, should help us to assess our motivations in interpreting. This is especially true for academic interpretation. In an age where funding, publishing contracts, and tenure are prized, and threaten to overwhelm the heart of the academic endeavour, it can be easy to chase after the interpretation, methodology, or critical engagement that will garner the most funds, land the largest book contract, or secure tenure. The scholar/interpreter then needs to ask: are their interpretation, exegesis, and theological reflections guided by a hermeneutic of provocation, or are they guided by a hermeneutic of faithfulness? By reading the interpretations of ordinary Christians throughout the ages, there is an ever-present reminder that a Christian’s work, be it in academia, in the pulpit, or in the ordinary everyday living out of the faith, is done in and for the Church. The “Church” is more than just a gathering of people in this specific age, culture, and life situation, but also includes the gathering of “saints” from across generations, cultures and life experiences.
This is not to say that there should not be innovation in interpretative frameworks, or that there should not be “fresh” readings of texts. There should be, but these innovations cannot be done apart from the legacy of 2,000 years of Christian interpretation, because the Holy Spirit, who is the author and sustainer of Scripture, is also the author and sustainer of the Church.
On the first class, Professor Taylor quipped, “you can have dead mentors.” And as much as I like theological giants like Karl Barth, I find myself wishing I could devote more time and research to highlighting some of the ordinary voices that have been lost in the currents of history. There is something inherently ecclesial in recovering those ordinary voices which have been neglected not because of faulty or heretical interpretations, but simply because of the progress and sweep of history. This ecclesial listening and researching is a holy work that not only benefits the current age of Christianity, but builds up the whole body of past, present, and future ordinary saints.
 Copley is interesting because it appears that she ghost-wrote many of her husband’s sermons when he was inebriated. See, “Esther Beuzeville Hewlett Copley,” 139.
 Jackson was married when she received the call to celibacy. See, “Rebecca Cox Jackson,” 284.
 see her letter to the University of Ingoldstadt in Peter Matheson, Argula von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).
 I wonder if part of this can be traced to an overall decline in biblical literacy both in the broader culture and in the church, where people are not being exposed regularly to the whole of Scripture, but are instead exposed to a pericope approach to Scripture, where only snippets of Scripture are taught.
 John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007).
In chapter four of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge sets out a theology of sin that is focused primarily on Sin as a power, rather than sin(s) as misdeeds. This is not to say that sin(s) as misdeeds is irrelevant or unimportant, rather Rutledge argues that there is a specific relationship between the two, in which Sin as a power is the cause and sins as misdeeds are the consequences. In other words, Sin is “an active malevolent agency bent upon…the utter undoing of God’s purposes” and sins are “signs of that agency at work; they are not the thing itself.” Sin has two aspects: it is a “responsible guilt” and an “alien power.” These two aspects require atonement and liberation, respectively. These two aspects of Sin parallel Rutledge’s overall thesis of the book, in which she proposes a two-part approach to understanding the crucifixion: the death of Christ is both “God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin” and “God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death.”
According to Rutledge, any discussion of Sin (and sins) can be done only in the light of an awareness of God’s prevenient grace. This grace “precedes our consciousness of sin, so that we perceive the depth of our own participation in Sin’s bondage simultaneously with the recognition of the unconditional love of Christ, which is perfect freedom.” Rutledge demonstrates this by analysing Psalm 51. In this penitential Psalm, she notes that there is a definitive “relationship between understanding sin and knowing God.” In other words, “sin can be understood only from the vantage point provided by God.” The Psalmist’s confession of sin and cry for forgiveness stems from a relationship and knowledge of God and his laws.
Next, Rutledge surveys the New Testament and lays out the biblical texts that speak of the relationship between Christ’s death and Sin. She sees several prominent themes. First, there is an emphasis on the forgiveness of sins and the overcoming of Sin. Second, there is an emphasis on Sin as a Power, particularly in Paul where Sin is both a verb and a dominion. This then has implications for a robust doctrine (and practice) of repentance; so much so, that repentance functions significantly differently in the Christian tradition than in the 2nd Temple Jewish tradition that Paul inhabited. According to Rutledge’s reading of the Pauline texts, repentance is not the first action to secure forgiveness of sins. Instead repentance is the response to God’s first action. In other words, “for Paul, the sequence is not sin-repentance-grace-forgiveness, but grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace.”
Rutledge emphasizes that there is nothing inherent in the human condition that can make the reality of Sin disappear; not sentimental approaches to the atonement, and not overly optimistic understandings of human progress. Nothing that humans do can overcome the gravity of Sin because it is more than just misdeeds; it is a Power that rules over all of humanity. It is from this Power that God has liberated humanity, through the atonement by Christ on the cross, and it is in light of this first act of grace that the gravity of Sin is realized, and that “the people of God go to their knees to acknowledge their need for a deliverance from Sin that they have already received.”
There are two practical applications for the life of the church that we can extrapolate from Rutledge’s understanding of the gravity of Sin in light of God’s prevenient grace. First, attempts to tell society that it is sinful, or to preach a ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’ type of message is not necessarily going to work in a post-Christian society that has either a poor concept or no concept of sin. Rutledge argues that the predominant North American model of convincing people of their sins so that they will come to Jesus is backwards. It is only in light of the message of salvation that “the sense of sin will come as a consequence” and it is only then that “the knowledge that the danger [of Sin] is already past will result in profound and sincere repentance.” This has implications not only for preaching (preachers are one her key audiences in this volume), but also for evangelism and discipleship. So, adapting and translating Rutledge’s examples into a Canadian context, practices like the evangelical tent/church revival meetings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flame”  dramatic presentations of the late 20th century, for example, only worked because the culture at the time was culturally Christian at least in worldview or culture, though not necessarily in practice. The preacher, then, is to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, including the forgiveness of sins, and it is from and through that proclamation that the hearer may be convicted, by the Holy Spirit, of both the great mercy of God and then of the grave reality of their sin. In other words, sin is not the starting point; God’s abundant love, mercy and grace is.
Changing the starting point does not mean that the language and theology of sin should be eliminated from Christian discourse, because the second practical application that can be extrapolated from Rutledge’s chapter is the need for a robust practice of confession of sin. This practice is done by Christians who stand in the light of this prevenient grace, and is itself a form not only of discipleship, but also of witness and evangelism. By regularly confessing and acknowledging sin, praying for forgiveness and mercy, and hearing the words of absolution, the Christian community is testifying to the work of Christ, and to the prevenient grace of God’s justice and mercy. As Rutledge notes in her conclusion, confession is the sign, rather than the cause of God’s reconciling work with humanity.
Throughout this book, Rutledge critiques contemporary Episcopalian liturgies which have omitted or glossed over key biblical and theological statements concerning the doctrine of the atonement. In this chapter, Rutledge laments the omission of the classic phrase “there is no health in us” because it was through this form of the General Confession that the Church was able “to teach that sin is not individual transgressions, but a universal malady.” In confessing our corporate sins, Christians are evangelizing and testifying to the world to show how deficient modern North American conceptions of Sin (and sins) can be. This same critique can be applied to the Book of Alternative Services in the Canadian Anglican context. Like the American Book of Common Prayer, the BAS downplays the language of sin. In the service of Morning Prayer, for example, the Penitential Rite is entirely optional, and when it is used, it does not contain the General Confession (including the line “there is no health in us) from the original BCP. Instead, the confession of sin emphasizes sin as misdeeds with no reference to Sin as a universal malady or a Power.
This robust practice of confession of Sin (and sins) can also be strengthened by the observance of Lent. While Lent is an ancient Christian practice, it has only been in the last twenty-five years that low churches (particularly evangelical) have embraced this portion of the church year. The rhythm of forty days set aside prior to Easter, allows the Christian community to not only acknowledge the Power of Sin and Death (starting with Ash Wednesday’s declaration of death’s inevitability), but also to learn more deeply how to pray, how to repent, and to better understand the gravity of Sin. It is in this context, then, as a form of discipleship, that the pastors and leaders of the church can move between proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel and teaching about the pervasive destruction of Sin in such a way that calls the gathered Christians to confess, repent and respond to God’s gracious act of Jesus’ atoning and liberating work on the cross.
This chapter (and the entire book) serves as a good introduction, that pastors, preachers, and teachers can use as a way to frame sermon series, Bible studies, and introductory theology classes on the doctrine of sin and salvation in a way that is both faithful to the biblical and theological witness and accessible and applicable for a church serving and living in a 21st-century post-Christian culture.
Rutledge’s chapter, “The Gravity of Sin” serves as a helpful reminder to the preacher of how and why to preach the Gospel. It serves as a helpful reminder to theologians that any theological and philosophical analysis of the doctrine of sin can only occur in light of the Gospel which illuminates, identifies, and names our sins. Finally, this chapter serves as a reminder to the church that there is no way to escape either the universal human question of justice (the topic of chapter three), nor the centrality of Christ’s death and the myriad of biblical motifs used to explain and describe the atoning and liberating work of the cross (chapters five thru twelve) because Sin rules and defines human existence apart from Jesus Christ.
 Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 168.
 Ibid., 175.
 Ibid., 181.
 Ibid., 209.
 Ibid., 171.
 Ibid., 183. Emphasis in the original.
 This emphasis on the necessity of a relationship and revelation of God’s grace prior to understanding sin was a completely new idea for me. But looking back at my conversion experience, it does appear to fit Rutledge’s ordering. It was a full year of encounters with Christians and the Bible before my conversion, and it was only after I had personally encountered Christ in an act of mercy (literally, a miracle), that I could surrender and confess my sins and my utter and complete need for salvation and forgiveness.
 Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 189.
 For example, Rutledge discusses the difference between the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the Christian understanding of atonement that takes place in Christ’s crucifixion. Ibid., 171–172.
 Ibid., 192.
 Ibid., 195–197.
 Ibid., 197–200.
 Ibid., 202.
 Ibid., 204. Emphasis original.
 Ibid., 173.
 I am not dismissing the “Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flame” drama productions outright. It was through one of these at a Pentecostal church twenty years ago that I came to faith in Christ.
 Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 204.
 Ibid., 194.
 See for example, Rutledge’s humorous example of the “Sindex.” Ibid., 193.
 “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
 This is due in large part to the work of Robert Webber. See, for example, Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999).
SCENE: 11pm. Amanda has changed into her pyjamas, turned out the lights, and has snuggled under the covers. Her eyes close and she looks forward to drifting off to sleep.
Manda’s Brain: Conway’s ameliorative punishment is significant because x, y, z. And its influence can be seen in a, b, c.
*Manda’s brain continues to recite an entire paragraph that would be perfect for Amanda’s paper.*
Amanda: Grrr. Really?! Now?
*Amanda rolls over and tucks the cover up over her head.*
*Manda’s brain begins to formulate the next paragraph.*
*Amanda throws off the covers and fumbles for the light switch, and with squinting eyes, opens up her laptop. Type, type, type.*
Amanda: There. Done. Now I can go to bed.
*Amanda shuts the laptop, turns off the light, and crawls back into bed.*
Manda’s Brain: You know, while we’re at it, here’s a beautiful paragraph for that other paper you’re writing.
Amanda: No. I’m going to bed. It is time to sleep. Be quiet.
Manda’s Brain: But this is really good.
Amanda: I don’t care.
Manda’s Brain: Yes you do care.
Amanda: Fine. I care. I’ll care more in the morning.
Manda’s Brain: No you won’t.
Amanda: Yes I will.
Manda’s Brain: You know that abyss in “Inside Out” where thoughts and memories are annihilated?
Manda’s Brain: That’s where I’ll punt this beautiful paragraph if you don’t get up right now and write it down.
Amanda: You wouldn’t do that. You’ll file it away, nice and safe, and I’ll remember it in the morning.
Manda’s Brain: Oh, I would so totally do it. You’ll be asleep. You won’t be able to stop me.
Amanda: I don’t care. I’ll come up with an even better idea tomorrow.
Manda’s Brain: Are you sure about that? Where did I put that writer’s block?
*Manda’s brain begins softly whistling.*
Amanda: You wouldn’t.
Manda’s Brain: Tomorrow’s your writing day, right? No classes. Just writing. You have big plans to get lots accomplished.
Amanda: You wouldn’t sabotage that! There’s only two weeks left in the semester!
Manda’s Brain: Found the writer’s block, now to set an alarm so that it activates at 8am and lasts til…oh I don’t know, how’s 24 hours?
Amanda: NO!!!! Fine. I’ll get up and write it down.
*Grumpily, Amanda throws off the covers, fumbles for the light switch and opens her laptop.*
Amanda: You know, I really hate you sometimes.
Manda’s Brain: You know you love me.
Amanda: Okay, what was the paragraph again?
Manda’s Brain: …oh wait…um…
Manda’s Brain: Hang on…I’ve got it…Oh right. Here we go!
*Amanda types out the paragraph, hits save, and shuts the laptop.*
Amanda: Are we done? Can I go to sleep now?
Manda’s Brain: Yup. All done.
Amanda: Are you sure? If I climb into bed, close my eyes and you start jabbering again, I’m going to ignore it. I don’t care if the idea ends up in the abyss of forgotten ideas to be annihilated.
Manda’s Brain: I’m sure. Go to sleep. I’ll be fine.
*Amanda turns off the light, climbs into bed, pulls the covers over her head and closes her eyes.*
Manda’s Brain: Hey Amanda.
Manda’s Brain: Do you worry about what people would think about this?
Amanda: You mean, do I worry about what people may think about the fact that I have internal arguments with myself?
Manda’s Brain: Yeah. What would your husband, the psychologist, say?
Amanda: *laughing* Are you kidding? We’re completely normal compared to him. At least this conversation is happening internally. When he’s in writing mode he paces back and forth and has the argument out loud. We’ve got nothing to worry about. Good night Manda’s Brain, I love you.
10. They’re boring. They don’t talk about anything interesting. Ever. And they are polite and never ever disagree with each other.
9. People were baptized naked. Yup. Naked. Oh my victorian/evangelical sensibilities!
8. What do you mean there were women in leadership in the early church?! Church Mothers? Desert Mothers? Everyone knows that the only biblical model for women is one where the woman is at home in high heels and has supper in the oven.
7. We may have our view of communion challenged. What do you mean they celebrated communion weekly? Everybody knows you should only celebrate it monthly otherwise it becomes stale and rote.
6. The Reformers read the Church Fathers and look at how badly that turned out for Christianity.
5. They wrote in Greek (which is too hard to learn) and Latin (which is a dead language).
4. If we read the Patristics we may come to find that the heroes weren’t always noble and honourable and the villains (heretics) weren’t always the bad guys.
3. Everyone knows that “communion of saints” only refers to this current generation.
2. Their issues are in no way our issues today. All of our issues theological and ecclesiological are brand new and have never been experienced by any other generation of Christians.
1. Karl Barth was heavily influenced by the Church Fathers and everyone knows that if Barth liked it it must be wrong!
When I was in seminary, my professor had us read James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom as part of our course on Spiritual Formation. This book, as I have posted previously, would have a profound influence not only on my personal faith journey but also on my hesitant and wobbly first steps into college teaching. But just because I found it incredibly insightful (or may I say “thick”?), many of the students struggled with the book, and asked questions like:
Why read this?
Is this just an attempt to convert us to Anglicanism?
Why isn’t it more practical?
What is the relevance of endless conversations about liturgy for low-church evangelicals?
What does this have to do with the nuts and bolts of life in the trenches of every day pastoral ministry?
This week I have been privileged to sit in a three-day conference devoted to exploring the practical outworking, as we considered the question: what does this discussion of thick practices, secular vs. cultural liturgies, and humans being primarily creatures of worship and creatures of desire, mean for Christian formation in our churches?
Together with people from a variety of academic, pastoral and lay backgrounds, we gathered at Tyndale University College for the Desiring the Kingdom conference. James K.A. Smith led us through a variety of plenary sessions where he explained his premise in non-academic, accessible language. And we had a variety of breakout workshops that attempted to look at the practical implications and methods of incorporating these ideas about human flourishing and formation into the various ministries.
We have people working with children’s ministry; youth ministry; catechesis; seniors’ ministry; worship; and intercessory ministries.
We had lifelong Anglicans who are asking what role does the Book of Common Prayer have in the 21st century, especially in reaching disenfranchised cradle Anglicans who have walked away from the church and want nothing to do with what they perceive to be “lifeless, repetitive, empty and rote” liturgy.
We had evangelicals, both on and off the Canterbury trail, who are drawn to the richness of liturgy but who are unsure how to incorporate it and/or prevent it from becoming “lifeless, repetitive, empty and rote.”
We had teachers and pastors who are trying to figure out how to teach the faith to unchurched or dechurched people (and let’s face it, even most of the Christians in our pews are more like dechurched people given how little Scripture and theology they know).
We had people from dioceses where there hasn’t been active, intentional children’s ministry in their churches for years and now they are ill-equipped to teach children the Gospel.
We had people who are raising children and have thought that it was primarily the church’s job to teach their kids about Christianity, and have no resources for beginning to incorporate formation and teaching in their homes.
And I’m participating as both a PhD student, with an eye to how this applies to an educational context, and as a layperson (training to become a licensed lay reader), wanting to serve my church in the areas of catechesis and worship.
The message, the examples, and the strategies that have been offered in this gathering of Christians boil down to this: Christianity has something to offer to a broken and hurting world. It may not be flashy. It may not be “relevant” in the way that culture shallowly defines it. It may not be pretty. It may not be easy. But, the practices of Christian formation, of gospeling, of praying, of gathering as a community to worship, of practicing hospitality, of reading Scripture, of discipleship and teaching, offer a vision of the world and of humanity that the world is desperately seeking.
And, there are people, brothers and sisters in Christ, who are willing to serve, to minister, and to lean into these thick practices so as to participate with the Holy Spirit in pulling back the curtain and allowing the world to glimpse the amazing event of God revealed in Christ.
If you’d like to a peek at some of the discussions, check out #DesKingdomConf.
I received word that I got into my top two choices for PhD programs. After much prayer and discussion I have accepted the offer of admission to the conjoint PhD program in Theological Studies at Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto. In my admissions research proposal, I expressed my desire to continue my research on Karl Barth, specifically looking at his lectures on the Gospel of John (In my MA thesis I looked at Barth’s exegesis of John 1:14 and compared his original exegesis in these early lectures to three places in the Church Dogmatics where he once again exegetes this foundational verse that gives shape to his entire Christological method). As a result of that proposal, my PhD supervisor will be Dr. Joseph Mangina. I am excited and thankful for this opportunity. It’s going to be an interesting season of life as I embark on this new adventure.
Prayers would be appreciated as plans and preparations begin. As well, pray that I may get adequate funding. I received a scholarship that will cover my tuition but I still need to fund my living expenses (dorm, meal plan, flights back to Saskatchewan, etc.)
The following is adapted from a paper I gave at a colloquium last spring entitled: Towards a Theology of Rest: Using the Language of Sacrament and Ordinance to Understand the Christian Practice of Rest. See also my earlier post: Enforcing Rest?
We live in a culture of busyness. Sometimes this busyness is constructed by the program-oriented ministries of the church, with families having some sort of church activity and obligation (kid’s club, Bible study, worship practice, not to mention Sunday worship) three or more days a week. Sometimes this busyness is constructed by life outside of church, and pastors have to recognize that very often families are too busy with work, extra-curricular activities and family obligations to participate in all (or even just one) of the activities in the life of the church. Congregations, eager to keep people plugged into the life of the church, have adjusted to the reality that Sunday morning services are competing with Sunday morning soccer practices in the summer and Sunday morning hockey games in the winter, and have begun to offer mid-week church services for those who are too busy on the weekend to spend an hour or two in corporate worship.
How does rest fit into this life of busyness? More specifically, why do we practice rest? Often, the primary answer is the pragmatic answer: because it is good for us. Rest is often framed within an individualistic context in the Christian literature; though couched in Scripture proof-texts, the thesis is still the same: practising rest is good for me, therefore I will rest. And of course, there are plenty of resources for Christians on how to practice rest, with suggestions and strategies for even the busiest of people.
But what if, in trying to address the necessity of practicing rest, and in exploring the reason why we rest, the theological answer is not framed around us and how it benefits us, but around God and how rest is his work, into which he invites us to participate?
I want to suggest that rest is more than a commandment or ordinance to follow; rest is sacramental. The activity of rest becomes an outward sign of inward grace that points us not only to our present rest that we find in Christ, but also forward to the future rest that is promised in the eschaton. It is the tension between the present reality of rest and the eschatological one, between the “now and not yet,” that Christians testify to, participate in, and give thanks for, in their regular practice of rest. Rest is a practice that pulls back the curtain of the heavens and reveals the reality of how and why God is at work in the world.
“Sacraments are material things that point beyond themselves to their creator. They are windows into divine reality.” All of creation can be sacramental, as the material world points to and gives hints to the mystery that is behind it. To think sacramentally is to understand that creation, created things, and physical practices (like the Lord’s Supper or Baptism), point to something larger than themselves. To think sacramentally is to acknowledge that God’s working in creation is mysterious and that humanity “cannot fathom how [sacraments] work or trace the lines form physical element to spiritual power and action.”
The physical practice of rest, in which Christians participate, points to the mystery behind the practical: that God created rest, not as negation of work, but rather as the fulfillment of work. Just as God resting on the seventh day of creation was a sign that God was satisfied with His creation, so too the Christian practice of rest is a sign that we acknowledge that Christ’s work was and is sufficient. God’s salvific work of sending Jesus is more than sufficient, it is also good, and there is nothing that we, as humans, can do, through working or striving, to improve it.
The practice of rest, the visible action of spending time in ceasing to work, points to the promises found in Scripture. In God’s instituting Sabbath at the creation of the nation of Israel, the practice of rest became a visible sign to remind the people that God had indeed delivered them from bondage in Egypt. Entering the Promised Land became a powerful promise and image of rest that God would bestow on Israel, historically, soteriologically and eschatologically. This rest was not an abstract, impersonal reality, instead, it is His rest, given by and owned entirely by God Himself.
It is also important to note that just as sacraments not only have a vertical dimension, but also horizontal dimension, so to the practice of rest is not solely about reconnecting the believer with God, but also about the reconnection of the believer with other humans. The day of rest has built into it a chance not only for Christians to gather in worship, but also for families to spend time together in a way that does not happen during the busyness of the rest of the week. In the Old Testament, Sabbath days, Sabbath years (e.g., the Year of Jubilee) and Sabbath feasts were communal practices, drawing the nation of Israel together to celebrate the goodness of God, and to practice hospitality, to acknowledge and allow the land to lay fallow, and for debts (and indentured persons) to be forgiven (Leviticus 25).
 Leonard Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 17.
 Vander Zee, 54.
 Pipa, 121.
 Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
 Kaiser, 138.
 Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 4:3.
 Hebrews 4:11.
 White notes that sacraments are inherently communal in nature, and “overcome corrosive individualism,” James White, The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 28.
“Jesus Christ was a man of the Spirit.” ~Clark Pinnock
We see the Spirit at work in Jesus’ life right from the beginning, “While Mary was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18).
We see the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism, marking the beginning of his earthly ministry (Matt 3:16). Immediately, after His baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit to the wilderness where he will face temptations from the Devil. Luke records that Jesus returned from the desert in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14), and upon going into the Temple, Jesus reads the words of the prophet Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and Jesus’ ministry includes mighty works through the power of the Spirit (e.g., Matthew 12:28).
While there is no direct reference to the Spirit at the Transfiguration, Eastern Orthodox theology suggests that the cloud that enveloped Jesus and his disciples on the mountain was the Spirit.
The Gospels make no mention of the Spirit at the crucifixion of Jesus, but the author of Hebrews says “by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins” (Hebrews 9:14).
Likewise, Paul sees the Spirit at work in Christ’s resurrection (Romans 1:4; 8:11), and the ascension of Christ is followed ten days later by a massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
If the goal of spiritual formation is to shape us in the image of Christ, then it would follow that we should look to Jesus for an example of a Spirit-filled life. And yet, as I map out a theology of spiritual formation, I am struck by the tendency to downplay the role of the Spirit in the Christian disciplines, even though Jesus’ life and work was and is so intricately connected with the work of the Holy Spirit.
Thus it is vital that any theology of the Christian life takes into account the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the process of spiritual formation.
That being said, there is still a distinction to be made: Jesus is the Messiah and we are not. Therefore, while Jesus’ life is paradigmatic for us, it is also something completely other. The Holy Spirit, working in our lives, helps us to become Christ-like but in no way will the empowering of the Spirit make us Messiah.
The Holy Spirit works in and through our spiritual disciplines, illuminating them. And so, even when it feels like our practices of prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, etc… are a chore, we should remember that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through those practices, sanctifying us so that we may be united with Christ.
JI Packer says it best: “The way to benefit from the Spirit’s ministry of illumination is by serious Bible study, serious prayer, and serious response in obedience to the truths that we have been shown already.”
This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a dire preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8)
Should “rest” be mandatory? The Ten Commandments include an exhortation to keep the 7th day holy, not only through an act of worship, but also through the act of ceasing (Exodus 20:8-11). Throughout history there have been repeated examples of laws and rules being created to ensure that the day of rest is observed. For example:
Pharisees – They were so focused on keeping God’s Law that they had created layers upon layers of rules of what exactly could and could not be done on the Sabbath, rules that were not originally part of God’s institution of Sabbath in the OT.
Synod of Elvira (Spain -306) – specific prohibitions about the day of rest that were grouped in 5 categories: no working the land, no judicial acts or public assembly, travel restrictions, no sales of goods, no hunting.
Council of Laodicea (363) – outlined expectations of Christians regarding the observance of the Sabbath. Even though Christians were to observe the Lord’s Day, it was not necessary for them to rest on the Lord’s Day. Instead, the council offered instructions focusing on which day (Saturday or Sunday) should be set aside for worship but rest was “only for those who are able to do so.”
Council of Macon (585) – all local businesses (not just Christian businesses) must be closed on the Lord’s Day to observe rest.
Ireland (9th century) – no writing, haircuts, bathing, baking or housecleaning on Sundays.
Reformation – For a brief time in England, Protestant churches specifically allowed and encouraged their congregations to work, so as to rebel against the edict by the Roman Catholic Church that outlawed work on Sunday.
20th Century– Even Canada had rules in place banning stores from being open on Sunday in observance of the Lord’s Day, whether they were Christian or not. (Ontario abolished the Sunday shopping ban in 1992)
And while some (many?) of the rules noted above seem legalistic and even downright absurd, I wonder if the 21st century church, in its attempt to be relevant to a 24 hour/7 day a week culture, could learn from this. Not in a “let’s tell society that they must rest” kind of way, but in a “how can we as Christians practice rest in such a way that is a witness and light to a culture that is “on” all the time?” kind of way.
Of course, it would be helpful to define “rest” which I will do in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!