Friday, November 24, 2006

Personal Journey 5

The weeks pass very quickly don't they? This Sunday, we have a major event in the life of my Church. In the liturgical calendar, this Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. It is our patronal festival when we celebrate the founding of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong in 1933. Our Bishop will be coming and we will have a confirmation service. Afterwards, everyone is invited back here to the Vicarage for lunch. It is a bit of an invasion, but great fun. One little worry is that it is meant to be the dry season now, but this week we have been having heavy rain. We are hoping it stays off now, not only so it is dry on Sunday, but so the ground can dry out. We use the garden so we can accommodate everyone! Think of us, and I will let you know how it all went on Monday. Today's post continues where the last one left off.

Personal Journey 5

For my first year at LBC, it was all about settling in and my Christian life continued much as before. The combination of academic study and training for ministry was everything I wanted it to be. For church on Sundays, in the morning I used to go to a local evangelical Anglican Church, Emmanuel, whose Vicar was Richard Bewes and then in the evening to a charismatic Baptist Church called Gold Hill, whose Pastor was Jim Graham. During the holidays, I went home and continued to be part of the Youth Fellowship and St Andrew’s. It was in so many ways perfect. During the second year, however, the implication of what I was studying and learning began to press itself on me. It was to have massive implications for my future.

Study of the Bible was central to life at LBC. For someone from an evangelical background, where the meaning of the Bible is primarily about what it means for ‘me now’, studying what it originally meant ‘for them then’ can be harder than it might at first seem. While it should be obvious that the meaning of the Bible today is in some way connected to the meaning it had when it was first written, it was not so obvious to many evangelical Christians at the time and it still isn’t today. Even here in my own church, which is not especially evangelical, whenever I take time to try to explain what a Bible passage originally meant, people say: ‘never mind all that theology, tell us what it means now’.

It was at first hard and, indeed, shocking for me to be brought face to face with what was the real nature of the Bible. It needed a complete reorientation in the way I looked at the Bible and approached it, but I was willing to try. Having learnt that I needed to listen to the Bible on its own terms, I was, at first, shocked to hear what it seemed to be saying.

It was while looking at the background to the New Testament and to the Gospels, in particular, that I had the biggest shock. To put it in simplistic terms, we were encouraged to see the difference between a Greek way of looking at the Bible and a Hebrew way. As G E Ladd put it in a standard textbook at the time, to see the difference between a cosmological dualism and an eschatological dualism. Cosmological dualism distinguishes between the material and the spiritual. It sees the spritual as good and the material world as fundamentally bad. The physical is either evil or unimportant. Consequently, to be spiritual means to reject the things of this world. Eschatological dualism does not see the material and physical as evil, but it does recognize that material things may need to be sacrificed for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Cosmological dualism is unbiblical, eschatological dualism is not.

I wrote in a previous post that this dualism was the achilles heal of all that I believed after becoming a Christian. And so it was. I had been steeped in a cosmological dualism as, indeed, had many evangelicals. The material was the enemy of the spiritual. The Christian life involved a rejection of that which was worldly. The Christian's ultimate hope was to go to heaven when we died. When we did our soul would be freed from the prison of the body. I am sure many of you will recognize all this, even if it is less common today than it was then.

Studying the Gospels brought me face to face with the fact that Jesus would have been considered worldly by Christians like myself. He drank, went to parties, hung around with a certain type of woman, and seemed to enjoy himself. He had a reputation for being a drunkard and a glutton, not a reputation evangelicals cared for in those days!

Furthermore, the Bible itself seemed far more positive about creation than I was. The ‘earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. When God created the world he looked at it and ‘behold it was good’. ‘God’, said Paul, ‘had given us all things freely to enjoy’. Enjoying physical things was a new concept. I could go on, but I imagine you get the idea.

Tom Wright has said that he realized he himself was a dualist when he wrote a commentary on Colossians and it was this that changed him. For me, it was studying Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Whatever, the more I thought about it, and studied the Bible, the more I realised I was a dualist and that this was incompatible with the Bible.

On a theoretical level, I remember acknowledging this when it was my turn to take Chapel at LBC one morning. I chose the hymn: ‘Jesus is Lord creation’s voice proclaims it!’ If creation proclaims the Lordship of Christ, how can it be evil? On a practical level, I acknowledged it while taking part in the Holiday Club that the Youth Fellowship organized each year. To relax in a free moment, I and a couple of others went to the pub. This was a highly symbolic act and the end of an era.

What did I feel, liberation? Yes, at one level, I did. The evangelical culture I was used to was suffocating and life-denying. It was wonderful to be allowed to enjoy material things and all with a clean conscience. But there was a loss as well. It is a loss I still feel to this day as it meant, psychologically, a break with the culture and theology that had previously been so important to me. And, if I had been wrong in this area, what other areas had I been mistaken in as well?

This question was answered by my study in church history and historical theology. I had arrived at LBC thoroughly grounded in the evangelical myth of church history. This myth went something like this. The early church of the New Testament was the pure church. After the death of the apostles, the Church fell from the heights of the New Testament, reaching an all time low under the papacy during the middle ages. It was only with the reformation that true doctrine was rediscovered and the light of the Gospel again began to shine. Roman Catholics weren’t Christians, neither were those in the churches who did not subscribe to the reformation doctrines, doctrines such as justification by faith, for example. For those who think this is narrow-minded and extreme, remember that most Roman Catholics thought that Protestants were going to burn in the fires of hell and that Roman Catholics still will not allow non-Roman Catholics to share in communion. Extremism was, and is, not only on one side.

Studying Church history, and Tony Lane was a brilliant teacher, it became obvious that this version of church history was unsustainable in every way. The Holy Spirit had not departed from the Church either in AD70 with the fall of Jerusalem, nor in AD325 with the conversion of Constantine, nor in AD476 with the fall of the Roman Empire. What was more Vatican II had demonstrated that the Roman Catholic Church was itself changing and opening up to new ideas. The Holy Spirit was apparently at work here as well. What is more, while there was much that was good about the reformation, there had been much that was lost. I came to the belief, a belief I still hold, that the split in the Church that was the result of the reformation was a tragedy that protestants should have done more to prevent and, after it had happened, to heal.

As both an evangelical and a charismatic, this was all deeply disturbing. Evangelicals were extremely suspicious of anyone who was not an evangelical. Charismatics were extremely suspicious of the traditional churches who, we believed, had suppressed the Holy Spirit. If the Church from the end of the New Testament period to the time of the reformation had been a true church, and if the Holy Spirit had been active in all the churches, including the Roman Catholic, then where did that leave some of the most cherished evangelical and charismatic beliefs?

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