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Why I Don’t Believe in Time Travel – a Christian historiography

Have you seen the movie, Interstellar? I had the chance to see it in our local theater the other day and really enjoyed the movie. Christopher Nolan has done a great thing for cinema over the past several years, reintroducing textures of live action and set design alongside wonderful cinematography. Interstellar is no different, though one gets the feeling it is Nolan’s take on 2001: A Space Odyssey in some ways.

Part of the movie (and I’m attempting not to reveal anything in its conclusion) has to with the theory of relativity and, specifically, the nature of time. In watching the movie, the plight of humanity serves only as a backdrop, or perhaps a pretext, for engaging in a discussion of these major issues. Time travel is introduced…though I am not going to say how. So, this morning, I thought it might be good to use this movie as a means of explaining why I find time travel quite impossible.

One of the essential philosophical conversations one needs to have, at some age, concerns the nature of history and how we understand the way history works. There any number of critical engagements, and some very intriguing writing on all sides. To make a major engagement shorter, there are many views of historiography that include historicism, Marxism, cyclical views, dialetic, and Christian. Sub-categories proliferate, though they generally stay within these major categories.

Historicism, a concept that was developed heavily among the German schools of the late 18th century, posits that all cultures are the result of their mutual historical participation and are moulded  by the past. All cultures are participants in the larger historical narrative and is a process of natural development. (See Kant, Wilhelm Dithey, and Giambattista Vico, etc.)

Marxist views of historiography are, predictably, centered around understanding how individuals work and produce their means of subsistence. For the Marxist historian, the struggle of history is broadly seen and understood through the experience of production. (See Marx, Hegel, Engels, and Greorgy Plekhanov, etc.)

Cyclical, considers the movement of history across the ages through periods of birth, growth, renewal, decline, and death before the cycle begins again. Not surprisingly this view is popularized in eastern cultures (Chinese, Indian, etc.) as well as in agrarian societies where the natural order is seen in the season. (See Stoicism, Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee, etc.)

Dialetic, advanced most critically by Hegel, the world-spirit (Geist) is progressively developing the world towards a final synthesis. Broadly speaking, it is the historical outworking of “its turtles all the way down” but progressively so. This leads to progressive stages of increasing self-awareness among humanity.

Within this discussion, Christians have offered a philosophy of history that has been, largely, adopted by most culturally though it likely no longer holds sway among intellectuals. Christian historiography begins with the presupposition that God is a creator and has created the world and wishes to be known by His creation. Taking a linear approach to the study of history, creation has a specific beginning, a timeline of existence, and then an end.

As a result, what has happened historically is done, there isn’t access back to it in the realm of creation. There is no ability, nor reason, to access historical events because the point of history is the display of the God’s story (His-Story) across the scope of humanity’s existence. What has been done is done, yet the future is what awaits. Just as we cannot fast-forward into the future (other than sleeping…or a comatose state) by leaps and bounds, we also are not able to go backwards. Nor are we intended.

To be honest, I love time travel movies. Ever since Michael J Scott jumped in a DeLorean in Back to the FutureI’ve been hooked on them. But ultimately, they’reTime Machine just good stories. While theoretical physicists and cosmologists (who are entirely dealing in theory) can postulate any number of instances where this kind of thing is possible, the simple philosophical reality is that it is not. Indeed, for the Christian the simple theological truth is that God has provided no system whereby mankind can be part of time travel in this temporal creation.

And that is entirely okay. Our goal in history is, indeed, crafting the grand story of God’s glory as worked out and redeemed among humanity. We are part of God’s story, and our hope is found in looking forward to the promise that awaits, not behind at that which holds us back.

Time travel stories are great departures and wonderful ways to dream about something beyond us. For Christian historiography, they are just that…stories. Left there we can enjoy them and have moments of release. Ironically, what undergirds so much of time travel stories is the same thing that binds the Christian historiography together…hope.

We cannot travel back in time, nor leap far ahead either. Instead we can believe with hope that God is accomplishing something great in our world and creation that, ultimately, displays His glory and with which we can partner for a greater Kingdom that is to come.

 

Addendum: Now, There is something to be said about God’s atemporality, as well as His omnipresence, at this point. Omnipresence is, usually, understood as God having causal access to all places at all times. It does not necessarily denote being able to move up and down a historical timeline. Atemporality speaks to the relationship of God and time. God stands outside of time, though having access to it, and sees all points of time. Mankind does not have this access. Perhaps this is echoed in Luke 14 and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that once one has died and is in Heaven, they are unable to re-enter the temporal sphere of creation. But I digress.

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An Ecclesiological Thought on Mars Hill’s Dissolving

Mars Hill LogoMany things have been changing in Seattle over the past several months with the challenges presented to Mars Hill Church. With the resignation of Pastor Mark Driscoll, it has been an important time to pay attention to what is going on ecclesiologically with their church. Since Mars Hill was such a significant model for many churches inside and outside the Acts 29 network, particularly with details about eldership and polity, any shift in this mega-ministry will have reverberations throughout evangelicalism.

Today, the leadership board of Mars Hill made the decision to dissolve the church and allow the various multi-sites to create either regional units or autonomous local congregations. You can read about this decision over at the ChristianPost.com site.

This decision is significant and historic. Having just completed my dissertation on the role of local church autonomy in the first two centuries, seeing this kind of shift, as sudden as it has happened, is poignant. As the leadership board of Mars Hill Church has made this move to dissolution and approved a plan to create autonomous churches, they are opting to reinforce a more mindful New Testament model of church that values the nature of the church in the first century. It is an important and helpful moment.

Mars Hill has been a major influencer, on the level of Saddleback, Willow Creek, Northpoint, and some others, on the contemporary ecclesial environment of evangelicalism. It can be said the Pastor Mark Driscoll has been as much an ecclesiological influence as other aspects of his theological ministry. With Mars Hill deciding to dissolve corporately and allow the remaining campuses to take on their own, independent identities, this marks one answer to a lingering question about the multi-site model in contemporary evangelicalism.

Mars Hill’s situation was unique; it was a church with 15 campuses across 5 states. It existed as an autonomous (or free) church ecclesiologically but did not accord that same autonomy to its multi-sites in these ranging locations. One question that seemed to always exist for Mars Hill, and that exists for other multi-site churches, is: what happens with the leader, or major figure, leaves the church? Mars Hill has provided a poignant answer.

For those who fall into a free church, or independent, model of NT ecclesiology, each local church is networksunderstood as an independent congregation that is to be free from external pressure and influence in all matters of governance, finances, and even theological decisions. While associations and networks are free to disfellowship local churches who fall out of accord with them, they are not permitted to have authority in that local congregation. Instead, the members of that local congregation are the ultimate decision makers for all these matters related to their, and only their, local church. (My particular concern is not to address all multi-site churches, indeed many are well within the NT model, but instead to point out that when a local church creates campuses outside of a natural region (where they could easily assemble as one body) they step into a dangerous area ecclesiologically.)

Many multi-site churches, specifically those with campuses outside of their local region, tread a fine line of violating local church autonomy for their extended campuses when they deny these aspects of local governance. These churches end up resembling more of an episcopal parish system than a congregational ecclesiology.

Of course it is also notable that many multi-site churches are personality driven and assemble many followers and members based on the senior pastor who is the primary communicator. Mars Hill was one of these kinds of churches. Their decision is, as a result, notable.

I am thankful that Mars Hill has made the theologically, and ecclesiologically, bold step of releasing their campuses to go off on their own. May we remember to pray for this larger corporate body of Mars Hill and then also for the, now, independent congregations that used to be part of this church. May we also continue to pray for the restoration of Pastor Mark Driscoll to ministry, surely he deserves this and we are better for it. This is a significant move that will, prayerfully, have an impact on how local congregations throughout Christianity better understand and apply the NT model of congregational (or free) church polity. We are stronger as we accurately reflect a proper NT model.

 

31
Oct 2014
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Descriptive and Prescriptive Ecclesiology in the New Testament

One of the continuing challenges of much contemporary ecclesiological writing and reflection is the issue concerning how the New Testament documents cast the churches of their period.

How often have we opened a text, or read an article that refers to the ‘early church’ in a singular, unified sense, or heard a speaker making a point about a particular practice demonstrated in the New Testament that should, in their opinion, be used in churches today. However, when one looks closer at the text or example they are drawing from, there is no clear teaching established with application to the local church.

apples and orangesThe confusion, it appears, surrounds the difference between descriptive and prescriptive ecclesiological statements in the New Testament. Not all things in the New Testament concerning the churches are meant for application beyond the Apostolic Age.

More to the point, many contemporary ecclesiologies make claims about the normative functions of church theology from many accounts in the New Testament which are intended to be merely descriptive. As a result, many contemporary discussions about the nature of church theology, polity, and forms take positions based on New Testament descriptions of the nature of the earliest Christian communities rather than from directed instruction about their forms. The challenge for ecclesiologists in the present day is discerning what parts of the New Testament documentation about the nature, function, and theology of the earliest churches are descriptive and which are prescriptive. Assuming that all the discussions about the nature of the Church, or churches in the New Testament have normative bearing on the form and function of ecclesiology in the present day is a dangerous and misguided approach.

To better describe this challenge one quick example is in order: There is a rising segment of Christianity in the western world that posits institutional churches buildings and established hierarchy is contrary to the intention of the apostolic founding of the New Testament Church. Instead, using the New Testament examples of house church communities, a decentralized and non-institutional house churches are the normative form for ecclesial practice in this present day and age. Yet there is a caution because the New Testament writers might be describing their context where building a formal structure was both improbable and impossible, since it would be destroyed before it was completed. House churches, in this specific point, became the regular place of meeting, just as they did with the diaspora synagogues and voluntary associations, out of convenience and safety and not because they were the planned means of God’s people for all ages.

Here is where understanding the difference between descriptive and prescriptive ecclesiology is helpful.

Descriptive ecclesiological statements, such as ones dealing with house churches (cf. Acts 2:42-46; Romans 16:1-27; Colossians 4:15; etc) are describing the conduct and nature of the earliest churches in the Apostolic Age. The New Testament writers are not concerned with making these descriptions of how the earliest Christian communities met normative for all Christianity. They are, instead, simply talking about how these communities functioned. In reality, from the earliest days of post-Pentecost Christianity, the primary way most Christians desired to meet and observe the forming liturgy was either in the Temple, in Jerusalem, or in synagogues in Palestine and beyond (Acts 2:46.)

Prescriptive ecclesiological statements, are those statements where the New Testament is instructing the churches of its era and beyond about forms and functions that are to be part of every church. Instances of this include the list of requirements for leadership offices (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Ephesians 4:11.) Prescriptive ecclesiology exists in the New Testament and is vital to the function of a legitimate New Testament church. Some prescriptive ecclesiology also deals with the nature of the corporate, or universal Church that is established in the body of Christ.

If we don’t understand the difference between these two point, our ecclesiological work will be done in error. Part of this challenge is being willing to humbly confront the reality of the forming churches in the New Testament and the developmental ecclesiologies seen therein. While later generations will begin to codify forms and structures for the churches in the known world, by the end of the New Testament there continued to be a reasonable diversity of form. As a result, much of the time spent discussing the nature of the churches of the Apostolic Age is, indeed, descriptive. However, where the prescriptive texts exist, there is much to be learned.

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When Did Apostleship End?

Is the office of Apostle still functioning in the Church and churches? Who gets to appoint Apostles? What is the nature of the Apostolic gift or office? If Apostleship ended, when did this happen?

These are important theological, specifically ecclesiological, questions that are becoming increasingly relevant. In the disparate sectors of the Church across the world, we are seeing more individuals attach “Apostle” to their name. We are also hearing about individuals who have “apostolic” type ministries, while also hearing a clamoring of a return of an Apostle-like individual to help lead the Church and churches. We live amid confusing times.

In the study of the formation and development of the historical Church there is certainly a period where the Apostles existed and had ministries which thrived. Particularly in the testimony of the New Testament, we see a group of leaders who went out and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and catapulted this minor sect of Jewish millenarians into the largest worldwide religion. Luke, the author of the Gospel and likely writer of Acts, frames the first century understanding of the nature of the Apostles through the two volume work.  

The Apostles of the Church remain a group that is spoken of often, but still linger in the fog of historical understanding.

For many historians and theologians, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the Apostles. One particularly important document during the first century that illustrates this shift towards the earliest churches agreeing to end the office of the Apostle is that of the Didache. Likely written between 75-90, the Didache is an early manual on church polity, liturgical instruction, and instruction on worship. In the instructions that are part of the Didache, there is much space devoted to the

As we survey the literature from the turn of the second century until the Council of Chalcedon Gogulet Chartin 451, usually the parameters given to the patristic era, we see that there are no references to an ongoing office of the apostles and that nearly all the references are historic in nature.

In his book, The Primitive Church, Maurice Goguel provides a helpful chart demonstrating how the earliest Christian documents deal with the various offices through the early part of the second century. When considering how the earliest documents reflect the status of the Apostles, it becomes clear that once one gets through the Johannine Gospel the references to the Apostles become historical.

It would appear that the early Church made a conscious decision to end the formal office of Apostle by the end of the first generation of the Apostles. Since there are no references to Apostles as an ongoing office past the pre-70 New Testament documents and only a passing reference in the Didache, it is reasonable to posit that the earliest Christian communities found anyone attempting to claim ongoing apostolic authority dubious and dangerous. It is likely that the office of Apostle was indeed expanded beyond the Twelve, there seems to be plenty of New Testament evidence for that, this expansion seems to be wholly contained within the first generation of apostles.

There are indeed implications for our present day ministry environment here as well. Perhaps the most significant question is that if the office of Apostle has indeed ended, or has been closed are there other offices in the New Testament era which have also gone away? And does this possibly show us the nature of ecclesial office was indeed being shaped by the times and necessities of ministry in their era.

As well, it would seem anyone attempting to apply the label of “Apostle” to their own ministry would need to be challenged if they are assuming the same authority of the Apostles. The early church, likely up until Nicaea, spurned the application of the label Apostle to heterodoxical teachers.

So, it seems that the nature of the office of Apostle was one that received direct application in the New Testament era but not outside of it. Likewise, the early Christian communities, scattered around the Mediterranean region (and beyond) seem to have formed some kind of consensus that the office ended when the last Apostle (perhaps John depending on one’s views here) died. As a result, while we can look historically to the way in which an Apostle would have functioned and gone about their missionary work, the office and label are no longer available to anyone today. It is indeed an important historical reminder for how we are to function today. Most certainly we can look and see that the authority of the Apostles bears no new revelation and is best understood through their inscripturated testimonies available in the New Testament.

03
Jun 2014
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Writing Time

I’m currently working on writing several chapters for my dissertation. Apologies for the lack of posting. After this weekend I’ll be sure to add a final post to the Millennials and Marriage series as well as some posts on research.

Grace and peace to you.

11
Apr 2014
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Paul’s Ecclesiology and Second Temple Judaism

Apologies for the lack of posts, I have been working on several papers as well as additional dissertation research.

Here is the conference paper for my presentation at the Houston Baptist Theological Seminary Theology Conference. I’ll post an update later.

Second Temple Clerical Forms and Pauline Ecclesiology

19
Mar 2014
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