status

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.

status

J Dwight Pentecost’s Passing

Apologies again for the delay in posting anything, but I wanted to break into this bit of a posting hiatus to cobble together a quick post about the passing of a significant theological voice.

J Dwight Pentecost has passed away at the age of 99. I never knew Dr Pentecost personally, Pentecostthough only a briefest of greetings while at seminary. However, one cannot deny the influence that Dr Pentecost has had on eschatology in the past half century.

His writings have changed the orientation of modern day “prophecy” schools and refined the theological formulations that they proposed. Dr Pentecost helped craft the image of Dallas Theological Seminary into one of the premiere evangelical theological institutions in the United States.

Many of us have read him, found our disagreements, but also found many things to be thankful for in his works. Dr Pentecost contributed greatly to evangelical eschatology. The Kingdom of God is better for his life and legacy.

Be sure to check out the DTS memorial page

28
Apr 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Church

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Two Upcoming Conference Papers

At the beginning of this year I submitted two proposals for papers to be read at theology conferences for March. As I am diligently working on my dissertation, these two papers will, hopefully, provide a way to see how my methodology and research do in formal settings. Hopefully both papers will meet the expectations of the conference hosts and provide real fodder for discussion.

Here are the two papers I’ll be presenting:

First Paper: Evaluating the Healing Miracles of Vespasian and Jesus

Conference: Evangelical Theological Society Southwest Regional Meeting

Abstract:  One criticism that is often brought by those questioning the messianic status of Jesus posits that his healing miracles are not uncommon enough in his first century context to be useful for proving either his messianic status or any divine attributes. Those who bring this claim often point a bevy of figures in the pre-modern world that were reported to have performed similar miracles. By way of directly engaging this criticism, this paper finds one individual who had characteristics similar to Jesus and was sourced from a near-contemporaneous situation. Vespasian, who would become the first Flavian Emperor of Rome in AD 69, is one figure who fits a criterion of similarity for comparison to Jesus. Jesus and Vespasian have miracle healings attributed to them by their biographers which carry many common attributes. In order to both delimit the number of Jesus’ miracles and provide the most reputable healings, specific attention in this paper will be paid to those healing miracles that are generally seen as authentic. To accomplish this, scholars such as Gerd Theissen, Walter Funk, and Graham Twelftree, among others, will guide the inquiry into Jesus’ healing miracles of the leper (GMk 1:40-45); Peter’s mother-in-law (GMk 1:29ff); the paralytic (GMk 2:1-12); the hemorrhaging woman (GMk 5:24b-34); the blind man of Bethsaida (GMk 8:22-26); and Blind Bartimaeus (GMk 10:46-52.) By laying these well-attested healing miracles alongside the reported healing miracles of Vespasian, the conclusions drawn will ultimately demonstrate that there is more authenticity behind Jesus’ healing miracles than even his most viable contemporary counter-example.

 

Second Paper: The Influence of Second Temple Clerical Structures on Pauline Ecclesiology

Conference: Houston Baptist University Theology Conference

Abstract: There is much to be said about the development and formation of the various New Testament churches between Pentecost and the Council of Nicaea. Given that many of the first Christians were Jewish believers, it is possible they would utilize familiar forms of religious structures in establishing their primitive communities while worshipping in local synagogues and at the Temple. How much, then, does early church ecclesiology owe to Second Temple Jewish clerical structures?

In the field of New Testament ecclesiological studies, there appears to be a gap in the research literature concerning the developing ecclesial structures of the earliest Christian communities and their relationship to Second Temple Judaism. With the Apostle Paul’s writings providing the great New Testament contribution about the form and nature ecclesiologies of this period, and given his background as a Jewish religious leader, how Paul leveraged existing Jewish clerical structures from both the Temple and the local synagogue are key to understanding his overall approach to the offices and authority in the New Testament church.

It is the proposal of this paper to study late Second Temple leadership structures and apply them against the Pauline ecclesiological model of leadership as provided in Paul’s Hauptbriefen. Though primary attention shall be paid to the leadership patterns from among the national Temple and local synagogues, additional forms from other, loosely affiliated, Jewish groups will also be in focus. As aspects of Second Temple clerical structures informed the developing Pauline ecclesiology, there continue to be influences seen in present day church method and theology.

 

The first paper is a from a previous PhD seminar in Miracles with Dr Gary Habermas. I’ve fine tuned the argument and broadened the discussion of Jesus’ healings to compare to my engagement with Vespasian. In the second paper, I will be taking a section from one of my dissertation chapters and modifying it a bit to fit the topic of the conference. I am looking forward to these two opportunities and am deeply grateful to the conference organizers for their diligent work. After the papers are presented I will attempt to post them here for public dissemination. Prayerfully, these will not lead to my ruin.

11
Feb 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Theology

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

The Devil and the Church of England

This morning I ran across a couple of posts on my Twitter feed that were talking about a decision by the Church of England concerning the reference to Satan in the christening ceremony. According the latest piece from the Telegraph,

The Church of England is introducing a christening ceremony that removes the requirement on parents and godparents to “repent sins” and “reject the devil”….

In the current version, in use since 1998, vicars ask parents and godparents if they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and if they “repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour”.

However, the new text asks them instead to “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises”, with no explicit mention of the devil or sin. 

The Daily Mail (apologies for the ridiculous sidebars) adds to this by listing the change in the actual service in a helpful graphic illustrating the differences.

CorleoneNow, this new service plan is an alternative option for christening services (which just get a baby wet anyways and do nothing for them salvifically) and is not normative for Anglicans. The larger picture though is that we’re seeing a most definite move from a historical and orthodox theological grounding. While these ideas have certainly been floated in private and spoken of in remote circles in the past, with the shift in leadership within the Church of England away from worrying about such troublesome things as biblicism and historical orthodoxy, there are certainly more moves ahead.

For what it’s worth, I’m not so much worried about the lack of reference to Satan in the christening service but the weakened charge and confession of being a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Part of the Anglican theology of baptism is that the faith of a child’s parents, grandparents, and godparents does matter to the child being christened. Though I entirely disagree with any notion of baptismal imputation or salvation, to remain faithful to their own theological dogma, the Church of England needs to remove this alternative and reclaim the traditional statements.

Of course, the Devil is in the details.

Satan is a real figure who is clearly outline in both Old and New Testaments of the Christian canon of 66 books known as the Bible. Satan has a definite origin as the leader of a rebellious sect of angels (yes I sound crazy…crazy like Augustine of Hippo.) Denying his involvement in the world in opposition to the plans and will of God ultimately leads to a weakened view of sin and salvation. Besides, it denies a historic tenant of the Christian faith.

Nevertheless, let’s just remember the reality is that Satan enjoys living in the shadows of doubt and the realm of clandestine activity. After all, the greatest trick the Devil ever played, with all due respect to Kaiser Soze/Verbal Kind, wasn’t tricking the world that he didn’t exist…but starting with theologians and churchmen.

Kaiser Soze

status

The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 2 – The Jesus of History

As we take up the second part of this brief two-part series comparing the Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus we now turn to consider Jesus Christ. For many scholars doing work in the area of the Historical Jesus, the parallel between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ is indeed an apt metaphor. Our goal is to look at the development of both individuals, in this Christmas season, and see how they relate to this larger issue of the Historical Jesus.

You can read the previous post, The Santa of Faith, by clicking here.

Though the term “Historical Jesus” is often a dirty word in evangelical churches, we should admit that the three, or four, quests have at least produced this benefit: we have a better understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus in His Second Temple era than before. Because of the pushback from rigorous scholars who have questioned the inculturated Jesus of their day, we now have a better view of who Jesus actually is and was in His day. Though there have been excesses and, let’s be honest, completely ridiculous side trails by a few scholars, the various quests have produced some compelling scholarship.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Just like our previous inquiry about the Historical Santa Claus, the Historical Jesus is indeed rooted in an actual individual who lived in antiquity. Of the few things scholars of all camps generally agree on, Jesus Christ was an actual person who lived in Palestine during the late Second Temple period, had followers/disciples, and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Outside of these facts there is little agreement down the scholarly line. Of course, once we get to the evangelical side (where I do align myself) we see a broader acceptance of biblical reconstructions of Jesus’ life.

Not to get too waylaid by the scholarly discussion, one of the realities about the Historical Jesus is that when we look across the timeline of history to see how Jesus Christ is portrayed there is a different result than when we consider the evolution of Santa Claus. Granted, there are certainly some terrible representations of Jesus that exist even in our day (i.e. Talking Jesus Action Figure…I have this on my office shelf for funsies.) Yet, in orthodox Christianity (small “o”) over the centuries between the death of Jesus Christ and now, the representation of Him (not necessarily the artistic one) theologically and liturgically has remained steadied in Christianity.

Of course, this is not the primary concern of Historical Jesus quests. Instead, they have sought to uncover (not deconstruct) the actual historical figure from amid the tattered depictions in the primary source documents: the Gospels and New Testament.

Jesus Christ is unique from Santa Claus in that there is an established corpus of literature that still remains as the sources for understanding how He was received and understood by His first followers. While the latest developments in scholarship showing the early veneration of Jesus by these followers is not entirely relevant to this discussion, it does bear some influence on how we understand the Gospels depictions. The Santa of faith relies almost entirely on translated traditions and oral transmissions of his story across 16, or so, centuries with varying depictions. The Jesus of history relies on a set of documents written within a generation, or two, of His death by both eyewitnesses and devoted followers.

With the evolution, or translation, of Santa Claus, we see a figure who entirely loses the original image between his fourth century historical life and his present day depictions. Gone is any attachment with a Catholic Bishop from the Middle East. Only visible is the overweight, bearded Scandinavian bestower of gifts from atop a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer…and Rudolph. The present day image of Santa Claus bears no resemblance to the fourth century St Nicholas.

Yet the present day Jesus Christ, and the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, is very much in line with the Historical Jesus. He remains ensconced in His Second Temple era amid struggling Jewish socio-political identity. A prophet and rabbi who came into this world through miraculous means (even if this is disputed by present day scholars) and died on a Roman crucifixion stake, still is found to be as Jewish today as He was in the middle first century representations. Though some have attempted to understand Jesus in their present milieu or through a lens of theological liberation, the orthodox Jesus of History remains settled in the Gospel depictions of Himself.

Unlike Santa Claus, who is very much taken out of his original historical figure, the Historical Jesus that we know today looks very much like the first century Jewish messianic figure who is presented in the Gospel witnesses. As these Gospel authors are either eyewitnesses or relying on eye witnesses testimony, their unique purpose for writing and framing the actions of Jesus Christ still present a figure who is faithful to the historical figure that lived and died between sixty and forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jesus of history that we have been able to recover aligns closely with characteristics of the Jesus of faith that has been venerated and celebrated in the liturgies and worship celebrations of the Church and churches since the first generation of Jesus’ followers. Regardless of where we stand on other issues around Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels still stands as a historically faithful representation that has stood the test of time. Unlike the Santa Claus of faith, the Jesus of history remains attached to the historical, first century Palestinian Jew who lived among the tumultuous times of the late Second Temple period.

We can be thankful that instead of a benevolent saint who merrily grants wishes and bestows gifts to children, the Jesus of history is one who came into this world for a purpose and can be seen in the passages of Holy Christian Scripture as a savior who is given for the world for all days.

status

The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 1 – The Santa of Faith

As we approach the most joyous time of the year when we, goodly Christians, celebrate the birth of Jesus. During this annual celebration, our malls and much of popular culture also bring in Santa Claus among other secular icons. It is an opportunity to see two historical figures who have had their pasts differently developed.

When we think of our present day incarnation of Santa Claus, there is a historical figure who stands behind our current picture. Along the same lines, when we think of our present day evolution of Jesus Christ, there is also a historical figure who stands behind our current picture.

So how much of the historical Santa relates to he historical Jesus?

In considering the origins of Santa Claus we must go back the fourth century and a young bishop named Nicholas who, having inherited his parents’ estate after their death early in his life, became known for acts of mercy and charity in his parish of Myra. Following his death, many stories about his ministry became known throughout Christianity, to the point that Nicholas was venerated as a saint and given a feast day on December 6th. Nicholas became a famous sainted figure in Christianity and his name, acts, and feast carried across many cultures. For instance, when Columbus was exploring the New World, one of the first ports he discovered was promptly named St Nicholas. Nicholas’ story of giving and charity embodied the idea of Christianity (James 1:29) and his feast is a time for thoughtful reflection of these themes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Even in the massive whitewashing of relics and statuary during the Reformation, Nicholas remained a favorite figure in Christianity. His feast day was still merrily celebrated by Catholics and Protestants alike. From the medieval period through the early reformation time the stories and character of Nicholas transitioned from his Middle Eastern roots to a more Scandavian representation and the name Sinterklaas. Being fused with German paganism (through the celebration of Yule) also moved Nicholas out of the purely Christian arena and into the secular one as well. His attire and mode of transportation also shifted to reflect the cultures in which Nicholas was moved into and his story was told. He was given new names, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas. St. Nicholas remained part of the idea of Sinterklaas, but became almost unrecognizable in light of the growing mythos around this changing figure.

Yet Nicholas remained, mostly, in the representations as a charitable bishop of the Catholic Church. Only in the early 1800s, mostly through the works of Washington Irving, Sinterklaas was brought to America and given a new name: Santa Claus. Not long after this an anonymous poem, later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, titled “A Visit from St Nicholas” (later retitled “The Night Before Christmas“) captured the cultural lore in America and propelled this version of Santa Claus forward. Soon, the patron saint of travelers and merchants became the saint of the poor and needy in America. Thomas Nast, a popular cartoonist with Harper’s Weekly, soon took Santa Claus and began giving him the form which we know today. His drawing of a pipe smoking saint of giving in 1881 gave Santa much of his present day form.

Once the 20th century came, Santa was firmly embedded into the America identity for the Winter Solstice festivals. The famed American artist, Norman Rockwell, added to the growing lore around Santa with his famous covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Santa identified in numerous publications and even appropriated for military interests. Santa suddenly had a wife, though oddly no children, and plenty of other parts of the story began to evolve. Yet nothing had quite the cultural ramifications of what happened in the post World-War II era when Coca-Cola crafted a version of Santa that has lasted until today. With the massive cultural exportation the followed, Santa became a worldwide phenomenon. Soon enough, Santa Claus became as much part of the Christmas celebrations as Jesus Christ’s infancy narratives.

Children await the arrival of the Christmas season and write notes of faith, strategically given to their parents, to Santa Claus about the hope they have in his impending arrival with gifts galore. These same children are made aware that Santa is a benevolent soul who monitors their faithfulness throughout the year. We take our kids to the mall to see Santa and tell him about their hopes and dreams. Indeed, for most under the age of 12, Santa is the reason for the season.

Yet this version of Santa is much different than the Historical Santa of the fourth century. Indeed, the origins of the present day Santa-myth, though rooted in a historical figure, are much different than the actual figure they represent. So much different is this present day Santa, that one must wonder if it matches up with the historical figure who began all of this, the Bishop Nicholas in the fourth century?

The present day, popular Santa (the Santa of faith) is indeed mightily different than the Santa of history. If for no other reason, the historical Santa (St. Nicholas) is Middle Eastern and the Santa of faith (Santa Claus) is Scandinavian. Other major issues abound.

In much the same way, scholars in the field of the historical Jesus often make statements that make the historical Jesus to be as far from the Christ of faith as we see in the Santa demonstration above.

So, does the historical Santa represent a parallel narrative to the historical Jesus? Are there sufficient parallels between St Nicholas’ story and Jesus’ story in our present day churches and broader cultural narratives?

Check in tomorrow for the second, and final, part of our inquiry.

UA-40705812-1