Immersed in Divine Love

imagesAfter years of struggle with the truth of divine love I now have an overwhelming sense of God’s great love and mercy toward me. I have come to experience this love through Jesus Christ. He reveals the eternal God to me in trinity; e.g. in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I will later seek to show why the trinity, a most under appreciated and misunderstood understanding of God, is so important to what we believe and how we live in loving, faithful obedience to God. If we are to be immersed in the love of God, and then love him and others with divine love, then we must grapple afresh with this great truth of God’s being, the truth that towers above all other divine truths – “God is love.”

When I am asked to speak about God, or to pray to God, I begin with these words:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him (1 John 4:7-9, NRSV).

Simply put, when I am asked who God is, I answer: “God is love.” In the past I would have qualified this answer. I would hedge it against all kinds of distortions, distortions which are quite real. (I will elaborate on many of these along the way.) But I now understand these distortions prove the truth – God is love! These distortions become subtle ways of actually moving us away from the depth of God’s true love. I often hear Christians says: “God is love but ______.” This is then followed by a list of qualifiers that all but remove the power of the startling truth: God is love.

To say that God is love is to say that God is most perfectly characterized by love. He is self-giving love, namely the eternal relationship of love shared by the Father and the Son, which overflows into the world by the Spirit. All of the attributes of God (mercy, grace, justice, wrath, etc.) are excellencies of his divine nature but love is who God is. (I have come to deeply doubt the usefulness of speaking about divine attributes in this form of language.) God is, because he is God, eternal love. This means that from his love all other loves derive their real meaning. Simply put, all other love is but a shadow, or reflection, of him. He is true love. All the good – thus all the love – that you have ever seen in this world has its source in the creator who is perfect love. The Creator made the world out of love and as the redeemer he redeems it out of love.

If this is true then being a Christ-follower, a simple disciple of Jesus, is not first the result of an ethical or moral choice, at least not at its root. It is a whole-hearted, full-on, deeply human response to being loved. It is an “encounter with an event, a person, that gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006, 1).

 

Posted in Biblical Theology, Christ/Christology, God's Character, Love, Personal, Scripture | 1 Comment/Like

The Sudden Passing of Ecumenist Tony Palmer

UnknownMany of you know by now of the sudden death of Bishop Tony Palmer last Sunday (July 20). This news was stunning to so many of us who knew a little about this wonderful, Spirit-filled, man. I had just begun to develop a friendship for Christian unity with Tony. Though we never met in person we had “discovered” one another and he recently received a copy of my book, Your Church Is Too Small (Zondervan, 2010). We exchanged several different messages and planned on meeting as soon as possible. We shared mutual friendships. I believed God had raised this man up very specifically to build a bridge of unity between evangelicals, charismatics and Catholics through deep friendship with Pope Francis.

I personally chair the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation. (Our next private meeting is September 11-13 @ Mundelein Seminary. A public meeting will be held on the evening of September 11 and information is available on our website.) This leadership role in particular led me to reach out to Tony with great personal interest to understand what the Lord was doing in his life. Some of his friends are my friends. I wrote several blogs about his being used to open doors to the Vatican. Now Tony is gone from us, present with the Lord! I do not understand why these tragedies happen. I especially grieve for Tony’s wife and three children. Tony, a father of pre-adult children with an amazing ability to bring us together, is now gone from us. God knows why. We leave reasons to his wise counsel.

Meanwhile I humbly ask that you pray for Tony’s family as they grieve and commit his remains to the earth this week. Tony Palmer, the worker, is done with his work. But the larger work must go on as we who work for global unity follow Tony’s wonderfully human example. May God bless the life and work of Bishop Tony Palmer and all who love him and miss him now so deeply.

Tony seems to have been taken from us far too soon. All we can say at this point is what we should always say: “Blessed be the name of the Lord who reigns!”

Below is one of the last personal notes that Tony sent to his friends and supporters. Reading it now is deeply moving and fills my eyes with tears today.

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Dear Friends & Companions and Bishops of The CEEC,

THANK YOU for your prayers for our historic meeting with Pope Francis on June 24, 2014. It was a huge success. And all because it was done not by might nor by strength but by the Spirit of God. This current ‘Miracle of Unity’ is continuing with it’s own life. All of us, including Pope Francis were astounded by the fact that our Evangelical delegation represented 80-90% of the World’s Evangelical Christians.

Pope Francis said, ‘This could ONLY be by the Holy Spirit, and we must continue to follow His leading’.

Our primary purpose for facilitating such a meeting was to introduce Pope Francis to those who responded positively to the Video message he and I made back during my January papal Audience, which ‘leaked’ (‘by the Holy Spirit’, said Pope Francis) onto YouTube. Here’s a link to it on our Community website: http://thearkcommunity.org. We were the Brothers of Joseph going to Egypt looking for Bread but finding something more than Bread – we found our Brother we thought we’d lost..!

Secondly – Together our delegation acknowledged our ‘Protest’ was over and requested Pope Francis to offer some concrete steps forward which would give us the occasion to publicly declare our unity both in Faith (saved by Grace, not works) and in common Mission (Evangelise and minister to the world together). Our intention was presented to him and we now wait for him to show us the next step forward towards the fulfilment of Jesus’ Prayer in Jn. 17:21.

We are certainly living in historic times, and June 24, 2014, we all wrote a New Page for a New Day in His-Story book. Thank you for all your Prayers and Financial partnership – it is working and we are building Jesus’ dream!

Many of you have asked us for the names in the recent Papal Delegation for Unity photo we sent out this morning. Five Christian Organisations were represented, they were:

1. Rev. Kenneth Copeland (Kenneth Copeland Ministries)

2. Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe (World Evangelical Alliance)

3. Rev. James and Mrs. Betty Robison (Life Outreach Int.)

4. Rev. John and Mrs. Carol Arnott (Partners in Harvest)

5. Rt. Rev. Anthony Palmer (The Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches)

photo 1The names of the delegates (Left to Right) are:

 

1. Carol Arnott

2. John Arnott

3. Brian Stiller

4. Kenneth Copeland

5. Pope Francis

6. Thomas Schirrmacher

7. Geoff Tunnicliffe

8. James Robison

9. Betty Robison

10. Tony Palmer

This information is now public and you are free to share it with your networks and Friends etc. Please honour the spirit in which this meeting was done in your communication of it… and again THANK YOU  for all YOU did to make this a success.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 7 Comments/Likes

Our Love Is Too Small – An Update and a Plan

Today I posted an email to over 1,800 readers of my ACT3 Weekly, a regular Monday letter. I would love to have many more of you receive this regular email. You can sign up at www.act3network.com. This allows you to pray for me and to read new material that is not normally posted here on the blog site.

Here is today’s letter in full.

Dear ACT3 Friends–

DSC_0725-300x199I am going to take a break from the Holy Spirit & mission series I’ve been doing for several weeks. (I will return to these articles next week and complete two more; July 28 and August 4). This Monday I want to provide an important update for all of you who are my praying friends and faithful donors.

Most of you know that for nearly six months I have been writing a book tentatively titled: Our Love Is Too Small.

I have never undertaken a writing assignment that has been so difficult. Yet this has been some of the most personally rewarding work I’ve ever done. I began writing in late January. I believed then that I could “knock this project out” by summer. Somewhere, around mid-May, I realized that this goal was a preposterous assumption. I then scrapped my plans. Now I have no deadline. I merely want to continue to immerse myself in this amazing subject through further prayer, meditation and interaction. This is precisely where you can help me.

First, I need your prayer for this work more than ever. I cannot write the book that I believe the Holy Spirit wants me to write without prayer. Would you pray that I will “hear” God more clearly by listening to the Spirit? Will you pray that I will listen to others, both through my reading and personal conversations? Almost every day someone, or some writer – through prose, a poem or a hymn – is used to flood light into my heart. I find myself saying: “This is perfect for the book.”  (Now, finding precisely where such thoughts fit into the book becomes another part of my challenge.) I am arranging a retrieval system, with Anita’s helpful input, so that every thought I get on a daily basis can be written into a digital file and marked so I can recover it at the right time. I feel so overwhelmed by the breadth and amount of my thoughts about God’s love that this system is needed just to help me rest my mind from constantly thinking about “the book.”

Second, I have decided that I will have three or four times more material than I will ever use in this particular book. I do not want to write a massive and comprehensive book on love. Thus I would like to solicit your input about some of my ideas and then use your input to make this book much, much better. I believe a community of friends, united in the spirituality of divine love, can help me write the best book that I can offer to my publisher. To this end I want to share a number of ideas I’ve already written via my blogs. I will post insights, quotes and ideas in order to solicit your response to these blogs. By this means I can use all the material that I have written and get the kind of response that can make the book much better. You can actually help me by your public and private responses. To this end I humbly ask for your input. You can comment either publicly or privately. Please visit the blog site week-by-week. The best way to do this is to subscribe to the blog through the RSS feed. Then each time a new blog is posted you will get an email with the opening lines and a link to the blog site. The blog site is www.johnharmstrong.com. These blog posts will also go to my Facebook wall thus another 4,500 people can see them and respond there as well. This gives me the potential of reaching 7,000-plus readers. Out of this pool of people some great ideas will surely emerge.

Finally, by posting some of my content (whether it ends up in the book or not) I will be “using” everything I have written while saving myself time for the hardest work that comes in producing more new content and improving what I’ve already written. This process will help me to know that this content (which will not be in the book) is still useful to many people.

As of today I have written almost 50,000 words. That is well more than half of the total word count I intend for the finished book. The problem is that I am no where near the mid-way point in my outline. This book has three sections: (1) God’s Love for Us; (2) Our Love for God, and: (3) God’s Love Working Through Us in Loving Others (e.g. friends, neighbors and enemies). I am not quite finished with the first section of the book, which I believe is the hardest part to write. This means that I may have already written 20,000 words that must be cut. But a great deal of this work is material can be shared via the blogs.

One of the great blessings of the social media is the vast potential it has for community and interaction. I would like to utilize this media to the end that I will complete a book that will make a lasting contribution. I cannot rush this process but then I cannot stop writing either. There are days I want to give up. Then there are days when I am so thrilled with the writing that I can hardly control my joy. I believe this new approach I have outlined will help me persevere and do better work. It will also help me manage my thoughts and emotions much better. Through this approach I hope to reach a joyful end result that brings about a book that was worth writing and reading.

Please consider helping me. Your reading and commenting could be a great gift. Your financial gifts make it possible for me to stay focused on this writing, not on dealing with financial pressures. And your prayer will surely help me to say what should be said while I remain actively involved in ministry with people every week. I am not a “full time” writer. I am both a writer and a spiritual networker who believes that my relationships are central to my divine calling. I cannot give up writing or being with people and groups. The two are intimately connected. Please pray that I will walk with God day-by-day and clearly hear the Spirit.

Well over a year ago I invited readers to become a part of a small group of “intercessors” for me and ACT3. Quite a few responded. I have not asked for new recruits for months. Today is a great time to ask again. You can email my dear friend Phil Miglioratti to receive these extra reminders and personal requests: phil@nppn.org.

 

 

 

Posted in ACT 3, Biblical Theology, God's Character, Love, Personal | 6 Comments/Likes

The Shameful Story of Judah

UnknownOn Saturday, July 12, I preached the evening vespers service at Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream. My given text was Genesis 38. I think I would never have picked such a story had it not been assigned to me in advance. You can hear my twenty-minute sermon online.

As I grow older I enjoy narrative preaching more than ever. This chapter in Genesis is so obviously narrative, with a clear dose of midrash going on, that it begs for the human imagination to work overtime putting various things together. It also begs another pressing question: “How or why do such lewd and bodacious stories get included in the biblical Canon?” Maybe our views of such things are far too prudish. If some Christians I know oversaw the arrangement of the Canon they would have left a great deal out I feel sure. This story would likely be at the top of their list. In very clear and offensive ways it is perverse to the extreme. I know of nothing else to say about that but it really does beg a lot of questions I rarely hear addressed.

Posted in ACT 3, Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, Sexuality | 11 Comments/Likes

A Sabbath From Social Media and the Cell Phone

Blade Barringer develops and maintains our ACT3 website as well as my blog site. He is a consummate professional. I recommend his services to any of you who need help in these areas of your ministry. His work is incredibly good and his prices are fair. His day job is with a Christian publisher but he handles some side jobs like his work for ACT3 Network. If you’d like to contact him let me know and I’ll pass along how you can reach him.

Unknown-3One of the things Blade has given to me is “freedom” in my spirit about how to use the various media tools that I employ. I am so clueless about this stuff but in Blade I have a friend who is patient, slow to speak, gentle and a great teacher. He will interact with me and yet never overwhelms me with big data in the process. I may sound “dumb” to him at times (I never ask) but he never makes me feel “dumb.” My world is so much better since Blade began to work for ACT3 about eighteen months ago. A Wheaton College grad, Blade is a thoughtful serious Christian who also appreciates what I do with obvious dedication and love.

I say all of this to tell you about an email that Blade recently sent to me. He wrote:

A heads up that I’m going to start a practice of not using my computer/iPhone starting on Fridays at 6:00pm to Saturday at 6:00pm. I’m finding that I’m working too much, and want to set aside that time for rest.

My phone will be on Do Not Disturb mode during that time, which means it won’t alert me to new emails or text messages. I have your cell number listed in my favorites, so if you call while it is in Do Not Disturb mode, it will go through. So, if there is an emergency, do not hesitate to call.

I wrote back and told Blade, “Bravo!” This is a great personal decision. I deeply respect it. I will never call you unless it really is an emergency.

After thinking about Blade’s decision I made the same one for myself. I am cutting off my Internet use, text messaging and iPhone (except for family) from 5 p.m. on Saturday until 5 p.m. on Sunday every week. I will try to wait until Monday to read email and then respond to my messages. Because my “Sabbath” begins on Saturday evening, with worship and eucharist in a vespers service, I have found incredible peacefulness in the rhythms of my life on Saturday-Sunday. Adding this additional decision to the things that I already do will bring me much needed rest and peace from the busy world that swirls around me. The other decision that I made, which will actually be harder to carry out, is to not check Facebook and email quite so often during the week. Even though this form of communication is instant I do not need to respond instantly. I will generally scroll through my mail and texts and only respond to anything that seems time sensitive. Everything else can be delayed for 24-72 hours in most instances.  I’m not sure how you handle this “stressor” but I’d love to hear your ideas. I believe that it is time we take back our lives and use this new communication better. I know I need to take these steps. My life is far too connected.

Posted in Culture, Current Affairs, Personal, Social Networking | 7 Comments/Likes

Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love? (Seven)

Unknown-2In this, my final post about the culture and conflict at Westminster Theological Seminary (if you do not know what this is about then see my posts from last week) I offer some more thoughts about how a “spirituality of love” could transform the institution inside and out. I offer these points very sincerely and in hopes that some will hear me and act in faith to seek a better WTS.

  1. Amy Uelmen, in her aforementioned book, Positive Political Dialogue, says that the fourth step to a “spirituality of love” in political contexts is to “recognize suffering as a springboard to love.” The suffering that has transpired at Westminster Seminary is immense. I do not know the future of the school but I have to guess that this new controversy is not the end. Some may celebrate that they have “cleaned house.” I hope this is not the case. Will more bodies fall and more faculty leave, some for very different reasons than the Christotelic debates about hermeneutics? Amy Uelmen asks, working out of a “spirituality of love,” the following: “Do I think about the persons who are suffering because of these ‘issues’ with the same love that I hope to have for a wounded Jesus on the cross?” This questions takes you right into the heart of this spirituality I am writing about. “Is my perspective . . . grounded in an effort to love by entering into and living inside these wounds, and as much as possible, taking them on as my own” (40)? This type of question is not common to Reformed Christians. The reason may be that it sounds too Catholic. The simple fact is that it is both theologically and practically the right question. Jesus himself saw others as connected with himself, made room for their questions, pulled out of them what was positive even in the midst of very negative situations, and then built his response on the positive, not the negative. If you wonder where I got this then read John 8:3-11 carefully. Jesus did not equivocate on the requirements of the moral law. My Reformed friends would properly remind me of this point. But Jesus went much further than the law when he said, “Neither do I condemn her.” What is called for here is not moral outrage, or even courage, but a “personal encounter with the unconditional love of God that gave the woman the courage and strength to made a radical moral change in her life” (42). We can practice the presence of Christ in a community when we recognize suffering as a springboard to deep love.
  2. The last step I would submit to everyone connected to Westminster Seminary, past or present, is to seek for the building up of the polis of the seminary by constructive actions. The question for the seminary, and for its critics as well, is clear: “What can we do?” Those pushed out feel a loss of dignity and love even more than a loss of income and status. Some of those on the inside feel they have acted wisely and justly. What is needed is a new attitude that will “defrost” the public context through private and personal actions. I do not debate that there are real issues at Westminster. I have made it clear that I like the Christotelic way of reading the Scripture. But this is not what ultimately matters if love is the true goal and the health of the seminary community is a priority. Chaira Lubich spoke about the work of “political love.” She was referring to politics in the non-religious arena but the principles can be applied to a case like that of Westminster Seminary. In such a polis we work “to create and safeguard conditions which enable all other types of love to blossom . . . [we need] clear and reliable rules” (Five Steps, 56). I submit that ways of engaging in love need to be deeply considered by the remaining leaders and faculty at Westminster Seminary.

Wouldn’t it be a glorious day to read about how the Holy Spirit swept across this seminary community in Pennsylvania and old foes were welcomed into a healthy new conversation rooted in radical love where past hurts were healed and lives deeply changed through repentance? Wouldn’t it be a great day if the trustees sat down with various former members of the faculty and shared a meal, a time of prayer, a time of loving friendship and the pursuit of an entirely new polis?

Is my suggestion a “pipe dream?” I guess the answer is yes. But then I believe the teaching of Jesus cuts right across most of what we commonly do in conflicts. We defend our position, explain why we hold it and then walk away. I am suggesting something so radical that we would begin to do exactly the opposite. Even my friends who left Westminster would find this way difficult I have to believe since they would need to open their lives up to being hurt all over just to take the risk of pursuing their enemies in this radical love. I cannot say who should take the first step, though it would appear to me that the leaders of the institution are the logical first choice. But it takes only one person to pray and seek God and then respond in a whole new way. This new way could make a difference that transcends all the labels and debates.

I have experienced the pain and loss of institutional approval and compensation. I have also seen a ministry come down around me and some of my friends leave me. It hurts. It hurts very, very deeply. But I have slowly learned a new and better way: “The spirituality of love.” (I am on a journey thus I have in no way perfected this pursuit.) I encourage all my friends to seek this new way. It is really not that new since this is what our Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount. I believe it culminates in Matthew 5:48, a text that I misunderstood as law (a law we could not fulfill) for all the years that I spent in the conservative Reformed world. The love that we are all called to perfect (mature) is the love of God our Father. This loves reaches down to those who hate him and curse him. This loves prompted Jesus to bless those who despised him. This love culminates in the death of Christ on the cross. This love alone can restore the blessings of a school like Westminster Seminary. If I am wrong then I welcome your helpful corrective words. Before God I have sought to do no harm. I seek only peace by the way of the cross. This way has not been tried and found wanting at WTS. I believe it has rarely been tried, especially inside of Christian institutions that are run like corporations rather than like Christ-like communities.

 

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Education, Love, Personal, Reformed Christianity, The Church, The Future | 6 Comments/Likes

Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love? (Part Six)

Unknown-3I began, in yesterday’s post, to offer my ideas about how a “spirituality of love” could transform the landscape of an institution such as Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS). Westminster is a school that has been known for internal controversy as much as almost any such conservative seminary that I know in the United States. WTS has had a major impact on many graduates and has clearly done a great deal of good, especially in terms of its high level of academic accomplishment. Yet the seminary has always struggled, so it seems to me as a long time friend, to become a community of love. It has been embroiled in controversy after controversy among members of the faculty, administration and (even) students for several decades or more.

What I propose could be applied to many seminaries as well as other kinds of institutions. This is why I have given this series the title that I have above. Today I add four new points to what I began proposing yesterday on how radical love could transform the seminary.

  1. Westminster could make it a priority to practice the communication skills of love. Keep love central, regardless of the disagreement and the intensity of a debate. “Above all, maintain constant love for one another” (1 Peter 4:8). We all struggle to allow a spirit of love to prevail in our relationships, especially when we are part of an institution like a seminary. Our means of communication are changing before our eyes. We now have media-based communication in things like blogs. Blogs can break down the boundaries of opinion journalism, which have a generally noble history. Anyone with a link to the Internet can freely say whatever they want. Previously excluded voices can now contribute to the exchange of basic opinions and ideas. In many ways this is a great positive. It allows the light to shine on people and their actions in ways that create deeper accountability. But there are downsides to this technology. Such conversations can all too quickly breakdown trust and provide simplistic and easy answers that people decide to accept based upon which side they have adopted in a disagreement. We then reinforce our own opinions by closely aligning ourselves with our friends. Says my friend Amy Uelmen, of Georgetown Law School, we create “an echo chamber” that “makes it difficult to broaden our personal horizons to take in alternative perspectives” (Five Steps to Positive Political Dialogue (Hyde Park, New York: New City press, 2014, 19). One of the dangers in this context, says Uelmen, is that we text or type as if we were face-to-face talking to one another. But we are not. We cannot see facial expressions, hurt, pain or joy. I wonder if we would “say” what we do if we had to say it face-to-face. I am not saying that we should end social media, not at all. I am no saint here and thus I have not learned to use this new communication network entirely well. I find that it often breaks down relationships rather than heals and restores them. We have to always work to do better.
  2. One of the most important points I have learned from the Focolare about the Unknown“spirituality of love” is that we must always love Jesus in the other. God is present in all our communication. We tend to get caught up in the world of the instant and miss the person right next door. In this case, the faculty member a few doors down from my office is out of sight. Real conversations with real people open new horizons and cause me to notice what I previously missed. Another principle of the “spirituality of love” is to “share other’s joy or pain.” What if this spirit had prevailed in everything that had happened, and is still happening, at an institution like Westminster Seminary? Seriously. I really mean this and I am not being naive I think. The least we can all do is to practice the “spirituality of love.” This love says, “I will always show love, even to my enemy.” If this brother down the hall is my theological opponent, and even if I think that he is teaching what I believe to be error, then how does that allow me to deal with him as a political person to be removed rather than as a brother to be loved? This goes for every side in the Westminster debate and for all similar controversies. Among Reformed Christians this alone would temper and alter the way divisions take place so routinely. If this was practiced I believe a wide variety of our personal and institutional actions would radically change. Another principle of “the spirituality of love” is to ask this question: “Am I the first to love?” What if every single person, in or out of Westminster, asked and lived out this simple, but profound, question? Is love my first choice in all my responses and views?
  3. One of the hardest things to do in a seminary culture is to strive for compromise. The word compromise is dirty to many. It is argued that an institution with a doctrinal statement and mission must be faithful to this statement and their mission. While I agree with this argument I have found it one that is very hard to practice. Without some compromise there is no basis for relationship at all. If you are married you know what I mean. Can a school close its eyes to the corrosive effects of power and not be harmed? Can it maintain high standards and still practice love? If the choice must be made then opt for love first. Ask, “What is the fullest expression of love that we can have here?” I submit that this is not bad theology. Quite the opposite. There are some things we must never do, such as lie or mislead. But working in a seminary context is not simply about telling the truth, or about teaching the truth in the system we have adopted. It is first about creating a community where learners and teachers can be trained at the feet of the One who is all-love. Most issues are not about good and bad but about discerning how to proceed and how to respond to one another. The interplay between the two positions on hermeneutics at Westminster could have been worked out very differently. What if a dialogue of love had been created and openness was the result. Amy Uelmen says “the interplay between . . . two positions can be compared to a team of hikers in which one group is focused on the compass, which gives an accurate but fairly general sense of direction. Another is focused on a topographic map, and has carefully marked out the paths that have been closed due to rockslides or other obstacles” (Five Steps, 32). Amy says that there are times when a certain layer of distrust sneaks into the conversation. This is what has happened at Westminster. There is a profound sense in which I think everyone agrees with this analysis. The conversation, says Uelmen, would then take this form: ‘’The topographical crowd does not want to robe across this rock pile because they really do not want to travel westward and are trying to find every possible way to slow up our journey.’ Or, ‘The compass-obsessed want to force us across this rock because, in their heart of hearts, they really do not care about the weaker hikers and want to weed them out of our group.’”  What is the solution to this predicament? Somehow we must adopt a new agreement rooted in radical love that honors and prefers the other. The issue is trust and when trust is broken we must stop what we are doing and work at rebuilding it. Institutions will rarely do this until they have dynamic leadership that is humble and willing to face the past, present and future with an open heart aimed at preferring others over self. Will this be done at Westminster? I have no idea but humanly I doubt it. Could it be done? I am praying it will be and that Christ will be glorified in the process. Then lives can be healed and the school can chart a new and more effective course while it also remains faithful to its distinctive calling to prepare ministers for the conservative Reformed churches it serves.
Posted in American Evangelicalism, Culture, Education, Personal, Reformed Christianity, The Church, The Future | 12 Comments/Likes

Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love? (Part Five)

UnknownA common view, at least within many evangelical circles, is that a “culture” cannot be changed. Before I proceed to argue against this view let me define my terms just a bit.

I am using the word “culture” as it has evolved in English usage through the social sciences. It came to refer, in the 20th century, to a central concept within anthropology that encompassed the range of human phenomena that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term “culture” has two meanings:

  1. The evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols and to act imaginatively and creatively.
  2. The distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.

It is this second use that I have in mind in my title for this series of blogs. Can a seminary, such as Westminster in Philadelphia, experience a significant cultural change that would make it look, feel and function like a different institution?

How could the institutional culture at Westminster Theological Seminary be truly changed? How could the present members of the board, of the administration and on the current faculty change the culture of this institution that they work within? I obviously have my doubts that a seminary can be radically altered (unless there is some kind of spiritual renewal) but I want to take what I believe to be a “best practice” stab at a more positive way forward. This way is rooted in what I call, in the book that I am currently writing, “the spirituality of love.”

  1. People at Westminster, at least in the past, have been some of my close friends. These friends have often felt trapped in a community that is continually being torn apart by conflict. This cultural reality of conflict at Westminster is, to my mind, beyond serious doubt. There has been decades of conflict at WTS that has created a deep climate of suspicion. On both sides people feel wronged and misunderstood. Many ask: “Where is the school going and what does this mean for me personally?” The only way to answer this type of question is to underscore that we share a common commitment to Jesus Christ as our Lord and then work out what this means relationally! Regardless of our theological disagreements, we remain one in Him. When this is truly embraced we can then move toward each other openly rather than against one another privately. This requires a common commitment to “speaking the truth in love.” It also requires that the faculty, administration and trustees sow seeds of trust and friendship by intentionally adopting responses that are consciously rooted in agape. This will require hard work, the kind of hard work that few are willing to put into such a process until they believe it is essential for their life together. Seminaries are all notoriously weak at this very point since they are focused on doctrine and teaching, not on loving and living in deep community. (I know one or two magnificent exceptions to this general observation.) To give you but one example from Westminster I present the following illustration from my own visits to the campus and my knowledge about how things work at WTS. The chapel and spiritual life at Westminster have never been a strong center in this community, at least for many, many years. I observed this the very first time I was on campus, long before I knew about the history or culture of the school. Westminster felt like a collection of academic buildings with an exceptionally bright faculty and a steady diet of theology. The students were not easy to talk to in my coming and going. I lodged in Machen Hall and sought out students and I found again and again Westminster students were young people with good minds but they often lacked a high RQ (Relational Quotient). Often they were distant, even non-relationally curious about people different from them.
  2. My friends at Westminster, both past and present, believe that a positive vision of the school’s future is possible but not where the type of conflict that create winners and losers continues. The Westminster climate is highly political. Questions such as the following prevail in conversations: “Why can’t we get this right?” “What is my future here?” “Why can’t we resolve our problems?” “Why should we talk to one another as friends?” All of this evokes frustration, despair and negativity. Finally, a fatigue of spirit impacts everything. You can only embrace a “warrior spirit” for so long without finally creating an unhappy place both to live and to teach.
  3. Westminster can only move beyond these present trials by admitting that its past has been deeply troubled and a great deal needs to be put right now. There is a time for institutional leaders to admit the mistakes of the past with deep humiliation and to ask for forgiveness. (Consider how Pope John Paul II responded to the Jews in the latter period of his papacy.) Leaders at Westminster could do this by cultivating a growing desire to reflect on their historical patterns and perspectives, the very kinds of issues that got them into this place. Then they could seek a new direction within the dialogue of love and mutual respect. The very term politics is not evil in itself. Plato and Aristotle used the term to describe an ideal polis, meaning an ideal city or community as a whole. Seminaries will become, in one way or another, a kind of polis. I suggest that the central political issues at Westminster can only be solved by admitting that politics is a definite part of this seminary culture. Then the leaders must recognize that politics are way too important to be done without adopting and following healthy rules of personal engagement. Simply put, Westminster, needs hope for positive change. The late Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement, said: “The possibility of loving our neighbor in a crescendo of charity; from interpersonal love to an ever greater love towards the polis” is the only way to change cultures. I believe she was right. This direction would require members of the board to spend time with faculty members so that they could develop deep friendships. It would also mean that administrators would need to spend lots of time sharing meals and coffee with faculty members. And professors need to spend real time with students outside the classroom. It would mean that faculty members must open their doors and focus on love for the other rather than on their private studies and professional academic writing. This will prove to be especially difficult since the faculty at WTS does not instinctively feel drawn to do this kind of hard work, at least historically. (Several seminaries have adopted some of these basic principles but within evangelicalism this approach is quite uncommon.)
  4. Westminster, including faculty past and present, can renew their polis but only if they are willing to make a sincere effort to stop the professional damage control and then seek to create a public life that is “for everyone and by everyone.” This means participation and it invites divine grace. The human tendency is to justify skepticism, especially by those who have left the school. Among those who are still in leadership the tendency, now more than ever, will be to embrace triumph. What is needed is a radical vision of love, a vision that doesn’t just talk about love but one that makes it an institutional and personal priority. If the “love of others” dominates a seminary then there will be almost nothing for a lawyer to do. Look at an institution and if you see a lawyer continually involved in how decisions are made and written about then there is likely to be a culture which already has some very serious problems. When this is the case something is quite seriously wrong. Again, this is all too true in many seminaries across America. (I am not suggesting that there is never a time for a legal counsel but simply that a litigious presence and spirit should be very unusual, never normal.)

Tomorrow: Part Six

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Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love? (Part Four)

UnknownA friend has asked me, “John, can you market a seminary today without suggesting that we are the really faithful heirs of our particular tradition?” He added, “Could a school market itself as a loving, caring, and biblical community and still succeed?” My answer is that this is the only way in which I think a school will survive, and thrive, in the next two decades.  I am persuaded that the next generation of young students will not buy the old way of selling a school’s uniquely distinctive views as over against other similar institutions that are not that remarkably different from each other. In the conservative Reformed world there has been a vast expansion of total seminaries since 1970, including at least eight new schools opening in the last forty years or so. But of the thirteen schools that come to mind in this part of the church ten of these seminaries are non-aligned in terms of church affiliation; the three aligned schools are Calvin (CRC), Erskine (ARPC) and Covenant (PCA). Does this independence lead toward another evidence of the function of American culture at work within the conservative Reformed way of doing church? I feel sure that the conservative Reformed movement has some incredibly important contributions to make but I fear that it also tends to breed suspicion and reaction. Thus these thirteen seminaries are now vying for a shrinking number of students. I believe that fewer and fewer students are going to move to Philadelphia to attend Westminster Seminary. (I will write more about seminaries, and their future, in other posts down the road.) The denominations and groups that support these schools are also in decline but very few want to talk about this problem openly. The schools seem to live inside a bubble but this bubble is about to burst if present trends continue. I believe the schools that will thrive, maybe not in their number of students but in their delivery of the right kind of preparation for ministry and mission, will retain important standards but they will also open up their community, spiritually and academically, to think much more broadly within their own unique context. They will market, if we can use this term, “community.” They will do this in love, not simply within their narrow distinctive’s which separate them from other similar schools.

Bill Evans, in his blog about Westminster, astutely says:

Given the dual authorship of Scripture and the vast gulf between the creator and the creature, why is it impossible or unlikely that God intended levels of meaning that were unknown to the original human author? Of course, the Catholic interpretive tradition has a long history of such notions of sensus plenior or a “fuller sense” of Scripture. For example, the late Raymond Brown wrote in his famous 1955 book The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture,

The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation (p. 92).

But for reasons probably having to do with their Protestant ecclesial location the critics of christotelic interpretation have apparently chosen not to explore such options.

I do not mean any of my questions over the last four days to be understood in an unfriendly way. I do not rely on either deception or personal innuendo. The leadership at Westminster is entitled to adopt an approach to hermeneutics as they see fit. This is, after all, an independent (and non-denominational) institution. The faculty is accountable only to the board through a strong faculty-centric institutionalism that has prevailed since Machen’s time. Personally, I see this way of operating as a profound problem but that is my opinion about seminaries and ecclesiology. I thus believe Dr. Bill Evans offers an incredibly wise insight when he concludes:

Despite the serious institutional turn this discussion has taken, I still can’t help but be struck by the amount of agreement shared by the two parties in this most recent iteration of the debate. Both groups agree that the Bible is inspired by God and that it is fully reliable. Both agree that the divine author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, intended and inspired all the messianic prophecies of the OT. Both agree that biblical interpretation must be informed and conditioned by redemptive history. Finally, both agree that grammatical-historical interpretation as it is often practiced is a product of modernity and that its exclusion of God is a great problem. That’s pretty significant!

Dr. Evans’ comments can help you understand the true heartbreak of this long-drawn-out controversy. What baffles me is really quite simple – I cannot, for the life of me, explain why a mainstream Christian perspective (one which allows for several different views about biblical interpretation) is no longer allowed at Westminster Seminary. In almost every other Reformed seminary in America the breadth of such approaches regarding hermeneutics is welcomed. In fact, this issue is not even a matter for serious debate at Redeemer Seminary as the McCartney matter demonstrates. Yet this breadth of perspectives (on this and several other issues) is now strongly opposed at Westminster. I have my own hunches about some of the specifics regarding this new controversy. I am not writing, however, about my hunches. I write rather about what can be gleaned from the public record. I am asking honest questions. In this case they are my questions. But it should be obvious to many that my questions are some of the same ones being asked by many friends of the seminary. I think these questions may go away over time but I am persuaded that the older Westminster Seminary will be no more. I pray for the new Westminster. Unknown-1I honestly wish it well but I grieve the loss of the older school, a school which thrived under the leadership of Presidents Clowney/Fuller/Logan. I have marvelous memories of that esteemed seminary. I will continue to share these memories with my friends. And I will pray for the faculty and trustees at the new Westminster. They need God’s grace and wisdom to lead the school into a not-so-certain future. Most seminaries in America struggle to maintain enrollment, much less to meet their budgets. These are hard times for most seminaries. Westminster remains important to many of Christ’s people. I want it to fulfill its mission in the days ahead. This could still happen if God is pleased to bless Westminster afresh. We should all desire this to happen if we know and love the faculty and trustees of this esteemed institution.

My next post (Monday, July 14) will offer what I believe to be a better way forward for Westminster. If the way of radical love is followed as a better approach to controversy then new experiential grace must be known in the future. I will add at least three more posts in this series next week. My goal will be to spell out what this new way would look like if Westminster chose to pursue healing and rich, open and loving dialogue.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Biblical Theology, Church Tradition, Current Affairs, Education, Patristics, Personal, Protestantism, Reformed Christianity, The Church, The Future | Leave a comment

Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love (Part Three)

There have been a number of previous controversies at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). In the middle of the last decade there was one that many believe is linked (in some way) to the “retirement” issue of Doug Green. The Enns debate surrounded the teaching of Dr. Peter Enns, an Old Testament professor who left the faculty six years ago. It is widely believed that some of the issues regarding the teaching of Pete Enns, according to people on both sides of the current 2014 Douglas Green controversy, should be understood in the broader context of the seminary’s debate over hermeneutics. Dr. Enns resigned, under considerable duress, in 2008. The issue surrounding Enns’ teaching grew out of the publication of his book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005). Unknown This book was unfavorably reviewed in the magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A battle about what Enns wrote followed. Articles appeared in academic journals and many people beyond the school were hard pressed to understand the central issue. I recall reviewing the book myself and then reading the review published in the OPC magazine before I read several academic articles and reviews. I distinctly remember wondering if the reviewer in the magazine understood what Enns was actually saying. The more academic debate was sharply contested with Dr. Enns responding to the criticism in print. Right after Dr. Enns left Westminster the board adopted: “Affirmations and Denials.”

Dr. Douglas Green responded to this new document by seeking for clarity about some of the wording. A committee of the board examined Doug Green. He submitted a statement to the board. In December of 2009 the board affirmed Dr. Green as a teacher at WTS.

Another controversy later arose around the teaching/writing of Dr. Dan G. McCartney. McCartney taught at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for twenty-two years. At the time of the Enns controversy Dr. McCartney spoke favorably for Pete Enns. McCartney left WTS voluntarily. He is now on the faculty at Redeemer Seminary in Texas. The issue in the McCartney debate eventually came around to hermeneutics. You can read Dan McCartney’s particular views in an academic paper that he gave to the Evangelical Theological Society as far back as 2003. Dr. McCartney’s article did not become controversial at Westminster until another professor, Dr. Lane Tipton, published a critique of it in the summer of 2011: “The Gospel and Redemptive Historical Hermeneutics.” This article appeared in a volume celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Westminster. I wonder, “Why did Dan McCartney’s article receive a negative critique by a faculty member in 2011 after he had left Westminster?”

McCartneyHighlight.7c03a56f7674The irony here is that Dr. McCartney now teaches at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, a school that was Westminster Seminary in Dallas until 2009. While I do not believe this debate was a major issue in the ultimate decision regarding the Dallas campus separating from Philadelphia the Dallas school left within the broad context of these ongoing debates. This separation of one seminary, located at that time in two places, into two totally separate institutions appears to have been amicable and mutually agreeable. The net result, however, was that Dan McCartney was no longer under the scrutiny of the faculty or trustees at Westminster in Philadelphia. It should be noted that he only moved to Texas after the had left WTS. This has prompted some to question the nature of this current debate even further. Why? Where there was once one institutionally connected faculty, following the same confessional standard, some at Westminster now seem to now think that McCartney’s approach was not acceptable. Yet Redeemer retains him without debate. In the light of this history you cannot help but ask: “What was put on the table at Westminster in their internal dealing with Professor Green when they gave him the option of accepting (early) retirement?” For me the question really comes down to this: “How could such a highly technical issue become the cause for the trustees to suggest the  retirement of a tenured Old Testament professor who was not involved in any scandal or serious doctrinal error?” Dr. Green, who is a ruling elder in a local PCA congregation (New Life Glenside, PA), faces no formal charges even though Westminster’s board deemed his teaching to be “out of bounds” according to the confessional tradition of the school. You can read how his church has addressed this issue online.

I have visited Redeemer Seminary in Dallas several times. (Redeemer has a main campus in Dallas with satellite campuses in Houston and Austin.) Some great things are happening in this new Texas seminary. I believe Redeemer has become a place that looks and feels like the older Westminster Seminary, the school that existed during the Clowney/Fuller/Logan era. For the life of me I do not understand why this controversy had to happen or how these disagreements in Philadelphia led to the decision to seek the retirement of Dr. Green. I have listened, read a lot and asked more than a few questions. I still shake my head in utter disbelief when I read and hear the explanation.

Another friendly critic of Westminster has been their former church history professor Dr. D. Clair Davis. Davis is the longest living tenured professor emeritus of the institution. Dr. Davis is also a treasure of historical insight and clarity. I have found him to be a gentleman who continues to learn and grow in wisdom and grace. He will ask hard questions but his desire is never to hurt or harm. I have always found him to be courteous and uniquely willing to listen to both sides in an argument. He can hold decided opinions that he has formed through careful interaction with both the past and present but he does so with grace and truth. He is a great historian and a beloved professor to many graduates of Westminster. I have enjoyed meals and conversations with Clair for three decades. He contributed an excellent essay to a book I edited on Roman Catholicism back in 1994. His son Erik formerly worked in administration at Westminster. Clair’s comments about the debates at the seminary have been challenged by former faculty members and the school. You can read his several posts about Westminster as blogs on the World Reformed Fellowship site.  I have provided this link to a number of Clair’s articles so that you can trace various pro and con pieces. You can also grasp some of the questions being raised by this controversy by reading the back-and-forth responses that have come from both sides. There is a lot of information online, more even than I have cited.

So far as I can tell no member of the faculty at Westminster has openly written against Dr. Green. There appear to be differing views about his teaching but it is very hard to tell what these views are from the published documents. The way in which his “retirement” has been presented leaves many people in doubt about what actually happened since the only thing we have to go on is an article on Psalm 23 that was linked earlier in my series.

The term christotelic, which I first heard after I had preached on Luke 24 at Westminster many years ago, would eventually become a wonderful way for me to express what I believe the fathers of the early church taught. It uses more specific biblical terminology to name what I think is nothing more or less than mainstream Christianity. (I had used the term christocentric previously. I found the term christotelic to be far more helpful.) There were several biblical exegetes at Westminster who used the term but I do not know who originally came up with the word. The opposition to the term, so far as I can tell, has generally come from the systematic and historical members of the faculty. Some of my reading suggests that systematic and historical theology have primacy over biblical theology at WTS but this is itself a technical discussion that remains somewhat baffling. At times it has seemed to me that these different parts of the faculty were divided without much evidence that they were able to have any meaningful dialogue about the issues.

The professors who came up with this helpful biblical terminology may not have originally known it at the time but the term they chose encapsulates what has been taught by the broader church down through the ages. This is especially true when you begin to study the patristic writers. This is essentially the method adopted and expanded by St. Augustine. The primary biblical text in which I saw this principle at work, which was the same text I had preached from at Westminster, was Luke 24:36-49. We read:

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (NRSV).

In the aforementioned blog by Dr. Evans there is a summary of what I have discovered concerning the opposition to Doug Green’s reading of Scripture. Evans, as you can see if you carefully read his entire blog, does not always agree with Green. He does understand that something happened which changed his alma mater in significant ways. Clair Davis has noted that Westminster came from the “old ” Princeton Seminary, which was the only Presbyterian seminary that reported directly to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Machen desired an independent seminary. When the OPC was formed a few years later things grew more narrow at Westminster yet some really good exegetical work was done by several members of the faculty for many decades. Within the first decade after Westminster was founded another school was formed in reaction to it – Faith Seminary.

One of the earliest controversies at Westminster surrounded different approaches to apologetics and philosophy. One view was promoted by Cornelius Van Til, who taught at Westminster for decades. The other view was taught by Gordon Clark, who was a professor at Wheaton and later at Butler University. The lesson I see here is that Westminster seems to have taken what I would call a “winner takes all” approach to theological issues from early in its history. In the case of Van Til’s approach to apologetics I once asked a leader at Westminster if Van Til’s thinking was so central to the school’s understanding and theology that all professors should hold to it. The answer of this leader was a resounding yes. I wonder if this is still true. I am not sure if it was true then but that was the answer I was given. My reason for mentioning this is that the school has navigated more than a few theological debates over the last 85-plus years. The seminary says it follows the Westminster Confession. Yet it seems to hold views of that confession that are not held by all (even most) conservative confessional Presbyterians. I think this is part of the social-cultural DNA that has been in the Westminster makeup from the beginning.

 

 

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