"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Approaches to Mission Part 2: The Apostolic and Hellenistic Orthodox Paradigms

This post is based on Stephen Spencer's studyguide Christian Mission. It might make more sense if you have already read the previous introductory post.

The Apostolic Mission

In the earliest days of Christianity converts were primarily Jewish and had a worldview dominated by eschatology, particularly the book of Daniel: they believed the end of the age was near and would bring a time of catastrophe but there would be deliverance for God’s people at this time. Many early Christians related these ideas to the Roman occupation: the end was indeed nigh.

The Christians came to associate Jesus as the figure described in Daniel, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of Heaven.” (Daniel 7.13) The death and resurrection of Jesus became, for them, the inauguration of the end-times and they believed he would return in their lifetimes. Some of the earliest New Testament writings (I Thes and 1 Cor) show this view clearly. The Parousia was imminent.

This meant that it was desperately important that as many people as possible were told about the offer of salvation. It was imperative that people turn to the Lord, put their lives in order, and be made ready for his coming: the church was the ark of salvation. “Repent and be baptised” was the motif of the period.

Christian mission was all about appealing to the hearts and minds of Jews and then of Gentiles to bring about belief in Jesus and repentance before it was too late. It was not about changing cultures or religious structures: time was too short. It was a search and rescue operation.

We can see how this approach is still the basis for mission and evangelism in many conservative and evangelical churches today.

Hellenistic Orthodox Mission

The non-return of Jesus in the expected time-frame precipitated a minor crisis for the early church and some were questioning the church’s claims: First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? (2 Peter 3.3) So the church had to rethink its eschatology at the same time as it was spreading into a predominantly Greek speaking and thinking culture in Asia Minor and Greece. Christians were influenced by that milieu which was a long way in so many senses from the Palestinian Jewish culture with its emphasis on righteousness.

Christianity became influenced by Neoplatonism: immortality is no longer seen as linked to some future day of judgement but in the here and now, through learning and the acquisition of knowledge. With its emphasis on the Eternal Being as an ever present reality in the world, Neoplatonism can be detected in some later passages of the New Testament. There is a shift away from future eschatology to realized eschatology. John’s Gospel best illustrates this with its emphasis on what Christ has already accomplished and what he offers here and now, Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3.18-19) Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. (John 5.24-25) Furthermore in one of the best known passages of the New Testament it is the interior value of belief rather than the practice of righteousness that is presented as the heart of Christian living and the gateway to eternal life: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)

Some of the church Fathers from this period (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo and Origen) interwove Neoplatonism with Christianity. Justin Martyr develops the idea of the logos, who had sown the seed of truth in all people and becomes incarnate in Christ in order to teach all people the whole truth.

In this period the Biblical stories began to be read allegorically, carrying a meaning which needed to be unlocked from the text of scripture. Philosophical thinking is the means by which the Greeks are to be led to Christ.

No longer is the church living between past and future events which would culminate in the imminent second coming and requiring righteousness on the part of Christ’s followers. In this second paradigm Christianity is about holding correct beliefs which can be definitively stated as doctrine which articulate eternal truths, hence the development of the creeds.

Salvation is all about the progress of the soul as it learns these doctrines and becomes united with the immortal wisdom of God. It is the church which is the vehicle for this progress: the conviction gradually grew that the church was the Kingdom of God on earth and to be in the church was to be in the Kingdom.

In the first paradigm the key boundary was between those who were within the saved community and those who were not. Here the key boundary was between earth and Heaven. The church was no longer the ark for the saved but the door for the whole community. It is not enough merely to attend the liturgy: participation must include an interior Theosis as the human and divine meet in communion. The liturgy becomes central. In the liturgy, eternal truth radiates into the world and Orthodox theologians refer to the “second liturgy” which takes place after the service in the world, in the lives of those who have participated in it.

Mission is part of the nature of the church. Outside the context of the church, evangelism remains a humanism or a temporary psychological enthusiasm. (David Bosch, Transforming Mission.)

This paradigm significantly influenced the theology of Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsay in the 1960s and, with its emphasis on contemplation, stillness and openness to the divine, can be found at the heart of the modern Taizé movement. It is still the basic paradigm of the Orthodox Church today.

However it does not see this realm as lying in the future and coming through change and struggle. It therefore entails a certain acceptance of the social and political status quo and a loss of the radical and transformative dimension of Jesus’ mission. The Orthodox Church has been attacked for this by some in the West. The Anglican Church has often been described as the Conservative Party at prayer. In their own political and social contexts, similar can be said of the Orthodox Churches.

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