GAFCON Seminar: Human flourishing and the mission of the Church

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the Church.

Seminar outline

1. What do we mean by human flourishing and what accounts of human flourishing have been given by non-Christian religions and philosophies? Martin Davie (15 minutes)

Q and A Martin Davie (10 minutes)

2. What is the alternative Christian vision of human flourishing? Martin Davie (15 minutes)

How would you explain this Christian vision of flourishing to a Hindu? Canon Chris Sugden (10 minutes)

Q and A Martin Davie and Canon Chris Sugden (10 minutes)

3. Nathan Lovell interviewing Phumezo Masango on how we can help people to flourish as Christians in tough places like Khayelitsha township in South Africa (15 minutes)

Concluding Q and A Nathan Lovell and Phumezo Masango (15 minutes)

M B Davie 16.6.18

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What do we mean by human flourishing?

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the church.

What do we mean by human flourishing and what accounts of human flourishing are given by non-Christian religions and philosophies?

What do we mean by flourishing?

The New Oxford Dictionary of English tells us that the verb ‘to flourish’ means ‘to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way.’ A moment’s thought will tell us that what this means varies according to what exactly it is that we are talking about.

We have just planted some rhubarb plants in my garden at home in England and I will judge whether these plants are flourishing by whether they produce big green leaves and long red stems. If they do they are flourishing, but if they don’t they are not and I shall need to see what, if anything, I can do about it. The rabbit population in my garden is also flourishing, but in this case I judge flourishing by a different criteria. For a rabbit population to flourish means that the individual rabbits are big and healthy rather than small and sick, and that there are lots of offspring.

In both instances I have an idea of what it means for the plant or animal to be healthy or vigorous and I judge whether they are flourishing according to that yardstick.

As well as thinking about what it means for plants and animals flourish, all human beings have some basic idea of what it means for human beings to flourish, even if this is not the term they would use. It is this idea which shapes the way they live their lives.

As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor notes in his book A Secular Age:

‘Every person, and every society, lives with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: what constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes like really worth living? What would we most admire people for? We can’t help asking these or related questions in our lives. And our struggles to answer them define the view or views that we try to live by, or between which we haver. At another level, these views are codified, sometimes in philosophical theories, sometimes in moral codes, sometimes in religious practices and devotion. These and the various ill-formulated practices which people around us engage in constitute the resources that our society offers each one of us as we try to lead our lives.‘[1]

Why flourishing matters for mission.

As the Church engages in its God given mission to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations it has to engage with the issue of human flourishing. This is because people will only begin to follow Jesus Christ, or continue to follow him if they do so already, if they believe that following him will lead them to flourish more than some other way of life.

We can see this point if we consider the famous words found at the beginning of Book I of the Confessions of St. Augustine, ‘Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in thee.’[2] The point that St Augustine is making is that human beings have been created by and for God and in consequence they can only truly flourish if they find rest in a right relationship with God. According to Augustine, the reason for being a Christian, rather than being a Neo-Platonist or a Manichee, is that Christianity enables people to find this rest and so to flourish as they were made to do. Just as being a flourishing rhubarb plant means having big green leaves and a big red stem, so being a flourishing human being means being people whose hearts find their rest in God and, says Augustine, being a Christian makes this possible.

If we are going to try to persuade people to follow Jesus Christ because doing so will best enable them to flourish we have to begin by understanding what they currently think about the matter. Think of St. Paul preaching in the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The Athenians whom he is addressing hold that what enables human flourishing is worshiping the various gods of the Greek pantheon. What St. Paul tells them is that they are right to take the need to worship seriously, but that the objects of their worship are wrong. In order to flourish they need to give up idolatry and worship instead the one true God who made heaven and earth and every human being and to whom the Greek poets bore witness.

In similar fashion we have to target our proclamation of the gospel so that it addresses what the people we are in conversation with think makes for human flourishing.

So what do people in the world today think makes for human flourishing? Obviously in the time available I cannot give a comprehensive account of the matter, but in the remainder of this first presentation I shall sketch out the main non-Christian options before going on in my second presentation to set out the Christian alternative.

The non-religious philosophies of the contemporary West.

a. Secular individualism

 

In much of the Western world the prevailing understanding is that what makes for human flourishing is something that each individual has to decide for themselves. To quote Charles Taylor again, what this approach says is that:

‘Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense or what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfilment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him-or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.’[3]

This view fits in with the late capitalist consumer culture that dominates Western society. Life is seen as a vast shopping centre, or online shopping site, and we flourish when we are free to choose whatever we want from everything that is on offer. What we choose is up to us. It is having the freedom to choose what we want to choose that matters.

Three further points about this view are:

Firstly, that although people are theoretically free to choose a simple, or even ascetic, lifestyle, there is a strong cultural message that says the way to find self-fulfilment and therefore to flourish is through acquiring the latest brands of consumer goods. Secondly, although people are theoretically free to choose to be chaste or celibate, there is again a strong cultural message that says that in order to flourish you need to engage in consensual sexual activity with whatever sex (or sexes) are right for your particular sexual orientation and sexual needs. Thirdly, this approach to human flourishing is secular both in the sense that it leaves God out of the picture and in the sense that it is concerned with what happens in this world. The idea that this world is a preparation for the next is not part of the picture.

b. Marxism

 

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s Marxism is not the force it was in human affairs. However, there are still countries, most notably China, that are still officially Communist, the Marxist critique of capitalism has seen a renaissance in response to the austerity following on from the 2008 financial crisis and Marxist thought is still influential in academic circles. Marxism therefore still requires our attention.

Marxism is a philosophy of history which declares that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’[4] These struggles have been between a small class of exploiters and the majority who they have exploited. They have taken various forms, but the final struggle in which history finds its completion is the struggle between bourgeois capitalists and the proletariat who they subject to ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.’[5]

For Marxist thought history will reach its proper end when, under Communist leadership, the proletariat rise up, overthrow the capitalist system and substitute an equitable system of economic and social relationships in which the ‘free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’[6] When this happens, Mankind as a whole, and each individual within it, will finally flourish. To achieve this flourishing not only does capitalism need to be overthrown, but so all do all forms of religion and ideas of a world to come, colonialism, and the nuclear family and the sexual ethics associated with it, since these are all tools by which the bourgeois keep the proletariat in enslavement.

Primal Religion

The traditional religions of tribal peoples, what used to be called primitive religion and is now called ‘primal religion,’ are in decline because of the growing influence of the world’s major religions, the growing impact of industrial civilization in the most remote corners of the globe and large scale migration from rural areas to the cities. Nevertheless they remain hugely important for many millions of people today.

As the researches of the Roman Catholic scholar Wilhelm Schmidt and others have shown, almost all traditional societies show evidence of belief in one, benevolent, creator God. However, what governs human affairs is not the activity of the transcendent creator, but the life force running through all things, the activities of lesser spiritual powers (what in Western terms might be described as ‘gods’ or ‘demons’) who may be benevolent, malevolent, or both at different times, and who are thought to inhabit the natural world, and the continuing influence of the ancestors who still wield power over the lives of their descendants.

Although the details of their beliefs and practices vary enormously, one can say that in general adherents of primal religions believe that human beings flourish (i.e. their life force is increased) when they respect the given order of the world by playing their proper part in the affairs of the tribe, adhering to the way of life laid down by the ancestors, and keeping the spirits on side by performing the appropriate religious rituals under the guidance of those with special knowledge in such matters.

As the importance attached to the influence of the ancestors indicates, primal religions generally include a belief in life after death, with some holding that the nature of that life will depend on how people have behaved in this one and whether they have received the proper burial rites. If people have behaved wickedly or not been properly buried they may be punished in the afterlife or be forced to wonder as a ghost.

The great religions of South and East Asia

a. Hinduism

 

Hinduism is a form of religion that gradually developed in South Asia over thousands of years.

The Hindu worldview holds that there is one supreme God (or for non-theistic Hindus one supreme reality) from which all things emanate and to whom all things will ultimately return. The various gods of the Hindu pantheon are understood as emanating from the supreme deity and representing some aspect of his existence. Human existence is seen as a cycle of birth, death and rebirth in which the soul passes through various reincarnations. The nature of these reincarnations depends on how the previous life was lived, in line with the principle of karma that holds all actions have consequences either in this life, or in the next. In order to flourish in each successive incarnation one needs to behave in accordance with dharma, the order which governs the cosmos and human behaviour within it. The highest form of flourishing, and the goal of human existence, is to achieve moksha, liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and union with God.

b. Buddhism  

Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that traces its origins to the teaching and practice of the Buddha (the ‘enlightened one’), Siddhartha Gautama, who lived sometime in the sixth century BC. In the Buddhist worldview there is no creator God, rather the universe is simply the working out of a cyclical process in which world-systems come into being, exist for a time, are destroyed and are then re-made. Within this cyclical worldview human beings are also seen as being trapped in an endless process of re-incarnation, experiencing suffering through many lives on the basis of their behaviour in previous incarnations). In this world view for human beings to flourish means to be achieve liberation from this cycle of death and re-birth (nirvana) by means of enlightenment.

According to Buddhist teaching the way to achieve nirvana is through ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’ which consists of:

(1) Right understanding (the acceptance of Buddhist teachings);

(2) Right intention (a commitment to cultivate right attitudes);

(3) Right speech (truthful speech that avoids slander, gossip and abuse);

(4) Right action (engaging in peaceful and harmonious behaviour, and refraining from stealing, killing and overindulgence in sensual pleasure);

(5) Right livelihood (avoiding making a living in harmful ways such as exploiting people, killing animals, or trading in intoxicants or weapons);

(6) Right effort (freeing oneself from evil and unwholesome states of mind and preventing them from arising in future);

(7) Right mindfulness (developing an awareness of the body, sensations, feelings and states of mind);

(8) Right concentration (the development of the mental focus necessary for this awareness).

c. Sikhism

 

Like Hinduism and Buddhism, Sikhism, which was founded by Guru Nanak in the fifteenth century, holds that human flourishing involves escaping from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The way of escape (known as mukti) involves, negatively, escaping from attachment to the world and the bondage of egoism and, positively, achieving total knowledge of, and union with, God.

According to Sikh teaching, the path to mukti involves avoiding five vices and performing three basic duties. The five vices are lust, covetousness, greed, anger and pride. The three duties or ‘pillars’ are:

  • Nam japna, ‘meditation on God through reciting, chanting, singing and constant remembrance followed by deep study and comprehension of God’s name and virtues’;
  • Kirt Karna, ‘to honestly earn by one’s physical and mental effort while accepting both pains and pleasures as God’s gifts and blessings’;4
  • Vand Chhakna, ‘To share the fruits of one’s labour with others before considering oneself.’[7]

Judaism and Islam

a. Judaism

 

Judaism goes back to the call of Abraham by God sometime around 1900 BC and the subsequent covenant entered into by God with Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt in about 1250 BC. Judaism is very diverse form of religion, but the traditional Jewish view is that human beings were created by the one creator God to be in right relationship with him. They flourish when this is the case and fail to flourish when they do not.

For those who are Jewish being in right relationship with God involves living according to the covenant between God and Israel at the time of the Exodus, by observing the teaching contained in the twenty four books of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (what we call the Old Testament) and the commentary on this teaching contained in the later Jewish texts known as the Mishnah and Talmud. Those who are non-Jewish can be in right relationship with God if they observe the seven laws which according to Jewish tradition were given by God to the sons of Noah as a set of laws for the entire human race. These laws are not to worship idols, not to curse God, to establish courts of justice, not to commit murder, not to commit adultery or sexual immorality, not to steal and not to eat flesh torn from a living animal

Judaism has also traditionally held that there is life after death, with the righteous ultimately being resurrected to share in the Olam Ha Ba (the world to come) and the wicked being finally and eternally excluded from this.

b. Islam.

 

Islam emerged in the seventh century AD. Its view of human flourishing is an outworking of its basic statement of faith (the shahada) which declares ‘There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.’ Like Judaism, Islam believes in one creator God and that for humans to flourish they need to be in a right relationship with him. Where it differs from Judaism is that it holds that being in a right relationship with God involves following the teaching contained in the Qur’an (the sacred text said to have been revealed by God to Muhammad, the final messenger or prophet of God) and also in the Sunnah (the record of Muhammad’s life and practice) and the Hadith (reports of what he said or approved).

To live in this way involves being part of the Ummah (the world wide Islamic community) and observing the basic five pillars of Islam (sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith, praying five times each day, paying a charitable tax to benefit the poor and the needy, fasting during Ramadan and going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Judaism, Islam believes in the resurrection of the dead and a final judgement which will lead people to either finally flourish in paradise or suffer in hell depending on the balance of their good or bad deeds.

What we have seen so far.

This is obviously a selective overview of the world’s religions and philosophies (for example I have not covered Confucianism or Taoism). However, what we have seen thus far has established the basic point that how to flourish is a vital issue for all human beings and that there are a variety of different religious and non- religious approaches held in the world today. This raises the question as to where Christianity fits into the picture. What do we have to say about human flourishing as we engage in mission? We shall begin to address this issue after a time for Q and A s.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2007, p.16.

[2] St Augustine, The Confessions, Book 1:1.

[3] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, p.14.

[4] The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1, at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist manifesto/ch01.htm#007

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Definition of the three pillars from Sikhwiki at http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Three Pillars

The Christian Vision of Human Flourishing

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the church.

The Christian vision of human flourishing

In my opening remarks I explained why the concept of human flourishing is important for the mission of the Church and sketched out the understanding of human flourishing put forward by a range of non-Christian philosophies and religions.

The picture of flourishing in Psalm 1.

I shall now go on to consider what an alternative Christian view of flourishing looks like. I shall begin by looking at Psalm 1, since this is a section of the Bible which directly addresses the issue of what it means for a human being to flourish. If we ask what a flourishing human being looks like then Psalm 1 tells us.

Psalm 1 runs as follows:

‘1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners,  nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord,     and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree     planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,     but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,     nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,     but the way of the wicked will perish.’

This Psalm can be divided into two parts.

The first part is in verses 1-3. In these verses the man who is described as ‘blessed’ in verse 1 is said in verse 3 to flourish like a well-watered tree which produces a harvest of fruit at the proper time and whose leaves never wither because of drought. Just as this tree prospers so also it is said of the blessed man ‘In all that he does, he prospers.’

These verses also describe the characteristics of this flourishing man, first negatively and then positively.

Negatively, (1) he ‘walks not in the counsel of the wicked,’ That is, he does not ‘follow their advice rather than the guidance of God.’[1] (2) He does not stand ‘in the way of sinners,’ that is, share their way of life.’[2] (3) He does not sit ‘in the seat of scoffers’ by ‘making light of God’s law which ought to be one’s delight.’[3]

Positively, ‘his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.’ In other words, what he delights in is what God wants and this is what he constantly thinks about. Furthermore as the parallel verse in Joshua 1:8 indicates, this is not ‘merely an intellectual exercise, but, above all, it is a study of the will of God for the purpose of doing it.’[4]

The second half of the Psalm, verses 4-6, describes the fate of the ‘wicked.’ By the ‘wicked’ the Psalmist means the godless, those who lack the characteristics described in verses 1-3. They fail to flourish but are ‘like the chaff which the wind drives away.’ During the corn harvest in Old Testament times the corn was thrown into the air with the chaff, the dray scaly protective casing of the gain, being blown away by the wind and the heavier grain dropping to the floor to be collected and stored for subsequent use . Chaff is thus a metaphor for all that is useless and transitory and this is what is being said about the life of the wicked. ‘They are thought of as having become worthless in themselves, and their life as empty and without permanence.’ [5]

Objections to this picture.

So far everything seems nice and clear. If we take Psalm 1 as our basis we can construct a nice simple division between two types of human beings, the ‘blessed’ who reject sin and live in obedience to God, and so flourish, and the wicked who don’t and whose lives are therefore worthless and impermanent.

However, if we delve more deeply in to the biblical witness we find that things aren’t quite that simple. The Bible itself raises two objections to this view of human life.

First, it would appear that the sinfulness of the human race means that the category of the blessed as described in Psalm 1 is an empty category. It has nobody in it. We are told in Psalm 14 verses 2-3, for example, that:

‘The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,  to see if there are any that act wisely,  that seek after God,

They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt;  there is none that does good, no, not one.’

Secondly, as the write of Ecclesiastes testifies, experience calls into question the notion that the blessed flourish and endure while the wicked pass away. As Ecclesiastes 9:2 puts it:

‘… one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good man, so is the sinner; and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.’

How the Christian account of flourishing answers these two objections.

How can we respond to these two objections, given that God’s word in Holy Scripture cannot contradict itself?

If we start with the issue of the universal sinfulness of the human race, a good place to begin to respond is with the words of St. Paul in Romans 3:21-22. In the previous section of Romans, 1:18 – 3:20, St. Paul explains that both ‘all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin’ (3:9). However he then goes on to declare in verses 21-22:

‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.’

What these verses tell us about is a righteousness, a state of being in the right before God, that is not dependent upon what we do (‘law’) but which is given by God to all who have faith in Jesus Christ. As the Lutheran scholar Anders Nygren puts it:

By faith in [Christ] we are recipients of the righteousness which comes down from God. It is not an inner quality of our own, but an active intervention by God by which he transforms our existence and renews its circumstances. Formerly the wrath of God from heaven pursued man who was doomed to death. Now through Christ the heaven of righteousness and life stretches out over all who believe. By the grace of God man is included in God’s own righteousness. [6]

According to Romans, therefore, if we have faith Jesus Christ we stand before God as righteous, just like the blessed man in Psalm 1, even though in ourselves we are sinners. How can this be? To start off with, we need to recall that there is one exception to the otherwise universal tale of human sinfulness, one person who perfectly fulfils the picture of the blessed man in Psalm 1. That person is Jesus Christ. As Eric Costa notes:

‘Literally speaking, there is only one person who thoroughly fulfils Psalm 1, whose delight is fully in the law of the Lord, who never walked in the counsel of the wicked, whose works always prosper, who is in himself ‘the way, the truth and the life of the righteous.’ [7]

Having made this point, Costa then comments further:

This is encouraging, because if I look at Psalm 1, then look just at myself, then look back and forth a few more times, I begin to wonder whether I can truly consider myself among the congregation of the righteous. But if I look to Jesus Christ with faith as the one who fulfilled Psalm 1 for me, then in him I have the full assurance of the benefits mentioned in the Psalm.[8]

But how can I have this assurance on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ? Because, as Martin Luther puts it, drawing on the imagery used by St. Paul in Ephesians 5:21-33, through faith I am married to Christ. I therefore become one flesh with him and so my sin is his, but his righteousness is mine. Listen to Luther in his great tract of 1520 The Freedom of a Christian:

‘The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph.5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage – it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were his own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own.’[9]

This is good news, says Luther, because

‘…his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible that hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with eternal righteousness life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride ‘without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word’ [cf, Eph. 5:26-27] of life, that is by faith in the word of life, righteousness and salvation.‘[10]

Furthermore, through the work of the Holy Spirit the righteousness that Christ has achieved for me by coming, and dying, and rising, and uniting me to himself through faith begins to become manifest in my life as I start to live as the person God made me to be.

In the words of John Webster:

‘The Spirit… is the agent of those divine acts through which the creature really does become in full integrity what it is destined to be. The Spirit gives life, acting in and upon the creature in such a way that the creature attains its full stature, filling out its history in completion of the divine purpose. This gift of life is also the gift of holiness, as the Spirit makes actual and effective in the creature the blessing for which the creature has been livingly singled out and reconciled.’ [11]

This work of the Spirit does not mean that we will in this life ever cease to be sinners, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). It does mean, however, that over time the objective righteousness and holiness we have in Christ will become increasingly reflected in our life and behaviour as we live for God within the particular vocations to which he has called us, a process which will be completed in the world to come when ‘we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2).

In summary, we can thus say with Luther that the Christian is ‘simul iustus et pecattor.’ In myself I am a sinner, but in Christ and through faith I am the blessed man of Psalm 1 and this reality is becoming reflected in my life through the work of the Spirit.

As the Evangelical commentator Thomas Scott comments, this means that when someone becomes a Christian he has ‘new desires, pleasures, hopes, fears, sorrows, companions, and employments: his thoughts, words, and actions are changed: he enters upon a new state and bears a new character.’ [12] However, this is not something that he can claim as his own achievement. Rather, it is the achievement of God in him. To quote St. Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’

In response to the suggestion in Ecclesiastes that in reality ‘one fate comes to all’ what we have to note is that this is only true in the short term (which is what the writer of Ecclesiastes is describing).

Psalm 34: 34-36 declares:

‘Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to possess the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

I have seen a wicked man overbearing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon,  Again I passed by, and lo, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found.’

As the Book of Revelation makes clear, these words will find their fulfilment at the end of time when those who are righteous through Christ will indeed ‘possess the land’ by entering into the life of the New Jerusalem in the ‘new heavens and the new earth’ in which they will dwell forever with God, worshiping him and reigning with him, and ‘and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:1, 4, 22:3-5). However, as the Psalmist says, the unrighteous will not be able to be found, because they will be permanently excluded from the new creation and consigned instead to the ‘lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:15) which is St. John’s symbol for the total, irrevocable and eternal destruction of the wicked, equivalent to Jesus’ description of the ‘furnace of fire’ where ‘men will weep and gnash their teeth’ in Matthew 13:41.

The Christian vision of human flourishing is thus an eschatological vision. It says that this world is not all that there is. Human life does not end with death. Beyond death there is judgement and for the blessed who are righteous in Christ there is eternal fulfilment in the world to come where the river of life flows through the midst of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).

The Christian view of flourishing and other religions and philosophies.

That, then, is the Christian vision of flourishing. If we compare it with the vision of flourishing put forward by the other religions and philosophies we have looked at we find a series of contrasts.

  • First, unlike secular individualism, the Christian account declares that it is not possible for people to flourish in any way they choose. There is only one way for human beings to flourish and that is to become righteous through faith in Jesus Christ and to live a life pleasing to God in consequence.
  • Secondly, unlike secular individualism and Marxism, the Christian account says that flourishing is not something that can finally be achieved in this world. Only in the world to come will we fully become the people we were always meant to be.
  • Thirdly, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, Christianity says that you only get one shot at flourishing. It is what happens in this one life on earth between birth and death that determines whether or not you will flourish in the world to come.
  • Fourthly, unlike secular individualism, Marxism, non-theistic Hinduism, classical Buddhism, and to a large extent primal religion, the Christian account insists that you cannot leave God out of the picture. Christianity declares that to flourish human beings need to be rightly related to the God who created them and that only he can make this right relationship possible.
  • Fifthly, and following on from the previous point, whereas all the other religions and philosophies we have looked at say in different ways that flourishing happens through what we do, Christianity insists that flourishing is a result of what God in Christ does for us. As St. Paul says, eternal life is the ‘free gift of God’ (Romans 6:23).

Even in Sikhism, which stresses the grace (nadar) of God, ‘man has to strive in order to deserve His grace’ [13] Only in Christianity is flourishing something that happens from beginning to end through the totally undeserved grace of God

Given these sort of contrasts, Christians involved in mission need to think about the best way to explain and commend the distinctive Christian vision of flourishing to those of other faiths and philosophies. As an example, Canon Chris Sugden will now go on to explain how he would go about explaining the Christian vision of flourishing to someone who was a Hindu.

 

[1] A A Anderson, Psalms 1-72, Grand Rapids and London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1981, p.59.

[2] Ibid, p.59.

[3] Ibid, p.59.

[4] Ibid, p.60.

[5] Ibid. p.61.

[6] Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980, p.152.

[7] Eric Costa, Reformation Theology, 14 February 2008,

http://www.reformationtheology.com/2008/02/psalm_1.php

[8] Ibid.

[9] Martin Luther, Three Treatises, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978, p. 286.

[10] Ibid, p.287.

[11] John Webster, Confessing God, London and New York: T&T Clark, 2005, p.128.

[12] Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible with Original Notes and Practical Observations, London: J S Jordan 1802, Psalm 1.

[13] http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/God_in_Sikhism.

M B Davie  16.6.18

 

Ruritania, authority and the Jerusalem Declaration

Introduction

The third global GAFCON conference will be held in Jerusalem next week. Sadly, there are some people who feel that they cannot attend the conference because they cannot sign up to paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration, GAFCON’s statement of faith.

The paragraph in question runs as follows ‘We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.’ In this paper I shall look at why this statement is one that every Christian ought to be able to sign up to with a good conscience and therefore should not be an obstacle to people attending the forthcoming meeting in Jerusalem.

What do we mean by authority?

In order to understand what is being said in the paragraph we need first of all to define what we mean by the word ‘authority.’ The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines authority as ‘the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.’ To say that someone has authority means to say that they have this power or right and to deny that they have authority means to say that they do not have it.

To illustrate this point let’s consider the case of an imaginary country which, for the sake of argument, we shall call Ruritania after the fictional country invented by Anthony Hope.

Ruritania is a monarchy ruled over by a good and wise king. He is a wise and beneficent ruler and his subjects accept that he has the power and right to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience, because they know that the actions that he takes will always be for their good.

One day, however, there is a rebellion in Ruritania. The king’s ministers depose the king, but they continue to rule in his name. However, the actions they take are ones which they decide and they are not for the good of the inhabitants of Ruritania, but purely for their own personal interests. When the Ruritanians discover what has taken place they deny that the ministers have authority to rule over them because, although they claim to be acting in the king’s name, what they are doing is not according to his will, but their own, and is not for the good of the king’s subjects.

What the ministers are doing possesses nominal authority because it is done in the king’s name, but it lacks proper authority because it is not actually done on the king’s behalf and according to his will.

How this relates to paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem declaration.

The example which we have just looked at of nominal as opposed to proper authority relates to what is said in paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration.

According to the Christian faith, God is the supreme king over all the world. He is ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Revelation 19:16). Because God is infinitely wise, good and powerful and always acts for the good of his creatures, he has proper and universal authority. That is to say, he has the power and right to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience, not just in relation to particular groups of people, but in relation to all human beings.

Like the ministers of the King of Ruritania, Christian churches and leaders possess a derived authority. They have the power and right in particular circumstances to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience. As Article XX of the Thirty Nine Articles declares ‘The Church hath power decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith.’ Churches and their leaders can rightly say to people what they should believe and what they should do. However, they act in God’s name and can only rightly exercise authority when they act in accordance with God’s will. When they do not do so they may still possess nominal authority, but like the wicked ministers in our fictional story they forfeit proper authority.

A classic biblical example of this distinction between nominal and proper authority can be found in Jeremiah 23:21-22:

‘I did not send the prophets,  yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council,     then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way,  and from the evil of their doings.’

The prophets whom Jeremiah is denouncing claimed to be acting in God’s name. They claimed to have authority from God to declare that the kingdom of Judah would be protected by God from the onslaught of the Babylonian empire. What Jeremiah is declaring, however, is that the authority they are claiming is purely nominal. They lack proper authority because the message they are giving to the people is not from God but from their own imagination.

A parallel point is being made in paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration. What it means by the ‘orthodox faith’ is the truth about God and his will that has been made known to us, partly through creation, but primarily through the biblical witness to God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel and in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

What the paragraph is saying is that, however much nominal authority they possess, churches and church leaders lack proper authority when what they teach and what they do is not in accordance with the truth about God and his will that has been made known to us in this way. Like the prophets denounced by Jeremiah, they may claim to be speaking and acting on behalf of God, but their claim is bogus and needs to be rejected.

The paragraph then goes on to say that when people have acted wrongly in this way the demands of Christian charity mean ‘We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.’ If we love them as we should, we cannot be content for them to persist in their error, but must rather take action to try to save them from it. Prayer and witness are the two ways in which we can do this.

Throughout the history of the Church both of these points have been accepted by Christians of all traditions. Christians have obviously disagreed in detail about what constitutes the orthodox (or as it has sometimes been called the ‘Catholic’) faith, but there has been general agreement that there is such a thing, that Christians do not have the authority to depart from it in word or deed, and that when people do depart from it Christians should pray for them and call upon them to repent.

The basic theological principles underlying paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration are thus part of the historic Christian consensus and for the reasons given above they are principles which all Christians should be able to accept.

Have churches and leaders rejected the orthodox faith?

Someone might still argue, however, that although they accept the basic principles underlying paragraph 13 they cannot accept the claim being made in it that there are churches and leaders today who have departed from the orthodox faith in word and deed and whose actions therefore lack authority and should be rejected. However, this claim is justified because there is no question that over the past two decades there have been churches and leaders within the Anglican Communion who have departed from the orthodox faith. They have done this by supporting same-sex sexual relationships and same sex marriages in word and deed and increasingly by also supporting the idea that it is right for people to claim a sexual identity that is at variance with their God given biological sex.

When they have done these things they have gone against the truth revealed to us in nature and Scripture that God has created human beings as male and female, with their sex determined by their biology, and that He has created them to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex solely within the bounds of a permanent and exclusive marital relationship between one man and one woman (see Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12).

It follows that they have acted without proper authority and that therefore, as paragraph 13 says, their claim to have authority to act in this way should be rejected by faithful Christians who should instead pray for them and call on them to repent and return to obedience to God.

What all this means is that there is no good reason for anyone to be unable to sign up to paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration and to therefore be unable to attend GAFCON.

What should acceptance of paragraph 13 mean in practice?

What it means in practice is first of all being prepared to say ‘no’ to teachings and acts that lack authority for the reasons described above. If a church or a Christian leader says that the Christians should teach things, or do things, or agree to things that go against the orthodox faith then Christians have to refuse to say them, do them, or agree to them. As St. Peter and the other apostles say in Acts 5:29 when ordered by the high priest to stop teaching in the name of Jesus, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’

Secondly, it means being prepared to call on the people responsible to repent. In line with Matthew 18:15-20 we should first of all raise our concerns privately with them, but if they do not respond it may become necessary to make our call for repentance public in order to bear clear witness to the truth which their actions have called into question (see the actions of St. Paul in response to St. Peter’s separation of himself from the Gentiles in Galatians 2:11-14). We should not make personal attacks on the people concerned, but we should be willing to explain courteously and clearly why we believe their actions are wrong and why we believe they need to desist from them.

Thirdly, it means praying for the people concerned. It will in the end be God through the work of the Spirit who will bring people to repentance and we need to pray seriously and persistently for this to happen. It is not enough to remain orthodox ourselves. We need to care for the spiritual well-being of those who have departed from orthodoxy and this means being faithful in prayer for them.

‘But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.’ Jude 20:23.

M B Davie 16.6.18