Friday, January 21, 2011

Contemporary vs. Apostolic Christianity

Sifting through papers the other day, I came across notes on a contrast between contemporary versus apostolic Christianity. I don't recall the source from which I obtained it (for some reason I didn't write it down).

No doubt, some will view the contrast here between "contemporary" and "apostolic" forms of Christianity as too simplistic. And to some degree, there's truth in that objection. Reality is always more messy than the ideal types we construct to try and get a handle on it.

However, if it's true that the Episcopal Church drinks a bit too deeply from the wells of such counterfeit gospels as the Therapeutic, Judgmentless, and Social-Club gospels (among others), then this contrast is at least worth pondering.

Bracketing for the moment whether one is better than the other, which one of the following seems more familiar in the preaching and teaching you typically encounter in the Episcopal Church?

  1. Descent: we pull Christ down into our mess and ask him to fix it for us.
  2. "Christ for us."
  3. Focus on the realization of human aspirations (self-realization).
  4. Content with a "relationship" with Christ.

  1. Ascent: we strive to grow in the image and likeness of Christ.
  2. "Christ in us."
  3. Focus on the deification of humanity (theosis).
  4. Through waging war against the passions (e.g., through fasting and ascetic struggle), strives to achieve union with Christ.


JC Fremont said...

Over at the Celtic Anglican blog a question about whether preventing the use of the 1928 Prayer Book is a good thing or not wound up raising the issue of contemporary worship style. I was prompted to chime in:

...I have a thought on the all-contemporary service style. You’re correct in thinking the emphasis is on entertainment, or, rather, that the emphasis is on “feeling” good. I think that winds up with the service being about the worshipers rather than about God. I know plenty of people who are put off by that. Mega-church members are not put off, and most just show up because they like feeling good.

No doubt some are seekers, but the congregations of that type that I’ve seen fall into the category of “crunchy bobo”…bourgeois bohemians who want church to be what they want it to be. I think that’s a recipe for making the church conform to secular society, and I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion. My two cents.

Another way of putting it is that the contemporary style is human-focused, the apostolic style is God-focused. The former follows the Zeitgeist, the latter doesn't.

Dale Matson said...

Fr. Brian,
Another way to understand J.C. Freemont's post is the contrast between what Luther called the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory. Part of the many problems with TEC is it's love affair with the concept of "Context" wanting to localize it to the contemporary. Christians are not and never were a behavioral product of their contemporary culture nor did cultural relevance take center stage. We are to be in but not of this world. Anglican Christianity has always seen us existing in a timeless culture and that is one thing that I see abandoned like so much excess baggage by TEC Leadership.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, JC and Dale. Perhaps a posting on the idolatry of "cultural relevance" is in order.

Looking over the points under the heading of Contemporary, I might nuance the first one a bit. Instead of just pulling Christ down into our mess and asking him to fix it for us, sometimes the idea is that, in the Incarnation, Christ came down into our mess - not to fix anything - but to tell us how much God loves and accepts us. In such a scheme, the Incarnation amounts to God's blessing of what is as it is. And so, in the effort to be a relevant chaplain to the culture, we trivialize the realities of sin and evil by distorting one of the central tenets of the Christian faith.

Anonymous said...

I've heard it said that the theologies fashionable in PECUSA and other progressive provinces can be summed up as "Theology of the self-reverential" - perhaps faddish for times of plenty and peace, but merely fit for the trash heap when times gets really tough or tragic.

hawk said...

I can agree that what constitutes the Gospel is often a moving target in many traditions including ours. Yet, when I consider the preaching task, many of the themes presented in the past two posts are worthy of reflection, especially when considering the totality of the life of faith. Some mornings a congregation needs to hear the sermon "you are accepted" and other mornings the congregation needs to hear "repent for the kingdom of God is near." Jesus' own preaching and teaching covered a wide range of topics and themes, and the preaching task is to illuminate these teachings in light of the paschal mystery.

If you were to come into the church I serve on a fixed Sunday and evaluate the sermon, you would probably discover that the good news declared was an inadequate reflection of the totality of the Gospel. Yet, if you were to come Sunday after Sunday and listen to a number of sermons, I believe the totality of the Gospel is proclaimed.

I am struggling with the last two posts because I feel that in attempting to narrow the Gospel to its original intent (like a conservative Constitutional think tank) , these theologians are negating the fullness of the Gospel. I don't want to suggest that the Gospel is malleable, but I do believe that context plays a role in how the Gospel is understood and proclaimed. Yes, the Gospel is the same for a urban businesswoman in Tokyo or a San bushman in Central Africa, but the Tokyo businesswoman and the San bushman may have to hear the Gospel proclaimed in different ways in order for their eyes to be opened.

Dale Matson said...

The only change required in context across cultures is vernacular. The Holy Spirit provides the understanding. I expanded on my comments in a blog posting about context. By the way, your switch from an Element to a Truck makes sense to me.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Hawk and Dale.

Hawk, I agree with you about the impossibility of presenting the gospel in its fullness in any given Sunday sermon. And yes, context - rightly understood - plays a role in how the gospel is proclaimed.

What I find troubling is that many of us within the Episcopal Church and across the Anglican Communion cannot agree on something as basic as what the gospel is! And so, while it has its risks, I think it is helpful to try and clarify the meaning of the gospel and to distinguish it from counterfeit gospels.

In the process, we do well to resist the temptation to reduce the gospel to a single proposition or set of propositions (as important as propositions are). That's born out by your point that we can't convey the fullness of the gospel in a single sermon on any given Sunday - we need the fullness of the church calendar year because the fullness of the gospel takes the form of a narrative, not merely a set of propositions. So perhaps a good place to start is to think of salvation history as a five-act play.

Dale Matson said...

I believe the Lectionary helps us with a Gospel lesson every Sunday. As someone who constructs Homilies, The Gospel lesson is the focal point. I look for this in the other readings. I believe it should always point to the Eucharist. Even the music selected contributes to the overall experience.The Lectionary also helps keep our message balanced. The Gospel proclaimed each Sunday is a microcosm of the Gospel presented over the three year cycle.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, Dale. Thanks.

Just Me said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed the recent posts and have read them a few times. I will quote & link them both as I work through putting into logical thought the many puzzle pieces currently scrambled in my head.
In the meantime, thank you so much for posting these.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Just Me.

The Underground Pewster said...


5. The Apostles are problematic.