Wednesday 19 January 2011

Three Assertions - by John Stevens

Some interesting things have been happening to John Stevens over the years since Christine and I met him at Exeter University. Not least various events last year. I've been trying to get his thoughts onto here for a while. Here they are: that Christianity has split into schisms,but that all is not lost...but in fact if anything finding itself again, that there is a state best functionally described as evangelical atheism , and that Christianity isn't so much about being saved from....but saved in order to....

The three assertions
1. It’s difficult to lose things
2. Evangelical atheism is alive and well
3. The aim of Christianity is not so much to populate heaven but to populate the earth with the sons of God

Roughly translated number one is concerned with unexpectedly stumbling across hidden treasure; number two is to do with real spirituality replacing false notions of doctrine; and number three? Number three almost speaks for itself.

It’s difficult to lose things.

Jesus said ‘for nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to the light’.

I love these ‘Confucious says’ type aphorisms. My hunch is that they express universal spiritual truth that is blindingly obvious to anyone with an ear to hear and that Jesus applied these truths to the many contexts that he was immersed in. It cuts both ways. On the one hand the hidden (evil) leaven of the Pharisees would eventually come to light in the grotesque manner in which they rid themselves of that inconvenient and dangerous Jewish upstart, Jesus, and on the other hand the gospel - a minority pursuit in 1st Century Israel would also come to light and transform the lives of countless individuals and civilisations.

The truth is that I often lose things temporarily quite often. After the blissful ignorance of the loss is shattered frustration and frantic searching set in and threaten to overwhelm me as I search desperately for my keys, or my diary, or...well it’s usually my keys or diary. It doesn’t take long before I find my whole being is pouring out prayers to God to help me find ‘it’ ‘after all Lord, You know where it is and, by the way, I’m sorry for being a clot – again. Have mercy...please’. In direct proportion to the anguish and reminder of personal weakness is the sheer joy on finding the lost item. Smiles, sometimes tears, certainly woops, and probably impromptu dancing all tumble out and life it seems can begin again.

In 1054 the church finally split in what has been known as The Great Schism. Jerusalem had long been replaced by three great centres of Christian leadership; Alexandria (in the West), Rome (in the middle), and Constantinople (representing the east). The great split – which some say would have occurred anyway due the increasingly different geographies, language, political persuasions and cultures at play – divided the church into two halves; Alexandria and Rome in the Catholic west and Constantinople in the Orthodox East.

So deep has this schism been that each ‘church’ has, over time, developed its theology in different directions. My assertion is that some of the good news landed up in the East and some in the West and there has been a mutual sense of loss. But Jesus said there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed – and I believe Him. Perhaps our blissful state of ignorance of what we’ve lost is about to experience a jolt?

One of the criticisms of the East of the West is that the Western version of Christianity – meaning, at the time, the Bishops who looked to Rome - bases its theology largely on reason and thus exalted the mind above the heart. Symptomatic of this approach, says the East, is the appeal to Greek philosophy and in particular the philosopher Aristotle 384 BC – 322 BC.

Thomas Aquinas 1225–1274AD lived near Rome at the time when Aristotelean literature became freely available in Latin. Aquinas’ influence on western civilization cannot be underestimated. He was known as a teacher and philosopher and – despite the overthrow of the Aristotlean geocentric universe in the 16th Century - Pope Benedict XV 1854 – 1922 declared that ‘The Church has declared Thomas' doctrines to be her own’ and to this day they are used in the preparation of the Catholic priesthood. Fifty years after his death he was canonized as St Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas developed much of his theology from St Augustine of Hippo. The Orthodox Church, for example, has a high regard for St Augustine of Hippo (354–430AD) as does the western Catholic and Protestant church. St Augustine is considered by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and a great theologian; in the East he is considered to be a saint but not a theologian!

A theologian in the east is someone who demonstrably ‘knows God’ through direct spiritual experience and engagement with the divine – called ‘theoria’ - whilst in the west a theologian’s personal experience of God is not considered to be important at all, simply his or her ability to make sense of spiritual and biblical interpretation.

You’ll search in vain, for example, for an Eastern Orthodox commentary on Romans that explains salvation in terms of a forensic courtroom scene between
God the righteous judge and the guilty sinner in the dock awaiting the intervention of Christ to take His punishment so that the judge can pronounce the verdict ‘Not guilty. Justified and acquitted’.

In the West the emphasis to explain salvation is to ask ‘saved from what?’, in the East it is far more ‘saved for what?’.

Late in Thomas Aquinas’ life he had a direct experience of God. He said the effect of this experience was for him to realise that all his work had been like ‘straw’ alluding to 1 Cor3v12,13 ‘if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest for the Day will declare it, it will be revealed by fire’. As a consequence Aquinas dedicated the final two years of his life to the reconciliation between East and West but died two months before he had a chance to attend the Council called in May 1274 to attempt this reconciliation.

Watchman Nee (Normal Christian Life p150f)

speaks of one of the consequences of Adam eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as leaving man inheriting an ‘over developed soul’. So fallen man is left to attempt to live a life from the soul rather than, as has been made possible through Christ, from the life of His Son. (Chris has written fairly extensively about the in-built deception in this soul-living as if man can live without spiritual power and how fallen man, in fact, ‘walks according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience’ Eph 2 v 2)

James A Fowler ( has written an extensive examination of Christ in us and Christ as us in the light of the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of ‘Theosis’; otherwise translated as ‘divinisation’ or ‘deification’. His article will go far further than this little jab or provocation to realise that what perhaps was lost in the great schism cannot be lost forever.

God regularly allows us in our fallibility to lose things. There is something deeply human and therefore deeply divine in the joy of finding the lost. It is beyond emotion. It contradicts systematic searching – often a waste of time – and, like running out of petrol, it is often when we have spent the last drops of our own will that the wretched and beautiful lost object reveals itself. If God is opening our eyes to see what has been hidden by western theologians (and here I include Catholic and Protestant together) let it be. God will do what Aquinas could do not.

Theosis directs our attention to seeing ourselves as a living temple in whom God lives; and as Jesus Christ was 100% human and 100% God so, in Christ, God has come to dwell in us. To say more is to drift from the point of assertion one that God will bring to light all that is hidden. It’s the way things are.

ps If you are after a shorter version of James A Fowler’s article maybe start with the October 2008 Christianity Today article ‘Keeping the End in View’ by James R. Payton Jr. To quote: ‘Orthodox understanding of theosis reminds us that salvation is less about what we get than about what God gets. It is about his purposes being accomplished in us’

Evangelical Atheism

The strangest things can become quite appealing. This is one. I’m using the word ‘evangelical’ not to describe unemotional, grey suited, black-bibled church goers. Nor am I restricting the definition to those who believe in the infallibility of scripture or, indeed, ‘sola scripture’. Contained in those five syllables are those who are rejoicing in Christ and the salvation he has procured for them through His death and resurrection. You’re the guilty one and God has had mercy on you and declared you acquitted and justified. The charges levelled at you have been dropped; nailed to the cross in fact. Christ has taken the punishment you deserved and you are free to go. And this is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I can barely sing the following verses without falling apart at the seams:

And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior's blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine;
alive in him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ my own.

But, good as this is, this is also where the deepest trouble begins. This forgiven sinner, free to exit the courtroom, declared an innocent and justified man, is forgiven but not changed. If that is all that Christianity is then we are right to use language like ‘forgiven sinners’ for that is what we are. Many have lived lives so transformed by this wonderful salvation that maybe this is what it’s all about. In gratitude for this amazing love the forgiven sinner amends his ways and sets about life with new determination to do x, y, z. But this is a form of atheism. Not atheism in a philosophical sense declaring that there is no God, but living a life, full of thanks to God for salvation but now left with the human task to ‘work out his salvation with fear and trembling ‘.

There may well be teaching given to enable the believer to see that he has received the free gift of righteousness and or eternal life. But essentially the ministry of the church is complete, the gospel has been preached and the sinner has believed, has received the grace of God and all is well. But all is not well because God is a wind, He’s an oil, He’s Spirit, He’s alive. He cannot be detached from His righteousness, or His eternal life, or His holiness.

The evangelical atheist is a believer who has never drunk of the Spirit, never realised that the widow’s pot is to be filled with oil, or that the cross and resurrection has led to some fundamental change for the believer. No longer a slave to sin but a son. No longer a sinner in Adam but a new creation in Christ. And if a son then an heir a co-heir of...let’s leave that for a moment...but a co-heir with Christ.

Through Christ dying for us we receive the contents of the Will and Testament, the New Covenant, we have become co-heirs with Christ. What do we receive? What’s in the Will?

‘The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of GOD and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him together’ Rom 8 v 16,17.

We receive God Himself. We really do. This is what is taught in the Eastern Orthodox Church under the banner of ‘theosis’ hence the emphasis on experience rather than analysis and comprehension.

Is this right brain v left brain? Both are good but those of us in the west must realise that our discomfort (i.e. rumbling that rationality is insufficient in spiritual matters) is divine and that we need all that is in Christ not just the ‘western portion of Him’ if you can forgive that crude description.

And this goes for Pentecostal, Charismatic believers who now have the Holy Spirit poured into a cup that still hasn’t been fundamentally changed. Maybe you’ve had a baptism in the Holy Spirit experience and you speak in tongues. That is wonderful. Maybe your life is forever changed and you have a greater expectation of God doing all manner of amazing things. And that is good. But deep down, under the robes of righteousness, you’re still wondering whether anything has really changed or whether underneath it all there is still a ‘forgiven sinner’ i.e a sinner who has been ‘covered’ with the blood of the Lamb but only to ‘hide’ the sinner. There has been no real change. This thought is there and you battle with it. On Monday you think it’s from the devil and so you ignore it. On Tuesday you think it’s gone and you get a fresh filling anyway so the thought recedes. But on Wednesday it’s back and you’re questioning your sanity and you suppress the thought. (If this is you, by the way, God loves you – you know that. Understand that the question is not entirely from ‘you’ as if you are independent from God. The question has come from deep down and the fact that you’re asking it is an indication that the Holy Spirit is leading you into the truth as Jesus said he would. Be encouraged!).

And this also applies to ‘Christ in you as you’ believers. The thing is not only that we rejoice in all that Christ has done but that we live in the now experience of the grace of God, the continual outpouring of His grace to us, through us, and as us in the world.

Galatians 2 v 20 is familiar territory but it goes on to say ‘and I do not set aside the grace of God’. We may know we have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me’ but, in reality, shut the door. All the while God is encouraging us – who have read the manual and understood it – ‘come on My son, you can do it, walk in My Spirit, see I am pouring out my grace on you today just as I did with Jesus. Listen to Him. ‘I do nothing of Myself’. He knew that before He did His first miracle. He did this every day. Now it’s your turn.’

Let me tell you I struggle with this. I am as forgetful with spiritual things as with material things. I look at my bank account and I think that is the amount of money I have and forget that it’s not mine. I teach Chemistry and the Laws of Physics knowing but forgetting the greater reality that enabled Jesus to walk on the water. I make plans in my head and ignore the small voice saying ‘phone Louise’. And then I remember that God is not there to answer my prayers but to teach me to live like Jesus, as Jesus in this world and everything changes. My heart is open and I know that glory and suffering are my meat and drink. I’m walking in the Spirit.

Populating the earth

God, perhaps to our surprise, is very keen on reproduction. It’s programmed into our DNA literally and, if you want to keep soul and nucleic acids apart, our psyche. But the real truth ultimately is spiritual in nature and to do with abundance and life. Fruitfulness is written into the fabric of biblical revelation from Genesis to Revelation. It starts with man eating fruit and ends with the same: ‘the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month’ Rev 22v2.

Jesus said ‘Most assuredly I say to you unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone but if it dies it produces much grain’ John 12v 23.

This perspective on the purpose of His own death takes us beyond understanding the crucifixion as solely a substitutionary or representative death. Here, the clues scattered about scripture and under our own noses, find their fulfilment in Christ.

Place one apple seed in the ground.
The seed has to die. If you hadn’t thought about it the seed contains the nutrients for the new plant to get its initial food as it grows under the ground making its way inevitably to the surface. The seed that is placed in the ground is not dead. It may look dead but it is – in homage to Monty Python – dormant! It is resting. Whilst it’s in the ground it is alive but in its dying and eventual death it brings forth new life. And that life is genetically identical to the life in the seed.

How does this translate to Christ and us? Jesus the seed dies on the cross and the life of Jesus is reproduced in us. Just as the life of the new apple tree is derived entirely from the life contained in the tree so us. We are a new apple tree and our life is the life of the Son. This is great. God has achieved His eternal purpose in Christ to bring forth sons; a race of men united with His Son whose life is the life of the Son. But perhaps there’s something more?

Commenting on the Parable of the Tares Jesus says: ‘He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one, the enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is at the end of the age and the reapers are the angels’ Matt 13v36.

The picture here is of the sons of God being sown into the earth. Just like Jesus. Seeds are sown under the soil so we can look again at John 12 - with a twist. Jesus’ whole life was a form of dying. His death on the cross was the finality of that death and the guarantee of the resurrection as with a normal seed. The same is true for us. It is true that God has made us His sons in Christ. And this is wonderful. But it is with this dual purpose for suffering and for glory; the one contingent upon the other. We have the same DNA as Jesus – I speak metaphorically of course.

If we grasp this we can read 2 Corinthians in particular with a few Amens. I could quote many verses in 2Corinthians that deal with this but two are sufficient to turn everything upside down:

‘...we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death to death, and to the other the aroma of life to life ‘ 2v15,16.

Many commentators assume that Paul inverted the order; death to death for the unsaved and life to life for the saved, but not so. Paul’s perspective throughout 2Corinthians is ‘dying’ that others – those being saved - may have life.

He continues:

‘we are...always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our then death is working in us but life in you’ 2Cor4v10,12.

If we see salvation mostly in terms of a substitutionary sacrifice we will be full of gratefulness but left with some bothersome questions about sanctification and discipleship. We will be plagued with the thought that the ‘old man’ is still alive and kicking and needing improvement which becomes for us a life-long and hopeless pursuit of sanctification and holiness. We will be waiting to go to heaven where at last all the rubbish will have finally dealt with and we have finally escaped and be home with the Lord. We may have various experiences of God including baptisms of the Holy Spirit but questions remain.

If we realise that we were included in the crucifixion and are now found in Christ as a new creation, a ‘son of God’, part of a new race in Christ we are rejoicing that Christ not only forgave our sins but dealt with our sin by our crucifixion with Christ then we see Christianity differently: as an exchanged life. The life of the Son is now our life. We walk in this world as a copy of Jesus Christ; a living temple with God in the temple. We become partakers of the divine nature. We don’t become God but God makes us His sons and lives in us. Our experience of God tallies with our theology.

Now we understand that God’s purpose is not simply to populate heaven but to sow His sons now in this age in the Earth. We who share in His life now live as Him. We now are grains of wheat. And one way or another we experience death; ‘the dying of the Lord Jesus’ as Paul puts it.

Like Jesus we don’t go looking for suffering, neither do we embrace it cheerfully. Remember Jesus’ anguish as He prayed great drops of blood ‘if it is possible take this cup away from Me. Nevertheless...’. Paul equally writes: ‘for we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of our trouble in Asia that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life...that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead...’.

Isaiah 53 prophesied of Jesus that he would pour Himself unto death. Paul said echoed this in two places:
‘I am being poured out as a drink offering’ (Philippians 2:17)
‘I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand..’ (2 Timothy 4:6

In conclusion

I’ve tried to capture the process going on in me.

Assertion One: revelation, greater understanding
Assertion Two: a calling to true spirituality
Assertion Three: ‘ooo-er’.


Robert Hagedorn said...

But what IS the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

Chris Welch - 07000INTUNE said...

This is really like an episode in proverbs..the two contradictory verses which show that if you answer in the left-brain you're basically stuffed...
26:4Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
5Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.

Without knowing the man's pathology
do I assume
1. he's with Stonewall and trying to target Christians with anal sex talk
2. he's straight, but gets some sort of heterosexual thrill out of getting Christians out of their territory into sex talk
3. he really is an intelligent man, maybe professor, who some university or newspaper is funding, so he has plenty of idle hours to think endlessly , which in the light of the world's problems, and say various of my friends in Africa, could best and more constructively used to help them...but universities need waffle, and newspaper pages need filling.
4. Who is Robert Hawthorn, sorry Hagedorn, and why did he stop at anal sex, when Adam's job was naming all the animals? Or is sinking the conversation to sex with animals something for 10 years time? This is the great thing about the left-brain if used like an idol. It can create these incredible culdesacs which you can direct people down, while moving on to create new ones, by which time nobody holds you accountable. It's great. The whole of Karl Marx's Das Kapital falls into this genre. Who is ever going to prosecute the intellectual purveyors of this virus for the fact that priests were crucified upside down on prison walls by these regimes? History moves silently on....and nothing is ever said.