The Emergent Church

Johann Baptist Metz, Crossroad, 1981

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        ‘Emergent church/ has become a major theme in contemporary religious analysis.  One of the earliest people to develop the concept was the Catholic theologian, Johann Metz.  He uses the categories of messianism vs. bourgeois religion, and then sees the implication for culture and for the Lord’s supper (the eucharist).

        It’s a far ranging book that challenges the church to move beyond its middle class comfort zone, that challenges the church to move beyond its preoccupation of pacifying and consoling.  Metz points out that a bourgeois theology has removed all apocalyptic tensions:  o danger, no contradiction.  Love in bourgeois religion also avoids messianic perspectives.  Love, in messianic religion, takes sides. The universality of this love does not consist in a refusal to take sides but rather in the way it takes sides, that is, without hatred or hostility toward people’ (p 40).

        The perspective of messianic Christianity also affects our stewardship.  ‘The problem of the church’s large-scale aid organizations is not that they exist but that in the minds of Christians they remove this necessary help from its all-embracing messianic content (which includes factors like solidarity, political education and to the will to practical change, and reduce it to a process of the mere giving of money’ (p 8). ‘The worldwide church challenges us in the relation of the rich churches to the poor churches, or, in general, the churches of central Europe to those of the Latin American subcontinent (p 20). Read more ›

The Emerging Church: a Model for Change and a Map for Renewal

Bruce Sanguin, Wood Lake, 2008

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        For Sanguin, the emerging church refers to congregations that are looking out at the horizon for the futures that desire to be born through them (rather than at the past as basis for the present (p 63): congregations making a shift from a redemption-centred evolutionary Christian theology.  This ‘creative emergence’ is defined by three core dynamics:  novelty, self organization, transcendence and inclusion.  We recognize that in Jesus G-d was doing a new thing, especially a radically inclusive development, a ‘radical hospitality’ (p 57).

        He stresses the call of discipleship over the preoccupation with membership (p 58).  In the church’s attempt to see where it is moving to, there is a need to recognize the non-negotiables:  the gospel, the whole bible, the open table, the striving for mission and justice—to get the church into the world (p 60).

        Sanguin identifies four aspects of leadership, based not on technique but on personhood:  self definition, emotional intelligence, the shadow side, and Friedmann’s non-anxious presence (pp 119-128).  Insightful is his articulation of spiritual leadership capacities: stillness, theological reflection, confession and creativity.  He points to the difference between ‘good ideas’ and ‘governing ideas’ (p 65)—he utilizes the Carver governance paradigm, and has a useful analysis of the familiarization of Jesus’ mission statements for congregations:  the kingdom of g-d.  Entering G-d’s kingdom means we exit Caesar’s kingdom; Jesus built a new reality, not simply deconstructing an old one (p 67). Read more ›

An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches

Ray Anderson, IVP, 2006

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        For Anderson, the question of being the church is which church will should be the recipient of our energies; the choices for him are the church in Antioch and the church in Jerusalem.  ‘Jesus launched a movement that was supposed to begin in Jerusalem but was intended to spread outward from there to Judea and Samaria.  It was to begin in Jerusalem but it couldn’t be contained by Jerusalem.  When Jerusalem-centred Christians tried to limit the movement’s daring expansion into and constructive engagement with other cultures, to prune back its continuing emergence.

        Antioch has been the new centre from which the movement could expand (p 4).  The Christian community that  emerged out of Antioch constitutes the original form and theology of the emerging church as contrasted with the believing community at Jerusalem.  The difference between Antioch and Jerusalem is essentially a theological difference (p 56).  ‘Emerging churches are apostolic when they seek to define and make clear the apostolic work of Christians in the present century rather than in the first century (p 38).

        Emergent theology looks toward the ‘final century’, as normative and apostolic, not the first century.  An example of this is the expanded and expanding role of women in the church.  The emerging theology is a theology of the Holy Spirit, of revelational theology (not just historical theology).  Emergent theology is the identification of new directions; emergent theology looks to the structures of the future for inspiration rather than repeating the past. Read more ›

Conscience in the New Testament

C. A. Pierce, SCM Press, 1955

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        This is an old book, but it remains a treatment of a New Testament concept that is not dated.  ‘Conscience’ (suneidysis) is a primary Pauline theme. (It appears 31 times in the New Testament writings, 21 times in Paul himself, 11 times in 1 Corinthians alone.)  It is not found in the LXX, which means that the NT writers who use the term adopted the word and its usage not from the Hebrew world of ideas but from the Hellenistic.

        Conscience is the reaction of the whole person to his own wrong acts (p 113).  Paul introduced the concept into the Christian vocabulary.  He does not claim it as a part of revelation, but accepts it as a universal experience among people with a limited validation (p 113).  Plutarch called ‘conscience’ an ‘ulcer’, a painful thing, an extremely resistant area that never ceases to wound and goad (p 47).  Its function is to protect the individual from harm, physical and moral; pain will rouse the individual to maintain good and safe behaviour (p 53).

        Conscience does not say what should be done, but that the individual sees a moral decision that should be followed based on other criteria.  Nature by Itself cannot say what should be done but that the moral action (the ‘right thing’) should be followed.  Such an approach to the moral life gives the church five duties (p 128): to be a healthy environment (the concept of formation), to influence the secular environment, to present reassured moral options to see Jesus’ life as an example, to follow right habits. Read more ›

Instead of Atonement

Ted Grimsrud, Cascade, 2013

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Grimsrud does a double theological treatment: of penal theory and of atonement theory.

        Penal theory: The difference between retributive and restorative approaches to retaliatory justice.

        Atonement: Are we made right with G-d by the amount of pain to inflict to ‘atone’, to make good, the difference between us and G-d?  Are we condemned to suffer G-d’s anger unless G-d’s disposition toward us is changed?  Does G-d require sacrificial violence? Read more ›

The Crisis in the Churches: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woe

Robert Wuthnow, Oxford UP, 1997

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton, claims that congregational drop in donations, voluntary and personal involvement are the result of a spiritual  crisis, caused in large part by clergy failure to address the vital relationship between faith and money, work, stewardship and economic justice.

        Quoting from clergy and laity interviews in sixty Protestant and Catholic congregations, parishioners often feel the church does not care about what they do from Monday to Friday.

        Wuthnow points to attempts to challenge members to think differently about matters of faith and finance.  Churches are being influenced by the cultural milieu in which we live (p ix).  Of primary interest is a 64-item congregational interview guide that he used in congregational analysis (p 247ff).  Clergy need to continue to emphasize stewardship and its centrality to the life of faith (p 105), featuring its theological significance rather than simply as common sense middle class virtues. Read more ›

The Religion of Jesus the Jew

Geza Vermes, Fortress, 1993

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Vermes, professor of Jewish studies in Oxford University, sketches Jesus’ thought and action based on the synoptic gospels. The book is based on the recognition of Jesus within the earliest Gospel tradition, prior to Christian theological speculation, as a charismatic prophetic teacher and miracle worker, the Galilean whose ethical teaching stood him head and shoulders above the known representatives of the reality of spiritual personality (p 5).

        Methodologically, Vermes treats the New Testament as one particular vector on the general map of Jewish cultural history.  Vermes has a threefold investigation:  Jesus’ relationship to the living Judaism of his age, the idea of G-d as King and Father, and the difference between the Jewish religious and historic ecclesiastical Christianity.

        The most outstanding feature in Jesus’ attitude, Vermes claims, is an all abounding concern with the ‘ultimate purpose of the law not as a juridical entity but as a religious ethical reality, revealing what he thought to be the right and divinely ordained behaviour towards men and towards G-d’ (p 41,45).  ‘The core of Jesus’ religion is not Torah observance, not a search for purity, but the divine king’s single criterion will be whether or not a person imitated him in his deeds of love’ (p 204), ‘extended a loving hand to the distressed’, and recognizing that loving one’s neighbour includes also one’s enemies.’ Read more ›

The Heart of Christianity

Marcus Borg, HarperCollins, 2004

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        What does it mean to be Christian today?  For Borg, there is a way of seeing Christianity that makes persuasive and compelling sense of life—a way of seeing reality, a way of seeing G-d.  An earlier understanding of Christianity makes belief difficult.  This earlier way of being Christian views the Bible as the unique revelation of G-d, emphasizes its literal meaning and sees the Christian life as centred in believing now for the sake of salvation later.

        The second way of seeing Christianity has been developing over the past century, but the two ways share central convictions: the reality of G-d, the centrality of the bible, the importance of a relationship with G-d as known in Jesus, and our need (the world’s need) for transformation.  Both ways emphasize the importance of a personal relationship with G-d.

        Borg calls us to an ‘unending conversation’ between these two ways (what the Apostles’ Creed calls ‘the communion of saints’)—the awareness that we are neither the first nor the only ones.  Borg advances three affirmations as foundational for being Christian:  the reality of G-d, the utter centrality of the Jesus, the centrality of the Bible. Read more ›

Jesus of Nazareth

Maurice Casey, T & T Clark, 2010

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the U of Nottingham, Casey stresses the need to see Jesus against the background of first century Judaism, to see the historical Jesus as Jewish.  Further for Casey, the reconstruction of the Aramaic sources of the synoptic gospels is an essential step in understanding Jesus against the background of his own culture.

        (While Casey carefully points out implications for exegesis of an Aramaic background, he does not do so in a way that negates the value of the exercise for a lay reader who does not have fluency in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic.)

        Of special interest is the framework of Jewish apocalyptic (cf Albert Schweitzer).  Casey sketches the quest for the historical Jesus, from Schweitzer to Crossan, looking at the contribution of form criticism, and Jewish NT experts such as Vermes, Meier and Sanders; he has some cutting remarks about the Jesus seminar (p 20).  He comments that the oldest documents are the synoptic gospels (at least Mark and Q) but apocryphal gospels also need consideration (and Casey’s Appendix includes them—eg Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Thomas). Read more ›

The Historical Jesus

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, Fortress, 1998

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        It’s an older book but of current relevance.  It is a contextual picture of Jesus, understood in the context of Judaism and the local, social and political history of his time.  The Historical Jesus details the sources for our knowledge about Jesus, and explores the historical and social context of Jesus and his activity.  It’s a book that not only summarizes the ways in which Jesus is studied, but the results of that study and the process by which a fuller picture of Jesus emerges. 

        At 642 pages it’s a large volume that contains not only study of the Christian canon but of the apocryphal gospels and other relevant material.  The book is wondrously inclusive and dialogical, giving key components of the biblical material.  Eg geographical and social framework (Galilee), the activities and preaching of Jesus (including a section on the women around Jesus), concept of the Kingdom of G-d, Jesus’ miracles and parables, Jesus’ ethics, the Passover, the risen Jesus and the beginnings of Christology.

        A key section deals with the Last Supper—was it a Passover meal?  The book grapples with key issues of exegesis and history, but in a way that looks at the major issues, not at arcane concepts of interpretation. Read more ›