Briefly Noted: History with a Beer Chaser; Or, Why Theology is Best Done in Community

Not at Southeastern Seminary, mind you, but at Ithaca College. That’s where they have a Beer’n’History club. So writes Michael B. Smith in a recent edition of The Chronicle Review (Dec 14, 2012). In the article, Smith tells the story of a small group of faculty members who get together regularly to dialogue about history, writing, and life. As Smith tells it:

Having ranged in size from four to six members, the Chapter House writing group—aka Beer’n’History—has helped midwife 10 books and nearly a score of articles and book chapters, a powerful testament that we have succeeded in our purpose. As publishing has become an ever more significant part of the reward system in academe, Beer’n’History has been indispensable to all of us, both for encouraging our scholarly productivity and for celebrating the craft of writing. But above all we value our gatherings for the way they embody what too often seems to be missing from academe: trust, honesty, and the absence of hierarchy.

Smith goes on to delineate the benefits of this small community of scholars. First on the list is the vigorous and rigorous exchange of ideas; the conversations are sometimes heated and often humorous as everyone at the table engages fully and honestly with the ideas being set forth. But equally significant is the friendships they’ve built that go far beyond the campus borders. “The camaraderie and trust forged around those tables,” he writes, “have not only enriched our lives as academics but also led to collaborations on home renovations and soccer fields, to an annual intergenerational family football game the day after Thanksgiving each year, to canoe trips to the Adirondacks.”

Smith is “spot on” about the value of a close circle of peers doing their scholarship and writing together and at the same time building friendships that go beyond their scholarship. The first time I remember reflecting upon the value of such friendships was years ago during my M. Div. studies when philosopher L. Russ Bush told the story of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ famous friendship, of the walks they took together, the hours they shared at The Eagle & Child, and the countless discussions and debates which sharpened them both. The second time I was forced to reflect upon this was during my Ph. D. dissertation stage, sitting in Stanley Hauerwas’ office. Dr. Hauerwas was my external dissertation adviser, and he graciously gave me upwards of 15 hours helping me with my dissertation. During that time, he mentioned several times how much he had benefited (personally and professionally) from the friendships he had built over the several preceding decades.

Since then, I’ve increasingly become convinced of the value of community for theology and scholarship. A sound theology puts our feet on this sort of path. First, God created humans to be relational beings. Second, our human propensity towards idolatry has deleterious noetic effects which can be lessened because of the positive influence of community. Third, God saved us for relationship with him and his church (universal and local). God created us to be thoroughly social and communal beings, and this need for relationships remains and is even enhanced in the aftermath of the Fall.

What does “theology in community” look like in practice? Each person’s situation differs, but for me, there are several ways this works out. First, I have chosen to co-author or co-edit many of my writing projects, including the manuscripts I am working on right now. If a book or essay is co-authored well, it might take more time to write than if one writes alone. The authors discuss, debate, write, re-write, and then discuss and debate some more. I am a far better theologian (or perhaps a “less deficient” theologian) because of the influence of friends such as Heath Thomas, Keith Whitfield, Craig Bartholomew, and J. D. Greear. Second, I’ve been blessed to hold informal “theology and coffee” or “theology and mission” discussion groups with students. Most semesters, this lasts from 6:30 a.m. until 8:00 or so, as we read through a book, discuss the ideas, and pray together. The lively exchanges we’ve had have benefited both student and professor.

Third, I am enjoying a Tuesday lunch appointment with 8-10 colleagues in which we discuss theology and life, and share more than a little laughter. Similarly, we have impromptu Earl-Grey-and-Chat meetings during some late afternoons in my office. Fourth, I thoroughly enjoy doing theology in my local church context. God’s church is in fact the primary context for receiving the word of God, and I remain profoundly grateful to my church and to certain friends in particular for sustaining me theologically. Fifth, I am grateful to global Christians (Asian, African, Middle Eastern) who teach me much about the gospel. Finally, I cannot fail to mention the great theologians of yesteryear who provide substantive and sumptuous theological fare for our benefit, and who help point out blind spots in our 21st century theologies.

So, if you’re a Baptist friend, I heartily recommend that you find a group similar to Smith’s Beer’n’History club. Maybe you can call it Milk’n’History. Or Cheerwine’n’Theology.



What is the Missional Gospel? Part 7: Concluding Thoughts, Challenge to Define, and Timely Question

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 7: Concluding Thoughts, Challenge to Define, and Timely Question

By Keith Whitfield

(2) Being missional is living a life that is shaped by the Mission of God

With the broadening of the idea of mission, we must have a clear understanding of the relationship between the missio Dei and the mission of God’s people/the church. This is not a new concern. Many have offered proposals on the relationship between the missio Dei and the mission of the church. What I want to propose is that the missio Dei is accomplished in and extended by the church. In this section, I will demonstrate how the missional life is shaped by God’s mission. Under the next heading, we will look at how God’s mission is extended by the church.

The church is the “body of Christ” and the kingdom of God has dawned in the church. The reality of God’s kingdom in the life of the church is captured by Paul when he says the “old age” is gone and “new age” has come for those who are in Christ (Eph. 4:17-24). The church is called to live a life that is shaped by the reality of the “new age.” All of this occurs under the authority of Jesus Christ while being led by the Spirit (Eph. 2:13-22, 4:1-4).

If God’s mission is to establish a kingdom where He is known and praised, then the church as a kingdom people are to dwell with God through His Spirit and enjoy His blessings. The kingdom life is a life of blessedness. The blessings of God for His people may be generally characterized in three New Testament words: faith, hope, and love. C. S. Lewis set these aside as “virtues” that only Christians truly know. Ireneaus notes the missional aspects of these virtues, saying:

His disciples, the witnesses of all good deeds, and of His teachings and His suffering and death and resurrection, and of His ascension into heaven after His bodily resurrection-these were the apostles, who after (receiving) the power of the Holy Spirit were sent forth by Him into all the world, and wrought the calling of the Gentiles, showing to mankind the way of life . . . By faith and love and hope they established that which was foretold by the prophets, the calling of the Gentiles, according to the mercy of God which was extended to them; bringing it to the light through the ministration of their service . . .

Through faith, hope, and love; the life of the kingdom in this age is lived. Faith believes the redemptive promises of God. Hope holds onto the eschatological promises of God. Love characterizes the life built upon faith and hope. Love demonstrates joy in God’s redemptive promises as the community of believers fellowship with and serve one another. Love also shares God’s redemption to the world, seeking to reconcile the world to God. People who live by faith, hope, and love form a new type of community, a gospel community, where the church enjoys their redemption in Christ and where the Church is a sign to the world of the redemptive power of God.

Why should these things shape the church’s mission? They should because Christianity is not looking for victory within history. Faith, hope, and love demonstrate that the victory of God transcends history but gives meaning to all history. They are three divinely ordained and powerful ways for the church to subvert their social and cultural context by demonstrating that there is someone outside of their context worthy of our life. These blessings can be used in the arts, sciences, education, and politics. These virtues may be displayed in pursuing social justice and caring for the poor. The church does such things in faith and hope as a testimony that they are part of a perfected kingdom, not of this world. They do so in love as those who know God’s gracious reign and embody it, and seek for others to know God’s gracious reign. The church does so in obedience to their commission to the one who has received authority over the heavens and the earth (Matt. 28:18). This commission calls us to go everywhere Jesus has authority and to work in every sphere of life where he has authority to make disciples from all mankind and to teach them to obey Christ in every sphere of life.

(3) Being Missional is being sent on the Mission of God

There is a danger that exists with connecting the church’s mission and living the kingdom life as I expressed it above. Some people might think that if the church simply embodies the gospel in their culture, then they are doing well to all men, and they need to do nothing more. Our response to this would be that the mission of God is to make Himself known. The only way that He makes Himself known is through conscientious faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ to forgive sins of sinners through His death on the cross (John 14:6).

Therefore, the church cannot be satisfied by simply doing good to all men and seeking to restore justice and order to culture separate from seeking to make God known through the gospel of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6). Ultimately, justice and peace only come as a result of right relatedness to God, which come only through personal faith in Jesus. This message must be verbally shared to individuals in order for people to hear it (cf. Rom. 10:14). Being a kingdom community and taking the fruits of the kingdom into one’s culture to be a blessing to the culture does not fulfill the evangelistic calling of the church. The church is sent into the world by their Savior to proclaim that there is forgiveness of sins and redemption.

It is timely: “Missional” is used 21 times in the GCR Interim Report

The GCR Task Force recently articulated a “missional” vision for the Southern Baptist Convention. They proposed:

As a convention of churches, our missional vision is to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations.

This may seem a bit like I am playing a game with semantics, but in truth, the use of “missional” in this report is not directly in step with the way the term is typically used. It seems to me that what we have is a vision of what we seek to accomplish. That is not a critique of this goal, but merely an attempt to clarify the use of the term. “Missional” is a big missiological concept that ties theology, awareness of culture, and strategy together and offers a clear direction as to how we will act as missionaries. The advantage of the term “missional,” and the reason that it has received so much popularity is that it is a big concept that communicates a comprehensive approach to being a missionary.

We have the makings of a robust missional vision for the SBC in the GCR interim report. It begins with the conviction behind the vision they articulate, which is the urgent belief that SBC’s need to pursue the fulfillment of the Great Commission in a more faithful and effective way. A new theologically-driven and missiologically-strategic vision is needed to address this conviction.

The strategic plan for accomplishing this vision began with proposing a set of core values, designed to stimulate a new and healthy culture within the Southern Baptist Convention. These core values are a great start at creating a missional shift in our convention. We have in these core values a reflection of Kingdom living, so that with the adoption and integration of these, the culture of our convention will in fact be shaped by the very gospel that we are proclaiming. As a body of churches, shaped by these values, we will function as a sign of the power of the gospel. What is needed next from the Task Force is an exposition of each core value to help us see just how these values help us create the type of convention culture that will assist us in engaging Western and global cultures with the gospel. This reflection, I believe, will prevent these from being merely platitudes and leverage them as a part of the “missional” strategy of the GCR.

Following these core values, the report includes five components. These components direct and position the work of our mission agencies in a more strategically focused way in light of changes in western and global cultures, as well propose strategic changes to the allocation of funds in order to get more of our financial resources on the International mission field and to encourage SBC churches in their Cooperative Program and Great Commission giving. This too is a great start.

If we are going to have a truly missional vision for the SBC, we need a vision that expresses not merely what we are seeking to accomplish, but a comprehensive vision that connects the theology of our mission to how we seek to accomplish it-a vision that shows how we are directed, shaped, and sent by the mission of God.