A New Project

Centre Street Baptist Church is a part of a denominational family- Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ). This family, along with other regional denominational families in Western Canada and Atlantic Canada, as well as the French Union, together support our mission a discipleship organization Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM). As a part of that Canadian Baptist family, we proudly support CBM field staff through the Partners In Mission (PIM) initiative. Our partners, Michael and Melanie Waddell, are currently on home leave due to COVID, but their work in the Philippines continues, through partnerships that have been formed, and initiatives on the ground which continue to proceed in doing great work.

CBM has been hard at work developing ways for our Churches and missionaries to remain connected and for the work to continue. What that creative work has resulted in is the Hopeful Gifts project, which is not a new idea, but a new way of doing it. So, Centre Street has now signed up to be part of this initiative supporting Faith + Work initiatives in the Philippines.

What is Faith + Work doing? This project supports sustainable local business initiatives, to provide training and seed grants etc to support local communities and individuals. This is a practical way to alleviate poverty, provide financial security, and develop communities. This includes farmers and artisans needing a small boost to get ahead. This is a tangible way to positively impact the lives of others.

How you can get involved:

  1. Donate to any fundraising team member. Pick a team member, and donate online.
  2. Become a team member. On the Centre Street Faith + Work website you can click “Join Team”, and the begin engaging friends, neighbours, family, co-workers, etc. Share the link so they can donate online and track our progress on the website.
  3. Just share the link on your own social media or by email so others can see and contribute to an amazing work.

To read more about this project, join our team, make a donation, or get the link to share, visit Centre Street’s Faith + Works page. This project runs until December 31, 2020.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is possibly my favourite holiday. It lands in my favourite season. Our observation of Thanksgiving largely revolves around food. It normally means gathering with the family in one place. There isn’t the same level of chaos that comes from doing Christmas with small children. I do, of course, love Christmas and Easter, but as a clergy person, those occasions, though filled with joy and reflection, are also exhausting. By Boxing Day and Easter Monday, I’m usually toast. Thanksgiving is in some ways easier.

Normally.

But this year isn’t normal.

What do you do when it’s not normal? Gathering everyone together isn’t feasible this year for most families. So many have lost jobs because of COVID. Many are in grief. Others are dealing with fear. Many are struggling without their normal social supports, and encouragements.

I’m part of that age bracket that believes sitcoms haven’t been the same since Seinfeld ended. I mean, there are good sitcoms still, but it’s not the same as the glory days. But among the best episodes of Seinfeld is, of course, the Festivus episode, in which Frank Constanza’s made up holiday of Festivus is explored. Among the key features of Festivus observation are putting up the bare aluminum pole, “feats of strength”, and perhaps the most important part: the airing of grievances, when everyone gets to dump all their complaints against one another. In a year like 2020, it feels weird to have a moment when we are expected to express gratitude, and might feel more natural to set up the aluminum pole, wrestle each other, and commiserate and dump all our grievances. 2020 is just more suited for Festivus than Thanksgiving.

We could certainly go through some biblical passages that encourage God’s people to rejoice and give thanks, even in the midst of difficulties. Habakkuk ends with the prophet announcing that in spite of the catastrophe his people were experiencing, he would rejoice. The prophet Micah announces that though he’s down, he will rise, and will remain faithful, and look to God’s light. Lamentations contains a lengthy description of suffering and national disaster, but in the middle, the author announces boldly that there is hope because of God’s faithfulness and the possibility of a new day and dawning of new mercies from God. The Psalms are full of songs of defiant joy in tough circumstances. The New Testament epistles encourage the earliest Christians to hold on to hope and joy in the midst of trials and suffering. Unpacking all the examples would take an extremely long time.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians wrote “Rejoice in the Lord always”. And some days, I wish I had the means to speak directly to Paul. I might have some Festivus grievances for him. Rejoice always? Isn’t a pandemic a time to tear clothes, put on sack cloth and ashes? Isn’t lament a more appropriate response than rejoicing? We all know there are occasions when rejoicing feels inappropriate (and in reality, definitely is inappropriate)- a funeral for a child for instance. The same man who wrote “Rejoice in the Lord always” also wrote “Mourn with those who mourn”. Grief and mourning are appropriate. Rejoice always needs some unpacking. As Qohelet also affirms:

“There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Eccl. 3:1).

Thanksgiving is a time we set aside for gratitude. But COVID has pushed us into a season of frustration, fear, discomfort, loneliness, and all sorts of other feelings. So can we simultaneously have gratitude for the good, and frustration about the negative? Yes. So, if you have that tradition of using Thanksgiving to make a list, keep that up this year. Even if you’re tempted not to. Festivus is not that far off. Don’t pretend like the bad stuff isn’t there, or doesn’t affect you. Just remember that the bad things aren’t the only things. It’s hard to avoid the tunnel vision, but it’s a vital practice to keep that perspective. This will allow us to persevere in the difficult days as we hold out hope for the better days. Thanksgiving is different this year, but perhaps it’s actually more important than ever.

COVID-19, Anti-intellectualism, and Faith

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” (Matthew 11:25-26)

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore something which was an area of interest and investigation of mine during my time as an undergrad at an evangelical (specifically Baptist) university. I had more than one conversation with one of my history professors, whose area of expertise was North American evangelical intellectual history, about anti-intellectualism in the evangelical world. We discussed Mark Noll’s influential work The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind among other things. The Church where I was discipled was in a university city. My pastor had an engineering degree as well as his theological training, and was working on a doctorate. I was surrounded in that congregation by mainly well educated, white collar professionals; professors, lawyers, accountants, and other really well-educated people. It wasn’t until my university years I ran into this reality of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical world.  Without going into too much detail here, there does exist a current of this hostility to academia in evangelicalism, in part because of the close ties with fundamentalism which rose up in reaction to the Enlightenment. There is, in this trend, a skepticism of higher learning, science, and especially academic theological studies which include critical study of Scripture (“critical” here does not mean it is criticizing or demeaning Scripture, but a social/historical/scientific approach to studying Scripture, manuscripts, history of reception, redeactions, etc).

COVID-19 seems to have shown the world more of this trend, as churches defy directions to remain closed in many areas, refuse to follow advice from health officials (or in some cases explicit orders from law-makers) regarding closures, masks, social distancing, etc. Many have shouted aloud that this is impinging on freedom of religion, or is part of an attack on Christianity by “leftists”. Many shout we need not listen to these directions because “God will protect us”. Some seem to flaunt and glory in their defiance of the experts, and imply that this is a sign of godliness. While it may seem to some like this fits with Christ’s call to have “childlike” faith, and not trust in the wisdom of this world, I’d strongly object to that take. In Matt. 11, Jesus praises God for hiding “these things” from the wise and learned. Does this mean God is against learning, expertise, science, and we ought to not listen to experts? Is Jesus anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-expertise? Should we reject the direction of those telling us not to gather as per normal (even here in Ontario where gatherings are permitted with certain restrictions)? No. For three reasons:

  1. The greatest command, said Jesus, was to love God with our whole selves, and the second is like it; love your neighbour as yourself. Reading through the New Testament, you will find multiple instances of Christians called to place the needs of others above their own. These restrictions which have been put in place are for the protection of everyone. To love my neighbour, I should heed the directions to keep distance, and encourage people, especially the medically vulnerable to remain at home, wear a mask in case I have unknowingly been exposed and have not yet shown symptoms. To insist that people should come to Church is to ask my neighbours to take irresponsible risk and put themselves in harm’s way. This is unloving.
  2. Paul encourages the Christians in Rome (ie. those living in the political centre of the Empire) to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7) because God has a purpose for government. Does government always live up to their calling? No, of course not. The world is not a perfect place. The Roman government was hardly the ideal picture of God’s perfect justice. But Paul had a concern that the Church not make a name for themselves as disobedient, seditious, or anti-government. This was in part for their own safety (the “don’t poke the bear” approach to interactions with power structures), but also because of our call as Christians to be people who seek to make peace. Yes, we call on our government to act justly, and we owe higher allegiance to God. This may at some point put us in conflict with authority. Yes, the Church is meant to gather regularly for worship, for mutual encouragement, for breaking bread, for hearing and meditating on Scripture. But we also have alternative means of communication. No it’s not the same, but a temporary halting of gathered worship is manageable and we will be ok for a time. Since the government’s directions are in line with the command to love our neighbours, and we are under no pressure to give up our convictions, and we can still do a lot with the technology we have, we have a responsibility to heed the call. In this case, the direction to not gather in large numbers is not to prevent the spread of the Gospel, but to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
  3. Most importantly, there is an important exegetical point to be made regarding what could be- and sometimes is- read to be a biblical mandate to be anti-intellectual. When Jesus praises God for hiding “these things” from the wise and learned, we have to ask what are “these things” and who are the “wise and learned” Jesus is speaking of? “These things” are those noted in the immediately preceding verses regarding the rejection of the prophetic word (and John specifically) and the “woes”, the warning of judgment on Galilean towns because of the unwillingness to hear and welcome the Word made flesh. The learned and wise are religious leaders, not government officials, health agencies, scientists, etc. Jesus is not saying Christians should not listen to experts in their field. When Paul speaks of the wisdom of the world as foolishness (1 For 1), he is not saying modern medicine is wrong, and we should simply trust in God and nothing bad will happen. The Bible never makes any such promise to Christians, in fact, it regularly points out that life will have difficulties, and we ought to walk wisely. The wisdom which Paul is speaking of is not expertise in science, medicine, etc. He is speaking of a worldview which cannot comprehend a Christ who suffers and dies by crucifixion; a Messiah who is counted as a criminal and a disgrace. This is not a license to ignore the advice of the educated and trained experts in their field when it comes to safety and public health.

Centre Street has decided to take a slow, cautious approach to reopening. This is not because we lack faith in God. This is not because we are capitulating to the demands of an ungodly system seeking to crush the Church. We are doing this because we care for one another, we care for our community, and we want to do this the right way, ensuring the safety of everyone. I am very thankful for the fact that this congregation seems to be of one mind on this. There has not been any push internally to open up sooner. We do see around us some Churches opening with strict regulations in place. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of local churches flaunting anything, or being reckless. For this, we are thankful. But as we watch the news and see things from the USA, it’s disheartening to have churches and individual Christians so often at the centre of spikes in COVID-19 infections. Sadly, there is a possible exposure situation in an Aylmer church. This stems from a funeral service. Hopefully there are no further infections. But this is why churches have to be very cautious. To our congregation, I say thank you for your solidarity and patience. I look forward to being able to be together again. We will continue the live-stream after we recommence for those who are still not ready for whatever reason. We totally understand. We know some have medical conditions that make them vulnerable, and we want everyone to feel a sense of belonging to this family to the best of our ability.

Until then, I am praying for you all, and wish you a wonderful summer, and expect calls in the near future from myself or another leader.

A (Sort of) Book Review: Ever Ancient, Ever New

Winfield Bevins. Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

I was incredibly excited about this one. Sometimes when you look at a book you think “this was written just for me”. That’s basically where my mind was on this one before I dove in. Winfield Bevins, Director of Church Planting at Asbury Seminary, sought to depict something of the movement of millenials and younger GenXers back to high liturgical forms of Church. As I’ve noted elsewhere, even though I am part of free church movement, I absolutely love “high” liturgy type worship. and the Spiritual practices of these traditions (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican). I find the forms work really well for me, keep my easily distracted mind engaged, and are saturated by Scripture, beauty, wonder, and (this may sound odd) a logical structure.

On some levels, this book came up short (more below), but it did resonate on a lot of personal levels. The stories of folks discovering the beauty, rooted spirituality, and discipleship potential of liturgical traditions was reassuring to find. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this.

Ever Ancient, Ever New is divided into three sections: “Foundations” which looks at some trends observed in movements away from consumerist influenced evangelical churches to traditional, “high liturgical” ones; “Journeys” which looks at some of the reasons why this is happening; and “Practices” which provides some basic laying out of what these churches look like for those not familiar with the practices. Without being overly harsh on evangelical free church forms, he critiques the forms for their occasionally consumerist approach in which things are driven by the quality of the worship band, charisma of the preacher, and hip look of the worship space. In a culture where GenXers and millenials want more than a performance; they desire a community in which they are fully engaged participants, the forms of high liturgy can speak powerfully, as worship is intentionally structure to facilitate the participation of all voices with the leaders, each other, and most importantly with God.

What I found did not work is that it is primarily anecdotal, with no real hard data. Is this really a significant trend, or did Bevins find a few examples of this and from that suggest a general trend? Is this a trickle, a tsunami, or a leak in a dam about to busrt? I realize Bevins wasn’t conducting scientific research (though I suspect some data is available somewhere which could have been cited?). This is mainly an exercise in letting the stories and experiences of others be heard. But I’m interested in whether this is something isolated to a few pockets or real movement. The stories help personalize things, to understand motivations straight from the people involved, but perhaps the stories should be illustrative rather than the core. He’s asking why this is happening, without establishing what is actually happening.

The second issue I had was in the “Practices” section. It was quite shallow, giving just a few paragraphs which don’t really depict how and why these practices are done, just that they are done. For example, the description of Lectio Divina does not explain the four aspects (lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio). I would have hoped for more on that. The section on practices, instead, is primarily focused on the intersections of worship and mission, especially the interest in social justice. This is good and important, but it doesn’t answer the question of where those liturgical practices come from, the biblical/theological underpinnings, why they matter, and how they can be done for beginners. Bevins leaves out a lot of the information on why and how the liturgical tradition developed the way it did. How did the Church at the time these traditions were established understand Scripture, theology, worship, prayer, the Eucharist, and their place in the world? Andrew McGowan’s outstanding work, Ancient Christian Worship examines these roots, and some of that would speak powerfully in Bevins work.

Overall, I think Bevins achieved his goal of sharing the experience of those who have discovered something eye-opening and live-giving in liturgical traditions. He allows the voices of those for whom this is their reality to speak without getting in the way and adding too much of his own commentary. He has written something which can be picked up and understood by a general audience, and because it comes from a publisher which usually produces material for those not of the high church tradition, it has the potential to engage an audience which may benefit from hearing these stories, and understand more of the history of worship and church identity.

New Logo Design

Thanks to Sandi at Van Pelt’s Business Solutions for helping us put together a new, not yet official, logo design for Centre Street. This is part of our new push to increase visibility in the city of St Thomas. Often when I mention that I am the pastor at Centre Street, people ask “which one is that?” When I say downtown, on Southwick St, just South of Talbot, people say “The green steeple or the purple steeple?”. Church steeples have always been meant to make that particular church easy to find. Our beautiful steeple, with the “bat” at the top (it’s a dove, but we’ve been asked why we have a bat there, and have been called the “bat church”, though not because bats occassionally find a way in- which does happen in old buildings like ours). Our building has stood in the central part of town since 1879, and our steeple is visible from quite a distance. The original steeple was burned after being hit by lightning, but was quickly rebuilt. This new logo captures our desire to make ourselves known, to demonstrate to the city who we are, and more importantly to fulfill our mission to share God’s love and the Good News.

A (Sort of) Book Review: Contesting Catholicity

Curtis W. Freeman, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I sometimes find myself not fitting in comfortably among Baptists, but still very much rooted and unmoving from my people. I know I don’t lean towards the more fundamentalist/conservative evangelical camp, and I’m not entirely comfortable among the “liberal”/progressive camp either. Sometimes those of us who don’t fit in either group get labeled the “muddy middle”, implying perhaps that we’re unclear, or wavering, or unwilling to take a stand one way or the other, or that we’re trying to be some sort of via media between two warring camps to avoid controversy. Curtis Freeman calls folks like us “other Baptists”, but seeks to develop a vision for Baptist theology which is neither “liberal” (I hate using that term for theology, but that’s another story for another day) nor fundamentalist, but is something other than an attempt to sit in between, but to move beyond that battle. Contesting Catholicity builds on earlier work by James Wm. McClendon Jr, Steven Harmon, and others trying to break free of the fundamentalist-liberal battles which have characterized Baptist theology since at least the 19th century, both sides of which Freeman suggests (echoing McClendon) are unsustainable.

Freeman explores Baptist history, to demonstrate that early Baptists attempted to chart a course within the stream of (emphasis on small c) catholicity, but as contesting voices within that community. Echoing Harmon, Freeman suggests recovering some of that heritage can provide a renewed vision of Baptist theology which is rooted in the historic catholic identity but distinctly Baptist. In part one, Freeman explores the current situation, the “sickness unto death,” which characterizes Baptist theological conversations and the alternate visions cast by the two camps. He suggests that the solution is to develop what he calls a “generous liberal orthodoxy”, which is not liberal in the sense of the common usage of that word as a pejorative label which refers to leaving behind traditionalism in favour of subjective, experiential redefinition of religious truth, but is liberal in the sense of making use of the tools developed in modern scholarly work to be put to use within the confines of confessional orthodoxy. This “liberal orthodoxy” is also “generous” in making space for ecumenical dialogue and resourcing from differing camps within, an also beyond the Baptist boundaries.

Part two then lays out some theological areas for building a foundation for Baptist theology. The areas he proposes for this foundation include: 1) a robust (Nicene) trinitarianism; 2) a vibrant priesthood of all believers (with a refined/clarified vision of soul liberty/competency); 3) a deeply communal ecclesiological space for doing theology (in contrast to the often individualistic trends of both fundamentalism and “liberal” theology); 4) a discerning approach to biblicism which allows room for “more light from the word” through a “communal hermeneutic”; 5) an “evangelical sacramentalism” which views baptism and the Lord’s supper not as “magical” but not as “mere symbolism”, which is to think little of them and makes them optional, but as actions performed in the presence of God which have an ontological impact; and 6) a willingness to rethink the relationship between baptism and membership, as the typical closed membership approach of requiring believer’s baptism by immersion for membership for confessing Christians, which reduces baptism to a means to join membership in the local church, rather than an entry into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This book is incredibly encouraging and objectively well-written. Freeman presents extensive research in Baptist historical primary sources, from a variety of documentary sources (sermons, newsletters, tracts, books, confessions/faith statements, etc.) and perspectives (particular Baptists, general Baptists, Southern, British, etc) which develops a diverse picture of Baptists through the 400 years of our history. Freeman draws Baptist identity out from under the attempts to homogenize or revision the origins of the Baptist tradition. The final vision is of a theological framework for Baptists which taps into all the resources our history has at its disposal. The vision is robust, anchored in a solidly orthodox foundation, but also able to make room for conversations, clarity, nuance, and diversity in practice in order to respond to the needs “on the ground” for each local community- and the local community is very much at the heart of Freeman’s vision. Thus, this vision allows for greater ecumenical work with other traditions, while not losing a distinctively Baptist identity. Freeman does not seek to impose a set of “set in stone” doctrinal positions which should define Baptist theology, but a set of core principles which define the space for theological exploration and a vision for what Baptist theology can do and should be doing.

Odds are, this vision will rub both fundamentalists and “liberals” the wrong way, but I think that may have been the point- to generate a vision which is “other”. However, the risk in this is that the “other baptist” vision may simply turn a two party battle in a three sided battle. On the flip side, by developing a vision for “other Baptists”, Freeman clearly marks out the possibility of a theological space which is not stuck in between two parties, but is something else- not a muddy middle trying to survive in no-man’s land between the two sets of trenches refusing to take a hard stand. Instead “other Baptists” can present a robust theological vision which is not rigid, but not wishy-washy either. The vision Freeman offers needs to percolate and be refined some more, but it is a very helpful starting point for an important conversation. As an “other Baptist” myself, it is encouraging and vital to have this book at my disposal for framing my own theological vision, and leading in a Baptist congregation where theological specifics are diverse but all are seeking to faithfully live out our calling as contesting voices in the Church catholic.

Book Review: The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence

Matthew Curtis Fleischer. The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence. Oklahoma City: Epic Octavius the Triumphant, 2017.*

The Church has been wrestling for a while in an attempt to come to grips with the violence described in the Old Testament, and in particular with the fact that this violence appears to be not only permitted, but commanded by God. The command to Israel to commit large scale acts of violence towards city-states and Canaanite tribes as they entered the promised land to establish the Israelites in the land as the covenant people seems at odds with Jesus’ emphasis on love, and the New Testament depiction of salvation going out to all nations, making peace, and the final vision of Revelation of people from every tribe and language worshipping God. Many theologians have undertaken to vindicate God from the impression that he is (or at least, during a certain period of history, was) violent, and perhaps even genocidal.

Matthew Curtis Fleischer is not a professional, academic theologian. He is an attorney. The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence is not a scholar (or wannabe scholar) presenting a new interpretation of the Scriptures in order to revise or correct everything we think we know about the Old Testament. Instead, he takes the approach one would expect from an attorney; presenting expert testimony from theologians to a general audience to convince them his position is correct. This is therefore not a revolutionary book, but a condensing of recent work (scholarly and popular level) on the subject of the violence of the Old Testament, read in light of the New Testament and ancient historical context, for the benefit of a non-expert audience to see a more nuanced reading of difficult texts. His thesis centres around the notion of “incremental ethical revelation”; that though there is violence depicted in the text which God endorses and directs, that violence happens within a historical context where the rules of engagement by which Israel is instructed to operate actually demonstrates a movement which was an ethical improvement to the norms of the ancient world, and through the prophets and wisdom literature, the Old Testament moves Israel in a more nonviolent direction, which is fulfilled in the New Testament. But this vision is already laid out in the Old Testament, argues Fleischer. God does call for war against the Canaanite tribes to clear the land and be the covenant people in that land, but he instructs Israel to avoid the imperialist war machine mentality of other kingdoms; to not expand beyond the borders God provided, to avoid large standing armies and building up of weaponry, and trusting in military might for security. The prophets call the leaders of Israel to turn away from shedding innocent blood, and establish justice. The wisdom books, especially Proverbs, speak of violence in negative terms.

Fleischer is, as noted, not making a new case, but bringing together the work of other theologians, so he leans heavily on key thinkers, most of whom come from, or draw heavily from Anabaptist nonviolence traditions (Copan, Yoder, Sprinkle, Boyd, Zahnd and several others). But is his case convincing? At times, yes, it is. He is correct in noting that God places strict limits on Israel’s abilities to make war, prohibiting a standing army, discouraging Israel from establishing a king “like the other nations” (1 Sam. 8) to curb the temptations towards expansionism, nationalism, and authoritarian government. It is also correct that Jesus does “fulfill” the Law, not by setting it aside, but by setting higher bars, and placing the interpretive emphasis on the holiness code of Lev. 19 and the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” and to take the higher road and not demand eye for eye retribution, but turn aside from violence, which was permitted, though limited to one to one.

But there are holes in Fleischer’s case. I think he’s accepted some problematic interpretations of certain narratives. Two examples stand out; first, he argues that Israel was an “underdog” when invading Canaan; that the Canaanites had superior weaponry and sophisticated armies, and Israel was a small, under-equipped group. Yes, Jericho had walls, but if we accept the testimony regarding Israel’s size from the Torah, and note that Canaan was essentially small, independent city-states, the largest of which had populations in the thousands or possibly tens of thousands, Israel is not really an underdog. Fleischer applies the same underdog narrative to David and Goliath, which is simply misleading. The narrative actually implies that David’s sling is not a liability, but a strength, and Goliath’s armour is not a sign of his superiority, but the thing which holds him back. What we see instead, is a wise young man bring a deadly projectile against a slow moving, and foolish man in cumbersome armour. In other words, David brought a gun to a knife fight. He’s hardly the underdog except in the perception of the people around him. We’ve created these images in our flannel-graph Sunday School mentality that says “trust in God and he will help you overcome obstacles that seem impossible”. But the text argues that wisdom allows you to see potential vulnerabilities, and arrogance blinds you. These narratives actually work against the case Fleischer is making, since they both show large scale violence glorified. Let’s not forget what happens after Goliath is brought down; a massacre involving mutilation of the Philistine corpses which is celebrated by the narrator. He also neglects to really wrestle with the prophetic depictions of God’s violence in judgment. Yes, the prophets called for Israel to turn away from shedding blood, but they also anticipate significant carnage when God’s judgment is finally brought to bear on the nations. Even Jesus and the Apostles anticipated that God would ultimately bring judgment against sin, and that his response would involve acts of violence. So, there is still some glossing over a lot in Fleischer’s case.

But perhaps the weakest aspect of Fleischer’s argument is the final chapter, in which he asks questions about biblical authority, and though I can sympathize with him to a certain extent, he has pushed beyond what evangelicals would consider an proper view of authority of Scripture. Yes, the bible is not a person of the Trinity, but it is also a product of revelation to humanity of himself and his work in the world. So while the Old Testament confronts us with things which we may not like, our approach to the text should be one of allowing the text to say what it says and be what it is. If something doesn’t fit our bigger narrative we adjust our narrative, not the meaning or authority of the text.

In terms of style, it is meant to be suited for a broader audience, so it isn’t highly technical. Since he’s building a case as a attorney would in legal proceeding, he does sometimes repeat things to drive home a particular point, but at times this makes the book more lengthy than needed. Given it’s intended audience, more brevity would have been welcome (comes in just under 250 pages). Added to this, the fact he is bringing together the words of several authors on the topic, including several long, paragraph length quotes, things end up becoming a bit drawn out. But the most problematic issue on style is the use of end of chapter endnotes. Given the number of citations, footnotes would have been a significant improvement.

Overall, this book serves it’s intended purpose, by bringing together key, relevant witnesses on the side of a nonviolent reading of Scripture. The arguments and authors he draws from are relevant, and arguably the best sources on the subject. The case is laid out in a way that makes it easy to follow the development of his thesis. He leads as an attorney would through the main points to build an argument. He doesn’t present the counterarguments of those who disagree extensively, but occasionally notes opposing views, and does so charitably, and avoids the ad hoc and ad hominems too often employed. For those seeking a summary of the case without diving into large tomes like the recent work of Greg Boyd, this serves as an accessible and fair presentation of the evidence in favour of this view. I have significant sympathies for most things Anabaptist, and though Fleischer is apparently from a Nazarene/Wesleyan background, many Wesleyans and Anabaptists (and even a few Calvinists, like Preston Sprinkle) are finding common ground on this subject. I wouldn’t say his case is without weaknesses, and it does need to be nuanced, but it is a worthy presentation of his case.

*An advanced reader copy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Matthew and to his publisher.

Christ at the Centre

Sunday, October 29th, 2017. 178th Anniversary service. “Christ at the Centre” Speaker: Pastor Emeritus, Rev. Dorman Quinton.

Book Review: Of Seeds and the People of God

Michael P. Knowles. Of Seeds and the People of God: Preaching as Parable, Crucifixion, and Testimony. Eugene: Cascade, 2015.*

Michael Knowles, a professor of mine at McMaster Divinity College, previously wrote a masterful book on Paul’s theology of preaching (We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation. Brazos, 2008). This more recent book builds from that book, looking at Paul again, but spending more time on Jesus parables, the Gospel according to John, and homiletic theory (focusing on Augustine, Barth, Brueggemann, and Ricoeur) to expand the thesis which is foundational in Knowles’ teaching of homiletics and missional theology- that both the content and the form of preaching must be formed in a cruciform way, that is, anchored in the self-emptying love of Christ demonstrated in the incarnation and death of Christ, which provides the hope of sharing in his resurrection. The message of the Gospel which is preached must also be embodied in the life of the preacher, and the act of preaching, or as Knowles repeatedly reminded us “preaching is predicated on spirituality”. What this means for the preacher, is that preaching must an act of self-emptying, of setting aside self to elevate Christ, and allow the Holy Spirit to bear fruit through our obedient acts. In a world of celebrity preachers, and the never-ending temptation to preach in such a way as to impress the audience and build a reputation as skilled orator, this approach to preaching is sorely needed. Throughout this book, Dr. Knowles skillfully hammers home this point, and over and over again calls preachers to take up their crosses and imitate Christ in their ministry of proclamation.

Knowles begins with the parables, suggesting that one pervasive theme in many parables of Christ is surprising (even at times absurd) results, which are beyond the control of the participants- the gracious Divine provision of abundance. Knowles links this with Paul’s theology of preaching, which declares that in his weakness, in his self-abasement, God produces a harvest; that the success of his ministry has nothing to do with his own skill or strength, but with a surprising divine provision of grace, and the results themselves are evidence of the grace he proclaims. Knowles suggests that the parables point us to a striking conclusion: that the act of preaching is actually meant to serve as a parable for the message it proclaims. We proclaim a Gospel of God’s provision of grace through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, to meet our need, and the act of preaching itself should embody this. In the same way we cannot come to salvation of our own abilities, but require the intervention of God. Fruitful preaching cannot be of our work, but must be an expression or incarnation of God’s grace at work through the preaching of the Gospel.

Knowles then combines this with Jesus’ own statements about his own ministry, especially in the Gospel According to John, that he does nothing of his own accord, but only that which the Father sent him to do, and he does not speak his own words, but those of the Father, and he does not glorify himself, but is glorified by his Father through his own complete obedience and self-abandonment to the will of the Father.

The section on homiletic theory was, for me, the weakest section. It dragged quite a bit, and grappled with technical, abstracted theory, which I sometimes appreciate, but is not where Dr. Knowles is strongest (and I think he’d admit that).

The concluding chapters brings all this together to emphasize that preaching is an act of bearing witness and “Parabolic Testimony”, that is, both in the content of the message (we testify to the Gospel which we’ve heard, and received) and the method of presentation, we testify to what we have encountered and experienced. To preach a message of the grace of God, we must first know the grace of God, and rely on that in our proclaiming of that grace. Preaching is not an act of devising clever and persuasive arguments, but should resemble the testimony eyewitnesses in a courtroom bring. The Apostles announced what they saw and heard- that the promises they had heard announced in Scripture had been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit to the Church. Their message, and method of preaching directed attention away from themselves, and towards Christ, and demonstrated that the message was not their own, but empowered by the Spirit. Knowles uses this as a paradigm for modern preachers- that the ultimate fruitfulness of our work comes from the Spirit-empowered preaching of the message of Christ crucified and raised, bearing witness to the grace poured out to the preacher who must be crucified with Christ in each act of preaching.

This book is best read together with We Preach Not Ourselves, but is, I believe an important work which in many ways runs counter to so much of modern homiletic teaching. The theology of cruciformity is well established now, and Knowles application of that to preaching makes a vital connection which has been explored by some more broadly in terms of mission and discipleship, but not to the ministry of preaching specifically. Dr. Knowles has thus effectively filled a void with a book which sums up and reflects his years of work bringing together biblical theology and homiletics. Having been a student of Dr. Knowles, I’m incredibly thankful for his books now, as they build on the foundations he provided, which made (and continue to make) me a better preacher and pastor. I’d strongly recommend this book to all preachers, as it is both meaty (in regards to biblical theology, spiritual theology, and ministry praxis) but also highly encouraging and relevant to our weekly schedule of tasks and expectations. If absorbed and lived out, Dr. Knowles suggestions will make better preachers, and more fruitful local congregations; of that I am quite certain, not because Dr. Knowles is brilliant (though, of course, he is), but because he faithfully bears witness to Christ, and his commitment to forming better preachers has always reflected it. His words carry even greater weight for those of us fortunate enough to know his character and faithfulness; his life and his words align, testifying to the truthfulness of his words.

*Wipf & Stock/Cascade kindly provided a free reviewers copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks.