A History of Relationship with God in the Church

Friday, June 22, 2007

I've just finished a summer intensive in church history at Asbury and had a chance to explore some of the history of German Pietism, Moravianism, and early Methodism. I've been paying special attention to the idea of a relationship with God and wanted to sketch out a brief history of relationship with God throughout church history.

I'm sure we are all familiar with the church in the Book of Acts, which took off at Pentecost, and was characterized by the infilling of the Holy Spirit, intense community, caring for the poor, and sign & wonders. This carried on in the primitive church, and the persecution of Rome not only was unable to crush the early church, but in fact the persecution seemed to intensify their resolve and enlarge their numbers.

With the "conversion" of Constantine we see the beginnings of a downward trend, as the church gradually became less characterized by the living God in people's hearts transforming lives and society, and instead with an institution of power that represented the very opposite of what Jesus stood for. By the early middle ages we can see that the church is an institution characterized by massive wealth and shocking use of oppressive power and violence. We do see in this dark age occasional glimmers of light in people like St Francis of Assisi or Julian of Norwich who had deeply intimate relationships with God that overflowed into compassion for the poor. But these beacons of relationship with God are mostly drowned out by Rome. This was the time of the bloody crusades and inquisitions, which meant not only that heretics were burnt at the stake, but that more often than not, people were martyred by the Roman church because they exhibited Christ-likness. One example is the Waldesians who from an orthodox standpoint were completely in line with Catholicism. They felt that rather than amassing wealth, they should give what they had to the poor and live among them incarnationally. Because of this they began to gain a great deal of moral authority among the people. Pope Innocent III (whose name as we see is quite the misnomer) was at the time the richest man on the planet, and he saw these humble monks as undermining his authority among the masses. So he ordered mercenary crusaders to invade the town were the Waldesians were and kill them. While they were at it, for good measure, they killed everyone else in the town, too.

So while we do see signs of vital transforming relationship with God in the monastic and mystical movements, the official focus of faith is not one of personal relationship, but rather a mediated faith administered by the institution. Everyone was baptized as an infant, and thus a member of the church. No was choice involved, no concept of new birth existed. You accepted the authority of the church, or you were killed. The point here is not just that this was extremely oppressive and murderous, but that people simply did not have any concept that they even could have a relationship with God, since it was not taught, and no Bibles were available to read. People like Julian of Norwich surely existed. God was there despite the darkness. But they were the exception to the norm. Officially, personal relationship with God was not promoted as an option.

The turning point, as you might have guessed, was Martin Luther who in his "Turmerlebnis" (tower experience) rediscovered the Gospel of salvation by grace while reading the Apostle Paul's book of Romans. Luther describes this in his own words as "like being born again". This rediscovery of the Gospel sadly went into a recession after Luther's death in 1546. By the early 1600's the Lutheran church had become engulfed in the scholasticism Luther hated so much. Large tombs of theology were written with every answer to every question so that if the Lord God himself was unsure on a particular point of doctrine, why he could look it up right there. Pastors would hold long and tedious lectures expounding ad nauseum on these topics that were completely irrelevant to the lives of the congregation. In response to this cold and barren propositional theology that Lutheranism Protestantism had become, German Pietism was born, and with it the resurgence of Luther's own message.

While remaining theologically orthodox to Lutheranism, the German Pietist movement, headed by Philipp Jacob Spener, sought to cultivate in people a living and intimate relationship with God. One of the key ways that it sought to do this was through “Bibelkreise” (meaning "Bible circle" evoking the picture of people sitting together in a circle reading the Bible). These groups were very similar to the home-group Bible studies common in Evangelical churches today. One of the central teachings of Spener was "Wiedergeburt" (born again). This new birth into a relationship with God was at the very heart of German Pietism. Out of the German Pietist movement, Zinzendorf and the Moravians emerged adding a strong focus on evangelism. It was the Moravians who John Wesley met while on a missionary journey to Georgia in the new American colonies. Wesley writes in his diary of his encounter with the Moravian leader August Spangenberg who asks Wesley about his personal relationship with God,

Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?
I was surprised, and knew not what to answer...
"Do you know yourself?"
I said, "I do." But I fear they were vain words.

As is well known, at Aldersgate Wesley did come to the personal assurance he lacked, where his heart was “strangely warmed” as he listened to a reading of Luther's commentary on the book of Romans. It is worth noting that it was the combination of the proclamation of the Gospel message of saving grace, combined with seeing this lived out in the vibrant and personal faith of the Moravians that together resulted in Wesley coming to an assurance of God's love and forgiveness.

Not surprisingly these renewal movements experienced persecution from the institutional churches, now including the Protestant churches. One bewildering example is a decree issued in 1690 under the urgings of the Lutheran officials declaring "private meetings in which the Holy Scripture is explained" as "dangerous" and forbidding them "upon pain of imprisonment"*. This is painfully ironic coming from the denomination of a man who stood before Rome alone with his Bible and translated the Scriptures for the first time in to German so common people could read the good news. As the Pietist renewal movement, centered in a vital and transforming relationship with God, continued to grow in numbers and in conflict with the traditional Protestant state churches, people began to flock to the new American colonies in search of religious freedom. Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, Quakers, and many others traveled to the colonies. It was in this atmosphere that the First and Second Great Awakenings exploded in tent meeting revivals across the new frontier.

In the next installment we'll explore how this idea of a living personal relationship with God took shape in the new world, from the First and Second Great Awakenings, to the forming of denominations, and finally the neo-Evangelicalism of Billy Graham.

* Quoted in Dale W Brown, "The Problem of Subjectivism in Pietism" (unpublished PhD dissertation Northwestern U, 1962) p 86. From Johann Arnds et al. Der Deutsche Pietismus: Eine Auswahl von Zeugnisen (Berlin: Furche, 1921) p 109

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relational theology

Monday, June 04, 2007

Christianity is about relationship not religion. It is a statement echoed in the writings of many a great theologian. Yet while a relationship with God is so central to Evangelical faith, as well as the focus of Scripture, there has been surprisingly little academic scholarship given to relationship as a serious theological methodology.

I've been working on a paper called "An Evangelical Relational Theology: A Personal Relationship with God As Theological Leitmotif". Where I begin to outline a theology based on the frame work of a personal relationship with God. I begin by outlining how relationship should be seen as the goal of Christian theology, and how it provides the foundations of that theology, and then sketch out how a relational paradigm should be applied as the leitmotif for interpreting Scripture and understanding doctrine.

Theology is something that should be done in community, and this is all the more true with a relational theology, so I invite your comments, contribution, and feedback on the article here.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

I was invited by John Lagrou to contribute a chapter to the upcoming online collaborative book that will be available to download from Amazon.com very shortly. Other authors include Andrew Jones, Andrew Perriman, Doug Pagitt, and Scot McKnight. The basic theme of the book will be on the intersection of the interactive technology known as "web 2.0" - blogs, wiki boards, youtube, etc., and how this has effected how we think and live out faith and church.

I'll be talking in my chapter about faith, art, and technology. How faith and art intertwine, and the shape that this takes in a wired world, and the impact this has for independent artists. The proceeds from the book will be going to Not For Sale, a project that is working to end slavery and human trafficking. You can find out more about the book project here: Wikiklesia

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