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Stephen N. Williams

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College, Belfast, where he has taught since 1994. His book The Election of Grace: A Riddle without a Resolution? aims to offer a coherent account of the doctrine of election while arguing for a diminished role of system in Christian theology.

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Another book on election? If this doctrine has caused problems for centuries, the problem is hardly likely to be solved now. Perhaps not, but it is worth asking whether the problem’s persistence is accounted for by some presupposition in the way it has been set up.

The Election of Grace tries to make some fresh suggestions — or to put some old suggestions in a fresh way. I mention here two of the main ones. Firstly, it asks whether we make a mistake in looking for a system. If a thinker has some ideas surrounding the whole question of election — let’s call them A, B and C — it is natural to ask what is the relation of A to B, B to C, A to C, and so on with all the letters of the alphabet. We look for the consistency of system. However, Scripture asks how A is related to life, how B is related to life, and how C is related to life. Within human experience, things hang together which are troublesome if we look for their inter-relation in a relatively abstract system.

The Election of Grace

Secondly, where we naturally contrast God’s predestination of some people to eternal life with God’s passing over the other people, Scripture regards things differently. The contrast is between God predestining some to eternal life and giving to those who reject the gospel the genuine chance to respond positively to it. We may not be able to explain this contrast within a system, but then the fault is ours for seeking a system. When predestination to life is contrasted with passing over some from predestination to life, the matter is usually explained in terms of mercy and justice — in mercy, God predestines some to life; in justice, he leaves others aside. However, if the real contrast is between those predestined to life and those given a genuine opportunity to respond positively, then it is not a case of mercy versus justice. It is merciful to give those who refuse a genuine chance to respond. So the contrast is the contrast between two forms of mercy, even if justice also enters into it all at some point.

Is it worth going over all this ground? I think so. It remains the case that many people are put off or bewildered by the doctrines of election and of predestination. (The book makes some distinction between them, but there is also overlap.) It is worth asking whether we have to approach things in a different way from the way normally done. This is the aim of the book.

Click to order The Election of Grace by Stephen N. Williams.

Our friend and former Internet marketing assistant Jacob Thielman may have bidden farewell to Eerdmans last fall, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten us — or our books — in his new life. After a recent encounter with Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, he sent us the following reflection, which we’re pleased to share with you today. 

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“Not only through tacit approval and acquiescence has the Christian Church indirectly given its approval to lynch-law . . . , but the evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds its outlet in lynching.”
— Walter White, national secretary of the NAACP, 1929

Jacob Thielman

Jacob Thielman

When I was a student in the Chicagoland area, I once took a trip downtown to visit a daycare sponsored by a student organization of which I was a part. We played with kids of single parents, kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to a paid daycare, kids who had nothing good to look forward to after school, kids with slim chances — all racial minorities. We didn’t kid ourselves that we were providing much meaningful help, or about the education we were getting about ourselves in the process. At least I didn’t. But it was something, if barely.

As we left that night, a police cruiser pulled up beside our little band (which was made up entirely of white college kids) and asked what we were doing in this part of town after dark. There was a certain sneer in the officer’s voice that I couldn’t identify. We were exhorted to be careful and advised to go home. A friendly warning, I suppose.

Last fall, here in Grand Rapids, a young black man who goes to my church was stopped by a police officer in the neighborhood in which he lives. He was riding his bike. He was questioned vigorously and treated as a suspect for crimes unknown and nonexistent before the officer finally let him go.

In her book Dear White Christians, Jennifer Harvey makes it clear that these unequal experiences are the rule, not the exception. Or better, they are the norm, the system, the facts on the ground. They are material realities not solved simply through amending our attitudes or our speech.

But Harvey’s book is not directed to police officers who profile young men based on their race. It is directed to “justice-minded” Christians — people who, as the subtitle suggests, are still longing for racial reconciliation despite the failure (for all its successes) of the Civil Rights Movement to achieve it. And Harvey’s question to people like me is very simple: how can we, as white people, continue to call for reconciliation when the material damage that was done through slavery and the era of Jim Crow goes unaddressed — and in fact continues to have material consequences that are perpetuated often by the very people who claim to long for reconciliation?

Harvey sketches a brief history of the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to lend some context to this question. She makes the telling point that while slavery cost many black people and families everything — impoverishing, disenfranchising, and even incarcerating multiple generations of innocent people — reconciliation does not cost those who have benefited from this oppression anything at all. To reconcile is, it might appear, free. No wonder it’s so popular! You would be crazy not to say you are for reconciliation.

Dear White Christians

Dear White Christians

From this perspective, even the statement that reconciliation is “inadequate” itself falls short; as if this sort of action or attitude were even on the correct scale. The “reconciliation paradigm,” as Harvey calls it, must give way to a “reparations paradigm” which seeks to address the material harm that white people have brought about and benefited from.

It seems to me that in this racially charged environment — an environment which, as I have seen, stretches from the toughest ghettos to the sleepiest suburbs — the least our experiences merit is an honest conversation about white responsibility among those who are still holding nearly all the cards. Dear White Christians invites white people into that uncomfortable conversation about their material responsibilities, given the history of material injustice into which we have all been born.

The chilling quote above, cited from James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, rings only too true to a white southern evangelical like myself. There is, on its face, nothing wrong with evangelical fervor, but its abuses run so far and so wide that it can be difficult to see how its virtues could outweigh those sins. In truth, they don’t. The good news is neither news nor good in such mouths anymore. Something more is required of us than resting in the comfort of abstract reconciliation — just as something more was required of Zaccheus, and the rich young ruler, and the rich man who ignored Lazarus. If evangelical fervor is ever rightly directed in the hearts of the powerful, then as in all believers it is directed first and last toward humbling oneself as a sinner before our Savior — and this not for some eventual puffing up, but because there is no other posture for those who know the one true God, before whose burning justice we can only know His love as mercy.

Click to read a guest post by author Jennifer Harvey here on EerdWord, to order Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, or to explore other titles in our Prophetic Christianity Series.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He wrote the following foreword for Allan Aubrey Boesak’s new book Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics.

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Many Christians, when they hear the word “hope,” think of being delivered from this present evil world when they die and entering heaven. Hope for them is hope for the Age to Come, as they understand that. Allan Boesak affirms the hope of Christians for the Age to Come; but the hope of which he writes in this book is different. The hope here is the hope for justice in this present age. This is the hope that the prophet Isaiah expressed when he said of the Messiah to come:

He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
(Isa. 42:1-4)

Dare We Speak of Hope?

Dare We Speak of Hope?

Just as many Christians think of hope for the Age to Come and not of hope for justice in this present age when they hear the word, so too do many Christians, when they hear the word “justice,” think of criminal justice. They identify justice with passing judgment on wrongdoers.

Boesak has been the victim of unjust punishment; he could write eloquently and incisively about justice and injustice in the criminal justice system. But his subject here is not criminal justice. Criminal justice presupposes a more basic form of justice: it becomes relevant when someone has wronged someone, treated someone unjustly. Criminal justice becomes relevant when there has been a violation of justice. But this implies that criminal justice cannot be the only form of justice; there has to be another, more basic, form of justice, a form whose violation makes criminal justice relevant. Call this other form primary justice. Boesak’s topic in this book is primary justice. More precisely, his subject is the struggle for the righting of primary in-justice and the role of hope in that unavoidably conflictual struggle. In that struggle the question of hope is always on everybody’s mind, and in that struggle it’s all too easy to lose hope.

Boesak is not writing about this struggle from some perch on high, up above the fray. The location from which he writes is down in the trenches. Boesak was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and that experience shapes his discussion, giving it an unusual poignancy, vividness, and concreteness. It is because Boesak writes from the perspective of someone who has been part of the struggle to right injustice that his discussion takes the fresh and innovative form that it does: we can speak of hope, he says, only if we also speak of woundedness, only if we also speak of anger and courage, only if we also speak of struggle, only if we also speak of seeking peace, only if we also speak of fragile faith, only if we also speak of dreaming. One and all, these are essential components of the struggle to right injustice.

This is not, however, the narrative of a resister. Though there is a good deal of narrative in it, this is a theological essay, the theology made tangibly concrete by the fact that a good deal of it consists of Boesak’s reflecting theologically on his own experiences as a member and leader of a resistance movement. This is theology in concreto. I should add, however, that Boesak is not myopically fixated on the South African experience; he regularly brings into the picture other struggles to right injustice.

What also lends concreteness to the theology is the wealth of biblical exegesis. Boesak is a theologian whose thinking is shaped at least as much, if not more, by careful reading of Scripture as it is by the writings of his fellow theologians. Boesak reads Scripture through the eyes of the downtrodden. Given his experience, how could he not? As a result, I had the sense over and over, while reading the manuscript, of scales falling from my eyes. Above I quoted the passage in which Isaiah says, of the promised Messiah, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” I have never known what to make of these words. Dare We Speak of Hope? has opened my eyes to what Isaiah surely meant; it has opened my eyes to the meaning of a good many other passages as well. Though Boesak is, by profession, a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, he is, nonetheless, an extraordinarily insightful exegete. His exegesis is informed by wide acquaintance with biblical scholarship, but he is not afraid to challenge the scholars when he thinks they have missed the point.

The pursuit of social justice — and the struggle to right social injustice — almost always involves politics; and politics almost always involves, or should involve, the pursuit of social justice and the struggle for the righting of social injustice. Thus it is that a good deal of this book is about politics. Indeed, it is all about politics — though not only about politics. Boesak does not pull his punches when it comes to the present-day politics of South Africa and the United States; he is a bracing and undaunted prophetic critic of current politics in these two countries. But the seaminess, the cowardice, the obeisance to power and money that characterize politics today do not lead Boesak to urge Christians to avoid politics. Politics, he says, “is a vortex of expectations, disillusionments, and bewilderments, but we cannot step away from it or from our commitment to make it work for justice.”

Then he adds these words:

Hope holds us captive; we cannot give her up, let go of her hand, lest we become utterly lost. Yet we now know that where she is to be found is not in the places of comfort and safety. . . . Time and time again, it seems, we have to learn the lesson that while our hope has to shape our politics, the center of our hope never lies in politics or politicians. Christians have to look elsewhere if we are to find a hope that is durable, life-affirming, and life-giving. If we are to challenge and change the world, [we must] keep “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (p. 176).

To those who engage in the struggle to right injustice, every day often looks like Good Friday. In this eloquent, challenging, and deeply spiritual book, Boesak forcefully reminds us that after Good Friday comes Easter. So we dare speak of hope.

Click to order Allan Aubrey Boesak’s Dare We Speak of Hope?

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America from 1994 to 2011 and is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.

An active participant in the Global Christian Forum, Granberg-Michaelson attended the Pentecostal World Conference last week, which was held August 27–30 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As the conference wrapped up on Friday, he sent us this firsthand report of his time there. 

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High-octane contemporary worship with smoke, flashing lights, and words on huge screens energize and empower 3,400 Pentecostals from 69 countries filling the Calvary Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This is the 23rd Pentecostal World Conference, a triennial gathering of pastors, leaders, and youth from around the globe. I’m here as part of a delegation from the Global Christian Forum, warmly invited, seated right in the front, and including representatives from the Lutheran, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mennonite, African-Instituted and Reformed church bodies, all members of the GCF steering committee. We’re easy to pick out of the crowd, since we’re the only ones who don’t spontaneously raise our hands in worship. I hope that image doesn’t make it to the big screens.

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism is an astonishing chapter in the story of world Christianity’s modern history. In 1970, Pentecostals (including charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations) totaled about 62 million, or 5% of the total Christian population. In the four decades since, Pentecostals have grown at 4 times the rate of overall Christianity, and 4 times faster than the world’s population growth. Today they number about 600 million — one out of every four Christians in the world, and one out of every twelve people alive today. Most of this growth has come in the global South, in places like Africa, South America, and — yes — Malaysia.

The Pentecostal World Conference doesn’t look much like a typical denominational or ecumenical assembly. It’s more like a global revival service. Several of the world’s best known Pentecostal preachers and leaders deliver stirring messages, complete with altar calls for those seeking the fresh empowerment of God’s Spirit in their lives and ministries. It’s a far cry from a Reformed Church in America General Synod, which I helped organize for many years. But these keynote speakers, along with the workshops held each day of the conference, open a window into global Pentecostalism’s present trends, challenges, and directions.

From Times Square to Timbuktu

From Times Square to Timbuktu

In writing From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, I found that one of the most intriguing questions I encountered is how rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the global South deal with social and economic issues within their societies. So in Kuala Lumpur, I was especially attentive to what might be said by the world’s Pentecostal leadership about the biblical call to justice and mercy. And I heard a lot that I wish I could now go back and add to my book.

Certainly most speakers focused on unleashing the power of God’s Holy Spirit in the ongoing transformation of hearts and lives, and on offering spiritual encouragement for the demanding challenges of ministry. But some striking messages opened doorways into the transformation of injustices in the world.

Billy Wilson, for instance, is one of more influential persons in the Pentecostal world, and he recently became president of Oral Roberts University. In his address, Wilson urged Pentecostals to pay attention to more than just the first four verses of Acts 2, and he went on to explain how the whole chapter shows the church responding to concrete social needs. Deeply concerned with empowering a younger generation, Billy Wilson maintained that they have been “graced” with a passion for justice in the earth.  These future leaders desire to do ministry that integrates this practical dimension of faith.

Among a series of workshops, I went to one focused on Pentecostalism, social engagement, and justice. There, Ivan Satyavrata, who heads an Assemblies of God ministry in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, presented a talk titled, “Power to the Poor: The Pentecostal Tradition of Social Engagement.” Part of his thesis was that “the extraordinary success of the Pentecostal movement is largely due to its reach to those on the periphery of society.”

Satyavrata argued persuasively from history that early Pentecostalism had a deep, intentional social outreach embedded within its ministries. While fear of the “Social Gospel” in the twentieth century hindered theological articulation of these commitments, concrete social engagement that socially and economically empowers the marginalized is a feature of much Pentecostal ministry found around the world today. In talking with Ivan, we discovered that we had drawn on some of the same sociological studies of this question. He was delighted to get a copy of my book, and I’m sure we’ll have more contact in the future.

On the last day, Glenn Burris Jr. spoke powerfully on the theme of extending God’s mercy. Burris is President of The Foursquare Church, which has nearly 7,000 licensed ministers and congregations both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Drawing upon Isaiah 58 and Micah 6:8, Burris spoke passionately on what it means to offer God’s mercy to others, and he called for “mobilizing the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” In ending his talk, Glen Burris asked the music group to return and sing again “Hosanna,” from Hillsong, focusing on this line: “Break my heart with what breaks Yours.”

It’s this call for Spirit-filled responses to what breaks God’s heart that can propel Pentecostals into growing social engagement around issues of injustice, often experienced first hand in the lives of those on the margins of society who frequently seek God in Pentecostal congregations.

Click to order Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.

Addison Hodges Hart’s new book Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount is still a few months away from publication (June, 2012; available to preorder now). After reading his chapter on “The Practice of Fasting,” though, we couldn’t resist sharing a sneak preview of the book on Ash Wednesday.

(Please note that since the following excerpt has not yet been published, it may still be subject to changes before its release.) 

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Matthew 6:16“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

In Jewish practice, fasting and prayer went very much together. Jews fasted twice weekly, a custom picked up by early Christians. The traditional days for fasting, from the apostolic age onward, were Wednesday (the day on which Jesus was said to have been betrayed) and Friday (the day of his crucifixion). Jesus here gives no specific weekdays for fasting, but he assumes that his disciples will continue the practice. Fasting was thought to give greater intensity to prayer. In the spirit of the influential passage in the book of Isaiah, fasting was related as well to the needs of the poor and to almsgiving:

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself ? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. (Isa. 58:4-10)

Taking Jesus at His Word

Taking Jesus at His Word

With this passage, composed some six centuries before, we can glimpse the mind of Jesus as well. Just as Jesus condemned mere liturgy and religious posturing among the religious leaders of his day, Isaiah condemns those same things here. It was expected practice on special days of fasting to look drawn and haggard, to pull out the sackcloth and ashes, and to make a display out of the whole thing. The prophet points out the incongruity between the outward religious show on such holy days and the sort of quarreling and violence engaged in by the same persons the other days of the year. Instead, says the prophet, what God desires is righteous action in caring for the needy, the homeless, the hungry, and the oppressed. Real fasting is not just giving up food, and it certainly isn’t about showing off one’s best sackcloth wardrobe and fashionably ashen face; true fasting involves correcting injustice and acting compassionately. If you deal with those latter things, God will come to you.

There isn’t much difference here between that age and its religiosity and, say, the sight of a wealthy cutthroat of a Catholic or Episcopalian businessman who attends church on Ash Wednesday, gets his forehead marked with the traditional cross of ashes, noticeably fasts from meat and dessert, and goes about the rest of the day sporting the ashes on his face as a sign of his devotion. His business practices may be vicious most of the year, just barely honest, utterly dishonest, savagely capitalistic, and/or injurious to the less advantaged near and far, but his devotion on Ash Wednesday is heartfelt and even a touch sentimental. It makes him feel good; he gets to demonstrate his faith. Perhaps he’s a member of Opus Dei and attends St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or perhaps he’s a member of the Vestry of St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue. Perhaps he gave a fat check for the new pipe organ recently, and the organ has a big brass plaque with his name engraved on it. He’s renowned as a benefactor. The message of Isaiah to this man, and Jesus’ message as well, would be that none of this can be called true religion at all. True religion would be the transformation of the man himself, and that would be visible in how he conducted his business in the future. The story of Scrooge rests entirely on Jesus’ teachings, and those of Isaiah as well. The sign of the reality of this man’s religion would not be his religious activities but the practical details of his workday living. The other things — church attendance, the Ash Wednesday service, the brass plaque on the organ — may all have their place, and perhaps they might even suggest something worthy about the man. But how he lives and works, and not his expressions of piety, are what really and lastingly matter for the disciple of Jesus.

Jesus tells us that fasting — like almsgiving and prayer — is not something to be paraded. We are to keep our faces washed, and especially of those ashes after an Ash Wednesday service, and to put away the sackcloth. No one is supposed to know how “religious” we are. Real fasting means we give from what we have and learn to curb our appetites. Real fasting may mean eating less expensive food, not going to the swankest restaurants, and not being a practical narcissist. It may mean not buying the most elaborate cell phone on the market, the biggest car, the best entertainment system — maybe going without some of these altogether. Real fasting, especially in our consumerist culture, means to stand apart from the unthinking point of view that we are what we buy. We may need to reduce our time given over to entertainment and self-gratification in order to have time for others’ needs.

Fasting is not strictly a matter of food and drink. It has to do with how we eat, certainly; but also with how we travel, dress, furnish our homes, shop, are entertained, and otherwise pamper ourselves. What we save from cutting corners — from the practice of mindful fasting — may amaze us. From those saved resources we might find we can give more generously than we ever could before for the sake of those whose poverty would also amaze us, if we were to notice it.

Click here to preorder Addison Hodges Hart’s Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount. 



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