Archive for the 'Ecclesial Charisms' Category

17
Aug
12

Remembering Margaret O’Gara

I was saddened to hear that Professor Margaret O’Gara passed away yesterday after a two year battle with cancer.  Margaret was a long-serving professor of theology at St. Michael’s College, with a distinguished record of research, publication, teaching, and service to the church. She will be remembered by many, including myself, as a great theological mentor.

When I began my doctoral studies in September of 2007, I found out that Margaret was on my supervisory committee.  My committee met without her, however, and I didn’t actually come into contact with her until I enrolled in her class “Breakthroughs and Barriers in Ecumenical Dialogue” in January of 2008.   I was somewhat unsure if I should take the class.  The course description looked good, and I was already convinced of the importance of doing theology ecumenically.  But I suppose I carried with me some of that typical evangelical reticence towards ecumenism.  One evangelical colleague even advised me that I should not take the course.  However, I was very glad that I did, because the course material, along with Margaret’s own teaching, played a significant role in shaping the direction of my dissertation.  In fact, I appreciated the course so much that I signed up for another in September of that year, “Ecumenical Dialogue on Authority.”

I was raised in a tradition that has a very strong sense of denominational identity.  Even more than that, The Salvation Army claims to have a distinctive mission within the broader Christian church.  I believe to this day that The Salvation Army does have a special vocation within the church, but I have pushed back against some of the ways that this has been explained and conceived in Salvationist thinking.  I think that Salvationist identity sometimes morphs itself into a prideful triumphalism, wherein The Salvation Army is seen as something “other than” or “more than” the church.  For this reason, I had, before studying ecumenical dialogue, begun to see all claims to a unique denominational identity and mission as problematic and divisive.

Margaret’s approach to ecumenical dialogue was to conceive of it as a “gift exchange.”  This idea was not unique to her – she drew it out of magisterial sources in her own Catholic tradition –  but she was able to express it in a way that brought helpful conceptual clarity to the process of ecumenical dialogue.  She literally wrote the book on the subject (see The Ecumenical Gift Exchange).  Her expertise on ecumenical dialogue was developed out of decades of participation in national and international bilateral dialogues, which included work with Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, the Disciples of Christ, and evangelicals.

When we began the class, she introduced the idea of the gift exchange, and asked us to introduce ourselves by sharing a) one gift which our church tradition could share with others and b) one gift we would like to receive from another tradition.  I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that both courses I took from Margaret were living examples of this exchange of gifts, as the students, drawn from a variety of church traditions, not only shared from the gifts of our own traditions, but studied the various gift exchanges that have taken place through the ecumenical dialogues of the past fifty years.

The idea of “gifts” found within different traditions is, ultimately, what led me to my dissertation topic of ecclesial charisms, though my argument proceeds along quite different grounds from Margaret’s conceptualization of the process of ecumenical dialogue.  I am looking at a more specific question about a particular kind of gifts (charisms) and how these might expressed corporately in ecclesial bodies of various kinds.  The specific idea of using the language of “charisms” in this regard comes not from the ecumenical dialogues we studied in those classes (though it is occasionally treated there), but rather from the Catholic theology of religious life (religious orders and societies in the church), which I am applying more generally and ecumenically to “movements” in the church.   Indeed, part of my argument is that the language of “charisms” should not be applied across the board to all of the various “gifts” found in our traditions (and shared in ecumenical relationships), but more specifically to personal gifts of grace which carry a vocational obligation.

Nevertheless, in spite of the differences, my dissertation on ecclesial charisms may not have existed if not for Margaret’s work on the gift exchange of ecumenical dialogue.  Not only that, but Margaret also provided a great deal of personal guidance and encouragement for the project.  She helped me work through the ideas as I was conceiving the topic, and also played a pivotal role in shaping my comprehensive exams, which formed the background for my work.  For example, it was Margaret who suggested that my second comprehensive exam should be on reform movements before the reformation – an idea I never would have thought of, but which gave me a wonderful historical perspective on various movements of reform and renewal, and how they  related to the established church.

I suppose, if it wasn’t for Margaret, I also might not have applied to work with the Commission on Faith and Witness at the Canadian Council of Churches.  I worked there throughout 2010 and 2011, and was able to experience the joys and frustrations of ecumenical dialogue for myself.  This only confirmed much of what I had already learned from Margaret in the classroom.  One of the highlights of my two years there was a three-person panel I helped organize for the November 2010 Governing Board meetings, entitled “Ecumenical Dialogue as a Gift Exchange.”  Margaret was one of the presenters.

There is much more that could be said, and I am sure that others, who knew Margaret much better than I did, will offer fitting tributes to her life and work.  I am just one of the many people she influenced.  I am truly thankful that, through God’s providence, I was able to benefit from Margaret’s wonderful gifts as a theologian.

07
Jun
12

[re-post] The Salvation Army as an Order? An Early Catholic Comment

I’m on vacation this week, so I thought I’d pull this post out of the archives from April 2010:

I stumbled upon a biography of Henry Cardinal Manning at the Regis College Library yesterday, published in 1892, the year of his death.  The book happened to be on their booksale shelf, for $2.   Many used book collectors are wary of library discards, because of the library marks, stamps, and stickers, as well as general wear and tear.  Personally I find these things endearing.  It adds the character of an old book when you can see the names of previous owners inscribed on the inside cover.

This bears the stamp of two previous libraries.  Obviously it was most recently part of the Regis College library’s collection, but prior to that, it found a home in the library of “J. & E. Stoneham Ltd., 51 Old Broad Street, London, E.C.2.”   Doesn’t that make you wonder how this book got from London to Regis College?

Manning is a towering figure in 19th century England, a high profile Anglo-catholic who converted to Catholicism and became Archbishop of Westminster in 1865.   Those who have read a bit of Salvation Army history will know that Manning was sympathetic to the work of the Army, but also willing to challenge the Booth on some of his presuppositions.  You can read an interesting comment from Manning on his appreciation for Army and his concerns with its teaching and practice in The Contemporary Review 41 (1882): 335-342.   Roger Green quotes from this passage in hisrecent biography of William Booth, specifically noting Manning’s astute on the Army’s claim that it was “not a sect,” in spite of the fact that it had no ties to the larger Church.

“The head of the Salvation Army is resolved that it shall never become a sect. In this he is wise. A sect is soon stereotyped. He seems to wish that it may not be a sect, but a spirit, which, like the four winds, may blow upon all the valley of dry bones—men, women, children, sects, communions, and, as he perhaps would say, Churches, quickening and raising them all to a higher life. So long as the Salvation Army teaches the three creeds in their true sense, and does not assail the Catholic faith or Church, it is so far doing a constructive, if it be only a fragmentary work… Nevertheless, we have a conviction that the Salvation Army will either become a sect, or it will melt away. This world is not the abode of disembodied spirits.” (341-342)

Manning was picking up on an ecclesiological ambiguity in the Army: they claimed that they were not a denomination or “sect,” yet they were a free standing Christian body, whose members were not members of other “churches.”  There is more work to be done on this question, and Salvationists need to reflect on its implications, and the degree to which Manning’s prediction came to fruition.

At the end of the biography of Manning I picked up yesterday, author Arthur Wollaston Hutton is speculating on what may come after Manning has passed the reigns of English Catholicism on to his successor.  Remarking on Manning’s emphasis on ministry to the poor, he writes:

“And indeed, if his spirit should survive in his successsor, there is one field – a very widely extended one – in which the Catholic Church in this country might hereafter reap a rich harvest.  Manning’s sympathy with the philanthropic work of “General” Booth was never disguised, and he was too much of an organizer himself not to look with admiration on the order and discipline of the “Salvation Army.”  The Army has a growing affinity with Catholicism, and its members, accustomed to an autocratic rule, might very well find in some future Archbishop of Westminster the successor who will surely one day be needed, if the organization is to be held together at all.  Of course these soldiers and salvation lasses are far enough from being Catholics at present; but they have accepted fully the fundamental principle of Catholicism – obedience; and in other was they are really nearer the Church than Dean Stanley’s “three men in green, whom your Lordship will find it difficult to put down.”  The ritualists, in spite of Catholic externals, are mostly liberals wearing blinkers, in accordance with the fashion introduced by Newman, and still much affected by polite society.  But the Salvation Army men are not theological liberals, and wear no blinkers, for they do not them any more than Manning did, believing with him that the straight road before them is the way revealed, and so caring to look neither to the right hand nor to the left.  A simple, certain faith is theirs, – belief in God, in sin, a Redeemer, the Bible, judgment, salvation, heaven and hell; and this simple faith is a far more serviceable basis on which to build a permanent structure of Catholicism, than the clever literary quibbles by which men better educated are able to persuade themselves that they hold to the old faith.  There is thus a promising field for an expansion of the Catholic Church – unless Catholics themselves shirk the opportunity – which should be further facilitated by the marked revival of credulity in recent times, and the growing popularity of ritual and outward show.”  – A. W. Hutton, Cardinal Manning. London: Methuen & Co., 1892, pp. 256-258.

Given the ecclesiological gulf that existed between 19th century Catholicism and the early Salvation Army, it is amazing to see a Catholic author publicly speculating about the possibility of a “Catholic Salvation Army.”  It is also interesting to notice those things which he thinks constitute an affinity between the Army and Catholicism: autocratic structures, conservative theology, and a lack of concern for “polite society.”   It seems counter-intuitive, but Hutton feels that these are “a more serviceable basis on which to build a permanent structure of Catholicism” than the sophisticated theological output of Ango-catholics.

This says a lot about the dominant characteristics of both the Army and Catholicism at the time!  We might wonder why Hutton doesn’t raise the ecumenical issues that loom large in the Army’s ecumenical relationships today: sacraments and ministry (in terms of the validity of “ordination”).  The reason is that people of the time (including Salvationists) didn’t look upon the Army as a “church.”  So a Catholic wouldn’t have related to the Army in the same way they would have related to the Church of England, or Lutherans, or Baptists.  They might think of the Army more along the lines of a irregular and unauthorized missionary order or congregation, one which was doing some good work, but was in danger of drifting from the apostolic faith over time, if not grounded in catholic soil.

15
Dec
11

The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers: two interesting cases of missional diversity in the church

I’m switching gears now with my dissertation and moving into writing about two historical case studies: The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers.   While these two particular movements might seem like an odd pair, there are a number of reasons why I’m looking at them.

First of all, there are a number of similarities between their two founders, William Booth and Isaac Hecker.   They were near-contemporaries in age (Booth lived 1829-1912 and Hecker 1819-1888).  Both have Methodist roots, with Booth originally ordained in a Methodist tradition  and Hecker raised at Forsyth Street Church in New York City.  Both are, in many respects, men of their time, typifying the optimistic, industrious, world-encompassing spirit of the nineteenth century.  Both were “home missionaries,” who brought a missionary approach to ministry in their native countries, and each could be classified as “revivalists” in their respective traditions.  Both Booth and Hecker began their ministries in other movements – Booth the Methodist New Connexion, Hecker the Redemptorists – and both ended up branching out to found their own missionary societies because of conflicts with established leadership of those movements.  Finally, both eventually developed comprehensive visions for the worldwide mission of the Church.

I’m also interested in these two movements because they both raise interesting questions about unity and diversity in the church – questions I think might be addressed using the theology of ecclesial charisms.

The Salvation Army is an interesting case because of its original insistence that it was a missionary movement, and not a church, even while it remained independent of any formal ties to a church. Its members were not members of any other churches, creating the strange situation where Salvationists could claim to be Christians but to not be part of any church.  A decisive historical moment in the movement’s history came in 1882, when a series of serious discussions with the Church of England caused William Booth to ask himself if The Salvation Army should remain an independent mission or be placed under the auspices of the Church (if you’re interested in this episode see Roger Green, The Life and Ministry of William Booth, 140-145). The fact that such discussions took place shows that Booth was not completely sure whether or not he wanted the Army to remain autonomous.  The fact that they decided to remain independent was the result, I believe, of a lack of clarity regarding ecclesiological questions (noted by Green, p. 144-145).  The Army’s independence was of decisive significance for its future course, including its non-sacramental stance and its slow progression towards claiming “churchly” status.

The Paulists, on the other hand, were never outside of the Church’s fold, but rather press the question of unity and diversity from the side of the Church’s authoritative discernment.  First of all, very early in their history they were forced to make a compromise regarding their specific mission.  The founding members wanted to be an exclusively missionary society, but they could not find a Bishop who would support them unless they took on a parish.  This meant that they had to divert some of their energy to traditional parish concerns.  It seems that the bishops they approached did not recognize the particular gift of the Paulists, and so, in order to remain a part of the Catholic church, they were forced to compromise.  Another Paulist “gift” that wasn’t recognized was Hecker’s progressive ecclesiology, in which he saw the Spirit at work, adapting the Church to particular cultures and places, in concert with the providential developments in each society.  In Americathis meant making Catholicism more “American,” by becoming more democratic and embracing the separation of Church and state. This was not received well by a Catholic hierarchy which was struggling to ensure uniformity around the world, and had been marginalized by democratic governments throughout the nineteenth century.    After Hecker’s death, his ideas were taken out of context and twisted into the “phantom heresy” of “Americanism,” which was censured by Pope Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae, issued in 1899.

If the theology of charisms is in fact useful in helping us to understand reform movements as a legitimate form of diversity in the Church, then it should be able to be applied to these two cases.  My hope is that a study of their history and self-understanding, along with a sustained critical engagement with the theology of charisms in the context of the question of the church’s visible unity, will clarify some of the questions surrounding the limits of legitimate diversity in the church.

28
Apr
11

What is an Institution?

I’m thinking through the relationship between institution and charism right now, and one of the more frustrating aspects of the debate is the lack of consensus regarding the meaning of the word “institution.”

Some authors don’t bother to define the term at all, but seem to assume a certain common sense understanding of institution.  My problem with this is that the “common sense” understanding of institution in our contemporary context is typically very negative.  People today are very skeptical of institutions of all kinds, and religious institutions are no exception.   While I’m aware that some institutions can be terribly repressive, twisted, and dangerous, I don’t think these tendencies are inherent in institutions per se.

Then there are some who do take the time to define institution in such a way that it tends toward a negative characterization, because they frame institutions primarily as agents of control and coercion.

Gotthold Hasenhüttl was an influential voice in the mid twentieth century, cited authoritatively by people like Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff (who were, in turn, very influential at the popular level).  Hasenhüttl defines institutions as follows:

“An institution is a changeable, but permanent, product of purposive social role behaviour which subjects the individual to obligations, gives him formal authority and possesses legal sanctions.” [from “The Church as Institution,” in The Church as Institution (New York: Herder and Herder, 1974), 15]

He goes on to describe institutions as “instruments of power,” and calls upon the church to reinvent itself and work towards “the institutionalization of freedom [from] domination (an-archy)” (17-18).

In Boff, this translates to a playing off of “the institution” versus “the community,” arguing that the former must serve the latter:

“We refer to the organization of this community with its hierarchy, sacred powers, dogmas, rites, canons, and traditions…The institution does not exist for itself but in service to the community of faith.” [Church, Charism and Power, 48]

I think these definitions of institution are too narrow.   Institutions aren’t simply agents of control with formal laws and coercive power. They exist on a continuum which is much broader and more ambiguous than these perspectives imply.

In this broader understanding, which takes its inspiration primarily from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, institutions are simply stable patterns of social interaction. They could be huge governmental agencies or international businesses, but they could also be a recurring encounter between two persons.   All social interactions are subject to habituation, and when interactions between persons are habituated over time they become institutionalized – that is, they become stable patterns of social interaction.

Berger and Luckmann’s definition is as follows:

“Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution.” [The Social Construction of Reality, 54]

There are, of course, many nuances to their account which I won’t address here, and some of them may not sit well some Christians.   But their insights have been taken up and incorporated into some theological accounts of ecclesial institutions, such as Miroslav Volf’s After our Likeness, and George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.

The point of adopting this perspective is to underscore the fact that social life is inescapably institutional, and therefore the Christian life (because it is inherently social) is inescapably institutional.

“The essential sociality of salvation implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution it is.” Volf, After Our Likeness, 235.

In other words, there never was and never will be a “non-institutional” church.   The fact that the church has certain institutional features does not mean that it has compromised or fallen from a primitive state of charismatic freedom.   From a Christian perspective, rather, ecclesial institutions are no threat to true personhood and freedom, but are divinely-ordered means of grace through which our true personhood and freedom is restored through incorporation into the body of Christ. Christian fellowship, worship, ministry, sacraments, and the proclamation of the word are institutions which confront us as a verbum externum. This point is brought out well by Lindbeck in his comparison of religion to a cultural-linguistic system:

“To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.  A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience.” Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 34.

Ecclesial institutions are stable patterns of human interaction in the church through which the Spirit calls us to be conformed to Christ. They are certainly open to abuse and distortion, but this is not because they are institutions, but because they are patterns of interaction among people who are redeemed by Christ, but who continue to struggle with sin.

05
Apr
11

Ecclesial homelessness

Some comments here from Stanley Hauerwas on “ecclesial homelessness,” an increasingly familiar situation for many people today.   What he means by describing himself as “ecclesially homeless” is that he isn’t clearly rooted in one particular Christian tradition.   As he says here, he considers himself to be a Methodist.  But, as he accounts in his memoir, he has attended a variety of churches over the years, including a Catholic church while he taught at Notre Dame, and the Anglican church where he worships today (and where his wife, a Methodist pastor, serves on the pastoral staff).   Here are his thoughts, from a Christianity Today interview last Fall:

I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

Hauerwas seems to suggest here that being Methodist doesn’t necessarily mean worshiping in a Methodist Church.   He can, as he says, live faithful to the charisms of his Methodist identity while being a communicant at Holy Family.

There are many today who find themselves in similar situations.  I personally know of Methodists worshiping at Presbyterian churches, Mennonites at Anglican churches, and Lutherans at Reformed churches.   I myself continue to identify as a Salvationist, though I presently worship at a Free Methodist church.

The lines of denominational demarcation are getting blurrier, but what does it all mean?  Are we entering a post-denominational landscape?  Do people even care about traditional differences of doctrine, worship, and polity, which were so divisive in the past?

With Hauerwas, I think this new situation has some ecumenical promise, although I also worry that it is due, at least in part, to cynical apathy regarding any kind of formal institutions.    The promising thing is that walls are coming down, and people are willing to worship, fellowship, and serve with people from another denominational background without thinking much about it.  In this sense, people on the ground are actually way ahead of their denominational institutions, which often remain relatively isolated.

The danger, of course, is that there are some real historical disagreements which should be aired out and discussed, rather than ignored through an easy ecumenism which treats differences as unimportant.

There’s something more to Hauerwas’ comment here, though, as it relates to the whole idea of ecclesial charisms.  He presumes that a Christian person can live out the charisms of one historic tradition while being part of a community that is based in another tradition (hence his status as a Methodist communicant in an Anglican parish).   I’m not sure how much he has thought about this, but it seems he presumes (as I am arguing in my dissertation) that charisms are personal, even when they are identified with a community like Methodism.

That is, properly speaking, the Methodist charisms are not borne by the Methodist community as a whole, but by the persons who call themselves Methodist.  The communal aspects of Methodism might encourage and cultivate those charisms, but at the end of the day, persons are the bearers of the diverse vocational charismata.

In that sense, it should be quite possible for a person to exercise one ecclesial charism in a context which is not normally identified with that charism.  Actually, I would say that this would make more sense than isolating large numbers of people with a particular charism from other parts of the church!

This is also why Methodism was intended in Wesley’s day to exist as a leaven in the Church of England, not as an independent church.   Though the Methodists were to have their own gatherings, which came in various forms, they were to remain within the church, worshiping alongside others in the C of E on Sundays, where the gifts that they brought could excite a renewal among the established structures.

This all might seem pretty far removed from the contemporary issue of “ecclesial homelessness,” but I think there could be a connection, and the changing denominational landscape of the twenty-first century just might make such a vision of the church more plausible than it was in the previous century.

17
Mar
11

Notes on Spirit and Institution in the Church


How are we to describe the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions? Is it Spirit against institution?  Spirit in tension with institution?  Spirit enlivening institution?  Spirit in institution?  Some combination of these?  I’m wrestling through this question right now in my dissertation, and was blessed to have an opportunity to lecture on the topic last week at Wycliffe.  The following thoughts are taken from my my lecture notes.

The church is necessarily institutional.  An institution is simply a stable set of social relations practiced among an identifiable group of people.  In order for the church to persist in time and “take up space” in history, it must be institutional.  We must beware the cultural baggage we bring to the term “institution.”  We live in a time of extreme skepticism regarding social institutions.  We as Christians have been formed in a society which encourages us to believe the myth that we should, as autonomous individuals, resist all institutional authority.  This is, of course, impossible and impracticable.

We must avoid the errors of triumphalism and spiritualism.  A triumphalist church presumes upon the Spirit’s presence and blessing, identifying the church with the Spirit.  A spiritualist church denigrates the institutional reality of the church in favour of a disembodied “spiritual” church.

The Spirit and ecclesial institutions must be distinguished but not opposed, just as nature and grace must be distinguished but not opposed. As nature is the milieu of God’s gracious action, so also human institutions are the milieu for God’s pneumatic / charismatic action.

We cannot identify the Spirit with ecclesial institutions. The Spirit stands over and against ecclesial institutions, as Christ stands over and against the church as its Lord and judge.

We cannot oppose the Spirit to ecclesial institutions. There is no “non-institutional” place where the Spirit is “really” at work in people’s lives.  Ecclesial institutions are not the enemy of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit condescends to work in human institutions, as “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).

The church can never presume upon the Spirit, but must always humbly call upon the Spirit, trusting in the promises of Christ (John 14:15ff) and the Father (Acts 1:4). The institutions in themselves are not endued with power; yet we know that Christ has promised the Spirit to the church, and we know that the church cannot avoid an institutional existence.

While ultimately the Spirit is not dependent upon institution, in the concrete life of the church in history, the two are inextricably interrelated (because the church is institutional in all aspects of its life).

As with human agents, the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions is not a zero-sum competitive game; the Spirit is the creator and animator of the Church’s institutions in such a way that they remain truly human institutions, while their institutional character is taken up and elevated into something more than a human institution – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God.

In this way, all ecclesial institutions are charismatic. Just as humans were created in such a way that we cannot reach our divinely-ordered telos without divine grace, so the church as a visible, institutional reality is created in such a way that it cannot be what it has been created to be without concrete bestowal of grace.

Nevertheless, the gifts of the Spirit, which preserve, uphold, and elevate the Church’s institutional life are no guarantee of her faithfulness; the Spirit is not merely a stamp of approval, or a “divine positive energy”, but a divine Person, who carries out judgment  and brings conviction of sin (John 16:8-11), as well as giving life.

Because ecclesial institutions are truly human, they are caught up in the web of sin. Therefore the institutional character of the church can also be turned into something which it is not intended to be; it can become corrupted (and it often is).

In other words, the Spirit’s presence will include acts of both mercy and judgment, wrought in the historical life of the Church.  We can trust that the Spirit will be among us, but that should encourage a sure trust and confidence in God, and a humble watchfulness on our own part (rather than presumption on our part).

All the more reason to embrace the reformation call for a church which is reformed and always reforming. A constant repentance – an institutional turning away from sin and toward God – should mark the church’s corporate life.


17
Feb
11

Pentecost as a Firstfruits Festival

The Pauline teaching on charisms comes, canonically speaking, after the story of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, which occupies a key place in the biblical narrative, marking the fulfilment of the promise given by Christ (Acts 1:8, Luke 12:2; John 14-16), and harkening back explicitly to the prophesied eschatological outpouring of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-32.  Pentecost signifies the dawning of the age of the church, a new era in which the Spirit’s gifts, previously limited to particular people and situations, are distributed liberally to all the people of God, young and old, male and female, slave and free.

Lest one take this Lukan theme of “fullness” in too far, the canonical significance of the feast of Pentecost as an Israelite festival must not be forgotten.  I am indebted to Howard Snyder for pointing out the significance of Pentecost as a feast of first fruits.  You can find his discussion of this theme in his chapter on “The Pentecostal Renewal of the Church” in the forthcoming book, Yes in Christ: Wesleyan Reflections on Gospel, Mission, and Culture, Tyndale Studies in Wesleyan History and Theology 2 (Toronto: Clements Academic, 2011). Pentecost, or the Festival of Weeks, was one of the three great festivals in Israelite worship, coming between Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, and in Jesus day it remained one of the three festivals which included pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Pentecost concluded the Feast of Weeks, which began with a day for the offering of first fruits on the first Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:10-11), and ended fifty days later, with what came to be known as the primary celebration of firstfruits (Num. 28:26, Lev. 23:17).  Firstfruits were offered both as a thanksgiving for the faithfulness of God in the past, a celebration of God’s provision in the present, and as a promising sign of the future harvest which was to come.

While the New Testament writers do not explicitly link Pentecost with a harvest of first fruits, it is difficult not to see the significance of interpreting it as such.  First of all, there is the important eschatological harvest imagery which runs throughout the New Testament, and is particularly strong in the teaching of Christ concerning the final judgment.

Secondly, though the Feast of Weeks per se does not feature prominently in the New Testament, the concept of firstfruits is used a number of times. Paul refers to the resurrection of Christ itself as the first fruits of the coming general resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. In Romans 8 he speaks of Christians having “the first fruits of the Spirit” (8:23) and thus joining with all creation in groaning for the fullness of the coming bodily redemption.  James 1:18 identifies those who have experienced the new birth as “a kind of first fruits” of God’s creatures, and Revelation 14:4 identifies the 144,000 as those who “have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and for the Lamb.”

Finally, recalling the Johannine identification of the cross with the feast of Passover (John 13:1), Pentecost, as the first fruits festival which caps off fifty days of firstfruits celebration, evokes a sense of anticipatory harvest, looking toward the final reaping which is to come at the eschaton.  Christ’s resurrection, then, coming on the first Sunday after Passover, is the initial offering of first fruits, to be followed by the main celebration of firstfruits on the day of Pentecost fifty days later, when the firstfruits of the new creation are harvested in the outpouring of the Spirit.  As Ephraim Radner notes, the traditional Jewish understanding of this time in their liturgical calendar was that the fifty days in the Feast of Weeks marked the wanderings of the people in the desert, and the day of Pentecost was seen as the entry into the promised land, “where all that is enjoyed is given by God” (Leviticus, 247).

We see in Pentecost, the culmination of the Feast of Weeks, the celebration of the first fruits of the great and wonderful day of the Lord, prophesied in Joel 2:28-30.  The outpouring of the Spirit, then, on this day of first fruits, should be seen, not as a complete “fullness” of the Spirit, but as an anticipatory offering of young fruit which is to mature and yield a much greater harvest in the promised future.  The pneumatic firstfruits of Pentecost are a proleptic anticipation of the complete fulfillment of Joel 2, in which the Church experiences in itself the outpouring upon “all flesh,” which is to come, at the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2:28, 31).

It is important to stress, then, that the charisms, as first fruits of the Spirit, are not to be seen merely as divine acts of “mercy” and “life,” bestowing blessings upon their recipients, but also as anticipatory acts of “judgment.”  This is consistent with Jesus own description of the work of the Spirit as convicting the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment – each of which finds its meaning in the saving work of Christ (John 16:8-12).  Divine mercy and judgment cannot be separated from one another, and this two-sided character of the Spirit’s work as seen in the Church in history ought to be a fundamental theme in the theology of charisms. For if the Spirit participates in God’s acts of judgment as well as God’s acts of mercy, then the Church, as people among whom the kingdom is already breaking in to the present age by the Spirit’s work, will manifest the eschatological judgment just as surely as they will manifest eschatological life and renewal. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter. 4:7).




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