Thursday, December 23, 2010

A New Strategy for Missions is Needed

Am I the only one who is concerned with the way the American church does missions? In my denomination, a missionary must have a M. Div. to be appointed as a full-fledged missionary on a foreign field. Next comes missionary training, which includes more education and learning another language. Once the missionary reaches his/her destination, they often realize how different they are from the natives. Skin color, customs, culture—even the concept of time—become barriers to effective communication. Trust is another factor that stands in the way of establishing healthy relationships, along with American feelings of superiority.

After spending thousands of dollars to train, travel, and set up residency, the hands-on ministry haltingly commences. Discouragement soon sets in, especially during the holidays, and the missionary often yearns for hearth and home.

Just how effective is much our mission strategy?

The same can be asked about short-term missions. I was discussing this question with a good friend who told of a recent medical mission trip to a poor Asian nation. Approximately 30 individuals made the trek to set up make-shift clinics, examine patients, and treat them with prescription drugs. By necessity, they worked through interpreters. The three-week venture cost each participant approximately $3,000. That was $90,000 for the trip. Since the annual project has been ongoing for a decade, nearly $1,000,000 has been expended to date!

What is wrong with this picture? One million dollars could have funded several clinics, staffed with native doctors, nurses, and aides on a full-time basis for the past ten years. Instead of 30 weeks of medical care, the villagers would have received 520 weeks of care.

How did the early church do missions? Is it possible they developed strategies that are still applicable for twenty-first century missions? Hopefully, in the weeks ahead we can provide answers to some of these questions. Your comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spirit Baptism and Water Baptism

How are baptism with the Holy Spirit and baptism in water related? Are they separate and distinct acts? Does one sequentially or logically follow the other? In some church traditions, the answers are precise and dogmatic.

Roman Catholics, for instance, equate water baptism with Spirit baptism. To be baptized in water is to be born again. The churches of Christ call upon those who hear the gospel to repent and be baptized as a precondition for receiving the Holy Spirit. Other traditions treat water baptism as an initial act of confession that follows conversion or the baptism with the Holy Spirit. All cannot be right. Either: a) one is correct and the others are wrong; b) they are all wrong; or c) each/some may possess partial truth.

While opinions vary, all Christian traditions require members to be baptized with both the Spirit and water.

Karl Barth spent many years of his life trying to sort out this doctrinal dilemma and finally concluded that they were two sides of the same coin or two aspects of one solitary baptism. As Paul taught, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6-8). Just as there can be no more than one God, one Lord, or one body, so there is only one baptism.

As such, he held that Spirit baptism is the divine side and water baptism is the human side. One is God’s doing and thus is objective in nature; the other is man’s doing and is subjective in character. He believed that Spirit Baptism is what God does in and to Christ for humankind. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, which Barth identified as the initial act of Spirit baptism, God begins to create a new human race of which all may be a part. When the good news is preached and finds root in the individual, man’s will is freed to respond to the gospel in repentance. The proper response is a request to be baptized in water and to identify with the Christian community.

Barth believed that God gives the Holy Spirit to every repentant believer, before, after or at the point of water baptism. This bestowal by God applies the Baptism of the Spirit found in Christ to the individual, when the two become one and the believer actually becomes part of the new creation.

In future entries we will examine Barth’s views of baptism, using his last volume of Church Dogmatics as our guide, and comparing them to the Scriptures. Since Barth waited to the end of his life to speak a final word on baptism, one might conclude he had more time to ponder this subject than all others and that he wanted to get it right.

Friday, December 17, 2010


The church traditionally has accepted the reality of the virgin birth. The Apostles Creed proclaims, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary . . . .”

The Gospel writer Matthew concludes that Christ’s miraculous birth was the fulfillment of a prophecy recorded in Isa 7:14, “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she will call his name Immanuel” (NASV). When one examines the passage in its historical context, however, it looks like the prophecy is addressed to King Ahaz for his day and age, and not one pointing to the birth of the Messiah. How did Matthew come to his conclusion?

The Gospel writers deemed the OT a divine book, making it different from all other kinds of literature. Therefore, they held that it had a divine as well a human meaning. What the original author intended for his audience (authorial intent) was not the only or final meaning of a passage. The divine author (God) infused the text with another meaning for an entirely different audience, which would be revealed in time. According to Raymond Brown, Scripture should be given a first and second reading; one to discover the human meaning and the other to find the sensus plenior or fuller meaning.

The Gospel writers adopted methods of interpretation that were common to the Second Temple period. Unlike modern-day evangelical exegetes, they did not limit themselves to the grammatical-historical school. They concerned themselves not only with the OT text’s meaning for the original audience, but its divine intent for their contemporary audience. Two of the more popular interpretive methods were:

1. The Pesher method that sought to uncover the eschatological or messianic meaning of the text, which was not necessarily the meaning that the original author intended. This method was prevalent among the scribes of Qumran. Texts such as Ps 118:22–23=Luke 20:17–18; Isa 61:1–2=Luke 4:16–20; Isa 7:14=Matt 1:22–23 can be interpreted this way.

2. The Midrash method that sought to find a deeper than surface meaning to a text through careful observation and prolonged reflection. Deut 25:4=1 Cor 9:8–9 is an example of this method.

Being inspired, the NT writers were given unique abilities to discover the “correct” eschatological or deeper meaning of the text. They understood the OT contained more than mere facts about Israel, but was a record of salvation history up until that point, but which was moving forward. It had an eschatological dimension. The OT then was part of a much larger story, which had not yet been fulfilled. Therefore, from a divine standpoint, each OT story had future implications, often unbeknown to the original author.

Obviously OT writers did not know about Jesus, but their NT counterparts did; thus, when the latter read the Hebrew Scriptures they interpreted them from a Christological perspective (e.g. Isa 7:14; 53:3). To interpret the OT according to the original author’s intent only (the grammatical-historical method) was to miss Jesus. Likewise, when we refuse to go beyond the historical context of a passage; we too miss Jesus in the OT. We end up with Judaism, not Christianity!

The testimony of Jesus himself is that the Hebrew Scriptures point to him (Luke 24:27, 44). Therefore, we must look at these ancient texts from both eschatological and Christological points of view. This is exactly what Matthew does. He reads Isa 7:14 and seeks to discover the divine author’s intent.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Remembering Karl Barth

Karl Barth died on December 10, 1968. He is arguably the 20th century's greatest theologian. His commentary on Romans called upon Continental scholars to take seriously the doctrine of justification and to embrace a more Word-centered theology.

Barth's 14 volume Church Dogmatics remains the gold standard for all other theological works (And evangelical's marvel over the size of Wayne Grudem's one volume Systematic Theology!).

Barth was booked two years in advance to come and give the annual lecture at Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, DC) in 1969. He did not live to see the day. Along with the other MDiv students at Wesley, I was disappointed to hear that Markus Barth, a scholar in his own right, would substitute for his father. He stood at the podium and read his lecture, stopping to pencil-in occasional corrections along the way. At the time I was not impressed.

Since then, however, I have benefited greatly from Markus Barth's writings, particularly his books on the Lord's Supper and baptism. It was in terms of this last issue that the son influenced the father. Before his death Karl Barth testified that he changed his view of baptism. He explained: "In the face of the exegetical conclusions of my son's book [Die Taufe ein Sakrament?], I had to abandon the 'sacramental' understanding of baptism . . ." (Church Dogmatics, IV.4). In its place he embraced believer's baptism, but knew it would be costly to do so. Contemporaries such as Cullmann and Jeremias held staunchly to infant baptism. He stated that this shift "will leave me in the theological and ecclesiastical isolation." Knowing CD, IV.4 would likely be his last major publication before his death, he mused, "I am just about to make a poor exit with it. So be it!" He died one year later.

Karl Barth was a rare breed of scholar whose thirst for knowledge would not allow him to settle doctrinal issues in youth and never think about them again. He remained theologically curious his entire life. We could all learn from his example.