I was privileged to attend a fascinating lecture last night given by Prof Keith Ward. I’ve just finished his most recent book What the Bible Really Teaches: A Challenge to Fundamentalists and found it very stimulating, so it would be an understatement to say that I was looking forward to the lecture. I wasn’t disappointed, though I regret that any summary i give is bound to be inadequate.
His title was “Has Christianity a future?”, which it was a relief to hear he could answer in the positive! The real question is not whether Christianity has a future, but rather what kind of future Christianity might have. Recognising that predictions of the future are almost always wrong, Prof Ward attempted to sketch out what he hoped the future of the Christian faith might look like.
His approach was to begin with the most basic question of all: what is Christianity? His definition was very broad indeed, saying that Christians are those who accept that Jesus is the “annointed one” from God, whatever they mean by that. Not everyone would be happy with a definition which casts its net so widely, but I agreed with him that as a “minimum entry requirement” that would do. Of course, “accepting Jesus as the annointed one of God” (or Messiah) may not mean the same thing to everyone who declares it. Certainly the Jews have no settled doctrine of the messiah. Can those who gather around this common declaration live with a diverse view of what it actually means? Prof Ward’s view is that the New Testament itself commends embracing such diversity.
As we consider the future of Christianity, some possible insights might be gained by looking first at its past, or rather its many pasts. Looking at the practice and “shape” of the Christian faith over the 2000 years of its history reveals a very diverse picture.
We do not know very much of the very beginnings of Christianity, but what we don’t know is instructive. For example, with only a very few exceptions, we do not know the actual words of Jesus. The gospels are written in Greek; Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. There was apparently no attempt to attatch significance to the precise words that Jesus used. What we know is what the people who wrote the New Testament thought. There is ample evidence that they did not all agree. Indeed, the gospels record that the disciples constantly misunderstood the teaching and ministry of Jesus.
The evidence of the synoptic gospels suggests that Jesus intended his ministry to be principally directed towards the Jews. Matthew in particular presents Jesus as an ‘orthodox” Jew, albeit a radical one. Central to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is his teaching that his followers are to obey the smallest details of the Torah. A radical shift occurs following the resurrection as the followers of Jesus were prompted to reach out to the Gentiles. First was Peter’s vision of clean and unclean food then, even more radically, was St Paul who can be called the founder of the gentile church. How the church should respond to gentile converts was settled at the “Council of Jerusalem” (see Acts 15) which laid down the extent to which they would be bound by the Torah. The Council determined, in clear contradiction to the plain teaching of Jesus as it’s recorded in Matt 5, that gentile converts could avoid the pain of circumcision and the inconvenience of learning all 613 of the commandments in the Torah but must observe a certain minimum standard. They must not eat food which has been offered to idols, meat which still has blood in it, or meat which comes from strangled animals. They are also to avoid fornication. Few Christians treat these dietary restrictions with any seriousness today.
Christians cannot claim to be a group who does what Jesus taught (we don’t). Nor can they claim to do what the Apostles taught. (Again, we don’t) From this evidence alone it is pretty clear that the Christian faith has been in a state of continual reappraisal of itself — there has not been one single “true” model of church. The past seems to imply that the future of Christianity will be revolutionary.
The next major shift in Christianity can be dated to 313AD and the Edict of Milan which made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It moved from being a counter-cultural sect to an “established church” in which matters of faith would inevitably be mixed up with matters of politics. The arrival of “Christendom” was at best a mixed blessing for both the church and the world, for it has never been afraid to seek the destruction of its enemies. The identification of secular and religious power made both unassailable. To challenge one meant to challenge both, often with tragic consequences.
One (unintended) outcome of the Reformation was that no human authority could be above criticism. There could no longer be any unchallengeable authority. The Reformation makes every statement of authority open to question and legitimises the open discussion of opposing views. The certainty of a final authority can be reclaimed — diversity should be both welcomed and celebrated. Is this possible?
As Christianity declines in Britain, Europe and the USA, it is undergoing exponential growth in the nations of Africa, Asia and South America. Too models of church are clearly seen here. One is the Biblically conservatism inherited largely from the Southern Baptists. The second is the model of liberation theology which is driven by the challenge which the gospel offers to the powerful on behalf of the powerless. It is this second model which Prof ward commends and hopes will emerge as “the future of Christianity”. Fundamentalism, he says, encourages hypocisy and deceit because it encourages people to think that they know and refuses alternative interpretations. A liberation model would represent a globalised faith which is open to spiritual truth whatever its source and would never close down a conversation as if the final word had been spoken.
That would be the future that I want.