The future of Christianity

by Richard on November 26, 2004

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Mike 11.27.04 at 5:02 pm

I was extremely impressed with everything the guy said. He was relentless in his attacks on fundamentalism, as the title of his most recent book would have suggested if i’d known it at the time.

I can’t help but be a little less optimistic than he, though. It’s perhaps slightly tenuous, but his theories of Christianity’s evolution sound remarkably similar to Marxist theories of societal progress. Ward’s natural progression to the dominance of liberation theology could be parallelled with Marx’s progression to socialism.

And look how that turned out.

However, I think the comparison stops when Stalin and Mao enter the fray…

2

Mike 11.27.04 at 5:04 pm

It just deleted my message; oh well.

I found his expositions fascinating, and couldn’t agree more. However, don’t you think his theories of Christianity’s natural evolution to a stage of liberation theology becoming dominant sounded remarkably similar to Marxist theories of the emergence of socialism?

And look how that turned out…

I think the comparison’s stop with Stalin and Mao, though…

3

Richard 11.27.04 at 5:16 pm

Your comments weren’t deleted Mike - just held in the “moderation” queue. Something in them triggered the spam filter. Don’t take it personally!
I see what you mean about the marxist parallel, but the difference is that Marx thought socialism as the inevitable outworking of history. Ward held out liberation theology as a hopeful model for the future of Christianity, but I don’t he was suggesting there was anything inevitable about it.

(This comment ended up in the spam filter as well!)

4

solly 11.29.04 at 3:47 pm

I keep passing the book of the lecture in my local Xtn bookshop. And i almost buy it each time…

5

Eugene 11.29.04 at 5:27 pm

I am a middle of the road kind of Christian. I was briefly in a fundamentalist cult for a time and after six mos I left and returned to the moderate Presbyterian Church in Canada. I believe that evangelism and social justice should be hand-in-hand and not polar opposites. I am not a keener for Karl Marx. Canadian philosopher George Grant argued in his 1950s book, Philosophy in the Mass Age, that Marxism is a Christianity stripped of all divinity. However I feel that it is harsh and legalistic and fails to respect the diversity of humanity which Jesus Christ prefers. Matthew is not an entirely Jewish book. There is the wise men from the East (Zoarastrians) and at the end Jesus tells the disciples to “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” Now that does not mean I deny the scene in which he told the Syrophoenician women in an indirect manner that she was a dog and she replied, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” All I am saying is that Matthew is not entirely Jewish.

Peace,

Eugene

6

Harry 01.12.05 at 1:52 pm

Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.
Typical liberal drivel.
Read the bible more, and man/woman written books less. Put your faith in God, not corrupt philosophers.
However if you dont like the Christian message fair enough; join a knitting circle, become a bhuddist, learn shorthand - all of these things will give social stimulation. Dont spend your time perverting and twisting christian message so your sodomite friends can meet in Church.

7

Richard 01.12.05 at 7:38 pm

Thank you for that erudite and useful contribution to the conversation, Harry.

8

joe 10.20.09 at 11:19 pm

Interesting thoughts from Harry there.

I have stumbled upon this blog whilst trying to research the basis of my own faith, which is something I am now questioning. I come from a sect of christianity that, like many others, believe they have the one truth.

Right, which leads me to my next point. If we’re talking theorists, according to Barthe’s, the author is dead, whereby the only way in which meaning is derived from a text is in what the reader brings to it through thier own raft of personal experiences developed over many years of growth and maturity.

So, with that in mind, how can we have one truth? If knowledge continues to develop at the rate that it has, and, assumedly, understanding with it, then surely, we have two options:

Lets all split off. I have the truth. You have the truth. They have the truth. Lets either fight about it or ignore each other.

Lets all accept that WE DON’T KNOW! And follow Christ in our best way possible, a literal outworking of our faith based on what we read in the Bible. So lets all get along?

I know which option sounds more comfortable, and which one would inevitable lead to war.

YOU, as the reader, can decide.

9

Tony Buglass 10.21.09 at 8:19 am

“Reader-response criticism” was becoming popular in the years after I did my first degree. I was never happy with it, as far as I understood it - it seemed to me to be too individualistic, and indeed to deny the text a voice of its own. How can each have his or her own truth, if those truths are contradictory? What kind of community of faith does that produce?

Reader response is important as part of the conversation, the dialogue between God and his people. Notwithstanding Harry’s comment all those years ago, it is perfectly true to say we do NOT have the original words of Jesus, except possibly in two or three places where the Aramaic is preserved (abba, talitha koumi, etc). All the sayings have been translated into Greek, and as anyone who has ever done any language work will know, it is impossible to translate anything without a degree of interpretation, even with the same language family. And Aramaic and Greek are from very different language families, with virtually no cognate links, so we can only surmise at the degree of interpretation possible in translation. Of course, a good translator will do “dynamic equivalent” translation, which means the intended sense of the message will be translated, even if here is no direct verbal parallel available.

So, if Harry is still around, and still standing where he was in 2005, let me assure him that I DO read the Bible - very closely indeed, with reference to what was actually written, not just what various translators have made of it. And I don’t think it always says what he apparently thinks.

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