Hebrew sightings of the church
N.T. Wright has helped many of us refocus our theological thinking, via encouraging us to look back – in particular past Plato’s greatest triumph – the Enlightenment – to the primal Hebrew atmosphere that Jesus, Paul and others of that time breathed. His Christological perspective, joined with a new creation theology and linked intimately to Jesus of Nazareth has helped us open up so much more of the narratives, and the teachings derived from them, found in Scripture.
In teaching on Romans N.T. Wright answered a question concerning why such perspectives had been hidden for so long and why aspects of Paul’s teaching were so hard to understand. His answer spoke of the difficulty the post-enlightenment/modern individual has in understanding Hebrew narratives with a mind born and bred in a world where rationalism still, for the most part, rules. He then reminded us that to many of the people of Paul’s time, narrative – graphical, relational and fluid – was their way of engaging truth, and thus, even though aspects of what Paul taught were ‘hard to understand’, it was not beyond the reach of the everyday individual to grasp. Thirdly and finally, he said that like any great literature, the writings of Paul, as with the sayings of Jesus, contained both a simplicity and an immense depth in their words: this to say that at one level it can be understood by the many, but also it invites people into a ongoing journey, both in regards the narrative and their own life, one that keeps on revealing more of the deep speaking to the deep in those written words.
It is the final part of this three-tiered answer that I want to emphasise. Endeavouring to not fall foul of the law of non-contradiction, I believe that we can progress, with Christological, Creation and Hebrew sight, further into the narratives of Scripture and discover much more than a systematic theology leavened by biblical rationalism has been able to deliver. To do so, it might be best that we do a drama workshop, where we imagine that we are one of the minor or, if we so choose, major prophets – making pots and then destroying them, lying on one side to prophesy till doom, floating axe heads… not to mention Hosea …
Of course, no one can pretend to be back there thinking the same as the Hebrew, but this does not mean we cannot pick up numerous clues that can help us think more of their thoughts after them. We do this in relation to the infinite God, so with Hebrew ‘man’ it should not be impossible! It is as we begin to more consciously critique our Western Enlightenment/ Modern mindset that we can, I believe, begin to clear out much of the fog of history. Here at least we might begin to compensate for the weaknesses of intellect we have inherited by virtue of Plato’s attempt to wrest power back from the democrats of Athens.
Jesus of Nazareth – a Hebrew man existing in a Hebrew world, in a nation whose sight and thought was profoundly and strategically shaped by a thousand years and more of relating to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - Jesus Christ, the Son of that same God, now made man. Where is he now? To my mind the greatest gift that the Hebrew vision gives is the sight of Jesus Christ now standing through the present created order in, through, and over his body the church.
It is this sight, this ecclesiology, that I want to go after in this paper; looking at the ramifications of the Hebrew vision of Jesus Christ in regards our way of seeing, doing and being ‘church’. To do this we need to explore two things in particular – one is the creation and the other is Plato. In the lectures on Romans, N.T. Wright spoke of ‘locating the church in the great cosmic map’. To my mind, if we do not take the opportunity these times afford us to revisit our ecclesiology, then, though many things will appear to change, not much will really change.
Let’s begin with Plato, knowing that the more we understand his underlying narrative the more we will be able to grasp the nefarious intent of his teaching and philosophy. Much, of course, has been written on Plato’s dualism and the idealism that flows down from his divided world. I want to focus in particular here on the political agenda that thickened the ink of this philosopher’s pen. Plato was an aristocrat whose clan lost its right to rule because the democrats took it from them. As Karl Popper suggests in his book The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol. 1, ‘The Republic’ can be seen as one long attempt by Plato to get back that throne and rule over Athens as its philosopher king. I go into more detail in regards the following in the book Renegotiating the Church Contract. Here is a brief snapshot of Plato’s strategy.
Plato said that the present world was a world of shadows, corruption and ignorance. In contrast to this, on the other side of his great divide, he said that there exists a divine, eternal, perfect and uncreated realm. Essentially this means that you are in the wrong place and need, somehow, to get to the right place. Plato said that the only trustworthy thing that can first connect you and then possibly get you ‘there’ is ‘the State’. This State, constituted by law, which is pure thought, is not corrupted, creation-bound or in any way akin to the flesh-encumbered mind of finite, frail humanity. This State, once set in place, would become the mediator between the realms. It would be fixed, never to be removed; the reason being that anything less than perfect is by definition evil or corrupt. ‘Oh, and by the way,’ Plato added, ‘this State will need a leader, and I suggest that you get a philosopher king for the job. I only know of one at present, so I guess I will have to do!’
One quote to drive Plato’s poison pen home to the heart of the issue: ‘The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male of female, should ever be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative, neither out of zeal, or even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace – to his leader he shall direct his eye, and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matters he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals… only if he has been told to do so… In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it. In this way the life of all will be spent in total community. There is no law, nor will there ever be one, which is superior to this, or better and more effective in ensuring salvation and victory in war. And in times of peace, and from the earliest childhood on should it be fostered, this habit of ruling others, and of being ruled by others. And every trace of anarchy should be utterly eradicated from all the life of all the men, and even of the wild beasts which are subject to men.’ (Republic. From Pg. 103 Popper)
Athens said ‘No thanks Plato’, but in and around the third/fourth century AD the leaders of the Christian church increasingly said ‘yes’. By the time Pope Gregory was in place in Rome around 500 AD, the church looked a whole lot like the ‘State’ that Plato had envisaged. The Platonic worldview had, for the most part, eclipsed the Hebrew vision of creation. The church was now something separate from the people, it was a mediating institution that alone could guarantee its members access to an eternal/divine heaven that was now far removed from the creation. It was ruled over by the main representative of the divine realm, the Pope. It was established by dogma that could not be changed, could not be wrong and should never be questioned. By this time the church was well and truly in bed with the emperor, and for many a century the case was closed. Plato had triumphed, not in Athens, but in Rome and in Christendom, and ultimately in the West.
In conclusion to this simplification of a complex history I was to add another general and somewhat simplified assertion. To my mind, this dualistic-inspired ecclesiology did not essentially change during the Reformation, or indeed up to the present time. We are still, for the most part, thinking divided thoughts from a divided world in a church divided off from the very creation that was meant to define and shape it. The church remains something distinct and separate to us, ruled over by its leaders and, for the most part, fixed in place by its buildings, its meetings and its doctrine. Divide and conquer is the core agenda of the philosophy downloaded into the Western mind by the Christian church. We must not, in our re-envisioning of the emerging church, underestimate the effect of this virus and the fog it has created in our way of seeing the nature, purpose and positioning of that most powerful body – the church. The Platonic virus has found its way into the bones, muscles and language of the church.
This being said, I hasten to add that the church Jesus came to create is still alive and well. I am referring here to a dominant virus that has infected this body of people, of an illness that has over years shaped a great deal of this body’s structure, strategy and culture. That being said, the church, like the people of Israel under the rule of earthly kings, may not be configured as God intended, but it still contains within the matrix of its relationships the promises, the covenants and the fullness of the Spirit. As such, its present structural form houses a wealth of cultural memory and people that must not be lost.
The church as ‘construct’ stands in our collective mind as the clearest representation of how we, down to this postmodern day, still think and believe. Also, one might add, without the luxury of space to explain the statement, that our present Platonic way of church as separate mediating institution, does not in fact exist in reality. Rather it is an organisational/ ideological projection of our mind. For these reasons, any easy reaction against it is guaranteed to produce no offspring – only a duplication of what has been.
I am truncating my paragraphs and would love to qualify and clarify more, so I am feeling the frustration of running too swiftly past such sweeping comments as those in the above paragraphs. However, this is not a book. Secondly, I need to get through to what kind of ecclesiology a Hebrew, as distinct from a Platonic, worldview might enable us to see. Again, this has to be set against the backdrop of the Platonic agenda. This because it is so easy to move, with Hebrew, Postmodern, or Californian presuppositions, to new forms of emerging church only to fall in love with new dualisms. We don’t want to start dating just another one of Plato’s ideological issues.
The Charismatic stream set out in the early seventies, rejected for the most part by the mainstream, but made all the more ready by that rejection to see and experience a whole new way of church. Its innovation was Kingdom and Church – the saints scattered ‘out there’ being the Kingdom and the saints gathered ‘in here’ being the Church. This new divide/distinction started out OK and did produce some innovations, but thirty years on there is now very little out there kingdom and still very much the same amount of in here church. In fact, there is now little distinction between the local churches that kicked out the charismatics and the charismatics’ congregations that got the boot all those years ago.
One cannot be the Kingdom – Tony Blair is not government, he is only an instrument, a representative, an approximation (!) of government. One, in relationship with others can, however, be the church. For that reason we need to take that most powerful of names back from its position as ideological mediator between the realms and make it ‘us’ once again. To do this, the one mediator between God and man needs to come into focus under the Hebrew heaven. It is as we see him that we will see his body the church.
Hebrew visions of the night sky
Let’s begin the unification process by looking at heaven and earth. God taught Hebrews like Peter, Paul, Isaiah and Jeremiah that the throne of God, heaven itself, was situated over and above all of their life and work on earth. When any one of them walked out of their house to go into the city to do business, they knew that the very heaven of God was overhead. Under the influence of Plato most Bible teachers of today say that this heaven over earth thing is only a metaphor – which is another way of saying that it’s not really there. However, God never gave any permission to teachers to remove his heaven from over his earth and consign it to some spiritual realm attached to the next life. Paul says quite naturally, in Colossians 1:23, that he proclaimed the Gospel ‘in all creation under heaven’.
In another epistle he spoke of a time when he was ‘caught up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor. 12:2). These three heavens speak of the realms or orders of creation. The first is inhabited by humanity, the second by angels, and the third is the place of the throne of God. These all interrelate and join to set the unified and big picture for our world sight. Plato hijacked the third heaven from over and above the present earth and consigned it to a realm removed from this life. It’s time that we put it back. We need to bring heaven and earth together, and let no man, no teacher, no philosopher separate them again in our thinking.
Another element of the Hebrew worldview we need to mention here relates to the spiritual/natural divide brought in by Plato. For the Hebrews, the spiritual was not something distinct from the natural realm. Rather, the spiritual, or what they called the unseen realm, was one with every created thing. We read about this in Romans 1:20. Paul says there that ‘since the creation of the world his [God’s] invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made’.
In summary here: the Hebrew vision sees the heaven of God over the earth and the spiritual realm as one with the created realm. It does not divide the spiritual from the natural realm, nor does it dislocate the heaven from the earth. Rather, it brings them into a unified relationship with each other. It is into this seamless vision of creation that we can now seek to locate Jesus Christ and the church that he came to establish.
Church of best fit
The book of Ephesians is often called ‘the book of the church’. The reason for this is that teaching about the church figures more in this epistle than in any other. What Paul says can, to my mind, only be clearly understood in line with the Hebrew vision of creation. Under any other operating system or worldview, it does not make complete sense. Speaking of Jesus Christ, Paul says, in verse nine of chapter four ‘Now this expression ‘he ascended’, what does it mean except that he also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended himself also he who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.’
Quite simply, Jesus came down from the third heaven (the throne of God) to the first heaven (the earth). There he lived and died and rose again ‘through the heavens’ (note the plural here) to take his seat at the right hand of God the Father in the third heaven. You can see how simple this description is and, again, how much sense it makes from a Hebrew perspective.
At the end of his description of the journey of incarnation, death and resurrection, Paul tells us the reason why Jesus did all of this. He said that Christ’s purpose in coming from heaven and then returning again was so that ‘he might fill all things’. In the context it is clear that the ‘all things’ being spoken of here are the all things of the present creation. So, how is Jesus going to fill all things? To find this out we need to turn back to chapter one of Ephesians. It is there that we discover, with our Hebrew vision, what the church looks like and where it’s meant to stand in relation to this world.
Paul prays the most remarkable prayer for each of us in chapter one of Ephesians. His prayer rose out of the depth of his understanding, vision and passion for what he knew to be the church. Again, what he says only makes sense if we take the Hebrew vision of the heavens and the earth seriously. Paul wants us to know the power that God ‘brought about in Christ, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places’. This place in the third heaven, he goes on to say, is ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come’. He then climaxes his declaration by telling us that God ‘put all things in subjection under his [Jesus Christ’s] feet, and gave him as head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (1:20 – 23). Literally the last part of this verse reads, ‘the fullness of the one, the all things in/with all things filling.’
If Christ’s feet are established on the earth and his head is in the third of the heavens over that earth, then it stands to reason that his body can only exist between his feet and his head. And so it does! Christ’s body, the church, stands in Christ right through the created order. Its calling is to draw out and establish the fullness of all things in creation. It stands on earth and is called to grow up through creation to the heaven of God. Its calling is to be the fullness of all that Jesus has filled. It has the mandate and the privilege to complete and accomplish Jesus’ desire, expressed by Paul in chapter four, to ‘fill all things’.
What we conclude from this teaching of Scripture is that the church is the people of God living and working in every sphere of creation, called to draw out the good, the substance, the very attributes, nature and power of God in every created thing. The way in which the body fills creation is taught throughout the remainder of the book of Ephesians. We are called, as Jew and Gentile, to join as one new man in Christ. As saints we are called to live a life of love (4:32) and purity (5:3) and are privileged to grow up in Christ (4:15) to the heavens (6:12) in and through the creation spheres of marriage (5:21 – 33), family (6:1 – 4) and work (6:5 – 9). This is of course in line with the ‘eternal purpose’ (3:11), one resonating fully with the mandate given to Adam in the Garden. There is no new strategy, there is only, and there will only ever be, one eternal purpose to sum up all things in Christ.
The extent to which God’s strategy for the church comes on line when we apply a Hebrew frame of reference to our reading of Scripture is, to my mind, quite amazing. Teaching that calls us to ‘grow up in all things’ (4:15) of the creation, ‘to the measure of the stature that belongs to the fullness of Christ’ (13), can be properly understood once we set the right context in place. The role of ministry gifts, the place of the gathering, the purpose of our working life and more become so much clearer when we place ‘the church’ in a creation, rather than a congregation, context.
So, once again, what and where is the church? The church is the body of Christ standing in marriage, in family and through every sphere of creation engaged by our work. The church is called to fill up and fill out every one of those spheres by releasing the light of the divine attributes, nature and power God has placed in each one.
Pillar and support
Once this creation-encompassing vision of the church is established we can better understand and place the church gathered. In 1 Tim. 3:15 we read that the church gathered, the household of God, is called to be the ‘pillar and support of the truth’. Again, if we interpret this phrase in line with our current doctrine of church, we would think that this meant that the gathered church was central. Now, however, that we have the big picture in place we can look again and see differently. If the church is the pillar and support of the truth, then what is truth? Scripture says that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6) and that truth is in Jesus (Eph.4: 21). And where is Jesus? Paul tells us in Ephesians that the Son of God stands right through the created order in and through the saints’ life in marriage, family and work. It follows from this that the church gathered must be called to be a pillar and a support to the church that exists in marriage, family and work. The pillar is made to support, not to be the centre.
Much has been made of the word ekklesia (church) in defining the church primarily as meetings in a building or in a home. The word speaks to us of a called out people. It was used by the Graeco-Roman people to describe an assembly for political reasons. It is well established that it is not the etymology/origin of a word that tells us what it means. Rather it is the usage of the word in its context that determines meaning. The Romans may have meant meeting when they said ‘ekklesia’, but when Jesus first took up this word and started to use it, he applied a far greater designation to it than had been the case prior to that.
Our theology of church, under the influence of Plato and his idea of community under the rule of the state, has caused us to emphasise this gathering aspect over every other element the word ‘ekklesia’ might contain. For example, in Ephesians the word ‘ekklesia’ is not used in relation to the gathering, it is used to speak of a body of people who have been ‘called … out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Pet. 2:9). We have been called out of darkness to be in Christ, to gather in him as he stands in creation and seeks to fill all things. Certainly, the household gatherings of the saints are gatherings of the church, but we need to understand that it is not the gathering that makes them the church. They are the church and so when they gather they gather as that church.
This does not mean that our gatherings are unimportant. The reason, in so many people’s estimation, that our meetings are failing us is because of the pressure on them to perform the impossible. They were never meant to be the front line of the Kingdom strategy. We need to see a culture emerge where the ‘church as fullness’ (from Eph. 1:23) and the church gathered come into right relationship with each other. As this emerges we will, I believe, see the richness, diversity and substance return to the meetings we are trying so hard to keep relevant.
The Hebrew vision enables us to see ‘church’ differently. From that sight must flow a strategic re-alignment of the immense resources presently kept in the congregation domain. What we have made the centre is not the centre. The centre is to be found in the life and work of every son and every daughter standing in Christ in creation. If this is the case, then the resources of ministry gift (Eph. 4:11), sacrament, word, the name ‘church’, the right to gather and more, are meant to belong to the saints, to equip them to engage and gather their inheritance in creation. These immense gifts of God were not meant to be copyrighted and trademarked as brands, assets and functions of a local church or a denomination. They belong to the saints who are the church; saints called to fill creation through their life and work in the spheres of creation. The church as construct, the church as separate, the church as meeting, cannot and will never fill creation. God never called it to, and the truth is that it is impossible for it to ever accomplish such a feat.