Chastening the mantra “God is at work in the world”: Lessons from WW2

9780061997198A couple days ago I posted on twitter/facebook the following (you can connect with me on fb/twitter via the side tab),

To say “God is at work in the world, let us join with Him” requires a place where we see Him visibly so to discern where He is/isn’t at work.

A response from the ever witty Tracy Dickerson on FB (one of our fine doctoral students at Northern Seminary) quipped back,

“Where isn’t he at work? Inquiring minds want to know.”

Tracy’s quip gets at an important theological issue for me. For years we in the missional movement have been pushing for an understanding of God’s mission that pushes His work and mission beyond the boundaries of the church. We have repeated the mantra “God is already at work in the world. Let us (the church) join/participate in that mission with Him”(this originated with Moltmann, Bosch, Hoekendijk and others). THIS HAS BEEN A MUCH NEEDED CORRECTIVE! However it has not come without some confusion. It has, in my opinion, led to the practice of dispersing the church into the world sometimes in willy-nilly fashion (what I have called elsewhere the “Wild Goose Chase”). This notion has surely corrected a Jesus centric notion of God’s work in the world with a fuller Trinitarian view. God is at work beyond the Jesus’ work on the cross for individual believers. But in reaction, it has sometimes led to a Holy Spirit centric notion of God’s work in the world in separation from the Son and the Father. We are left to discern the Spirit at work everywhere in the world.  But though God is sovereign over the world, though Jesus “shall reign until all things have been made subject” (1 Cor 15:25), there are many people, places and institutions which live in autonomy from God, and even in outright rebellion. It is not always easily discernable at first.

In my opinion, we should avoid either Trintarian mistake by holding the Father, Son and Spirit together. This is what it means to be Trinitarian. It is a mistake to separate creation from the Son as a category for discerning God in the world. There is no direct access to pure creation untainted by the fall and our depravity. Likewise, it is a mistake to separate the Spirit’s work in history from the Son as a category for discerning God in the world. Just as many movements in history have been of God, so also have many evil movements have been mistaken for the Spirit. We are fallible and given to sin, hubris, colonialism, delusion  and I could go on.

This is why I said in that tweet that we need “a place where we see Him visibly so to discern where He is/isn’t at work.” It is the church as the arena of the Spirit, where He rules as Lord, where we live in mutual submission to one another, where sin can be ferreted out (indeed sin is an accepted fact and reason for the discerning community). Here, via the Lord’s Table, the teaching, preaching of Scripture,  reconciliation (Matt 18:15-20), being with the least of these, the practice of the five fold giftings (in more than one hierarchical leader), the community discerns life in the world under His Lordship, via the Spirit at work. Having said all this,  I realize this ideal of the functioning “body of Christ” in the world has been lost in Christendom. Few of us experience the discerning community of Christ. More often than not we have only experienced the institutionalized hierarchy of Christendom. Correcting this, for me, is an essential task for the missional church.

I’ve been reading Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg. It is an utterly spellbinding read telling the story of American Army chaplain Henry Gerecke’s caring for the 21 high profile Nazi War Criminals chosen to go to trial (and eventually executed) at Nuremberg at the end of World War 2 (I’m a sucker for WW2 history).  In one of the stories, Alfred Rosenberg, chief philosopher of Nazi party, told Gerenke that he was a Gottglaubig, a believer in God but not in Christ. It was a reminder to me that when you believe in God and not in Christ, you can conceptualize God, de–concretize Him. God can become whom we think he is, even a god who would work for the purification of the German race and its mastery over the world. But confronted with Christ, this flesh and blood human who was fully God, we SEE who God is. We gain a window into how He works in the world.  We come to know deeply the nature of His forgiveness, the way of the cross in which God works, love, reconciliation, renewal, life itself. In Him, and all the history that leads up to Him and proceeds from Him, we see and know God. It is the conceptualized God, detached from the Son in flesh, that can be manipulated to the ends of Hitler (read me a Barthian here).

Of course the church can become a mere formalized shell of itself. Anabaptists talk it all the time: what happens when we institutionalize hierarchy and when we align the church with state power. Shockingly, of the 21 war criminals, 15 of them were Lutherans and 6 were Roman Catholics. Each of the 15 Lutheran defendants “remembered the Bible verse that was dedicated to him when he was confirmed in the Lutheran church.” (p. 159). Some of them read their Lutheran prayer books first thing every morning before they went out to serve the Third Reich. They are glaring examples of how we Christians can naively believe God is at work in some of the most rebellious endeavors of humanity. They remind us how we must discern together under His Lordship, before His presence, where indeed God is at work in particular projects located in the world.

Of course I’ve been accused of ecclesiocentricism, or Christocentricism (the two bugaboos of the missional movement) when I talk like this. I don’t think so. What do you think?

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Posted in Incarnational, Missional Ecclesiology, Missional Theology, Neo-Anabaptist
12 comments on “Chastening the mantra “God is at work in the world”: Lessons from WW2
  1. Brad says:

    HA, accused of Christocentricism! What a horrible thing to be accused of ;-) I think influenced by VanGelder, I usually say that we need to ask two questions. 1. What is God doing? (instead of where is He at work?) and 2. In light of our gifts and resources, how does He want us to participate? Serious question, would you have any push back on either of those questions?

    • David Fitch says:

      Brad, I like the questions. They move things further into the concrete. I want to press in a bit more and allow the dynamics of God in Jesus to permeate our discernment. Eucharist equals submission, cross, forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, co fession of sin, oneness with one another, all out of this peculiar thing God has done in Christ of which the Spirit makes present and possible in His reign. That changes the way we engage and participate and locate God in the world.
      Thx for coming on the blog.

  2. K. Rex Butts says:

    I like the reminder that the Trinitarian understanding of God keeps us from making God into anyone or anything we want and then in turn helps us discern where the Father, Son, and Spirit are and are not at work in the world.

  3. Tim Hallman says:

    Is not God also at work amongst the rebels? Where sin abounds, grace abounds more? Does not God only have sinners to work with – he must approach them while they are yet sinners/enemies? To say that the work of evil is where God is at work may miss the point of what the missional community is pointing at, yet can we say that God is not at work amongst evil rebels sowing seeds of redemption – both for the perpetrators and victims?

    • David Fitch says:

      But I think the point is should we join in with evil? or should we join in with “good works” that disguise evil? or good ideas that are mainly “human ventures” into self glorification? We must discern where and how to participate and this takes a community …
      As far as God at work among the rebels? yes and no. Yes he even works with Cyrus to punish Israel. But no, he does not force himself and work through evil to bring people to redemption. He is not coercive. And so he withdraws His presence. and things go bad. This is the fallen world … In these cases we must not cooperate either, in fact we too may need to withdraw and lend any power ..

  4. Kyle Roberts says:

    These are important questions to be asking in the missional movement.

    To your example of Rosenberg and the abstracting of God from the Trinity and the particularity of Christ, I wonder if the issue was a little more complicated. My understanding is that Hitler (and most in the Nazi party) did not abstract God from Jesus Christ. They affirmed the Lutheran creeds and the Lordship of Jesus (certainly publicly). And they had no problem with the particularity or historicity of Jesus. What they denied was the Jewishness of Jesus and the nature of Jesus as a sufferer (for Hitler, Jesus was a “fighter” who rose up against the Jewish people, not a sufferer). So it was not usually the particularity of Jesus that was denied, but a particular kind of particularity.

    And that makes me wonder how easy it is for all of us to exchange Jesus’ particularity with forms better suited to our own interests? Hollywood’s propensity to cast Jesus in forms of particularity which are better for business, is a kind of egregious example (though not with the maliciousness and horrific consequences of the Nazi denial of his Jewishness).

    So I guess I would want to press your point even further. It’s not enough even to affirm the “concreteness” of Jesus Christ or an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. There is no fail-safe theological lock that can protect us from our shadow sides or that can ensure “missional” living.

  5. dwight says:

    Well said. I have often been concerned about the cavalier way in which some speak of joining God’s work in the world. Discernment is absolutely essential.

  6. Branson says:

    This is where I think Kuyper’s distinction between common grace and special grace or Yoder’s distinction between preservation and redemption become important. God is certainly at work in restraining evil and providing for basic proximate goods, even turning evil intentions toward producing proximate goods. But that work of preserving should not be equated with redemption, which is located centrally in the work of Christ and the Spirit in the church. Certainly Christians should participate in good acts of preservation and things that lead to proximate goods. Participating in what God is doing in the realm of common grace is certainly fine but, as Yoder put it, if Christians make that our main task, it’s like the first violinist wanting to be the usher at the symphony.

    • David Fitch says:

      Branson, I would only add that I think there are limits to the preservatory/redemptive binary well as common/special grace. There are other options, the most obvious one being that grace can be prevenient …leading to something redemptive, but in itself incomplete. Whatever categories we adopt, it takes much discernment, recognizing that sometimes indeed the orders can go rebellious.

  7. Jim says:

    really outstanding post – one of your best, imo.

  8. Andy Bossardet says:

    Thank you for this refreshing post on Trinity and mission. Combined with your post on preaching the drama of Scripture, I am developing a clearer understanding of missional ecclesiology and the place of preaching. Drawing from Barth, I think his language of encounter and dialogue in the reconciliation process guides my understanding of discernment in the body. But if encounter and dialogue is a crucial element of discernment, something in the form of worship needs to change. After all, much of worship is spent facing forward to a single voice (with whom there is no dialogue, no authentic encounter). While I recognize that the Church’s life is not bound up in worship, Sunday mornings hold crucial formational energy for the Church. That is, if it isn’t practiced on Sunday morning, it will be hard to practice it Monday morning.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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